RHAPSODY IN M FOR TWO KAYAKS
by Misha Hoichman
Force-six wind had been blowing for the last two days, gusting up to 35 knots. The visibility was poor, heavy rain fell all the time, on and off. The sea was big, with 3 meter wind waves riding on top of a fat ocean swell. Yet the paddling went on as planned, though it was clear that we would have a very wet landing, to say the least. However, half an hour earlier something had started to change, and not for good. The big waves grew and steepened. The first huge 5-meter breaker exploded not far from us, and though we were already about 1 km away from the shore, we rushed further to deeper waters. Time passed, the distance from the shore increased steadily; however, the explosions did not ease. On the contrary: their occurrences became more frequent. The more we paddled the more our paddling resembled walking on a minefield. We could not afford to hit a mine: should a wall of water the height of a two-store building or higher crash on a kayak, there would be no one left to roll; the fiberglass body of the kayak could simply disintegrate under the enormous load.
The rain had stopped and the visibility improved. At the moments when we were lifted high up by the passing locomotive we could spot the sea further. The minefield spread as far as we could see to the depths of the ocean. We looked again at the map and noticed that we had entered the zone of delta of Zambezi. This huge river had changed the waters of the ocean into brown – the color of the soil that was being washed away from the banks. Suddenly we realized the link between the brown color of the water and the endless field of explosions. The huge amounts of sand washed out should have meant a minimal gradient of the sea bottom. Indeed we now could see that the distance between the 20 and the 30 meters depth contour line was twelve nautical miles… To reach the waters deep enough for safe paddling we would need a few more hours of wandering through the minefield. Our only choice was to get to the shore – the faster, the better. The only trouble was that this way led us through a few kilometers of surf, very big surf. “Good luck to you, Youval.” “Good luck to you too, Misha.” “If we lose each other in the surf, let’s meet by the entrance to Lilua river.” “Alright.” I saw Youval’s face. He was calm and smiling. As if it wasn’t he who just one year ago sat in the kayak for the first time in his life. I wished I could help him somehow, but at that moment the best I could do for both of us was to safely reach the shore myself and hope that Youval would do the same. We turned the kayaks and started paddling to where the huge waves were running…
“…The seas will be quite boring,” I murmured with a bitter grin to myself while sprinting away from a wall of water rising behind me.
* * *
We were sitting together in Tel Aviv bar.
“It should be an exciting trip culture-wise. However the seas will be quite boring, which might actually be an advantage in your case. After all, it’s your first sea kayaking expedition. Do you want to come with me to Mozambique?”
I didn’t need to convince Youval for too long. The moment he smells an adventure an immediate spark ignites in his dark eyes. I love people who carry childish curiosity through their whole life, those who don’t ask too many questions, plan very little and are ready to take a long break from their families and work for the sake of unknown. Youval is exactly like that.
Every trip brings its own surprises. We all want them. That’s why we go exploring, don’t we? In Mozambique we had surprises day by day. The whole trip sounded like a good Jazz concert, with the most virtuosic improvisations performed by the ocean, but the rest of the band was not far behind. We planned so little. We just let it come, remembering that we were here to learn and experience and hence every adventure, whether it was pleasant or not, was welcomed. The only way a day could be bad was if it was like one of the days before. Luckily this happened very rarely, obviously not at the days when the Maritime office was located nearby.
Chinde. This town was located on a triangle island, one edge of which was washed by the ocean while the other two sides were cut from the mainland by two wide channels of the Zambezi delta. The only way to reach the town was the ferry that was supposed to operate in the dry season. Yet though we arrived long after the Monsoon season was over the ferry boat stood still. For the last three months it had been broken. In the port the kids were playing and jumping between the rusted skeletons of ships; we counted at least a dozen shipwrecks around. Two hundred meters further, the cemetery of ships was merging into a cemetery of coconut palms: huge trees were laying on the beach uprooted. An unusually powerful tropical storm hit this calm town a few years ago, yet these days nothing disturbs the silence of Chinde. The streets were clean and green: as green as any European town could only dream of. The environmental issues that so much concern us these days has been all resolved in this town. No need to recycle plastic bottles as there were no plastic bottles in Chinde. No need to deal with the car smoke as there were just four of them in the whole town of 80,000 people, two of which unsurprisingly belonged to the police. The pollution from the factories was also not an issue; the only sugar refinery that gave employment for the residents had shut down a long time ago.
