Rico and I went to Nelspruit on Saturday because I needed to cross the border and get the new visa in my passport stamped. I am in the process of getting my Mozambican residency permit (DIRE), and this is the second-to-last step to actually getting the appropriate identity document issued. It's been somewhat of a complicated process, in that I had to present loads of paperwork (including my MBA diploma, which has a gigantic water stain on it from the time back in Austin when, unframed and nestled in a manilla envelope, I mistook it for papers I no longer needed and used the entire thing to rest a potted begonia on, concerned that the water would seep into my carpet) but overall it's gone well considering the amount of bureaucracy involved.
Rico and I caught the Cheetah Express van that goes from Maputo to Nelspruit daily. The vehicle was new and clean, equipped with a sound system and a 15" dvd player, and the driver was well-trained and courteous. Our destination was the Riverside Mall, weekend playground for about 75% of Maputo's "elite", and the source of endless entertainment for those of us who like to compare and contrast various cultures. (See Bizarre-o World post from last year). It seemed we were in for an enjoyable trip.
Of course, by simply thinking that it would be an uneventful journey, we guaranteed that something would go wrong along the way. After all, Murphy* is Mozambican.
The adventures started in Matola, Maputo's industrial sister city. The driver pulled over at the main bus stop, along the N4 highway, where all vehicles going to South Africa collect passengers in Matola. A woman got on the van, and we were about to be on our merry way, when the police tapped on the driver's window. As Rico and I were near the front of the van, I could clearly hear the conversation that took place.
Driver: What seems to be the problem, sir?
Policeman: You can't stop here to pick up passengers. You don't have a license to stop at this spot. Let me see your license and registration.
(driver provides all requested documents, which policeman peruses with a disgusted look on his face)
Driver: You'll excuse me, sir, but this is an informal bus point. Everyone stops here, even the Greyhound bus, and none have a license. I've never even heard of a license for stopping in Matola.
Policeman: Grmph. You must have a license. Pull your van up here. No, come further. Keep coming.
(van driver pulls up exactly where cop indicates, on the shoulder just past the bus stop)
Policeman: You can't park your van here! You are on top of the sidewalk! You are blocking the way for the pedestrians! This is grounds for a multa.
Driver: But sir, I just moved the van to the place you indicated! How can you give me a multa for following your orders?
Policeman: Don't invent things. You parked on top of the sidewalk and you have no license to pick up passengers in Matola. I must impound your vehicle. You will follow me to the parking lot of the Municipal Council.
So, with no further argument to give and unwilling to pay a bribe, the driver followed the police pickup truck through the back roads of Matola to the Municipal Council parking lot, which, though it may sound official, was simply a parcel of untended land with a run-down building on one side and several idle-looking men sitting on the stoop. The Cheetah Express showing up was certainly the highlight of the month for them, and the men stared slack-jawed at us, unsure what to make of the commotion.
The driver parked the van in the spot indicated by the policeman (between a tractor and a pickup truck with no wheels, suspended on 4 concrete blocks), then got out of the vehicle to begin the ardous discussion process over the supposed infraction. Thankfully, he left the key in the ignition so we could continue to watch "Die Hard 4" on the dvd. It was nice to have the entertainment, as we sat in the parking lot for nearly an hour; unfortunately, since the key was in the ignition, it made that maddening ding-ding-ding-ding noise the entire time. For each pleasure there is a sacrifice...
Sufficient time passed, and the police grew weary of accusing the driver of one thing after another without receiving money for a refresco. With no further explanation, they returned all of the driver's documents and sent us on our way, no multa to speak of.
The delay in Matola meant that we hit the border crossing at Ressano Garcia at the absolute peak crossing time. I have never, in my entire life, seen a line so long and stagnant as the one on the Mozambican side of the border. With a deep sigh, we all got in line and mentally prepared for what was sure to be a 2-hour-plus wait.
Rico and I chatted with a fellow passenger who, coincidentally, lives in the flat across the hallway in our building. We've seen her in the hallways all of 4 times in the 1.5 years we've lived in this flat, so it was quite a surprise to meet her on the way to Nelspruit.
The line crept along, and soon an hour had passed. At this rate, we were going to make it to the mall just in time to spend 20 minutes shopping and get back on the van to return to Maputo. As our sole purpose for the trip was to get my passport stamped, we were not overly concerned. Still, it would be a shame to make it all the way to Nelspruit and not be able to enjoy the day a bit.
After a while, our driver went for a chat with the immigration officials stamping passports in a significantly shorter, separate line from the one we were standing in. Apparently the chat was successful, because minutes later the driver whistled and motioned for us to join him. As we got organized in the new line, I looked up at a sign on the wall above our heads: MINERS ONLY.
When it was finally my turn at the front of the line, the immigration official thankfully didn't question whether the cute white girl in front of him was going to work at the diamond mines at Kimberly or the gold mines at Barberton. Unfortunately, he did have some issues with my visas, specifically trying to tell me that I had overstayed my legal stay and that I would be in for a multa. Stupid multas.
Thankfully Rico, the master negotiator, was by my side and took over the conversation with the immigration official. He explained that the immigration agency in Maputo had issued me a new visa before the expiry of the one the official was having issues with, and therefore I was legal in Mozambique and didn't have to pay a fine. We went back and forth, discussing the details of the immigration law for foreigners, trying to convince the man that he should simply stamp my passport and let us go. It took some hard negotiating, our Brazilian Portuguese and outgoing attitudes definitely helping our case, but in the end we finally managed to get the all-important stamp. Mission accomplished.
After making it through the border in *only* 1.5 hours, we were back in the Cheetah Express and speeding past lush fields of cane, citrus and bananas. It is always shocking to me to see how the Mozambican side of the border is somewhat barren and covered in scrub acacia and thornbushes, whereas the South African side is immediately divided into organized, irrigated fields, with expanses of green as far as the eye can see.
The Riverside Mall was exciting, in the way that people from small towns in the interior get a rush from visiting the big commercial center in the district capital. Nothing is particularly special - it's just a typical expanse of clothing shops and department stores and a food court - but the simple fact that it's different from Maputo and involves a cross-border trip is enough for me. We bought curtains for our bedroom, a terracotta-colored lamp for the living room, soap and face creams from The Body Shop, and canned asparagus, tuna in brine, and chocolate from the supermarket. Didn't I tell you it was exciting stuff?
The drive back to Maputo was actually quite pleasant. There was a swollen, amber-hued full moon in the sky and we could smell the distinctly African air ripe with wood smoke as it permeated the interior of the van. Rico and I both slept nearly the entire way home, then walked the 3 blocks from the dropoff point back to our flat with our newly acquainted neighbor, shopping bags in hand, satisfied with yet another adventure.
* of Murphy's Law fame. You know, if something can possibly go wrong...