2000s Archive

Hungry For Adventure

continued (page 2 of 4)

I followed Zizi deeper into the bush. He stopped short; for some time he stood frozen, without moving a muscle, without taking a breath. With the nearly imperceptible movement of a sidewalk mime, he leaned forward and cautiously reached for a small sign tied to a stake in front of him. The familiar red-and-white–striped plastic tape I’d seen on the children’s kites marked off some ground in the distance. Visibly shaking and with frustrating slowness, he turned the sign toward us.

I caught my breath. A vacant-eyed skull and crossbones printed against a bright-red background warned: perigo minas! emina! Below the skull, in the language of the local Machope people: xipulukwa!—dzophulika! The striped tape ahead marked the cleared access area—we were in the middle of a minefield!

A long jump away would get us to the other side. I thought he could make it, but I was behind him. Could I? I was standing on a postage stamp, and because of the need to remain motionless, I felt I was about to topple over. I turned to see if I could retrace my footsteps, but only a few broken branches marked where we had blundered through.

Without warning, Zizi took a clumsy leap, knocking over the sign and falling onto his face; he scuttled into the middle of the cordoned-off area on his hands and knees. He was safe. I teetered under the withering midday sun, surrounded by mines. I felt very alone. The distance between me and safety seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon. Knees knocking, I coiled and jumped and stumbled just beyond the tape. I wiped the sweat of fear from my face.

On the safe side of the minefield, we followed an access area cleared for a path and found our way back to the road. In the pickup we sat in silence, staring ahead at the back end of passing traffic. I was still shaking. In the distance, a half dozen members of a minesweeping team in orange jumpsuits boarded a bus. How could we have stumbled through a minefield without blowing ourselves up?

“People steal signs and then put them on their land to keep other people away,” Zizi explained. This patch, I hear later, may have just been cleared but not registered, and locals, thinking it was safe, had probably taken the sign.

A half hour later, we pulled into Zandemela, a little false-fronted village of Portuguese influence. The tiny restaurant beside the road, our matapa destination at last, was nothing more than a rounded cane hut with three tables covered in blue-and-white–checkered cloth. Chest-high cement walls splashed with colorful murals enclosed the dining area; wide-eyed green figures—intertwined, knotted together, a Dantesque creation of the artist’s anguish—were painted subway-graffiti style across the walls. The land-mine signs cast small shadows on the dirt just outside the restaurant under the orange and lime trees.

A well-fed middle-aged Mozambican clad in a white button-down shirt and conservative tie and an attractive young woman in Western clothes sat at one of the tables, a mobile phone next to their meal of frango zambeziana, grilled chicken marinated in coconut milk. The man looked up and nodded his head at us in silent greeting.

“Governor of province,” Zizi said quietly.

Lounging at the only other table was Zizi’s cousin and fishing partner, Guebo, a Mozambican from up-country whose Portuguese father had been a policeman during the colonial era and whose mother, from a tribe in the north, had died a couple of years back from cerebral malaria. He was a skinny young man with laughing black eyes, a quick smile, and a futile attempt at a mustache. He wore a black woven ski cap.

A boy about ten years old in a threadbare T-shirt and shorts passed by carrying long bamboo kebab sticks of tiny fish. I motioned that I’d like to taste one. He shied away, but after some soothing words from Zizi, the boy reluctantly handed me one of his wooden lances.

“You do this,” Zizi said. He slid off a tiny fish and popped it into his mouth—bones, guts, head, and all—then handed one to me. Going beyond the aesthetic and necessarily chased with a beer, it was good—and it kicked in the juices. I hadn’t realized I was so hungry. But one was enough, and Zizi and Guebo gulped down the rest.

Peixe castigado,” Guebo offered. “Here in province, when you punished for crime, you are tied to tree in sun and you make your arms like this,” he clowned, outstretching his scrawny arms as in a crucifixion. “And you stay long, long time. Same way to smoke fish. Castigado.”

A raven-size crow with a thick white neck perched above the skull and crossbones of a land-mine sign and stared at us with critical eyes. I sat back under the cooling breeze, happy for the beer and eager to taste this matapa.

Malat, the owner of the place, was a giant of a man with a pendulous gut, a laugh as large as his stomach, and corvine eyes as sharp as the crow’s. Clad in a bright-yellow T-shirt with the picture of a pistol pointing into his pants, he entered with a tray of glasses and a liter-size plastic Coke bottle of sura, a creamy concoction made from the drippings of hanging coconut fronds. Direct from the tree, it is given to children as a sort of nourishing soft drink. Left sitting and untouched for 24 hours, it becomes a coconut beer; the third day it becomes a very strong coco­nut beer; and on the fourth day the potion is simply lethal. It was day two for this particular batch, and it tasted like a barium treatment—a little lemony, a little sweet, a little chalky, and a bit effervescent. You would have to be hard-core to want to party on this stuff.

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