Saturday, February 24, 2007

Inhambane: If you were here, this is what you'd see:

16 February 2006

Enormous groups of uniformed children appear to be always either wandering to or from school in Inhambane city, since they have three sets of two-hour classes per day. Unlike the shopping district across the water (a boat ride guaranteed to soak), the two main shopping streets seem sleepy. If you poke your head into one of the bigger Portuguese-style cement buildings, the little old Indian man or woman behind the counter will ask what you need of the vast choice of odds and ends crowding the shelves from floor to ceiling. Someday soon I will buy that shiny bicycle that obstructs the entrance, the one with the friction powered light.

Back outside in the blinding sunshine, you impulsively decide to purchase several generous handfuls of roasted cashews for about 50 Metacais, roughly two dollars. You try not to drop the bag as you trip over the knarled root that spills out from a trunk with bubbly bark. Few other people find the delicate leaves and tissue-paper flowers so strikingly beautiful, so nobody can name this wonder. Crossing the road is easy because there are no cars, but the potholes that dot the once-mosaiced sidewalk make you wish that you weren't wearing flipflops. The vast quantities of vibrant yellow and turquoise Mcel advertisements are beginning to make you weary, but not as much as the man trying to catch your attention by hissing like a cat. No thanks, you don't need overpriced wooden sculptures. Next time you won't look.

The dingy, narrow entrance to the market hums with activity. The junk stalls are crammed together near the entrance but as you venture further in the stalls spread out with a variety of fruit, vegetables, seafood, arts and crafts. The bottles of alcohol upon closer inspection are full of hotsauce and honey. The goods don't vary much, but in the interests of spreading your money fairly you purchase your groceries one at a time as you walk around comparing prices and quality. Thrifty shoppers gather their necessities here to avoid paying the mark-up at the entrepreneurial stalls erected along busy stretches of the main roads. Many people spend all day waiting by the roadside to tout their dishbowlful of cashews, swarming the cars that stop. Others nap near the neatly piled fruit displayed on a mat on the ground. People lay the money down regardless. No point disturbing them.

Minibuses zoom by regularly, and though you'd usually prefer to walk the 6km to the school, you don't want to bruise your bananas and instead cram in with the rest. You distribute you bags among the empty laps and assume the hunched-over position over the seated passengers. As the bus takes off with three people leaning out the open door, you grab wildly for a stable arm rest to balance yourself because your enormous bottom is likely to send somebody tumbling to their death. You smile at the doe-eyed child who stares you down, and notice that she inherited her mother's features. Relieved that you don't have a child of you own, you can't help but find it cute the way they doze off mid-stare. Although nobody budges much, the mother manages to extricate herself from the bus after passing the child over to the next lap. The child's still there as the bus continues, and you find it remarkable how well people take care of each other's children. If you could turn your head, you'd try to figure out the child's real parent.

On either side of the road, the grassland stretches for several miles until the estuary where the shellfish are collected at lowtide. The clear sands of the tourist beaches are a short ride away, but unfortunately beyond walking distance. You can't wait to learn how to navigate the labyrinth of trails to the local, swimable beach. The history of the area is etched into the ground, where thousands of walkers stamped the shoulder-high tufts of grass down into soft, sandy streaks that meander from tree to household, from household to tree. Hedged in by a only a few succulents, the women sleeping in the shade on reed mats or clattering pots don't mind the intrusion as people walk through their property. The ducks and chickens don't seem to run away from their fate. Only the kids in packs are bold enough to come out and say hello. When you say "boa tarde, como estão?" they tell you that they don't speak English. How exasperating. Onward you stroll, zig-zagging the many junctions and forks that eventually lead you to your favorite destination, the seafood estuary, after taking the roundabout tour of the pigpens, gravestones, abandoned ruins, schools, churches and wells.