On shore we met the same wonderful and kind Mozambican people as the days before. Yet there was also something new: a Maritime office. Youval was hanging around the town when the officer appeared in front of my tent and asked me to get my passport and follow him. He was chubby, which was quite unusual as the locals we met so far never had a belly. Moreover: he spoke English! That was really extraordinary. He took me to one of the few stone buildings in the town, painted yellow with the color peeling off all over the facade and a red anchor underneath a printing: “Delegação Maritima de Chinde.” Another soldier was already waiting inside. The officer was very polite. He asked me questions regarding our trip and talked about the history of the place. He was curious and friendly. Then I was asked to show the passport and finally the kayak license. “What? What do you mean?” “The papers: the license of the kayak.” “Are you serious? We don’t carry any license for a kayak.” The officer was serious just as his fellow soldier. He patiently explained me that according to Mozambican laws any marine vessel regardless of its size must carry a license. Not carrying one is a violation of Mozabican laws. We must get the license and he could issue it right away. This would cost us 1600 Meticals.
Fifty dollars might not sound much for some, but an average person in Mozambique earns just over a dollar a day. It smelled fishy but to eliminate any hint of doubt the officer showed me a thick book of maritime regulations and tariffs for each of them. He said we were lucky that our boats were under 6 meters, otherwise we would pay more. And he pointed to the next line in the book where the tariff was double. The book was all in Portuguese and since any sentence that did not include the words “want”, “chicken”, “big” or “hello” was beyond my language limits at that times, I gave up - I only requested a receipt. I was given one with an impressive stamp. “This license will be valid for the rest of the trip,” assured me the officer. I even thanked him. A week later we were told by a maritime officer of the next town that our receipt was faked and we were charged illegally.
Thanks to Maritime we had exciting and funny adventures in every large settlement that we arrived to. Some were neutral, some were helpful, some tried to fool us (like the one in Chinde), but the “Grande Boss” of Angoche’s Maritima gave without a doubt the best show in town.
Vilanculo, for that was his name, met us very warmly as we landed near Maritima’s pier. He even ordered a soldier to show us around the town – an offer that we gladly accepted. After a short “tour” we thanked the soldier and released him. Imagine our surprise when the soldier refused to go. He explained that he was given an order to accompany us everywhere for our own safety and comfort. We laughed and thanked him again assuring that we felt perfectly safe and we would like to travel by ourselves. Yet the soldier insisted that as long as his commander did not cancel the order, he would accompany us wherever we wanted it or not. “And, by the way, the Grande Boss wants to invite you for lunch in a restaurant,” added the soldier.
We met Vilanculo in the restaurant. He arrived there with a driver in his office car. “The government of Mozambique invites you,” he proudly proclaimed. Somehow neither Youval nor I believed in such a great importance of two stinking, unshaved, Israeli kayakers for Mozambican government, yet we smelled another adventure, so we joined the meal with great enthusiasm. Vilanculo was extremely curious during the meal. He asked a lot of questions. He expressed great interest in the fact that we came from Israel, and especially was excited to hear that I was born in Russia. “Have you been to Russia?” I asked him in return. After a long silence he nodded positively. Now it was my turn to be surprised. Russia had never been a very popular destination for tourism, moreover for Mozambicans who usually cannot afford traveling abroad even by bus, much less taking a flight. “How long did you stay in Russia?” was my next question. “Seven years,” replied Vilanculo. “If so, you must speak Russian!” “Da.” It was nothing but surreal to hear Russian in Mozambique.
The USSR and Mozambique were once allies, up to the moment when the red superpower collapsed. Vilanculo studied at the Military Naval Academy of Leningrad. I lived in Russia long enough to understand at once what this meant: our Grande Boss was a KGB officer. Now I started also to link the glorious career of Vilanculo with the soldier who was ordered to follow us.
“We don’t need the soldier,”- said I.
“Do not worry, this is part of our hospitality.”
“We definitely appreciate it, but we prefer travelling by ourselves.”
“The soldier will not restrict you, he will simply accompany you.”
“What for? Do you have criminals in the town?”
“Oh, no. But it would be better for you to be with him. You were born in Russia, you know what I mean…”
Indeed I knew. This Soviet paranoid mentality of seeing a spy in any foreigner was so familiar to me!
“We don’t want the soldier regardless of the criminals or whatever other reasons you have. Let him go away!” Youval said very firmly.
Vilanculo hesitated for a moment. “Alright, you will go by yourself.”
We were happy but not for long. As we finished the lunch and went wandering around the town we noticed the same car passing nearby a couple of times. The soldier was occasionally popping up at corners, and when we finally ordered a cup of tea at a small café at the market, our Grande Boss entered it “just by chance” and joined our table. This time he invited us for a beer and as we were sitting, relaxedly drinking and chatting, he suddenly ambushed us with a surprising question: “SO WHERE DO YOU HIDE THE WEAPONS?” I choked with a sip of beer. Youval started hysterically laughing. “We will need to search your kayaks,” said the officer.
