Quick Taste of Amsterdam

Friday, August 18, 2006 | Amsterdam, The Netherlands (map)

Main canal in the heart of Amsterdam
On my return from Tanzania, my itinerary allowed me to spend a morning exploring central Amsterdam. There's more bikes and boats than cars! I've added Amsterdam to my running mental tally of places to return to someday.

Lessons Learned from a Banana

Thursday, August 17, 2006 | Pemba, Mozambique (map)

On the dhow from Ibo, at the start of a very long—but revealing—day of travel.
On Monday, Joop and Rene and I woke before dawn, packed our bags and walked to Ibo's town beach to catch the morning dhow to the mainland. After a few false starts and returns to the island to pick up stragglers, we were finally under way. Our sailboat, overloaded once again, churned through the sea, its captain carefully navigating among the mangrove labyrinth.

With little wind, the ship's sails drooped and the crossing soon slowed to a crawl. The crew used long canes to pole us slowly toward our destination as the sun burned down. A school of dolphins followed us for a few moments, their glistening fins arching up gracefully from the sea all around the wooden craft. Five long hours after we boarded, we finally hopped into the water to slog by foot through the last stretch of mud onto the shore at Tandanhangue.

Having nearly exhausted my supply of meticais on the decidedly ATM-free island, I offered my beat-

Swimming with the Quirimbas Current

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 | Ibo, Mozambique (map)

When they receded each day, the drastic tides around Ibo revealed a plethora of bizarre creatures.
So accustomed to rising early to take public transportation on Mozambique's bizarre schedule, I woke before dawn and, as the sun was rising, set out for a walk. I grabbed my camera and a banana, and slid into my flip-flops on my way out the hotel's crisply whitewashed gate, not realizing I wouldn't be back for six hours. I walked east, past the island's small Christian cemetery with its weathered grave markers.

A few minutes later, at the edge of the village I crossed a wide grass field, hacked out of the brush, that served as the island's airstrip. Further along, as I traipsed through a wide meadow soggy with the risen tide, sacred ibises rose and soared overhead in elegant formation.

By the time I reached the island's far eastern shore several miles further, the tide was rushing outward. Hoping to swim, I tossed aside my sandals and began walking through the muddy clay of

Something for Nothing

Monday, August 14, 2006 | Ibo, Mozambique (map)

The streets of Ibo's town see little traffic on an island that has only one truck and a few motorbikes.
The eerie ambiance I had perceived during my first few hours on Ibo was quickly forgotten as I began to recognize the overwhelming friendliness of the locals, unparalleled in nearly all my travels. (The delightful city of Hama in central Syria remains distinguished in my mind for the unmatched hospitality of its residents, but I will not soon forget the beaming smiles of the locals on Ibo.)

The only exception to the rule of near universal cheerfulness and warmth on Ibo was the island’s "tourism officer," who hounded me and all other visitors to the island in an attempt to convince us to register our names in his log and pay the five dollar "tourist tax." Most considered him a pesky, overeager young bureaucrat and obliged simply to be rid of him.

I, however, was convinced from the start that he was nothing more than a self-appointed "tax" collector who had managed to procure a poor approximation of an official-looking hat and log book

Ilha do Ibo: Rubble In Paradise

Sunday, August 13, 2006 | Ibo, Mozambique (map)

In the main square of Ibo's only town, a woman wears a traditional facial mask of musiro, made from a local tree.
The chapa from Ilha de Moçambique pulled into the little crossroads of Namialo early Wednesday morning and I disembarked. When the large tour bus I hoped to transfer to for the trip north to Pemba lurched to a stop, its hydraulic squeals making me cringe, it was overloaded with at least twice the number of passengers that its designers had intended. But of course, it was the only bus. So, for the next two hours of my trip I stood, until a free seat finally appeared and I was able to pounce on it. In the meantime, however, I was on my feet, holding my backpack in my arms and making a conscious effort just to keep breathing, wedged in as I was between several other riders, all of us crammed in the narrow aisle.

In Pemba that afternoon, I made arrangements for a flight back to Dar es Salaam, my ambitious overland travel plans of several weeks ago having by now proven woefully over-optimistic.

In the Shadows of Ilha's Relics

Saturday, August 12, 2006 | Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique (map)

The crumbling yet still vivid façades of Ilha de Moçambique's buildings are just one part of the island's charm.
My pensão ("hostel") on Ilha was unnamed, and faced one of the island's verdant squares. Its young owner, generally found squatting in the dust beside the front door playing bao with a friend, had painted the building a shocking yellow green with blue trim. I rose early that morning, wishing him "Bom dia" as I passed the game on the way out.

I walked to the Church of Santo Antonio, on the island's eastern coast, passing through the waking village on my way. Many residents of Ilha's southern shanty town, lacking running water or indoor plumbing, were relieving themselves on the beach, and kicking sand behind them like cats as they turned back toward the houses. Though it may bring funds for restoration and tourism revenue, there is a price to pay for having the UN decide that the place you live is to be "preserved." The shanty town is excluded from major development and renovation funding yet must still abide by the

Exploring Moussa's Isle

Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique (map)

Local fishermen on Ilha de Moçambique, with the Portuguese fort in the background
Some time before dawn I gave up on sleeping, packed and hurriedly fled my hotel, grabbing a coffee at a local cafe before walking to see Nampula's large cathedral as the city slowly awoke. With a local boy's help, I found the minibus station and, leaving the others behind for the time being, boarded one of the deathtraps en route to Monapo.

