I am in the kitchen packing food for our camping trip when I suddenly realise why I have not been on holiday with my family since the age of 12. My mum gives it away. She is at the sink washing dishes, splashing the water for extra emphasis as her voice begins to rise dramatically.
– I have to do everything. Now I must wash the dishes and I haven’t even packed my toiletries yet! Olive oil! Why are you packing that?
Despite having her back to us, I think she has eyes in the back of her head. I hastily put the olive oil back in the cupboard and signal to my younger sister, Jamie. We’ll have to decant some of the oil out whilst mum is not watching.
– 10 days is too long. What will the animals do?
She continues, unfortunately at the same volume. Years of practise behind us, my sisters and I are pretty good at tuning out this frequency when it gets to this stage. But today, I find myself 20 years out of practise. And this is not just any family holiday. We are going camping – in another country! This is passport control, foreign currency, another language…
I bite my bottom lip and soldier on. As mum leaves the kitchen for 2 minutes, I swig on an open bottle of wine
– To family holiday!
My dad, affectionately called Baba by his daughters, which means father in Zulu, calls at this point – should he play another 9 holes of golf or come home now?
Golf? How did he manage to organise that whilst us three girls are stuck packing with mum? I tell him to come home, its his turn to be shat on.
Kate, my middle sister, floats through the kitchen wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat.
– Anyone need help? And out she floats before I can answer yes
Jamie returns holding our secret glass jar for the olive oil. We pour it in quickly, careful not to be caught. Oil in, I screw on the lid and jam it into the crate, palming off my heavy cargo onto my dad who has finally appeared. He whisks it off. He’s as eager as I am to leave. My dad and I are very similar in this regard. The lure of distant lands is an adventure to good to pass up. My mum and Kate, on the other hand, are the complete opposite. Panic kicks in and when its time to go, Jamie plays the happy medium sticking plasters on any potential arguments that might derail the whole process.
Finally the car is packed. The engine starts, we’re driving out the gate. Here we go! We’re ten minutes into our journey when I realise I hate the book I have chosen for my holiday. Great! Swamped beneath my dad’s fishing gear, extra bedding and all our luggage, I realise I am stuck in a car full of Gemini’s. At least this leg of the journey should be easy. First stop is the Ladysmith Home for Men. Oh well, its good practise for getting all the way to Mozambique.
A bigger Pietermaritzburg tinged with a bit of Graaf-Reniet. We arrive late afternoon after 100mm of rain. Someone has even organised us sunshine as we drive through deserted streets. It’s very much a public holiday here today allowing what I imagine usually jostling streets to have an almost quaint feel. The town itself is steeped in history, famous for being under siege during the Boer war. One B&B is even called “Boer and Brit B&B.” Brooke lace and Victorian balconies line the main road in-between Russels and Pick n Pay.
We turn into a property surrounded by houses. In the middle stands a massive boat – the showpiece – “Velapi” proudly written in red along her side. Yeah, I think, where the fuck are you going? (I later learn “velapi” actually means where have you come from)
We meet Jeff – my dad’s best man from his wedding. Jeff and my dad have been friends from high school and in-between meeting the rest of Jeff’s family (he also only had daughters) we are entertained by their stories of boarding school and later their service in the South African navy. The air is balmy so we eat dinner in the garden next to Velapi, drinking wine and talking about our trip whilst mosquitoes get drunk on our blood. I sus out my companions rattling off their birthdays – lots of September babies, should be challenging. The pack disperses quickly after dinner much to my dismay; I was just beginning to get warmed up. Before bed, I sit on my balcony, Christmas beetles humming in my ears. Below me, the cars wait, packed, ready to depart at first light. I suddenly remember my phone was disconnected earlier today. I am amused by my lack of concern. So no-one can reach me. See if I care, a haughty grin spreading across my face. This time, I want to keep moving…
ON THE ROAD:
The morning comes with a bang!
Lack of sleep from fighting with mosquitoes in the night and wrestling with my demons don’t help when Jeff’s voice booms from below
– Right let’s go!
Of course, Kate wakes up much annoyed – a lethal combination. We are rushing now, running to keep up with Jeff, the impatient ringmaster. And so Kate goes slower. Temperatures rise as the car becomes a dangerous warzone. One-liners, bitchy remarks and defence mechanisms fly around the car making it a game, round and round we go.
