Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Val vs. the Cobrador

I finally kicked a man.

Though not in quite the context I figured I finally would resort to violence. It's like this...

I was headed home from Maputo on a Friday afternoon with a pack of Peace Corps mulungos – Jenna, Donna, Louise and Louise’s boyfriend, Tim, visiting from the states. We’d just wrapped up a few days of civilization in the capital and piled into the back of a chapa for the 3+ hour ride home.

Not a half-hour outside the capital, we hit a bump in the road – certainly not uncommon in itself, except that chapa kept bumping. We found this very amusing for about 60 seconds – talking slowly to play with the involuntary vibrations in our voices as we bounced along. Then it was annoying. Then I looked out the window. The road was smooth. Then it was worrisome. The road wasn’t bumping – our tire was.

Five minutes later, we're still bouncing. No one else really seems concerned. Nervously, we get the cobrador’s attention and point out the fact that something is wrong in the state of our chapa. He agrees, makes a call, yeah, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.

Fifteen more minutes pass.

We start to approach a town. We could get off and catch a safer chapa or a boleia. Should we ask to stop?

Then we hear a pop.

PARAGEM! (STOP!) from the mulungos in the back row.
The driver pulls over. Are you fazering xixi or stopping here? the cobrador asks.
Getting off. As we’re only about an hour into our 3+ hour drive, and a normal trip to Chokwe costs 150 mets, we ready our 50 mets bills to pay.

We pile out with bags in tow and the cobrador waits for us to pay. It’s 150 mets, he says, because that’s the cost from Maputo to Chokwe.

Really? Does this work with other mulungos? I think.

We chuckle. No, we’re not paying the full amount, we still have most of the trip to go. We’ll pay you 50 mets, 75 at the most.
No, it’s 150 to Chokwe, he says.
We’re not in Chokwe, I point out. We’re going to catch another chapa - one with all tires intact.

First, you should know this is not an unusual request – people get on and off all the time, and cobradors make up prices all along the way. People get off, others get on, and pay for the rest of the way. I’ve never heard of paying for a full trip when it’s incomplete.

No, the cobrador starts to get angry. You got on to go to Chokwe, you have to pay the full amount.

The other passengers are staring. The driver gets out.
You shouldn’t be getting off here, he argues. So you have to pay for the whole trip.
The tire is flat. You’re going to have a blowout, and the chapa isn’t safe, Louise says.
The cobrador is still talking at Jenna, Donna and me. Louise walks to the back tire to show the driver, also still ranting. Tim, who speaks three phrases in Portuguese, principally the phrase, “Não falo Portuguese,” (“I don’t speak Portuguese”) stands cluelessly by.

You can’t trick us, you have to pay, you got on the chapa in Maputo to get off in Chokwe and you have to pay for it, or you just need to get back in the chapa so we can go the rest of the way and pay 150 mets, blah, blah, blah, the cobrador keeps yelling and is clearly getting angry.

No, we live here, we know how it works, and that doesn’t make any sense. You’re being unreasonable, I say. More people will get on and they’ll pay, just like us. We’re not obligated to pay for the whole way. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hear me because he's still rambling. Meanwhile, the driver is continuing to rant at Louise.

I try to give the cobrador my 50 mets. He throws his hands up and keeps yelling.
Calm down, calm down, calm down, I tell him, and he keeps yelling louder.

Then the cobrador and driver throw in the race card. Just because you’re white, you can’t get away with this.

Guys, we should probably just get out of here, I say.

I turn to the road to try to flag down another chapa.
The cobrador grabs my backpack.
Really? Seriously? I think. He thinks he can get away with this scam?

You can’t leave! Get in the chapa!
Let go of my bag, and let us leave. We’ll pay you 50 mets, I repeat. Still nothing. He’s still ranting, holding on. He doesn’t even care.

Pulling my bag, he tries to force me back to the car. At this point, I’m simply astounded by his audacity. You’re really trying to force me into the car? Are you insane? I pull away. My backpack strap breaks, and he grabs onto my bag with both hands.

We’re wasting time! Get in the chapa! he keeps yelling.

I’m suddenly aware that my heart is pumping and my hands, firmly grasping my bag in our tug-of-war, are shaking – thanks adrenaline, but I really don’t need you right now. It’s surprising, because at this point I don’t actually feel worried – he can’t force us in the chapa, and he wouldn’t dare try to get the money away from us through other means. There’s nothing he can do but keep throwing his temper tantrum. He’s not getting anywhere, and he’s just making a fool of himself in front of the other passengers.

Speaking of which, most are still gaping out the window, but a woman has descended and, after seeing the tire, is arguing our side. The driver, taking a cue from the cobrador, has grabbed Donna’s bag in an attempt to get her in the chapa.

Let go of me. I’m not getting in, I tell the cobrador again.
I don’t care! I’m not afraid of you! he yells, which strikes me as an odd statement – of course you’re not afraid of me, why on earth would you be? A grow man against, well, me? I certainly should hope not.

He steps closer and pulls on my bag.
I’m not getting in. I’m not afraid of you, either, I respond. He steps closer.
Ah, I suddenly see. He's trying to intimidate me.
Ha. I want to show him it’s not working.

So I kick him.

In retrospect, this isn’t one of my finer moments – partly because it was a childish thing to do and only served to make him angrier; partly because, adrenaline and all, it was a really pathetic kick. Had I really been thinking, I could’ve done humanity a favor and kicked much harder and higher.

But in this childish turn of events, I do realize exactly what’s going on – Jenna, Louise, Donna and I are trying to reason with them. We’re putting forth rational arguments in a civilized manner. Of course we’re in the right. But that’s not the issue.
We’re women.

These older men have told us to pay. Then they have told us to get in the chapa. And we have told them no. How dare we. Of course they’re not going to allow this.

While this is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of these men, it doesn’t help the situation at all. The cobrador and driver are yelling, the other passengers are yelling, we’re yelling, and it’s all completely futile. He's still attempting to force me back into the chapa. No one’s getting anywhere, and it just needs to end before something bad happens. Of course, my thoughts weren't quite this coherent at the time, but the intuition was firmly in place.

I jerk my backpack enough that I can take a few steps toward the road and frantically flail my free arm. Passing cars see a large black man trying to drag away a young white woman. As much as I hated to use my damsel-in-distress card, it worked swimmingly and instantaneously.
A car stops within seconds – an older Mozambican couple. The cobrador immediately slacks his grip, and I move toward the couple as they get out of the car.

All the adrenaline that apparently bypassed my foot seemed to have been redirected into my Portuguese, and despite my now trembling voice I get out a speedy yet comprehensible recount of events.

The Good Samaritan tells the cobrador to let go, and he and the driver both turn their attention to ranting at him. Within minutes, the driver and cobrador never ceasing their rant, the man has instructed us to get into his car so we and the chapa driver can go to the police station in town. We pile into their car – a five-seater, for the seven of us with luggage. As he starts the car, the chapa driver comes to the man’s window.

I don’t have time for this. It’s 45 mets to Manhiça. They can pay and we’ll let them go.
We pass our money to the driver. Outside the car, we see more people getting into the chapa to replace us and a few others who got out, so that his 15-passenger vehicle once again has the standard 25 and his wallet is full.

We get into another chapa and vent for the next hour. But just for an hour. Because around that time, our chapa unexpectedly pulls over. There’s another chapa a ways behind us. The cobrador of that chapa comes up to the window – it’s our dear friend the raving lunatic cobrador.
Could you help me? he asks. Our tire blew out.

Was it wrong of us to burst out cheering and then wave to him? Probably. But I think it was even more gratifying than the kick.

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