Friday, November 13, 2009

Is Lonely Planet Right about Maputo?

We have a neighbor across the street here at Casa Cali, a well-to-do, middle-aged Austrian man - certainly an exception amongst the majority of our long-haired, peace-and-love-and-recycle fellow residents - who introduced himself the first week we moved in by saying, "So you're the ones who used to live in Maputo!" It was a bit of a shock, since I have to give most people a gentle clue about our previous home by saying something along the lines of, "We used to live in Mozambique, in Southern Africa, on the coast just across from Madagascar."

Our Austrian neighbor, however, not only knew where Maputo was, he'd just been there the previous week! Apparently he is an avid birdwatcher and had taken a trip to South Africa to look at rare birds. He'd read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that Maputo is considered to be one of, if not the most beautiful African capitals, its streets lined with sidewalk cafes and acacia trees, its nights full of music and culture. Enticed by that description, he and a fellow birdwatcher drove up from the St. Lucia Wetlands to get a taste of the Mediterranean-Latin influenced city.

"Maputo is really a shithole, isn't it?" he said, sparing no judgment. "We expected something nice, but the whole city is run down, there are potholes in all the roads, there's nothing interesting for tourists to see, and we couldn't even find any good food. What a waste of a day."


I valiantly defended Maputo, saying that despite its tired infrastructure and the fact that you have to dig to find some of its most brilliant treasures, it really is a great city and that we enjoyed a very high quality of life there. Let's be honest: Rico and I - and the majority of expats and wealthy Mozambicans - lived like kings in Maputo.

It became obvious that we weren't going to convince the Austrian that Maputo was worth anyone's time, so I let the conversation die. It got me thinking, though, about exactly what makes people like a particular city or not, what things we value in our experiences, and the giant role that high expectations (or low ones, for that matter) have in finding satisfaction in the new things we do and places we visit.

Maputo, in particular, is a hit-or-miss kind of a place. I don't know that many people who feel lukewarm about the city. It seems you either love it, or are counting the minutes until you go somewhere else easier, more civilized, more convenient, more kept-up. I know plenty of people on both sides of that fence, for sure. And although Rico and I were ready to move on to the next chapter after 5.5 and 4.5 years in Mozambique, respectively, it wasn't out of dissatisfaction with the city or with our lives there. More than anything, we were burned out in our jobs and both felt the need to follow our hearts professionally speaking. For me, that meant going to art school and becoming a jeweler; for Rico, it meant a return to his roots in investment banking and finance.

But back to Maputo. I've had countless people ask me over the years if it's worth it to visit. My answer is highly dependent on the person. For example, I'd never recommend to Rico's dad that he spend time in Mozambique's capital - he's much more of a Medjumbe, Cape Town or even exclusive Kruger lodge kind of a guy. My friend H. from high school had memories of fun-filled trips visiting me in Rio in her mind and ended up sorely disappointed by Maputo, and by Mozambique in general. My mom, on the other hand, heard from the minute we set foot in Maputo how much I thought she'd enjoy a visit. She ended up coming twice, and loved both trips.

What makes someone love Maputo or not? Would you recommend it as a destination for friends or family on vacation? Would you recommend it as a place to live? I suppose these questions are at the heart of why many of you read my blog in the first place, but I thought I'd open it up to commenters to add to my thoughts.


Brandie said...

I LOVED Mozambique and Maputo and found myself plotting ways to get back and actually live there. Of course I was living in Sudan at the time so Maputo definitely felt like luxury to me (the fact that I stayed at the Polana may have had something to do with it). I also find weird things quite beautiful so the poor infrastructure didn't bother me at all. I found the vibe to be so lively and had a great time just hanging out. I also went out with a few Mozambicans which helped a great deal as we wouldn't have been to some of the restaurants or dance places otherwise. Yay...I'm definitely in the LOVE IT category when it comes to Mozambique!

bart said...

Hallo again. It's good to read the changes in your life and how you've redirected yourself to follow your dreams. Life's been very unsettled and mixed up here, and there's still a long way to go but things can only get better from here :-)

I can really understand this post, even though I've never been to Africa. I suspect an interest in these countries is also something to do with an open and enquiring mindset, which leads you in all sorts of unexpected directions when travelling through post-colonial Africa.

There was an exhibition in Amsterdam earlier this year, which I went to with one of my daughters, where the photography of Guy Tillim was on show. It was a moving and sad moment, where the images showed the relics of a more optimistic and enthusiastic era in varying states of decay. I thought often of you while I was there, this was part of the world you moved in at the time. I could feel, despite the delapidation and resignation, that there still was a lot of strength, energy and exuberance in the people, despite all possible setbacks.

You can see some of the photos at somebody elses site, at

Thanks for sharing. Keep well...

Hallie Montoya said...

Hey, Ali! Greetings from DC! I wouldn't say I was sorely disappointed by Maputo and Mozambique. It just was rougher than what I needed after a year and half tearing around the country without a day off. I actually think if I had visited at another time in my life, one where i felt less sorely in need of a little luxury, I might have really loved it.

Ali la Loca said...

~Hallie - Oh, so good to know that! I had the impression that it was a *huge* disappointment. I can totally appreciate wanting a bit more luxe in your first vacation in such a long time. We certainly looked for "smoother" places when we'd travel. Also, you visited at the #1 strange and quiet time of the year, so that definitely influenced what you saw and had available in terms of activities. But I'm super glad you visited, even in a quiet period, for sure!

Ali la Loca said...

~Brandie - Yay! I remember when we first "met" you told me how much you'd enjoyed Mozambique. I think your love for the region is apparent for anyone who reads your beautiful blog.

~Bart - So nice to hear from you. I'm not familiar with the photographer you mentioned. I will look up his images. I definitely think having an open mind has a lot to do with appreciating a place like Maputo, but it's a more complex story than that for sure. On a funny note, I've yet to meet a Scandanavian (or Northern European, more generally) who hasn't loved Mozambique!

sayama said...

He spent only a day in Maputo? I'm of the opinion that a love affair with this city takes more than a day to blossom. The charms of the music and culture in the city don't always present themselves immediately, and may even only appeal to a younger crowd. It depends also on what you're comparing it to, and where in the world you're coming from.Though I didn't fall in love at first sight, I love Maputo now in a way I could never do if I had only passed through.

Mrs A.ok said...

Hi Ali! You know we love living in Maputo. Its all about turning frustration into epa!

gorfrepus said...

I'm sorry, I visit Maputo regularly each year for the last 5 years. And I have to come 'clean' with this... Maputo IS the shit-hole of Africa. I have travelled to Cameroon, Uganda, Angola, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, all over Africa....but theres no crappier place than moz-quitoville.

The people are daft and moronic, the city is polluted, laden with rubbish and constantly has a vile stench in the air. Criminal elements are rampant throught the city and country in general. The hotels are disgusting, the food has declined drastically, the police are always harassing foreigners for's dead, dying, diseased and decaying all in one.

I hate Maputo down to it's core! Give it a skip and try South Africa instead. At least they have clean tap water and pretty things to look at. Maputo is just a shit-hole, nothing more.