Monday, January 18, 2010

Chronicle of a Mozambiquean Bus Trip, Day 1ish of 2

This past Friday I returned from a 2-day bus ride spanning pretty much the entire country of Mozambique north to south. Not only was it a 2-day bus ride and not only was it in a 3rd world country, but it was the cheap bus in a 3rd world country. When I told people here I was taking the bus, especially the TechnoServe people (who were willing to pay for a flight), I received responses just short of “You are going to die.” Here’s a few of my notes from the trip:

Day 1, 1:30am: I arrive at the “bus station”, which is essentially a bus parked at someone’s house. By this time the bus is almost completely full and someone’s in my seat. After franticly searching for bus management in fear that the bus might take off with me seated on the floor, I find out that they sold two seat #37s. Convenient. I get moved around and end up in an aisle seat rather than my ticketed window seat. The bus, mind you, looks like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and sitting in my seat instantly blasts me back to the 1940s. I’m concerned we may not make it around the block.

Day 1, 2:12am: Our bus makes the move. But out of nowhere comes about 9 Indian-looking men. It’s odd: all 9 of them board at the last minute, all wearing thick clothes like heavy woolens and scarves wrapping their faces to go with their expressionless faces. It seems as though they paid informally because they take their seats in the aisle, on the floor and on little stools. The one seated to my right and the overweight Mozambiquean taking up 1/3 of my seat to my left create a space for me tighter than Dolly Parton’s face. Taking something out of my pocket requires that I stand up in my seat, and sitting down becomes a human game of Tetris, where I have to contort my body into exactly the right position to fit between them. The layer of sweat coating all of us makes this considerably easier.

Day 1, 2:30am-ish: The driver starts blasting Portuguese reggae. Are you kidding? It’s 2 in the freakin’ morning! Meanwhile, two babies are already crying and the smell of chicken, French fries, and sweat wafts through the air. In a duel of shoulders, I jostle with the Indian for space, and pray by the grace of God that I might be able to fall asleep.

Day 1, 7:23am: We pull up on the side of the road and are bombarded by hawkers. I buy bananas and bread, two of the few safe, non-messy eatables. I estimate that the night before I “slept” for about 1 hour. My shirt is already soaked through with sweat, and on we go.

Day 1, 1:18pm: Bananas and bread for lunch – watch for a recurring theme.

Day 1, 5:37pm: We are stopped at the first of probably 10 or so police checkpoints. It’s at this point that I notice how bad the BO is without any car breeze. I’m sure I’m a contributor to this.

Day 1, 10:40-11:45pm: The bus has “mechanical problems”. I hear words like “screws loose”, but no one seems to really know, including the guys trying to fix it. Passengers chat and sleep on the road while it’s being fixed, while I delete old contacts in my cell phone. You run out of things to do and people to talk to…

Day 2, 1:23am: We pull over and the lights come on. I suddenly get a nauseous feeling. An announcement is made. The ticket man says the driver is tired and wants to sleep. I’m thinking, “What are we paying for?” Realizing I probably won’t be able to sleep and haven’t eaten since the banquet I had for lunch, I start walking down the highway into the dark with about 10 other passengers. I felt like I was searching tirelessly in the desert for water, just with the lights out. We finally find a little foodstand and I tell them that yes, I will absolutely have the chicken and rice. That sounds delightful.

I’m quite confident that by this time my stomach has consumed itself. The chicken was cold and the rice was as gritty as my skin at this point, but there could’ve been rocks in there and I would’ve eaten it. I ate with some passengers over conversations about Arnold Swarzennegar (an all-time favorite abroad) and then headed back to the bus. Finding that we had an hour to kill before 4am, I laid down on the road and stared up into the stars. It really is everything it’s cracked up to be. Out there in the bush with no lights, the African sky is a vivid canopy of constellations extending all the way down to the horizon. I fall asleep briefly and am woken up only by the headlights of oncoming traffic.


  1. Wow, Rob, I can't wait to read the rest of the story! I am in the midst of reviewing the applications of this years potential Keegan fellows - hope we pick another who can get as much out of it as you. I think the perfect test would be to put each applicant on that bus trip of yours and interview them after they get off of it (not sure I'd have made it myself!). Kelly

  2. robert frost would be proud.

  3. I can't wait to cook for you when you come's going to be soooo much easier! Also, I'm glad you found the stars and took time to appreciate them. I remember a time when you would have thought that boring? a waste of time? stupid? I'm ready to get back on the bus for the rest of the trip! Love you.

  4. Two quick highlights from my trip....
    1. Pushing the bus down the hill so it would get moving. Then, once the bus is moving, it had enough energy to start. Then we would drive back up the hill to pick everyone up once the bus was running.
    2. The man with about 8 rats on a stick. He loads the bus and jams the stick into the wall of the bus. Several minutes later, his pulls a rat off the stick and eats it.
    3. Stopping randomly in the middle of nowhere and then every man getting out of the bus to load tree trunks onto the top of the bus. Then going through the mountains with a topheavy bus.
    4. 12 hour trip, no bathroom break. How did I make that?

    Glad to hear you made it!

  5. Good to hear from you Kelly. Definitely let me know how the selection goes - I'm interested to hear.

    Thomas, that rat thing is incredible. I think that says something about the quality of food here, if not the level of poverty. And that's hilarious about the tree trunks...luckily we weren't going through the mountains but we had all this stuff like beds, bookcases, chairs, live goats, and big sacks of fire wood.