PictureOur packs are placed where we pitched out tent. The home is abandoned; the roof has collapsed as people have used its bamboo for firewood. The building on the right houses the village's motorized corn mill.
In which the author realizes he has come a long way in every sense, yet knows very little.

JULY 2: This day may well have been one of the strangest days of my life.  If the last two days were Mark in Manda, then this day put me Through the Looking Glass, coming and going.

Mr. Elias did end up arriving back in Luiga rather late (“Malawi midnight” or “Niassa midnight,” which is a local term for nine p.m.).  We were already in our tents, but I could hear Mr. Joe and he were talking over the events of yesterday and what would be happening today.  I could not make out what they were saying, though.

It was very cold here last night (it can easily get in the 40s in these mountains at night), and both Joe and Elias were sneezing and coughing a lot.  I am a little concerned about Joe because he never really seems to have gotten over his cold from the last trip; in fact, it sounds from the cough as if it is turning into a pretty serious case of bronchitis.  I wonder what one does for illnesses like that in Mbueca…. 

I also wonder how people sleeping in the many open-air huts in this village could possibly cope with not having any blankets.  Yet somehow they do.  Nobody here thinks anything of it, and nobody anywhere else would think that families in this part of Africa might need warm blankets for very cold nights.  Life goes on, I guess.    

PictureWild dog tracks on the road
We awoke to mist from our breath and condensation on our tents.  I also awoke to discover that my plastic sunscreen bottle had exploded inside my backpack during the chapa ride the day before.  Lucky for me I had anticipated something might happen like that and had packed it along with my shower gel inside a giant Ziploc bag.  It was a mess inside the Ziploc; but the bag had held other than some lotion oozing out of the top, so my other belongings were mostly undamaged. Only the items nearest the bag needed some wiping down, which I did with the roll of toilet paper a graduate student at home had wisely told me I would always need to carry everywhere while in Africa.  Thanks, John!

The morning stayed cold, but we had a good breakfast of hot tea, warm rice and Maria biscuits, plus some bananas that somehow survived the chapa ride in the back – ironically, the ones I was “guarding” were too bad to eat!  “A full English breakfast!” Joe joked.  It really was substantial for a village trip.

We will not be going to Chissindo it turns out; there is no choir there.  Nobody even knew where the information would have come from that there ever had been a choir or that anyone wanted one.  Nope.  No choir.  I am a little disappointed that there will be one village in the Manda Wilderness that I will not have visited, but it would be ridiculous for the three of us to hike for seven hours just to say “hello, we heard you do not have a choir; but we are thinking of you…” then turn back the next day and hike seven more hours, especially given the health of our expedition party at the moment.  We will take the chapa back to Cobué today.

I have grown weary of terrorizing the local children; so I decide to take a walk north up the road, back in the direction from which we came.  On the first hill outside the village, I spot an animal that looks much like a domestic dog only thinner in body and face and with a very long tail. As I come closer it turns around and runs uphill away from the road.  When I get back to Luiga after my walk, I ask what it might be. At first everyone is insisting it is a fox, but the tail was not bushy at all, and it was taller than that.  They think then that it could be a very rare African wild dog, but ONLY if it is truly as I described.  The children are beginning to return for another game of scream and run away from me, so I take another walk.  When I near the spot where the animal turned and ran, I take pictures of the footprints I find.  This is no dog or fox; the front and back prints are spaced right next to each other.  When I return and show the pictures, all agree that it was in fact a wild dog.  Only wild dogs and leopards run that way, apparently.    

PictureThe view from Mr. Bondo's restaurant's front window as I wait (I know, the bars go the wrong way for a prison...). The tailor's porch is in the center, across "the street." The building to the right is the maritime police headquarters. Immigration is in a small building next to the radio tower.
We continue our wait for a chapa.  Now we are waiting for one coming from Metangula, so there is no such thing as an early chapa in Luiga.  It will get here when it gets here.  Joe and Elias pass the time playing bawo with the teens and with each other.

Around 11:30, the president’s family feels bad that we have been waiting so long, so the amayi prepares some cassava nsima with tomatoes and mustard greens for the sauce.  This was a delicious meal and just the right size before the long journey we would face in the big, slow chapa.

