Saturday, December 31, 2011

Catandica Christmas

It was a Wednesday morning when we heard about the accident in Gaza Province.  Unfortunately, it was also the same day that we realized we had absolutely nothing to do at site.  Every room was clean.  Our laundry was finished and hanging on the line.  Our little dinner table was set up at the foot of the bed.  Lunch and dinner were already cooked, sharing a giant pot on the stove.  Romao was swinging in our door frame, staring at us.

We considered leaving early and traveling to Catandica, but it was already nine in the morning.  We had been up since five.  By the time we arrived in Tete, it would be noon, and it was at least four hours from there.  The chances of us making it to Catandica before dark were slim.  We were nervous to travel at all, but we were especially nervous to travel at night.  The accident had taken place after dark.  

We stayed in Zobue, but were impatient and uncomfortable.  I read a book and roasted peanuts.  Dan superglued a peg on his guitar.  We both were caught somewhere between tears and not talking.  It wasn't that we had been especially close with Alden or with Lena during our ten weeks of training.  We hadn't.  For me, I think it was the fact that they were so young.  Both girls had been younger than me.  Lena was 22 years old.  Alden was 23.  I am already 24.  What if I had died last year?  The year before?  What would I have missed?  For Dan, it was the fact that it could have been any of us.  Travel is so scary and difficult in Africa.  Chapas and buses barrel down the road, manned by drunk drivers or impetuous boys.  There are no seatbelts.  There are no “no passing” signs.  Everybody is governed by the fatalistic principle, “We are all going to die someday.  Why not today?”

We passed a final, unhappy night in Zobue before donning our travel packs and handing our keys to Romao. 

“What will you do while we're away?'  We asked.

“Maybe I will read a book,” he said.

We felt a little sorry for him, because we had packed away everything interesting.  The spices and medical supplies were locked in a trunk underneath my bed.  I had taken my shampoo, razor, and make-up.  We had even taken the stove, because the girls in Catandica had asked to borrow it.  There was nothing left for him to explore while he was house-sitting. 

We walked to the border, where an armed guard was standing by to inspect the vehicles that were crossing over from Malawi.  After a bit of give and take, he agreed to help us flag down a personal vehicle. 

“Sit on that wall,” he instructed.  “I will find you a boleia

We sat on the stone wall, overlooking the slow trickle of vehicles that chugged across the mountainous divide.  Most were large trucks (cam-ee-yows) en route from Blantyre, Malawi to Harare, Zimbabwe.  There was also a lot of foot traffic, as vendors from just over the border carried fried dough and grilled corn to the Zobue market.  Only one car looked promising. 

“Where are you going?” We asked the driver of the vehicle, a South African man on vacation with his family.

“We are going to Tete City and then south to Chimoio.”

“Do you have room in your car?”

“Oh, I'm sorry, but we're all chock-o-block.”

After about an hour of waiting, it was starting to get hot outside. Dan checked his watch.  8:00. 

“It's getting late.” He said.  “We should just catch a chapa.”

We agreed, and then headed towards a chapa near the border that had been trying to flag us down.

“Boy, we sure are lucky,” said Dan, squeezing into the second row.

“Why is this chapa empty?”  I asked.

Slowly, I started to notice things.  The last row was missing a back rest.  Our own seat was sliding forward and backward.  The driver was impatient and rude.  And, worst of all, nobody else wanted to get on. 

“Stop!” I said, shifting my bag onto my lap.  “I want to get off.”

The driver glanced back at me, but kept moving.  He was careening up and down the road by the marketplace, searching for passengers.  A chapa will not depart for good until it contains at least 19 people.   The fact that we wanted to exit the vehicle was, to him, counter-productive and stupid. 

“Let us OUT,” I said.  I pushed my way to the door. 

“Stop,” said the cobrador.  “Let this lady out.”

We found ourselves dumped by the side of the road, surrounded by passing villagers who stared at our large packs and weird clothes.

The cry went out, “A'zungu!  A'zungu!”  White person!  White person!

We sighed, hefted our bags, and began walking to the nearest chapa stop.

Our next chapa had an equally impatient driver, but it also had seats that were firmly affixed to the floor and a bar across the window that, theoretically, keeps you from flying out in the event of an accident.  Nobody in their right mind would want to test this theory, however.  Even Mozambicans don't trust chapas. 

It was about one hundred degrees outside and getting hotter.  We headed down from the mountains and into the desert that surrounds the sorrowful city of Tete, stopping every five minutes to pick up or drop off another passenger.  Sweat ran across my top lip and along the crease of my elbow. 

Zoom, slam, stop, went the chapa.  Zoom forward, slam on the brakes. 

