I went with Hugh Marlboro today on his farm visits, a thrice-weekly event where he checks in on each of his main plantation blocks along the river.
When we got in his truck, music came blaring out of an mp3 player (surprise #1 for me - this man is seriously technology-averse) with a very familiar beat (surprise #2 - the song was Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie", a funny choice considering the last music Hugh M. shared with me was Verdi and Handel).
I suppose we were both in a silly mood because, as if on cue, we looked at each other and started singing at the top of our lungs and dancing in place the best we could given that we were restrained by seat belts and upholstery. We zoomed down the highway, music at full volume, making complete fools of ourselves but having a great time.
The next song on the mp3 player was "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House (this was an ecclectic mix, apparently). Hugh Marlboro and I kept on singing, stumbling through the lyrics and building up to the chorus where we managed to do harmonies and hit all the high notes. It was very cheezy, but so satisfying much like the "best of the worst" in a cheap karaoke selection.
It's funny, I used to sing all the time - I was in chorus in school, I sang in musicals, I sang in the shower, I sang to the radio while driving to work - but since moving to Mozambique my singing urge has largely disappeared. Perhaps it was the first 9 months of community living in Chimoio that quelched it, or maybe because Ricardo isn't really into music and never sings himself (other than terrible, purposefully off-key renditions of children's songs in Portuguese). Whatever the reason, I can't remember the last time I really belted out a chorus or tried to pick up on the subtle alto accompaniment to a song before this morning.
We pulled into the first plantation block - one where the plants are still growing and just a few months shy of producing the first bunches of bananas for export - and drove along the dirt perimeter road admiring the perfectly straight rows of green. On the other side of the road from the plantation, there was a beautiful view of the river and the Lebombo mountains just beyond, marking the border with Swaziland.
Hugh Marlboro stopped the truck and we rolled down the windows, listening to the wind blow through the plantation and breathing in the air thick with humidity.
"Look just there," Hugh M. said, pointing to a spot on the far riverbank. "Do you see that?"
I squinted my eyes and tried to figure out what he was trying to show me.
"There! Just near the edge of the water!"
Hugh Marlboro turned my head a bit to the right, and suddenly a bit of movement caught my eye and I saw what he was talking about. Flamingoes! About 6 of them, nearly white in color from the lack of crustaceans in the river at this time of year, but still very cool considering it was the first time I'd ever seen one outside a zoo.
We sat for a moment watching the lanky birds move their way down the riverbank, bobbing their heads in a constant rhythm into the water in search of food. Although it was near mid-day, dozens of birds chirped and called out in constant conversation.
At my flat in Maputo, the birds that roost in the abandoned Portuguese mansion across the street wake me up every day when the sun is just starting to bring a glow to the black of the early morning. I sit in bed and listen to their calls for a moment before drifting back to sleep, trying to ignore the fact that in addition to me, they have also woken up the cats, who eagerly climb up the window screens for a better look at what is going on outside. I am aware of the birds in the morning, and again at dusk, in a way that is special to Maputo. There is still quite a bit of rural in the midst of this urban creation, but nothing compared to the birds at noon along the river. When you notice such delicate sounds, you realize the true silence that predominates in the countryside.
Hugh M. turned the truck back on and the music returned, masking the birds. This time the song was "White Flag" by Dido, not exactly the best thing for a sing-a-long, but somehow quite fitting for the scenery. The sky was particularly gray, anticipating rain that has built up but failed to fall for the last 2 days, and everything had a slow, hazy quality that matched the mood of the song.
We drove to Hugh Marlboro's house to have a tea and use the internet, as the connection at the office mysteriously stopped working. As we walked into the kitchen, Hugh M. asked me, "Do you know who Dido is?"
"Ummmm, yes, she's the singer of the song we were just listening to."
"No, not that Dido. The other one."
The other Dido? I thought to myself. I had no idea what Hugh Marlboro was referring to.
"Listen, let me tell you a story," Hugh Marlboro said, leading me to his office where the maid had already set out mugs of Ricoffy and an assortment of cookies for us.
"Dido was from Tyre, a city in Phonecia, the firstborn child of the king in that region." he began. "With the death of her father, Dido inherited the throne; but her brother was jealous and ended up murdering her husband to gain rule over the land. Outraged, Dido abandoned Tyre and went on an expedition to North Africa, in what is now Tunisia."
Hugh Marlboro paused for a moment and asked, "Do you know what city she founded?"
"No," I said," I've never even heard of this Dido."
"Well, my dear, she founded Carthage, which would become one of the great cities of history. Dido was very clever, you see. She convinced the local villagers to give her as much land as could be covered by the skin of an ox on which to establish her new capital. Of course, the locals thought there was no problem, because how much land could really be covered by a skin?"
Hugh Marlboro stretched out his arms to emphasize his point. "Maybe this much?"
"Not very much," I agreed.
"These villagers thought Dido was crazy wanting such a deal for herself, but really, she had a plan. Dido made her followers from Phonecia cut the ox skin into the thinnest strips possible, which they then tied together end to end to form an incredibly long thread. With the ox skin like this, Dido was able to encompass an entire hill, claiming the area for the foundation of Carthage. And you know what? Dido's new city was so nice that eventually the locals ended up giving her more land, and aligning themselves to the capital as well."
"Wow. What a story." I was fascinated by the tale of Dido, but also quite impressed that Hugh Marlboro knew it in the first place.
On a daily basis he comes up with stories like this to tell me, and we spend a significant part of our time together Googling assorted historical persona and time periods. For example on Monday, spurred by a random discussion we had while waiting for a meeting with one of the top dogs at the Ministry of Agriculture, Hugh Marlboro and I looked up Hernán Cortés, La Malinche and the date of Mexican independence from Spain. Just last week we Googled the role of acquarians and water management strategy in the Roman conquests.
Hugh Marlboro and I finished our coffee and snack, sent an e-mail to a lending institution that hopefully will give him a massive loan next year to double the size of his plantations, then got in the truck and headed back to the main office.
As we were driving, spurred by curiosity, I asked Hugh M. the following questions: a) if you could go back in time and observe any period of history, when would you choose? and b) if you could be any historical figure, who would it be?
I found Hugh Marlboro's answers intriguing, and I imagine they say a lot about his personality. He'd want to be an observer of the Roman Empire, and he'd want to be King Nebuchadnezzar.
He asked me the same two questions. The first one was easy: I'd like to observe the period of the great expeditions out of Spain and Portugal in the mid to late 1400's. The second one I really struggled with, and told Hugh Marlboro I'd get back to him. I've still not been able to come up with an answer, which is also probably revealing of something, perhaps my spotty knowledge of world history!
What about you? What period in history would you want to observe, and what historical figure would you want to be?