Right around noon, Elias heard the sound of a truck and went out to the dirt road to hail it.  As it is slowing down and stopping, I notice that this particular white pickup truck has the word “Policia” painted on its side in big black letters.  As appears to be common in this region, the police are picking up passengers to make some extra money on the side, using their police vehicle as a chapa.  After a bit of dialogue about who we are and where we are going, they admit us to the back of the truck. 

There are three people in the cab of the truck: a man dressed in a dark green uniform, with sunglasses and some sort of serious gun at his side.  Pistol Pete, I thought to myself for no particular reason – but the name stuck in my mind.  A well-dressed woman in a bright floral tea-length dress was sitting in the middle carrying the ammunition clip to Pete’s gun – Mystery Lady; and a man in civilian clothing (soccer shirt and shorts) was nearest the passenger door.  Random Guy, I thought.  In the back of the truck sitting up high and near the cab on the driver’s side, a man in his early twenties dressed in a dark suit and gray shirt with no tie sat with a machine gun pointed up into the air.  American Country and Western music was playing loudly from the sound system, I don’t know who.

Apparently Random Guy was there to collect the money for the ride so that nobody could say that any money had crossed the palm of a police officer at any time.  He quoted a fee to Joe and Elias, they agreed, and off we sped.  And I do mean sped.  On roads where a chapa would go twenty miles an hour, we were going forty.  When a chapa would do thirty, we had to be doing fifty.  And there we all were, bouncing around in this back cab of a police truck.  I looked around at my fellow passengers.  Over the course of the bumps in the road at that speed, Joe had been folded up and was wedged between rice bags and some empty plastic buckets that someone kept warning him to take good care of.  Elias was sitting by Machine Gun Kid.  Over near the wheel well on my side was sitting James Bondo from Cobué, and just behind the middle of the cab sat the mfumu of Mandambuzi and his first wife!  The whole scene could not have felt more surreal.

About a third of the way between Luiga and Mandambuzi, the truck slammed on its brakes and we skidded to the side of the road.  The three hopped out of the cab, and Machine Gun Kid jumped down.  To the side of the road, there were trees cut in a sort of beaver style, looking like giant pencils that had been buried eraser-side down.  On a tree that had been left intact, someone had carved a message in Portuguese: “This is my land and I WILL farm it – Lucas.”  Pete, Mystery Lady and Random Guy all pulled out their cell phones and began taking pictures.  Pete took out his gun and Machine Gun Kid put his gun at the level, doing a sweep of the territory.  They crossed the road, where a fire was still burning in a campsite.  Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler was playing from the cab of the truck. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / Know when to run….  Not finding anybody, the four got back into their respective places and we sped off again, even faster to make up for lost time.  Sometimes to avoid colliding with an oncoming car we would swerve suddenly and stop even faster.  Pistol Pete would make the other car stop and would ask them questions about who they were and where they were going.  Then we were back on our way until the next vehicle.

When we got to Mandambuzi, many people got off at “the chief’s house,” including, appropriately enough, the chief and his first wife.  In another bizarre scene that made me think I might still be dreaming in my tent in Luiga, someone tossed a bag to the elderly wife of the chief.  She caught this bag that turned out to be filled with bread rolls, and the crowd cheered loudly, laughed and clapped – including the police.  She giggled like a schoolgirl, spun in two circles and then literally ran into her house, knees bent the whole way, not to be seen again.  Nobody I have told this to seems to know the origin or purpose of this event.  One staff member has offered, “The crowd might have been excited because bread is very expensive in the villages and she made a good catch.”  It is certainly as good an explanation as any other.

Mr. Joe got off at Mandambuzi, too.  He really was not well at all by this point; being folded in half and slamming his upper back against the low metal wall of the truck bed over and over at twenty-five miles an hour seems to have taken a lot of his strength for some reason. It would be easier for him to hike to Mbueca rather than take the chapa all the way to Cobué and do all the rest of the routine that it would take to get back going that way.  He gave Random Guy 500 meticais: 100 for himself from Luiga to Mandambuzi, and 150 each for Elias and me, with 100 in change due to Elias when we got to Cobué.  I heard Pistol Pete asking about “o branco”[the white one], and Joe assured him that I was going to Cobué and that he was paying for me.  With a wave from Joe, we were on our way again, our load considerably lightened. 

