On an Island Forgotten by History, the Melange of Mozambique

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I’m on an overcrowded, stripped down minibus heading to Ilha de Mozambique – the tiny island in the country’s north that gave this sprawling African nation its name — when I get my first small taste of the country’s unique flavor. Crammed into the tiny space, which is ripe with tropical heat and the heavy odor of sweating human bodies, are a dozen or more women, clad in identical church black, in identical orange headscarves; and as we roll down the long two-lane highway towards the coast, they begin to fill the coach with singing.

Their voices form a kind of otherworldly chorus, ululating, rising and then falling off, others joining in to take their place. In the back seat, their faces beaded with sweat, three men with hand drums — little more than wooden boxes stretched with animal hides — set rhythms beneath the voices, and the whole coach is suddenly transformed into a rolling African choir. We pull into a dusty off-road through a village, and as we pass beneath the shady mango trees, hung with heavy fruit, barefoot children run from the daub-and-wattle huts; as the song pours through the minibus windows, the kids spontaneously begin to dance.

This, as they say, is Africa. But though tribal rhythms are the beginning of the story of Mozambique, they’re also far from being the end. Independence in 1975 from longtime colonial masters Portugal quickly brought a bloody 15-year civil war that ended only in 1992 (trivia: the AK-47 on the Mozambican flag makes it the only national flag to feature a modern weapon). With the end of the conflict came stability, and with it thousands of vacationing South Africans, who have flocked to hip southern party beaches like Tofo, just a day’s drive from Johannesburg, ever since.

The coastal north of Mozambique, however – where for more than five hundred years Portuguese colonists, Arab Muslim traders and fragments of the Indian diaspora have transited, settled and intermingled – harbors a cultural mélange as unique as any on Earth, its matchless physical history preserved by distance and bad roads, and mostly untouched by tourism. It’s a place that, with its effortless subtropical beauty, rich cultural heritage, and utter absence of crowds practically cries out for “next big thing” destination status. Yet suspended as it is in a vast geographical gulf two or more days’ hard drive from anywhere, Mozambique’s north may as well be a place suspended in time, as the destination of my musical minibus is to illustrate.

Dusk is gathering in Ilha (“eel-hya”) de Mozambique’s UNESCO-listed Stone Town as I arrive and, seeking my guesthouse amongst the narrow alleyways, I quickly find myself lost. In the twilight, the maze of twisting streets and crumbling edifices gives little sign of belonging to this or any other recent century. I try in vain to get my bearings, turning one blind corner after another as I tread deeper into the labyrinth. I pass the ancient mosque, the crumbling Hindu temple, the ruins of autumnal facades flickering with the light of squatters’ cooking fires; yet lost as I am, the magic of the deserted city is not lost on me. There is no sense here in the gloom of Stone Town of the wider world, no signal of modernity to separate me from Ilha de Mozambique’s uncanny and palpable sense of living history. As my footsteps echo off the dusty cobbles, I find myself slipping back in time, imagining an age half a millennium ago when this tiny island, barely 500 meters wide, was one of the most important colonial outposts in the world, a prominent naval base and merchant port forming the heart of Portuguese East Africa at the height of that empire’s power.

Vasco de Gama first landed here in 1498, and by the mid-16th century, what had once been merely an Arab trading port for dhows transiting the Swahili Coast had been fully transformed into one of the first truly global crossroads of the Renaissance age, the nexus of a vast pollination between the Islamic, Christian, Indian and African worlds. When I eventually emerge onto the deserted, wind-whipped quays on Stone Town’s western side, the mechanism of that vast engine of change is rendered clear: In the moonlight, the gentle waves washing against the weathered quays conjure up ghosts of the Arab dhows and tall-masted Portuguese carracks that would once have anchored here, plying the trade routes between Europe, Africa, India and the Far East.

In my mind, I can hear the clink and clack of African gold, pearls and ivory as they are loaded onto the ships of the Portuguese India armada to be exchanged in distant Goa and Kochi for holds full of precious spices. I can smell the perfume of cinnamon, cardamom and clove on their way back to Lisbon from Ceylon and the Spice Islands; and I wince at the crack of the whip as Africans captured by their enemies as far away as present-day Malawi and Zimbabwe are sold into slavery and driven into the hold for their long voyage back to the Arabian Peninsula.

