I am frequently skeptical of second hand travel advice, whether from well-intentioned friends or official sources such as the Lonely Planet guidebook – feeling that things cannot surely be that cheap, dirty, hot, or under-developed. In the case of Maputo, however, my sources appear to have had it correct on at least a few counts.
When Lonely Planet mentioned that the police in Mozambique are corrupt and (euphemistically) bribe-sucking, they were spot on. They make a career mugger look like a laggard. The guidebooks had been quite clear that I could expect to be harrassed by a bribe seeking policeman during the course of my travels, but what I could not expect was that said encounter would actually be within an hour of arriving in the country. taking photos (as a visitor might does) on Av Mao Tse Tung (where there was some interesting stuff to photograph, okay?), I found myself surrounded by a policeman who introduced himself as Ernest, accompanied by his two AK- 47 wielding partners. All smiles and fluent english, we parted ways a few minutes later – me shaken down for MTN200 for photographing a ‘government building’. Last I checked, the Mozambican government was not big into building decaying slum complexes, but constable fat rifle and friends did not really appear to be in the mood to debate the issue.
Otherwise, it must be said that this is truly a beautiful country. The streets of Maputo are lined solidly with flame trees (dark green trees which erupt all over in bright red and orange flowers at a certain time of year, for those who aren’t familiar with them). It is also a terribly poor country, more so given the jarring wealth of Johannesburg, not two hours away. Being South African, and used to the amenities that the country provides, I had come to believe on some level that all of South Africa’s adjacent vassal states should enjoy if not the same level of overall infrastructure and wealth, then at least something approaching it. Not true. On the scale of countries I have seen (and only judging on the state of Maputo at this point – which may be incorrect), the country appears to be even less developed than places like Cambodia – which I had not expected at all. The capital consists of very few buildings over three stories tall which are not dilapidated looking blocks of flats. And even these are quite infrequent on the landscape. Not knowing the specifics of the damage done during the civil war that ended here a little over a decade ago, I can’t tell whether the frequent appearances of ruined, though seemingly once grand, buildings is a legacy of that conflict or due to some larger economic malaise.
Almost as if the people have so much on the go, are up to so much, yet the environment continues to slip away
Somehow though, the decayed infrastructure here, combined with the rows and rows of deep green and red flam trees combine to make this place a visual masterpiece. There are so many amazing panoramas to see here that the city makes wandering around and practicing photography a thoroughly rewarding experience. Admittedly, the potential presence of law enforcement makes photography a somewhat surreptitious activity, which is a pity given the amazing potential of this place. Other visitors to the city have expressed the same idea in different ways, but Maputo really does feel like a once beautiful and grand city that is slowly sinking into ruin. And doing so in a way that it perversely full of energy and activity. Almost as if the people have so much on the go, are up to so much, yet the environment continues to slip away.
Other notable activities of the day included the inevitable incidents of getting fleeced because I speak only broken Portuguese and do not know the prices. Being charged MTN 200 for some apples and grapes and finding out later that I could in fact have bought a large pizza, bottle of water and two beers for the same price (and had change) stands out as an episode worth a specific mention. It’s just something to be taken in good humour though – particularly since I suspect my own retarded ability to express myself in Portuguese is at least partly responsible for bringing about some of these exchanges. It would almost be easier if I simply had a notepad and no grasp of the language at all. It’s just a really expensive language lesson in that respect though, I guess.