Vilanculo - armed with the Soviet motto “respect but suspect” - probably confused us with the infamous tennis players in Dubai, forgetting that with the two 5.30 meter-long sea kayaks our deadly plans would be highly restricted. The former KGB officer was still living back in Brezhnev’s era, neglecting the fact that his second motherland had betrayed the old ideals long time ago, and even the city of Leningrad was renamed to St. Petersburg. I even felt a pity for him. But not for long. For though Vilanculo spent his best years by the chilly waters of the Baltic Sea, he very well learnt the local art of extortion – the glorious tradition shared by many Mozambican authorities. It was amusing to see the money pump in action.
At first he checked our passports and claimed that some stamp was missing. He warned us that the investigation might take long and we might need to go with the policemen to Nampula – a four hour drive. At this stage the common tourist would get nervous and cry: “No! No! May I pay a fine and resolve the issue?” However, poor Vilanculo could not imagine that he had just bumped into two clowns seeking for new adventures exactly like this. The moment we heard the threat of an investigation in Nampula both of us reacted simultaneously: “Great! We’ve never been there. By the time we arrive there we will be hungry again. The government of Mozambique will need to invite us for another meal.” The experienced KGB officer was confused and quickly released us.
But tough Soviets don’t give up that quickly. The day we planned to set off with our kayaks, we were called again to the Maritime office. A vice commander was waiting for us there, accompanied by two soldiers. He was extremely friendly and he spoke very good English. Having had the previous experience of visiting four other Maritimas, we had no doubt about what would happen next; we were just curious whether he would come up with a new trick. To our disappointment the officer asked us to present the same old “kayak license.” Of course, the license that we got in Chinde was not valid. We needed to buy a new one. Yet this time the price was $600 - probably to cover the lunch and beers with Vilanculo.
Youval said: “We won’t pay a penny.” “In that case,” replied the officer, “you will need to proceed to the police station where we…” He did not complete the sentence. I interrupted him: “We can go to whatever police station you want. However you should know one thing: our expedition is sponsored by large international companies, and the world press follows our progress with great interest. Each time you take us to the police station or ask for any kind of payment, the report about the abuse appears right away in the news. Now you should ask yourself a question: do you still want to mess with us?”
Of course, the whole story about the powerful sponsors and the media was nothing but bluff. Indeed my girlfriend kept updating our internet blog during the trip. There were also a few kayaking companies who kindly agreed to send us some gear for the trip. But the distance between the modest blog and the real-time reports in the world press was huge.
There was a silence for a few moments. Then the officer translated my speech to Portuguese, for the soldiers. Next he got up and warmly shaked our hands wishing us an excellent journey. The two soldiers took us back to the kayaks. “Tudo bem?” they asked ingratiatingly.
* * *
No doubt, without the Maritima our journey would lack some of the funniest experiences. However, funny adventures, no matter how much we enjoy them, should not become the main motive of this article. For there was something much more important in this trip than the corrupted ex-KGB officer and his colleagues… The regular, simple people, good and friendly, poor in property but rich in joy, people who had a very different attitude to life. How can I try to explain it? I’ll tell another story: about the paddling in the delta of Zambezi finding a way through the huge maze of narrow channels. We were paddling there, the three of us: Youval, myself, and the guy in the dugout whom I towed.
It was the same man who took us to the doctor and brought us back. Middle of nowhere. To reach the village we first paddled in his canoe, then started walking. We went through a jungle, passed mud fields, crossed swamps where the water reached our waists. All that in a great hurry: Youval felt really bad. He had stopped eating a few days ago; he had an acute problem with his stomach. We suspected bowel obstruction, but did not know for sure. We would reach a large settlement in two days; however, Youval’s medical condition ought to be treated immediately. The guy who was showing us the way to the doctor was one of the two human beings we met today. They sat on a riverbank under a nylon tarp waiting for the rain to cease. We landed nearby.
After a few hours we had finally reached the village where the doctor was supposed to be. The locals gathered around us: smiling, good faces, ready to help. Yet the doctor was absent. We were told that he visits the village once every three weeks. This was not our day. The schoolteacher was substituting for the doctor during his absence. He brought us three different medicines: three tiny plastic bags with some tablets inside. That was all they had in the village: three types of drugs for all diseases, whatsoever. The teacher smiled and said that these drugs must be very helpful. What about the symptoms that Youval had? He did not know, but he insisted that we take a bag or two with these tablets, free of charge. We took the unidentified tablets, warmly thanked the locals and turned back. Our retrace was in darkness: swamps, mud fields, forests and the final paddling in the dugout.
