From Johannesburg, we took a short flight to Beira, a coastal town in Northern Mozambique. The plan was to clear customs and immigration and hop aboard a puddle jumper for the 45 minute flight to Chitengo (a tourist and research center within Gorongosa National Park) which would be home for the next four days. Plans are a tenuous luxury in a third world country. First we waited in a long line for our passports to be checked and to purchase visas. (Yes, this could have/should have been done from the states, but that is another story.) There was only one official at passport control and he was burdened with cranky equipment and poor connectivity. To be sure, it is amazing that anything in this airport functions. Five months before our arrival, Mozambique was hit by two back-to-back cyclones, with Beira right in the bullseye. The damage was unbelievable and much of the airport is still cratered and non-functional.
In addition, Mozambique is playing catch up with global tourism. Their equipment is unreliable and their procedures are convoluted. There were only about ten travelers in front of us. But one person had a problem. I should say, one person was a problem. And he was a problem that would not go away. Something was wrong with his paperwork. He kept arguing with young officer behind the counter and shoving his phone in the guy’s face. The officer kept shaking his head. (Houston, we have a problem.) The frustrated/ing traveler (aka Mr. Hunter) stalked off to a spot behind the queue. The next traveler stepped forward. After a few minutes, the Mr. Hunter reappeared, barging past the rest of us in line and shoving his way into the middle of the current transaction. Another argument. More officials. More haranguing. This went on and on. A 45-minute procedure required over two hours.
By the time we had all gotten through the two required immigration stations, our pilot had been diverted from flying us to Chitengo and was instead ordered to take a hunting group to their destination. There would not be time enough for our pilot to do that drop and be back to pick us up and deliver us safely to Chitengo before dark. We had to punt: Either find emergency lodging in a flood-pocked city or thumb a bumpy, 4-hour ride to Chitengo. To add insult to injury, we discovered that Mr. Hunter was part of the group of safari hunters who stole our pilot!
After some head scratching and frantic phone calls, our group leader, working with airline officials and Gorongosa officials lined up a Mozambiquean Über cavalcade for us.
The drive, though long and tiring, was an eye-opener. We saw more of life in Mozambique on that drive than we did during all the days we stayed at Montebelo Gorongosa Lodge in Chitengo.
Life here is lived mostly outside. Even during rush hour, there are more people walking beside the road than cars and trucks traveling the road. A step up from pedestrian travel is a bicycle usually with more than one person per bike. And bikes transport some amazing cargo, as well. I saw one cyclist hugging 10′ long poles as he navigated the potholes beside the road. A step up from a bike is a motorcycle, which is almost always loaded with two or more passengers. A luxury commuter vehicle is a 10 passenger van carrying 16 people or the open bed of a pickup loaded higgelty-piggelty with 10 or more people. Ad hoc communities spring up along major roadways with make-shift stands from which entrepreneurs hawk what desperation serves up as merchandise, from bananas to blue jeans. As afternoon slid into night, we saw children tending cooking fires outside mud or thatched homes or gathered in groups walking this way or that, sometimes dragging an unwilling goat. I saw a woman sitting outside her mud hut sewing on an old portable sewing machine.
And once the sun went down, we were stuck in a perplexing traffic jam of trucks. We never figured out why these vehicles were stopped along the roadside in bumper-to-bumper queues.