With no money, vacationers get creative

A family from Zimbabwe didn't have cash to pay the people carrying their baggage. What to do?

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    RELAXATION: Vendors and fishermen find a shady spot near the beach in Maputo, Mozambique.
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We were on holiday, bumping along a sandy track near Beira, a port halfway up Mozambique's wavy coastline.

In the back of the car, along with containers of drinking water, candles, and crumpled sun hats was my "purse": a bag of clothes from my family's wardrobe.

For our holiday, we had chosen a campsite on the mouth of the Savane River, reachable only by motorized dhow (boat). The site offered basic amenities: cold showers, bathrooms, and thatched shelters called baracas. A generator provided electricity for three hours a day. A fishing shack offered prawns and chips (as long as you ordered several hours in advance).

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It sounded perfect. Still, there was just one thing worrying me: the porters. Or, more precisely, how to pay the porters. Because of the situation in Zimbabwe, where we live, we had little cash to take with us.

Our travel agent had informed us that a handful of people would likely appear when we parked our car. They would help carry our luggage to the dhow.

Payment wasn't necessary, the agent said. But we could offer canned drinks or something of similar value.

I remembered a trip we once made to Lake Kariba on Zimbabwe's western border. Standing over Kariba's breathtaking dam, I'd oohed and aahed over hand-crocheted tablecloths displayed by hopeful vendors.

"I have no cash," I explained to the craftswomen.

"That doesn't matter," they said. "Don't you have any clothes you don't want?"

Sadly, I didn't.

So, when I was packing for Mozambique, I thought of those eager faces, and I went to the wardrobe.

A few miles from the Savane's mouth, we stopped at a shanty village, where I spent the money I had: I bought a bag of firm yellow mangoes.

The porters were waiting for us – three sturdy-looking youths. One balanced our tin trunk on the top of his head. A second managed four two-liter containers of water in two hands.

My son sat in the prow of the dhow. His four-year-old face shone with excitement. My mind was focused less on the coconut-speckled palm trees that beckoned us from the far bank and more on my "purse." I'd lodged it under my arm to keep the contents dry. But I worried that maybe the porters would find a payout in castoffs patronizing.

There was only one way to find out.

On the sand, I selected three cotton shirts and handed them over. The men smiled and said "Obrigado." But it was hard to gauge exactly how they felt.

Our holiday was over all too soon. We had taken walks along a deserted beach, watching green crabs with bulbous eyes that swivelled. My husband had taught our boy how to scrabble for sea lice in the wet sand.

Still, there was only one way home: via the porters.

This time when we reached dry land, eight youths rushed up to help us. I handed over the rest of the clothes we'd brought. I watched the porters' reactions as my husband put the luggage back into the car.

My fuchsia-pink polo-neck sweater (which once belonged to my sister) went straight over a teenager's head, despite the clammy heat. Then oversized T-shirts – left by my father on his last visit to Zimbabwe – were snapped up.

I saw two men exclaiming over a black-and-white-striped crossover blouse (donated by a friend) and the mint-green T-shirt with the velvet trim I'd gotten in a parcel once. Whose wife would get that? I wondered.

Should we have the opportunity to go back, maybe I'll see those shirts on their latest owners. I hope so. Clothes last much longer than cool drinks.

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