We woke to another gorgeous, sunny morning in Southern Africa on our 4th day since leaving Pretoria on the Shongololo Express. Our overnight transit from Kruger National Park in South Africa had brought us to the magnificent train station in Maputo - the capital of Mozambique. We had our usual breakfast at 7:00 am and disembarked the train on the platform of the grand and historic Central Railway Station, just before 9:00am, to begin our city tour of Maputo. The station was built in the early 1900’s in the Neoclassical Beaux Arts style and has frequently made the top 20 list of the world’s most beautiful train stations.
After spending a few minutes admiring the architecture and grandeur of the station, we began our walk through the inner city on our way to the market. Since it was Sunday and still somewhat early, the streets were eerily quiet which made for an easy 20 minute walk to the market building. The buildings in the downtown core were an interesting mix of old and new with many of the newer buildings seeming to have been left unfinished, a reflection of the struggling economy in Mozambique.
The market building, officially called Mercado Central de Maputo, is set off a main street and adjacent to a parking lot. Like the Central Train Station, the Mercado Central de Maputo was built in the early 1900’s and the exterior has a very grand and distinctive style. We spent the better part of an hour walking amongst the rows and rows of vendor stands inside the building. Mounds of fruits and vegetables, trays of meats and fish and islands of assorted sundries filled the entire width and length of the market. One of the most fascinating areas in the market was a series of narrow hallways on one side of the building. Human hair extensions filled the walls of each booth along these hallways. What was fascinating is that these seemed to be the busiest booths in the market.
It was still early when we left the market area and walked a few blocks towards the municipal government buildings and the church square. On our way we passed by an art gallery which was closed. We were able to peer through the wrought iron fence and view the dozen or so sculptures that were scattered around the grounds of the gallery. What was unique about these iron sculptures is that they had been made from decommissioned weapons and military equipment left over from 2 brutal wars.
Just past the art gallery is the sprawling Praça da Independência (Independence Square) featuring a large statue of Samora Machel, the first President of Mozambique. The statue is flanked on the north by the neoclassical city hall and on the east by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a beautiful Art Deco structure featuring a towering white spire at its front. As it was Sunday, there was a mass celebration taking place in the church and we could hear the upbeat African-Christian music resonating from the open front doors.
After spending some time in and around Independence Square our group gathered near city hall and boarded the bus for a quick drive to the Natural History Museum located a few hundred yards from the Indian Ocean. While some of our group chose to visit the museum, we decided instead, to walk across the street to the Hotel Cardosa and bask in the sunshine with a drink on the poolside patio that has magnificent views of the Indian Ocean. As we gazed out over the lapping waves crashing on the beach we could see several islands in the distance that run parallel to the shoreline. According to our guide, the Chinese have purchased these islands from Mozambique and are connecting them with a series of ultra-modern tunnels. The islands will eventually become a series of luxury resorts for wealthy Chinese and foreign tourists.
Following our brief retreat at the Cardosa, we once again boarded our bus and made our way to a small fort that overlooks the old fishing port in Maputo. The Fortaleza de Maputo was initially established as a small wooden fortress in the 1700’s by the Dutch from South Africa but has since been overtaken and rebuilt several times by the British, Austrians and Portuguese. It remains as a smallish, square structure built from reddish stone. There is a single gate which serves as both the entrance and exit that leads into a large open space. The perimeter of the fort contains various rooms filled with historic military relics and were once used for munitions, barracks, dining areas and cells. Outside the entrance to the fort is a large garden that separates the structure from the street. As we were leaving the fort, a large wedding party was gathering in front of the entrance for photographs. The men were dressed in smart suits and the women wore brightly coloured dresses. They sang and danced in a group as we watched and cheered them on.
Our next stop was to a lavish resort overlooking the Indian Ocean. We were escorted through the lobby to a grand dining room with high vaulted ceilings and large arching windows which filled the room with lots of natural light. A smaller room to the side had been set up with a splendid buffet lunch that included a variety of meats, vegetables, salads and delicious Portuguese deserts. After the enjoyable feast, we left the dining area and went outside to the gardens that led out of the hotel to the pools and beach. We strolled through the gardens and marveled at our lavish surroundings. As we looked up the beach towards the north we could see dozens of new resorts being built, funded by the Chinese. While we appreciated the beauty and splendour of our surroundings we also wondered at just who would be benefitting from all of this investment - and what the real costs would be to the people of Mozambique.
To wrap up our day in Maputo, we boarded our bus and travelled north through the city, along the shoreline where we passed by the various foreign embassies and eventually the relatively new Presidential Palace - built by the Chinese. We continued past more new resorts under construction and then turned away from the shoreline into the townships where narrow streets were beginning to fill with children and families who were bargaining with the vendors in make-shift market stands that were set up on either side of the street.
Our bus turned back towards the downtown area and we drove along the coastal road back to the train station. While some of our group went into the station museum, Kim and I lingered on the platform to enjoy the soothing rays of sunshine cast by the late afternoon sun. We were given the all-aboard at 4:30 and managed to get settled into the observation car at the back of the train just before departure at 5:00 pm. The train left the station and after a few kilometers through Maputo we reached the suburbs. For the next 90 minutes we passed through the townships. Rows and rows of sheet metal shacks in small yards that contained tiny square, roofless outbuildings. It didn’t take long to realize that these roofless outbuildings that we could look down into from the train served as the family toilet. What a striking contrast to the extravagance of the oceanside resorts just a few kilometers away. For mile after mile we saw children playing only a few feet from the railway track and then crossing the tracks to wave and smile at us as the train passed them by. We continued to ramble through the townships and eventually into the countryside where we left Maputo behind us, but not the images of its contrasting socio-economic culture.
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