When I came back to the apartment this afternoon, one of the building maintenance guys was in the lobby holding the hand of his son who looked about 5 or 6 years-old. The father and son entered the same elevator as me still holding hands. It was obviously the first time the kid had been in an elevator and he nervously clung to his father's side while curiously gazing around. His father seemed proud that he was working in such a fancy building and was grinning ear-to-ear.
They were going up to the top floor where Dad was going to show his son the view from one of the tallest buildings in the city. On the way up, his father pointed to the child's reflection in the mirror inside the elevator and asked what it was. The kid paused for a moment and then his eyes opened wide and he said "That's me!" I wonder if it was the first time he'd ever seen a mirror too...
For being a pretty sprawling city, Maputo has a surprising number of tall buildings. Our apartment building has 23 floors (we live on the 17th), and there are many other buildings with at least 10 or 15 stories. Even more surprisingly is that many of these buildings don't have elevators that work!
The other day, I helped some friends move into their new apartment on the 9th floor. Without a working elevator, it was a lot of work to carry all the heavy bags up the stairs, but at least they didn't live on the 19th floor at the top. Imagine living there and walking up and down all those stairs every day or walking all the way down and then realizing you forgot something!
The crazy thing is that the building used to have elevators, but they weren't maintained and now they don't work anymore. Imagine how awful it must have been for someone living at the top of the building when the elevator stopped working and how badly the value of their flat must of fallen too. Who's going to buy a flat on the 19th floor of a building without working elevators?
I just got back from a one-day trip to South Africa. Nelspriut is the nearest South African town across the border and can be reached from Maputo in about 3 hours depending on how backed up the border crossing is. For South Africans, Nelspriut is just a minor provincial capitol, but for visitors from Mozambique it's like a visit to Disney Land. Unlike Maputo, the city is neat and tidy and the traffic is organized, but most importantly there are shops everywhere!
I'm not much of a shopper, but after a few months in Maputo it was hard not to become a victim of retail-therapy. There are American-style shopping malls with prices half that in Mozambique. There are giant hyper-markets with huge selections of everything from South African wine to fresh asparagus to sushi. There are sporting goods stores that sell everything from tennis rackets to pool noodles.
In Maputo, all the basic necessities are available, but the prices are high and the selection is often limited. Although Mozambique is no longer a socialist country it sometimes feels a little like one. I can imagine what the East German's must have felt when the wall fell and they could experience West German capitalism for the first time.
Just before we left, I was drinking a cranberry smoothie at the "Juicy Juice" store in the mall when I picked up a copy of the local newspaper. There was a page dedicated to the graduating high school class of 2011 with a picture of each student. It could have been my high school class. There were about 200 students and not a single one was black. Although about 90% of South Africans are black, I wonder how much of this prosperity has found them.
In Maputo, like any big city, you can frequently hear the sirens from emergency vehicles. I hear them many times every day and since we live on the 17th story it's easy to see where they are coming from. In four months, I have never seen an ambulance nor a firetruck, only police cars. But the police are not rushing to the scene of a crime. What are they doing? Escorting important government officials or visiting dignitaries. I'm glad to know that Maputo is so safe that the police don't have anything else to do....
The other day, Yuka drove home from work and parked the car while waiting me to come down from our apartment. When I came down a minute or two later, the car battery was already dead. Not being too familiar with cars, she had left the lights on with the engine off. What didn't make sense was that a new battery was supposed to have been installed when the car was shipped from Japan. After having a friend jumpstart the battery, I looked under the hood and there was already corrosion on the terminals.
Yuka wrote an email complaint to the company in Japan that sent the car including a picture of our battery. They wrote back the next day with a picture of the battery they had installed in Japan before sending the car. They were two totally different batteries!
Obviously the battery had been switched somewhere and we were very suspicious that it happened during customs/storage at the port in Maputo. The "service" of having the car processed through the port, cost more than $1,000, which didn't even include any taxes because we are diplomatically exempt. Despite this outrageous price they still couldn't keep parts from getting stolen. Fortunately, we hadn't paid the bill yet!
So, we played hardball and said that we weren't going to pay until we got a new battery. The same day, without asking any questions or even looking at the old battery, a very unpleasant man from the forwarding agent office took me to a garage and paid for a new battery. Very suspicious...