I wander north to the ancient, looming walls of the Fort of São Sebastião and its still more ancient Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest surviving European building in the southern hemisphere, where sailors months from the nearest safe harbor would have bowed before the crashing waves and prayed to be delivered from pirates, storms and scurvy. Eventually as I stand there, soaking in the changeless atmosphere, a security guard finds me and, much more than merely forgiving my trespass, leads me back at last through the lanes to the lamplit doorway of my guesthouse, the beautifully-restored colonial Casa de Ruby.

There on the broad roof terrace, blissfully relieved of my heavy pack and sipping a cold Laurentina lager, owner Uwe Reichelt breaks down the physical history of the island for me. “The whole of Mozambique Island, every part, was founded in the encounter of different cultures,” he begins as we sit overlooking the rooftops of Stone Town. “As a result, everything here has become a mix.” He gestures at the buildings below us: “If you look at the architecture, we have the lime construction using thick walls, which comes from the Algarve in the south of Portugal. The flat roofs to catch rainwater, though, are from the cities of the Indian Ocean. And the style of the doors, the beautiful woodwork and ornamentation — different again. It’s Swahili, which is itself a mixture of African and Arabian.”

“And it isn’t just architecture,” he continues, “it’s the people themselves. They’ve got the physical features of three different continents, and practice three different world religions — Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — all on this little island.”

Naturally, though, there’s a more pressing question on my mind: “What about the food?”

He laughs. “Head down to the market stalls, and ask for Dona Sara’s.”

Cuisine, of course, is one of the primary windows into culture, and all the better when you’re hungry. In Dona Sara’s, tucked away in the market square beside the grand, half-abandoned hospital, I dip my toes into the culinary waters with a serving of savory chamusas, the Mozambican take on the classic Indian samosa. I nosh on fresh local prawns in an eye-watering peri-peri sauce (made of the bird’s-eye chili brought from the New World by the Portuguese and subsequently spread via Africa to Asia and the Indian subcontinent). I sop up the fiery peri-peri with paõ, a wonderfully crusty Portuguese-style bread roll, but it’s the flavorful and unique matapa de siri-siri, a stew made of the siri-siri creeper from the island’s beaches combined with cashew-nut, coconut milk, onion and spices, that wins the award for my local favorite — a classic African dish mixed with tangy island flavors.

That night, returning with a full belly through the deep darkness of the town after dinner, I spot what seems like a ghost amongst the ruined buildings, a single pale face moving in the shadows. As I draw nearer, I realize it’s a young African woman, her face painted with the white plant paste known as muciro, which local women use not only as a beauty aid, but to signal their availability for marriage. It’s a moment that brings me full circle, back to Mozambique as Africa, a culture wearing its influences and tribulations like adornments, rather than as chains.

Here, she could be Christian or Muslim, I think, her ancestry mixed with long-ago travellers from Muscat or Goa or the Iberian Peninsula. Yet at this moment the distinctions, the endless branching ways that have brought her to this moment in the ruins of this once-great and now forgotten place, seem not to matter. She is Mozambican, and in all that means, she is beautiful. She smiles shyly as I walk past and I move off alone, smiling myself, into the quiet richness of the island night.

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India: a Meditation on Living and Dying

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Christmas 2007.

It is morning in Mamallapuram, a small coastal town 40 minutes south of Chennai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This morning, as I do each morning, I walk along the beach before the cafes open, watching the waves there mass and roll and break into hissing white foam gilded by the blinding horizontal sun. And this morning, as happens every morning that I walk here, I pass the dead dog lying at the edge of the surf.

The first day it was lying on its side, in the little depression in the sand its body made, and bloating, with a weird mortal pathetic snarl and its piebald skin all wet as the water would shush up around it and then wash back. There was a family bathing in the sea maybe ten meters away, either oblivious to the dead dog slowly rotting on the beach or unconcerned by it.

A day later, running in the sunrise along the beach, I see that the dog has been pushed up by the last night’s tide and now lies on its stomach, muzzle buried in the sand as if it were very tired. I am surprised to see that its eyes are still there, looking all mucid and cloudy as a couple of crows hop around the carcass, pecking at it in the sharp, spasmodic way crows do.

Everywhere around the fishermen are gathering and mending their nets before they set out for the day, laughing and talking beside the colorful little boats that cluster on the shore, totally uninterested in the body of the dog which is lying there mere feet away from them, and sadly bloating.

