Let me describe a chapa for you. Imagine a 13 passenger mini-bus: three benches with a fold-down seat each and one bench across in the back. With a sliding side door.
Now imagine this bus with a sliding door that sometimes falls off the hinges, with a spider-web crack in the windshield right where the front passenger’s head would hit should there be a very sudden stop or impact, with seats that may or may not be completed upholstered, with fold-down seats that may or may not have backs, and with an interior light that is hanging by a wire. Also imagine each of the rows holding not three but four passengers as well as not one but two passengers up front. There is a driver, who may or may not have a license, who may or may not have been drinking, who may or may not turn around completely in his seat to carry on a heated conversation with the cobredor. The cobredor is the guy who somehow balances himself over the overcrowded first row of passengers (remember four, not three), collects fares, and opens and closes the sliding door to let passengers in and out.
You must also imagine no bus stops. A passenger can hail a chapa at any point along the route, sometimes 20 meters from the last stop. When the cobredor notices a passenger on the side of the road, he taps the inside of the door with a coin for the driver to stop. When a passenger inside wants to get out, he or she calls out, “Paragem!” and the cobredor taps again for the driver to stop. When a passenger in the back wants to get out, all the people in the fold-down seats need to get out first. Because bodies physically fill every space in a chapa, getting in and out involves a lot of squeezing and/or climbing over people. It’s helpful to be a short, skinny person on a chapa.
I took a chapa back to Beira yesterday from a crossroads 160km away. The journey there by bus had taken two hours. The journey back took three and a half.
I had forgotten to give myself ‘break-down’ time coming back. How quickly one forgets these things living in an efficient society for a year. I figured if we left at 2:30, I would easily be home by dark. I would have too, just barely, had we not run out of gas.
We had just stopped in a town for snacks – boys walking around the vehicle thrusting Fizz (a brightly colored, sugary, carbonated drink) and cookies and bags of chips in passenger windows – and just outside the next town we chugga-chugga-chugged to a stop.
Then this is where I get confused: Not so much that the driver ran out of gas (I mean, the lack of planning beyond the very, very immediate moment will always amaze me about Mozambique) but that no one really complained. A few people grumbled that they had to get out, but mostly people accepted the inconvenience. Yet Mozambicans will yell – yes, yell – at cobredors if they don’t stop the minute they call out “paragem” or if the music isn’t quite right.
And here is where I became even more confused. After half of the male passengers push-started the chapa to run a little further on fumes, the driver took off down the road rather than pull into the gas station that was 50 meters from us. So we walked, our motley crew of bum-sore passengers, along the main road for about ten minutes, hoping the driver would find some gas and return for us. Indeed he did, although he drove right past us at first.
Finally we all piled back in, again with no grumbling, and continued our journey with many more stops, although fortunately not gasoline-related. We finally arrived in Beira well after the sun set.
This Is Mozambique.