The knocks, persistent and aggressive, shook the narrow door. "Girls, are you in there?"
Slowly, the voice registered. Springing upright in our beds, Tamika turned off the television with a quick click of the remote.
"We want to spend some more time with you, go to the clubs, we've got money."
Wide eyed in hilarity and horror, we covered our mouths to stifle our confused laughter.
Mistaken for a Prostitute in Manzini, Swaziland....
It had all began innocently enough.
On a two week break from teaching in Inhambane, Mozambique, we were finally free to explore. After five months in our charming rural outpost, we were ready to see what else the country and its surrounding areas had to offer.
Our journey began in Mozambique's capital Maputu. After a few days visiting with friends and taking in the sights and excitement of the big city, we were ready to move onwards and see a new country.
South Africa, we couldn't afford on our miniscule teacher's salary, but Swaziland- The Kingdom of Swaziland (to be exact), was a short bus ride from Maputu and was a much cheaper option.
Without any real plan, we gathered our backpacks and made our way to the large central bus terminal in Maputu in search of a Manzini bound bus.
What was in Manzini, we didn't really know, but it was the second largest city outside of the capital, leading us to believe there would be plenty to experience.
Where we would stay and what exactly we would do, we had yet to decide. We only knew that we wanted to go. We'd met plenty of backpackers in Inhambane who had come through Swaziland and they had loved it. We'd traveled easily around Inhambane, Vilankulo, and Maputo in Mozambique without plan or purpose and had a wonderful time taking everything in as each city revealed itself to us. We spent a day in Johannesburg, South Africa with the same ease, surely Manzini would also prove to be a beautiful adventure.
Miles and miles of open terracotta road spread before us. The sky, topaz, illuminated the morning with an ethereal spotlight. As our slow bus huffed along, red clouds surrounded us, leaving their mark on the windows, until the world became a charming blur of red.
Cows, great big fat meaty ones, ambled along the roads and through open fields. Clusters of mud homes appeared and disappeared along the way as we slowly rolled onwards, out of Mozambique and into Swaziland.
It was afternoon when Manzini revealed itself to us, surprisingly crisp, pious and modern in comparison to the fading Portuguese colonial architecture we'd left behind in Mozambique.
Near the bus station was a small fruit market. We stopped for a snack before setting off by foot to find accommodation.
Up and down, purple and pink frangipani studded streets we roamed in search of a hotel, hostel or guest house.
The first hotel we approached was too expensive, the second had no vacancies, the third, a motel, a bit run-down, owned by a balding and obese pink faced South African was cheap and available.
"You girls are teachers? I'll cut you a discount then," he said with a wink, leading us up a darkened narrow stairwell to the third floor. "I'll let you have this room, one of our best for a reduced price."
The room, a glorified cement box with two twin beds was dark and smelled vaguely of smoke. Tamika and I looked at teach other- wanting to maximize our time to exploring and not looking for housing, we sucked it up and settled our housing dilemma in search of adventure.
After changing and washing our red dirt caked faces, we walked the quiet streets in search of food and something to do.
Wanting to get a better sense of this Kingdom called Swaziland, we asked around for tips on where to find good local food. We were consistently directed towards Nando's Chicken, a Mozambican inspired South African food chain, which delicious in its own right, didn't give us the opportunity we wanted to experience the cuisine of Swaziland.
Eventually, we made our way to a nice hotel, which boasted a delicious, though not quite local menu. Hungry, tired, and in agreement that it was a step up from Nando's we decided to give it a try.
We were seated at a large table, next to a pool with a floating ice sculpture. After months of teaching in the Mozambican rural bush, it actually felt exotic to be in a gaudy air conditioned hotel.
Short on cash, we prioritized, ordering mixed drinks and an array of appetizers to share.
"You were on the bus out of Maputo."
Two well dressed Indian men appeared next to our table.
"Yes?" I agreed confused.
Had we met them somewhere on our travels?
"We were on the bus too. Do you mind if we join you?"
"Sure." For lack of a better excuse and perhaps because I was traveling and so were they, I motioned for them to have a seat.
More drinks and appetizers were ordered. They were South African, from Durban, both worked in IT and were in Manzini for the weekend, to get away. They came relatively often and promised to show us some clubs if we were interested.
After a long and lazy dinner, they walked us around the quiet and pristine city- pointing out the few points of interest and hot-spots along the way.
"Why do you choose to come to Manzini?" Tamika asked. "Aren't there plenty of getaway places in South Africa? There doesn't seem to be much here."
It was true. Outside of the ubiquitous white walled church buildings and Nando's establishments, aside from a lovely mall and the odd market here and there, Manzini didn't seem to have much going for it as far as personality.
"It's nice to get out of the country," the taller one said, we accepted it, and moved on.
We went to a small lounge, had some more drinks while seated in lawn chairs outside so we could admire the stars.
Drinking and chatting with our new friends, we talked about life in the U.S. and life in South Africa. We talked about our jobs in Mozambique and about other countries we'd visited. It was nice, but they wanted to club-hop and we wanted to walk around and explore. Having already disclosed the name of the motel where we were staying, and having taken their cell phone numbers, we agreed to send them a text if we still wanted to hang out later.
Manzini's streets were quiet. The presence of street lamps made everything appear bright and safe. We walked up and down hills, admiring the quiet night, comparing the architecture to Inhambane's, noting the ubiquitous nature of white walled Anglican churches. A few hours across the border and we were in a different world. We traded Portuguese for our native English, we traded laid back friendliness for conservative stern faces, we traded Catholic churches, mosques and Hindu temples, for Anglican church buildings with signs warning of the deep sins of the unfaithful, and we traded in soft sandy roads, for pavement.
Then we met Paul. He was seated on an overturned white bucket outside a local club. He called out to us as we passed, we stopped, he introduced himself, we introduced ourselves and began chatting. Originally from Zimbabwe, Paul had been in Swaziland, for the last few years and was supporting himself as an artist.
"Swaziland is cool man. Very peaceful. It's easier to live here than in South Africa. You just have to watch out for prostitutes and gangs."
"I don't understand," I said, "it seems really calm and safe here. It's really quiet."
"Yeah, it's cool man, like I say, but there's a lot of prostitutes around here. You girls need to be careful. You don't want somebody to mistake you this time of night because if they ask for your services and you refuse, they can get violent."
"We don't look like prostitutes."
"No, but the only women walking around at this hour here in Manzini are usually prostitutes. Just be watchful as you make your way home."
Now that he mentioned it, we hadn't passed any other women as we rambled. I hadn't thought much of it before, but we were the only women walking the streets, minus a scantily clad group standing near the entrance of the clubs.
"And what about the gangs? Is there a gang problem here?"
"Well no, but yes. There is a lot of organized crime. The Chinese man, they run the prostitution. They pull girls from all over South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and they run them through here. You got them and some others running around and they can be a problem for girls like yourselves. I'm not trying to scare you, but you should know."
We said goodbye to Paul and walk/ran back to our hotel.
After chatting with the South African owner, who sat behind a desk near the entrance, we made our way up the dark stairwell, into our dimly lit cement box.
Tamika searched through the television static attempting to find a channel or show that could be both understood and seen clearly. Eventually we settled on the BBC News, which was fine with us, since we hadn't seen the world news for months.
No sooner had we settled into the broadcast, than the knocks were heard at the door.
Sitting now, with our hands over our mouths, Tamika hopped over to my bed.
"They think we're prostitutes!" she whispered
"You locked the door?"
"Turn off the lights. They'll go away." I suggested
And eventually, after spending a portion of the night in darkness, they did.