Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shosholoza, kulezontaba stimela siphume South Africa

"The train is speeding up towards South Africa." Apparently that's the meaning of this old Ndebele workers' song which has been popularized by the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, more recently several movie soundtracks (for instance to Invictus), and the SA football team during the 2010 world cup.


South Africa's oldest train line also takes its name from the same song: the Shosholoza-Meyl. A bit like the trans-Siberian of Africa, it runs all the way from Johannesburg to Cape town, in just over 24 hours. Much slower, much cheaper, much more comfortable and much more exciting than the overnight bus. Finally, I got to take a train on my big African trip!

First Shosholoza managed to confuse me sufficiently with their out-of-date website that I got stuck in Jo-burg for an extra 2 days - there are no more Sunday sleeper trains, and no way was I going to sit on a train for twenty hours. On Tuesday I tried again, showed up at the station early in the morning and purchased a ticket to Laingsburg. 2 hours later I returned to find a long queue at the gate to the platform, which opens only one hour prior to departure. The passengers were a mixed crowd, whites, blacks and coloreds, mostly South Africans on their way to visit friends and family by the looks of it. We slowly filtered through the gates to the notice board with the compartment assignments. I found my name listed together with that of a Ms. Hendricks, and figured it would be a relaxing day with another single lady traveller.

When the train arrived at the platform and I found compartment 8B, things didn't appear so relaxing: Ms. Hendricks was travelling with a 6-year-old daughter and what looked like a 12-year-old son. She was, however, friendly and chatty and showed me the bathroom, the drinking water tap and the hot shower.

(Savor this one please. Here I am, not having seen an operational hot water tap in about 6 weeks... and Shosholoza-Meyl, for the price of just about 45EUR all the way across the country, comes with a hot shower in each carriage.)

Leaving the city I never actually went to see

By the time we were rolling out of the city, I was playing my guitar for the little girl and being filled in by my companion that the other child was not, as I thought, the elder brother, but with 26 years at the mental stage of a 4-year-old and suffering from severe autism. Eish. At least the compartment was quite spacious, two thre-seater couches which could be converted into beds, and another two beds which fold out from the walls above. And it had a sink, too!

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, and flu-ish from 4 days in a poorly insulated farmhouse, so I crawled into one of the overhead beds - surprisingly comfortable - and spent the first hours of my trip dozing. In the afternoon, I headed to the dining car. Upholstered seats, table cloths, friendly attendants, and tasty food at very reasonable prices! I had some tea and some salad and watched the arid countryside go by. It didn't quite fly by, but good enough, and the sunset over the desert was stunning as always. 

A dining car with a view.

Meanwhile the staff was taking their afternoon break, and I managed to chat up the chief conductor of the train, a yound Zulu woman from the North. And she promised she would find me a place to sleep, just after Kimberley, without small children or autistic tantrums. By 8 o'clock, I was reshuffled to a different compartment, just me and a teenage girl from Kimberley who - in broken English, but better than my Afrikaans - told me she was the junior table tennis champion of SA. Kinda cool.

All I had to do now was take a hot shower (temperature good, water pressure delightful), bundle up against the Karoo cold and sleep until 6 in the morning, when me and my bags would tumble out of the train onto the platform of the old Laingsburg train station. A station so cold and deserted that when all the passengers had left, I had to beg the station workers for some of their instant coffee and hot water. But friendly as they are in the desert, my wish was granted, and I ended my journey learning some Eastern Cape Xhosa while waiting for my pickup.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two cities

The capital of Mozambique
It's been too long since I had liberal access to an internet connection - where to start? I left off in Maputo, my re-entry point to civilization. Here I stayed with an expat Brit, Jerry, who now makes a living teaching English to wealthy Mozambicans - and has a local girlfriend who was dispatched to come rescue me from a greedy txapela-driver upon arrival. She came in with a torrent of angry Portuguese and brought me home safely, to a spacious colonial apartment in the center of the city. With wooden floors and even running water, although the water only runs by virtue of a privately installed water pump.
Palm trees in the city

The first day Jerry and I explored the streets and markets of Maputo, dusty glory of days gone by, but much more lively than Beira in the North. The sidewalks are full of street vendors, with cell phone airtime and freshly roasted cashews. At the market we haggled in broken Portuguese for the most beautiful seafood I've ever seen.
Anyone know what these fish are called?