There is something about this business of the dog that fascinates me, something about how naturally it is regarded, lying there rotting comfortably on a tourist beach and nobody batting an eye. Each day as it lies there people splash in the surf nearby – children laughing, families on holiday – and yet still the dog remains, looking so sad with its muzzle pushed into the sand and its empty eyes.

It seems a strange and vivid thing to my American sensibilities, which scream that death must be kept apart, and sterilized, not left here to contaminate the living with its bleak reminders. But here on the shore in this tiny town in Tamil Nadu the dog lies undisturbed. Nobody denies it, and no one has asked that it be removed from view. And if the dog is a stark reminder of the reality of death, it is a reminder that has been stripped of its capacity to startle.

As the legend goes, Buddhism itself began here, in India, as a flight from the ever-present reality of death. The story is well known: a prince outside his palace cloister in what is now southern Nepal happens upon an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and afflicted by these revelations of morality sets out across the eastern Indo-Gangetic plain, through the wilderness and patchwork city-states of ancient India. For years the historical Buddha wandered and practiced austerities, seeking liberation from the sickness, suffering and death of the human body. And while it’s well known that his travels eventually led him to Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon of Buddhist law, it is the where of Sarnath that usually escapes notice.

Just miles from one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, Sarnath was (and still is) little more than a morning’s walk from the city known today as Varanasi, and in the Buddha’s day as the eponymous capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. So when the Buddha opened his mouth to preach the first words of Buddhist dharma, it did not happen in isolation, static as a museum frieze, but in fact a mere stone’s throw from what was already one of the most important religious centers of the ancient world.

People came to Kashi to die. For Hindus, Kashi (the city of the great god Shiva) was synonymous with liberation, and dying within its precincts conferred upon them absolute moksha – a final release from the cycles of living and dying. The dead were burned there on the west bank of the Ganges in the final Hindu rites, consumed by flames said to have already been burning for a thousand years. Those riverbanks were the heart of a thriving city with a great economy of death, a place permeated (and made rich) by mortality.

Hinduism, though, mediated its liberation through a vast priestly caste, the Brahmins, and all such priestly classes exacted a price. Poor and surrounded by the immense mortality of the city of Kashi, it is easy to imagine how compelling the Buddha’s egalitarian gospel of bodily liberation must have been to people living in that time and place in the world, their death plain all around them.

Today in Varanasi, more than 2000 years later, scales at the Ganges riverside still measure out the weight of wood to fuel the cremations, every last bite of flesh exactly paid for. Standing there myself on a late December morning in 2007, breathing in the smell of smoke with the heat of the cremation fires on my face, I can imagine a figure – the Buddha – cut out of the indistinct shapes the mind makes of legend, watching as I do a raw red foot tumble out of the fire, charred bone at its edges, to be tipped by outcastes back into the flames; watching, without romance and without mystery, what becomes of what is human.

There is though perhaps another lesson to be found here, in this impermanence without romance, in the candidness of human perishing. Here on the banks of the same grey Ganges, the ash from the burning dead settles on my jacket and on the bare brown shoulders and shorn heads of the Brahmins. It settles in the hair of the indifferent boys talking on mobile phones and drifts over the kettles and the tiny earthenware cups of the chai vendors and up into the air above the city. That air is alive already this day with a hundred paper kites, their orange and red and blue paper rustling as they dive and swoop and dip above the boxy rooftops.

Below in the narrow streets, the dead are borne on bamboo litters in shrouds of gold and white fabric, and draped in garlands of marigolds. The processions with the dead pass by and the living move aside, and when the dead have passed, the living go on living – buying fruit or cigarettes, pursuing tourists, and doing wash.

And no one, I realize looking around me, no one is looking for death as an excuse here, because death in this place is never far away. There on the ghats with the smell of burning filling my head I close my eyes and feel the sense of life swelling within me to unbearable fullness.

Within the fullness rests a simple truth: My life will end, incomplete, and that ending makes the incompleteness precious.

In the middle of that imperfect life, lived like all others in equal parts futility and beauty, I open my eyes and thru the tears see the heat-lines from the funeral fires make distorted shapes of the boats floating on the slack grey water of the Ganga.

There is only so much time.

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Hard Travel to Special Places

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A general fact of travel worth considering: Anywhere worth getting to, takes getting to.

Many of my favorite spots in the world are on the way to nowhere, and so are most often overlooked. I hope that the spots below will inspire you to stretch out a little and make your own discoveries beyond the guidebook highlights page.