I wiggled my way into a pretty comfortable spot at the rear corner on the passenger (left) side of the truck.  I was on a bag of some commodity or other (most likely rice), and my backpack was protected next to my knees.  Unfortunately we were now on the busiest part of the route, between Manda (as everyone here calls Mandambuzi for short) and Litanda.  Once again, we were stopping every two hundred feet or so, and once again, people were only getting on, not off.  As the bags got piled on, my formerly comfortable seat was altered and raised so that the majority of my body was higher than the edge of the truck bed.  This meant that every time we took a curve at about thirty miles an hour, my body was swinging out slightly over the side of the truck.  It really was dangerous, and suddenly just outside Litanda the truck slammed on the brakes.  Pistol Pete and Mystery Lady got out and readjusted the load so that I could sit lower in the bed.  Each of them took hold of one of my legs and literally pulled them out from their trapped position under three bags of rice.  “Isn’t that better?” they asked kindly. It was; I could already feel the circulation slowly return to my feet.  I braced them against the tailgate, and, grateful for still being flexible at my age, I bent forward and gripped the tailgate for dear life with both hands.  Yes, it was as uncomfortable as it sounds; but I was secure.  Sort of.  We roared off again.  I held on as tight as I could as we took the curves of the oito oito.  We were going way too fast.  There were times on some of the hairpins that the truck’s weight shifted so that those of us on my side were looking down the precipice as we rounded the curves, even as the weight of the other people conspired to push us off the side of the truck.  Many people were screaming, except for the teenage girl next to me who threw her arms up in the air as if she were riding a roller coaster, laughing and calling out “wooooooooo!!!”  I don’t know when I have been that scared in my life.  This was not an event where the inexperienced white man from America was terrified of the commonplace.  Everyone was afraid and grabbing anything that felt at all fastened to something, anything.  At least twice we were two feet from going off the road, rocks and dirt spraying from the rear wheels.  All I could do was grip the tailgate, hope my phone didn’t fall out of my pocket and tumble down the cliff, and try not to notice that my side of that back door was starting to come unfastened from all the turns and weight pushing against it.  I pulled against it as hard as I could while still bent in half.  We’re almost to Cobué – I kept telling myself.  Hang on a little bit longer. We’re almost there….

Suddenly about a kilometer out of town, we screeched to a halt.  Random Guy came around and collected payments.  He came up to me and started to ask for money, then remembered the conversation with Joe and moved on.  Once the money was collected, we screamed our way into town, almost spinning out in front of the tailors’ porch.

We all jumped out as quickly as we could, as if in fear that the demonic contraption might start up and take us on that hellish journey all over.  I never noticed where Machine Gun Kid went, but somehow he melted into the general bustle of Cobué and I did not see him again.  Elias and I were at the intersection in front of James Bondo’s restaurant, near where we had been only yesterday morning.  It was as if the past day had not happened.  We had the three backpacks (Joe had not taken his, feeling too sick to carry it), along with a pack for food and the tents.  Pistol Pete and Mystery Lady approached us.  They did not like that our belongings were “in the street” – street being a relative term in Cobué… most of the rest of the world would call it “dirt.”  Elias told them that we would be going soon, but first he needed his change.  They gave him fifty meticais.

This made Elias angry.  The change was supposed to be a hundred meticais.  The police were using any excuse they could think of – our excess baggage, which was patently ridiculous given all the bags of rice the truck had carried, the length of time we had been on the chapa, the inconvenience of advance payment (!).  Money got passed back and forth with Random Guy and the argument got heated – all in Portuguese of course, since the police were from Lichinga.  Eventually Elias had no choice but to accept the fifty meticais, but I could see he was very angry about it.  Townspeople nearby were trying to pretend that they were not watching.

The police, embarrassed by this public demonstration of their taking money for the use of a government vehicle (something everything knew was happening anyway since it is hard to disguise twenty people and their luggage and bags of rice), decided to turn their attention to me – still all in Portuguese.  “And you!  Where are you coming from?  Where are you going?  Where are your documents?”

