Remember at the beginning of November when I was about to board a plane and go to Mozambique in Southern Africa by myself?
Remember how, fewer than two weeks before I was set to depart, the person I was meant to meet up with for the trip cancelled on me? Another girl had floated into his life and he followed his heart – which meant he stayed in South Africa with her and told me he had to cancel our plans.
Though disappointed, I wasn’t angry with him, but I was scared of what lay ahead of me. I worried about what a place like Mozambique would hold considering I couldn’t find any information at all online about traveling there as a solo female, except for some terrible advice on a SCUBA message board that made my blood boil:
I couldn’t believe that everyone was trying to talk her out of going to Mozambique alone.
I mean, first of all, Zimbabwe isn’t Mozambique, and second of all, it hasn’t been ‘Rhodesia’ since Jimmy Carter was in office.
That was all that I found on the topic of solo female travel in Mozambique, apart from an account of a woman who was robbed there, so while a little fearful of what laid ahead of me, I still packed up and went because I wasn’t about to let a guy end my trip before it even started. I know how to stay safe when I travel, right?
I decided I’d handle things in the same way as I did when I first started traveling, and that I wanted to get back to the soul of being on the road – like couchsurfing with locals during my short time in South Africa, and that way, I’d be able to get some local suggestions for Mozambique before I took off.
I found a host who had a house in Johannesburg full of PhD and medical students who were all about to graduate. He said I was welcome to stay as long as I liked and once I landed and made my way there, they welcomed me immediately and invited me up to one of the lookout points in the city for the sunset. It all came full circle as I had done the very same thing on my first day in South Africa back in January, with a sunset from a peaceful vantage point, so my body was hardly able to comprehend where it was.
Later that night we had an impromptu rain dance (there’s a drought in South Africa at the moment). The whole house got into it. I’m still not clear on how much it was in earnest and how much was just silly and playing around, but I loved the fact that we were all dancing together, laughing, burning incense, and making up moves to an 8-minute rain dance song on YouTube. It reminded me why, from the beginning, I’d principally sought travel like this – being new in a room where nobody knew me, given a chance to learn so much about the local culture, provided an opportunity to come into something existing and lasting as a guest, and being able to reap the energy and carry a bit of it away with me.
Over the next couple of days I obtained a Mozambican visa, bought a bus ticket, had a couple of BBQs and a pool day with my couchsurfing host, then left on an early morning 10-hour bus bound for Maputo – the capital of Mozambique.
I’d heard nothing but horror stories about the city and the border crossing. The police were rumored to be corrupt, and everyone told me not to go out at night and to get out of the city as quickly as possible. I’d also been told that it was likely I’d have to pay bribes at the border, so when I arrived, I was ready for a challenge.
I felt a bit like a video game character advancing a level with each officer who reached out his hand for my passport and asked questions, wondering if he’d be the one to ask for money.
“You’re from California! The Sunshine State.”
“Nah that’s Florida, California is the Golden State, sir,” I replied, making eye contact the entire time, my back completely straight. He let me pass.”
Next up, an officer with a man polishing his shoes gave me a sly smile and flipped through the pages of my fat and fraying passport. The person just ahead of me had a crumpled up rand note ready to go. I was too focused to see if he had to hand it over or not.
“America. Obama! I want to go there!” the officer said, handing my passport back. Another one passed.
Finally, the last officer with a giant scar near his eye took my passport just as I was about to slink by, unnoticed.
“America! Chicago!” he said. “No, Los Angeles,” I replied to no recognition on his face. “California?” I ventured. Still nothing.
“I only know Hollywood,” he replied, sheepish. “Yes, California,” I smiled.
I could tell he wasn’t used to being corrected, and he’d gone from appearing the most eager and likely to ask for a bribe to just wanting me to walk away. He then handed my passport back over and wished me a good time in Mozambique.
Most of the land crossings I’ve experienced in Africa are the same: hot, incredibly dusty and dirty, and crawling with hawkers trying to sell everything from SIM cards to a horrible exchange rate for some US dollars. Cars, trucks and buses funnel through as the foot traffic weaves to the sides and through the middle, forming a line for a stamp into the next place. A new horizon, a fresh adventure.
I boarded the bus again and sat myself next to a Portuguese woman. She was petite, wearing dark jeans in the insane summer heat, and stared pensively out the window in between nodding off to sleep and reading. Her dark, curly hair grazed her large, black-framed glasses, and I figured she’d be an artist (which was true). We started talking and I expressed to her that I was worried about Maputo, and she wrinkled her brows and said, “give it a chance, and I think you’ll find that there’s a soul to it.”
I stepped off the bus after the better part of 10 hours, which weren’t all that bad for some reason (my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, perhaps?), to a taxi driver greeting me and promising that he was from my hostel, Fatima’s. I was skeptical, but what options did I have? So I went along. He tried to charge me nearly $8 for the 2km ride, which I knew was way too expensive. He gave me the upper hand when he took my bag out of the trunk and handed it over before I paid, so I asked him to kindly wait a moment while I grabbed the hostel manager who talked him down to the standard rate of $4.
My years of traveling have served me well.
After checking into the hostel, sweaty and tired, a tall, dark-haired Brazilian man previously sitting at his computer with headphones on came over and handed me a coffee.
“You look like you could use this,” he said with a smile.
Later that night, he and a local hostel employee invited my dormmate, a tall, blonde, 18-year old English girl named Ella who had just started her solo travels, and in Mozambique of all places, and me out to an art gallery party (Nucleo de Arte, if you’re interested). Remembering what the Portuguese woman had told me, I accepted and so did Ella.
What unfolded was easily one of the best dance parties I’ve ever been to. Contrary to what I’d heard about Maputo, everyone there was dressed nicely, spoke English well, and appeared far more polished than I was in my comfy shorts and loose shirt.
The art was impressive, and so was the music. The sound system was shockingly good, and the locals tended to form circles, each doing a dance that she or he had clearly perfected for years – it was each person’s individual move, and the competition was fierce. The Afro-house music blasted until after midnight, and I tried to forget about my 4am bus departure the next morning.
In the midst of the good energy and beats, that’s when you find a dance move you never had in you before, and an appreciation for something you never realized you’d always yearned for. It nestles itself right into your heart where it will probably prod you forever – this night, this place, this feeling.
I realized that night that I was happy to be on the trip alone, as I’d opened myself up to serendipity. That’s the thing about solo travel, because otherwise the most important person in the room is missing: The real you. It’s the person you are when nobody you know is around to influence you.
I always say traveling doesn’t change you but rather allows you to truly be who you’ve always been. On that warm night with muddy feet and a smile from ear to ear, I was me again.