Sunday, August 22, 2010

17 - On The Road Once More, with Feeling

Hordes of women with babies on backs, cases on heads, some with squawking chickens in hand, are swarming to get on the bus from Lubango to Huambo; the huge dusty hold at the back is jampacked with massive sacks and yours truly's bright red case. My seat’s in the middle, but the SGO bus company's maitre d' or whatever you call him summons me up front to replace a woman with a child - children are not allowed to sit in the front. This is great unless the driver is contemplating a full frontal crash.

                                                      Lubango to Huambo
A woman with a huge box comes on, knocking off everybody's head as she moves to the back; now she's told to bring it back up front, again knocking everybody's head off. The front is so cluttered that we'll never make it out in an emergency. On the outskirts of town, the driver stops, stands up and reads us the riot act – no throwing of tins or other objects out of windows, everybody to behave nicely, and we're going via Catengue because a bridge is out on the far shorter route.

Want to buy a chicken?
Everybody in fact is very well behaved, especially the children. People using cell phones are talking very quietly – Americans on trains and buses, please take note. Several parts of the tarred road degenerate into a terrible maze of rutted holes and dirt tracks. Every now and then we stop for the calls of nature, blanket-draped women squatting and squeezing on one side of the road, men standing and watering the other.

The engine cowl is now leaking a little stream of petrol all over the front and everybody's rushing to pick up their cases, complaining that their clothes are already contaminated. There's an awful stench of oil, and smoke has now joined the stream of petrol. Now the bus's engine alarm has started ringing. The driver stops at a little halt amid the beautiful scenery of African savannah – yellow grasses, leafy topped trees, almost bald baobabs, and jagged mountains in the distance.

Home at last for some passengers
He checks the oil and water, phones the chief mechanic at SGO's headquarters and explains our predicament. We've already been going for eight hours. Can we proceed, he asks. Yes, he's told. After a little tinkering beneath the engine cowl with a spanner we're off again. Smoke continues to pour out, then miraculously stops. Not so the alarm, which accompanies us for the rest of the ride.

We journey on past two giant stony peeks soaring erect from a rounded mountain top like two massive nipples, past a herd of cows whose herdsman we miss running over by a screaming hair's breadth, past sugar cane sellers where we stop and buy so that everyone can munch and chew. Alongside the Benguela railway, the setting sun gilds the exhilarating landscape. By the time we reach Huambo, we've been going 13 hours.
Strange crag formations between Lubango and Huambo

We arrive in total darkness, the street lights are out, and there's no way to see into the giant dust bowl of a hold to locate my formerly red case - and even less way that I'm going to hoist myself up and into the swirling mess. Instead, perfect gentleman that I am, I prevail upon a local lass to do me the honour, which she willingly does. My bad!

Outside there's not a taxi in blacked-out sight. This calls for initiative. Jabbering, jawboning, I verbally carjack a light-skinned guy who's waiting in the wrong place for a friend. He drives all over the outskirts in the darkness, trying to locate aforesaid friend by tracking him by cell phone in Arabic. They're from Mauritania and are working as traders. After many a false direction, and equally as many false stops, we finally run him to earth miles away in the Sao Joao quarter, just as a motorbike bandit screeches off, thwarted in his attempt to snatch his shoulder bag.

Now we're off to the Academico quarter, trying to locate my home away from home for the next couple of night - Pensao Mae Lina (Mother Lina's Place), one of the cheaper joints in town at $85 a night. We phone them several times, get precise directions, and get just as precisely lost. In the end they have to drive out to guide us in to port.

Hmm, Mother Lina's Place has some red lights outside; now what can that that mean? But at least I've got a roof over my head and a shower - and Sidi, the driver, refuses to accept any money for his pains. Mother Lina, meanwhile, doesn`t turn out to be a madam after all. Things are looking up.

Countryside corner shop

No comments:

Post a Comment