Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

February 6, 2004 Leaving Maputo

The airport has a terrace overlooking the runway, with an outdoor cafť. The air is warm and moist, but shaded, and soft and pleasant when the breeze blows through. Around us everything is flat and open, no clutter of terminals and warehouses, roads and airfreight, offices and traffic in this airport. A Mozambique Air plane came in before I got here, we watched the passengers unload. Now itís prepping for the next group to board. In a while my plane will come in from Johannesburg, those passengers will get off, and Iíll have to make my way to the boarding area. Meanwhile, though, thereís not much happening here. I like it. It reminds me of Niamey, going to the airport whenever anyone came in, hanging out in the restaurant drinking cokes with lime, banter with the ageless shoeshine boy, waiting for the plane to land. Then the drive into the city, through a world that is nothing like what we all came from.

In Maputo I only saw the nice places, the rich modern neighborhoods. Villas with high fences, expensive security systems, 24-hour guards. High-rise apartment buildings with sweeping views of the coast and the city, sunrise and sunset, from every apartment. The Polana shopping center, very sparse by our standards but clean and modern and air-conditioned. The swimming pools by the sea, the fancy hotels.

The route from the Maputo airport traverses the rest of the city that Iíd like to know better. Off of the main road stretch narrow dusty streets, one after the other in neat rows. Small cinderblock houses line the streets, which are teeming with people. Some of the houses look well kept Ė whitewashed, small gardens behind low fences, tile roofs. Many are only a single room, many have corrugated itn roofs. A few have thatched roofs. Small shops are everywhere, groceries, bars, barbers, pharmacies. The streets are busy, everyone on foot, most looking tidy and clean despite the heat. A few women are in Africa dress, wrapped in bright fabric Ė pagnes, they would be called in West Africa Ė carrying their things on their heads. Most, though, are in western clothes, as neatly dressed as the people working in the Ministry of Tourism or the Avenida. I wonder what their homes are like. Electricity? Running water? Sewer hook-ups? Trash collection? Do they own them or rent them? Are these neighborhoods of long standing, with strong communities? Or are people flooding to Maputo and creating these neighborhoods overnight?

The world I move in here doesnít show me much of this. And Iím fearful. If I walked around these neighborhoods I would feel so conspicuous, people would stare at me. I knew Niamey better ten years ago, I had some sense of what more of the city was like. Here I canít even speak the language Ė not even the colonial language. In Niamey many of my ventures were really due to Jean-Claude. He didnít fear anything, he went where he liked and talked to anyone, drank beer anywhere. Iím not comfortable enough with people very different from me to do that. Perhaps I look more vulnerable, as well Ė Iím not as scruffy, donít look as much like part of the sand. Women never do. A grizzled male traveler can go where he wants and be accepted by people who pick him up, but a weathered female travel is an opportunity, not an equal. Or maybe Iím paranoid, making excuses to justify my own discomfort? Perhaps.

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