It was late in the evening and the tide was beginning to fill in the channel. The sun had already set to our backs, graying the colors of the mangroves. Matt and I needed to cross the channel before the tide filled it or before the night covered it, whichever came first. Abdul pointed out the small path through the mangrove roots that the workers from Cabaçeira had worn out on their daily slog to Coral Lodge. Abdul would not accompany us. The plan was for him to go back to the village and for us to meet him after we checked out the lodge. He stood on the bank of the mangrove swamp and watched Matt and I shuffle through the sooty sand beneath a foot of rising seawater. With each step we had to leverage our sandals free of the mud, like removing a suction cup from a glass window.
Matt and I had met Abdul the day before in a different mangrove swamp. Abdul works for a tourist company called Ilha Blue on Ilha de Moçambique, the original island capital of the Portuguese colony of Moçambique. In its hey-day, Ilha was the center of a booming slave trade. Today, it is one of the few sites in Mozambique where the vestiges of the Portuguese colony still proudly assert themselves in the architecture of the small island. As such, it is the most popular tourist destination in northern Mozambique. A massive, stone fort dominates the northern tip of Ilha. We could see it from the other island where we camped with Abdul on an outing with Ilha Blue. Abdul had taken us on an expedition to Ilha das Cobras – Snake Island – where we kayaked through a mangrove lagoon and played with coconut crabs.
Mangroves are not like other trees. They thrive where other trees die. In the fading light of the rising channel at Cabaçeira, we could still see the yellow leaves that give mangroves their unique quality: they desalinate the ocean. Their roots stick up like hundreds of straws around the base of the tree, sucking in saltwater that will be removed of its salt in a process that allows the mangroves to flourish in the shallow coasts of northern Mozambique. The tree then distributes the salt to a few unlucky leaves that turn yellow and eventually detach from the branches that host hundreds of other healthy, green leaves. Survival is sacrifice.A backpacking couple from San Francisco went with us on the trip to Ilha das Cobras. The man had a top bun and the woman had an old growth forest on her legs and in her armpits. They felt proud for finding a locally owned bed and breakfast for their stay on the island. Their complete lack of Portuguese language skills meant that Matt and I became the official translators for the trip. In this role, we quickly became friends with Abdul and Ambasse, the two Mozambicans that led the trip. Ambasse is twenty years old and is Ilha Blue’s cook for their various expeditions. But Ambasse does not know how to cook. Abdul and the other workers help him without telling their bosses, a British and Australian couple, so that Ambasse can have a job. Abdul is the kayak master. The cocky bastard proved it by beating Matt and I in several rounds of lagoon races. By the time I would cross through the caves to the other side of the lagoon, Abdul would be standing on his kayak, steering it through the waters like a paddleboard.
After the trip to Ilha das Cobras, our plans to go SCUBA diving fell through. Matt and I weren’t exactly sure what to do. Abdul was getting on a boat – reassuringly named “Titanic” – to go home to Cabaçeira, another island just across the bay from Ilha. Matt and I were on a high from a week of SCUBA diving, beach camping, and lagoon exploration – spend another night camping on a different island along the African coast of the Indian Ocean? Why not? We asked Abdul if there was fresh water for us on the island. “Não há problema,” he told us multiple times. “No problem. I’ll take care of you.” So we hopped on the boat and went home with Abdul.
Cabaçeira is home to three things, in order from south to north: the oldest well in Mozambique constructed by Vasco da Gama when he arrived at Ilha; the village of Cabaçeira where the locals live; and Coral Lodge, a five star resort situated at the tip of the island. We climbed off the small sailing rig – a wooden, Arabic-style dhow with a triangular canvas sail commonly used in northern Mozambique – on a dirty beach in front of Abdul’s house. Like all of the other houses on the island, it is a simple and crumbly affair of mud-bricks with a corrugated metal roof. The roof is new – the previous one had been ripped off by the small cyclone that tore north through the Mozambican channel earlier this year. I needed to perform “major necessities,” as we call pooping in Portuguese (as opposed to “minor necessities”). I asked Abdul where the bathroom was and he pointed to the typical bamboo hut open to the sky behind his house. Except the bathroom had no hole, only a flat stone in the earth and few worms seizuring next to it. I asked Abdul where the latrine was again. He laughed at me – the wormy bathroom was simply for urinating; the latrine was the ocean. The same ocean where all the villagers enter the water to board boats for their daily commutes off the island. This was poverty on a scale I had not seen before in Mozambique. I held my poop.
