The first visa run

I had to go to Maxixe on a visa run about three weeks after arriving in the country – you have to get your visa stamped every 30 days, it’s a ridiculous system – so at 8am on Monday morning I was on a chapa to Inhambane with some other people from MMF and dive shops. The chapa is a small minibus, with seating for about 12 people including the driver. People had warned me about the chapa and the overcrowding when I asked them about the trip to Maxixe, but I thought that just meant 4 people had to squish onto a 3 seater.

What overcrowding actually means is 25 people squished into a 12 seater chapa. I was lucky and got a window seat, so I was squashed up against a malodorous, overweight man who insisted on talking Very Loudly to his thoroughly overexcited girlfriend who thought everything he said was quite hilarious, but had fresh air on my other side. When there were no more seats left, people continued to pile in, and simply crouched or bent double in order to fit in. It was extraordinary, and made me almost grateful for the Tube, which gets horribly overcrowded but at least people can stand up straight!

It took about 45 minutes to drive to Inhambane, where we would catch the ferry from. I had heard horror stories about the ferries here, and there have been some recent sinkings, so I was feeling quite nervous about the trip across the bay to Maxixe. There are two different types of boat you can get: 1 is a square steel and concrete cage, with bench seats inside. You’ve never seen anything look less like a boat and more like a prison cell. There are tiny windows that anyone with broad hips or shoulders would be unable to get through in the event of a sinking, (which made me and my child bearing hips particularly anxious) and a little door at the front, about a foot wide and four feet high, which would be my salvation if I needed it. The other boat is very small, the size of a dinghy really, and covered by a metal cage and tarpaulin. I have no idea why. Tarpaulin to keep the sun and rain off, sure, but why on earth would you weld a metal cage to the top of a boat? So the escape route on this boat would be out the back, by the tiller.IMG_5142.jpg

We bought our ferry tickets (a bargain at 10M each, but I would gladly have paid more for a safer boat!) “Queueing” in Mozambique is a bit like “queueing” in Asda on Black Friday. There was a sudden rush for the ticket office and people were using elbows, knees and bags to get ahead of the crowd. We had a Swiss guy with us who silently held out his hand for our money and then nobly launched himself into the melée. The walk from the ticket office was across a short bridge, and the view included several boats which didn’t exactly look watertight…

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Eventually we boarded the larger ferry and sat there nervously as the boat chugged away from the dock. We were soon distracted by a pop up shopping channel in human form: a guy stood at the front facing the benches, demonstrating a multi-purpose kitchen knife. He peeled a carrot, chopped a cabbage and spoke for at least 15 minutes about the virtues of this knife (not that I could understand a word, as my Portuguese is lamentable). He finished his demo and walked around the boat taking orders. Me and another Brit bought one each, as neither of us had veg peelers – just 50M a knife! That’s about 50p. Score.

We made it across to the other side after about 40 minutes, and walked through Maxixe to the cramped immigration office (directions to said office included “turn left at the billboard” – road names don’t exist here). The vibe in Maxixe felt totally different to Tofo and Inhambane – it felt less friendly, more run down and even slightly menacing. I was glad I hadn’t gone by myself, for sure. One of the other volunteers had gone by herself, and she had fended off a marriage proposal by inventing a brilliant story about being a murderer on the run from the US police – to which her “future husband” said, “that’s fine, I’ll hide you!” Luckily she then made a swift exit.

We made it through the achingly boring and repetitive bureaucracy of handing over our passports and visa extension requests (and more money, natch), leaving without our passports as for some reason they take a week to be processed, and decided to get lunch at a pretty restaurant overlooking the bay. Our Portuguese skills were lamentable, and we spent at least half an hour trying to order 3 x chips and salad (there were 3 vegetarians and 1 meat eater) and 1 x chicken and chips. Our halting Portuguese had finally seemed to work, but this was swiftly ruined by one of the Brits confirming that we wanted 4 chicken and salads and no chicken (“4 frango e saladas, nao frango”) which set us back slightly.

The first thing you learn about ordering food in Mozambique is that patience is key. If you order in a restaurant you need to allow at least 45 minutes before any food arrives, no matter how simple the food is. Even when you order toast for breakfast it will be a good half an hour before any toast arrives. So we waited for an hour and twenty minutes for our salad and chips. In hindsight, probably not worth it!

We hopped back onto the prison cell ferry and made it back to Inhambane, and eventually found a chapa back to Tofo, which was just as hot and overcrowded as the first one, but it definitely makes you feel like you’re a local, and experiencing authentic Mozambique. Plus, it was a very lovely drive, passing tiny little villages, endless stretches of palm trees, goats and cows munching in the undergrowth, and the bay twinkling in the sunshine in the distance.

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The trip to Maxixe is not necessarily something I’m looking forward to repeat in a hurry (not that I have a choice) but it was definitely an adventure!

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