Friday, 20 August 2010

The Magical Boleia

Disclaimer: Please keep an open mind and ignore everything you have been told about certain things since childhood. This is not America. And I am, as always, super duper careful about my safety and the safety of others and do not take any unnecessary risks. Trust me, this is safer than the alternative.

Of all the impressive technologies we have in the states, we lack one crucial thing that is both vital and found in abundance in Moçambique: the boleia.
The term boleia is used to describe a passing car, truck, van, 18-wheeler, tractor, ox-drawn wagon, bicycle, or other moving object driven by future friends who makes their services available to you at the drop of a hand and completely free of charge. To succeed in attaining this divine transport, one needs only to stand on the side of the road, stretch out right arm to be parallel with the ground and flap the hand slightly and slowly in the direction of the oncoming object. The object will (usually) slow and pull over to your side of the road. You will first poke your head in the window, greet the driver, and ask where he/she is headed. If the driver is going in your directions (and with a grand total of six highways in the country, that's very likely), you open the door/jump in the back/mount the steps/pop the trunk and get in, greeting the driver with the customary "Tudo bem?" Sometimes this is more tricky, as there is often a small flock of arm-flappers in a single location, and space in certain transports is limited. But often it is simply your posse, the driver and preexisting passengers, and the open road.
In the event you are fortunate enough to find yourself in the front passenger seat, you are encouraged but not obligated to 1) provide a listening ear to life stories/marriage proposals/political debates/requests for free transit to America; 2)provide a lap for and tend to wandering crianças/chickens/etc; 3) assist the driver with cell phone, Cokes, etc.
As it is such a widespread means of transport in this country, you can also afford to be selective. Obviously, functioning car, lack of alcohol, women drivers are always a plus. Travelling in groups is imperative (however, as it's often a deterrent for a potential boleia, it's worth it to have one lone female stand on the side of the road, then have your five friends wait in the bushes until she opens the door and gives the signal before swarming the car).

The advantages of boleias are countless, but include:
1) It’s free. And you live on a Peace Corps Volunteer budget.
2) You make all kinds of new friends and very, very quickly get very, very close. Sometimes this can also be a disadvantage.
3) Unlike on a chapa, you often have your own seat.
4) If you are extremely fortunate, your boleia will have air conditioning.
5) Shaves hours off your trip, since there’s no reason to stop every five feet to pick up/drop off more passengers, unlike chapas.
6) Significanly decreases the chance of painful chicken pecks to the feet and/or chicken refuse on shoes.
7) CHAPAS ARE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH. Period. Their sole purpose is to get as many people as possible to their destination in as little time as possible so it can pick up as many more people as people to transport them in as little time as possible to another location, etc. etc. through whatever means necessary because more people, less time = more money. Personal transports, as you can imagine, have a very different set of priorities. Like safety. Graças a Deus.

Some of my favorite past boleias:
1) Covered truck to Inhambane City – Jenna, Clancy and I stretched out, used our backpacks as pillows and slept the whole seven hours from Macia straight to our drop-off in Inhambane City. Our driver even stopped at a gas station to use the casa de banho halfway through.
2) Car from Xai-Xai to Macia – nice Indian guys not only assured me that I could call them for a boleia from my doorstep anytime but also offered me authentic Indian candies (“It’s not drugs,” one assured me as I tried to read the foreign script on the package).
3) Car from Macia to Maputo – driven by one of the only 1000 doctors in this country, he also hooked me up with drinks and let me take a little nap in between hearing stories about his studies in Portugal and Ukraine (I can still imagine it…the wise old native doctor and the young idealistic travelling girl swapping stories when he reaches into the back and offers me a glass bottle of Coca-Cola and takes one can of Coke Lite for himself and we toast to the development of Moçambique before drinking…can you get a more stereotypical Coca-Cola commercial?)
4) 18-wheeler from Inharrime to Chicumbane – myself and three other boleia-ers hung out inside the cabin of a sweet 18-wheeler, complete with bunked beds and sound system rockin’ James Blunt, Tracy Chapman and Shania Twain for five hours.

Kids These Days

I was hopping a boleia to Macia with a relative of David's last Friday, as they were on their way to a festa. The driver was David's cousin, and in the passenger seat was David's uncle, a little, excitable old man with a subtle speech impediment, probably due to years of neglected oral hygiene. It was what one would call a sweet boleia - red, four-door BMW (probably obtained from South Africa via Chokwé's infamous black market), black interior still intact, cush seats, best sound system I've seen in this country... no complaints here. Both men were dressed in suits. I sat in the back seat next to boxes of Cokes and Amarula and behind the little excitable old man, so that he had to turn in his seat and peek out from behind the headrest to excitably tell me all about the festa and interrogate me.