Vryheid finally comes into view. We waste time as families do when they are trying to get to somewhere else. Pep, Wimpy, Spar. I dash around madly, trying to locate some film for my camera. Each shop I ask at I am met with blank stares.
– We haven’t sold film since 2001. Why don’t you go and buy yourself a nice digital camera?
I smile sweetly realising I am dealing with the Middle America mentality of South Africa. In typical Aldous family fashion, I begin making my problems everyone else’s.
– Hi, I’m a photographer and I forgot to buy film. Can you help me?
I realise I am beginning to look foolish. Am I supposed to be learning something here? Please God, help me find a roll of film. And then Jeff phones and my dad asks him to look for film without me having to prompt him. Bless him
We drive slowly because towing a boat, I begin to realise, is no easy business. Despite our lack of speed, we still seem to arrive at places. Our journey is punctuated with border posts, sudden pockets of people milling around filling out paperwork – a last reminder of normal life.
Jeff makes us stop just past the Goba border post, on the border of Swaziland and Mozambique, at a small broken down Vodacom building. It looks like a product of the civil war that ravaged Mozambique from 1977 to 1992. A woman, overweight and drowsy from the heat, welcomes us. She sits under a makeshift cover of grapevines and plastic sheeting. Jeff’s been here before so she doesn’t seem too perturbed by his rooster-like performance. Well, it’s either a rooster or a bull. Ritchie, Jeff’s youngest daughter’s boyfriend, and our resident go-for runs inside the dilapidated shack and returns with 2M and sprite – juice for alcoholics. We could be in Italy were it not for decay and rubble around us – Africa’s telltale sign.
We’re drunk now. Jeff reminds us how much fun we are having and with that the holiday is officially declared on!
Somehow, just as Maputo is within reach, the two cars we are travelling in get separated. Luckily, I am in Jeff’s car by this stage, having given up on dealing with the family dynamics in my car. Jeff knows where he’s going, unfortunately my dad does not. As a result of my recent trip to Tofo, just weeks previously, I feel like a local as we cruise through the streets of Maputo. I point out all my favourite spots to my companions who have only one destination in mind, the yacht club. And despite Jeff’s clever idea of using walkie-talkie’s between my dad’s car and his, I learn they only work within a 1-kilometre radius. My dad and the rest of my family are now totally lost. I try not to panic realising my dad is in a car with 3 highly-strung women. I hope they don’t yell at him too much.
Thankfully, we leave the boat at the yacht club, ready for our early morning departure and manage to locate my dad and the rest of my family just down the road from where we are. That night, after dinner and a small family domestic, I take my sisters on a quick tour of Maputo. I am desperate to find the Pizza House on Mao Tse Tung Avenue, just up the road from Fatima’s Nest. The Pizza House, introduced to me by two lovely German girls I met on my previous trip has the best cuppachino and pastries in Maputo. Stubbornly I refuse to use the GPS, preferring to see a point in getting lost in a foreign country where police roadblocks are common. We drive up and down the city, using the MCEL skyscraper as my reference. As luck would have it, we get pulled over. I swallow hard knowing this could be highly dangerous for 3 girls, and seeing I am the oldest I make a point of refusing to show my sisters how nervous I am as the police official with an AK-47 draped casually at his side approaches our car. I smile sweetly at the officer who thankfully only speaks broken English.
– Hi, good evening officer. We are on our way back to our hotel
He pages through our passports, stopping occasionally to glance back up at us. We are all very quiet in the car as he does so. Eventually he waves us on. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, silently of course, so my sisters don’t realise how lucky we just were. We never find the pastry shop, instead I find one similar to the Pizza House and we enjoy our last bit of civilisation. The three of us playing grown-ups in a foreign country.
My family learns quickly that travelling with the Richmond’s is not an easy business. Rule 1. We leave at the designated time. If you’re late, you get left behind. Rule 2. When the sun rises, so do you. When it sets, bedtime is not far behind. Rule 3. You sleep when you’re dead. While you’re awake, keep up.
