Sunday, August 21, 2011

Metangula Beach Safari!

Metangula, Mozambique, on the shore of Lake Malawi. (KK)

[7 August]

I seem to have created a stir.                                                                                                                                                                                 
“Metangula?” I asked the man standing just inside the door to the big, battered bus.

“Metangula,” he reassured me.

“Metangula!” chorused several nearby passengers, all of them male, all of them grinning. Some made as if to move over and make room for me on their seats, but the bus man gestured that I should go to the very back, where the last free seats were. A young guy, joshing to his friends in Portuguese, left his seat and climbed back to keep me company.

I had just flown into Lichinga, Mozambique on a 737, hopped into a taxi and ridden straight to the dirt lot that serves both as a marketplace and as the boarding spot for chapas, the old buses and flatbed trucks that are northern Mozambique’s transportation system.  Just as I’d been told, in front of a shop called Handling waited a white-painted schoolbus destined for Metangula, the small lakeside town I was headed for. The plan was to spend the night in Metangula, then take another chapa further north along Lago Niassa (aka Lake Malawi) to Cóbuè and from there either take a boat or walk three hours to the Manda Wilderness. I knew the place I’d signed on to volunteer for a month was remote, but I was only beginning to understand how remote. 

The ­chapa guys had hustled me and my bags on board as if the bus would be taking off any second. But though the last seats filled within minutes and all the luggage was already piled behind the driver, we sat for another hour in the mercado. Domingo, the young man who seemed to think fortune had smiled upon him when I got on the bus, tried his best to chat me up.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.”

“The United States!” He conveyed this information to his buddies further up. “Are you married?”


“Why not?”

I shrugged. He seemed to have run out of English, and in any case he looked maybe 19 years old. So I just smiled at him and looked out the window at the mercado’s small shops, some painted concrete, others just ragged rush-and-stick structures. Litter stood in drifts, and clothes and shoes were laid out on the ground for sale. Women with cloth-wrapped bundles on their heads passed by, but vendors didn’t lay seige to the bus as they had in Madagascar. If you wanted something—some fruit, a roll—you called out the window and asked for it.

Finally the bus started, but only to go two blocks and pull into the long line at the gas station. With the aisle full of bags, the quickest way out was through the windows, and four or five guys jumped through to stretch their legs until it was our turn at the pump.

“How long will it take us to get to Metangula?” I asked Domingo.

“Hour and half,” he said, “mais ou menos.” This turned out to be wildly optimistic, and we had more stops to make even before we left Lichinga. Minutes after we left the gas station, we stopped again, this time at a bakery. Passengers poured out and came back with bags of bread and rolls.

Everyone on the bus seemed to know each other and they joked and laughed and talked in Portuguese and Chinyanja, undisturbed by all the delays. Some called out the window to friends or waved and grinned at people passing by. We stopped at a police checkpoint and an officer with a clipboard walked slowly all around the bus. He looked in the window, noted there was just one person per seat and waved us on our way.

Inspection duly passed, it was time to really load up. We stopped at a cluster of thatched-roof mud houses every twenty minutes or so, and at every stop, passengers climbed in and out through the windows, laughing and greeting their friends, squeezing onto one of the jump seats that folded down over the aisle or finding a place on someone’s lap.

One woman passed a dangling pair of chickens, tied together at the leg, out through the window before she got out herself. The guy in the seat ahead of me, a thin young man in a gray track suit, a stylish haircut and slick shades, reached through the window and gathered in a cloth-wrapped baby, holding and talking to it as its mother grabbed the window frame and clambered up the side of the bus.

The more people crammed in, the more everyone laughed, and the whole enterprise became a traveling party. As the bus stopped for yet another cluster of passengers waiting by the side of the road, the guy in the track suit called out to them, “Metangula! Metangula beach safari!”

A broad-faced young guy with a red shirt perched himself on the back of a seat in the middle of the bus and put his bare feet up on the back of the next seat forward. He took on the role of party director, talking loudly to the crowd and getting grins and chuckles in response. His perch gave him a good view of the people getting on and off, so he would yell to the driver--“Alfonso!”--whenever he considered it time to go.

I had a window seat in the last row, so I had a good vantage point both for the party on the bus and the hilly, dusty landscape passing by. At one stop, a man called out the window to a boy standing in front of a thatched house to bring him a cup of water, which he did, running with a worried expression and a tin cup filled almost to the brim. Party Guy yelled to Alfonso not to leave till the kid made it to the window.

At another stop, a man selling stalks of sugar cane came to the bus windows to take orders, a two-year-old kid on his hip. When he saw me in the window, he laughed outright and pointed me out to the baby. Two little girls standing nearby just stared at me, but when I waved to them they broke into grins and waved back, one of them with her hands in a pair of big red rubber kitchen gloves. At another stop, I saw kids riding scooters made completely of wood—axles, wheels, and all.

