…Journal Entry, May 6th, 1999.
Early morning. I’m lying inside my tent on a borrowed air mattress - not quite floating - while it pours rain outside. There’s a steady drip from the top of the tent onto a corner of the mattress as I write in my journal. I’m mostly dry but my feet are getting wet. I’d left the fly off the tent last night, as the moon was out when I went to bed. Too late to put it on now.
My travel companions are camped thirty feet down the beach towards the restaurant shelter. Colin is from Scotland, and Michelle, younger than her partner, is American. She turns 28 tomorrow. They are on the return leg of a trip north from South Africa through Zimbabwe, and now through Mozambique. I met the travelling couple only two days ago as we camped on a beach north of Beira. I asked if I could hitch a ride with them as they headed south. The night before we left I had a vivid dream, which I wrote down in this dream journal. “I’m with a friend in a small car. Suddenly, without warning, the car stops, and from behind a train is running over us. Momentarily I flash ‘this is the end.’ But the train clears us. We are unharmed.”
After packing up camp, we left early yesterday in their white, small-as-a Golf-cart VW. I think back on the day’s journey.
It will be an all-day drive. There is just enough room for me to squeeze in the back next to their camping gear and mine. The first stretch – to Save River Bridge - is long hours on a nearly-empty road through bush countryside. Trees are bigger, more numerous, than I’ve seen anywhere in Zimbabwe. Huge fig, baobab, acacia and other trees are reminders that the war, which ended officially seven years ago, had kept people confined to refugee camps for decades. Now, land mines continue to exact their toll of lives and limbs throughout the country. Here and there a dead tree heralds a field of maize. Villagers have stripped the tree of its bark and left it standing to die while their crops take the sun. In five years I am sure there will be far fewer trees. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of fuelwood.
As we head further south, there ’s also no shortage of water. There’s evidence of flooding on both sides of the road. In a few places Villages huts are submerged almost to the thatched roofs, maize crops drowned. (This was the year before Mozambique’s great floods of 2000 with 800 killed and cattle and crops destroyed.)
We approach a large bridge crossing the Save River. There’s a toll-booth on the bridge, and a wire across barring our passage. Colin tries to cross into another lane when a uniformed guard armed with an AK 47 calls out for us to stop, and demands our passports. This is not a border-crossing, but we’ll not argue with the guard. We hand them over: British, American, Canadian. A meek clerk sitting in the booth takes them and pronounces the toll fee - the equivalent of US$300 each. We look at each other, shaking our heads in disbelief. Then I remember reading that former soldiers of the FADM, the Mozambican army, no longer receiving payments for their services, have been exhorting fees from travelers, and that the government - trying to restore tourism in the country - is cracking down on such practices. We get out of the car and walk out of earshot of the guard to discuss our options. Briefly, I envision us setting up camp on the river-bank below. The guard calls after us. “How much will you pay?” After a brief consultation, we head back to the car. Colin says “Thirty US dollars - ”. The guard checks with the clerk and nods. We hand over the equivalent of US$10 each. As Colin is reaching for our passports,
I call from the back seat “Ask for a receipt.” No sooner are the words out of my mouth than the guard pulls back the passports. A stand-off. We sit and wait.
I realize the guard fears the receipt could be used against him if we were to report to the authorities. Now what? Certainly we did not expect what happens next. The guard whispers with the clerk, then reaches for both the money and the passports and returns all to Colin. “You are free to go,” he says. “Have a good journey in Mozambique.”
As we resume our journey, South of the Save River, the road is much better than before – straight and recently tarred. Colin has heard that since the war several countries have had a go at “road-aid” on that stretch. Italians, Dutch, now Germans. We travel on through the afternoon. Finally, Colin announces with confidence “We’re approaching the turnoff to our coastal destination, Vilankoulos.” Michelle is driving. She says “it’ll be so good to be get to the beach and set up camp before dark.” Suddenly the car lurches. Its back end is thrown up and it crunches to a halt. Last night’s dream flashes into my mind as luggage is thrown forward. Seat belts hold us in place but the car is immobilized. We’ve hit a red mud trench, which stretches across the road. We are unhurt.
Colin gets out to inspect the damage. “The front axle arm is bent,” he reports. “The wheel is jammed up against the left front fender.” Then he flattens himself under the car “Maybe we can limp in” he says. A pause. “No that wheel isn’t going anywhere.” Another pause. “Any suggestions welcome.”
I offer to hitch into town and fetch a mechanic. So we flag the next ‘chapas’ - an open truck crowded with passengers-. A passenger moves to the back, and I’m offered a seat in the cab. I leave Colin and Michele and the car. I feel comfortable with the Africans in the chapas, but is the feeling mutual? The passengers seem somewhat suspicious, uncertain of this white woman. As Portuguese is the second language, communicating is more difficult than in Zimbabwe. No-way to strike up an easy conversation.
The driver, Sebastian, has a few words of English. African/Portuguese-style music blares on his tape deck. Alongside the road ahead a mum with a young daughter flags the chapas. Sebastian pulls over to pick them up. I take the little girl on my lap in the cab. She has a pink and white frilly dress, a solemn face. Compliant but silent, she watches me in the mirror.
Turning east on the road to Vilankoulos, Sebastian locates his mechanic friend, Julius, and stops to describe the axle trouble and ask for help.
He signs me thumbs up and a circular motion – We will return to pick up the mechanic at the end of his run to the town center.
After dropping the other passengers downtown, we collect Julius and his tools - some heavy crow bars, a hammer and a jack. It’s dark now as we make our way back to the damaged car and its drivers. Sebastian points – yes two glowing red triangles have been set up next to the little VW. Behind the car, Colin and Michelle are sitting on a cloth spread out on the road, drinking tea and playing chess by the light of candles in glass lanterns. I remember tales of landmines on the verge of the road … But isn’t their road perch dangerous? Michelle says “You can hear a vehicle coming for miles.”
I pay Sebastian M$50,000 – that’s only $4.50 Cdn – and he leaves to continue his rounds. Colin puts water on the primus stove for more tea. Julius sets to work. After working for about an hour he lets down the jack and the car is ready.
“Take it slowly” he warns Colin. Somehow Julius and his tools bundle into the back of the car with me and the camping gear. For eight kilometers all goes well. We turn on to the Vilankoulos road. There’s a bridge ahead. Anticipating a bump, Colin jams on the brakes. With a raking sound the car skids to a stop at an angle on the bridge.
Not again! We get out… Patience … Julius ramps the car up on the jack again and calls out the bad news. The axle arm has snapped. He hitches a ride into town to get a tow truck.
We wait in silence. River noises rise from under the bridge: a loud chorus of bullfrogs downstream, something flapping in the water below. All around we hear crickets; see fireflies on the banks. Stars are bright overhead. Colin shows us how to find due south. “Follow a line four-and-a-half lengths down the long axis of the Southern Cross, from its southern pointer star. I ask “Is that Mars – the red planet – in the northern sky? Look Orion’s belt is there too – but it’s upside-down, and in the northern sky rather than in the south as back home in Ontario.”
Home! Will I be back there in just less than a month? But home is in my skin, where I am now, writing in my journal in a soaking tent on the beach in Vilankulos.