Jeff decides that we leave the yacht club at 3am, that way the sea shouldn’t be so rough. I dress for the occasion thinking I am off on a cruise up the Nile with sunglasses and scarf draped around my head like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Two minutes into our boat ride and I realise I am not dressed correctly. Water crashes over the front of the boat, spraying my mum, my sister and I, as we plough through the water, setting off for Inhaca island, at this stage a small speck on the horizon. It takes us an hour and a half across Maputo Bay to Inhaca and when we arrive, I do not mind the fact that I am sleeping in an army tent without a door and windows in the middle of nowhere. I am just glad to be alive.
I have never really understood the point of camping. It’s a bit like the white man’s dream of getting dirty in Africa. I find myself sitting under a blue tarpaulin that flaps loudly above my head. I keep waiting for it to take off but somehow the bits of tethered rope at its corners hold it down. Despite my concern, I am thankful for the gusts of wind, without which the midday heat would be unbearable – a pregnant blanket under which me and my three Mozambican compadres sit.
Inhaca, a small island just off the coast of Maputo feels like one of the places God forgot about. It has this sense of forelorn or sadness that just hangs in the air, unable to escape and trapped by the muggy heat. Perhaps it is because the island was used by the British to control the slave trade during colonialism.
Most of Inhaca’s visitors come by boat. It’s the only way to get around the island. Petrol has to come from the mainland making a car a luxury. Unfortunately, the ferry from Maputo has doubled in price within the last two years due to rising fuel costs causing fewer tourists to frequent the island. A once booming tourism industry now long gone, the empty buildings littered along the only main road in the town square serving as reminders of better days.
In our case, we have our own boat. But this has its own set of problems too. Inhaca bay and Maputo bay are fed with water through a small deep channel called Hell’s Gate. The volume of water that moves through this small space within the space of six hours has a dramatic effect on the coastline. Hell’s Gate is a bit like a plughole for the ocean. At high tide, our boat waits patiently for us at the bottom of some sandy steps just below the campsite. However, at low tide, one has to walk almost a kilometre out across the bay to get to the boat. The bay then resembles a marshy wasteland punctuated with treasures that lie on the ocean floor. In amongst the sea cucumbers (snake-like worms that are harmless), starfish, sea urchins and sea snails one finds razor clams; mussel type clams that stand upright in the sand. Their shells are razor sharp – hence the name — and can easily slice through your foot. Shoes are therefore a must. At high tide, they lie metres below you, safely concealed amongst the seaweed.
Several sandbanks also transform the coastline into a sea desert, rising out of nowhere, making smaller islands that disappear later when the water returns. Maybe this is what makes Inhaca appear even more neglected. Dhows and fishing boats lie abandoned, marooned on a sandy floor. Two men walk, silhouetted by the skyline and ocean, resembling Arabs in the Middle East and not fishermen in search of fish. In some places, the water disappears from view completely making boats in the distance appear as though they are sailing on a sea of sand.
My three new friends are our “butlers” I suppose, living on the island permanently. The eldest of the three spends a great deal of time staring into the distance. He’s very quiet, almost sad. Later I suspect, unfortunately whilst firecrackers are going off on New Year that he has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The crackers remind him of the civil war and as they spray into the black sky overhead, he dives for the floor terrified for his life.
One of the younger men wears the same style sunglasses I bought for Anthony on our last holiday together in Paternoster. The lime green arms and black lenses are like a dim reminder of happier days, now lost in the present.
Later, as the sun is just beginning to set, we sit around our campfire, with plastic chairs and G and T’s. Ritchie has lit a fire so it keeps catching the light making golden wands through the bush protecting our little camp. My sisters and I have just been on the little sand track behind the camp that runs the length of the island connecting all the properties together. We pass a reed house where our “butlers” live. One of them, Adriano, is showering in his open air shower as we pass. Something glints in the sunlight as we walk passed catching my eye. Glancing to my left, I feast, much to my horror, on black skin glistening in the running water, golden and glowing. I then realise, it’s a man, he’s naked and I know him. My English roots kick in and I am suddenly overcome with embarrassment. My sister, also panicking at this stage whispers
– Turn back, turn back
But we are too far and I refuse to let this be awkward. I press on, covering my eyes to afford him some privacy and hurry along. I wander afterwards if Mozambicans behave in the same fashion, or if it’s only us ridiculous English folk.
