Nobody said crossing Southern Africa overland was going to be easy
I have heard traveling in Northern Mozambique is slow so that Tuesday morning on Likoma Island I get up at 6 a.m. in order to catch an early boat. My first stop today on the way to Mozambique Island will be Cóbuè, the Mozambican border post. I can settle the hostel bill with my credit card, but I am still short on money. Where I will encounter the first ATM on my way to Mozambique Island? How long until I can dip my toes in the Indian ocean?
I am sitting at the shore of Lake Malawi, no boats to be seen. By noon it dawns on me – it will be a long journey until I reach Mozambique Island. The drunk guy keeps passing by, trying to touch me and failing every time. The woman I am sharing the shade of the staple of beer boxes breaks the bad news to me: today I will only be able to cross Lake Malawi and spend the night in Cóbuè (which is only 9 kilometers from here!). I smile at her. That just can´t be true. It´s hot and the shade of the beer boxes is long gone. I drag my backpacks under the next tree where two young Malawians are also waiting for the boat to Mozambique. Maxwell and Steve are visiting an old friend in Lichinga, a town I also have to pass through on my journey to the Indian Ocean, but apparently not today. I don´t know yet that it´s going to be another four days until I see the first tourist.
The next morning the three of us get up at 6 a.m. There is only one transport a day from Cóbuè to Metangula that will leave “some time in the morning” and we don´t want to spend another night in the small village. I manage to stock up on water and bread for the ride and keep myself and the village kids entertained with my selfie stick. Eventually the pickup truck pulls up around 11 a.m. and everyone storms towards it. One truck for all of us? I wonder how long the ride is going to be. They make everyone get on and off three times in order to rearrange the luggage. Finally, 30 adults, 4 kids and two babies in the back of the truck! I find myself buried under loads of bags and people. Someone is leaning against my back, while I am sitting across the legs of someone else. My Spanish doesn´t get me anywhere, because the people around me are not speaking Portuguese but Chichewa. I can only understand “Mzungu”, their word for white person. No, my name is “Andrea”. I try to reposition myself without making anyone else feel more miserable, but it´s impossible. I ask Maxwell how long they said the ride would be. 6 hours!
I haven´t felt that uncomfortable in 3 months of traveling, and the truck still hasn´t moved. Should I just take the next (tomorrow´s?) boat back to Malawi? I wonder whether there is still room in the driver´s cabin. If we can fit 40 people in the back of the truck, we should be able to fit 5 people in there (Austrian logic). Or maybe at least the two babies. Maxwell is squeezed in between people and rice bags in the front and I make him ask the driver for me. I can´t believe my ears when the Malawian tells me I can sit in the front between the driver and his friend. Christmas has come early, halleluja! The mothers with their babies and kids remain in the back of the truck. I finally start to get it, there is no children and women first in Africa.
On day 3 of my journey towards the Indian Ocean I get woken up early by the prayers of the nearby mosque and my rumbling stomach. Yesterday the two Malawians and I arrived in Lichingalate and were dropped off at a filthy guest house in the middle of a dark neighborhood. Not a good spot to look for a restaurant after sunset, instead we had dinner in our smelly room (a loaf bread with butter and a three cans of Fanta). The morning prayers end, but I can´t go back to sleep. What´s that noise? I can feel something through my sleeping bag. An insect? Here, it has landed on me again. Now I can hear it over there. Damn, it can only be an entire family of flying cockroaches. How come Maxwell and Steve don´t wake up? I crawl deeper into my sleeping bag and struggle to replace the mental image of cockroaches with a nicer one of grasshoppers.
False alarm! The cockroaches turn out to be raindrops that keep falling through the roof of the building. Either way I am glad to leave this place early in the morning and ask the two Malawians to accompany me to the ATM. Finally, I get lucky with my Spanish debit at the third ATM in Lichinga. On own again and with enough money to make it to Mozambique Island I sit down on the half-empty minibus. A woman sells Mandazi right next to me – breakfast, great. Low music beats come out of the speakers – a perfect fit for the dodgy neighborhood. I go to my happy place and don´t mind that we are cruising around town for another two hours until the minibus fills up and eventually leaves towards Cuamba.
Half way through the minibus ride my patience has come to an end. The road is bumpy, the minibus overloaded as usual, and it stinks. We have three babies on board, one of them right next to me. A naked boy who is fiercely watching me. Please, don´t pee in the next 4 hours… I am so done with minibuses. I close my eyes and lean forward, trying to find my way back to my happy place.
First class, please! It´s day 4 on my non-stop-journey from Likoma to Mozambique Island and I am going all out today when I buy the train ticket to Nampula. The only other guy in the completely empty first class compartment asks if he can sit next to me. No, I need room for my, em, backpack, but how about you take the opposite row? I cheerfully lean back and unpack my Ipod. I am not to be bothered today. I am going to enjoy every minute of what Lonely Planet calls a 12-hour scenic train ride.
After 30 kilometers the train stops. By the time I open my eyes, I realize the other guy has left the compartment. 30 minutes go by, but the train doesn´t move an inch. No wonder this ride takes 12 hours. I see people walking by outside trying to sell food and decide to step outside in order to buy a few Mandazi for breakfast. Oh boy, we got derailed! The other guy returns and explains that the train will need to be dragged all the way back to Cuamba where it might leave again tomorrow (best case scenario). His name is Júlio, I am thankful for the can of sprite and the egg sandwich he shares with me. Would I rather join him in looking for a lift to Nampula than stay behind in the empty first class compartment by myself?
There is no room for self-pity in Africa. Especially not in the back of the pickup truck that Júlio and I are climbing on together with the 30 other passengers from second and third class. I can tell the men next to me are still talking about me even after Júlio has tried to cut them off in Portuguese. Anyways, I am not going to let this unexpected turn of events ruin my day! I get out my GoPro and tell the guys, in Spanish, that I will record them now and have someone translate to me later what they are saying. We all laugh. I mention FC Barcelona and accidentally start a discussion between the Barca fans next to me, all of us buried under our backpacks and a Scooby Doo lunch box, and the Real Madrid fans who seem to be a bit more comfortable standing up right behind the driver´s cabin. Who needs to travel first class anyways?
7 hours later and still in the back of the pickup truck I ask myself repeatedly why I haven´t stayed in Malawi. We have had to wait for an hour for the road to be cleared after an accident. The police has stopped us 4 times to check our IDs. We have had to change our tires three times, however the driver keeps racing over the bumpy dirt roads. My back is killing me and I wish myself anywhere but here. I barely complain when the other people toss out the empty can of sprite that I have been holding on to while I jealously watch a minibus passing by.
We stop a the gas station in the middle of nowhere, and I officially have had enough. I climb off the truck and just stand there, waiting for the circulation to return to my numb feet. Everyone stares at me. No, I am not going to cry in front of the people who have to put up with this torture every single day of their lives. Júlio eventually convinces me to get back on the truck, the road is going to be better soon and we will reach Nampula in 4 hours. I squeeze inbetween the bags and look at my phone. A friend from home has just messaged me a message on Facebook “On a truck? Your life is so awesome, have fun!” I will respond later.
The truck driver has ripped us off twice by the time we arrive in Nampula. I repeatedly reach for my phone to check my location and the remaining passengers keep reminding me to put it away immediately. Júlio is so worried I could get mugged that he accompanies me in the cab to the hostel. There the German hostel owner just looks at me and welcomes me with a friendly Do you want a beer first?
The next day I reach the Indian Ocean and cross the bridge to Mozambique Island. I will laugh about the 5-day-journey soon, but now it´s time for a long nap.