The halfway point from the roadside house to the waterfront feels noticeably cooler. The glassy, rust-tinted creek that bisects the treeless expanse irrigates a massive plot of cassava. Passersby tend to soak themselves on route. Occasionally somebody lathers up with soap or dries out a month's load of laundry. Now you're close. Beyond the final stripe of coconut palms lies the mudflat, where, below the surface of the ankle-deep saltwater, millions of palm-sized snails shuffle along in their barnacle-bedecked spiral shells. The clams don't move, but you still crumple over continually as you gouge your baby-soft feet on the crustaceans as you fight against the suction. How DO those fisherman charge through the water?

Finally the bus stops at the school and you pop out of your daydream to fumble with the change. The enormous coins all look the same. Bags in hand, you walk along the sandy trail by the roadside, and each time a honking vehicle shoots past at 120kph you dodge a little further away just in case the road hog is drunk. You turn into the neighbor's yard where they are building another palm-leaf structure to shelter the new outdoor kitchen, and pause for a minute to say hello and watch the process before walking past to Senor Miguel's barricaded, turquoise house.

The iron gate grinds open loudly, to deter burglars, who you try not to think about. You jiggle the lock on the kitchen door to deposit the groceries and head directly back to the well to pound a liter of water. Your eyes scan the barbed wire and glass on top of the cement wall, and you know that a thief with any common sense only needs to hop the gate on the other side. Oddly enough, the worst obstacle the thief could encounter is the heavy-duty wire clothes-line that hangs low enough to decapitate, a sensation you've only undergone in slow motion. Aside from physical deterrents, you feel safe living among the family and a couple of other teachers. You've heard through the grapevine about the less-than-ideal living situations of other volunteers, and begin to appreciate being locked inside the house.

The well is an excellent gathering place, and new faces appear often. The neighbors send their kids to fill their containers several times a day. The lifting and lowering takes some time, because of the holes in the plastic container attached to the end of the rope, which buys us some time to chat in simple Portuguenglish. You usually keep your water bottle close at hand, and they marvel at how much water you drink, rather than a liquid of the sweeter kind. There's quite an art to tugging the bucket in just the right way to submerge it, but you're improving your hauling time.

As an alternative to the well, which offers slightly murky water, there are two underground cement tanks that catch rain water from the roof. The heavy lid to the opening stays off, so there's a few floaties, but besides that the water looks and tastes crystal clear. As you sip at your second liter, much to your alarm, you watch some grown man drink directly from the bucket that hauls the water up from the clean tank and pray that the germs you're sharing don't turn your stomach. You reason to yourself that if you didn't live here, you wouldn't trust the water, and then remember that you accidentally drank some miscellaneous chilled water at the restaurant downtown. This careless fondness for water makes you wonder how long you'd survive in the remote areas of Africa, the hot areas. Considering your performance at test-level one, you'd probably dehydrate before disembarking the arduous bus-ride.

Another chatty character is the family's maid, who spends all day bustling about washing dishes, scrubbing clothes, sweeping the sand from the house, sweeping the sandy yard and preparing mouthwatering meals. You chat with her under the shade of a breeze-tickled palm as she desiccates a coconut to prepare a common Mozambican dish made from cassava. You watch in disbelief as she discards perfectly good coconut meat, for the Mozambicans developed a discerning taste after the Portuguese planted more coconuts that people know what to do with. After soaking the coconut meat in water with the pounded peanuts, she wrings out the flavor for the sauce and discards the solid matter. You salvage the flesh but it tastes disappointing. Once cooked, the green sauce lies atop a bed of cima, a rice substitute made from corn-flour, made even more delicious by the crimson crab on top. Her cooking easily surpasses the food at the school.

After the night and mosquitoes set in, people fumble in the dark to wash their hands, grab a cup of water and around to eat. People enjoy spending hours chatting outside. As the hours pass by, the familiar Orion leaps off the central star in the skydome to nosedive for the horizon, dragging the luminous gash of the MilkyHighway off its North-South course. You'd better go to sleep so that you can wake up early tomorrow. The students begin their teaching practice this week.

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