Sunday, April 3, 2016

Oh Great. The War is Starting and I'm Naked.

Oh Great. The War is Starting and I’m Naked.

     “When you are in the convoy, don’t drive near vehicles carrying soldiers. Don’t get anywhere near the armored personnel carrier either. It’s a good thing you don’t drive a Ford Ranger because they like to shoot at those. That’s the car favored by government officials. Get to the beginning of the convoy early but not too early. If you arrive too early the police will have time to search your car and find something to confiscate or a reason to fine or arrest you.”

     I wonder how long it would take for us to relax in a country where these statements are said to us the same way one might suggest, “Order the lemon herb chicken because the peri peri chicken will give you gas and a runny tummy.”

     We entered Mozambique several weeks ago with a plan to stay at camps along the stunningly beautiful coastline from Maputo to Vilankulos and up to Inhassoro, which folks in South Africa claim is the most breathtaking of them all. Well, the mechanic near the border who filled our almost empty gearbox with fluid and sold us new tires sure raved about it. After Inhassoro, the plan went, we would turn around and drive back the way we came until we could cross the border into Kruger Park. That was the plan. 
     We spent the days swimming in the Indian Ocean and soaking up the sun and Thank God For Ocean Breezes at Xai Xai (Shy Shy), Zavora (best bluff campsite, rescued a crab caught in fishermen net), Inhambane (So-so. Inhamblah), Vilankulos (splash out at Bahia Mar Resort for my birthday, facial, massage, and swim up bar included), Morrungulu (where South Africans next to us who have been coming for 10 years without incident, had their tents slashed and were robbed while they slept) and finally Inhassoro (at the dreamy Dream Catcher Lodge where we sat in the sparkling clean pool until we were pruney all over and watched fisherman lay a five kilometer long net and spend all day pulling it in before dividing it among the community of women who rushed to the beach with buckets or empty maize bags at the end of the day). 
     All of these lodges and or campsites used to be packed to the gills during school holidays and at Easter but these days there are just a handful of guests and minimal staff (except for Bahia Mar which is owned by a Government Minister and has steady occupancy). The drought, the fall of the Rand, and political unrest are to blame for keeping folks away.

     At each stop we asked our hosts about the “troubles” between the Renamo Party in the North and the government party in power. We heard that anyone driving between Rio Save (an hour from Inhassoro) and Muxungwe, about 100 kilometers North, would only be able to proceed in military convoy and that some vehicles had come under attack. This was the main reason for our plan to turn around at Inhassoro, before the Rio Save. I mean we aren’t stupid. A military convoy means that the road runs through an unsafe area, right? While backpacking around the world in 1995, in Laos we hitched a ride with a trucker who was part of a convoy through an area of turmoil and terrorism. What I most remember about that was that we had to wait a long time for the military to arrive and organize the convoy. Also the truck driver needed a shower. So did we. (Unlike this Zig Zag World Tour, our trip in ’95 was The Young and Sweaty with their Two Sweaty Backpacks.)

      When asked why we were turning tail at Inhassoro I explained, “I’ve been in a convoy before and I’m never doing that again. No way, no how. Do I look stupid or something?” But as we drove further and further north, the less we wanted to retrace the same potholed or sandy roads we took to get there. Our ultimate destination was and is Namibia. Driving all the way back to South Africa wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as driving through Zimbabwe and Botswana to get to Namibia.

     We met fishermen from Zimbabwe at Dream Catcher Lodge in Inhassoro who said, “We just came by convoy today! It’s perfectly safe. It was only annoying because they kept stopping so much. The road is bad in places but your Landy can handle that, no problem.”

     “I read in the news this morning that Renamo dug three trenches across the road yesterday to make drivers slow down or stop,”I said.

     “There are big pot holes to be sure but I don’t remember any trenches.”

