Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Playing Daily: Real Live Drama On Streets Of Maputo, Mozambique

Playing Daily: Real Live Drama On Streets Of Maputo, Mozam-bique

As regular Steve On Broadway readers will know, I was in Africa during the last couple weeks of 2009 through the first three days of the New Year.

To say that my journey through South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Swaziland was unforgettable would be a huge understatement. In addition to many breathtaking opportunities to view animals, the aspect of my travels that I'll treasure the most was meeting wonderful and gracious people at almost every turn, with the emphasis on "almost."

You see, despite being beseiged in advance of my trip with one warning on top of another about my safety, I found that by taking sensible precautions, I ultimately had very little to really fear. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people were incredibly warm, hospitable and exceedingly gracious. I was appropriately wowed.

That is, with the exception of one fateful turn in Mozambique's capital city of Maputo on New Year's Day when I encountered a handful of corrupt “police” thugs on the city's streets as I was driving my rental car.

Two days earlier in Pretoria, Dollar Thrifty provided me with the necessary legal documents for driving from South Africa into both Mozambique and Swaziland. Driving into Swaziland later proved to be absolutely no problem, but the Mozambique border crossing, for starters, is riddled with chaos with its cloying denizens of shady characters trying to "help" you at every turn. Still, I got through it with my papers and after about an hour spent at the border as the Love Of My Life (LOML) and I waited for our visas to be processed, we made our way through the border crossing without any real incident.

I had already been made aware that dubious “police” in Mozambique tend to pull over cars with license tags from South Africa, so I was not only careful to observe all laws ranging from driving just under the speed limit to ensuring I had two hazard triangles tucked away in my trunk, but I also tried to drive as much as possible behind other vehicles. That way, by the time I passed any police roadblock, it was really too late for them to target my car. On New Year’s Eve, I made it all the way to my hotel without any issue and actually began to think all the horror stories I had read were a bit over the top.

But when I began driving in Maputo on New Year’s Day in clear daylight on my way out of town and toward Swaziland, an armed “policeman” was standing right in the middle of the street I was driving down and motioned for me to pull over. In fact, if you look at the top photo, taken moments before we were stopped, you can make out the "policeman" standing in the street. In all, there were probably about five of these uniformed "police," complete with guns. Even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, I complied and pulled over.

The lead “policeman” demanded to see my driver’s license. While I purposely had two wallets on me – a dummy one for thieves and my real one – I had to pull out my real wallet since it had my driver’s license in it. I also showed him my international driver’s license, which is required in Mozambique. So far, so good.

The “policeman” then demanded to see the vehicle registration, and the one I had from Dollar Thrifty was photocopied and included a letter from them stating express permission for me to drive into Mozambique.

He said I needed to show him the car’s actual certified registration, which Dollar Thrifty had only provided a copy of. I told the rogue cop that it was official. He said it was not. He then said that they would need to “park my car for two days (presumably since it was a Saturday) and then they could move forward then.”

As fear that our entire vacation would be ruined was beginning to set in, I countered that this would be impossible since we needed to be in Johannesburg 2 days hence for our flight home. Since I essentially had a gun in my face, I remained polite, yet the "policeman" and I continued arguing about the official nature of my papers until he said that I could take care of the matter then and there.

I asked how much it would cost. He said $200 US.

A bribe.

I said I didn’t have that. He asked how much I had, and I opened my real wallet and had only about $23. He said again that he needed $200. I said I didn’t have anything more than that. He then turned to my LOML and said, “How much do you have?” My LOML had about $60. The “policeman” took that money and let us go.

In retrospect, I should have demanded we resolve the matter at the police station. If he was a legit police officer, then we could have called Dollar Thrifty from there. If he wasn’t a real police officer, then I’m not sure what would have happened. So shame on me for not thinking more clearly at the moment, but again, we had guns in our faces. But more so, shame on the government of Mozambique for allowing such disgraceful thuggery to play out on its streets.

I have to say that the sobering experience left us with a very bad feeling about Mozambique, which was only exacerbated when U.S. Embassy personnel we later met at a game reserve in Swaziland told us that incidents like ours happen all the time in Mozambique and that embassy personnel routinely have to expense the money they lose each day to corrupt police misdeeds.

It’s truly a shame because our experience with the actual people in Mozambique, notwithstanding the chaotic border crossing, had been excellent. But it also points to the desperation of people in places like Mozambique, which ranks among the poorest of African countries after suffering into the mid-90s from the ravages of civil war and a communist regime. If you look at the other photos, you'll see how some of the typical buildings currently appear in the heart of this city. Despite some amazing architecture, the heart of Maputo looks like a wasteland (the section of the city where my hotel stands is in much better shape).

While we felt extremely violated by the drama that unfolded on the streets of Maputo, we realized that it was really the luck of the draw. Had we been one street over, we may never have experienced any incident. But my advice for anyone traveling by car to Mozambique is to truly be on your guard.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I obviously received nothing of value in exchange for this post. I paid a price for driving on the streets of Maputo.

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At 07 January, 2010, Blogger Bob said...

Um. WOW.

Thank god you and your partner got through that mess safe and unshot.

At 07 January, 2010, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

We were pretty gobsmacked afterward. All we kept saying to each other was, "Did that really just happen??" We were also concerned that we might cross more checkpoints like that before driving out of the country, but none materialized.

By the way, it took us about another hour before we reached the Swaziland border. The Swazi border crossing charges a nominal fee for crossing in a car of about $8, which we did not have. We explained what had occurred in Maputo and they kindly waived us through.

At 12 January, 2010, Anonymous Pre-Read said...

While I can't imagine how I would have reacted, I think complying with the "policeman" was a smart thing to do. While asking to resolve the matter at the local police station might have scared him into letting you go, it could have made him angry and who knows what could have happened.

In all, you have an amazing story to add to those of your wonderful trip...AND how cool are the Swaziland border patrol to allow you to pass wihthout fee.

As always, great post!

At 13 January, 2010, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I loved Swaziland immensely. And the people there were some of the most wonderful and gracious I met while in Africa (and that's saying a lot).


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