Sunday, November 13, 2011

Inharrime, Part 1

We awoke in the still of the night.  Hotel Hoyo-Hoyo was quiet and dark at 3:30AM, so we walked with silent, shuffling steps around the room, brushing teeth, pulling on socks, tightening straps, and making final preparations for our journey to Inhambane.  The morning had that special, hushed quality that only exists at the beginning of an adventure in the early morning hours.  We made peanut butter sandwiches and filled our water bottles, then locked the door behind us and traveled to the lobby to meet our fellow travelers.
Everyone was equally groggy and quiet.  The front desk manager was asleep on the couch.  The night guard watched us sleepily from his love seat.  There were eleven of us in the lobby.  Adrienne, Mike, and Maria were flying to Chimoio at 7AM.  Zack and Sean were taking an 8-hour chapa ride to Inhamussua.  Sara and Bailey were going to Homoine, Mireya and Jamie were going to Massinga, and Ariel and I were taking a bus to Inharrime. 
The Peace Corps car brought us to the chapa depot just before sunrise.  Everything was still pink and light blue with the dawn.  It wasn’t hot yet in Maputo.  Once out of the Peace Corps vehicle, we were slammed with the sound and confusion of the transportation hub.  Brusque, rough hands pushed and pulled at us as the fee-collectors, cobradors, recruited our patronage. 
“Onde vai, onde vai?”  They asked.  Where are you going?
“Um.  Inharrime?”  I answered, confused and overwhelmed by the noise, language, and people.
“Inharrime!  O machimbombo a Inharrime fica aqui.”  The bus going to Inharrime is over here.  We were ushered through the crowd by an eager, rude young man who waived us towards an empty bus.  I tried to remember the instructions that Erin had given me.
“Queremos o Inhambane Ceu,” I said, tripping in an effort to keep up.  We want the Inhambane Sky Bus.
“Sim, e Ceu,” he said, vaguely.  Yes, it is the Sky Bus.  “Aqui,” he said, “Inharrime.”  He hit the side of the bus twice and then retreated to the street to recruit other passengers.  Reluctantly, Ariel and I boarded the bus alone.  In the humid, pre-dawn air, the smell hit us before we had even crossed through battered metal doors.  Urine.  The bright-yellow, acrid stench of urine was baked into the seats and pasted into sticky layers in every corner.  The stench of ammonia was overpowering. 
“Oh, my God.”  I said.  We sank into our seats.  “Holy cow.”  Trying to avoid breathing deeply in the sticky-sour smell, we focused or efforts on arranging ourselves and our personal affects. 
When riding from Maputo from Namaacha, we had squeezed all eleven travelers into the back of the Peace Corps truck along with two visiting volunteers.  Concerning our crowded condition, one of the older, more established volunteers had commented, “You’ll find that you will really want a crowded chapa on long rides.  When people start getting off, it gets too loose to sleep.”  Shoulder to shoulder in the back of the truck, we could see what she meant.  We hardly even swayed when the truck hit a bump. 
Now, on the bus to Inharrime, surrounded by damp, acidic air, we were once again blessed with a tight squeeze.  My backpack, fat with six days of clothes and toiletries, was wedged firmly between my chest and the seat in front of me.  On my one side was the window and on the other, Ariel and I had stuffed our food bag.  I fell sleep sitting up, without even propping up my head.  I couldn’t have been more comfortable in a real bed.

The both of us slept like that from 5 until 6AM, as the bus slowly filled up around us.  Occasionally, I would open my eyes to the chaos that ebbed and flowered around the station.  Women wandered around with bacias of bread on their heads.  Men brandished machetes with intent to sell.  Children chased down passengers yelling, “Bolanchas!  Bolanchas!”  Crackers!  Crackers!  Sometimes, someone would knock on my window and ask, “Fanta?”

When we finally pulled out of the station at 6:30, the bus was full.  Actually, I should say that the machimbombo was full.  The word “bus” seems to suggest that we were traveling comfortably on an American-style motorcoach.   Alas, this was not the case.  We were traveling on a true Mozambican Machimbombo.  This cute moniker belies a truly vile form of transportation.  The Machimbombo is fat, heavy, and close to the ground.  The windows are made of plastic and begin to rattle at 30 kilometers per hour.  There is no aisle between seats.  Instead, the third seat in every aisle folds back to allow access to the rows behind.  To make things even more exciting, there is no bathroom.  The entire bus is just on giant, rattling, rolling, bumping, barreling, loud, and lurid latrine. 
An American Motorcoach and a Mozambican Machimbombo