The next day Youval felt a bit better and we wanted to continue. The only trouble was that it wasn’t so clear where we should paddle. Our old Soviet military maps downloaded for free before the trip were disgraceful. They probably showed the terrain well, but the waterways were marked badly. The Soviets were known more for their tanks than for their naval forces; now, we could see why. A wide river marked on the map frequently turned out to be a tiny canal ending with a dead end. Broad clear bays marked in promising blue color were covered with thick mangroves or even forest. Based on these maps, there was little chance to reach the place we were headed to.
The same man who had led us to the doctor agreed to show us today the way to the big river – Mucelo – from where we could continue further. And here we were paddling: Youval at the front, then me, then our guide in the dugout, whom I was towing so that all the three of us could progress faster. Monkeys were jumping in the foliage. “That black one is very tasty,” admitted our guide. Three hours later we finally reached Mucelo.
Here we would say farewell to our guide. Three hours of paddling in a dugout just to show us the way out and three more hours for return. A half-day trip to the doctor through the swamps that he made with us yesterday. A meal that he wanted to share with us: a dried salty fish with mandioca. He had nothing else to eat. He did not ask a cent, and when Youval opened a hatch of the kayak and took out a purse, he was surprised. Surprised and very grateful. This was the real Mozambique, the one that we fell in love with.
The first taste of it came on the first day of the trip. It felt so weird. The village where we landed consisted of a few dozen little straw houses right on the sand. There was no access road, no water supply, no sewage system and no electricity except for a small generator. It powered … a sound system of the disco bar. Yes, a disco! The combination of extreme poverty and such a wasteful use of a vital resource looked simply ridiculous. I asked myself: what would have happened if the village was populated by Europeans? They would definitely use the generator to do something valuable: grind, sew, cut, lift, rotate, etc. They would use the resource to achieve some degree of prosperity, whereas the Mozambicans wasted it for the sake of momentary joy. Or did they really waste it? I am not sure anymore.
The more we travelled the more we learned about the people and their life. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world; the average life expectancy is below forty years. The provinces where we travelled were the poorest in Mozambique. The simple villagers were mostly wearing rugs. They could not afford buying meat; some villages lacked even rice and wheat. In more developed settlements and richer households they bred hens for eggs. We sometimes bought such a chicken and asked the owner to cook it. Once we were done eating, the owner would collect the plates full of bare bones. The whole family would then gather around the plates eating the leftovers. It happened so many times.
It might sound depressing but it did not feel so. Quite on the contrary. These people were always laughing and smiling even when they were eating the leftovers. They were joking about the two crazy white guys who were travelling by the big sea in these funny boats. They loved us. And we loved them. They did not beg. They did not touch our belongings though we regularly left our kayaks unattended on the shore with all the valuables inside. They asked so many questions, they were so curious. I remember a few technical discussions about the correct paddling technique. The fact that we all entered the same sea – we by kayak, they by dugout – made us feel close.
No, they did not look depressed at all. Each piece of property we had would have been a fortune for a simple Mozambican: a watch, a pair of good sandals, a sleeping bag. We owned it all and much more, but somehow they looked happier than us! The little money they had, they used for buying a radio. They were walking with these radios listening and dancing to the wonderful sounds of Marrabenta – their local music.
Many’s the day when they could not fish as the seas were too big.
“Have you gone fishing today?” we would ask the fishermen
day by day.
“No. It was a Southern wind, the seas were too big.”
“Will you go fishing tomorrow?”
“Of course we will!”
However the next day the wind was Southern again and the fishermen stayed on shore. That shouldn’t have been a great surprise since according to the weather statistics ninety-five percent of winds in June-July are Southern. It did not bother the fishermen; they did not care much about statistics; they lived the current moment. The days they could not go fishing they spent in the most productive manner: playing football, checkers and mancala. They were real aces at these games. Once Youval and I tried to play checkers with a local fisherman. The defeat was absolute: I lost all the five games, Youval succeeded to achieve a single draw.
After two weeks of travelling we arrived to Pebane – a coastal town in Zambezia province. There - to our great surprise - we encountered a first non-black-skinned man. He was enthusiastically playing football with the locals. His name was Qin; he was Chinese, surveying minerals for a mining company. He told me:
“I am looking for minerals, but I am not sure I want to find them. The moment we find them the life of the locals will change. Why spoil their happiness?”
* * *
I lay on the table the souvenirs I brought from the trip: dance and laughter, friendliness and honesty, playfulness and curiosity, and above all - living in the current moment. I’m contemplating my small collection and I recall the lines:
“When the child
was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one…..”