Monday, July 14, 2014

Maputo Bound! (Or... How I got stuck on a chicken bus).

My bus ride down to Maputo started out innocent enough. I drove into Chimoio to buy my ticket. (To buy a ticket, you have to walk up to a waiting bus with “Maputo” clearly marked in the front window, find a bleary-eyed driver and pay the fare. It’s not complicated. Each bus leaves promptly at 3 am.)

However, when I got to Chimoio to buy my ticket, the bleary-eyed mister was missing. I asked around as the bus sat empty and closed. Finally, I found one of the drivers who assured me a seat, we exchanged numbers (this is to track me down if necessary), but he didn’t want to take my money just yet. He didn’t have the official ticket booklet. So, I promised to pay when he picked me up that next morning. Everything was set.

Or so I thought.

I got back to Maforga in time for church, lounged around all afternoon trying to motivate myself into packing, then got a phone call.

-- “Sorry, Miss,” squeaked out a thin voice. “The bus isn’t going tonight.”
-- “What? But I was there this morning and you said it was leaving.”
-- “Sorry. You’ll have to come in again and get a ticket for tomorrow night.”
-- “Okay,” I sighed. “See you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow came.

I returned to Chimoio. Repeat. Wash. Spin. And dry.

But this time, there was no call to cancel. So I got team members to agree to get up at the unholy hour of 2:30 am and drive me to my pick up site. There was a bit of a wait. So we watched a restaurant guard sweep up trash in an effort to stay awake and listened to the feral dogs fight.

Gondola (my pick up site) is depressing at 2:50 in the morning. The pale street lamps paint the main street a dusty taupe. Nothing but the sidewalk sweeping man moved. Not even the wind.

My bus arrived. Brakes hissing in protest. I grabbed my bag, thanked my friends, and hustled without a look over my shoulder. If the bus driver doesn’t see you running, he generally starts to honk. It’s annoying.

When I boarded the bus, I was told to take my seat but I couldn’t. A clean-shaven, barrel chested man was sitting in it.

-- “Sit down in your seat,” the ticket master instructed, absentmindedly tying the door shut with a cord.
-- “I can’t. Someone is in it,” I said flatly.
-- “Go sit down,” he repeated. Obviously not listening.
-- “Where? That man is sitting in my seat,” I repeated sourly gesturing toward the intruder. In protest, I sat down in his seat instead.

He looked at me in irritation, the bus lunged forward, and we were off.

Once we were well underway, the ticketmaster shuffled us about and I took my seat next to a nice man from Zimbabwe. He didn’t talk much but he clearly wanted my seat. The view was better and he kept poking his head around to spy oncoming traffic. For reasons still unclear to me, oncoming traffic really interested him. Halfway through the trip, I offered to swap seats with him and he eagerly jumped at the idea. I slept better from then on, and whiled away the hours reading.

We stopped from time to time to pee alongside the road. (Pee breaks are hilarious. The rush to exit reminds me of elephants stampeding. Pushing. Stomping. Cries of protest. Woman tend to veer one way, men the other. I’ve gotten pretty good at the whole semi-squat while wrapped in a kapulana thing. I think I’d be a fierce contender if it were ever an olympic sport.)

The bus was old. It wheezed and coughed up even the smallest hills. When we tried to pass Big Rigs snailing in front of us, the engined protested loudly. Rarely did we succeed.

As a result, we doddered about inching our way to Maputo. 

Every other village, the driver and ticket master stopped to pick up passengers. The stop and go made our travels even slower. Morning faded into late afternoon. Evening blurred into night. More villages. More random passengers.

The passengers started grumbling. Each hour we delayed they grumbled louder.

-- “Why do you keep stopping, Driver?” asked an irritated man from the back.
-- “Yeah,” joined in another, “Is this a Machibombo (a passenger bus for long distances) or a Chapa (a rickety bus, usually topped with chickens and chairs)?”

The driver grumbled to himself and drove on. The passengers grumbled louder but nothing came of it. Their complaints (and mine) were powerless to move the aging mass of steel even one kilometer faster. And the driver could not pass up picking up more fares along the way.

I read some more, stretched cramps out of my neck, and chatted with the passengers around me.

