Sunday, July 20, 2014

Maputo re-bound (or my journey home)

I’ve been putting off writing this last leg of my journey for two reasons.
         One: I didn’t want to sound like a whiner.
         And two: It was so traumatic... I’d mostly blocked it out.

It all started innocently enough.

I had arranged to stay at the Maputo guest house throughout the day, even though I was checked out. I drank coffee, caught up on some correspondence, and traipsed off to the artisanal market down the road to see if I could find some treasures.

I did.

However, the most important trip that morning was getting (all the way across town) to purchase my bus ticket home. I’d done it so often, it’d become routine.

Depending on traffic and the competition stuffing themselves into the public transportation (aka: chapas), the trip can take 40 minutes... or 2 hours.

That morning it took 2 hours, a near knock-down-drag-out with an overly aggressive woman in tight jeans and even tighter braids, and about 45 cents.
    -- Yeah. Public transport is pretty cheap here!

The bus depot sits just outside the city limits on a round-about. It’s gated and always crawling with travelers, ticket masters, and merchants. The buses wait under small overhangs until departure. Small panels indicating their final destination are perched on the dashboard.

The bus for Chimoio sat in its usual spot. As I approached, the ticket master and driver both smiled. In Chimoio, I have to buy the tickets directly from them. But in Maputo there is an official stall. I know this... but avoided the stall until I could get a better look at the bus and drivers.

I had already decided that if it was the last crew I’d hang out in Maputo a day or two longer and spare myself the heartburn.

Fortunately, they were not the last crew. In fact, I knew them and they knew me.
-- “Hola!” the ticket master said in greeting, “Your going to Chimoio, right?”
-- “Yes." I smiled in greeting. "How are you?”
-- “Fine. Thanks,” he smiled back and reached out his hand. “It’s been a while. How are things at the clinic?”
I reached back to shake his hand. This was Joseph. I’d traveled with his crew many times before, and he was always interested to hear any updates on the clinic.

I tried not to grimace as I explained things were still not open and updated him on the latest paperwork saga. He shook his head knowingly at my reports of delays, frustration, and general difficulty.
-- “E-pah!” he said sympathetically. “These officials are a mess!”
I agreed with him, but didn’t trust myself to say more. Instead, I turned the conversation back the trip home.

-- “I’m so glad it’s you guys,” I started, “You would not believe the trouble we had coming down earlier this week.” I complained to him briefly about the endless delays and he nodded knowingly.
I continued on. “I’m so glad to see this is an express bus. Will we be arriving on time?”
-- “Oh, yes. It’s an express bus....” I could see he had more to say, but didn’t. So I picked up the string of conversation and said, “Okay then. I’ll go buy my ticket and see you guys tonight.”
He waved goodbye and I promised to fill him in on more of the details when I returned.

I bought my ticket then hurried back to the guest house for my things.

When the day was done and dinner at the guesthouse was winding down, I gathered my bag and made my way back to catch another chapa. Two ladies who work at the guesthouse kindly walked me to the chapa stop, prayed for safe travels, and waved goodbye through the tinted glass.
    -- What dears! Little did I know how much I needed those prayers.

But even at 9 p.m., the chapas are quite full. Men in wrinkled suits and woman in 2 inch heels doze on the commute home. Those unfortunates who have to stand in the aisles, dive and dip each time the bus screeches to a halt or revs off in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

I stood most of the way, clutching my bag in one hand and a metal rail in the other. People pushed and elbowed their way past as they loaded and unloaded, but eventually a seat opened up. I sat in relief and tried not to doze. It was past my bedtime and my stop was just a few minutes away.

This time when I got off the bus, the fruit stands and street vendors were packed away for the night. Only the road was choked with commuters; the sidewalks were clear. Weary travelers, carting bundles on their heads and suitcases under their arms, zigzagged past.

I joined the march and soon found my way back to the bus. I was not the first to arrive. One man was already asleep opposite my seat. He leaned over his bags protectively, snoring lightly.

I settled in for the night and tried to doze as well. The flood lamps were not making it easy --nor did the chatter from the vendors just outside my window.

Piles of water bottles, soda cans, and bread rolls were for sale. Woman stacking oranges in bundles of three, adjusted their babies on their backs and called to passers-by to come buy from them. Men smoked, joked, and watched the steady flow of travelers come and go.

Somewhere between the noisy mother of two bumping her way in to the bus at 10 p.m. and the raucous laughter of the smokers below my window, I slept. But I didn’t sleep long.

At 3:30 a.m. exactly we drove off. By then anyone who was not on the bus was left behind. Comforted that the journey had officially began, I finally slept deeply.

I didn’t wake again until about 8, when the screeching brakes informed me we had stopped. I lifted the blanket off my head and noticed sunlight. Lots of it.

A dozen men were already outside relieving themselves. Women and children were further down. The colors of cloth tied in their hair made them look like flowers in the yellowing grass below.

I closed my eyes again and slept.

Hunger woke me up the next time. I munched on snacks and asked the man next to me how far we’d come. He didn’t seem to know... or care.

Rested by this time, I decided to read a bit and watch the coconut trees pass. Hours flew by in a blur of villages and brightly colored kids playing on the road.

By 11 am, we’d made it to Xai-Xai where the mainline buses always stop for food.

I remember thinking we were late in arriving... but not overly concerned. I was hungry and exited in the mass of flesh. I was one of the first to order a chicken to-go plate and a juice.

I stretched a bit before making my way back on the bus. Ten minutes later we were on the road again.

