/ 16 November 2012

The magic of Maputo

Rundown grandeur
Rundown grandeur

It’s 10am on a Saturday as I step out of the bus that has taken me from Johannesburg to Maputo and straight into a slopping grey puddle. My exposed toes recoil in their sandals and I experience a moment of panic as I feel my dreams of a tropical Mozambican holiday slip out of my grasp.

I am cold, wet and tired. Despite it being only mid-morning, a 12-hour journey on the night bus means that it’s already been a long day, made longer by the fact that I have somehow forgotten it’s the rainy season here and have brought only one pair of shoes, one pair of pants and no rain jacket.

I quickly find my travelling companions — a Rwandan, a South African and an American living and working in Mozambique — dry off and begin my exploration into what the city has to offer, determined not to let the bad weather get in the way.

I find that the rain has made the city quiet, and not unhappily so. Once it subsides — quickly, just as it started — the streets are left clean and mostly empty.

I spend the day sleepily wandering through lush green parks and down grey streets that host tall, Soviet-style apartment buildings bumping into markets with bright fabric and gleaming carvings.

I eat cashews and drink beer by the ocean, watching fruit vendors languidly sell their mangoes, bananas, passion fruit and tangerines to passers-by. Children race their bikes and taut-bellied men sip beer while leaning against their cars.

The rest of the week follows lazily in much the same pattern.

I go for walks, picking up a treat or two at one of Maputo’s many little bakeries before seeing the sights I know I’m meant to see: the art museum, the fort, the fish market. I eat ice cream, drink beer, beer and more beer and find live music at night. I often end up in the same places: Parque Dos Continuadores, which hosts a daily market and some of the best eggplant parmesan I’ve ever had; the Tunduro Botanical Gardens, where bats sleep fitfully hanging from trees; the CFM Railway Station, beautifully built and offering a welcome respite from both the sun and the rain; and the Marginal, a road that cuts along the coast.

I am not unsatisfied with this routine. Maputo is peaceful without being boring.

Many of my South African friends romanticise the city, seeing it as more real, raw, beautiful and, importantly, more chilled than cities to the south, and after a week in Maputo I’m beginning to understand why.

Whereas Cape Town and Johannesburg always have something on offer, there is an underlying yet pervasive feeling that activities must be done in order for the day not to be wasted: parties, braais and exhibitions must be attended and sharp thoughts on politics, art and culture must be formulated and asserted.

South Africans like to see and be seen — in the latest clothes, listening to the best new music, exchanging commentary on current affairs. Mozambicans, by contrast, seem less self-conscious: it feels as if people just live in Maputo as they choose to live, not as they are expected to. The city may offer fewer options than Jo’burg or Cape Town, but it also demands less in return.

Boom time
But this may be changing. With the historically radical government now barely spouting communism in rhetoric and rejecting it entirely in practice, and with new mining sites opening up in the northern part of the country, Mozambique has been flooded with international aid and foreign business interest.

Maputo’s most beautiful houses have been converted into headquarters for international non-governmental organisations and a quick scan of those frequenting the city’s hottest bars and restaurants offers a decidedly unAfrican contingent: in some of these institutions, foreign workers from across Europe and North America are the main patrons.

As a result, housing prices are skyrocketing in some neighbourhoods and international businesses, including many from South Africa, are increasingly finding their way into the Mozambican market.

A friend who recently moved from Cape Town to Maputo commented that she thought this trend could only escalate in the future, cramping the city’s relaxed vibe.

“It can’t last forever,” she said. “The city is just getting too rich.”

I can only hope that her premonition proves wrong. A more institutionalised, built-up environment would change Maputo drastically.

What makes the city the place that it is is its honesty in being beautifully and unashamedly dilapidated, without needing to be anything else. It simply shrugs its shoulders. It is what it is. And it is a hot, sticky, beautifully unhurried mess.

If you go, don’t miss:

The nightlife: Save for eating prawns and hitting the beach, Maputo isn’t much of a daytime city. Sleep late and go out in the evening. Live music is a must: go to Gil Vicente (Avenida Samora Machel) on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and Nucleo de Arte (Rua da Argelia) on Sundays. Other bars host live bands on the weekends and music festivals are not uncommon. The more popular places will charge for cover, but never more than 150 meti­cais (about R45). Karaoke is also popular in various bars, strangely.

The beaches: Maputo’s beaches, although beautiful, aren’t especially popular (or clean), but stunning bathing is within easy reach of the city. If you only have an afternoon, take a quick ferry to Catembe for a stroll along the beach and some fresh fish washed down with beer. For a weekend, take a longer boat ride to Inhaca, a few hours away by public ferry or two hours with the more expensive, less frequent Vodacom boat. If you have a car or are willing to take a bus a few hours north, you’ll find Xai-Xai and Bilene, or Ponta do Ouro to the south.

The city parks: Maputo has several well-maintained parks. Take a wander along some of the city’s main streets (Avenida Karl Marx, Avenida Vladimir Lenine, Avenida Mao Tse Tung, Avenida Samora Machel) to find one to your liking. The Tunduro Botanical Gardens, in between Avenida Samora Machel and Avenida Vladimir Lenine, is certainly not to be missed.

The markets: Maputo hosts beautiful handicraft. The stalls at Parque Dos Continuadores, between Avenida Mao Tse Tung and Rua de Mukumbura, are open daily. The market at Fortaleza, just off Avenida Samora Machel, is only open on Saturdays and offers a wider variety.

The train station: The CFM Train Station, close to Avenida 25 de Setembro, is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. It boasts high archways and small coffee shops, art stores and boutique clothing shops.

The art museum: The National Museum of Art (Avenida Ho Chi Min) is not massive, but the quality is good. You won’t need more than an hour here, but it will be well worth your time.