The first time you come in contact with a gathering of people you’ve never met before, all they are, initially, is a collection of smiling mammals. A mammal gaggle. These unfamiliar mammals have to smile, because it’s considered polite. Likewise, upon introduction, they are obliged to shake an appendage of yours. Preferably your hand.
As Philipe and I pulled up chairs, poolside, at the Hotel Villa Das Mangas, a parade of these mammals, fresh and not-so-fresh, arrived from the airport in twos and threes. As the afternoon transpired, and the hotel’s beer offerings were discovered, societal formalities quickly melted into acquaintance.
By the time most of us had arrived, the sun finally came out and it started to feel more like the Africa I had imagined before the trip. The air was warm and the breeze was slight. It was springtime and the fruit on the hotel’s namesake mango trees surrounding the pool were still green. We kept the waitstaff busy with drink orders and ourselves busy talking and laughing.
The sturdy frame of Dave Lorentz, Missouri’s native son, sat on my left, proudly sporting a St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt. He was instantly likable the first time he said something slightly inappropriate. I could tell within five minutes that Lacye Martini wore her heart on her short, light blue sleeves yet at the same time could crack wise with the best of them. Kristin Carlton was as good-natured and welcoming as anyone can be and the fact that her lively Scottish mother, Stef, accompanied her on the build was maybe the group’s most interesting feature.
Hanine, a petite mammal hailing from Lebanon’s always tumultuous capital, Beirut, sat down on a nearby chair, smiled her easy smile, lit a cigarette, and immediately blended in. She chose a chair between Sonia and Mark, an upbeat couple from the DC area who are naturally engaging and who have a lot to say about a lot. I would come to know Peg and Maureen, cousins who appear to be more like sisters, as being hard workers and maintaining a level of dedication to what we were doing that was so resolute as to make this mammal envious.
Sean and Inger were the last to arrive and they looked justifiably exhausted. Yet, the fit Arkansan couple now living in Colorado, pulled up chairs and Inger began what by now must be a rehearsed explanation as to the Scandinavian origins of her unique first name. Sean then launched into an animated discussion with her and his old college buddy, Dave, about whether or not they should ‘tofu’. It was only after a few minutes that I realized they were discussing if they had enough time to visit Tofo, a place in northern Mozambique known for its diving, and not debating the merits of fermented soy beans.
Leading this outspoken group was Lisa King, an old friend of mine from my days in DC when she used to keep the lights in my apartment on by getting me work as a graphic designer. A fellow traveler, Lisa had been on six previous Habitat missions around the globe yet this particular mission was her first as a team leader. Lisa was the only person I knew already and the sole reason I was within earshot of some of Dave’s Missouri-isms. It’s not easy being a den mother, let alone to a group of curious adults with their own agendas, but Lisa was a natural, able to take charge when warranted and diffuse problems with her abundant warmth and charm.
For our first meal as a team, Sharon Petrie, Habitat’s director for Mozambique, led us to a restaurant that was clearly one of Maputo’s more upscale. Half inside, half out, there were long communal tables and a cacophony of commotion coming from every corner, including a rowdy children’s birthday party that gave the place a bit of a Chucky Cheese feel.
Sharon was talking the restaurant up as having some of the best pizza in Mozambique. I tried really hard to hide my disappointment as my readers know that I try to eat what the locals are eating. That and I was skeptical about the quality of a pizza pie with nary an Italian anywhere to be seen. But sometimes — just sometimes —I’m wrong as all the locals in the place seemed to be enjoying the admittedly excellent pizza being cranked out. The expertly baked crust was a great vehicle for the renowned piri piri sauce. Made from the peppers of the same name, piri piri sauce was an, at times, fiery blend of peppers, oil and spices into a modestly enjoyed topping for, well, everything if you ask me. It may be one of the few good things the Portuguese colonial masters may have influenced when they ran the place.
After ordering, Dave and I sat discussing the cross-state rivalry between St. Louis and Kansas City. Just then, I felt a hand on my back. I turned to follow the ebony arm to its source and it led to a painfully beautiful woman in dreadlocks asking us in accented English if we were OK.
“Yeah, we’re doing well.”
“Good, good,” she said and then left.
I turned to Dave and wondered aloud why the waitress had bothered to ask us how everything was before we had gotten our food. He was perplexed as well. Not too much later, Sarah sat down next to me and we learned that she was in fact not the waitress but keeper of the finances at the Habitat office. She would also be accompanying us on our build and not merely to translate, as her family hails from the region, but to actually get her hands dirty alongside us. While her English was intelligible, I couldn’t comprehend anything she was saying as I was trying especially hard not to gawk.
The next morning, we checked out and congregated in front of a beige mini-bus just big enough to hold all of us. The driver loaded our bags into a separate trailer for the roughly four-hour drive north to a region called Gaza, where our motley team of newly acquainted mammals was to help build two homes for a handful of our fellow mammals who needed it. By the way, that last sentence was much easier to type than to execute.
The drive provided a mobile narrative of Mozambique that we had yet seen. The further away from the country’s epicenter of political power we ventured, the visuals became a mixture of alive and mundane. Street markets were literally overflowing onto the streets with our fellow mammals crossing the well-paved highway en masse. Eye-catching fruit and various wares took up sidewalk space along with bright vendor umbrellas. The rows of stalls and shops lining the road wore vivid renditions of every color in a crayon box. The most frequently used color had to have been the cherry red advertisements that seemed to cover any available surface, courtesy of the telecom company Vodacom.
Before reaching true countryside, the bus pulled over to the left. Sarah got out for a few minutes and returned with a genial older woman named Aida. She was Habitat’s cultural liaison to the village we would be building in. As soon as she stepped onboard, Lisa motioned to her and a wave of recognition overcame Aida. They embraced each other like long lost family members which, in a way, they were. Lisa had been to Mozambique the previous year and this was their happy reunion.
We continued north, passing vast, dull yellow savannah punctuated every now and then by clusters of huts or shanties. Every few kilometers we would spot a short tree whose branches were shorn of leaves, yet supporting clear plastic bags. Later we would learn the bags were filled with cashews, one of Mozambique’s biggest exports. Apparently, the tree branches were acting as makeshift store shelves.
The bus was lively with laughter, conversation and easy first name recognition. My fellow mammals were quickly moving east up the evolutionary chart of familiarity from mere mammal to family. Such harmony naturally does wonders for team unity and our team was no different. I remember feeling a sense of comfort, of being able to let my metaphorical hair down around this group when the more than four-hour ride had finally commenced. Even before we had reached The Honey Pot, inter-team relations were already pre-sweetened.
WHAT: the view from our mini-bus of a Mozambican street market
WHEN: October 14, 2012
WHERE: the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique