“Does Park Station have lockers for luggage?” I ask. The lady in the window at Rosebank Gautrain station in Johannesburg looks at me blankly. I repeat the question. “Which Park station?” she says finally. I didn’t know there were more than one, so it is my turn to have a blank look. “The bus or the train station?” is the prompt that follows my confusion.
“The bus station”.
“No, that one doesn’t have lockers”.
“But the train station does?”
“No, that doesn’t have lockers either”.
We should have known then.
This is the start of our trek from South Africa to Northern Mozambique, for a stay of indefinite length but definite frustration. We are booked on an overnight bus from Johannesburg in South Africa to Maputo in Mozambique and head over to said Park station. On the train there an official sticker says: “a wise man takes the bus”. With hindsight, I decide that that slogan was created by a very sarcastic marketing team.
We hoped there were no weight restrictions on buses, as we carry a tad bit more than 20 kilos per person (around 10 kilos more) but alas, the prehistoric scale is put to intense use by the staff. The old couple in front of us look like they only have about 12 kilos between the two of them, but are pulled out of the line, never to be seen again. We pretend our hand luggage is incredibly light by swinging it on our pinkie fingers, but we too have to put our bags on the scale (1 person in charge). Our passports are checked (2 people on that), we get a tag for each bag (another person) and our bus tickets (yet another person) and then we are waved through.
The elation that something worked out for a change is giving us a high that lasts all of 45 seconds. By that time I am arguing with the driver that I will not put my hand luggage with two laptops in the trailer, where bags are piled 8-high and a guy is stomping around on them while adding more bags. The driver insists the bag is too big and there is no swaying him. I end up emptying the contents in my purse, stuffing the laptops in my zipped up jacket and putting the empty bag in the trailer. Of course by then, no good seats are available anymore and we are stuck in the bottom of the bus where people have much larger bags than ours with them and the A/C fluctuates with maddening intervals between 17 C and 27 C. Why have an electronic display for this torture, but no way of actually controlling the temperature?!
Once in Maputo we try to buy bus tickets to our next destination and get elaborate directions to shops that should be selling them from just about everyone we ask. Three hours later we get tired of walking in circles and finding none of those places. We finally give up and decide to take the so called shuttle that is run by a hostel. Of course it turns out to just take us to the bus station in Maputo where we are then transferred to the very bus that we couldn’t find tickets for the day before. Full circle.
The bus, of course, is also not a real bus. It is a chapa (most often a minibus, but it can also take the shape of a tricycle or pickup truck), the favourite mode of transport here, and is made to carry about 20 people. In a bid to squeeze every last drop of profit out of it, they only leave when there is at least double that number on board, and an immense amount of luggage and parcels. Getting to the point where the driver deems everybody uncomfortable enough to finally switch on the engine can take two hours or so if you have a bad day. During this time, you better stay on board if you don’t want to lose your place to family of five or a goat. If you stay on board though, you can do the weekly shopping from the -relative- comfort of your seat, as the chapa will get stormed by children selling water, flip flops, lettuce, watches, bread, chicken skewers, bananas, fluorescent soda and charcoal stoves.
The departure process is worse when you don’t leave from a bigger town. We have spent whole nights waiting for chapas that didn’t show up, left early or came hours late. Getting on is no guarantee that your trip will begin, as the driver will double back to the village down the road looking for passengers if the van is not yet full. Then back to your village. Then back again. Down some back roads. Idling on the square. Back to the other village. And so it can continue for hours, while you are balancing on one butt cheek on the side of the pickup truck and get drenched by torrential rains or burned by the morning sun.
When one passenger gets off after indicating their stop by shouting ‘saida!’ (‘exit!’), the driver will slow down near every person standing next to the road while his helper shouts the destination of the chapa and urges them to get on. They seem to refuse the fact that most people are not planning on going there or just happen to be waiting to cross the street. When four more people have gotten on and you think the chapa will burst soon, there is always space for another two or three. After all, you don’t necessarily need to sit; you can stand hunched over, hanging on for dear life, hitting your head with every bump in the unpaved road for a few hours, your nose painfully close to your fellow passengers’ armpits. Unfortunately, deodorant seems to be a luxury most people can’t afford here, and even more unfortunately, you don’t have to be close to them to experience that fact. Combined with the stifling heat, body odour can make for a very trying ride.
During the trip, the speed of the van can decline sharply for various reasons. Overloading is one of them, to the point where you are afraid that all passengers will be required to get off and help push. Police is another. The chapa drivers will warn each other that trouble is ahead through an elaborate system of hand signals. Speed will slow to a crawl, to the point of cyclists passing you, in a bid to pretend the driver is a law-abiding citizen. The hand signals, however, aren’t sufficient to give an exact location for the police activity and the slow motion can last unbearably long.
The chapa phenomenon is a pretty well oiled system though, if you can handle the overload of people and smells, and the lack of comfort and space. It seems chaotic and inefficient, but it works – and it doubles as a delivery method. People give bags and boxes to the driver with a description of the person who will be waiting by the road somewhere. The driver then calls when he is close and hands the package over. Beats FedEx prices and speed by a good amount. The only worry about this system is sitting next to a bag that labelled explosives.
If, however, even the unpaved roads don’t go where your travel bug wants to take you, there is always the dhow. It is the waterborne equivalent of the chapa, equally overloaded but with less stops along the way for obvious reasons. It leaves at equally inconvenient times, and requires advance planning in terms of clothing, as you will probably wade up to your knees or waist in water to the shore or to climb back on board for departure. The waiting game until the boat is full is similar to the chapas, but there is a bit more pressure for passengers as departure (and arrival) is in the hands of Allah, the wind and the tide.
During the trip, you will once again sit between live chickens, bags of rice, baskets with mangos and lots of people – who may not be your travel companions, as the Muslim captain does not allow mingling of the sexes on his boat and therefore move you to different sides. Once again you will balance on one butt cheek – but this time you will do it perched on an uncomfortable wooden plank, while occasionally making space for heaving water from the bottom.
There is a slight risk of stepping on sea urchins while wading to and from the boat, and of severe sunburn as there is no shade but plenty of sun. The sail –sewn together from proper sail material to plastic bags- will not offer much in terms of sun protection and is more likely to give you a concussion during a jibe if you don’t pay attention. And then there is the sea sickness; if not yours, then of the person next to you. Just pray for strong winds, so it is over quickly. Inshallah.