At one point I woke up to find, the Zimbabwean was no longer sitting beside me. In his place were a set of dirty sneakers. I followed them down a narrow passage way between the seats and found my neighbor sound asleep. Miraculously, another man slept beside him! How? I still cannot fathom.

It’s about then that I noticed the chicken. Yep. It crackled in protest each time the brakes squealed. She was close. Somewhere under foot.
    Sigh. I guess I was on the chicken bus after all.

My friends in Maputo (awaiting my arrival) texted in a fit at half past twelve in the morning. Why hadn’t I arrived? What was going on?

I was irritated to have to hop over two sleeping men, a chicken, and 6 bags of junk to reach the ticket master. But I made it.

-- “My friends are worried,” I informed him. “When do you think we’ll arrive?”
-- “We are going... we are going.... “ he mumbled with a faux-smile and diverted eyes.
-- “I know we are going. I can see we are going,” I answered irritably. “My question’s not if we are going but when we expect to arrive. I need to give my friends an answer.”

More maddening teethy grins, shifty eyes, and mumbles.

-- “What? I can’t hear you,” I continued, obviously not impressed. “When? When!? When do we arrive?”

When I realized it wasn’t my accent or lack of Portuguese vocabulary that silenced this fool, I pushed him aside and crawled my way over to the driver.

-- “Your ticket master does not know when we’ll arrive,” I complained. “Can you tell me?’
-- “We’ll arrive soon,” he said a little too quickly.
-- “Soon?” I interjected. “We are already 5 hours late! When will we arrive?”
-- “We are near the city....”
-- “I can see that. I want to know how many kilometers we have to go. I need to inform my taxi driver when to pick me up.”
-- “It’s only 25 kilometers more.”
-- “And how fast are we driving?” I pushed for more answers. “It feels like we are driving 10 kilometers an hour. How fast are we going?”

I tried to look over his dash but it was not lit. I was tired, hungry, and clearly not able to do even simple math in my head... so why I bothered to badger him about this baffles me. But I did.

He never did tell me how fast we were going but insisted it would be only 45 minutes more.

He was wrong.

We didn’t arrive until 2 a.m.

But by then, even the on-call taxi drivers weren’t picking up their phones and the city buses were powered down for the night. How was I going to get to the guest house?

When the bus finally parked for the last time, I shouldered my backpack and hurdled toward the door. The ticket master had it barely untied and I was out like a flash.

Two taxis waited nearby. I’d have to take my chances with unknowns. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was what God supplied. So I prayed and picked the face with the kindest eyes.

-- “I need to go ____,” I told him as I settled into the back seat. “How much do you charge to go there?”

He gave me a price and I haggled.
-- “That’s too much. The price should be lower.”
-- “But you are paying more... because of the hour,” he reasoned.
Smiling at his obvious logic, I nodded that it was fine. And he drove on.

The problem was, I was not completely at ease. I was alone in a cab, in a strange city, with a guy I did not know, and a lot of cash in my pocketbook.
        What could possibly go wrong here?

I prayed as we rode down empty streets and through construction detours. I didn’t recognize the route he was taking, and I asked him about it nervously.

-- “Why are we going this way?”
-- “The other street is blocked off with construction,” he offered with a polite smile. I’m sure he could sense my frayed nerves.
-- “I don’t know this road... are you sure we are in the right neighborhood?
-- “Yes... this is where you need to go.”

He was patient with me. I was frazzled. And by God’s grace, my fears were in vain.

But once at the guest house, no one answered the buzzer. I knew they were expecting me... but no one came to the door. I rang twice, saw curtains move, lights blink on, but still no one opened for me.

I asked the cab driver to wait with me (as the guest house isn’t in a very safe neighborhood for 2:30 in the morning) and he did.

Bless him.

We chatted about world cup results and I stamped my feet in the cold.

Eventually, the guard popped around a bush, key in hand, and opened the gate for me.

The next morning, I learned that the guard was fast asleep and was the only one with the gate key. The guesthouse staff had to first find him, then wake him out of a dead sleep before he could let me in.


The  journey continues... but my eyes are drooping. To sleep, I go.

More to come.