Paw Paw

They called it ‘paw paw.’

Almost sixteen years ago I turned 21 in a small town of a few hundred people called Tofo, on a stretch of the Mozambican coastline where you could walk half a day along beaches as wide as a national highway without seeing another person. I had very little money, a lot of time, and no real plan as to how I was going to last the one without the other. I’d made two friends on the road in South Africa, and tagged along with them to this spot, uncertain we would even make it as the Xai-Xai floods of 1999 had divided the country into inaccessible islands which were only just being rejoined to the African continent. Babies had been born in trees, towns had been swept away, minefields swamped so that the ordnance drifted into uncertain boundaries. The locals said not to leave the dirt road, so we peed standing in the tracks of the bus’s knobby tires, and abandoned a frisbee that escaped in an errant arc into fields unknown. 
But we made it, and as some of the first tourists (though we called ourselves ‘travellers’) to filter through the flood plain and down to the coast, we found a town even more quiet than normal; and receptive despite our inability to contribute in any meaningful financial manner to the worst season they’d had in years.
We planned to fish and live on the beach. We ended up eating a lot of bread, and pitching our tent in the backyard of a small guesthouse that a very kind woman named Ida owned and rented, when there were people to rent to. She let us stay there for free, and turned on the water so we could shower when we came in from surfing, our full time preoccupation. 
Ida was of Portuguese-Mozambican background, a woman with smooth dark skin, curly hair she usually swept back in a knot in the damp seaside air, and a face whose neutral expression was broad open welcome. Frankly I wallowed in the motherly warmth she offered after some lonely weeks on the road, broke and uncertain in a country that had enough of that on its own. 
My friends lasted two weeks or so there, before they departed back for South Africa to make enough cash mending fences for the gas needed to return them to their home on the Cape. I stayed, having nowhere else to be for another 6 weeks.
The night before the South Africans left was my 21st birthday, and Ida and her husband Renato insisted on throwing me a party. We drank Famous Grouse, neat, at their small tiki bar on the beach which served the guest houses, all still empty, and ate calamari so large it was cut into fillets, whole grilled fish, and lobster the spear fisherman brought fresh from the deep drop-off, out beyond which the whale sharks breached in nearly endless display, day and night. Ida and Renato insisted I call my parents from their phone, at whatever immense expense that must have been, believing it a crime that I should turn 21 and my mother and father not even know where I was. I did, and my parents and I still talk about that. 
The next day the South Africans, Hardy and Charl, departed in the back of a pick-up truck for the 5-10 hour drive to Maputo. When they had gone I returned to my backyard tent and was alone for over 11 seconds before Ida appeared looking worried.
“You can’t stay here on your own.” She said and I thought, understandably, that she was kicking me out.
“You will come and stay in one of the houses near ours, and eat with us. That will be better.” She nodded, and walked away. And that was what I did. 
I have never had food like that before, or since. The spear fishermen came directly to Ida and Renato at the end of each day, selling incredible things from the ocean. With no guests Ida and Renato bought for themselves and the extended family and large staff they maintained despite the low season, keeping a good part of the small village going though they too were of limited means. That was their way. In the mornings we ate small loaves of bread (pao) still warm from the wood ovens the local women tended in the shadows of the bent palms, and papaya that was otherworldly in its roundness of flavour and fullness. They called it paw-paw.
It’s been sixteen years, and to date, when I eat that fruit I am there. I stayed with that family for six weeks, surfing and writing and helping with odd jobs, and marvelling at their generosity. I hope to return someday, taking Hannah, Kip and Deia, and an extra suitcase full of something really nice to repay them with. 
I still think of Ida and Renato frequently, often for no obvious reason, and always when I have paw-paw. It was in a fruit plate the chef Stuey brought up to me on the bridge this morning because I was stuck on watch and hadn’t had breakfast. For a few bites I wasn’t in the south of France, holding station off Nice airport, but was back on the east coast of Africa, thinking of those two, and the full roundness of their generosity. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s