Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On the Chapa

At some point during the journey, I told myself that if I made it in one piece, I’d never do this again.

Ride on the back of a flat-bed truck, that is, crammed in with a couple dozen other people on top of grain sacks, crates of bottles, cloth-wrapped bundles and miscellaneous suitcases, some of which had clothing bursting out where the zipper should be.

On the way up to Cobué in August, I’d been lucky enough to get a seat in the cab of one of the chapas that carry people and cargo around on the dirt roads of northern Mozambique. But heading south again a month later, I was a few minutes too late for that. When the boat from Nkwichi dropped me at Julius’s backpacker lodge in Cobué, the chapa was already there and the cab was already full. There was nothing for it but to grab the edge of the truckbed, put my foot up on one of the big tires, and clamber into the back.

Really, I was lucky, I told myself. These trucks run just once or twice a day, and I needed to leave that day to catch a plane in Lichinga, the nearest city. I’d sent a message asking the chapa driver to wait for me, and he had. And as the first person in the back, I could claim a spot with my back to the cab. I put my backpack down on the wooden bed of the truck and sat down on it, tucking my shoulder bag in next to me. With my basket under my knees and my inflatable travel pillow behind me, I was as comfortable as a person can be in the back of a truck.

The driver and the conductor finished tying down a cluster of yellow plastic gas cans, then the driver got behind the wheel and the conductor held onto the side of the cab. The truck turned around and headed up the steep hill toward the church, which was still battered and roofless from Mozambique’s civil war. 

The truck stopped and the small crowd waiting there piled on with their bundles and bags. A man in a t-shirt and jeans carried a rifle and a clip of bullets. Women had their heads wrapped in colorful printed cloths and many had babies tied onto their backs with more cloth; most had long skirts made of the same. Nonetheless, they climbed up nimbly and settled themselves in on the mounting pile of cargo. Some people carried bread rolls or ears of corn, and others bought food from the vendors who came to the side of the chapa.

Maybe 20 people got on. I thought, this isn’t so bad, but of course we were just getting started. We stopped maybe four or five more times before we even left Cobué, more people piling on each time, somehow fitting into the growing pile of humanity and goods. The conductor—the local Portuguese word means “pincer” for the manner in which he takes your money—was gentle at first, passing babies and children and sacks around, pointing out to people where they would fit best. But he got harsher as the loading went on and yelled impatiently at an older woman who didn’t move quickly enough. An impossible number of people ended up on board, more than I could count, all meshed in like a human form of Tetris.

People were astonishingly patient, cooperating easily to make room, adjusting their positions to fit each other in, taking bundles for people, holding babies while their mothers got settled. Everybody just accommodated each other with no sighing or complaining or jostling for a better spot. We were literally squeezed together, limb pressing against limb, people using each other as armrests. For the first part of the ride, I had the bottom of somebody’s wheeled luggage wedged against my anklebone, a woman’s feet on top of mine, a man’s knees pressing against my side, and the woman’s hand on my thigh. Well, I told myself, the more tightly we’re wedged on, the less likely anybody is to fall off.  

The road was rough, a narrow, sandy, hilly track through the woods. At times we jounced very near the deep ditches and washouts, the heavily laden truck leaning over precariously. But I had no other way to get to Lichinga, and I got myself into a fatalistic mood. Chances are we’ll make it, I kept telling myself.

Everyone around me was talking but they spoke Chinyanja and I couldn’t follow or join in. People looked at me curiously when they got on, but after that nobody paid me much attention.

It was hard not being able to shift position, and after a while my knees and hipbones began to ache. But just when I thought I couldn’t bear it any more, we stopped and the woman whose feet were on mine climbed out of the truck at a mud house. Somebody else got on and we were jammed in again like before, but just being able to move for a moment let the blood flow through my legs again.

Everyone else seemed totally nonchalant, able to sit quietly in one position. But maybe they were hurting too and just not showing it.

On and on we jounced. I knew the trip should take about four hours, but I’d learned that in Mozambique it’s better not to pay too close attention to the time. At some point, we stopped for a group of people with three big sacks bulging with manioc root or corn.

“Sister, stand up!” the conductor called to me in English.

I wasn’t sure I could. My feet were wedged in again and I wasn’t sure my legs were going to move. But somehow I did stand, and I held onto the top of the cab, my feet on the metal edge of the flatbed wall, while they loaded up the sacks.

