Sunday, July 12, 2009

I've Met my Match

People look incredulously at me when I try to convince them that I like bus travel. I can withstand long distances, inevitably falling asleep in any moving vehicle. I also have trained myself to read on bumpy roads, having successfully conquered my childhood car-sickness when as a high schooler, I needed the precious 2+ hours of car time spent going to and coming from school for homework. With beautiful sceneries, colorful characters, and African music blaring from the speakers, why wouldn’t you like to travel by bus, or better yet, by the local minivan version of a bus: matatu, dalla-dalla, chapa. You get the opportunity to ride with livestock as a chicken or two seems to almost be a prerequisite on one of these. Normally, you don’t even know it’s there until midway through the journey, someone accidently kicks it, having not realized that the space under the seat was already taken. Then the angry chicken squawks, flaps its wings in vain, and tries to free its legs that are tied together. It soon gives up, however, and order is restored. The most impressive part of riding the “bus” in Africa is that you finally learn that yes, it is physically possible to fit 100 clowns in a Volkswagen beetle without performing magic. From a western perspective, these vehicles should not be able to hold more than 18 passengers, plus the driver and the money collector. This is a generous estimate as there are enough seats for 14 passengers. My favorite game is to see how many they actually succeed in cramming in, with the record being 27 (two children included). No one seems to really mind and as long as the journey is under three hours, I’ve learned to not particularly mind as well.

The value of taking this type of transportation is that you get to experience the lives of the local population, and you get to mingle, learning much about the places you are visiting. On my chapa from Vilanculos to Maxixe (Inhabane-Tofo), I procured a prime spot in the front along with an elderly professor who was not amused when I begged him to keep my bag between his legs. I was sitting next to the gear shift, and since he insisted on taking the outside position, there was really no other solution. However, he proved friendly enough and struck up a conversation. I picked his brain for the next four hours (occasionally reading my book and sprinkling in naps when we briefly ran out of things to talk about), touching on everything from the civil war that only ended about 15 yrs ago, the current education system in Mozambique, governmental policies, imports/exports, and a variety of other topics. He looked like the quintessential grandfather and I became quite fond of him. He made sure I knew when to get off the chapa and took my email address so that the day he finally gets an email account, he can write me. It is an experience like this that sedates me when I have a nervous breakdown before getting on the long distance Mozambican chapas.

I used to not be so feeble but Mozambique transportation has managed to weaken my resolve. It’s not the lack of space, I’ve conquered that. It’s the inefficiency that makes an 11 hr ride into a 15 hr ride. It’s the fear of the driver refusing to make pit-stops that leaves my body dehydrated as I refuse to drink water. It’s the leaving at 3 am only to arrive at the destination after dark, defeating the purpose of leaving so early in the first place. After the third 12+ hour ride of not drinking or eating all day so that my body would reach a point of stasis and practically turn off, I realized I couldn’t sustain this lifestyle. It took me three days to recover in Beira, and another three days to recover in Tofo. The fact that I will soon be reaching South Africa gives me the strength I need to make one more trip, Tofo to Maputo, which is supposedly much less painful. If I can survive this, I will be home free. Mozambique, I concede. I’ve met my match. Through a war of attrition, you have brought me to my knees. However, I will happy continue my bus-riding regimen as soon as I escape this country’s borders.

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