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May 24th 2010
Published: August 21st 2010
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Ilha is actually further east than any part of Tanzania, yet Mozambique is one hour behind timewise. Consequently it gets light very early here and also in Nampula, a little to the west of Ilha, where I must return to catch a bus heading south. But the enthusiastic sun of northern Mozambique has not yet risen as my transport departs at 2am! Even by standards here this is a getting a bit ridiculous. On the plus side I do save on expensive accommodation by arriving early the night before and sleeping on the bus. Well I say sleeping... In fact I spend most of the time moving between seats, from row to row, trying to get horizontal for long enough to pass out. Yet every new passenger who arrives as the vehicle steadily fills up seems to have a ticket for the particular seats I am occupying. At one point I pick up my stuff to relocate yet again and discover my bag of bread has given birth to a hoard of cockroaches, which swarm all over my poor loaves (my planned breakfast, lunch and dinner for the trip). One by one I brush off the individual pieces before stuffing them in another container and packing that securely away, then chucking the still furiously wriggling plastic away. Bread here is very tasty. If I can stomach the maggot filled meal I had on the Ilala ferry, then a few cockroaches crawling on my only food is not an excuse to throw it away.

I was warned by a traveller on Ilha that the journey I'm about to take lasted 48 hours when he did it the other way and it got pretty rough. Consequently I'm hesitant about buying a ticket when the conductor tells me the only available space is on the floor. I did 30 hours traversing Tanzania on the floor of a bus with much more aisle room than this rickety old rust-bucket. That journey was one of the worst to date and I think long and hard before finally stumping up for this one. Ironically I was told for the Tanzanian ride that I could have a staff seat and ended up on the ground whereas in this case the reverse happens. In my constant shifting about I eventually plonk down in the single "conductor's seat" at the front. No-one says anything. As we approach departure I silently pray, fingers crossed all the while, that nobody will interfere. Even as the engine revs and the cumbersome vehicle begins to slowly lumber along I can't quite believe my luck.

As it turns out I don't get to keep my seat, but the misfortune of others hands me a replacement. It hasn't taken me long to realise that Mozambicans are fairly unscrupulous when it comes to money. They're not as bad as the Ethiopians were and far behind Egyptians, but they seem pretty wily and adept at wrangling a quick buck through devious methods. Across the aisle from me are a young Somali family headed by a boy of no more than fifteen. As we navigate Nampula the conductor starts to demand documents from all the passengers. This family lacks the right ones and the staff begin to berate them, insisting they get off the bus. Of course the Somalis complain, but they get nowhere and so request at least their money back instead. The conductor says he doesn't have it and yells at them to get off. Something is very fishy. I and others who I saw buying tickets were all obliged to show some form of identification when purchasing our passage yet now the staff say the papers the Somalis do have are insufficient. It must be a deliberate ploy to relieve them of what little money they have. The fresh space will soon be filled by new passengers and the staff can pocket the extra cash from those who they've ejected. I feel real pity for the family and consider intervening, but this is not my fight. I know what the response will be anyway: "I don't have their money. These are bad people. Stay out of it." These Somalis are clearly illegal immigrants and, recognising this, the staff take advantage of them. The family don't speak Portuguese, are unlikely to have any contacts to help them; they are easy prey. The rest of the passengers, far from standing up for them, aggressively and impatiently hound these unfortunates for holding the bus up. Immigrants are unpopular across the continent. They may open businesses and contribute to society but they also gravitate towards the overpopulated cities and consume limited resources. The locals see them as nothing more than sponges or parasites, leeching of already overburdened states. Politicians are keen to exaggerate the negative impact in order to deflect from their own pilfering of public funds. The bullying behaviour of the bus is lamentable but perhaps understandable in such a climate. It is not the fault of Mozambicans, a people who have seen their fair share of recent turmoil and suffering, that Somalia is tearing itself apart and its people fleeing in droves. They do not want these people in their country. The sad irony is that the family is most likely on their way to South Africa and, by abandoning them in Nampula and robbing them of their money, these unsympathetic locals are unwittingly increasing the length of the Somalis’ stay in Mozambique.

Anyway, long story short: they get kicked off and soon the conductor, having rearranged some remaining passengers, comes up to me and requests that I move into some available space that's been freed by this purge.