The conductor patted my backpack. “No problem?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said. “It’s OK.” So he put one of the sacks on top of my backpack and then I had to sit on top of the sack, much higher than I was comfortable with. But I discovered that if I leaned inward a bit and kept one hand on the metal wall, I was secure enough. I kept having to shift the pillow behind me—otherwise, the metal bars between the cab and the flatbed would pound into my back on every jounce—but I managed to stay on.

Meanwhile, I was saying goodbye to Manda Wilderness, where I’d so happily spent the last five weeks. When we climbed the hills out of Cobué, I got my last glimpses of the wide blue lake. When we passed the junction where we’d come in on Julius’s truck after the village trip a week earlier, I felt a pang of sadness. At the village of Mandambuzi, I saw again the school the trust built and is now expanding.  And a little further south, we passed the spot where my chapa had broken down on the way to Cobué. I thought about how strange and new everything was then, and how familiar it had become, how attached I’ve gotten to this landscape.

Then my nostalgia and anxiety were relieved in a most unexpected way. Somewhere south of Mandambuzi a mother with a nursing baby tied to her chest climbed on. She had two young boys with her and she tucked them in next to her. But her husband had to cling onto the back of the truck. Hurried by the conductor, he glanced hesitantly at me—a complete stranger and the lone white person on the truck—and apologetically handed me his little daughter. There was nowhere else for her to ride.

I smiled at him to show him it was all right and settled the little girl, maybe a year and a half old, onto my lap. I wrapped my left arm around her with my hand flat against her round belly to keep her on. Her right leg was bumping against the metal rail and I put my hand down to cushion it. Her mom smiled and gave me a thumb’s up, but one of the little boys kept a close eye on me for miles, apparently wondering whether his sister was in good hands.

I suppose I was doing the family a favor, but it felt more like one was being done for me. The girl’s solid little weight was oddly comforting, and she was utterly calm. Carrying her and making sure she was secure took my mind off my own safety and made me feel more a part of things, a little less the muzungu lady inexplicably riding the truck. The girl coughed now and then, and when I patted her belly, a thin older lady riding near me smiled.

The girl picked at the half-ear of corn she was carrying and seemed totally unfazed, and the acceptance of a toddler was surprisingly affirming. People along the road and at the places we stopped seemed surprised to see a white woman with a Mozambican baby on her lap, but the little girl’s mom seemed to enjoy it. She even called out to some people we passed as if she wanted to make sure they saw.

On and on we went, on and on. The sun was hot now that we were more in the open, and the truck tires slid on the loose sand as we headed down the hills. I could tell the little girl wasn't wearing diapers. I hoped she wouldn't pee on me, and she didn't. In one town we passed through, fabric capulanas flew from long bamboo poles and women and children were gathered in front of a house, one banging a yellow plastic gas can with a stick, others blowing whistles or shaking rattles made from soda cans filled with stones or beans. Maybe it was a holiday or something to do with the All-Africa Games then underway in Maputo.

I didn’t know. By then I was hot, ravenous, lightheaded and gritty with dust from the road. I think it was at this point that I promised myself that if I got safely to Lichinga, I’d never ride in a chapa again. But holding onto the little girl grounded me, and soon enough, there we were at the intersection that serves as Metangula’s depot and transfer station.  

I gave the girl back to her dad, climbed down and went off and got lunch—fish, nsima and an orange Fanta in a little market restaurant buzzing with flies. Then I came back to the junction to wait for the mini-bus headed for Lichinga. I didn’t know it yet, but on the next leg of the journey I would get to sit up front on the bench seat next to the driver. And though the shoulder bag holding my laptop would go flying out the back of the mini-bus onto the paved highway, the computer inside would miraculously escape undamaged.

I’m convinced that those strokes of luck were due to the good wishes of the little girl’s family. I came upon them again at the chapa corner, sitting in the shade under an overhanging grass roof, waiting for their ride to Bandeze.  

We smiled at each other. I introduced myself as best I could in Portuguese and asked their names.

Then I asked in a kidding way, “Where’s my little girl?” I could see perfectly well she was on her dad’s lap, but the little boy who’d regarded me so warily on the chapa went and got her. He solemnly brought her over to me, and she climbed onto my lap, utterly unconcerned who held her.

Soon their chapa came along and we all said goodbye. After he loaded his family up, the dad came back and held out his hand to me, his left hand touching his right elbow in the extra-polite Mozambican gesture of respect. He was speaking seriously in Portuguese and all I really understood was “Obrigado.” I understood he was thanking me for carrying his daughter, but I didn’t know how to say “I enjoyed it, no problem,” much less express how reassuring the little girl's presence had been.

So I just said “Obrigada” back. Then we wished each other a good voyage and went our separate ways.  


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