My heart sank, but not before it felt as if it had briefly stopped.  Mozambican law requires that you have your passport physically on your person at all times.  In the villages I always carried it in my solar backpack so it would be with me but not actually on me.  This trip, though, I had left my solar backpack at home because of the potential damage in a chapa – and I had forgotten that my passport was in there.   I had realized it halfway on our journey in the boat to Cobué and mentioned it then, half joking.  “Don’t worry about it!  Nothing ever happens!”  When we got on the police chapa, I had mentioned it again to Joe.  “I hope they don’t ask for my passport!”  “Don’t worry about it!  Get in!  Nothing ever happens!”

Something was happening.

I explained that I did not have it on me at the moment; it was at Mchenga Nkwichi (the full name of the area of the lodge.  It literally means squeaky beach, “nkwichi” being the sound of the sand when you walk on it).  This of course was not the right answer.  “You will follow us, please.  We are going to speak with the immigration officer.  Take your bags with you.”  This reads very politely, but it was all shouted.  People were not bothering to pretend not to stare now.  They were staring.  Pistol Pete was touching his gun.  Mystery Lady was yelling.  Random Guy disappeared somewhere, now that there was actual police work to be done.  We gathered up our packs and bags and walked up to the immigration office for interrogation.

“Sit down, please,” to me – again, not so politely as all that, but those were the words.  “You, too,” to Elias – a translation that better captures the abrupt spirit of the moment.  The tirades and volleys of questions began.  “Why are you here?  What are you doing?  How do we know you are really from Nkwichi?”  Pistol Pete would begin.  Then Mystery Lady, behaving as if she were a sidekick in an old gangster movie, would repeat in a shrill voice “Yeah!  Why are you here?  What are you doing?  Nkwichi!”  I recognized the younger of the immigration officers, currently staffing the desk while Mr. Immigration was still away. I was trying to explain to him in Nyanja what had happened.  I forgot my passport.  I always keep it in my solar backpack when I am in the villages.  I forgot to bring it…” They cut me short.  “What day did you enter?” they asked.  I could tell they wanted this question to fluster me, but I knew the answer:  I have entered the country on the tenth of every month, and said so.  Mr. Immigration Junior sprang up to the book and looked it up.  There I was.  I pulled out my other forms of identification to prove I was who I said I was, but they would have none of it.

“The book says you were to be at Mchenga Nkwichi!  You were picked up in Luiga!  What were you doing so far from the lodge?  How can we believe anything you say?”  Elias was trying to tell them what I was doing here, and the immigration officer was helping a bit, but they were not listening.  I could tell Elias was really getting angry now.  “How do we know what you have been doing out there?  Did you see that field near Luiga?”  They determined they would need to search all our belongings.  Elias began to open our packs one at a time, mine first.  I was glad I had at least left those mushy bananas in Luiga, for his sake.  The first bag that came out was the exploded sunscreen and bottle of shower gel.  I knew this bag would look suspicious, and I was right.  They practically screamed: “What is this????!!” Elias looked at them with contempt.  “Pomade.” he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm.  They opened the bag and sniffed it.  It passed the test, and they tossed it aside.  Soon Elias was pulling out my solar flashlight/radio that I always bring on village trips.  “Aha!  GPS!  GPS!!!!  Why do you need a GPS just to be in a village on the road?”  I explained in my broken Portuguese that it was only a solar flashlight and radio.  For a moment their demeanor changed and they spoke to me as if they were just there passing the time of day; big smiles spread across their faces.  “Ah!  A radio! Solar!  Very nice.  Did you hear that your President Obama is in Tanzania?”  Then back to their former tone.  “Keep going.”

Elias unpacked all the bags one by one, item by item.  They were screaming at him “This is YOUR fault!  Your fault!  You are responsible for this visitor!  You should make sure he has his passport!”  I couldn’t let this stand: “Não.  A falta é minha,” I tried to insist.  They turned on me, yelling and pointing their fingers in my face.  “We could take you to Lichinga right now!  Do you understand?  Lichinga!”  They were correct, of course.  That was the law.  Elias had had enough.  He folded his arms and looked them in the eye.  “Posso falar?” [May I speak?] he said in an icy voice.  Oh, dear Lord, I thought.  Just let them do this and let them go.  Please don’t get them angrier.  Two thought streams were going in my head:  “How will I get my belongings shipped to me in the States from the lodge,” and “I wonder if this is what the INS is like in the States….” I hear they are pretty rough, too, to undocumented aliens, which is just what I was.