We arrived in Tete City by mid-day.  A fellow, more seasoned volunteer was waiting for us to help us catch a boleia to Catandica. 

“We’ll have to get to the main road,” she said.  “I hope you don’t mind walking.”

And so, in that raging inferno that is the Godless city of Tete, we dragged our heavy packs and our limp, sweating selves along the highway. 

To hitchhike in Mozambique, one does not simply point the thumb in an upward direction.  Oh, no.  The hitchhiker must flap their hand enticingly at the wrist, indicating distance with a pointed finger.  The hitchhiker should also gesture left or right, if they will need to make a turn off the main highway.  In Mozambique, the “thumbs up” sign indicates that “everything is just fine here, thank you, no need to stop!”   It is not intuitive.

After an hour or so of walking and waiting, we came upon a seedy-looking row of trucks.  I walked by briskly, but Dan was stopped by man with a low, husky voice. 

“You lookin’ for a ride?” 

“Sure!”  said Dan.  “Where are you going?”

“I’m headed for Chimoio.”  The man spoke perfect English.  I backed up and tried to nudge Dan away, but the wheels were already spinning in his mind.

“How much to take us to Catandica?”  He asked.

“200 Mets.”



Dan nodded his consent and we all shook hands with the driver of the truck.  His name, it turns out, was Allen, and he was from Malawi.  He had been driving trucks for six years. 

To ride in the back of a tractor-trailer is an amazing thing, especially if you have just stepped off of a crowded chapa.  The truck driver uses his truck as a sort of rambling house.  That is why, directly behind the driver’s seat, you will find a full-sized mattress.  A giant, full-sized mattress just waiting for tired, stiff-legged hitchhikers.  We were swamped with luxury. 

All of this- the cheap ride, the giant bed, the English-speaking driver from Malawi- would have been perfect if we didn’t have to wait for Allen to get his travel documents stamped.

“When are we leaving?”  We asked.

“Ten minutes,” said Allen.

“Okay,” we said, leaning back against the truck wall.  Then, to each other, we said, “it is REALLY hot in here.”

The truck did not have air conditioning, so we were baking within the four metal walls of the cab, parked along the road in the desert purgatory that is Tete City.   Minutes passed, then hours. 

“We should have left to find another boleia,” Dan said.  His arms and neck were shiny with sweat.  

“We can’t leave now,” I said.  “We’ve already been here for an hour and a half.  We have to leave soon.” 

Finally, two hours later, we pulled away from Tete City.  The three of us gave a great cheer and air began to pour in through the vents in the cab wall.  We spent the next few hours bouncing along in comfort. 

The ride passed without incident, and we arrived in Catandica just as night was beginning to fall.  Once more, we shook hands with Allen and hefted our bags over our shoulders. 

“I’m coming back through on the 27th,” he said.  “You should give me a call.” 

A Description of Travel in Mozambique

It was a thirty-minute walk to the house in Catandica.  Luckily, the girls who lived there were more than happy to meet us halfway and guide us home. 

The house in Catandica belongs to two girls named Joanna and Mary.  Visiting were Mike and Mac, from Sofala Province, and Jamie, Hoang, and Bitsy, from Manica Province.  Adrienne and Dylan, also from Sofala, would arrive thirty minutes later.  The eleven of us constitute the central region of Peace Corps Mozambique.  We are the smallest group. 

Hugs were given all around, along with solemn, ‘How are you’s? 

“We’re okay.  We’re doing alright,” was the answer received. 

Most of us were in the English or Math training groups, and hadn’t been especially close to Alden or Lena.  The exception was Bitsy, who had been Alden’s best friend. 

“How are you?” We asked Bitsy.

“I’m okay,” she said.  She wasn’t. 

That first night was hard.  We didn’t talk about the accident.  Nobody really knew what to say, so we didn’t talk about it.  There were a few silences, but somebody would quickly bring up a new topic.  Joanna and Bitsy had made us pizza, and there was a barraca down the street that sold beer.  The night passed quickly, and soon it was after midnight. 

“We kind of have to sleep on top of each other,” said Mary apologetically. 

“Some of us can sleep outside,” Mac volunteered. 

“Yeah,” Dan said.  “We brought an extra mosquito net.”  After some shuffling, we had our sleeping spots arranged.  Joanna and Bitsy shared the bed in Joanna’s room.  Mary slept in her own, twin-sized bed.  Dylan slept on the floor in the living room, Jamie slept on the table, and the rest of us slept on the front porch. 

“Goodnight,” we said.  “Goodnight, everyone.”  It felt nice to be together. 

