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TravelBlog #11: The 'Bique and Zim

Original post made by Keith Schuman, Palo Alto resident and world traveler, on Nov 3, 2009

Mancora, Peru -- mid-October, 2009

There is a secret place I would like to tell you about. Well, not that secret, but secret to most. It is an enchanting place, where your mind can transport you to another time: to an era of colonial conquest, spice trade, piracy and revolt.

Today this land is tranquil, quiet and rather exotic. A small island where Middle Eastern culture has collided with colonial Mediterranean architecture in East Africa. It is a place that goes by the name Ilha de Mocambique -- Mozambique Island.

Passable by a one-lane land bridge, Ilha (only three kilometers by one kilometer) sits off the coast of northern Mozambique.

The beauty of this island is not merely physical. Like many places on the coast of Eastern Africa, it has a vibrant culture. Steeped in music, food and traditions that upon arrival are not only obvious to an outsider but leap to the foreground of the landscape.

Fresh fish skewered, cooking, permeating through the limestone, pastel corridors that make up this charming collage of colonial buildings is an everyday occurrence. Women dressed in brightly colored saris, (initially brought over from Indian and Middle Eastern traders and laborers more than 200 years ago), their faces awash in palm paste to ensure the vitality of their skin, are only a couple of the foreign sites and pleasures one can see on the island.

Ilha has the feel of an unused film set, quintessential coastal Mozambique.

Ilha was the first colonial settlement in the Southern Hemisphere, first discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The original Portuguese fort sits on the north end of the island. It jets out into the pristine, clear water and creates a cove with the shoreline.

Mozambican children play here, exercising their right to fun, fishing and other activities.

The water is a welcome relief from the afternoon sun, and although Ilha does not have long stretching beaches the small coves that exist are inviting and pleasant.

The United Nations has taken an interest in Ilha, the first capital of Mozambique. Officially a UNESCO world-heritage site, there have been major improvements over the past five to 10 years. A reliable, sealed road connects the island to Nampula, three hours away, the largest city in the north, with an international airport.

The conservation and renovation of the island's older buildings are in accordance with the original style and layouts.

The cathedral on the island and the fort are the two largest accomplishments of UNESCO projects, physically. As time goes on, private investors as well as UNESCO will continue to renovate some of the more dilapidated colonial buildings.

The renovation of the island will provide much-needed jobs for the local populous -- many of whom moved to the island during the 20-year civil war that ravaged Mozambique, causing a strain on the island's resources. The next five years will be a critical period for this small enclave of wonders.

Most people who travel to the island know of the aforementioned beauty and exoticism. For someone who doesn’t mind putting a bit of effort to get to a special place, here is your road-map to enchantment.

My departure from the island marked the beginning of a hair-raising 36 hour, non-stop journey that included; a sublime train journey, tedious miles in cabs of various commercial trucks, a near robbery and, finally, salvation -- arrival in Zim. For those who have not been there, Zim refers to the former breadbasket of Africa: Zimbabwe.
All the way into the heart of political and economic failure I felt an ease about flying solo in Zim, after all, I had made it out of some sticky situations and was riding high at this point. The varying climates and personalities, the contrasts in quality of roads, the corruption, the poverty, the happiness -- it just all makes sense.

It is comforting in the most bizarre of ways to know that despite the disorganization and chaos that appears on the outside there is a simplicity that exists in the center of the continent like nowhere else I have been in the world.

The compassion of the Zimbabweans is truly remarkable. Most of those with whom I talked seem poised for opportunity. Zimbabweans have been patiently waiting for their leaders to realize their promises of work and prosperity.

I found members from various nations (meaning tribes) eager to tell me about their hopes of building their country into what it once had been. These were not empty daydreams, but loud statements that carried the weight and urgency of a nation.

Being an outside observer, I was not saddled with the burdens of not knowing my date of departure. I did not have to deal with the empty shelves in the grocery stores. I did not have to run across to Zambia or South Africa to purchase medication for the most basic ailments. I was fortunate.

Nearly everyone in Bulawayo wanted to talk to me. I was an ear from the outside world. I had the pleasure of going to places that are mostly overlooked and have been blessed to see the vibrant exuberance in which many Zimbabwean's live life.

It is a real shame that the media has decided to capture this country in black and white because it is a country beaming with life and color.

I would say that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapu_ci_ski said it best when discussing how we outsiders are held captive by time while the people of Africa seem to hold time captive.

Perhaps that is why we seek the "meaning" of existence and find it difficult to accept the reality of situations for what they are. No matter how it is rationalized or thought about, it is evident that the Western psyche has sensationalized the mere technique of survival. We have even created social sciences and institutions to help us cope with the unanswerable questions. There is nothing like Robert Pirsig to help the mind run around a bit on the old travels, just spending days thinking about the idea of quality.

I have been sitting on a beach in Peru for two weeks now, collecting my thoughts, thinking of what is on the horizon, and longing for the adventures I had in Africa.

I yearn for the Andean highlands of South America, geographical terrain that tends to bring out the rawest human experiences -- the wild. I am hoping for the freedom I felt in the Himilayas.

Next Stop: Don't have one. If you don't have anywhere to be, you can't get lost.

Seven continents, one world, one person just calling it how I see it, with wide eyes and an open mind.


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