Sunday, September 26, 2010


Why? For the sentimentality
When? December to March
How much? Cheaper than you’d think

There are very few cities I’ve been to as charming or as bewitching as Maputo. For me the cities allure comes from the fact that it’s so foreign and so chic. For instance nobody understands a word of English, instead Portuguese punctuates the air every so often as if to reinforce that you are indeed abroad and cosmopolitan. Afternoons are spent on Maputos expansive sidewalks lunching decadently for hours on end. And then comes people-watching, the people of Maputo are indeed pretty to look at, much prettier than the people of Nairobi. Much.

Sometime in Mid-February when the Summer was particularly brutal, a group of friends and I decided to skip across the border for a weekend in Maputo – one long boozy road trip. So we swapped the oppressively dry heat of South Africa for the sweaty stickiness of Maputo. And what a trip it was.

As the Parental Figure I the group I was left to make the arrangements, they simply turned up and asked “How much?” We decided to rough it out a backpackers, Maputo’s most famous, Fatima’s Place. Now, anyone who has been to the Iberian Peninsula or any of their subsequent colonies will know that they had a love of grids. Maputo is no exception. The town proper has no official CBD instead they have long, wide avenues intersected by numerous streets that run perpendicular to them resulting in a grid layout. And in a serendipitous twist in Urban Planning most services are located on these streets – within comfortable walking distance.. Rather than being chaotic, this all works out well and the Kenyan in me gaped at how properties (even single houses) had no fences and that people parked their cars on the street without consequence. Fatima’s is located on such a street, the revolutionarily named Ave Mao Tse Tung.

Due to years of civil war and a flirtation with communism, Maputo looks like what you’d think Cuba looks like. Yes, the Latin American vibe is pretty strong down there. The Portuguese abandoned their colony overnight and almost immediately it fell into chaos. In fact a writer in the Mail & Guardian compared the city to an aging Hollywood actress. A fair maiden who was once at her prime, now slowly fading into obscurity but every now and then a glimmer of her glamour is apparent. A trip to Maputo is not without nostalgia and one can only help but wonder what it looked like way back when.

In terms of costs, the place is relatively cheap, I mean we’re still in Africa. The local currency is the Metical however SA Rand, US Dollars, the Pound Sterling and the Euro are widely accepted. Word of caution however, the exchange rate used by most of these fine establishments is inflated at best and barbarous at worst. What we did was travel with a limited amount of Rand and the rest we withdrew from ATMs -which by the way are right in the street!- the beauty of the ATM system is that you get the attractive inter-bank exchange rate that the Forex people could never dream of giving you, that is if you don’t mind paying Visa’s ludicrous fees at Kshs. 250 a pop.

Anyway we made it to Maputo alive and rolled in (by bus of course) in the late evening. We quickly found cabs and were swiftly whisked of to Fatima’s. the accommodations were adequate and we quickly concluded that it was value for money. The bathrooms are clean and the showers hot, always wear shoes though. Due to Maputo’s tropical heat, no beddings are provided, they do however, provide a mosquito net and a couple of fans to blow hot air in your face. Sleeping with the windows open is suicidal (if your European) but okay if you’re Kenyan since we all walk around with the damned parasites in our blood anyway. Like most backpackers, Fatima’s has a communal kitchen with an assortment of dubious flatware and crockery, and a leaky fridge. If you don’t have the money consider the self-catered option and remember to label your goods like a 5 year old child in kindergarten.

We however walked to all our meals. Up Mao Tse Tung (and the street is very long) was a bakery/ café/ supermarket that happened to serve mediocre pizza at near throw away prices (250 Mets) + they had a Terrific Tuesday offer going on. The waitress (or is it waitron) didn’t speak a word of English so we spoke in broken Spanish. Later on settling the bill turned into a sonofabitch! The thing I like most about Maputo is its walkabilty and the fact that cabs don’t cost an arm, a leg and testicle. We went out to Maputo’s premier club, Coconuts on Ujamaa Road (Av Julius Nyerere) that sits right on the beach. Swimming in the ocean –in Maputo- might cause one to turn a violent shade of green so don’t. Much like in Latin America, the Mozambicans were celebrating Carnaval that night, one last hurrah before Lent. All the beautiful bodies in town turned up and were in costume (think Halloween). Later on stage was a fashion show, headlined by drag queens wearing sequined bikinis. It was definitely weird in a cool kinda way.

If instead you just want to chill out head to the ultra-cool Dolce Vita on the other end of Av Julius Nyerere. The lounge spills out onto the pavement and is a good place to catch overpriced, luminous aperitifs or a late supper. Across the road is Mundos, another famous eatery that server decent but similarly over priced food. But our all time favourite restaurant was Mimo’s on Av Olol Palme. It’s one of those Italian style family restaurants that serve reasonable portions of food and attractive prices and much better than the bakery we ate at earlier. Never leave Maputo without over-indulging in their terrific sea food, Mozambican prawns are world renown and cheap. KFC is also a viable option.

But by far the most enjoyable aspect for me was soaking in the architecture. As I said earlier the Portuguese adopted a rather mixed-sue approach to urban zoning. Most people in the city proper live in towering blocks of flats with entrances directly on the pavement. The address system appears to be quite logical and people get their mail delivered to their doors rather than the post office. All these things add to Maputo’s unique cosmopolitan vibe. A place where wine is served at a Kenchic type joint(we eventually fell into poverty you see) and olive oil comes with your chips. A place where families walk in the evenings to the park and supper is at 10. A city where people greet others (even strangers) with kisses on the cheek. A particular favourite building is the CFM, Maputo’s main railway station designed by Alexandre Eiffel. Also check out the Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.

Many buildings in the city were left unfinished after the Portugese left – they burned the plans in vexation but there is definitely a promising construction boom. Already, Maputo has an impressive toll road into town. Tower blocks and cranes now dot the landscape. Though it is not nearly on the same scale as its steroid weaned, petro-dollars fuelled cousin on the Atlantic, Luanda, Maputo has tried equally hard to shake of its civil war image, and its working. Today the streets are littered with designer shops, trendy ice cream bars and a bewildering choice of restaurants, some of them even good and like an aging diva, Maputo won’t go out without a fight, like Madonna. Yes, exactly like Madonna.

We Stayed at Fatima’s Place.
Ave Mao Tse Tung 1317-1321
Accommodation at Fatima’s is a numbers game. The more the people in your party the cheaper it gets. Prices thus vary from R100 – R150 per night (subject to change). It’s imperative that you book before travelling because the place fills up fast. Accommodation ranges from single rooms to 12 person dorms. None are en suite.

All nationalities require visa to visit Mozambique. These can be applied for in advance from the High Commission in Nairobi or at the port of entry for a nominal fee.

Note: Many fine establishments exclude VAT and service charge from the prices on display. Be wary of this and always ask, it can lead to severe embarrassment, that of the Chonga Viazi variety.

Caution must always be taken when walking at night. Stick to the main Avenues, walk in groups and always consul the locals. It is especially forbidden to attempt walking to Coconuts unless you are very drunk and very broke. If in doubt hail a cab.


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