It’s a long journey of 33 hours - my longest on a bus to date - spanning two uncomfortable nights. To my right sits a reassuringly small woman. Unfortunately, instead of utilising her size advantage she insists on putting her boxy luggage next to her on the seat, jutting out her arse and undercutting me so that I feel constantly off balance and in danger of toppling onto her. Of greater concern however is the leviathan to my left. Any movement on my part and all newly vacated space is instantly inhabited by a body three times as heavy. My continued squirming does compel her to occasionally shift a centimetre or two. But these small victories are short-lived as her layers of flesh soon spread over me once more, oozing outward like a slab of butter hitting a hot frying-pan. A big mistake to make as a novice in Africa is, when uncomfortable, to think that moving away from whatever is sticking into you might offer some relief and breathing room. Wrong. Give an inch and you will lose a mile. No amount of space, however tiny, is wasted on an African bus. I am aware of course that the girth of the woman to my left can be explained by a difference in culture. Here size is an attribute, an indicator of a healthy and fulfilled appetite and ample food (i.e. good health and plenty of wealth) and, in women, a large family and enviable fertility. It is something to be complimented. I have been frequently engaged in conversation concerning the appearance and habits of western women by locals. On the occasions I've mentioned that some girls back home effectively starve themselves to look thinner I am laughed at in disbelief. Does an understanding of this fundamental cultural difference console me during my 33 hours next to this woman? No.

Writing more than 1000 words on one bus journey is probably a little excessive, so I shall move on to my eventual destination at the end of this ride, after a short ferry crossing and further hour on a chapa: Tofo. It is supposed to be one of the highlights of any visit to Mozambique but I am rather underwhelmed. As a holiday destination for a week or two it's perfect, with an attractive and enormous curved beach and plenty of bars and cheap alcohol, including the local specialty: the divinely delicious Tipo Tinto rum. The place is therefore populated with plenty of punters and staff from nearby South Africa. I also encounter a significant number of people who've become addicted to the place, staying for weeks and months on end. Unfortunately I'm not a surfer and don't
Maputo trainstationMaputo trainstationMaputo trainstation

Designed by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel, but sadly no longer in use
have the money for repeated diving so, perhaps partly due to my recent experiences of the fantastic fresh water and beaches of Lake Malawi and the idyllic Ilha, I'm not wild about Tofo. I try not to be too much of a party pooper though and do enjoy my four days there, helped by bumping into two former Israeli travel acquaintances, but Tofo just can't match the hype. I don't take a single photo, which is perhaps the best measure of my indifference.

I continue across the Limpopo River – memorable to me from Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So Stories' - and onwards to Maputo, of which I am extremely fond. To be honest any big city with a grid pattern layout gets a massive two thumbs up in my book. As does the novelty of any place still proudly displaying street signs named after the icons of communism. This is because the ruling political party, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo), was originally communist. Now it favours "democracy" although Frelimo's opponents are woefully disorganised and the political system typically corrupt - my favourite anecdote of the many election rigging plans of Frelimo from the last ballot, was about their offer of free fuel to anybody who pulled up at a petrol station with a Frelimo flag on their vehicle.

Widespread corruption filters down rather blatantly into the behaviour of the police, who are some of the most irritable and irritating I've yet encountered. I've teamed up with Y, one of the Tofo Israelis, and on our second day in Maputo we go walking around town, encountering some police near the docks. Stupidly I've left my passport behind in the hostel, even though I know it's mandatory to carry at least a copy on your person at all times. They demand to see our documents and I can see their eyes light up when they discover I haven't got mine. They smell a bribe. The one in charge begins to sermonise on the by now familiar forecasts of a trip to the police station, a night in the cells and a huge fine, maybe even deportation! I know what he wants. Here, the poorly paid long arm of the law always comes complete with an outstretched open palm at the end. He hopes to scare me into handing over a small "on the spot fine", which he will of course pocket, in order to be let go. I move over to lean against a wall and tell him calmly and politely that a trip to the station is fine with me, "Ok, let's go." "We're going," is his terse response as he turns away from me in a huff and takes a few paces to nowhere. My strategy is a little risky; if more police, or a more senior official happen to walk past then I may actually be in some trouble or at least face having to pay money to more people than just these two officers. However, I rightly suspect that the unscrupulous greed of police here is surpassed only by their indolence. They don't want to take me to the police station which necessitates the laborious double whammy of first walking me all the way there then filling out the paperwork for a fine they will see none of. After about ten minutes of insisting that I'm in big trouble and that we're within an instant of going to the station they gruffly, dejectedly tell us to move along.


21st August 2010

I enjoyed reading your blog and it brought back memories from 2005 when I did much the same journey.
26th August 2010

Thanks, I hope it encourages you to return

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