Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ilha de Mocambique

We were supposed to be in Madagascar today, but civil strife prompted a State Department warning against U.S. tourists going there; quite reasonably, the tour operators decided to take us elsewhere. So today we found ourselves on Ilha de Mocambique, the island that gave Mozambique its name. The island has a rich history as a port, boat building center, and Portuguese settlement. It served as the nation's capital until 1898 (when Maputo became the seat of government). It is now primarily a fishing village.

Despite being a World Heritage Site, the island gets only a little tourism. A few Europeans have begun to renovate homes into small hotels and restaurants, but we saw few other tourists (other than fellow guests on the ship) during our visit. According to our local guide, our ship was the first to visit since 2005. And before that, the last two visits were in 2001. So the arrival of the National Geographic Explorer was a big deal. When we came ashore, our group was welcomed by an enthusiastic throng, including some lovely women dancing and singing. We then walked the length (3km) and breadth (0.5 km) of the island.

The highlight of our tour was a visit to the Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, originally built in 1610. The Palace, which served as the governor's quarters, is decorated with remarkable pieces from France, England, India, China, etc. It even has statues from the New World. Exactly what you'd expect on an island that was so strategically placed on the trade routes between Europe and Asia.

Outside is a statue of Vasco da Gama, who originated the trade route from Europe to India. He reached Ilha da Mocambique in 1498 (in those years the Spanish generally went west -- finding the New World -- while the Portuguese went east). Of course, as we have often been reminded on this journey, Da Gama was hardly the first to sail these waters. Arab traders had plied the Indian Ocean for centuries, as had the Chinese.

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