Over lunch and some Pretas (the local dark beer) we met policeman Inok, who wants some English lessons from Jerry, proceeded to introduce us to all his local friends, teach me some Shangana (the local language) and ask me out for lunch the next day.
Jerry and Inok having lunch at the Mercado do Povo

Later we were joined by Ines the backpacker coming down from Tofo. The beautiful seafood was prepared, and I finally had Mozambican shrimps! Supposedly they were served for free alongside your drink in every pub along the coast about 30 years ago, now they are a luxury good.
With Ines in tow, we headed out to enjoy another attraction of Mozambique, the live-band Karaoke at Gil Vicente's cinema. A spectacle not to be missed, with the full house band of GV accompanying more or less capable singers for their choice of song.

 In the following days I wandered around by myself, taking some photos of the architecture and (covertly, because otherwise they want money from you) of the roadside vendors of vegetables, fabrics and second-hand clothing. By the way, I saw where all your donated sweatshirts and sneakers end up, and someone is making a profit with it!

Orange and cashew vendors everywhere.
I'm really sad I never got to see a cashew tree though.
Where your jeans go to die

Nucleo de Arte: open studio and gallery
Along my wanderings I encountered, in an open studio-space called Nucleo d'Arte, the Mozambican poet Eduardo Costley-White. He bought me several beers and decided I had to be taken to the shop of a Zimbabwean immigrant at the - currently closed - city fair "feira". Extolling the virtues of Manica - another local beer - and of lesbian love encounters with African women, and under promises to send me a poem on a postcard, ECW then dropped me off just in time for me to catch a night bus to Johannesburg.

Interlude: border crossing
South African home affairs had me so worried. I thought I might get arrested if I didn't get my study permit cancelled before re-entry, I thought I might have to bribe and plead. Well, in the end it turned out it was quite easy, and while South African officials are far less friendly than any other African nation they happily stamped my passport in the end and let me through.

According to one of my fellow bus passengers, my stoic smile and complete calm in the face of being taken to the back office and having to wait for half an hour was impressive... here's to being prepared for the worst.

Johannesburg, or not
Arriving at the main station in Joburg in the wee hours of the morning I was properly worried about my safety, probably for the first time on my whole trip. All the fast food joints were still closed; I found from one of the cleaning ladies that an adjoint garage had about twenty little stalls in it which were already serving instant coffee and rolls to what you might call the lower class of Jo-burgers on their way to work. I settled at one of the plastic tables and made friends with the owner of the stall. He was a black guy, running the place with his wife, and was worried for my safety too. To the point of offering me a place to stay in case my plans somehow didn't work out! I stayed for several hours - and free instant coffees - until my couch surfer instructed me on how to get to his place.
GauTrain, just like at home, only cleaner

That place turned out to be far far out of the city, almost equidistant from Pretoria as from Jozi. I got the privilege of riding the brand-new GauTrain linking the two cities, so clean and safe that I wasn't allowed to eat an apple on it. Then my next host, just recently moved out of a converted nightclub, took me to his new abode: a farm in the middle of nowhere, Magaliesburg.

Is this view worth the commute?

The interesting thing here was that him and his buddy, both named Johan(n), are trying to go "off the grid", i.e. be independent from municipal electricity and completely reliant on solar. They had rigged up a whole system to run computers and speakers off the battery charged during the day, or off a generator in case of emergency. The water is also heated by the sun, at least in theory - the whole time I stayed there I didn't manage to have a proper hot bath/shower.

The two Johans constructing my bed

Pool table on the farm!
Instead I helped Johan 2 move all his stuff into the second farm house, relaxed at the living room pool table, ran around the high veld countryside. And for 4 days didn't really encounter any unsafety, or any big city things at all, until I caught the Shosholoza-Meyl train straight through the heart of South Africa to the Great Karoo.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Na costa da Mozambique

Another country, another language, everything is different here from Zimbabwe! People live in little round huts made from grass mats, and they eat fish and drink Mozambican beer and dance the night away. A night that starts early, because we're at the eastern-most edge of the time zone, so it gets dark around 4:30 in the afternoon.

I crossed over from Nyanga almost two weeks ago, and at the border post got promptly ripped off by clever street money traders with a trick calculator while changing my money into the local currency, Meticais - one Mt is worth about 3 cents. A zim girl who was also walking across the noman's land decided I needed help, and adopted me for the rest of the day - she suggested we hitchhike to Beira together. Hitching a ride on a truck is a much more comfortable way to travel than by minibus: you get to sit next to the driver on your own seat, or take a nap on the little on-board bed they all have, you can request a bathroom stop anytime, and buy copious amounts of cheap cheap pineapples and oranges on the side of the road.
Pineapples on the road

Of course the roads in that part of the country are so bad that said truck took about 8 hours to cover the 300km to Beira, dodging pot holes along the way. And when I finally got to my couchsurfer Flore's house, I just barely had the energy to head down to the beach with her, buy a Laurentina (one of the three local beers) from a street vendor there and dip my feet in the Indian ocean.