Meant to seat at most 12, soon the minibus was loaded with more than 23 people (plus their baggage) by my most conservative estimate. On our way out of Nampula, our driver presented the appropriate papers at several police roadblocks along the route, the 50 meticais note which he tucked into the documents no doubt smoothing our passage each time. We drove toward the coast and its famous off-shore island, the Ilha de Moçambique, which had been my ultimate destination during the last week's travels through the country's rugged north.

The Day Train to Nampula

Wednesday, August 9, 2006 | Nampula, Mozambique (map)

The train trundled all day across northern Mozambique, stopping at every market town along its route.
After a relatively riot-free boarding process, the train pulled out of Cuamba before dawn. In our second class cabin was a young woman—my age at most—and her baby, stow-aways seeking to avoid the dregs of third class.

The frigid, damp morning air streaming into our cabin window soon warmed as the sun emerged, gently illuminating the large granite cliffs that unexpectedly loomed up from the otherwise flat plains of northern Mozambique.

At each station—every few hundred meters, it seemed—the train skidded to a long, screeching halt to allow an exchange of passengers. It was accompanied by an onslaught from the small army of men, women and children which each village had conscripted to hurriedly hawk fruits and vegetables alongside the train at the top of their lungs. After several minutes the chaotic scene would explode

In Cuamba, A Riot That Wasn't

Monday, August 7, 2006 | Cuamba, Mozambique (map)

Cuamba: every bit as boring as it looks.
In a hurry to see as much as I could before returning to Dar es Salaam in a few weeks, I decided to wake early and leave the city of Lichinga on a 4:30 AM minibus bound for Cuamba, though Joop and Rene would stay behind and take their time.

In mid-morning I found myself sitting on a pile of dirt beside the road, eating corn from a can and breathing the dust of the few passing cars as the minibus driver ploddingly changed a flat tire. Joop and Rene, who had slept in and hitched a ride from Lichinga hours after I had left, pulled to the side of the road right in front of me, relishing the moment and telling me how good their breakfast had been.

Thanks to the tire their driver lent ours, I finally arrived in Cuamba later that afternoon, and located the Dutch pair. At Cuamba's train station, we discovered that the train we hoped to take

Instead, They Sing

Friday, August 4, 2006 | Lichinga, Mozambique (map)

A member of the crew that ferried us to the Mozambican mainland on their handmade craft.
That evening at Mango Drift I got to know Rene and Joop, two thirtysomething guys from Amsterdam who were, I learned, planning on going from Likoma to Mozambique the next day, as I was. We decided to leave together early the next morning.

Soon after dawn the two spirited Dutch men and I set off together, hiking back across the island to town, where we made arrangements with a local dhow captain, who agreed to sail us the 10 kilometers to the Mozambique coast of the lake around midday, once the wind picked up. At noon we hopped aboard the small dhow as its three young crew members unfurled the sail—a sunbleached, multi-color patchwork of burlap rice sacks, bedsheets, t-shirts and plastic flour bags, hand-stitched with a large, uneven weave that left the sail gaping with holes. Sweating in the relentless sun, Joop and I threw a line overboard, jumped in and let the sailboat tow us along in the cool water.

Likoma Island: Finding Bliss on Lake Malawi

Thursday, August 3, 2006 | Likoma Island, Malawi (map)

Guests play bao by candlelight each evening at Mango Drift.
The eastern sky blushed a peachy glow as the Ilala chugged into Likoma Island's harbor at dawn. Along with the other mzungus aboard, I clambered into a small motorboat which drove us around the island's southern shores, past the idyllic Kaya Mawa lodge. We continued to the secluded western side of the island and disembarked at Mango Drift, a hostel made up of several squat bandas right on the beach. Atop each building's reed sides a grass roof perched slightly askew, cocked "just so," like the swank straw hats of Art Deco sunbathers. Nearby, the hostel's shower had been carved out of the hulking trunk of a baobab tree, and was overgrown with bougainvilleas sprouting electric pink blooms.

At breakfast in the open-air beachside bar, I made the acquaintance of a few British and Dutch guests before they set out to visit to the island's witch doctor.

Not So Lonely As I'd Planned It

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 | Likoma Island, Malawi (map)

Aboard the MV Ilala, I reached Likoma Island just after dawn.
In hostels all over the world, travelers enjoy lamenting the shortcomings of their guidebooks. It's something everyone can agree on, and thus makes for an easy starter conversation among traveling strangers, just like how much we don't miss home (though we all really do), how cheap local prices are compared to back home, and how much George W. Bush is ruining the world we so love to explore. Out of earshot, the guidebooks' authors make an easy target. Also, their omissions, errors, and exaggerations are much easier to spot "in country" than when you're standing in the travel section of a Barnes & Noble back home.

Useful to a great degree (and more so once you learn what to trust them on and when to ignore them) guidebooks rarely lead one astray. In some cases, however, they can become "victims of their own success."