Ilha de Moçambique

19 10 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 8.1.08-8.04.08

We jumped off the back of the truck just as the sun was going down in what looked like a city bombed and left for dead, where no one made it save a handful of survivors. Given the difficult travel and our beaten morale, we sat down for dinner at the one place we could find and wondered what in the world we had gotten ourselves into? Was this really why we came all the way here, this almost vacant, war-torn city? Right as we ordered, Laura turns and sees our favorite Danaguese couple strolling in for a Lobster dinner (to celebrate their 4th year dating). Amazing how good company and a few drinks can completely change the mood. They assured us the town looked different in the day and spoke excitedly of their experiences there, which got Laura and me pumped up again. We spent the rest of the night wandering around the blacked-out streets, finding our way to some local bar hidden in the middle of nowhere, discussing the genius of Tom Waits and Viking mythology.

Waking up in a more optimistic mood, we ventured out to see what Ilha de Moçambique was all about. The name translates as “Mozambique Island,” and was the capital for the Portuguese empire in Africa. It’s an island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland with and unused white sand beach surrounding it (though one section is used as a public bathroom because the town is so poor and lacks basic infrastructure, and the locals see the beach as cleaner). Reedtown is about what it sounds to be: a bunch of reed huts grouped together, and is where most of the population lives.

Another section called Stonetown has a New Orleans appeal with old European architecture that’s been run down and left untouched for hundreds of years. Some houses have trees and vines growing in and around the doors and windows. All but a couple streets are dirt and there is trash littered everywhere. At night when you walk through the eerily quiet winding maze of Arab alleyways (there are no streetlamps mind you) you can catch the voices of locals who live inside the torn buildings, amongst the rubble. It sounds messed up and is, but there’s an otherworldly charm to it. Even the beautiful hospital in the middle of town looks untouched, but there are people still inside random rooms.

The setting fits perfectly into a warped Stephan King novel but it’s a deceptive vibe. In truth, the town is almost perfectly safe with next to no crime. 70% of the population is Muslim with numerous Mosques scattered about, and they live fairly harmoniously among Christians and the local traditions. The people are intelligent, respectful, and full of smiles. I spent 1.5 hours walking and talking with some local guy who told me all about town, even his girlfriend and family. When we got back to my hostel, we shook hands and said goodbye—it wasn’t about money or some favor (he never asked once), he just wanted to practice his English. Walking down the main street, we happened upon some parade with locals singing and dancing, grabbing us to get us to join in the celebration. And of course, the children–and I hate children–are beautiful. They just run up to you and hold your hand and want to walk wherever you’re going. Some yell whatever English words they know over and over (usually just ‘hello’) and laugh beside themselves the whole time. The Portuguese influence also extended to food, and here like most places in Mozambique you can get fresh seafood and be confident it will be prepared well. Our favorite is the giant prawns cooked in a garlic butter sauce.

There were many shipwrecks off the shore from the days when the island was a top African trading port (note: the inability for the Dutch to conquer Ilha from Portugal is what led to the founding of Capetown). Much of the wreckage is still underwater, explored only limitedly by archaeology teams and random Europeans that come down to dive. Old goods wash to the shore: pottery, beads, etc. The kids take the beads and make necklaces out of them. They said they used to just go to the beach and they were everywhere, but now they have to dig and look for them. Even as we walked along the beach I picked several pieces of centuries old pottery shards.

At the time of our visit there are a handful of hostels, 2 nice hotels, 2 restaurants (and 1 local spot), 1 hidden bar, and 1 small tourist shop to buy handicrafts. And this is by far the most touristy spot in Northern Mozambique. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and money is being funneled here to build tourism. The secret charm will probably not last all that long, so go now while you can. Ilha ranks up there with Torres del Paine as my favorite place on our trip, and I cannot adequately explain the strange/unsettling/beautiful/fascinating time-warp that is Mozambique Island. Walking in Ilha is like walking into another century—It just doesn’t seem real. Yes, it’s dirty and poor, littered with trash, falling apart before your eyes, and lacks even the most basic human comforts for the majority of the population there–which can be shocking if you aren’t prepared for it.

But just trust me on this one: it’s one of those special places that you search for as a backpacker but almost never find. Most of those romantic images in your head of far-flung and exotic destinations are usually over-westernized, and not all that exotic. Local charm and traditions replaced by organized tourist shows and English brochures, with locals fighting each other to sell you trinkets the moment you step off the bus (often climbing into the bus to get get the 1st word). Ilha isn’t completely undiscovered, but it’s as close as you’re gonna get these days.

So let’s recap: you could get an old run down beautiful colonial place, buy a sailboat and fish for crabs/lobsters/huge prawns/oysters/fish, and take an hour sail ride to perhaps the most beautiful white sand beach we’ve ever seen and be virtually alone. When you get bored, go dive for real life sunken treasure, or have a drink with some of the most welcoming people in all of Africa. Not a bad life.

Note from Laura: If you don’t normally check our pictures because you think you’re too busy, then stop watching your stocks drop and look at these. It’s worth your time. We’ve made it easy. Just click below.

Check out Pictures of Ilha de Moçambique at our Flickr Site***

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