We stumbled off our private bungalow’s wooden patio onto the sand being cooled by the evening Indian Ocean breeze. The young couple who owned the small beach hotel on the northern coast of Mozambique just 30 minutes’ drive from Pemba town had casually informed us on the beach that afternoon that dinner would be served later, around 8:30, in celebration of the holiday. It was New Year’s Eve.
The sun disappeared behind the trees and my girlfriend and I began to clean up for the evening, our preparation deliberately relaxed. We popped the Veuve Clicquot purchased in transit at the Johannesburg airport duty free shop, the bottle sweating from the clash of its mini-fridge-chilled contents with our intensely humid environment. Ready for dinner first, I sat at the wobbly square table on our dimly-lit front porch slowly sipping my champagne, staring into the dark night above the ocean, listening to the soft house music emanating from my well-traveled mini Bose speaker.
My vision of what New Year’s Eve ought to look like had matured. Dressing sharp, exactly like George Clooney in the Ocean’s Eleven remake, party-hopping, and landing on Sixth Street in downtown Austin was the solid plan desired by any good 20-something extravert creating unrealistic, and typically unmet, expectations. This year I did not want loud music, dancing, confetti explosions, or bouncing from celebration to celebration. Instead, I simply wanted a peaceful evening of good food and good wine with my new girlfriend.
Ashley and I met in July. We were in Washington, D.C. for an 11-day orientation to our program funding teaching posts in a nursing school in Malawi for her and a medical school in Uganda for me. So after one evening Whole Foods grocery shopping trip turned into a first picnic date on the National Mall, we shared a couple more meals before boarding a plane a few days later with the rest of our group to Addis Ababa. In Addis we said our goodbyes, and she headed to Lilongwe and I to Kampala.
The “hello’s” texted on Whatsapp turned into daily messaging and then hour-long phone calls, all via inconsistent power and Wi-Fi. Our bond grew as our discussions quickly deepened. Teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa can be challenging, and we shared in those difficulties living amongst extreme poverty, working in healthcare facilities with very limited resources, witnessing preventable deaths on a daily basis, and being on a different continent than, and isolated from, family and close friends. One visit to Lake Malawi and another trip together to Sipi Falls and Jinja in Uganda created a new strain: we now missed each other.
Despite our admission that this was not exactly convenient, we committed to continue our connection and travel together during our schools’ holiday breaks.
Mozambique was bumped high up on my list after hearing fellow travelers talk about the incredible beaches there three years earlier. It also seemed like a reasonable choice while working in the region. Preparing to enter Mozambique, however, proved no small feat. Four visits to the Mozambican embassy in Lilongwe produced only my girlfriend’s visa. This setback, in addition to the expensive flights, made the one-week trip feel like more of an accomplishment. (Online stories of deported travelers who had not obtained visas prior to arrival inspired my attempts to acquire these before departure, but I easily obtained mine upon arrival in Pemba, just like in many other Sub-Saharan African countries.)
After a quick 10-day trip home for Christmas, we were on a plane back from Atlanta to Johannesburg and then on to Pemba. We were on holiday, celebrating life and the coming of the new year. Together. Finally.
Dressed in our beach chic, cheerful from the bottle of bubbly, we wandered barefoot on the dark sandy path from our bungalow to the open-air thatch-covered restaurant a little early for dinner. As we approached, we started hearing the music. “Is that someone playing music?” “I don’t know, it sounds live.” We followed the singing voices past the empty restaurant and the bushes lining the hotel perimeter that opened into a nearby clearing lit by a campfire. The six women on stage, dressed in uniforms of local material, sang sweetly and danced in synch, performing for the crowd of ten staying at the hotel. All the seats were occupied so we stood in the back, mesmerized by the beautiful melodies under the night sky illuminated by a million stars. A feeling of gratitude bubbled up, spilling over into watery eyes.
The short performance ended and the crowd slowly made their way to the restaurant for dinner while the musicians loaded up in the bed of their truck to head back into town. The two of us lingered behind, holding each other under the stars while the totality of the evening’s magic sunk in.
We joined everyone for the feast of fresh lobster, chilled Chardonnay, ice cream, and espresso. Our dinner companions were two young expat Portuguese couples, three middle-age Spaniards, the hotelier couple, and the owner’s mother in from Germany. Following the meal, we all made our way to the beach for a bonfire, champagne toast, and the countdown to the midnight fireworks across the bay.
This New Year’s Eve felt very different. It was quiet without the large parties, without the heightened expectations, without the dance floors covered in revelers. This New Year’s Eve felt special. It was an evening with home-cooked food, soulful music, and a date who was beautiful because of her smile and also because of her grace and strength in managing recent work duties and processing defeats in a difficult environment. This New Year’s Eve felt just right, because this was the eve of something more.