An Encounter with Harry Potter on Ihla de Moçambique
After travelling for two days eating mainly only bread and snacks bought through the train/bus window, the idea of Ihla de Moçambique conjured up images of massive, plump, grilled king prawns and fresh fish in our minds. This hope is shattered on the evening of our arrival, when after making our selections of prawns, calamari, and grilled fish from the menu at a local restaurant, we are informed that the only thing available is fried fish. We are shown the fish: not only is it fried, it is pre-fried – we are not sure exactly at what time or on what day. Not exactly appetizing. Disappointed, we resign ourselves to a dinner of beer and batatas fritas.
Nursing our beers with Emeric and Seiko (our new travel companions, a French/Japanese couple met on the chapas from Nampula), we hear a voice from the next table. “Hey, where’re you guys from?” Strange, we think, a local boy with a British accent. Curious but skeptical (skepticism bred by the harassments from local touts we had already faced on the island), we tentatively exchange a few words and ask a few questions. Sure enough, the boy – who introduces himself as “Harry Potter” – soon offers us a boat trip and touts that he has a meeting with UNESCO to discuss local tourism the following day. However, he also has a suggestion when we asked him where we can get a decent meal on the island. “Ask her if there’s any nemeeno left”, he says. “I brought a tour group here earlier today and they prepared a big pot.”
We don’t know what nemeeno is, but we ask. It turns out to be a stew with an unattractive appearance (greyish sauce with unknown objects inside) but delicious and strange flavours from a combination of coconut, small fried fish, green bananas, and mango seeds.
I start to have a bit of confidence in Harry Potter. “Do you know if there is there anywhere on the island that we can camp?” I ask. Our lodge has told us there is none, but we have doubts given their conflict of interest. He replies: “No, but I know a place where you can stay for really cheap, only 250 meticals per night for a room. It’s right on the ocean and there’s a really nice wind, you don’t even need a fan. It’s the only place I know like that.” Again, we are skeptical, but we have nothing to lose as our present accommodation is dark and basic, yet quite expensive. We make an appointment to meet him the following morning to see the accommodation together.
The following morning, we arrive at the designated spot but Harry Potter doesn’t show up. We wait for 20 minutes and ask around, but nobody seems to know him or understand our terrible Portuguese very well. We are about to give up and walk away, when he comes running up. “Sorry sorry sorry,” he says, disheveled and smelling slightly of alcohol. “Last night my friends came and we were drinking beers like click, clack, cluck. I just woke up and saw the time, I jumped straight out of bed and ran all the way here.”
Our skepticism is renewed but we go to check out the accommodation. We walk past the hospital and turn right at a road full of stones under construction. He leads us through a gate and suddenly we see the turquoise ocean in front of us. A door to the left and stairs going up, and a fresh strong ocean wind blows and we find a neat apartment with spacious rooms and high ceilings, owned by Signora Chenina who lives there with her two beautiful daughters Maizena and Carmen. We immediately move in.
Thanks to Harry Potter (whose real name is Genito), we spend four beautiful days on Ihla de Moçambique living with Chenina and her family. Ihla de Moçambique is a tiny island (about 3.5km long and 350-500m wide) which gained importance from its strategic position between Asia and Africa. Initially inhabited by the Makhuwa people, voyages by Arab sailors created a meeting between the African population and Arab traders. The island (and later the country) derived its name from Moussa M’Biki, an Arab trader who visited and later lived on the island. With the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498, Ihla de Moçambique became a main Portuguese port, serving as a port of call for Portuguese ships travelling between Europe and Asia. It became the capital of Portuguese East Africa, until the capital was relocated to Maputo in 1898. The island is divided into 2 distinct parts: the European style Cidade de Pedra e Cal (stone-built town) in the north, and the Cidade de Macuti (Macuti town) in the south. Much of the old Stone Town is in ruins.
The island doesn’t offer the most amazing beaches, but we swim with dolphins that come to play when people jump off the jetty near the Old Fort, and the atmosphere of the old town is magical. We do also eventually take a boat trip with Genito – the beaches and snorkeling end up being over-touted, but the journey in the dhow and the walk to shore with women collecting sea creatures in the sand at low tide are unforgettable.
If you go to Ihla de Moçambique, look out for Harry Potter. Even if you don’t find him, he will find you.