Today saw me waking at 5am (without an alarm clock – so proud) to catch the bus to Vilanculos which, I had decided, would be as good a place as any to spend the next few days. It is near the Bazaruto Archipelago, with some of the most amazing diving and beaches in the region, and is one of the largest towns (a very relative term) which I may not get to see with my friends when they arrive in Maputo in just over a week.
Having woken up and checked out of Fatima’s (a backpackers I would highly recommend to those going to Mozambique – and not just because there are only two or three in the city), I caught a taxi to the bus station, a place called Junta as far as I can understand what I was saying to the driver and what his replies were. After some initial confusion as to whether I was flying to Vilanculos or taking a bus, we eventually both realised that I meant bus and sped along on our way. Sped being a word that I should really highlight here. At 140km an hour down a suburban lane in mild morning traffic, I eventually resorted to Darwinian reasoning to reassure myself that the taxi driver would get us to the station safely. Darwinian in the sense that he appeared to have been driving a taxi for many years, and given the odds of surviving the sorts of collisions we were taunting in our journey, he must be adept at avoiding such catastrophe or we would not be here.
At this point it became clear that I had parted with a ticket-sized sum of money earlier for little more than having my bag carried. And the bread roll I was given.
The bus station is perhaps better described as a bus meeting space. Picture a giant dirt area with possibly a hundred or more buses of every description and size pushing thronging passengers into them. The sheer volume of activity – people climbing into and out of buses, luggage being tied onto bus roofs and stowed in their metal bellies, people chasing after passengers (literally) selling mangos, bread, refrescas (soft drinks), nuts, airtime, you name it – made the entire experience crushingly overwhelming. Exiting the taxi, and being surrounded by enthusiastic bus managers shouting all manger of destination, I had to say little more than ‘Vilankulos por favour’ and my luggage began moving itself in the direction of a clapped out long haul bus. The manager stowed my bag, wrote me an official receipt and I found myself on the bus in one of the few non-broken seats not yet taken – ready for the adventure. No sooner had the bus hissed and hooted and departed than the conductor came past collecting money for the bus tickets. At this point it became clear that I had parted with a ticket-sized sum of money earlier for little more than having my bag carried. And the bread roll I was given. Upon which I would chew in contemplation for much of the nine hour bus ride that ensued.
Leaving Maputo behind and traveling through Mozambique proper served to reinforce yesterday’s observations that the country is underdeveloped. I don’t want to be one of those ‘this country is like X’ travellers, but the houses on the roadside and the apparent relative wealth of much of the population has much in common with bus windows I have looked out of during my time in Laos and Cambodia. That said, however, the unbelievable amounts of mangoes and coconuts hanging off the trees we passed, thick as forests around palm-constructed houses in many places, made for stunningly beautiful scenery. The bus ride itself was torture, as expected. Nine hours in a bus with malfunctioning seats and no air conditioning, in tropical sun and with all seats and all the aisle standing room taken was no fun. My sanity was largely preserved by the contemplative rumination on my expensive bread roll and conversations with many of the surrounding passengers in a combination of my broken Portuguese and their far more fluent English.
I don’t regret bus travel, whatever the suffering caused to my knees. Sitting watching the world go by, I was politely prodded by the man behind my seat who seemed intrigued that I was not simply flying to Vilanculo like most other tourist. “It is good to take the bus sometimes” he said, “this country you do not see from the aeroplane”. And a different country it is indeed. If you never left the expensive seaside resorts to walk the streets of Maputo, or never came onshore from Bazaruto, you may well be mistaken for missing and entire country. The one that crushes against the bus, smiles wide, to sell mangos, nuts, biscuits and a hundred other odds and ends at every bus stop. Where mud and thatch schools, frequent on the side of the road, speak of the promise of a prouder future for children and where so many of us can pack into the space of a bus, share nine hours of sweat and emerge smiling and friends. I have no idea what to think about so much of what I have seen in the last two days, except that this is a friendly country. A country that, whatever else may be true of it. has some kind people in a beautiful land.
Note: The bread really was delicious.