For long stretches, there was no sign of human habitation in sight, just brown grasses, a few trees and distant hills. Then we’d pass a cluster of square houses made from mud bricks plastered with more mud, with rush grass roofs held up by wooden poles. Some stood on their own, some were enclosed in compounds with reed walls all around.

Bandeze, Mozambique from the chapa. (KK)
As we got closer to the lake, the landscape got greener and the bus crept down the hills. Maybe four hours after we left Lichinga, the general stir on the bus made it clear we were approaching Metangula. More mud houses appeared along the road, and as the stops became more frequent, I realized I didn’t know exactly where to get off. It was late in the day by now and I asked Domingo whether he knew the two guesthouses whose names I’d gotten from Lonely Planet. He didn’t and to my dismay he yelled forward to Party Guy.

Just what I don’t want, I thought, the whole bus knowing I don’t know where I’m going. Party Guy did his best to help, but out of the stream of Portuguese he unleashed, the only word I recognized was “praia” (beach).

“Sim,” I said. I wasn’t sure exactly where these places were, but I thought they were on the beach.

The bus had stopped now at a crossroads beyond which the pavement turned to sand. Mud houses lined the streets and a long mud wall was brightly painted with ads for cell phone companies. More than half the people were off the bus, and though it looked distinctly unpromising, Party seemed to think I should get off here.

He climbed out the window and indicated I should do the same.  But my backpack was in the pile up near the driver, and the bus seemed empty enough now that I thought I could clamber forward over the sacks of corn and the jump seats and get it. And though it probably violated all chapa-riding etiquette, that’s what I did, saying, “Desculpe, desculpe” all the way.

Then there I was in a tiny, mud-house town with the light fading and no idea where I’d spend the night. I missed Rie. I wished I’d learned more Portuguese.

But Party wasn’t about to leave me stranded. He offered by gesture to take my shoulder bag and show me to a place I could stay. And however rowdy he’d been on the bus, his face now showed nothing but polite concern. So I gave him the bag and went with him around the corner and down the dirt street toward the broad blue lake, above which the red ball of the sun hung half in cloud. Humped cattle and a black goat crossed in front of us, followed by a young boy driving them home, and on the shoreline I could make out a line of people washing pots and pans and themselves in the lake.

Party took me to the only accommodation in sight, the Casa de Hospedes Bela Vista, a row of small, stark, hot concrete rooms with a smelly bathroom at one end. But it was cheap and there didn’t seem to be any choice. 

I took this picture the next morning, not that I'll ever quite forget this place! (KK)
I told the hotel guy I’d take it and then asked if there was a public phone in town—I wanted to call the people at Manda Wilderness and let them know I’d made it this far. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and offered it to me, but it was a long distance call and I didn’t want to wipe out his minutes. “Existe Internet aqui?” I asked.

He didn’t understand. I pulled out my little Portuguese dictionary, but the word was the same—internet. I pointed to it, but he looked just as befuddled as before. Party and another guy huddled around the dictionary. Party too looked confused but the other guy knew what it meant. But no, he said, no internet in Metangula.

Food was more easily found. Party indicated I could clean up if I wanted and he’d walk me to a place I could eat and then later I could come back here and sleep. I braved the smelly toilet—where it turned out there was no running water, just a big pan of water with a dipper in it—and went with him back around the corner and up the dirt street to a big screened place with red plaid tablecloths and green plastic chairs and a half-dozen people who looked at me very curiously.

I offered to buy Party a beer to say thank you, but he looked very uncomfortable at the idea. Finally he nodded at the order window and asked, “A Fanta?”

“Sim,” I said. “Please get yourself a Fanta.” He came back with a Coke and sat at the table next to mine, downed the soda in record time, shook my hand and left.

I ate a good meal of fish and rice and asked the woman who ran the restaurant when the chapa heading north would leave the next morning. When I tried to leave a tip, she gave the money back to me with a smile. “No,” she said kindly. “Keep it for the chapa.”

I slept better than I expected in my prison-cell room and woke at daylight to find the village already in motion—cattle and goats in the street, women heading back from the lake with big plastic pails of water on their heads, a small cluster of people on the corner waiting for the chapa.

Metangula (KK)

Soon I’d join them. In fact, I would spend six hours on that street corner before the flat-bed truck was ready to carry us north, and then another four hours—including radiator breakdown and repair—getting to Cóbuè and the boat. 

Loading up for Cóbuè. (KK)

The battered windshield, the battered road. (KK)

Coming into Cóbuè.

But a night in Metangula had reminded me that my fellow humans can be tremendously kind. And even in the remotest corners of the world, you can suddenly feel you’re among friends.  

“Excuse me!” I heard as I headed for the chapa corner. “Excuse me!”

It was Party, heading for the lake with a buddy by his side. He shook my hand with great enthusiasm and apparent pride that this stray white person he’d taken under his care was still alive and kicking the next day.


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