Despite all of this, however, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  Ariel slept while I blinked slowly and watched the scenery pass, comfortably wedged into place.  The streets of Maputo, with their ugly Marxist apartment complexes, tropical street trees, and colonial-era mansions, gave way to grassy lowlands peppered with mud huts and road-side baraccas. 
By 7AM, the sun was already high the sky.  My pores began to open.  It wasn’t too hot just yet, but the humidity suggested inevitable, oppressive heat in the near future.  I slid my plastic window open, enjoying the cool breeze that wafted over me and into the back of the bus. 
I rode comfortably like this until I felt a tap on my shoulder.  The woman behind me, whose hair had been previously slicked down by a combination of water, oil, and ferocious power of will, was now rocking a gigantic ‘fro.
“Oh, my God,” I said, hastily fumbling at the window.  The situation needed no translation.  “Desculpe.”  Sorry.
For the rest of the ride, I slept perched behind a slender crack in the plastic window.  At 60 kilometers per hour, we were rumbling slowly enough to watch the scenery, but quickly enough to catch a stiff breeze.  I nestled into my seat and pulled out my notebook, settling comfortably into a routine.  Stare out the window, write a little, stare out the window, write a little.  Ariel was still asleep.
Slowly, the scene began to turn tropical.  The red dirt and grass gave way to palm trees and white sand.  There, in northern Gaza and southern Inhambane province, there was food everywhere.  Walking food, hanging food, growing food.  The mango trees were laden with manga, heavy with strings of the still-green fruit.  Coconuts littered the ground and clung to the top of their tall palms.  Chickens raced across the road in both directions while skinny, long-horned bulls fed in small circles, tethered to tree trunks and fences. 
The bus slowed down and I could see that we were passing the site of an old accident.  The burned-out skeleton of an autobus, identical to ours, was laid to rest on the berm of the road.  There was no telling how long it had been there.  The left-hand side had been caved in so that the roof was crumpled down to the curve of the passenger seat.  The driver had protected his side during the accident.  I made a mental note to avoid the passenger seat whenever possible.  No seat belt could have saved that individual.  Maybe the bus had been empty at the time of the accident.  It was an unsettling reminder of why the cobrador had passed around a passenger list, to which we had been asked to add our names and emergency contact information.
We rumbled over the Limpopo River.  I pushed my chin against the glass and peered through the crack in the window, wondering what was in the water.  I saw nothing, but it made me wonder.  What animals were lying submerged in the murky depths of the Limpopo River?  Who was sleeping under the dark water, amongst the reeds, leaning against the slow push of the current?  One day, I would have to return to find out.
Our first stop was directly after the river.  We pulled over to release a passenger and were inundated by a swarm of local women.  Wearing old, threadbare polo t-shirts and flimsy flip-flops, they thrust straining plasticos of tomatoes through the door and window.  To our surprise, there was a flurry of reciprocal movement within the bus itself as passengers bartered and shouted.  For less than one minute, our bus was a bustling marketplace.  Then, the bus started to pull away.  One vendor screeched, snatching back her bag of tomatoes, startled by the sudden movement.  “Paga, paga!”  She shouted.  She grasped her tomatoes tightly and held out her other hand in a motion that clearly read, “Pay first.”  The transaction was completed, the tomatoes were delivered through the open window, and the bags were stored on laps, under foot, or overhead.  We rumbled on. 
I dozed on and off as the bus got hotter.  With my bag on my lap, I only had to fold my arms at shoulder level and lay down my head in order to fall asleep.  I had valuables- money, a camera, and a Kindle, but they were wedged securely against my belly as I slept.  I would feel prying hands before they could wrench anything away from me. 
It was about noon when we rattled into Inharrime.  Tangles of bushy vegetation opened into a bright lagoon, spreading wide, blue arms along the two-lane highway.  The water was so clear that we could see rows of ripples in the white sand along the bottom.  In less than a kilometer, we were pulling to a stop in front of the Hotel Inharrime, a sturdy, red concrete building with a red, concrete veranda and red, concrete columns.  The street on which we stood, technically the IN-1, or main Mozambican highway, was crowded on both sides with vendors, hawking cobradors, vendors, and more vendors.  There were two or three vendors for every passerby.  Most sat quiet and idle, brushing flies off of their fish, tomatoes, and mangos.  Some were more aggressive, ssssssssst-ing and shouting,
“Oi!  Mulungo!  Refresco, coal-drinkee!”  Hey!  White person!  Refreshments, Sodas!
We hefted our round backpacks over our shoulders and made our way to the veranda of the hotel to call Erin.  She answered on the third ring, and, after an initial attempt to give us directions to her house, agreed to come and get us herself. 
We liked her as soon as we saw her.  She was short and perky, with starburst eyelashes and long, brown hair.  She wore a capulana dress- a brightly colored sarong tailored into a sleeveless vestida.  Despite the fact that she’s fully integrated, it was easy to spot her in the crowd.  She’s a Pennsylvania girl in eastern Africa, after all.  She gave Ariel and I both hugs and guessed our names correctly. 

“Let’s go see the house,” she said.

We followed the sidewalk to the take-away food cart (Teka Way) and turned left, past the central market and up a sandy, divided road.  Erin’s house was five minutes up the gentle incline in a cluster of houses owned by the secondary school.  Hers, an elevated concrete house with a smooth concrete porch and red roof, was the furthest from the road. 

“Oh, Erin,” we said.  “It’s lovely.”

The compound was slightly lower than the level of the road, in a sandy bowl-shaped hollow.  We crossed through the yard along a path through the grass, passing a broken-down car and a large mango tree.

The first thing that we noticed was her pretty front door.  It was painted teal-blue.  That teal-blue door led to a cheerful, teal-blue kitchen, a purple living room, an orange hallway, and a pink bedroom.  The cement floor, unpainted but glazed and clean, was cool under foot.

Erin's teal-blue front door

“Wow,” we said.  Erin, this is really nice.”  We wandered around, looking at things, making a mental note of her material possessions.   Electric iron, porcelain toilet, electric teakettle. The house was larger than we had expected.  The front door led to the kitchen, which led into the living room, then to the hallway fringed by two bedrooms and a bathroom.  There was also a back deck with a clothesline strung from one side to the other.  Ariel and I would be sleeping together in the purple living room, on a spare mattress beneath a spare mosquito net. 
Erin's purple living room
Looking around at the beautiful house, brushing the white sand off of the bottom of my jeans, and listening to the shikshik of the palm fronds, I felt ashamed at my initial disappointment last week.  Inhambane was a beautiful province.  I realized that I didn't know anything about Mozambique.  How could I have site preferences if I had previously underestimated Inhambane so greatly?  And thus, in the first thirty minutes, I learned the first of many lessons about being a real volunteer in Mozambique.

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