When we return, I discover my mataba (wild spinach grown on the island) has arrived. Everyone remarks it looks like dagga. I am embarrassed to admit I have no idea how to cook it and rush off to find Paulo, who agrees to help me. Unfortunately, the rest of my group is not too keen on the idea of local food, much to my disappointment.
The New Year comes and goes. Thankfully, not without a raucous party which leaves our neighbours in a bit of disgruntlement. It’s never a good idea to send three gorgeous women onto the next door property, especially when its inhabitants are all happily involved. Lets just say, we caused a bit of a disturbance and were eventually escorted off the property by one of the unhappy girlfriends.
New Years day begins with a downpour that lasts most of the day. We are all quite happy though as it gives us time to sleep off our hangovers.
Eventually we run out of food and drink and realise its time to leave. By this stage however, most of us have broken out in some type of rash so perhaps it’s a good time to go. In usual Richmond style, departure time is at the crack of dawn. We pack up the camp and this time I dress appropriately, covered from head to toe in waterproof material. The crossing, however, is quite peaceful that morning. We even spot a few dolphins swimming in the bay on our way out. I realise my Faye Dunaway outfit would have been just fine.
– I met an incredibly kind man whom I only know as Carlos from the Pestana Inhaca Lodge dive centre. Unsuccessful in my search for a spool he gave me his only roll of film that he had already loaded into his underwater camera. I am indebted to his kindness.
Perhaps its because we are standing in the dark
That it’s easier to talk
Or to hide
We’re both drunk and stumbling, standing on a wooden walkway
Your mum just keeps repeating the same thing over and over
– I can’t believe he’s dead
Accepting where you’ve gone has come surprisingly easily to me
I have no other choice
I have to find a way out of this mess because my heart is still beating
I am still stuck here in this place where I have to feel
Your mum keeps asking me if I loved you
The question always takes me aback
As though how I answer will ultimately determine the truth
That what I say might give me away
The words themselves mean nothing really
They just waft out my mouth
And when I say them, I am left feeling so empty
I am left wondering what really proves ones love.
How do we know for sure, that what we profess is love, is really love at all?
Is real love the ability to be vulnerable?
Is it a stubborn refusal to let your memory go?
Is it dreaming about you?
I think this proves your love more than mine, as you have not forgotten to visit me whilst I sleep
Instead, I am taken back to Graaf- Reniet
Lying in bed next to you in that funny brown and white room
And suddenly a little voice, my voice, spurred on by a fear deep inside of me asks you
– Do you love me?
Knowing our days were numbered
Much later, you confide in me that my silly question broke your heart
– Of course I do
Hugging me tight, just like you do now in my dreams
And then my tears, hot and urgent
Spilling out, trying to find the place where I suspected your heart lay
And afterwards you thinking
– I’ll miss her when she’s gone
From your perspective, I suppose I am gone
Yet, we all sit here thinking you are
Grief, I am learning, is selfish and blind
It’s a blue mosquito net that looks down on me from where you should be
In a room that’s hot and sticky.
It battles to explain to others where you are and resorts to theories I would even roll my eyes at were they offered to me
Later, I am standing on a beach at midnight taking pictures in the dark
Crabs scuttle past my feet, letting me know they are there in the shadows
They remind me of you now
So after everything, all I have is knowing that you are still here with me
Even if I can’t see you
Perhaps that’s what real love is –
It requires no outside approval, display or proof
My baby sister has this wonderful habit of leaving doodles or letters she has written to me in any one of my hundreds of notebooks that are littered about my room. Quite often, her words lie there, undiscovered, waiting for me to stumble upon them. It makes me think of unwrapping a present I wasn’t expecting, but without the pressure of the person who is giving the gift looking back at me saying
“DO YOU LIKE IT?”
Instead, I get to read her words in private and it really is so much more of a gift, because they’re just for me. And somehow, the timing of when they are discovered is always a little uncanny.
For example – I have just returned from 10 days in Tofo, Mozambique. Anthony’s family and I decided to go and cry our tears on the beach together, to heal, celebrate, laugh and begin moving on. As it is with most “in laws,” Anthony’s mother and I have never really been on good terms. In fact, he often told me she would have liked my heart in a box!
So with his sudden departure from our lives, and this massive hole he left behind, I suppose it makes sense that we would hold on to each other. It’s all we have left.