I was driving Yuka home about 8:00 last night when I was stopped by two young policemen. They were both carrying big guns and it was a dark and mostly deserted street. Police checkpoints are common in Mozambique, but I was suspicious when they asked me to get out of the car. In theory they cannot stop diplomatic vehicles and just showing a diplomatic ID had always been enough to get waved through a checkpoint. They hustled me over to side of the road while not letting Yuka get out of the car and our conversation went something like this:
Policeman: Did you know that's a one-way street back there?
Me: (Watching another car drive the "wrong way" down the supposed "one-way" street) Uh-huh.
Policeman: You know that you need to set a good example.
Policeman: Do you speak Portuguese?
Me: (in portuguese) a little
Policeman: English? (he starts talking in English) Street, unique-way, no go.
Policeman: (now back to Portuguese) Have you been drinking?
Policeman: So foreign diplomats need to set a good example. What are you going to do?
Me: I won't drive the wrong way on that street.
Policeman: It's a one way street. You can't drive that way.
Policeman: You have to set an example
Me: (sensing that this conversation is going nowhere) Can we leave?
Policeman: (after a pause) Yes
and he handed me my documents and let us go. Whew.
So, for the past week Maputo has been hosting the African Games which, like the Olympics, is held every four years. It has most of the traditional Olympic events including, track and field, basketball, swimming, volleyball, etc. (Apparently it doesn't have gymnastics which made we wonder if I've ever seen an African doing gymnastics!) Anyway, last weekend was the opening ceremony which we watched on TV and followed by fireworks we could see from our apartment. I've been wanting to attend some of the events, but it seems to be impossible to get information about the schedules and venues The official web page has no useful information and their countdown timer has even turned into a "countup" timer now the event has started!
This morning I was sitting in the living room when I gradually noticed that the usual honking and yelling from the street down below was louder than normal. Cars had backed up the main street in one direction and police were directing traffic in the other. Then I saw a bicyclist whiz by followed by a camera man on a motorcycle. So, this must be cycling event! Apparently no one else in Maputo knew about the event either or they would have stayed away from downtown. Cars had literally become stuck for hours on side streets with no way to move forward or backward.
Anyway, I went down to check out the event and to be honest it was a little underwhelming. Most of the cyclists didn't have national jerseys and were just wearing their personal bike gear. Only two guys had real time-trial racing bikes and I don't think I saw anyone with aero bars. One of the bikes sounded like the chain was about to fall off! I heard that the Mozambique riders didn't even get their bikes until the day of the race. Watching the other events on TV is equally sad. The basketball "stadium" is an ugly concrete pit that is smaller than the gym my high school had and the quality of play is sometimes so low that even I can tell. I mean how many air-balls do you see at an NBA game?
Despite the obvious lack of infrastructure and the sometimes dismal level of performance, the local people seem quite proud that they are hosting this event, and in a way I feel proud for them too. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world and the mere fact that they were able to successfully (so far) host an international competition is impressive. So what if the the facilities aren't perfect and sometimes the athletes' performances are not so polished? The important point is to try your hardest despite the obstacles. That's something both the athletes and the country of Mozambique seem to understand.
Last night I was having dinner at the restaurant across the street when the power went out. Now, normally when the power goes out everyone groans and pauses their activities waiting for lights to come back on, but that's not what happened. Instead everyone carried on with out skipping a beat as if nothing had happened.
The family next to me, kept eating their meal, the couple in the back continued with their bottle of wine and waiter came up to acting as if everything was completely normal and asked "Would you like any coffee or desert?" I almost burst out laughing, because it was so normal, yet at the same time so ridiculous. It was completely dark that I could hardly see anything.
Obviously, they were used to power problems as candles quickly appeared on all the tables and the waiter somehow managed to print out my receipt from the register without power. For a moment, I thought about trying to see if they could run a credit card without power too, but then I thought better of it....
It's nice to finally have a reliable Internet connection at home unlike the WiFi at the hotel that was down at least half the time, but prices and quotas here are outrageous! Since we've never had metered Internet before we decided to start with the smallest plan which is about $25 a month for 3GB of data. Just checking email and doing some light browsing uses up most of the daily quota of 100MB!
Having a quota forces you to limit your online activities to only what is important and I'm not wasting time online like I did before, but sometimes I just want to browse around and I can't comfortably do that any more. We'll probably change to a bigger plan, but that will only increase our quota not eliminate it...
We finally moved into our new apartment last week. We spent this weekend unpacking and I finally feel like we've settled in. Yuka likes that she finally has a bathtub, and we are both enjoying the great view of the ocean. On the downside, it lacks storage space--although maybe that's a sign that we have too much stuff! Also, the washing machine flooded the kitchen twice, but the repairman is supposed to come this morning....