That Fish Market in Maputo

I’m in between trips and trip planning right now.  I’m not sure if I want to head to Greece to see Athens and explore Crete, or if I want to get lost wandering around Venice.  Venice has been on my list of places for a long time, but Greece seems oh-so fascinating…

Anyway, I’m here at my “office” the coffee shop and I thought I would share a little story about a fish market I visited in Maputo.  Maputo is the capital city of Mozambique, a long narrow country on the southwest coast of Africa.  

While I was studying in Botswana, a group of Americans that were in my program decided we should take a road trip to Moz on our “spring break”, which was actually in the autumn, but hey- that’s the Southern Hemisphere for you.  There were about 21 US students in my program and from that there were about four groups that formed, each with specific spring break travel plans.  It took me a little while to decide where I wanted to go, but the idea of tropical beaches and the clear blue Indian Ocean won out.  We rented a combi, otherwise known as a van, and hired a driver.  The driver brought his girlfriend because who doesn’t want to go on a fantastic road trip?  Combi’s look like old VW vans and seat about 6 more or less comfortably.  We were more than six, plus luggage, so we weren’t comfortable.  It took us about 8 hours to drive through Botswana, through South Africa, and across the Moz border.  Border crossings are less than fun (especially when several members of your group take sleeping pills for the car ride, then try to fight them as they stand in line at the border.  Yikes.)  Finally in Maputo, we wanted to check out this famous fish market.  The idea is you go in, purchase some fresh fish from the market, then bring it to the outdoor restaurant-ish area next door, and hire one of the kitchens to cook it for you. There were all different kitchens around this outdoor space.  Tables were placed here and there, there was bar service, and string lights cast a somewhat dim glow over everything.  The smell of seafood was everywhere.  The fish market itself was a sight to see for someone who does not live near an ocean (i.e. Me).  Some of the fish and crustaceans were still moving!  Everyone was shouting!  There were rats underfoot, and I mean rats.  Big ones.  I am not afraid of rats normally, but suddenly that scene from Lady and the Tramp when the big evil rat is trying to eat the baby came rushing back to me.

Some of my more fish-savvy friends selected what we wanted and then we were ushered into the outdoor area.  GFew people were speaking English and I had a difficult time following what was happening next.  We were trying to select a kitchen to cook our fish and different cooks were calling out prices, trying to usher us over to their ovens, and general competing for business in a pretty aggressive way.  At one point we actually stepped into one of the kitchens, and well…I wish I hadn’t.  Let’s say this: dark, smelly, pots of fish guts, cramped.  We didn’t pick that cook.

I don’t remember how we finally picked a kitchen in the end, but we did, and then we sat around for a loooonnngg time.  Like I said, there was bar service, and we were all newly infatuated with a hard cider called Savannah Dry, so there was plenty of that going around.  Did I mention it was night time?  It was full dark outside.  Finally two large platters of fish were placed in front of us and forks were passed around.  It was, more or less, family style, so we all just dug in.  It was absolutely delicious.  As far as I could tell, the fish was fried with different spices and then drenched in savory sauces.  We were on the coast of the Indian Ocean, remember, so there were a lot of different flavor to be had in that port city.  

After the meal there was another hurdle: the bill.  The cook wanted an exorbitant fee, much more than he original told us!  It was clear that we were very foreign and very new in town.  The price discussion degenerated into a price argument, which grew very heated.  Not being one to back down from a fight, I was definitely ready to go head to head with the shifty chef.  In the end we threw down the money were were originally quoted (plus a little extra, I think).  It was definitely a lesson in travel culture.  What is fair to pay someone for labor and skill and what is being taken advantage of?  It can be a fine line.

We left the dining area and had to head back through the now empty and dark fish market.  This mean dodging the rats.  No kidding, these suckers were enormous!  It all seemed worth it, though.  We had a delicious meal of locally caught fish prepared in a way that was new and delicious to us.  I’ve never had a dining experience quite like it since.  We did end up going to that fish market again on our way back through Maputo at the end of our trip (and had an even crazier encounter with some locals), but that’s a story for another time.

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