22 June 2011

Glimpses of the Glittering First World

With just four months to go, there is a light at the end of this “dark continent” proverbial tunnel.  (I must say, I think that’s a terrible nickname for Africa, and only appropriate in reference to the widespread lack of electricity and light pollution.)  This light is the beacon of reliable electricity, heralding my return to the developed world.  Throughout these two years, there have been days that Erica and I have thought this experience would never end, and that we’d be suffering with our cockroach infestation in Mozambique forever.  There have been other days, eating tropical fruits and basking in the sun’s rays on one idyllic beach or another, that I’ve wished the days to lengthen and multiply.  But although I’ve toyed with the idea, I’ve never considered extending my service another year; I started my Peace Corps application 47 months ago now, and it’s time for something new.
So as we lesson-plan, grade tests, organize Science Fair events, visit our up-and-running cultural center, and try to keep the cockroach population under control, we make plans for the future, and the focal point of our plans is entrance into graduate school.  We are in South Africa right now for Erica to take the GRE and both of us are reveling in the luxury of fast, reliable internet and delighting in the ease of obtaining graduate school information that is otherwise a headache to access in Mozambique.  I will be applying to Master’s of Public Health programs, getting my degree in the environmental sciences and global health departments.  In the future, I’d like to work with issues of water supply and sanitation in developing countries.  I am pretty darn excited.  Water quality and availability have interested me since my junior semester abroad in Asia, and my experiences in Mozambique have turned that passing interest into a passion, after spending days without water where I forego a much-needed evening bath, turn a blind eye to a basin full of dirty dishes, and plan a dinner that would involve frying instead of boiling or steaming to conserve water.  As far as I’m concerned, running water is the best thing since sliced bread (so to speak).  And potable running water—well, that’s just too much for words.  So, I’m narrowing down my school choices, working on my Statement of Purpose, and trying to figure out how to best execute the application process when I am always in Chimundo, the Chibuto suburb where you can’t even buy bread, let alone get online.  It’s a work in progress (my applications and Chimundo).

20 June 2011

The Overbos do Barra

In the dead of the second trimester, Erica and I had a little shining ray of light in the form of visitors from home. Four of my cousins came to visit with a friend of theirs, and we made plans to meet them in Maputo and then spend a few days at the beach. Naturally, things never go quite as smoothly as they could or should. First of all, my cousins had reserved rooms via the internet, and the receptionist had no record of this and no room for all of us, and evidently no need to be courteous or helpful (to be expected in Mozambique). So when my first cousin arrived early, we switched hotels. The next day, I spent an hour at the airport waiting for them, worrying they were being interrogated or were left stranded in South Africa. Someone mentioned that there was a group in the room for international arrivals, but it was a group of Chinese men—definitely not my cousins. As it turned out, the four of them had taken an earlier flight and had checked into the original hotel, and they’d already arranged a taxi for the next morning, so after tracking them down at that hotel, I was wildly relieved to find that my family had safely made it. Unfortunately, we all felt a little stress the next AM, when we arrived at the hostel where the bus would pick us up and did not see the last four members of our group. I tried to ask another traveler if I could quickly use the hostel computer he was using to look up the phone number for their hotel, but he looked at me as if I were absolutely crazy and after a brief pause, gave me a resolute “no.” OK. Thankfully, there was a phone book lying out, so I called the hotel and asked if my cousins were still there. The receptionist said the taxi had left almost an hour earlier and had taken them to the junta. I think I have omitted descriptions of the junta from earlier posts, so let me quickly explain what the junta is and why those ominous words struck fear into my heart. The junta is the Maputo bus stop where you can get onto a mini-bus that will take you almost anywhere in the country. At any given moment, this lot is filled with 20 or more buses and scores of people milling about, trying to sell you things or get you onto their taxi. It is crowded, smelly, and a little dangerous, particularly for foreigners, and is probably one of the last places on earth you want to be at 5:00 in the morning. I was horrified. Our bus arrived shortly thereafter, and I explained the situation to our driver, asking if he could call a driver at the junta. I told him I was looking for a group of four white people, two men and two women. He punched in a number, said a few words, and handed me the phone. I heard my cousin Renee’s voice on the other end of the line; of course, in Mozambique, you can quickly identify a group of lost-looking foreigners with minimal effort. It’s a rapid process of elimination. Our bus dropped by the junta to pick up my family and a few other passengers to pack the bus to capacity (or past, depending on who you ask). So our collective nightmare ended, and seven hours later we arrived at our resort, cramped, exhausted, and excited. I think this is best summed up in pictures, so here it is.

It was awesome, and my cousin Joshua uploaded a bunch of gorgeous photos on Facebook that do more justice to the experience.  We also went on an ocean safari and weaved between jellyfish to keep up with whale sharks. They were beautiful, and large. One sort of snuck up behind me and gave me a small heart-attack; they are harmless to humans, but their mouths are still a good two-and-a-half feet wide, so I easily imagined myself getting stuck in there and did double-time to try to maintain the recommended three-meter distance between myself and the inquisitive shark.  Plus, that shark dorsal fin is just plain scary, even on a vegetarian fish.  Aside from our animal encounters, we did some shopping, were beach bums for several hours, and went on a sunset catamaran ride on our last evening. It was delightful.
We rented a chapa to take us back to Maputo so people could have more space, and it dropped us off at the door to our hotel, where I’d reserved two large rooms for us. Unfortunately, they didn’t actually reserve them for us and gave them to other guests, and I spent the better part of an hour frantically calling ten or more hotels, looking for accommodation for seven people at 4:00 on a Saturday night. It was unpleasant and unsuccessful, and I longingly dreamed of home, the land where the customer is always right. A guest at our hotel saw our troubles, took pity on us, and gave us a number to a hotel where she’d stayed. Miracle of miracles, it was the only hotel that cost less than $400 a night that had room for all of us. We dropped off our things and went out for our last dinner together. It was sad to feel our vacation ending, but after some of our Maputo misadventures, I don’t know how much more vacation we could actually handle. Erica and I had breakfast with our group the next morning, said our goodbyes (mine a little tearful, I have to admit), and hopped on a chapa back to Chibuto. Now we’re back in school, working on our projects, and counting down until our next break. Every trip, we learn something from a new crisis, so if anybody else is still planning on visiting (you know who you are), maybe by then we’ll have perfected the formula and will have a karma payback with a smooth, trouble-free trip. Maybe. If not, well, it will be an adventure.  One can always count on that here.