For two consecutive days we woke up at 4:15. We slept on floors covered in cushions and in one case, large foam puzzle pieces. We heaved our packs down the misty hills in sleepy neighborhoods surrounding Mbabane and the quiet streets of Maputo. We ate fresh bread from street vendors and suspicious-looking cheese sandwiches. We crammed ourselves into minibuses while jamming out to shared iPods playing everything from Girl Talk to the new Kanye West.
We napped with our heads leaning forward on the sharp edges of the seats in front of us, waking periodically when our overstuffed khombis hit a particularly substantial bump. We watched as the landscape became increasingly tropical. We remarked that the passing homesteads situated in clearings surrounded by palm trees were just that much better than our own in Swaziland. We started to joke about field separation to Mozambique.
Finally, in the afternoon of December 23rd, after what amounted to roughly 15 hours of travel by khombi, we arrived in paradise. Tofo. A small but well-developed tourist haven situated in one of Mozambique’s most picturesque stretches of coastline. Fine, white sand. Clear, turquoise seawater. Blue skies and a breeze that made the surrounding jungle heat just tolerable.
The moment we had thrown our bags into the dorm and changed into our suits, the females of the group marveling at the ability to not only show off our knees but our entire thighs, we ran to the ocean. We splashed about in the warm water, lapping up the salt and washing away the grim of travel.
I stood in the surf and could feel with every surge and pull of the tide all the stress of the past six months drain away. All the long days of nothing, when my counterpart couldn’t meet me and the temperature reached 115 and all I could do was lie on my floor waiting for night, despite the knowledge that I would still fall asleep in a puddle of sweat. The long bus rides, up to my eyeballs in Swazi limbs, livestock and bags of maize. The frustration of a job that lacked the clarity and predictability of normal office hours and recognizable benchmarks. All of it was worth this moment.
Every other Christmas of my life has been spent in the throes of winter weather. Snow blizzards. Wet, cold drizzle. Sweaters, fireplaces and Charlie Brown Christmas Special playing in the background. This year, I climbed out of the khombi to find a beach side hostel whose every structure sported grass roofs, a barely five minute hop skip and jump away from the ocean and even running water.
We spent four days eating the best seafood of our lives (except for our Hawaiian colleague, for whom the food was just a reminder of home): line fish grilled to perfection with mango salsa, huge juicy prawns on a bed of leafy greens, calamari alongside coconut rice. At the market we got pineapples that the women cut up for us, rendering it possible to walk around eating the fruit like a popsicle. Oh and the glorious bags of roasted cashews that we constantly munched on.
We haggled over wooden bracelets and pants made of colorful print, some of us more successful than others at naming a reasonable price. We met fellow PCVs from all over southern Africa: Zambia, South Africa, Namibia.
The best thing I heard upon my return was from a good friend and fellow PCV who lives across the country. I had been back in Swaziland about four days and while at lunch on New Year’s Eve, she looked at me and said in all sincerity that I seemed completely at ease. And kind of tan. A huge accomplishment given my stubbornly pasty complexion.
And now I’m back at site, sweaty with no ocean breeze nor ocean to jump in to relieve this constant affliction. Yet I feel reinvigorated, ready to begin the work that I have been prepping for months to actually and finally start doing. 2011 is my full year in Africa, so let’s do this thing.