Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Picture that Got Me in a Tussle with the Mozambiquean Police, and Then Some

It’s not every day that you get into run-ins with the foreign police force. But, your chances improve a lot when you can’t speak the local language. Case in point: me. The other day I was up in Nampula, the third largest city in the country but an afterthought of a town. Noticing how I had basically no pictures from Mozambique, I decided to wander around with my camera while buying my lunch on the street. I ran into a vendor named Tony, who asked me for rice. As a rule I don’t give money to able-bodied individuals, but since it was food I decided to help him out. We went on an extensive search for rice, walking up and down the streets.

That’s when I ran into a tall, thick Mozambiquean in forest green pants, light green shirt, and green beret. He rapidly spouted out some Portuguese I didn’t understand and grabbed my camera right from my hand. I was immediately stunned, then pretty angry. I don’t consider myself a stubborn guy, but like anyone else I hate getting pushed around, especially foreigners trying to take advantage of me. I grabbed it back, but he didn’t let go, raising his voice to me. He grabbed my arm and took it off, then explained something to Tony while I stood there fuming. A solid crowd was starting to gather. Everyone was watching – there must have been at least 20 people around.

Tony turned to me and said, in extremely broken English, something about a photo and whether I remembered it or not. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He pointed to my hotel and we started walking until we got to the backside. He pointed to my balcony, and I heard words like “photo” and “President”. Now I remembered: I had taken a picture of the street from my balcony…but it wasn’t of anything important, at least I thought.

He escorted me over to a nice looking whitewashed house with a manicured lawn (you can see it in the picture in question), where three ladies, including one female officer, were discussing. They talked, I heard “President” thrown out there, and one of the women pointed at me. The male officer walked closer to the house, hidden behind some cars in the driveway. I followed closely, with Tony in stow. Some very confusing Portuguese ensued, with mention of “money”. Tony said some very basic English, which sounded like he or the officer was asking for money. I wondered how deep I was going to have to reach into my wallet.

I made one more grab for the camera, and a full tug-of-war ensued (my cousin, who lent me this camera, probably isn’t thrilled to hear this). The three women came over to break up the altercation. “No fighting, no fighting,” they said. Eventually they had the brilliant idea to see the pictures on my camera. They scrolled through until they found the picture above. They looked at it and handed me the camera, as simple as that. Tony and I walked away like nothing had happened.

Baffled by what had just ensued, I brought Tony to my hotel so the clerk could translate. As it turns out, my innocent picture had been of the home of the "President" of the province (or more correctly, the governor). Apparently it was considered a security threat, and any photography had to have clearance. Add this to the fact that it was foreigner taking the picture with a high resolution camera, and there you go. The shot was just too far away, so it was okay. Goodness. I felt embarrassed, angry, and stupid all at once. And I just laughed at myself. Tony and I couldn’t help laughing about it as we walked off. Maybe I should invest some time in Portuguese lessons…

AS AN ADDENDUM: The fun didn't stop there. Tony invited me to his home, to get to which we had to weave through a forest of thatched roof vendors in the city's slums. It looked like every t-shirt the US has ever donated ended up there - shirts like "Northwest YMCA Faith Warriors" or "2003 Pop Warner Cheerleading Championship" were found. And I didn't just get to see his house. Other highlights included beating his friend Larry in foosball 2 games to 1, watching a Tony and Larry partake in a drug deal and then hanging with them as they smoked, and enjoying sodas and peanuts while watching the drunks dance like zombies in this bar or play with their empty gin bottles as they stared into space. But the best part was when I found a large group of locals. They invited me over to try their smoothie-looking home brew. For $0.30 I got a sample from a worn, chewed up measuring cup. It smelled and tasted vaguely like vomit. But, in a matter of seconds I had taken it down, and they laughed hysterically upon seeing the distraught look on my face.

Then, just as I was walking away, another woman came up to me. The Portuguese she said was a blur to me, and realizing that I didn’t understand, she slowed down. She made some arm motions, I heard the words “drinking” and “casa” as she pointed over toward some homes behind her. Then she said, “Me" pointing at herself, something other Portuguese, and then "veinte.” I remember thinking, “She doesn’t look 50.” I soon realized that not only does veinte not mean 50, she also wasn’t talking about her age. As we walked away, Tony chuckled, “She want you.”Ohhhhh – it clicked. He explained, “Here a drinking, then a f***ing.” Wow. Only 20 metrecais – that’s like 65 cents. My first thought was just how unbelievable it was that she approached me, but then I realized how sad it was that she was going to offer herself up for $0.65. This was the going rate – even for a foreigner. I wondered what she charged the locals. I really need to learn some Portuguese.

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