The bags were all lying in a heap in one corner of the office.  Our belongings were strewn all over the floor.  The two of them put in their parting shots in.  “You had better not do this again.  You had better be on that boat to Mchenga Nkwichi by the end of this day!”  “Yeah! Nkwichi by the end of the day!  On a boat!” And with that, they stormed off to their truck, leaving Elias, Mr. Immigration Junior and me in the office.  A goat began to bawl in the distance.  Elias and I began to repack as Mr. IJ began to lecture me firmly but gently.

“Mr. Mark, you do good work here, but you must remember your documents!  Please always have them on you!”  I promised and said it was a one-time mistake that would not happen again.  We left the office.  In Nyanja, Elias said we should go to James Bondo’s.  As we were walking across the street, he called out again for the benefit of those who were still watching “Mr. Mark!  Remember your documents!”  I promised that I certainly would from now on.

Mr. Bondo had witnessed the beginning of the scene when he got out of the chapa and seemed to have anticipated our coming to his place now.  Within seconds of us walking in the door, he brought a thermos of hot tea, two big mugs and a giant bowl of rice.  He looked at me.  “You could use some tea,” he said.  Elias went to borrow a phone from someone to call the lodge and have them bring a boat.  I poured the tea slowly, trying to steady my shaking hands.  It wasn’t easy.

After a half hour, I was just beginning to calm down.  The police truck came roaring back up the hill on the road from the secondary school and shops.  I heard them asking around at the tailors’ if anyone had seen us.  Nobody claimed to know anything.  I was beginning to like Cobué a little more.  James Bondo’s restaurant has barred windows; I felt as if I were in jail – or in hiding!  That was it!  I laughed a bit to myself, but I have to admit not so loudly that I would give away my hideout.  The next thing I knew though, I began to hear “Chauta!  Chauta! Ndiye mbusa wanga!  Sindidzasowa kanthu.”  My miniature fan club must have seen me come into the restaurant and were re-gathering in their semi-circle like a group of carolers going to visit a prison.  Cheese it, kids!  You’ll blow my cover! I was thinking to myself.  Is that how they talked in those old movies? Like Mystery Lady.  Yeah! Yeah!  Old movies…. I think I was getting a little giddy and overtired.  When I didn’t come to the window, my carolers gave up and disbanded.    

It was taking forever for the boat to arrive, it seemed.  We were sent the slow motorboat Yellowfin since it was the only boat available, and it was taking a while to lumber up the lake.  When it got there, we had to wade into knee-high water to climb in because it couldn't dock any closer.  I didn’t care. I was in the boat.  They said I needed to be on the boat, and I was.  I made it.

After he went up the hill to pick up fuel and a few supplies from Mr. Bondo’s, the boatman Mr. Dalisso and the two of us were on our way.  In the way that one can only tell a story in Nyanja, Elias was telling Dalisso of our adventures over the sound of the motor and the waves, using all the ideophones he could muster.  We all joined in the laughter.  The Cobué shore was far enough away that I could begin to enjoy the absurdity of the entire day.  Wild dogs, exploding sunscreen, bawo, terrified children, non-existent choirs, burning fields, a machine gun, country and western music, mysterious bread dances from first wives of important chiefs, death-defying speed on precarious mountain roads, interrogations, children singing songs back to me in Nyanja as folksongs that I myself had brought from America – all of it.

When I got to the lodge, I had to tell the story four times over.  Someone said, “Well, nobody will be able to say you didn’t use your time to get the full African experience when you were here!”  And she was right.


Postscripts: Joe later told me that as he was paying he looked in the cab of the police truck and saw several empty beer bottles on the floor and at least three in progress.  I don’t know whether I would have wanted to know that on the day we were on the road or not.  People are not overly concerned about drunk driving here, since few drive to understand how dangerous it is.  Most people appear to assume it would be like drunk walking; you might stumble around, but you will get there eventually.  Undoubtedly the alcohol played a part in the aggression of the confrontation in Cobué.

Joe also told me that the conversation about “o branco” I had overheard was already involving questions about my origin and destination; the burning machamba [field for cultivation] we had passed truly seems to have raised their suspicions about me.  Joe told me that Pistol Pete had said to Joe, “It’s okay.  We know you and what you do.” I guess they changed their minds…. 

 



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