Archive | June 2012



They all fall down

“Motopos means ‘bald head’ in the Shona language”, my guide tells me.  Motopos National Park is a landscape of precarious rock formations – rocks balanced upon each other that look like they could tumble down at any second.

As we pull up to the park gates, a ranger points to a cluster of rocks balanced somewhere above my head.  “Watch out”, he says, and then laughs.  “No, not to worry.  These rocks have been balanced like this for thousands of years and they will never fall down”.

My guide tells the same joke over and over as we drive through the park, stopping to admire the impossible rock formations.

As we are leaving the park, there is a news bulletin on the local radio.  “A rock has fallen at Motopos National Park”, the announcer says.  The guide is incredulous.  Fifteen minutes later we come across the rogue rock, which has crushed the pavement to fragments.

I think it is time to leave.  Before they all start falling down.

15 billion dollars

Today I sold my watch for 15 billion dollars.

15 billion Zimbabwean dollars.

When the Zimbabwean economy collapsed in 2009, the highest note printed was for 1 trillion dollars.  Shortly thereafter, the country switched to the American dollar.  The trillion dollar notes are now sold to tourists for about $5 USD.  The ten and five billion dollar notes go for a bit less.

One of the touts at Victoria Falls took a liking to my plastic watch and offered me 15 billion for it.  How could I say no to an offer like that?


The Khame ruins are located about 30 kilometres from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.  There is no public transport to the ruins, so to get there you have to hire a driver or sign up as part of an organized tour.

Captain, the driver that I hired, arranged to pick me up at my hotel at 8 am.  It took us two more hours, though, to ready the vehicle to pass police inspections.

“There are three police road blocks between here and Khame,” Captain told me.  “They will examine everything.  They will check and double check my driver’s licence.  They will check to see that the air pressure in the tires is sufficient.  They will make sure I have a fire extinguisher and a safety vest.  And if anything is missing they will ask for an enormous bribe.”

“The key is to always, always carry a fire extinguisher.  They never expect drivers to have it.  And it stuns them when I actually have one”.

Sure enough, at the first and second checkpoints the police officer made a show of examining the contents of the trunk (for what I don’t know), studying Captain’s driver’s licence, and asking to see the fire extinguisher.

“See”, Captain said.  “It’s ridiculous”.

At the third checkpoint we ran into trouble.  After Captain triumphantly produced the fire extinguisher, the officer asked whether he had a permit for transporting tourists to Khame.  “There is no such thing” Captain told me, before getting out of the car to have a discussion with the officer.

Through the rear view mirror, I could see arms waving and fists pumping in the air.  On two occasions, the police officer came to ask me about the terms of my agreement with Captain.  Finally, a supervisor was called and we were permitted to leave.

“Did you have to pay a bribe?”, I asked Captain.

“No”.  He smiled.  “I had the fire extinguisher”.

Pictures of pictures

I have spent the past week with friends KL and JL, who flew in from Dar to meet me in Maputo.  We spent the week stuffing ourselves with seafood, cheese plates, egg tarts, and sushi.  Maputo is a wonderful city with vibrant sidewalk cafes, great muic, and fantastic public art.  It was made all the better with good friends.

Late one afternoon, we stumbled across a photography exhibition at the old fort in central Maputo.  The exhibition, put on by Associação Defendendo os Nossos Direitos, aims to raise awareness about albinism in Africa. Albinos are widely discriminated against in East and Southern Africa, where there are many misunderstandings about the condition.  In Tanzania, for example, more than 60 albinos have been killed since 2007.

Here are some pictures I took at the exhibition.

A crowded city

I don’t really want to write this blog post.

I was going to write a different post.  One about how much I enjoyed the city of Nampula, a necessary stopover on the way to and from Mozambique Island.  The Lonely Planet rejects Nampula as a “crowded city with a hard edge” and I had planned to write about how the guidebook is wrong.

I like Nampula.  The hotel where I was staying was welcoming, with adorable kittens and strawberry tarts and good espresso (good coffee has been so rare on this trip that I immediately fall in love with anywhere that has an espresso machine).  The architecture is interesting.  There is an excellent restaurant behind the museum.  The people are friendly.

The people are overwhelmingly friendly, in fact.  I couldn’t find the hotel when I first arrived.  It had only recently opened, so it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks and nobody had heard of it.  I stopped many times to ask for directions.  Finally, a manager at an upscale hotel called around and managed to locate it.  When I told her I was going to walk rather than take a taxi, she insisted on driving me herself.  “Don’t be silly”, she said.  “You don’t want to walk all around town with that big backpack”.

A crowded city with a kind edge, I thought.

And then.  It happened the next afternoon.  I was walking on a crowded street, looking to buy some snacks for a long bus ride the next day.  I didn’t hear him behind me.  I didn’t know he was there until I felt his hands around my neck.  I fought back.  He pushed me around and tried to kiss me.  I kicked him and yelled and he ran away.

