Long before the faint strains of the dawn azan reached my bedroom, I woke and lay staring through the grate of my window at the purplish shape of a coconut tree in the dark and listening to the strange rustlings outside my window. A trail of ants were busy making their way up the wall, and I glared at the kamikaze mosquitos repeatedly bashing themselves against the net in the hope of finally breaking through to the other side.
The thought of travelling by public transport in Mozambique is enough to give anyone a sleepless night; you never quite know what you’re letting yourself in for. There are many unknowns; the length of the journey, the final destination which is liable to change due to the weather, the police or the amount the driver has drunk… (A friend once spent the night on a chapa because the driver pulled over and went to sleep), whether any livestock will be included amongst the passengers, whether you will get a seat, whether the vehicle has any seats. It is also a wonderful albeit uncomfortable adventure, and one of the rare opportunities that you, as a foreigner, will get to feel like a local.
My taxi arrived on time and Estacio got up to see me out. We arrived at the ‘chapa station’ which was a line of huts strung out along the main road. There were only a few people milling about in the dark, and though many chapas were stopping to pick people up, none were heading to Tanganhangue (where I was to take the dhow to Ibo) as far I could see. A large, blue pick-up truck drew up next to us and my taxi driver told me to jump on. I felt a twinge of unease… There were no other passengers, just two guys stood on the back. There was no way of really telling where this truck was heading or indeed, if it even was a chapa. However, my feelings of doubt evaporated almost straight away as the two blokes jumped down and came bowling over to me –
“Tanganhangue? Quissanga?” They shouted as they sprinted over.
“Come on, let’s go, chop-chop. Give us your bag, lady. Up you go on top!” And before I knew it, my bag and I were perched on top of a sack of potatoes behind the cabin.
This manic activity was really quite unnecessary seeing as I was the only passenger, and I was instantly put at ease by their infectious grins as they asked me all about who I was, and where I was going, and if I’d been to Ibo before etc.
We drove around town for about half an hour as the sky lightened and the stars began to fade, each of the two cobradors determined to outdo the other as they bellowed the destination of the pick-up at anyone who happened to be on the street the moment we went by, regardless of how obvious it was that they weren’t going to be coming with us, such as the wizened, old dears with nothing better to do but sweep the dust off the dust road.
We finally left Pemba at sun-rise. I was still the only passenger but for a German who was sat in the cab with the driver and I took advantage of the fact to spread myself out on a tarpaulin and go to sleep. The sun rose in a blaze over the misty bush as we rumbled out of town. The road was as straight as a ruler and we shared it with men on bicycles, women with bundles of bark and baskets of fruit on their heads, small children in school uniforms and many, many goats.
Slowly the chapa filled up with passengers and their baggage – including twenty five old planks of wood full of nails and a mattress, as we made various stops in villages along the way. My space shrunk and my discomfort increased relative to the heat, until by midday, under the full glare of the sun, I found myself perched atop a coil of old rope with my knees banging into my chin every time we went over a bump, which was often. To make matters worse, I had a very friendly Mozambican next to me trying to make conversation about the cultural difference between England and Mozambique, I was running out of water and the pick-up kept grinding to a shuddering halt for no particular reason.
It was nearly three by the time we finally rolled into Tanganhangue. I felt like I’d been put in a cement mixer. Coated with dust, sticky with sweat and definitely not ‘wind-swept-and-interesting’, it was a relief to finally climb down from the potato sack and coil of rope.
But we weren’t there yet! Matthias (the German) and I waded out into bath-warm water to a waiting dhow. We bartered half-heartedly with the captain for a while – please, just take us to the island, we don’t care…. and then made ourselves comfortable on the wide gunwales. The azure sea was a perfect reflection of the cloudless sky as we motored though the mangroves out towards Ibo. It was the perfect antidote for the bruising ten hours on the chapa and I curled up in the shade at the base of the mast and snoozed for a while.
The red roofs and white walls of Ibo’s old town came into view through the electric green of the mangroves, and in the warm sunlight it was a sight for sore eyes. We dropped anchor in the dhow harbour and waded to the white sandy beach where various people, women in bright capulanas and hijabs and men in kufi hats (the population of Ibo is 99% muslim) were gathered. I said goodbye to Matthias and walked barefoot past Indian almonds and the decadent ruins of merchants’ mansions overgrown with pink and purple flowers. The afternoon was still and silent and hauntingly beautiful. And I was overjoyed to have finally made it!