Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One year in Mozambique

February 2009.

It has been a year since I packed up my life in London and randomly decided to move to Mozambique. Well, it wasn’t that random, I had planned to move to Nairobi in January 2008 but the riots following the 2007 December elections put me off and to be honest, I have become super sensitive to African political violence after experiencing the Somali civil war. So, there I was in London all packed, quit my job, let go of my temporary accommodation and only 7 days before my planned departure to my new life in Kenya. And then I was watching the news just to learn that there was a riot in Nairobi and the UK government warned people not to travel to Kenya…My first thought? Shit shit shit!!! Two days glued to the TV watching the violent images broadcasted from Nairobi convinced me to start thinking of plan B. I was certain I wanted to return to Africa but no idea what country, so I sent an email around to friends to share my dilemma and see if anyone had a suggestion of where in Africa I should start my new life. I got few suggestions including Johannesburg, Marrakech, Sao Tome but the one that got my attention was Maputo, Mozambique. I am ashamed to admit the only thing I knew about Mozambique at the time was that it was in Southeast Africa and on the Indian Ocean. After googling it and seeing the pictures of pristine sandy beaches I knew I could easily live there, I just had to worry about the cost of last minute flight change.

After couple of days of back and forth email war with the travel agent I finally gave in and paid extra £300 pounds for change of destination from Nairobi to Maputo. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life (3rd most exciting…after running away from home in my teens and winning a scholarship to study at the end of the world). I was actually going to do it, start a new life, without a job or solid business plan, but armed with small savings and no idea how things would turn out. Still, I was thrilled to be leaving grey and freezing London behind for sun and life outside the prison of socks and winter boots.

Now that I had a ticket, it made sense to try and find a place to live. Given that I didn’t speak Portuguese (I still don’t, so embarrassing) and would be too stressful to just show up at the airport with nowhere to sleep. So, back to emails to friends again asking if anyone knew anyone in Maputo. It really helps to have friends who have either travelled the world or went to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and met some random British person who happens to live in Maputo and also happens to have a spare room to rent…That was easier than I had anticipated. I got in touch with this someone and she was kind enough to agree to rent a room to a stranger for a month and then take it from there. Oh! How exciting it was to already be having a place to stay. It was all becoming very real, I was actually going to a random country to start a new life...I was as excited as I was terrified of the unknown.

The culture shock started even before I arrived at my destination. I travelled with Kenya Airways with the plan to travel to Maputo and only stop over Nairobi for an hour. Well, as u probably guessed already, things didn’t workout that smoothly. I got to Kenyatta airport around 6am after 8 hours flight and really tired as I can’t sleep on long flights. I don’t know why I was shocked with the airport shops and the whole arrangement – it was like somebody built illegal shacks inside the airport and got away with it. Everything looked shabby and just out of place. And this was suppose to be one of the most developed countries in Africa? Did someone tell people who run the airport about first impressions and the importance of presentation?

Worst thing was our waiting area for the connecting flight to Mozambique was smelling of cow dang!!! How that happened was a total mystery. It was so unpleasant and we had to spend 3 hours there instead of the originally scheduled 1 hour wait. There were so many people in the room who were waiting for different flights and there was no information apart from when they randomly called a destination and some people got up and went out of the gate to board. I got frustrated with the luck of information and the fact that we were sitting there for so long with no clue what was going on. I went to what looked like information desk and asked the ladies sitting behind the desk about my connecting flight. All I got was “mum, please go back to you seat and wait”…I don’t mind waiting but for what and for how long? How rude, bloody hell! I am not asking for much, am I?

That was my first moment of panic. I thought have I just made the biggest mistake of my life for returning to ‘Africa’? Will it all be cow dangs and frustration from this point on? Have I over-romantasized about life in Africa? Will I be tough enough to settle in such a chaotic and different place after all the comforts I got used to in London? Well, I told myself to keep it together at least until I get to Maputo and then see what happens. One thing that I was so glad about was my decision not to return to Nairobi. Boy, was I glad I was just passing through.

Some other poor souls waiting for the same flight overheard the conversation and told me they were just as confused but that this happens so often they are used to it. They reassured me that I haven’t missed my flight but warned me to not expect much and be patient till the plane decides to show up. It did 3 hours late but then they announced that we will be stopping over Harare before Maputo…What? I didn’t know we were suppose to stop over at Harare. I was furious I could have punched someone. What shocked me more was just how no one else seemed to be bothered. Don’t these people know that this airline would be out of business if they do not allow to be treated like goats? Same people who advised me to just chill apparently knew about the destination and it seemed like I was the only one from the London flight to catch this connection. I guess then it is OK for Kenya Airways to treat their international passengers much better than their domestic passengers. The service standards were so different that it felt like two very different airlines.

We get to Harare and we were not allowed to get off the plain for the whole 45 minutes while some passengers got off and new ones join us for our final destination. By this time I was so tired it felt like I was going to pass out. I tried to sleep with no success. I wished I could even just step out of the plane to smell the Harare fresh air after all the fuss and negative news on British TV and papers about Zimbabwe and Mugabe. But no, all I could manage was looking through the window, and it looked surprisingly green and pleasant. I was expecting a deserted city and dead bodies lying around. Who said Africans and even those who have been through a civil war are not affected by media stories and stereotypes?

We finally got to Maputo around 2pm, exhausted hungry and sleep-deprived but still elated to be in this new and strange country I knew nothing about. I had a glimpse of the sea when we landed and Maputo looked beautiful from the air. It was freezing cold when I left London the previous day and in Maputo I was greeted with intense humidity that felt like it was 50 degrees Celsius with 90% humidity. I knew then that I made the right choice.

Home sweet home, in a strange country.

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