It took us less than twenty minutes to walk through the entire village to Vasco da Gama’s well, which still services the entire village. The evidence lay in the thousands of powdered detergent wrappers around the stone well and the boys pulling up water to wash themselves at its steps. Because Matt has no filter, as we walked by the bathers he voiced the self-conscious thought running through both of our minds: “What are they doing that we’re not doing to be so jacked?” For starters, they’re hauling water out of well just to take a bath. Abdul took us back through the village to the opposite side of the island where a small cemetery and a mangrove lagoon separate the village of Cabaçeira from the Coral Lodge Resort. Abdul explained that, initially, the lodge also took water from Vasco da Gama’s well. But when the village began to run out of water, the resort switched to a desalinating process to supply fresh water.
Matt and I wanted to see the lodge. We told Abdul we would meet him back at his house for dinner. He showed us the path through the swamp, and we waded in. More than seventy-five percent of the workers at Coral Lodge live in the village. They walk the same path we were on – during low tide – to get to work everyday. Matt and I felt like the San Franciscans and their locally owned lodging – we were taking the local path. Except we clearly don’t know the tides as well as the locals. The water moved in quickly, quicker than Matt or I anticipated. By the time we were halfway across, Matt had his shirt off and his bag above his head. I still had to poop and now my shirt was getting wet. With the end in sight, the path disappeared from sight. But the water was rising and we didn’t have much time to search. We plowed forward through the mangrove trees, straight into a ditch that dropped us shoulder-deep into the water. We were soaked by the time we emerged from the trees on backshore of the lodge.
A startled security guard just stared at us: two drenched, white guys strolling into a five star resort on the workers path from the village. He radioed his boss, a Portuguese woman who berated him through the microphone about our unexpected arrival. He took the abuse quite calmly, just looking back at us and laughing. By the time the angry Portuguese voice had finished her rant, she too had calmed down. She let the security guard show us around Coral Lodge. It occupies the oceanfront end of Cabaçeira, whose tip dissipates into scenic sandbars spreading out into the Indian Ocean. A blue-tiled pool overlooks the sandbars at the edge of the island, behind which the restaurant serves over-priced Mozambican beer by waiters in kitsch capulana uniforms. Abdul would later show us a menu that he saved from the brief time he worked at Coral Lodge: one meal would bankrupt my entire month’s stipend from the Peace Corps.
The security guard also lived in Cabaçeira. He explained that clients pay over five hundred U.S. dollars per night to stay in the lodges – I think there are twelve – at the resort. Separated by the mangrove lagoon, Coral lodge is intentionally isolated from the latrine-less village. There is a donation box in the restaurant for guests to leave money for projects in the village. This was one of the conditions for constructing the lodge: it would have to contribute to the development of the community. Well-intentioned guests do indeed put money in the box, Abdul explained, but the money never makes it to the community. Somewhere along the way it vanishes. Cabaçeira survives on water from a five hundred year-old well and the small income of the workers at the lodge. The lodge, on the other hand, purifies its own water and is connected to the mainland by a road that completely bypasses the village. Before the security guard explained a dry route back to the village, I pooped in the bathroom at the restaurant. My “major necessities” left a brown stain on the white porcelain of the toilet boil.
Matt and I eventually made it back to Abdul’s house. We sat in the dark of his brick home and ate a medley of small fish, most likely caught in the ocean sewage generated by the villagers. We slept on a bed infested with ants and in the morning we waded into the water to get on a boat back to Ilha. The winds mandated that we sail parallel with the island, straight towards Coral Lodge, before cutting back across the water to Ilha. We passed the cemetery and remembered Abdul pointing out the path to the lodge the night before. He had stopped in his description of the route, his voice trailing off like the ebbing ocean waters and his eyes settling on a stone in the cemetery. “That is my son,” he told us. “He died when he was four.” In the morning on a bench seat in the dhow leaving Cabaçeira, Matt and I let our eyes pass over the green and yellow leaves of the mangrove trees that divide the island. The salty yellow leaves, we knew, would only hang on for so much longer before slipping silently into the water.
See if my description matches the photos of the trip on Matt Derrico’s blog.