The attack bothered me, of course.  It was terrifying.  But it was over almost before it began and I was never in any real danger.  The streets were crowded and there were people there to help.  What bothered me more was the reaction of the European owner of the hotel where I was staying. When I told him I had been assaulted, he looked at me with concern.  I explained what had happened and he laughed dismissively.  “Oh,” he said. “I know him.  He’s mad.  Mentally ill.  He does that to all the female tourists. He’s harmless”.  Harmless.  I seethed.  “Have you ever felt someone’s hands tightening around your neck? It doesn’t feel harmless.”

It could have happened anywhere.  It could have happened in Edmonton or Vancouver or Dar.  But it happened in Nampula.  And, now, when I think of Nampula, I think of the kittens and the strawberry tarts and the good espresso, but also of the angry man with the strong hands.

I didn’t want to write this blog post.  It could have happened anywhere, but my instinct was to pretend that it had never happened.  The incident doesn’t change the way I feel about Africa or Mozambique. And I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that Africa is a violent and lawless place.  I feel safe here.  The people are, for the most part, kind and generous and willing to go out of their way to help a stranger.

But, too often, I think, women remain silent about acts of violence. Sometimes they have no choice but to remain silent.  But I have a choice and I don’t want to be the kind of woman who is silent about anything that is upsetting.  Especially when there are still people in the world that think violence against women is harmless.

So, I’m writing about the good and the bad.  In the crowded city of Nampula.

Not only from the books

It is difficult to find affordable accommodation in Mozambique – dorm beds in the city of Nampula, for example, cost upwards of $30 CAD.  Dirty, cockroach infested rooms start at $60.

Friends RT and GJ, who traveled to Ihla de Moçambique in March, recommended that I contact a person by the name of Harry Potter, who works in the tourist industry on the island, and ask him to find me lodging with a local family.  “When you get to the island, just ask around for Harry Potter”, they said.  “Everyone knows who he is”.

It’s true.  Everyone does know Harry Potter.  When I stepped off the bus from Nampula, the first person I asked was able to lead me right to Harry Potter’s house.  Unfortunately, Harry Potter wasn’t home and didn’t answer his phone.  Rather than wait around all day, I checked into the island’s only backpacker hostel.

I spent the afternoon wandering around the island, mesmerized by the fading colours.  When I got back to the hostel in the early evening I discovered that all of my belongings had been removed from my room without my consent and placed in the common area.  The staff told me, rather rudely, that I had been given the room by mistake and that it had been reserved by someone else.  I protested.  The owner was called and rather than apologize for the mistake he insinuated that I had misled the staff by telling them that I had a reservation.

It was dark and I had no place to stay.

I called Harry Potter.  This time he answered.

I had expected someone with glasses, perhaps bearing a certain resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe.  Not so.  This Harry Potter was a 20-year-old Mozambican, with dreadlocks and board shorts.  Somewhere along the line he had adopted an exaggerated English accent.  “Sure”, he said, with affected British cheerfulness.  “I can take you to the house where RT and GJ stayed.  It’s 300 Mtc a night”.  I was skeptical.  300 Mtc is about $11.  This is far cheaper than any other accommodation on the island, even the dorm rooms.

On the way to the guesthouse, Harry Potter stopped several times to try to sell jewelry and other knick knacks to tourists on the street.  Someone stopped him and asked him to repay the 200 Mtc they had loaned him the previous night at the bar.  My skepticism grew.

Harry Potter asked me whether I thought he was from England.  “I’ve worked hard on my accent”, he explained.  “Most people think I went to school in the UK”.

Eventually, we stopped in front of a bright pink house on the ocean.  Outside, the paint was peeling but inside the house had been restored beautifully.  My room had a balcony which looked out onto the busy street below.  The dining room table overlooked the Indian Ocean.  The family – a single mother and her two daughters – was friendly and welcoming.  I couldn’t believe the room was only 300 Mtc and confirmed the price several times.  “Including breakfast”, they said.

I spent the next few days reading, writing, wandering the streets, and watching the dhows pass outside my window.

On the third morning, I walked onto the balcony for breakfast and found another foreigner there.  He looked surprised to see me.

“Are you staying here?” he asked.

“Yep.  Are you?”

“Well, no.  I’m the owner”.  P introduced himself and explained that he is from the United States but living in Maputo.  He and his wife are in the process of restoring the entire block to turn it into a luxury hotel.  The family stays there rent-free in exchange for taking care of the building.  P was on the island to meet the architect to discuss the ongoing renovations.

“But…how did you even find this place?” P asked.  He looked baffled.

“Umm, have you heard of Harry Potter?”

“Only from the books.”  P grinned.  He had a good sense of humour.  “I don’t know half of what goes on in my absence, I guess, but I’m happy for the family to rent out the rooms if it helps them out”.

So, in the end, I have Harry Potter to thank for my stay in a luxury resort. That is a sentence I never thought I would write.

Memories of my childhood

I used to play this game, too.