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Buying Seafood on a Mozambican Beach – Buyer Beware!

  1. To Tofo Beach, just north of Inhambane, Mozambique, for a week of scuba diving and seafood. Fish and seafood sellers continually come to you at your beachfront verandah to sell, perhaps a tad too often.  After two days or so you get to know them.  The seafood is excellent, but you must know how to bargain.  Even if you’re a good negotiator, you have no compass apart from restaurant prices, and here you’re buying every day for the house.  It’s difficult to find fair prices on which to anchor your purchasing.  As you sit on the verandah reading from A General Theory of Oblivion by Agualusa, which is partly why you’re here, a vendor will disturb your literary transports with a prosaic ‘bom dia amigo’, a cooler bag and a cheap Chinese electronic hand scale.  You suppress irritation.  They show you their produce at which you feign indifference but soon descend into haggling.  When it gets tough for them, ‘amigo’ gets elevated to ‘patrão’ as a form of address, literally meaning ‘boss’.  With this, they hope to curry favour (instead of their seafood).  At times, after I’ve finally turned down a deal, one or two resort to pleading.  “Please buy something, please help us patrão…”  Please.  When they overcharge (as they often do!) there’s none of this.  So, sorry, man-up and do business.
  2. The housekeeper that comes with the cottage is Joanna, referred to by the young seafood sellers as Dona Joanna. Dona is a Portuguese honorific given to most married women who run a household.  The formula is Dona <first name>.  I also call her Dona Joanna but notice she squirms a little uncomfortably at it, so I quickly find the right register to say Dona Joanna in a way that means simply ‘Joanna’.  Joanna never looks me in the eye when speaking to me, but casts her head down to one side, which is either a personal trait or a local form of showing respect.  She often starts saying something to me from a distance, when I’m not even looking in her direction, so that by the time I realise she’s talking to me I’ve lost the first half of her sentence and must ask her to repeat.  It takes some getting used to, but after a few days I get on her wavelength, talking to her side-cast head while squinting away in an unconscious mimicry.  Joanna is protective of our turf, and she both appreciates and doesn’t appreciate fishmongers around the house.  On the one hand they do a job for her, deshelling the seafood which I buy on the verandah, unlike that which I bring from the market which she prepares herself.  On the other hand, they’re treading on her turf.  She warns me against the seafood vendors I casually bring from the front verandah to the back of the house to clean their fare after the sale.  “Mind your belongings when they’re around.  They’re all very good people who come here to sell, but some of them cast their eye around for stuff.  That’s why I moved your mobile phone from the kitchen to the other room.”  “Thank you, Joanna.”.  “And by the way, the crayfish you bought this morning was frozen, not fresh… it came off the ice.”
  3. Tinga (I always ask their names) pitches up to show me squid on the first day. They’re good sized, not the outsized ones, hence more tender.  “How much?” “350 meticais (henceforth Met’s),” he says.  I calculate their approximate weight and make him an offer at what I think is a good price to me, using my squid purchases the previous year in Zanzibar as a reference.  He readily sells.  I then find out that they’re not 350 Met’s each, but 350 Met’s a kg.  I had done myself in.  The lesson: Get the exact terms of the deal, always.
  4. Jeremias, a one-eyed vendor comes around, driving a hard bargain for his prawns. I bargain back.  Yesterday he walked away from our bargaining, shaking his head at my hard-balling, leaving with a long face, feigning injury, injustice and affront.  Today he is here again, all smiles and ready for round two of the negotiating process as if yesterday had never happened.  I look at his prawns.  They are beautiful, large and alive.  We start up again.  850 Met’s a kg, he opens.  We eventually settle on 700 Met’s, but he needs a beer to swallow down the ‘unpalatable deal which still sticks in his craw’, so I give him one.
    Look, they won’t sell at a loss.
  5. Manuel, the tall fishmonger at Tofo market, is a no-nonsense bargainer. He has a true garoupa (appox. 2.5kg), the only one I’ve seen at the market in two days, and he knows its worth.  We negotiate, I stall at a price, but he doesn’t budge.  “900M, that’s my price,” he says, putting it back.  “And I am not stealing,” he says, raising his frame and craning his neck in full view of an assemblage of six or so seated hangers-around who have been watching proceedings.  “I did not say you were stealing, we were bargaining,” I say, walking away.  But I succumb to his price later in the day, muttering “it’s the ruddy high season” to myself.  Two days later Manuel shows me the most splendid prawns, huge and so fresh they have that whiff of iodine.  He comes around to bring them to the cottage. “How many do you want?  OK, since you’ve bought from me before I’ll sweeten the deal.  Here,” he says, taking the prawns out of a container one by one.  “This is well over two kilos, but I’ll sell them to you as 2kgs.  Plus another two prawns for luck.”  I by now have a glimmering idea of what prawns of various sizes cost, many having been offered to me, so we deal.  “But at that price you might as well throw in a beer,” he posits.  I do.  Always have beers at the ready when dealing for seafood.
  6. Before you can buy anything, you need money, yes? I try to exchange some South African Rand (ZAR) into Mozambican Met’s, but no one is accepting them.  Both the Cambio money exchange and the hotel refuse to accept ZAR on the day.  To exchange ZAR, I had to come the next day.  Did I have any US dollars?  Luckily, I had.  But surely, they must make a price for ZAR?   Isn’t there a price for everything?  In Maputo, hotel manager Rui Palha had explained the economics of the exchange rate to me.  There had been a music festival in Maputo the previous weekend to which people came from 1000 km around, including many from South Africa who brought a glut of ZAR with them, way in excess of the trade activity with South Africa to absorb them all.  In periods of ZAR glut, the ZAR-Met market becomes inefficient and does not clear by exchange rate adjustments, it simply shuts down.  Hence, a volume adjustment operates, not the price adjustment of standard economics…  Luckily my credit card is accepted by local ATM’s which spew out Met’s at an extortionate cost.  Bring some US dollars along, that market somehow always operates.
  7. In Maputo, the rustic, thatched fresh fish market I had known from my previous trip is no longer there, having been converted by the Chinese into a soulless concrete modernity with suffocating selling and soliciting. A board shows the prices of the fish on sale.  By far the most expensive is grouper (garoupa), at 500 Met’s/kg.  At a stall, I point out to various fish of different shape and sizes, asking the cloying vendors what they are.  You won’t believe it, but every fish I pointed at was identified as … garoupa (red garoupa, silver garoupa etc.)  I leave without buying.
  8. Back in Tofo I buy a clutch of oysters from Ricardo, who wends his way to the back yard to cleave them open with a knife. I sit beside him, watching him working away as he chats.  His English is very good, where did he learn it?  “At school, but especially on the beach,” he says. He tells me that all seafood is available all year around in Tofo, but that prices fluctuate throughout the year, being high in December and now, of course, it being Worker’s Day weekend.  “You’re lucky to be getting these oysters,” he quips as he works. “They’re natural oysters, freshly caught this morning, not the farmed oysters you get in restaurants.  We dive them out with fins off a reef that is off-limits.  They are also illegal.”  Arghh, now he tells me.  “A chap was caught with oysters last week and went to jail.  We operate underground, on the basis of hushed cell phone connections, avoiding the police.  You’re very lucky to be getting these, very lucky indeed.”  I eat the illegal oysters with a crisp white wine on the verandah as soon as he leaves, and they are wickedly delicious.
  9. A chap called Paulo arrives on my verandah with a giant multi-coloured Mozambican crayfish, easily the size of six Cape crayfish. It supposedly weighs 3.5kg and is so seductive I have to try it.  It is straight out of the sea, unlike the crayfish I had bought the previous day.  Paulo sells the crayfish by the kilogram and sets about weighing it.  “Look, the setting is at zero,” he proudly beams, showing me his scale’s reading.  Gentle friends, on no account should you trust those Chinese electronic hand scales.  They give you different readings of the same load upon repeated weighings.  It’s the variable gravitational force operating at Tofo, don’t you know.  So, rather bargain on sight.  The crayfish made for the most magnificent breakfast, eaten with crusty bread from the market and a little white wine just so on a holiday morning.