Funnily enough, we’re quite similar. Perhaps too similar… which is why, with only 12 hours notice, 3 hours of sleep and a lot of strings pulled, I found myself on the Vamos de Durban bound for Maputo.
Had Anthony still been here he would have been most proud of me. Firstly, I managed to fit all my clothes into one small bag. Secondly, I am taking public transport all the way to our destination. And oh yes, the hotel room on the first night has no en suite bathroom. I failed to do any of these things whilst Anthony was alive, and as the bus pulls out from the Pavillion Hotel in downtown Durban at 6:36am, I feel like shouting out to the world
– Eat, pray, love. Here we come!
(For some reason this feels apt despite me not having read neither the book nor watching the film)
After what feels like a forever, we arrive in Maputo. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to a place full of relics of a past gone by – ornate statues, tumbled down buildings, overgrown gardens in between skyscrapers with MCEL logos towering overhead. Maputo always reminds me of South America – but a black version. Perhaps its because Mozambique was colonised by the Portuguese and South America by the Spanish and the French. They are not too dissimilar.
I take another risk and order a local dish, food I don’t know. Generally, I never order food I don’t eat, which I suppose is silly because how then do you know that you don’t eat something you don’t know. A green soupy bowl of mush arrives at the table and I begin to panic. Matapa, a local dish, made of wild spinach and crab lands up being one of the best things I have ever eaten. Being brave is beginning to pay off.
We spend the night at Fatima’s Nest- a local backpackers on Mao Tse Tung Avenue. A small hippy-styled backpackers that seems to attract people from just about everywhere. Brigette and I get drunk, lounging on couches, smoking cigarettes and drinking the local tequila – Paradise. It reminds me of fuel with lemon afterwards. We stumble to bed sometime after 2am and I spend a few minutes under my blue mosquito net writing to Anthony as I watch Brigette next to me, on her back, clothes still on, snoring, finally content that sleep has enveloped her. Sleep is heaven for sore people. You can’t feel anything there.
A bad dream wrenches me from sleep just in time to get all of us onto the shuttle Fatima’s runs daily from Maputo to Tofo. At 5:36am we pull away from Fatima’s with almost 26 people on board a small yellow bus. We are packed like sardines inside, our luggage packed on top of each other, along the walkway making getting out of the bus rather interesting and reminiscent of a mine field.
We drive for hours. Hours and hours through city, vegetation, swamp and eventually palms. Occasionally, the bus stops to collect or drop other passengers – locals travelling at half the price the tourists are paying. A couple in front of me must still be in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. They ‘suck face’ and stare longingly into each other’s eyes until I feel nauseous and can’t look anymore – the cynic in me finding it all too sickenly sweet.
Eventually after I can’t take the heat, the plastic seats sticking to the back of my legs and being so uncomfortable, Tofo begins to take shape in front of me. From the outset, it really does not look very impressive or different from any other coastal town in Mozambique. And to be honest, it took me quite a while to figure out what exactly Tofo has that nowhere else does.
The sea reminds me of Ponto d’Ouro, the restaurants, shops and bars remind me of Ponto Mamaoli. The beach is idyllic and wide like any other place in Mozambique. Instead, after much deliberation and probing, I realise Tofo’s secret is the people who live there. The expats from the Netherlands, France, UK, South Africa, Canada and America make Tofo into one of the most cosmopolitan, progressive and unique destinations on the east coast. Perhaps its because all these people are from somewhere else that they are more tolerant, accepting, welcoming and eager than other communities. They are humble in some ways because they know what life is like without Tofo. I find myself wondering why they all came here in the first place. But then Vincent, owner of Blend coffee shop reminds me that he never goes on holiday anymore because one does not need to when they live in Tofo. Vincent, a once upon owner of gourmet burger restaurants in Amsterdam has relocated almost his entire family to Tofo. It’s hard to imagine him in Amsterdam as he saws wood behind his shop, brown, barefoot and unshaven.
As most Europeans would do, we spend the first 3 days getting sunburnt. Now, finally, red and in pain we are officially on holiday. We spend hours in the ocean that somehow in Mozambique is always just the right temperature. Young local boys selling bracelets and reed mats are frequent visitors. They are most persistent and very good practise for those of us with weak boundaries. Learning to say ‘no thank you’ becomes quite challenging, as they are quite persuasive and not easily deterred. In the end, not having any cash on me I land up swapping my towel for four bracelets.
