Cheap eats and beach meets in Mozambique
AN HOUR up the sand from the little beach town of Tofo, perched on a peninsula jutting off the southern coast of Mozambique on a bay of gently surfable Indian Ocean waves, I met five children who had never heard of pizza.
We were the only six people in that stretch of beach - five black children in the water chattering in Bitonga, and one ghastly white, sunscreen-covered body walking along the sand under a relentless midday African sun.
"Hello! How are you?" called out a 13-year-old girl in English who would turn out to be the most gregarious of the bunch.
We exchanged pleasantries in the standard script of a young student of a foreign language. When they realised I spoke Portuguese, Mozambique's official language, things got more interesting: They asked me to take photos of them, then to see whatever photos from "your country" were stored in my phone.
Snow in New York didn't faze them. They easily identified a hippo in a picture I had taken days before in South Africa (although the youngest thought it was a goat).
Then a pepperoni pizza popped up; I asked if they knew what it was. "Food?" asked the girl.
I'm admittedly cynical on cultural globalisation - I've spotted Doritos in small towns in the Amazon - but children with no concept of pizza, just down from a beach town where Peace Corps volunteers, scuba fanatics and South African families go on vacation? The world can still surprise you.
The exchange captured what was so appealing about Tofo (pronounced more like tofu). I cannot bear to be shuttled to a beach resort to lie in the sun for a few days - all the more so if I'm as far away as Mozambique.
Tofo, though, is relatively undeveloped and inexpensive - and, as my conversation with those locals indicated, still very traditionally African.
After arriving there, I divided my lodging as I divide my travel personality.
For my 40-something adult side, I chose one night for US$62 (S$79) in Baia Sonambula, a friendly guesthouse with a loungey deck overlooking the sand; breakfast was mostly homemade, from muffins to marmalades, yogurt to peanut butter. Peanuts are a local crop.
For my overgrown backpacker side, I spent two nights at Mozambeat Motel, an upscale hostel with boxy and poorly lit but spacious and slightly stylish private cabins for US$40.
Baia Sonambula was right on the beach near the town's centre, a central market of stalls featuring African works of art and more-kitschy souvenirs. From there, restaurants, dive shops and small homes radiated out. The Mozambeat, a 15-minute walk away, was about as far as anything got from town.
Many restaurants served seafood at prices and freshness levels not conceivable at home - 200 meticais (S$8) seemed the going rate for fresh seafood if you didn't want anything too fancy.
That's what I paid for three dinners in a row: a plate of shrimp at Sabores Caseiros, a new and somewhat romantic spot under a thatched roof on the road out of town; two small grilled lobsters at a no-name shack by the water; and, best of all, shellfish in matapa - a local creamy stew of peanuts, coconut milk and cassava leaves - at Tofo Tofo on the edge of town.
Tofo is near Inhambane, a lazy but historically interesting port town. Arriving with no plan and no idea where anything was, I had no right at all to have a good time. But I got lucky.
I met Mr Dorte Eduardo Gueze, a young man in a "Government of Inhambane" polo shirt. He proceeded to lead me around town for something like three hours.
Mr Dorte wasn't looking for money. I had to force him to take some for his time.
He had no idea I was writing an article - he just thought it sounded like a fun thing to do.
It was. We ambled from one landmark to another, including a variety of religious venues - a crumbling, colonial-era Catholic church, two very attractive whitewashed mosques, a Hindu "church", as he called it - as well as a cultural centre, where we admired a room of locally produced art, and an old cinema, still in use.
Particularly striking were the ruins of waterfront buildings where slaves were held before being shipped out. The walls were crumbling, but the bars in the windows and the locks on the gates were still holding fast.
Somewhere else, these would be a museum.
I spent a total of US$275 on my four-day, three-night Tofo trip, and it proved a good mix of relaxed beach time, marmalade and shrimp consumption, history and exploration.