Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Travelling North to Visit a Friend

Mozambique is big. Really big. Look at the bottom of the blog page to see a map with Mozambique lined up against the eastern seaboard of the US. It’s even bigger when you consider the poor state of ground transportation. This didn’t really sink in until this weekend when I travelled north to Maxixe to visit Luisa, a Mozambican friend who I met at the REDES conference. It looks close on the map, but it takes seven hellish hours on a chapa to get there.

I was out the door by 6:00 am, just as the sun was coming up and got a ride into town where I serendipitously caught the Maxixe chapa as it was filling up. They insisted on putting me in the front next to the driver. This always happens and it makes me very uncomfortable for several reasons. One: I get that seat because I’m a white woman. Two: the driver always wants my phone number. Three: I have an unobstructed view of the terrifying scene unfolding on the other side of the windshield.

The first leg of the trip goes down a road I have travelled many times. We passed women selling fried dough balls and people waiting at the end of dirt roads going nowhere. Little boys with reed fishing poles were sitting with their feet dangling above the canal that runs alongside the road. The irrigation spills off into little wetlands that sport a variety of birds. I saw ten cattle egrets roosting in a low tree and a host of other unidentified birds with long and interesting bills. I wished I had my binoculars but of course that would be impractical on a chapa going 70mph where you can barely move your elbows.

When we passed Xai Xai I was no longer in familiar territory. The road degraded into a pothole ridden mess. It then got even worse when we entered the construction zone where most of the pavement had been torn up leaving only rutted sand. The bushes and road signs were painted with orange dust and it blew in the windows of the chapa. This continued for two or three hours until we moved onto fresh pavement and my brain finally stopped knocking against my skull.

Occasionally we would pass through a tiny cluster of cement shops and restaurants brightly painted with advertisements for Coca-Cola, condoms, cell service and beer. If you blinked you would miss it and enter back into a long stretch of widely spaced reed and mud homes mixed in amongst cashew and mango trees, tiny farm plots, and sandy yards with pecking chickens. The main difference between this and my region were the coconut palms. The farther north we travelled the more palm trees we saw. There were foot holes chopped into the trunks where people had climbed up to harvest the coconuts and there were coconuts everywhere! - huge piles of them covered with leaves on the side of the road, giants sacks of them being hefted onto the bed of a truck by strong men, basins of them on the heads of women approaching the windows of our chapa.

Finally we entered into the city of Maxixe and I hopped a different chapa that took me out of town and left me on a sandy stretch of road lined with reed homes and fences. I bought some tangerines and was munching on one when I heard “Clancy!” I saw Luisa, spit out my tangerine seeds and gave her a big hug. We walked up the road and entered one of the palm leaf fences. Her yard had an avocado tree, some pumpkin vines, a little corn and garlic, and some sort of citrus I couldn’t identify. At the back was a tidy three room house with a cement floor and walls of neatly packed reeds. It was adorable and she had decorated the interior walls with translucent white sheets to keep out the dust.

From the top of the road you could see the distant ocean and the sea breeze made for a cool and pleasant evening. I took a bucket bath outside behind a reed wall and then we made a spectacular shrimp dinner. After dinner we took a walk up the sandy hill. Children stopped their games when they saw us and started trailing behind shouting “howareyouuuu!” and “mulungo!” Turns out the word for “white person” is the same up north too, even though they speak Chichopi instead of Changana. When the children had become sufficiently annoying we went back to her house and watched Brazilian soap operas before bed. Mosquitoes easily passed through the spaces in the reed walls and there was no mosquito net. The insecticide Luisa sprayed seemed to do nothing because I woke up covered in bites, praising Doxycycline and wondering how Luisa doesn’t constantly get malaria.

We had leftover shrimp for breakfast, took baths and went to the city for church (luckily she is Catholic, which made for a relatively short mass as opposed to the 5 hour long evangelical services). Afterwards we took the ferry across the bay to Inhambane. I was short on time, anticipating the seven hour ride home, but we were able to tour the city and I bought postcards and a big straw hat. After quite a bit of walking we sat on a bench to rest, watching fishermen waist deep in the water managing the fishing lines in their bare hands and stuffing the catch into a cloth pouch slung over their shoulders. A few dhows were out sailing in the distance and other boats listed to one side on the muddy shore. For the ride back I insisted on taking one of the little wooden ferries that were essentially an aquatic version of the chapa. While we waited for it to fill up I watched a boy catching fish off the side. Like the men on the beach, he had only fishing line, hooks, a few bait shrimp and his bare hands. In the fifteen minutes we waited there he pulled up five little black striped fish and slipped them into a bucket. When the boat was frighteningly full, we motored off across the bay, scaring up three flamingoes that flew overhead.

Back in Maxixe I bought some cashews for the road and bid farewell to Luisa, promising to return in July. The trip back was just as long and painful as the trip there, but it was worth it. It’s hard to make friends with Mozambican women my age here. Most of them already have children and live hard and practical lives. We don’t generally find too much in common. Luisa is 26 and living in Maxixe while she finishes 12th grade. We both have the freedom that comes with not having children or husbands. Had there been a man in her house it may have been completely different, but since there wasn’t we were able to hang out and feel at ease. I hope to make more great Mozambican friends like her.

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