Maputo to Nampula by bus: A few thought (July 2017)
On a warm July morning I found myself in Maputo wanting to go north and not knowing how to. I had read a few things on the web but none of them were helpful. Useful information might have been found on the Lusophone web but the search terms I entered on Google sent the algorithms to sites by English speakers who didn’t know any better. And even if I had entered Portuguese search terms instead of English, I am not quite sure if the local Portuguese speakers who regularly use the bus services would have found them extraordinary enough to document them on the web for posterity. So I found myself walking aimlessly in Maputo with a backpack and a hiker’s hat, looking like a tourist. I met a few helpful strangers who sent me to two nearby bus companies; both of them (LTM and Postbus) discontinued the route north when RENAMO forces started attacking buses in the central areas and they didn’t bother to restart the route when the ceasefire happened this May. I knew about Junta bus depot, but the same random strangers that tried to assist me also hinted that because I spoke a little Portuguese and zero Xichangana, I have a high chance of getting scammed if I went to Junta. I ended up not being able to get any ticket north on my first day.
I booked to stay for two nights in Maputo to give myself time to find a ticket north and reconnect with a few friends that used to stay in Johannesburg but decided to move back to Moz when they could no longer tolerate breathing South Africa’s xenophobic air. Over lunch I complained about the Thopela drivers charging me extra because I’m South African and about not knowing where to buy tickets to Nampula. A few calls were made and a friend of a friend of a friend came by to drive me to a place where I can find buses that go all the way up north. Etrago Bus depot by Av. Angola, not that far from Maputo airport, had buses that leave on Thursdays for Nampula. I managed to get a ticket for a cheap price of 3100 Meticais; the catch was that the bus left at 2am and would take about two days.
The bus didn’t arrive at two in the morning. We all waited – grumpy and tired and angry at waking up early for nothing – for an hour and a half before the bus arrived. It turned out that the Avenida Angola stop is not the first bus stop (the first stop was at Junta, ironically), so the bus that arrived at our stop was already half-full. Etrago buses have a luggage compartment underneath but it seemed as though most passengers opted not to use it out of fear that their luggage might get stolen so, inside the bus, along the passageway, there were lots of luggage. It was hard to walk along the passageway without stepping on someone’s luggage. By the time we left Maputo, at around 4am, the bus was full. There were no empty seats left and hardly any space left on the passageway for anyone to stand. That didn’t stop the copradorres (Money collectors) from stopping the bus and picking up more passengers and their luggage along the way. The passengers had to squeeze themselves on the little space along the passageway.
During the whole trip, it didn’t feel like the bus was transporting human beings, actual paying passengers. It felt like goods or livestock were being transported. There were no actual proper rest stops. The only chance we got to stretch our legs and empty our bladders (or bowels) was on the few five to ten minutes toilet breaks or when the bus stopped for passengers to alight. Because the was so much luggage along the passageway, getting outside the bus involved walking on top of other people’s luggage. By the time the bus reached Maxixe, a few suitcases were visibly damaged. The stretch between these few toilet breaks was vast, it required very strong bladders. I wondered about the driver and the copradorres, their refusal to stop when a passenger could no longer hold it in. Their refusal to see that there are people on the bus with bodily functions that do not follow a set time-table. The refusal to have empathy for the many mothers on the bus travelling with children that are still too young to sit still for hours and not see it as punishment. I wondered if the driver’s working conditions might be the cause of this disconnect between him and his passengers; the only rest the driver got was on the five-ten minute stops and when he waited for passengers to alight. The journey to Nampula took me about 42 hours; the bus’ final stop was in Pemba 410 kilometres away from Nampula and the only sleep the driver got was on a tent he pitched just outside the road near Gorongosa, for two hours.
In the south of the country, the EN1 is closer to the coastline; the view from our window consisted of lush green vegetation, majestic palm tree forests with glossy dark green leafs dancing and glistening under the mild winter sun. Just past Pambarra, as the highway curves slightly inland and long stretches of it become so pothole-laden that it is safer to drive on the gravel adjacent to it, the landscape changes. Palm trees give way to baobabs and ordinary, unremarkable vegetation. More isolated villages with no basic services begin to appear. The more north we travelled, the more apparent the extent of Mozambique’s under-development became. I thought about the billions in illegal loans spent recklessly; the $ 500 million of that money that is still unaccounted for. I thought about the disconnect between the African political elites and the rest of their people; the moral depravity of a leadership that could make such reckless decisions when most of their people don’t even have the basics. I wondered if our continent will ever get better leadership or if we’re doomed with leaders who will loot the state empty just so their kids could shop in Europe and show off their obscene ill-gotten wealth on Instagram.
My companion on the bus was a beautiful, young and bubbly lady by the name of Ana-Paula; a student in Maputo on her way to visit her mother in Mocuba. She didn’t know how to speak much English but the little English that she knew was better than the little Portuguese that I knew, so we ended up conversing in English, or at least tried to. The conversations we tried to have at the beginning of our trip were interrupted by her trying to think of a way to phrase her responses in English. At times, I would request that she speaks in Portuguese but that didn’t help much. Eventually we both gave up trying and the bulk of our trip consisted of peaceful silence that was only interrupted when she translated the coprador’s instructions of how long the bus would stop for a toilet break. In our silence we shared snacks, meals and water. She convinced me not to buy nuts from the street vendors by the window because “Nampula is still far and the nuts would speed up my bowel movements”. Sometimes there would be a lively discussion happening in the bus and someone would say something silly and everyone would laugh. She would try to retell me the joke but the punch-line would get lost in translation and I would fake a laugh as a token of appreciation. There was a lot that I wanted to talk to her about. I wanted to know how she felt now that the fighting in the middle of the country has stopped and it is less of a hassle for her to visit her family. I wanted to know her thoughts of the recently uncovered hidden debt that threatens to bankrupt the country and reverse the gains it got since the gas reserves were discovered up-north. I wanted to know how she felt about the bad state of the EN 1 — the only road that connects the south, centre and north of the country. I assume that there was a lot that she wanted to talk to me about too but the linguistic divide was far too wide and a lot was left unsaid. The bus arrived at her stop in Mocuba on Friday at around four in the afternoon. She told me to enjoy my stay in Mozambique, bid me farewell and left. I felt lonely for the six hours it took to get to my destination even though another person came and occupied the seat next to mine. Could it be that I was missing her? How can I miss someone I’ve only known for thirty six hours?
Just after ten in the evening the bus finally got to Nampula. I was exhausted, hungry and in need of a shower. I didn’t think it was safe to walk to try to walk to the backpacker’s I had planned to spend the night at so I took a metered taxi. We drove for less than five minutes. The taxi driver charged me 500 Meticais. Not being fluent in Portuguese in this country can hurt one’s pocket.