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  • Muang Ngoi, Laos. Bombed by the United States twice a day for four years during the “Secret War” spilling over from Vietnam, this riverside town, ringed by emerald rice paddies and dramatic karst limestone peaks and caves, is the essence of laid-back graciousness. Though often compared to Vang Vienne — today infamous as a riotous party centre  — the feel of the town is decidedly sleepy, and you won’t find 19 year-old Danish backpackers doing body shots here. Simplest explanation? There are, as yet, no roads to Muang Ngoi, which requires a journey of more than an hour up or downriver to reach.

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  • Tofo, Mozambique. Though it might be flooded with South Africans around the New Year, the beach town of Tofo near Inhambane in the south of the country is a far cry from popular beach spots like Bali and Phuket. There are no beach resorts, no high rises, and very little in the way of a developed ‘tourist’ culture. Instead what you get is miles of wide, empty beaches made of white sand so fine it squeaks between your toes, bookended by a sapphire Indian Ocean on one side, and high, rolling dunes on the other. Popular with both Mozambicans and hardcore travellers alike, Tofo is a party town, with a handful of open-air beach bars spread out over more than a kilometre of shoreline, but it has the sort of low-key, un-slick, everyone-is-welcome vibe that eludes scenester-y beaches the world over. The key to Tofo’s cool? If you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s a bitch to get to from Jo’burg on public transport.

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  • Togian Islands, central Sulawesi, Indonesia. If Tofo is a bitch to get to, then getting to the Togian Islands of Indonesia is beyond ridiculous. Sitting in the heart of Tomini Bay between the central ‘arms’ of the enormous island of Sulawesi, getting to this scattered archipelago takes patience, money, or both, enduring internal flights, looooong days on bad roads, and a final trip from the mainland on boats of varying size and seaworthiness. Arriving here, though, is pure Robinson Crusoe — the end of the world, with sunsets that burn out like nuclear fire over miles of cobalt blue and thriving coral gardens in waters so clear that you can spy the bottom, 40m down, from the surface. You may find yourself staying a few days longer than you wanted, of course, whether by choice or because the boatman you hired decided he has other things going that day, but that’s really all part of the charm.

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  • Lingshet, Ladakh, India. While getting to the above three destinations is inconvenient, none of them are WORK in the way that getting to Lingshet is, a tiny mountain village at 3800m in the upland desert of Ladakh, northern India. To get here you’ll have to walk. A lot. For at least three days and over mountain passes of more than 4500m. Lingshet, though, is a mountain idyll — green barley fields and a riot of wildflowers topping a series of stepped plateaus nestled between sheer mountain walls. A couple days here and I could feel my wifi addiction waning away — walking the mountain paths, chating to monks at the centuries-old Buddhist monastery, drinking tea and generally enjoying a place that neither time nor the wider world seem to have touched. One of those spots that — when you leave — you take a little piece of with you.

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  • Coffee Bay, South Africa. Coffee Bay, the gem of the South Africa’s undeveloped and aptly-named Wild Coast, is a delight. You won’t have to trek or take a boat to get here, but situated as it is at the end of a long, poorly-maintained road to the coast thru the traditional apartheid-era African homeland known as the Transkei, you won’t find the crowds here that mob Cape Town and the Garden Route. Half coastal and half pastoral, it’s a paradise for surfers and photographers alike, and while there’s a party scene here, it’s delightfully chilled-out, and you’re unlikely to find anyone trying to sell you crystal meth (Indonesia’s Gili Islands, I’m looking in your direction). Best of all, the town is home to the gracious Khosa people, who make Coffee Bay so much more than just a pretty landscape.

Published: “Turning Back the Clock in Sri Lanka”

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Sri Lanka is special.

On this small, tropical, teardrop-shaped island, it’s a kind of time-warped ambiance that – again and again – strikes me the most. Even with Sri Lanka’s considerable cultural and natural riches, it’s the sense the country often gives of stepping back in time that’s most striking, as if, though barely separated from the rest of the world by its narrow strait, Sri Lanka has preserved, in its trains and towns, its cities and beaches, some fragment of bygone eras elsewhere submerged by the contemporary world.

Check out my latest piece for gogobot.com, “Turning Back the Clock in Sri Lanka”, for a snapshot of what’s so unique about this often overlooked and thoroughly amazing country.