News travels fast in Tofo and we come to hear of a foam party being hosted by one of the lodges on the weekend. The last time I went to one of those, I was in high school at the beginning of the rave scene in South Africa. I don’t need extra encouragement – I’m in!
I find myself in a car with four rather boisterous, and did I mention gorgeous men, destined for foam heaven. Unfortunately, the foam party lands up being a bit of a let down. A small marquee generates foam that we all dive into for 5 minutes, emerging like Santa Clauses covered in snow. Something seems to give inside of me and I follow the others from the foam tent to the swimming pool. We jump in with our clothes still on. My dress wafts up around my hips and I find myself being pinned against the edge of the swimming pool by one of my charming companions from earlier. I can’t remember having this much fun since I was in high school. There’s something totally adolescent and rebellious about it all. Dare I say it, exciting!
The next morning my new friends climb a coconut tree, barefoot, careful not to slip on their way up. The bark from the palm tree is incredibly rough and leaves agitated cuts along their arms. Judging from their roasties, the art of climbing these trees takes some time to perfect. We drink coconut and mango smoothies for breakfast in between chuffing on Pall Mall cigarettes. A local brand that much to my snobbish horror, I am beginning to enjoy.
The market in the village offers an array of equally interesting and horrific smells from the ripe hot stench of fish to freshly baked pow. There is even a soft serve machine selling ice cream. It seems oddly out of place in this vibrant multicoloured market full of local produce and bottles of Laurentinos – the local beer. Yet, the soft serve place is quite popular. Numerous GP number plated 4x4s pulling up alongside it as though it’s the local drive through.
Away from the crazy parties and dancing at a local club, Dino’s, where its not unusual to find locals joining in with the music on bongo drums as everyone gyrates into the night, I spend time walking along the coastline. There is something strangely comforting about the constant ebb and flow of the ocean. The continual back and forth is almost meditative. There seems to be some security in its predictable and unrelenting movement that’s soothing for a broken heart. I spend a great deal of time walking alongside the waves, talking to Anthony in my head, and when I am alone, even out aloud. Otherwise, I walk along in silence. Me and the crabs…
As it is with most holidays, ours begins to draw to a close and I begin to panic, feeling it all slipping through my fingers. The thought of leaving the rat race, the mad crazy rush of life that when compared to life in Tofo seems almost idiotic. There is something to be said for being uncontactable. I wonder if my therapist would think I was running away. Then, I wonder, does it matter?
Some days there is no power and the Internet is slow. The heat, sun and tide appear to be the only constants. Some little part of me wants to take the plunge. To do it. Move to Tofo. And then that little other part says
– Oh really Rowena, will you manage?
Thankfully the holiday was not without a little drama, some romance, loads of adventure and I even got a bit of growing up chucked in there too. So today, when I open my little notebook next to my bed, a familiar scribble greets me
– The individual
The responsibility of learning and growing lies within the individual itself – we foster our own development and the chief resource at our disposal for this daunting task is – an interest. In here, lies the drive and enthusiasm to do, to be, to live.
To carry on…
May 20 babies are reminded, constantly, to observe themselves living. It is not something we do naturally because we usually are so into what we’re doing (what we like to do, we like to do a lot!) that we can loose focus and stop asking the question
– What does what I do say about me?
We hopefully meet people on the way that remind us, hurt us, love us, and force us to really look in that abstract mirror –
Georgie and his guitar who’s not afraid to sing, Vincent and his “little brother” who play like children disappearing in the foam of a soap-sudded sea. Lauren who’s pregnant and glowing next to Eric who bites if you stroke too hard, Rosetta who reminds me that there is still time for anything and Rowan with his ducklings on the beach teaching them how to swim.
All these characters and more somehow shook me out of a deep slumber, opened my eyes, in between smells of Dettol and sunscreen, chlorine and salt. For the first time in ages, my head is full of daydreams and fantasies, whirlwinds of ideas and distant places. So who knows, with the right amount of luck and just the right timing, anything could happen.
And as my baby sister writes at the end of her note
-You got it winnie!