     I asked our practical, born and bred in Zimbabwe host her opinion.
     “There have been incidences of shootings but a lot of what the media reports is rubbish.” She paused before adding, “Only you can make the decision but I can tell you that I wouldn’t hesitate to go towards Zim by convoy.”

     I posted the question to several Mozambican on-line communities and received a full range of responses from, “Don’t do it! Not worth the risk” to “I did it without incident two weeks ago. Go for it.”

     Scott and I spent two days deciding. On most ballots Scott voted FOR using the convoy to get to Zim. Ninety percent of the time I voted AGAINST mostly because I couldn’t bare thinking about what our families would go through if someone did end up taking a pot shot at us. In the end, on the eve of March 30th, I looked at Scott and said, “We drive an old Landy not a new Ford. Let’s do it.” I spent the next day reading about the convoy and general advice for driving through Mozambique. Mozambique has a lot of rules; “Don’t carry a knife, or machete, or pepper spray. They are deemed weapons and you’ll be arrested. If they search your car they might find a reason to confiscate your alcohol. Hide all your electronics!” Preparing the car (hiding the pepper spray, machete, computer, and the gin for good measure) and all the stress involved with coming to a decision made me kind of constipated so the next night I had peri peri chicken for dinner.

     On April 1st we left camp at 6:30 AM so we would get to the Rio Save in time for the 9AM convoy. We arrived with just a few minutes to spare, just enough time for a few policemen to inquire what we had brought for them. More came to the window, even after I used the usually successful line I borrowed from a woman called Alice during an overland trip from Cairo to Nairobi in 2010 when she was threatened with a fine for breaking a mirror in a pub in Ethiopia, “We are but humble travelers.” Finally a red-flag-bearing woman expressed her impatience for a delay that would result in no reward for her and shouted something in Portuguese at the policeman while waving us on to the bridge with the same motion the “Gentlemen start your engines” guy uses to get the Indy 500 Race started.

     We couldn't tell how many vehicles were in the convoy. But we never saw another tourist vehicle. Overloaded semi-trucks and logging trucks were what took up 99% of the convoy. There were of course armored personnel carriers, pickup trucks filled with fully kitted out soldiers wearing helmets and flak jackets and carrying large ass-kicking weapons. Hot in heavy body armor, thirsty soldiers lined the road in random spots along the route. If the convoy was going slow enough, soldiers asked for water and Scott let them drink from his water bottle. In two areas, there were makeshift army camps along the road.

     The advantage of a convoy in Africa, beside the obvious, is that it turns the road into one-way traffic. For the first time in all our journeys in Ndoto, we didn’t have to worry about oncoming traffic or trucks passing us on a blind curve. All we had to worry about were bathtub sized potholes and watching out for the man-made trenches. There were three trenches and I was glad we knew they were coming because if we had hit one at speed it would have meant the end to an axle.

     Sometimes the convoy spread out and we could barely see the truck in front or behind us but most of the time it was an orderly train of semis and Ndoto. At one point the convoy stopped completely. Soon truckers were climbing down and heading to the side of the road for a wee. I was desperate to do the same. I debated going between Ndoto and the truck in front of us but during a rehearsal Scott said he could see my bottom under the car. So off I went into the bushes with my trusty golf umbrella, which I never leave home without. Truckers threw me thumbs up all around when I returned.

     Finally we arrived at the end of the convoy route. Truckers pulled over to rest and buy cashews from street vendors. We bought cashews too but had no desire to linger. We carried on and six hours after we crossed the Rio Save we arrived at the Shop Rite in Chimoio. We needed supplies and I badly needed to use the facilities. While Scott shopped I asked to use the toilet in my best Portuguese by asking, “Toilet?” with unabashed urgency. Soon a young man whose job was sweeping the aisles led me to double doors that led to the bowels of Shop Rite. He handed me off to a woman who guided me through a maze and upstairs to the ladies room. (Word of advice: If you later want to eat the food you buy at the Shop Rite in Chimoio, do NOT look at what is behind the double doors because the bowels of Shop Rite are literally like the bowels of anything.)