  10. Man cannot live by fish alone, so I stroll to Tofo market 200 metres away to buy fruit. There’s not a price on display as usual, just you and the vendor and their assessment of what they can extort from you.  I’ve been had so many times in markets all over the world that I’ve become wary (one invariably discovers the true price afterwards, but too late).  As much as I dislike bargaining, I dislike being had even more, and as I’ll be here for a week I’m at it again, trying to uncover true prices.  What you do is negotiate down until you find resistance.  A fruit vendor greets me in English as she does most tourists and offers me stuff.  I walk away after my bids are refused. “Seu grande filho de uma puta”‘ she mutters under her breath in Portuguese as I leave, thinking I’m a monolingual Anglophone gentleman of the old school.  Well I’m not, despite my trying hard all my life.  So I mutter back, almost inaudibly: “Desculpe, mas filha de uma puta é vôcé!”  At times I particularly love speaking Portuguese, I just love it.
  11. Pedro comes to the verandah to show me a giant crab, still alive, negotiates, then puts it back in his bag. When we deal, out comes another crab, but this one has its left front claw missing.  Now, 60% of the crab’s meat is in its two front claw arms.  “Hey, where this crab’s claw?”  “This crab, it was born like that.”  Rubbish, he’s broken it off to take it for himself.  “I’m sorry for your handicapped crab, but could you kindly only give me crabs born with both claws.”  We move to the back yard where he places three crabs in a basin.  They’re aggressive and attack each other viciously, but they’re no match for a human.  Pedro picks up each crab in turn and dismembers it alive.  He then cleaves their bodies open, cleans them up, arranges them on a platter, takes his money and leaves, not forgetting his bargained for beer.
  12. I’m shown very large Cape-styled crayfish by Michaque. “I’m good for seafood today, thanks.”  “Can I show you some tomorrow?”  “Come tomorrow, we’ll see.”  The next day he comes to the verandah saying what about the crayfish and offering me a good price.  I say it sounds reasonable and nod, and out come the crayfish.  They are about half the size of the previous day’s.  I protest.  “These are miniature.  Where are yesterday’s size?”  He modifies the price slightly.  The lesson?  Never negotiate sight unseen.  This is a different type of bargaining.  If you’re used to negotiating on standardised products, be wary of unstandardised fare like seafood.
  13. On the last day of my stay, the holiday weekend well over, I’m offered prawns at two-thirds of the price at which I had bought a few days before. The tourists have left, and the low season is suddenly upon the seafood sellers of Tofo.  Leaner times lie ahead for them.  As for me, I’m heading back home, to work, to face the rigours which await.

    To each, his challenges.