“Welcome to Africa!”

Remember how this has always been a comforting thing to say when things don’t quite go according to plan in our expat lives here in South Africa?

Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. Turns out we hadn’t seen the real Africa yet, just a very sanitized version of it. We felt much more in Africa after two days in Mozambique, and would have welcomed a good dose of South African efficiency. And I suspect there are many places even more “African” than that. But Mozambique is a good starting point to make South Africa look really really good.

Our four-day trip to Pemba Beach had started out well enough. 3-hour flight from OR Tambo, on time, no problem. We had even brought the right credit card! The weather was warm and pleasant on arrival, much nicer than the cold drizzle we had left behind in Joburg. We were ushered into a crammed and smelly arrivals office, where the first order of business was to purchase visas. Everybody had to be fingerprinted and photographed, and another valuable page disappeared out of Noisette’s passport (he is running on almost empty in that department and pining for his new passport to arrive). Oh, and it cost us US$420, just for the visas. But before I complain about such highway robbery, I should mention that this is the fate of our South African friends when they travel to Europe or America.


Nice pool, but terrible service and mediocre rooms at Pemba Beach Hotel

So far so good, but now our progress ground to a complete halt. There was a Pemba Beach Hotel shuttle waiting outside, which our bags were loaded into, but then nothing happened. We couldn’t even climb aboard, because I was given the evil eye by a woman who had spread herself across several seats and practically hissed at me that they were already taken, when I dared poke my head in. So we sat on the curb, and waited. As usual, I was the one peppered with questions like “when are we leaving for the hotel?” from Zax and “Mooooooooom, why are we not leaving?” from Impatience. Also as usual, Jabulani was completely happy watching an ant colony he’d discovered, and Sunshine was picking up Plumeria blossoms and distributing them to people. I sometimes wonder how we could have produced such different children. Impatience had already tugged at my nerves leading up to this trip. For the first time since we arrived in Africa, we were taking malaria medication. It only comes in pills, and already in the doctor’s office a week before I had seen disaster looming, because the girls had never taken pills before. Sunshine looked at hers, said “I can do this” and swallowed it without a hitch. Impatience (who is two years older) looked at hers, squealed “I can’t do this”, and promptly spit it out. It actually wasn’t the real one yet, we were only practicing with a bunch of antihistamines, but after something like ten trials she had made no progress whatsoever. Only after removing myself from the premises so I wouldn’t just take the darn pill and shove it down her throat like I used to have to do with our cat, and giving Noisette a chance to calmly grind everything into tiny pieces and serve it up with a spoon of apple sauce and some sprinkles, was the situation defused.

(I should mention here that there has been some lobbying lately from Impatience and Zax for more positive blog names, but as long as they keep reaffirming them every day I just can’t think of anything else!)


The kitchen in our villa was okay but not well-stocked. And you can’t capture the smell in a photo!
Against all expectations, they did end up fixing this by our last day


Back at Pemba airport, nothing was moving. As it turned out, the majority of the passengers trying to cram into the shuttle did not even want to be here. They were scheduled to fly on to some offshore island, but their plane had broken down, so they were now coming to Pemba Beach Hotel with us. I had a twinge of pity for their ordeal, but it didn’t excuse the guy who petulantly whined that he couldn’t possibly be expected to stand, once we’d all crammed into the van and were only waiting for him to get going, after about an hour’s delay. Noisette finally got up from his shared front seat and told the guy to go sit, just so we could get going. We took this opportunity to educate our kids that there are people all around us in Johannesburg who endure this crammed commute every single day of their lives, after waiting in long lines, sometimes for hours, for the ubiquitous minibus taxis. I kept reminding Impatience, who was still nagging, that we just had to get there and the pool would be waiting for us, together with a nice cool drink.


Mozambique has beautiful beaches. Unfortunately ours also had sea urchins just below the water line at low tide.


Well. I must admit my credibility with her has taken a hit. The pool was waiting for us alright, but not our room. “The previous tenants are late checking out, just give us 30 more minutes,” we were informed. I glanced at my watch. It was 3:00 in the afternoon. We were beckoned to the lobby to come have a seat, and I was mollified by the prospect of a nice cool drink, on the house. But from here on all service disappeared. As time went by, the kids shed their pants, one by one, and dipped into the pool, except for Impatience, who was still nagging. I went to find the hotel bar to order a smoothie for her, but they only had soft drinks. Which took about 40 minutes to arrive, by which time of course they were not very cold. Noisette and the boys went to check out the scuba center while I made another trip to the reception. “Just 20 more minutes,” I was told that time. By now even I was starting to be annoyed. I wasn’t giving much credibility to 20 minutes when the previous 30 minutes took over an hour. When Noisette returned after another 30 minutes and marched off to the reception, they told him it was still 5 more minutes. But he had had enough. He demanded the manager, and demanded to be shown our villa. The poor man squirmed and tried to wiggle out of it, but there is no escaping Noisette’s wrath when he is angry, so together they marched off. And what should they find at the villa? The tenants still there! No one had even tried to dislodge them. The manager mumbled something about “locals who are hard to get out” but somehow convinced them to get packing while Noisette came to get us. We left behind the other guests at the reception (some of whom I overheard were outraged because they found someone else in the room they were just given!) and made our way – finally – to our rooms. We encountered the hard-to-get-out-locals, who, I swear to you, on their way out were poking their heads into other villas to see if they were vacant.