Indian ocean sunrise

All the buildings are owned by corporations... or falling apart.

Jongue and mother, and me stirring chima.
I stayed in Beira for one weekend: crumbling colonial glory, defunct ports, dirt roads in the city center. I hung out with Flore, as well as with her boyfriend Jongue, a local musician who builds jembe drums for a living

and whose big African mother cooked me one of the local specialties, Matapas - crabs in a stew of Manioc leaves cooked with peanut and coconut shreds. Wow was that tasty! And Saturday evening took us to a remote campsite with all of Jongue's musician friends around a big fire, eating and making music. Dancing and jamming with a jembe band on my little guitar even the Portuguese speaking got a bit easier.

My place in Vilanculos
From Beira I headed on the overnight bus to Vilanculos, a tiny beach town a few hundred km South of Beira. Here I found a strange contrast between some lovely absolutely Western hostels, complete with pool and British backpackers, and a city centre full of red dust roads an little round reed huts. Oranges cost 1Mt on the street, coconuts are free off the palm trees. The water is amazingly warm, and the children still get excited when they see a white person walking by (mostly because they hope for some candy or money I think, but they're friendly anyways).

The first day I made friends with some local fishermen on the beach, and they spontaneously offered to take me out fishing! So I spent a whole working day out at sea on Cpt. Tarcisio's boat, the Natyiwane, helped them pull in the nets out near the Bazaruto archipelago, and went home with 5 lovely little fish for dinner.

Vou pra ilha de mare...
Pulling in the catch

Since my couch surfer here, Hugo from Spain, works as a diving guide in Vilanculos, I decided I couldn't miss on a chance to see the stunning archipelago close-up. We went by speed boat over to the island, poked around the bush and waterholes inland in the morning, and then went for a snorkel in the reefs in the afternoon. I didn't expect it to be so good, but I just loved it! Huge rainbow-colored fish got a bit distressed when I tried to chase them down, and some of the corals change colors when you poke them with your finger... Unfortunately I came out of the water with slightly changed colors myself, and a case of stage 2 hypothermia, lips purple, disoriented and unable to speak! But a few cups of hot coffee and all the skippers' spare sweatshirts brought me back to normal quickly enough.

Exploring Bazaruto

Somehow we ended up crashing a local wedding at the hostel!

And what else? I made friends with lots of other travellers at the pool side, took time to relax, and then headed down further South in a mad sleepless trip to Maputo. Saturday night I got on a bus in the dusty center of town, roundabout 2 in the morning. My new-found travel companion Ines showed up with a bottle of Tipo Tinto, the cheapest alcohol you can get here - 50Mt for a 500mL bottle of rum. Good value... And it made the bus ride so much more enjoyable! At 6 in the morning we arrived at the waypoint of Maxixe, from
Ines and Daniel and the crumbling glory of Inhambane's old cathedral

where we caught a ferry full of freshly caught fish over to the charming old town of Inhambane. And what do you do early on a Sunday morning? Of course, church! Since the sermon was in Portuguese however, we didn't last through the whole service (I really feel sorry for everyone in the middle ages listening to Latin sermons every day). Instead we spent a few hours wandering the sort-of-but-not-quite Lisbon-like streets of the town, stocked up on bread, eggs and Tipo Tinto, and caught a ride with a friend of a friend into a proper beach colony, Tofo. Full of coconut palms and some of the most beautiful beaches in Mozambique.
Short short stay in Tofo!

Sleeping didn't seem worth my while, so I kept busy with a sunset walk on said beach, cooking some egg sandwiches,  going for a last skinny dip in the Indian ocean under a star lit sky and drinking TT with Ines and her Portuguese friends. Until 4 in the morning, when I haggled a good price for a chicken bus ride all the way down to Maputo.
Here I arrived on Monday, completely sleep deprived, to the house of an Englishman named Jerry - it's like the promised land, with internet, running water, wooden floors and located right in the center of this lively Southern African capital. The afternoon nap on a comfortable bed under a mosquito net was heaven, I think I might be adjusting back to civilization already!