Adventures in the Ultramar
By noon the scattered clusters of huts that had dotted the landscape had gradually given way to smallish villages that we passed with increasing regularity, until, as we neared Maputo’s outskirts, they merged into a single, semi-continuous suburb of thatch-and-reed huts. These were the casas de caniço, where much of Maputo’s native population had been compelled to reside during Portuguese rule – outside the city proper. By about one we’d entered the city proper, and dilapidated cement buildings of Portuguese design became the norm.
Our sad little train finally limped into Maputo station about two o’clock. The building itself is worth of some note, as it was designed by Mr. Eiffel, who, I’m told, was something of a famous architect and was responsible for some tower or other in France. It has seen better days, but is, nevertheless, architecturally impressive, and worth a visit even if you don’t arrive in Maputo by train. One caveat – it is illegal to photograph the station without permission, so ask inside ere snapping away…or snap away discretely.
As our transport lurched and shuddered to a halt, we disembarked in a hurry, careful not to draw any unnecessary attention from our curious, heavily armed neighbors. As we made our way through the vestibule were set upon by a small horde of taxi drivers, each jockeying and elbowing for the prime vantage point to solicit our business. Violence almost erupted on more than one occasion as one driver or another took unfair liberties with his neighbor, and jostled him to the ground. It was impossible to negotiate with just one out of such a mob, and we were all a little cranky, so it was our luck that Januário knew someone with a truck. He disappeared into the crowd and resurfaced a moment later, our driver in tow. A few short seconds later we’d piled into the truck bed like so many gypsies and were on our way.
Our destination that evening was Fatima’s, easily the best known, and best, of Maputo’s hostels. Located towards the southern terminus of the Avenida Mao Tse Tung, Fatima’s sports no signs of any kind, and, save the guard seated in front of the gate, is indistinguishable from the many other Portuguese-style residences in the area. Inside the gate is a small courtyard, the center of which is a pitch for those wishing and equipped to camp, and around which are a number of four-bed rooms and a dormitory that sleeps around eighteen. At the courtyard’s far end is a semi-enclosed kitchen, a fridge stocked with beverages alcoholic and otherwise, and boiled water that’s included in the $7.50 per day price of lodging. There are hot showers and, with advanced notice, the staff will provide a hearty meal for around 60,000 meticais. Dona Fatima, is extremely personable, speaks a number of languages, and is an invaluable source of information about road conditions and other hostels throughout the rest of the country.
Fatima’s was, to us, a slice of paradise after three days of planes, trains, little sleep, and the same underwear. We showered and set up camp in shifts, all of us grateful that our friend Claudio, a Portuguese from Lisbon, had made reservations for us some days earlier – such is Fatima’s popularity that space at the hostel is occasionally hard to come by.
Thanks to our mid-afternoon arrival, we were able to request one of the house meals, and therefore spared ourselves the effort of leaving the common area for the rest of the night. I walked down the road to let our contacts know we were in town, but we otherwise spent our evening relaxing – talking to the other guests, rehydrating, and chatting with Ingo, Fatima’s dreadlocked right-hand man. Dinner was hearty, varied, traditional, and our first encounter with xima, the corn meal staple of the African diet. Claudio and Fatima arrived some minutes later, though our exhaustion was such that most everyone opted for an early bedtime.