     The ladies room had three loos (with doors!) but none of them had toilet paper. “Toilet paper?” I asked the woman. She answered in rapid Portuguese and made a motion as if she were birthing her eighth child, easy peezy, ‘Well, just go.’

     “Uh, I really need some paper.” I thought, Maybe high school Spanish would help. "Papel?" Or was it El papel? Los papeles?

     Hands on hips, losing patience with me, the mzungu woman who can’t pee without paper, she encouraged me again in Portuguese to just go dammit. By this time, I was near panic and broke into a flop sweat.

     “No pee pee. Big business. Number two, you know?" 

     Blank stare. I pictured myself, dejected and horrified, sinking slowly to the employee restroom floor with acceptance of the inevitable like the bride-to-be with sudden, unstoppable food poisoning while crossing the street in the movie Bridesmaids.
     Portuguese, think of something to say in Portuguese! I said sotto voce. I remembered the time I was in Brazil floating down the Amazon in a small wooden boat. The place where the women prepared our meals was just outside our cabin so every morning I greeted them with, "Bom dia!" which I was sure meant good morning. But every morning after I said it they giggled and blushed. Finally, the captain pulled me aside and told me that my accent was a little "off" and that instead of wishing the cooks good day, I was telling them they had nice bums. 
     "Bom! Bom!," I said motioning to my behind, to the area my gentile Aunt Martha called patootie. Not knowing what language patootie comes from, I threw that in for good measure; "Patootie!!"
     Nothing. By now her impatience was turning to fear.

     “For God’s sake woman! I had peri peri last night!”

     At that, she left and returned with a roll of paper towels.

     An hour later we finally arrived at our camp for the night, Msika, a once hopping resort near the border of Zimbabwe on Lake Chicamba. The regular campsites were overgrown from lack of use so they let us park next to a chalet and gave us a key so we could use the toilet and shower. It was Saturday night but except for a few upper class Mozambicans getting their drink on at the bar there were few guests at the resort and even fewer staying over. The young Mozambican couple let me hold their soft baby, which sent all sorts of warm endorphins coursing through my body. The manager said, “If war doesn’t break out, we are set to have a big fishing competition here at months end”, which sent the cozy vibes crashing.

     I was exhausted, sweaty, and desperate for a shower. I grabbed my towel and toiletry bag and headed to the chalet while Scott unfolded our rooftop tent. I peeled off my sweaty, dusty, anxiety-ridden convoy clothes, tossed them in the corner and padded to the bathroom in my birthday suit. Just as I was about to step into the shower there was a massive explosion that shook the building. My heart stopped. I was glad the peri peri was through my system.

     “Oh great. I’m naked and the war is starting,” I mumbled to myself wearily. Back on went the funky clothes. I opened the door to the chalet just as Scott was about to enter.

     “I forgot to tell you. They are blasting the mountain across from us to get fill for the new highway.”

     The next day we read the news. At 9AM the previous day, at the exact time we crossed the Rio Save and joined the convoy, government troops began bombing the hell out of the Renamo base in Gorongosa National Park, the park once filled with animals that went to fill soldier's bellies during the previous war. 
     This is all very bad, very sad news for Mozambique. In addition, there's a shortage of maize and food prices are soaring. Up north, kids are barefoot and their clothes are in taters. In the South, in the area controlled by the government, children have uniforms, shoes, backpacks, and schoolbooks. But there are a lot of children. If you drive through Vilankulos at noon you'll have to weave your way through a sea of blue uniforms. Hundreds of children, all the same age are leaving school, while hundreds more are arriving for session two. There aren't enough jobs to go around now so it's hard to imagine what these children will do when they graduate.

     Tomorrow we will cross the border into the most beautiful country in Africa, Zimbabwe. First stop, the amazing Musangano Lodge at the gateway to the highlands.


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