The afternoon light beat down on me as we rode north. A new man had taken the seat beside me after the first reached his destination. This man was headed to Chimoio too and asked me questions... but didn’t flirt.
        --Whew!

I knew from previous trips that we were running late. The convoy (or police escort through rebel territory) took off between 2 and 3 pm when heading North. I started worrying my lip at the thought of missing it. Why didn’t anyone else seem concerned?

When 2 o-clock arrived and we were still miles off, I considered asking the driver for an update. But I hesitated. Pressuring them never worked. So I waited, read, and prayed.

We didn’t arrive to Rio Save (aka: the start of the Convoy) until after 4 pm. We’d missed it by hours. Why?

I waited until the bus completely unloaded before I approached the driver.
-- “Did we miss the convoy?” I asked confused.
-- “Yes,” he admitted.
-- “But why didn’t we drive faster? Couldn’t we have made it in time?”
He laughed at my confusion then explain that things had changed since the last time I had traveled with them. There was only one convoy a day... and it was at 11 am. We would have never made it in time. This is why he didn’t bother rushing. Then he explained that the afternoon convoy was no longer available.

As he spoke, it finally occurred to me that I’d be sleeping on the bus again and there’d be no North-bound progress until well into the following morning.
-- “How long has it been like this,” I asked, finally understanding.
-- “Oh... about two months. Since the last attacks.”
I did the mental math and realized that my last trip to Maputo was right before the attacks. I had no way of knowing it’d changed. It was probably best that way... as I wouldn’t have bothered to come if I’d known.

At this point I decided the best thing to do was to eat, charge my electronics in the nearby restaurant, and settle in for another night on the bus. Little did I know what that night would be like.

Sadly, I have nothing good to say about the things I was forced to listen to that night. Let me just say, it involved loud, drunk men, boisterous and calloused woman, and demanding children trying to make themselves heard over the raunchy repartee. They were unsuccessful, albeit persistent.

By 11 pm I was ready to start knocking heads but could think of no way to get them to quite down. I briefly contemplated stealing one of the soldiers AK-47s and marching them off the cluttered bus. Would I have to blind fold them before I subjected them to the firing squad?

By midnight, I was exhausted but 95% of the bus had settled by then. Only the most determined flirts and raunchiest drunkards bellowed on. At this point, I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “How do we get them to be quiet?” He was Mozambican. He had to know how.
-- “I’m sorry... I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. “Perhaps when the bus driver comes back....”
Unfortunately, I knew that the bus driver had rented a room for the night and was not coming back until the morning. That was a no-go.
-- “Humph!” I complained. There was nothing else I could do. I could yell at them but what would that solve? Nothing. They’d probably just yell back.

I don’t know when they finally shut up. But I can say that when they did, the relief in the bus was deep. I settled in for the second night, but slept fitfully.

By dawn, street vendors were heating water for coffee and selling bolos (fried donut holes). I desperately wanted to brush me teeth but no one was selling water at that early hour. I’d have to wait.

And wait I did.

Dozens waited with me.

Semi-trucks and mainline buses littered the roadway. Trash from the evening before was piled randomly about. A herd of goats sauntered up to investigate but they were startled soon after by a child, and ran off.

Not a dog was in sight.
          --Odd.

Everyone seemed to clump together, milling about. Some smoked. Some ate. Some talked on cell phones. All waited.

That morning's wait was the hardest for me. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep the night before, or the massive migraine jabbing the back of my eyes. Either way, I was tired.

What made it worse is I had no way to get any decent food. The buses would take off by 11 am and the restaurants wouldn’t open before then. It’d be hours before I would be able to find anything but a tangerine to eat.
        -- Not good.

By 10:30, the buses revved and everyone piled back on. The passengers were subdued --probably due to lack of sleep-- and the bus driver took us over the bridge. We had to wait another hour on the other side of the bridge for the military convoy to arrive, turn around, and escort us North again.

The trouble was... with all the added precautions, by the time we took off we were made to crawl along at a snail’s pace.

At one point, in the middle of the attack zone, we were forced to park for over an hour and wait. I can only assume it was so the military could patrol a troubled spot. But this is just a guess.

A trip that usually takes about and hour, took three.

Eventually we made it to the end of the convoy. We made a quick stop to load up on water (which I needed desperately by then) and more tangerines. Fortunately, I found a cashew seller who determinedly ran alongside the bus until I could get the right change to pay him. I slipped him the money through the window quickly grabbing a bag of nuts, as the bus drove off.

I ate nuts for lunch.

From there, the trip was more or less typical. We drove quickly in an effort to make up the lost time. And I arrived home by around 6 pm.

Sigh.

When I walked in my front door, I realized that I didn’t have water or electricity due to power failures that day; a shower was out. So instead, I loved on my animals, brushed my fuzzy teeth, and fell into bed.

The next morning, I was finally able to do the mental math. A journey that usually takes about 17 hours had morphed into roughly 46 hours.

It has taken me most of this week to recover.

The up side, of course, was that I got there and back safely. Nothing was stolen and no one was harmed... unless you count that aggressive woman in Maputo who tried to steal my seat. She still might have bruises.

And now... as this particular saga has come to an end. Let me just thank you for praying for me. Please know that I love you all dearly and need those precious prayers desperately.

Please keep praying that my papers in Maputo come through! Pray also for renewed strength, joy, and peace as I tackle the next paperwork obstacles. And pray that I would not lose heart. Thanks.

***Pictures to follow once I figure out how to download them onto my computer.