Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Africa's Rising Star - Mozambique


Published: May 29, 2005

Beguilding Mozambique
After years of civil war, Mozambique, home to 1,500 miles of pristine Indian Ocean beachfront, is one of Africa's rising stars.

AS the heavy rain pelted the windows of the taxi, Julio, my regular driver in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, hardly seemed worried. He calmly piloted the cab through the flooding streets, as water rose above sidewalks and spilled onto people's front lawns.

Approaching my hotel, near the beach in a low-lying area of the city, the rain picked up, and soon I felt my feet getting wet. I looked down, and saw rain coming through the bottom of the taxi, like a boat taking on water. Still, Julio wasn't concerned. "No problem, no problem," he said, and continued chatting on his mobile phone while driving.

At that moment, the car stalled, leaving us stuck in the middle of a waterlogged street. "No problem," Julio said again. And he was right. Within five minutes, a group of men had emerged out of nowhere to help us push the car to the side of the road. They expertly tipped the cab on its side, letting the water run out the bottom like a child's toy. Julio smiled and shrugged, opened a big bottle of fruit juice, and lay down in his car until the rain stopped.

Julio clearly had absorbed the laid-back Mozambique ethos. After nearly two decades of civil war, the country, a former Portuguese colony - and home to over 1,500 miles of undeveloped Indian Ocean beachfront, some of the finest diving and deep sea marlin fishing in the world, and a unique Afro-Iberian-Brazilian culture - is rediscovering its place as one of Africa's most alluring, and most relaxing, tourism destinations.

This is, in fact, the country's second chance to get tourism right. Mozambique had one brush with mass tourism before - in the 60's and early 70's, before the decades-long war between the government and guerrilla insurgents, and then civil war afterward, which made this country off limits to most tourists. Back then it was a playground for white South Africans, thousands of whom would flock here on low-cost package vacations, rarely spending much money in the country itself. This time around, local travel specialists say the tourism ministry is rebuilding the infrastructure and focusing on the development of intimate resorts, hoping that a more-well-heeled class of traveler will follow.

"We need to promote Mozambique more as a boutique destination," Sylvia Campos, a veteran Mozambican travel operator, told me over thimble-sized cups of European coffee at the Girassol Bahia, a boutique hotel in Maputo. "We are trying to position ourselves for high-end tourism," she said. "We need good investments that will conserve the cultural landscape."

The Girassol is one of many new addresses in Maputo, which has witnessed a building boom since the civil war ended in 1992. When I arrived in Maputo in February to begin a weeklong trip to Mozambique, the city's broad, Iberian avenues, wide, zocalo-like public spaces, and new skyscrapers were on a much larger scale than my previous destination, Lilongwe, the tiny capital of neighboring Malawi.

But Maputo, population roughly a million, still feels like a small town. At stoplights, Julio would frequently encounter friends in nearby cars; at the Girassol, Sylvia ran into one old pal after another, and was constantly getting up to kiss cheeks. And unlike residents of many African cities, which empty at night, Mozambicans crawl their vibrant city at all hours - snacking at sidewalk stands offering enormous yellow mangoes and papayas and popping into hundreds of bars for some of the Portuguese-language Afro-Brazilian funk that wafts out into the streets.

All this activity makes Maputo one of the safer capitals in Africa - certainly safer than the wealthier, but more crime-ridden, cities of South Africa. Even heavy afternoon rains during monsoon season dissipate by early evening, hardly crimping any activity.

On my days in Maputo, I would spend mornings wandering up from my hotel, the Holiday Inn, to the downtown, perched on a bluff overlooking the water - the city sits both on the Indian Ocean and at the confluence of three rivers.

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