The world is made up of all types of people: there are train geeks, airplane aficionados, car enthusiasts and boat admirers. I’ve never considered myself any of them. Ok, yes, given the choice I’ll take the train over a plane or car but that’s only because I like traveling slowly – and they are more environmentally friendly – not because trains are special. My point is I’ve never cared much for the method of transport. Instead its always been about the journey and the destination.
That all changed in 2016 when I went from Mozambique Island to a beach near Nacala by Dhow. Whats a Dhow? Dhows are the traditional sailboat of all fishermen and merchants in the Indian Ocean. Its been around for centuries. They are so emblematic of the Indian Ocean that the Dubai opera house is designed to look like one.
Anyways, back to the story at hand, it’s 2016 and I’m in Mozambique for holidays. More specifically I’m in Mozambique Island – the capital of Portuguese East Africa until 1898 and now a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was here, in this incredibly historical setting that I first set foot on a dhow. Five minutes into that trip I realized that for the first time ever the destination didn’t matter, it was all about the dhow. Being on a dhow connects you to nature. You are part of the ocean and the wind, not at their mercy or in charge of them, but actually part of them. What the crew does is hold a conversation with the elements, they listen to the wind and the sea and then reply in such a manner that the elements will listen to them and help them along. This exchange never stops, sometimes the wind gets tired and wants to rest or to blow in another direction and the crew must know how to respond, how to adjust their end of the dialogue so that they still reach their planed destination. Being on board a dhow and observing this rapport develop is majestic. Whether you are part of the crew or not it’s just impossible not to tune in to the nature around you, and with no engine to disturb you, you hear and feel everything the cosmos has to share with you.
That’s not to say the crew have it easy. Holding their half of the dialogue can be physically strenuous. In shallow waters they need to guide the boat out with long poles and once out at sea ropes need to be pulled, knots tied, sails raised or lowered. But once everything is in place they too can sit and bask in the serene tranquility that the open seas offer.
Funny thing is growing up in Mozambique I’d see dhows all the time. It’s impossible to live in Maputo and not see them but because they are ubiquitous you don’t notice them. They are just part of the background, it’s what the local fishermen use. Whereas, every time I went to an island or simply out to sea we’d go on a motor boat. Which, now that I think about it, it’s not funny, it’s sad.
Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that all other methods of transport are about humans imposing themselves as the ones in power and fighting Mother Nature. Be it by scaring its surface with roads or mutilating it with tunnels they are about using strength to overcome whatever lies in the way. Before you say anything, yes, I can imagine that encountering a storm in the open seas will turn the harmonious dialogue I described above into more of an argument but even then it won’t be about forcing nature apart, tearing it into pieces and making it obey you.
I realize that we can’t go back to a time before technology gave us cars, trains and planes – to be honest I’m not sure I would want it even if it were possible. All I’m saying is that dhows (and probably all sailboats) are extraordinary.
p.s. the photos in this post are courtesy of the friends traveling with me in Mozambique in 2016.