It was a comically short flight from Johannesburg. Thirty-five minutes, maybe. Not really sure why the plane had even bothered to leave the ground as it could have just taxied on over from South Africa. In fact, I’ve been in taxis for longer stretches. Once the plane stopped moving, my new friend and fellow builder, Phillipe, and I performed the usual entry dance: immigration, bag collection and customs. A friendly guy whose name I don’t remember, stood by the exit with a white placard that had Habitat For Humanity’s bright green and blue logo emblazoned on it. We followed him into a car and sped off.
Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, was cold and rain-slicked. In fact, it was still raining in that slow, intermittent accumulation that happens over hours not minutes. Peering out the window, it was hard to ignore many of the usual markers of a developing world city namely, a repetitive mix of run-down and what I can only describe as run-up. A polished five-star hotel shared a viewfinder’s limited space with a structure that looked like it had barely survived an air-strike. Billboards showing prosperous people from other countries with shiny new cellphones or canned drinks hanging not that far above a local man relieving himself on a former colonial villa. Fully paved streets were aspirations, traffic lights mere suggestions.
In between pangs of sheer exhaustion, it was that placard at the airport that began to weigh on me. My time in Mozambique was going to be different than my usual wake-up-in-a-strange-place international wanderings. Two firsts: I had never had someone greet me at an airport with a placard that said anything and I had also never spent six months raising money and agreeing to help build homes in a small African country for virtually homeless strangers. Altruism, like pilates, was something I had always wanted to try.
The ominously named Hotel Terminus was where we were dropped off. The bellboy — bellman? — insisted on hauling Phillipe’s inordinately heavy suitcase through the lobby and I secretly enjoyed watching that tiny figure struggle to pull it up the ramp. We checked in to a massive room complete with a separate “living room” and a bathroom that could’ve doubled as a parking garage. Even though we were dead tired after two days of continuous travel, Phillipe and I immediately dropped our bags and went to explore downtown Maputo.
The rain had subsided and the city’s charms were laid bare as we walked its streets. ‘Charms’ may be a strong word but apparently, the word ‘pothole’ wasn’t strong enough. Walking the city sidewalks looking down had almost trumped looking up.
Phillipe and I had asked for a restaurant recommendation from the front desk and when we couldn’t find the place, we asked a young guy on a street in the embassy section of town. He threw a few cafe/restaurant names at us and we eventually settled on the first one we came across. The food was mediocre and overpriced but the conversation was lively. Phillipe, a Frenchman living and working in Montreal, had a smile pinned to his face most of the time and an easy, almost maniacal, laugh. We swapped travel stories and strong opinions as the Maputo street carried on in the background. Phillipe had been on his first Habitat mission the previous year in a devastated Haiti and described a stint that was disorganized, ill funded and badly in need of supplies. Due to Haiti’s perennial winning of the bad luck sweepstakes, his team’s accommodations were just a couple of steps above the local population’s.
“Oh, great,” I said, immediately envisioning the contours of my memory foam mattress at home.
That evening, after taking a taxi way out to the coast to find a highly regarded, yet closed, seafood restaurant, the taxi turned back and dropped us at a place called Docks amidst more slowly falling rain. There was a general power outage in the area but Docks didn’t seem to mind as they brought out candles and generator-chilled beer by the stein. The place was jumping and so were Mozambique’s famous prawns which couldn’t have been more fresh than if Phillipe and I were on the boat pulling them out of the water ourselves.
One quick survey of the dining room and I saw the many colors of the Mozambican palette. Arabs, Indians and paler Portuguese were sprinkled amidst the native population. While I read about Mozambique’s historic influences before I arrived it was still surprising to see them all in the same dining room and within the same table seatings.
The next day, after enjoying a near-coma sleep, we got ready to terminate our stay at the Terminus. The rest of our Habitat team was gathering at our pre-selected hotel down the street and I was certainly a little anxious to meet them.
However, before we were ready to depart, Phillipe noticed that his passport wasn’t where he had left it the day before. The next hour or so we spent turning our room upside down, forwards and backwards looking for it. We both remember him placing it on one of the large desks before going out the previous evening. For an avid traveler, losing a well-worn passport goes way beyond potential immigration issues. It’s your badge, a visual prop for all your war stories. Like rings on a tree, your passport, scapegoat for overzealous rubber stamps, not only tells where you’ve been but when you’ve been. It’s an historical record of your travel life.
All this is to say that I felt bad for the guy, even more so since it was lost in the purported safety of our own hotel room. Once the manager of the Hotel Terminus had picked himself up off the floor after looking under our beds for the second time, it became obvious it was a lost cause. The theft had occurred in-house, no doubt about it, and nobody was going to cop to it.
While understandably pissed about the whole thing, to Phillipe’s great credit, he didn’t let it get him down. It was a Saturday so the French embassy was closed and there was nothing that could be done. With no possible recourse, his characteristic smile reappeared and we wheeled our luggage the three blocks to the Hotel Villa Das Mangas ready to embark on a new adventure. No passport required.
WHAT: a view of the jumbled downtown Maputo via a window screen at the Hotel Terminus.
WHEN: October 12, 2012
WHERE: Maputo, Mozambique