Jamie sleeps on the table in the living room

Dan sleeps on the front porch

Morning dawned early.  By 5:30, the sun had risen and the front porch was hot.  One by one, we started to stir.

Now that we had daylight with which to inspect our surroundings, we were in awe.  The house was securely surrounded by a tall, metal fence.  Behind the house was the school, and behind the school were the mountains that separate Mozambique from Zimbabwe.  Everything was bright, bright green.  The Peace Corps house itself was located on the school property and the school, a World Bank School, was comparatively wealthy and well-furnished.  Surrounding the school property was the town of Catandica, running from the brim of the highway to the foothills of the mountains. 

The house in Catandica, from behind

The view past the school and beyond the mountains

A hike around the town yielded sloping gravel paths and traditional houses made from mud and straw. 

“This is beautiful,” Dan said. 

Hills of Catandica

There wasn’t much time to explore, however.  There were twelve people staying at the house and we were out of water. 

In Zobue, Romao handles our water situation.  Lugging a 50-pound drum of water is not fun, under the best of circumstances.  In the searing Christmas sun, however, it is downright painful.  (In our defense, this is Romao’s only source of income.)

In Catandica, there is a well in the schoolyard, a set of six water drums, and a wheelbarrow.  The Catandica waterboy was on vacation, so it was up to us to carry our own water. 

Getting water from the well

In Mozambique, women carry everything on their heads.  I have seen logs, rakes, hoes, baskets, and even cell phones perched upon the heads of these mighty Mozambican women.  Water is no exception, and is always carried on the head, never in the arms.  A true Mozambican woman has no trouble carrying fifty to one-hundred pounds of weight on her head, and she usually does it hands-free. 

Adrienne and I decided to take this opportunity to practice carrying water, Mozambican-style.  We were not surprised to find out that this was just as hard as it looks.  The fifty-pound jug sways with every step you take.  The vertebrae between your neck and upper back strain to support the extra weight.  Your hands and arms begin to hurt from the strain of holding the drum in place above your head.  Finally, though, with tiny, tottering steps, we made it back to the house and dumped the jug triumphantly into the waiting arms of the other volunteers.  It felt like such an accomplishment that we carried water this way for the rest of the Christmas visit.

Adrienne waits for water

Lisa, Dylan, Adrienne, Nate, and Mac bring water back to the house

Because it was so hot, it was difficult to summon the energy to hike or to even walk around town.  We would travel to the market and buy supplies in the early morning, then spend the rest of the day cooking and playing games.  Nighttime was reserved for drinking and conversing. 

On one day, we traveled to see a small pool and waterfall that flowed from the surrounding mountains.  On another evening, we traveled along a mountain path to see the fields and huts outside of town.  All in all, Christmas was pleasant and quiet.  It was impossible to be sad all the time, so we had moments of happiness interspersed with moments of sad and silent reflection.  For us, it couldn’t have been any different. 

A countryside hut

On Christmas day itself, we exchanged plastic bags with stocking stuffers inside.  Dan and I gave small tins of hot chocolate mix.  In exchange, we received Bon-Bons, Starbursts, Tic-Tacs, and, our personal favorite, individualized business cards.  Dylan bought one beer for everyone, and we made a nice afternoon of it.  Outside, though, it was so hot that even the lizards went into hiding. 

A new friend

Another new friend (Hurley, the dog inherited from the previous volunteers)

While we were in Catandica, we received the news that we would be traveling to Chimoio on the 28th for the memorial service.  We didn’t have enough clothes packed for the trip, but we loaded into the chapa, regardless. 

We were overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from other volunteers present at the service in Chimoio.  Ten volunteers from our training group traveled to the central region to attend our service, and another ten volunteers from other training groups made an appearance, as well. 

The service itself was simple.  We sat by the hotel pool and wrote and read memories about Lena and Alden.  Afterwards, when the group had fallen silent for a while, we went inside to look at pictures.  It was absolutely heartbreaking.  We made scrapbook pages for the families and held a candlelight vigil.  Finally, when the wind blew out our candles, we ended the service.  We were left standing in the dark.

“Lena and Alden are telling us that it’s over,” said counselor. 

We hugged each other.  Then, without warning, one volunteer pushed another into the pool.  Another volunteer jumped in, and then another. 

“Hey, Moz 17!” Yelled Bitsy.  “If every single one of you gets in the pool, then Jamie will get in, too.”

“No, I won’t,” said Jamie.

“Oh, yes, you will,” said Bitsy. 

And that is the story of how Moz 17 Central ended up treading water in the deep end of the hotel pool, still wearing their dresses and skirts and button-up shirts.  It was as good an ending as any.

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