After about ten minutes, over the music and the little excitable old man's rambling to his silent companion, I hear something from behind my seat. Just a little noise, like something's moving around in the trunk. But just once for a minute. I ignore it and focus on the conversation.
"Is she still back there?" this from the younger man, who otherwise hasn't said a word. "She's awfully quiet."
A little rude, I think, but I lean forward to say something. Maybe he hasn't noticed I'm speaking Portuguese. Little excitable old man cuts me off.
"Of course! She's a good one. Nothing will ruin this festa, unless your uncle Naftal shows up..."etc.
I try to ignore the comment, let the little man keep talking.
Then something hits the back of my seat, as though coming through the trunk.
Oh Dear Lord, I think, David lied and sent me with these unsuspicious-looking men to lure me into a trap and they've got the last person who asked for a boleia tied up in the trunk.
The excitable little old man keeps babbling, moving his excitable little old arms.
Suddenly, there's a truly agonizing scream from behind me. I involuntarily jerk away from my seat as much as I can in my seatbelt. Even the excitable little old man stops talking.
Then it screams again. And there's a very audible kick against my back seat.
The excitable little old man chuckles.
And then it dawns on me.
" there a goat in the trunk?"
The excitable little old man's face peers from behind the headrest.
"Yeah!" he says, "We're going to party!"

Other favorite places to see goats:

  • On a bicycle. Usually strapped over the back tire, but there has been at least one occasion when the poor creature was sitting with front hooves tossed over the handlebars, posterior on the bar in front of the seat. The fact that you couldn’t see there was even someone on the bike behind him and that his frantic bleating was so constant that I actually experienced the Doppler effect as he rode by only made the image that much more bizarre.

  • Crossing a river. On the shoulders of a person, of course. You could only see the top half of the woman above the water and the goat, bleating like there’s no tomorrow, wrapped around her head, slipping slowly through the water.

  • In a purse. No kidding. When walking past a goatherder on my way home one day, the man had a herding stick in one hand and a woven purse in the other, and what should appear but – madly bleating, of course – the head of a tiny newborn goat, apparently not big enough to keep up with the crowd on the way home. I'd take one of these over a chihuahua any day.
  • On top of a bus. Like any other piece of luggage, usually tied down. Usually.

  • In my living room. Just kidding, not my favorite place. He made it all the way to my bedroom door before I realized it and chased him out. We were both bleating by the end of it.

The Not Fun Stuff

The preschool is near the end of a looooong dirt road past the fifth bairro of town. The only thing past the school is the cemetery. We get a surprising amount of traffic on that road.
The funeral processions start with the one hearse from the one funeral agency in town, a black one with untinted windows so you can see the coffin inside. Behind the hearse, mourners process through whatever means possible – large work trucks with people standing like sardines in the open back, several chapas full, pick-up trucks, motorcycles, bikes, usually lagging behind by the time they reach the school. The immediate family of the deceased is dressed in black, and will continue to dress that way until the end of the mourning period - six months. The funerals are always eerily silent. Mozambicans don't usually show sadness as we might in the states. I've never seen anyone here cry. From the time they climb into the car to the time they reach the burial site, it's quiet. At the sight of the hearse coming down the dirt road, the teachers at the school order the kids to be quiet and close the doors that otherwise remain open all day. I usually see about one funeral procession a week. I’m at the school three days a week.
By far the saddest funeral procession I have ever seen, I didn’t even realize was one at first. The teachers and I were on the veranda, waiting for the kids to arrive. I was leaning against the wall reading and one of the teachers, Mana Gloria, was stretched out on the esteira mat beside me, when she nudged me and pointed. Coming down the road was a woman in a capulana. Several feet behind her were three other women, and some feet behind them, another few women, two with hoes and one with a shovel.
When an infant dies, only women go to bury it, Mana Gloria explained. She pointed again, and I realized the woman at the head of the procession had a capulana draped over the front of her shoulders and chest so it hung down over her folded arms to to her waist. Here, with the life expectancy of a child being what it is, they don't use hearses and coffins for children. It seemed like it took forever for the silent, tiny procession to march it's way past the school.
This is perhaps the most terrifying because shortly afterwards, the kids arrived - the three-to-five years olds universally known as Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Principally orphaned, of course, by AIDS. We know of at least a few of the kids who are HIV positive. This is the kind of stuff you try very hard not to think about during the school day.