I think I’ve already got my next Christmas picture!


Basically, all of Pemba Beach Hotel has a run-down, seen-better-days feel to it. Which is kind of hard to accomplish in just the nine years it has been in existence. Nothing quite works, the service is dismal, things are missing. Our rooms, when we finally drove out the occupiers, as we came to call them, smelled so awful our kids were beginning an open revolt. A mixture of extreme sweat and cooked fish. It did not go away the entire time we were there. The one key we were given did not work on the back sliding door, but the front door could not be pulled close from outside, due to the fact that the door handle kept falling off, necessitating a strange ritual of having to enter through the front door and exit through the back door and sliding it shut with a yank, hoping it would lock in the process. Several light bulbs were missing, and taking a shower flooded the entire master suite. The croissants at breakfast tasted of soap, half the items on the menu were not to be had, and it took at least 30 minutes to order such a simple thing as hot water. Thank goodness we had a pack of Uno with us to pass the time while waiting for food. Let me just say we played many rounds of Uno in Mozambique (one day I’ll have to teach you the “international rules”). Some of the food we had (at outrageous prices!) was extremely bad. And all of it being “served” by unsmiling, indifferent people. There were never any towels at the pool in the mornings, and when they arrived, it would only be about 10 of them, going like hotcakes. Throughout the day a few more would appear, but never enough. I would puzzle why he didn’t just bring all of them at once, but by the end of our stay it finally dawned on me that there simple weren’t enough. I doubt that they were being washed in between, as they also didn’t smell very nice. I am almost certain they just took them around the corner, dried them on a line, and refolded them. Same with the cutlery at the restaurant. You’d be eating your breakfast and a waitress would appear and just take away one of the spoons you hadn’t used yet, and then you’d see her wander to another table and give it to a person there, someone who’d obviously asked for a spoon. When I couldn’t find any shampoo in our room, I asked the housekeeper for one, but she just shook her head and informed me, in Portuguese, that there was no shampoo in the entire hotel. Conditioner yes, shampoo no. It’s as if they had a supply some time back and simply ran out, quicker of the shampoo than the conditioner, and no one bothered to order more. I also suspect that our episode of the occupied room was a sign of the local management dealing on the side for their own pocket, renting out rooms off the books.


Typical street scene in Mozambique


On our second day we attempted a trip to town but were warned by other guests just returning that there was nothing much to see. Our hotel, it appears, was the most luxurious thing by far in the area, if not all of Mozambique. I remember now that we had struggled to find it in the first place, that even on the Internet most hotels we checked out looked run down. I know I’m sounding a bit petulant and spoiled for not even wanting to check out the locale, but somehow our enthusiasm was dampened. I also know that one visit doesn’t warrant a generalization, yet we wonder. What looked picturesque and quaint in Zimbabwe, which is arguable an even poorer country, seemed to reek of negligence and decay in Mozambique, and I think it has to do with people’s attitudes. South Africans and Zimbabweans are very friendly with mostly sunny dispositions, and you can’t help feel drawn in by that. Everywhere we’ve travelled so far in Southern Africa, we’ve loved it. The service we received in Zimbabwe (admittedly, Victoria Falls is not your average place in Zimbabwe), even though hampered by the difficulties of sourcing some food items, was always impeccable, whereas the attitude we encountered in Mozambique was one of not caring much at all. Boats and planes didn’t go on schedule, food didn’t arrive for hours, and no one ever really felt sorry about it or in any way responsible. Perhaps it’s also a matter of education, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

History could play a role too, and Mozambique certainly has had its share of tough luck over the years. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, and after long years of guerilla warfare, the country soon slipped into another war when ENAMO rebels, aided first by what was then Rhodesia and later by the South African apartheid regime, engaged in a long and bloody civil war fighting against the Marxist government until 1992, when peace was made and the first multi-party elections held. Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in Africa but has seen some rapid growth in its economy over the last decade. A large part of that is fueled by tourism, as it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, which makes the lack of service we experienced all the more puzzling. I doubt we’ll return there anytime soon, considering that the prices were as high as anywhere else in Africa and having to take malaria medication is a drag we’re only willing to put our family through for a place that’s totally worth it.


We were relieved that we had only booked four days at Pemba and not an entire week. And we were even more relieved, and actually surprised, when our flight (the one and only flight to Jobrug for the next three days) actually left on time without a hitch. Overall, I can hardly recommend Pemba Beach Hotel (see my Tripadvisor review). It felt as if its previous owners had been chased away and whoever took over didn’t quite know how to run it. Which, I will stick out my neck and say, is maybe what happened to all of Mozambique. But I’ll be happy to stand corrected by those of you who’ve been there and have a better picture to paint.


Note: My brother just reminded me that our Great-Aunt Charlotte and her daughter were kidnapped (by those same rebels mentioned above) in Mozambique about 30 years ago. They were working at the American embassy in Mozambique at the time and our memory is sort of hazy on the details of what happened (they were released eventually and it made for a great story, adding to a long line of good stories told by Tante Lotte, as we called her) but it just goes to show that Mozambique HAS made progress. Mozambique – from kidnappings to broken door handles and missing shampoo!

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