Sunday, August 14, 2011

18 Hours in Mozambique

During Athena's refit here in New Zealand I managed to get away for just over two months in order to get some more yachting certifications. There are basically 3 places in the world I could go that offered the courses I needed; South Africa, the UK, and Florida. Since I had never been to Africa, I decided that it was definitely where I should go.

Though I was busy taking courses at least five days a week, I was still able to get out and see the areas around Durban, where the courses were based. Mozambique was one of the first places I went, and I had a hell of an experience there.

All I knew of Mozambique was that it was still recovering from a recent civil war, and it had a beautiful coastline. I had to see it. The drive was a bit longer than I had anticipated, and I got across the border at dark. With no hotel stay booked I knew it would be difficult to find the beautiful little resort on the coastline that I had pictured in my head, especially now that it was dark. After dodging the potholes, the people in the road, and generally having the feeling I was somewhere I shouldn't be after dark, I figured it would be prudent to find a safe place to stay in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Maputo is an urban hell-hole, the closer I got the more I had to be aware of my surroundings. Mobs of people were in the streets, the buildings were in ruins, and I was a target in my fancy red rental car. I knew I had to get to the hotel soon. I managed to find a strip of overpriced hotels right on the harbor, and pulled my rental in, letting out a sigh of relief when I had finally arrived.

I particularly dislike the sort of traveler who blockades himself behind the walls of a soulless five star resort. There was no way I was eating at the hotel restaurant on my first night in Mozambique. I had to get out there, experience the culture and the local food. Sure, I knew not to go too far at night, but I sure as hell wasn't spending my evening in the hotel! I went to the ATM, got out 5,000 Meticals (about $180 USD). I stuffed 4,000 in my sock, and the other 1,000 in my wallet, and headed out.

Within minutes of stepping outside the marble lined hotel lobby I was followed by panhandlers and hawkers. They weren't like most hawkers I have experienced around the world though, they were desperate, and weren't taking no for an answer. All I wanted was a peaceful look out over the harbor, instead it took all of my concentration to shoo away the hawkers as I watched behind me. There was no way I was having my peaceful moment with the sea, so I scratched the idea and headed back towards a restaurant that I had seen less than a block from the hotel.

I was maybe a hundred meters from the hotel, still on an empty stomach, when it happened. Seven armed men in a truck pulled up next to me as I was walking up the sidewalk. With their camouflage pants tucked into the tops of their military boots, a few hopped out of the truck, each with an AK-47 assault rifle in hand.

"Let me see your passport!" One of them demanded, surely the only one who spoke any english.

I didn't have my passport, I knew not to take it out with me, and it was locked in the safe at the hotel. I told him I didn't have it, but he insisted that it was the law that I carry my passport with me at all times. Of course, I knew it wasn't, and I knew exactly what they wanted from me. In following the advice of some friends that I got before I went to Mozambique, I stood my ground, insisting I didn't need a passport to walk on the sidewalk.

"I don't need my passport, I know I don't need my passport, I have done nothing wrong. What I am going to do is keep walking up to my hotel and you are going to leave me alone. I am not another stupid tourist, and I know the law. I'm leaving now."

Of course, he disagreed, and my unwillingness to show him the fear that he was probably used to seeing angered him and his mates. He told me I had to pay the fine in cash on the spot, or he was taking me to jail, and I was getting quite angry with the crooked bastard.

"Take me to jail then, I've done nothing wrong! I'm leaving now!"

Our little conversation had turned to a shouting match, and tensions were flaring. I did as I said, briskly walked off, but upon seeing that, a few more men got out of the truck, and one of them ran in front of me and lowered his weapon to my chest level. I'm not sure what was going on in my head at the time. I had an AK-47 pointed right at me, and all I could think about was how I was not giving in to these corrupt cops. The English speaking officer walked up to me again, pulled me aside and quietly said to me, "I know you've done nothing wrong here, and you know that you have done nothing wrong, but this is how it works. I can take you to jail and tell them anything I want. I can tell them you have committed any kind of crime."

Immediately my face of rage turned to one of defeat. Checkmate.

"Ok officer, how much is 'the fine'?"

Ten thousand Meticals ($360 USD) was what he wanted. I didn't have it, not even if I got out my sock money. I reached in, grabbed my wallet, and opened it so that they all could see. I only had 1,000, and I knew they just wanted a quick bribe. After a bit more negotiating, and showing them that all I had was 1,000 Meticals, they ended up taking it, and I walked back to the hotel with my sock money and a smile on my face. The smile only went away when I got to the buffet line at the soulless hotel.

I woke up the next morning, and told myself I needed to get out of Mozambique, at least get out of Maputo. I loaded up the little red rental car, and drove off, soon realizing that I hadn't programmed "the way out" into the nearly useless GPS that came with the car. I promptly pulled over into a parking space, and fiddled with the little gadget. Within a minute there was a knock on the window. Once again, the police. Once again, carrying assault rifles. Great, another bribe to pay. I wasn't willing to even give up another thousand Meticals, not to these guys, I wasn't in the mood. He said I wasn't wearing a seat belt, and I argued that I was parked! Unfortunately I had made the mistake of handing over my driver's license. He was keeping it until I went to the ATM and came back with 10,000 Meticals. Right. The equivalent of $360 USD for a seat belt fine. Of course, the fine could only be paid in cash and there was no receipt. I had no patience at this point.

"Look man, I am fucking parked, I don't need to wear a seat belt. 10,000 Meticals? Do you think I am fucking stupid?"

Either way, I couldn't get my license back until I gave him some money. I put my little red rental in reverse, and drove off without looking back. Somewhere in Mozambique someone has the Michigan driver's license of a white blonde guy.

It was great, I got a hell of a story out of the deal, and learned more in 18 hours in Mozambique than I have in weeks and months of visiting other countries. Lesson number one; Sock money...