Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Amidst the Chaos, Unexpected Bonds

After a day of rioting and chaos due to an approximate 50% increase in the cost of public taxis, things seem back to normal in Maputo and Matola.

Things were calm at our office in Matola for most of yesterday morning, though Paulo and Raimundo were very anxious due to the disturbances in the suburbs, and the news I was accompanying online didn't look too good, either.

We kept hearing rumors that the disturbances were coming our way, but I didn't really believe the situation would get bad. That is, until I heard about 6 shots fired too close to our office for comfort in the early afternoon!

Most of the people in the office had already gone home for the day, as they depended on public transport to get around and knew they must leave hours in advance if they wanted to get to their houses before nightfall. Those of us left in the office promptly decided to evacuate after the gunfire.

Hugh Marlboro went with Ludmila to try and fetch her young daughter from a school down the road. I quickly arranged for the JAC truck and Ahmed's car to be locked in the lot behind the warehouse (he wasn't at the office, but his car and keys were), then hopped in a truck with JR, the manager of the transport sector, and his wife June, one of the financial managers.

As we left the office, we could see burning tires on the road not 500m from where we were, and masses of people were already blocking the highway back to Maputo. It was eerie to be the only vehicle on the road - literally - and have everyone staring at you, the air thick with anticipation of something about to push past a critical point of stability.

Since most of the administrative employees live on the farms, that was where we headed, as it was in the opposite direction of the rioting, and we would be relatively well set-up to wait out the situation. As we headed out of town, things became increasingly calmer, and I could see my colleagues letting out sighs of relief.

Not that I wasn't concerned about the rioting, I was just affected quite differently by the situation compared to my Afrikaner colleagues. It was apparent that the mass protests and the violence triggered memories of past situations for them. We talked about it, how they were reminded of the "old days" in South Africa, the familiar feeling of being the odd ones out - for various reasons - and therefore some of the most apparent targets.

One of my colleagues, Chinney, became gray in the face in response to the chaos. Normally he is a tough, fat little man who compulsively smokes cigarettes and has his lip upturned in distaste whenever not curled around a smoke. Not yesterday afternoon. He just looked as if he wanted to crawl inside a bunker and drink whisky until the problems blew over.

JR, an ex-military man who admittedly did some "not-so-nice-things in Mozambique years ago, but we all have to make peace with history at some point", immediately went back into special-ops mode and started telling me about the strategies to spread cells of violence throughout the conflict area and cut off the principal access points. One couldn't be sure if he was referring to Maputo, or just remembering general bits of said not-so-nice history. [As a side note, JR is one of my new favorite people at the office. He has an intriguing past, between the military stint and working in a diamond mine, but he also is a major history buff and a great defender of the environment. I like talking to him because he breaks sterotypes right and left, especially when reflecting on how one comes to accept actions in one's past that one now recognizes as atrocious. Also, he has a wicked sense of humor, one of these people who is always friendly and always has the perfect joke ready.]

Anyhow, poor June, JR's wife, was just very talkative the entire time. She said the tension reminded her of the armed robbery that had happened last year to the family back in South Africa. She smoked long, thin, gold-tipped cigarettes and chattered away to ease her nerves.

June commented that I was incredibly calm and level-headed in dealing with the situation. I do tend to become quite rational in times of crisis, but I think what was underlying my relatively relaxed state was the fact that I am an outsider. This specific type of violence simply is not part of my past. It is not part of the collective past of my family or my peers in the US, or even in Brazil, though each of these places has their similar issues (i.e. terrorism attempts and armed assaults, respectively). The mass riots by a largely black population simply did not represent a trigger for me in the same way they did for my colleagues. That, plus the fact that I speak fluent Brazilian Portuguese, gave me a sense of calm and confidence, not that I thought I was invincible to the violence or anything, but still...

We drove out to the farm, to the house where JR and June just moved in last week. All of their things were still largely in boxes, and they were certainly not prepared for visitors. Nonetheless, they offered me and my colleague Chinney wonderful hospitality.

To "celebrate" our arrival at the farm, we all piled into JR and June's diesel-converted Kombi bus and bumped down the pothole-ridden road to the local bush bar for beers. This bar was literally one table with four mismatched chairs on a random slab of concrete, with a pretty young woman called Maria serving whatever cool drinks and alcohol had been brought out that week from Boane. This was the first time that all of us had been together in a social situation, but the conversation flowed quite nicely, thanks in part to copious amounts of alcohol and empty stomachs (I am happy to report, however, that I remembered last Friday's sad state and moderated my rate of consumption.)

June and I had the instantly bonding experience of using the makeshift toilet behind the bar together after she announced the need to pee. It was basically two reed partitions joined at an angle to create a cover for the person relieving him or herself on the red, dusty dirt. I thought it was a pretty good deal, as I was expecting a long-drop, one of the more revolting forms of toilet as far as I am concerned. June, however, was intimidated and, I think, a bit clueless as to what to do behind the screen. "Go ahead, just have a squat and go for it," I encouraged her. "I'll keep watch for you from here." Once she was done, I had her keep watch while I peed, even though I didn't really have a full bladder, just to make her feel a bit better about what I know, given her very conservative roots, had been quite the experience.

After sufficient beers and conversation, I negotiated the price of a bottle of whisky for us, bought 12 bottled sodas, and we got back in the Kombi to rustle up some dinner at the farm house. JR is a fabulous cook, I found out, and he made us pasta with a slow-cooked empty-pantry sauce made of ground beef, canned beans, garlic, fresh chilies, and a secret blend of spices that I know at least contained ketchup and monkey gland sauce. Granted, I was starving by the time we finally got around to eating, but it was an incredibly delicious meal.

All through the night, I was texting and calling Rico, Ahmed, Paulo and Luigi to get updates on the rioting in Maputo and Matola. The news was not encouraging - burning tires, throwing stones, blocked access routes, torched vehicles - and I had already resigned myself to staying on the farm for the night.

Chinney, however, who lives just one street down from our office, was intent on going back home that night. He thought that since he lived just off the highway at the entrance to Matola, he'd be okay. Despite JR's warning that it was not a good idea, Chinney got in his truck and drove back to Matola by himself around 10pm. About 45 minutes later, we got a desperate call from him on June's cell phone. "They've put a huge padlock on my gate. I can't get in my house. There are mobs of people everywhere, the streets look like a carnival party. I want to go back to the farm, but I have no petrol and no meticiais to buy some. What must I do??" I consulted with JR and Paulo, who was in Matola at his sister's house, and we came up with a plan. After a bit of wheeling and dealing with contacts, JR managed to buy some petrol using rands, and was able to head back towards the plantation.

When he arrived at the farm house, June immediately presented him with a whisky, and we all went to the lounge to play some pool, one of the few things that was unpacked and ready for use in the house. June put on a mix cd with The Eagles, The Beach Boys, The Police and some random Afrikaans rock, and cranked the volume. At that point, what with all the alcohol and nerves, we were all in altered states. Chinney and I were on a team, and got creamed by JR and June, who obviously had been getting in some good practice on the pool table. Despite our loss, Chinney played the air guitar and did the twist, while JR and June celebrated by singing along to the music at the top of their lungs, dancing as if nobody else were in the room. It was then that June announced - technically, it was her birthday, as the clock had just passed midnight.

We had some Ricoffy with milk and sugar to celebrate, then talked for another hour or so until sleep was inevitable. I slept in a twin bed with Barbie sheets, and wore one of JR's giant trucking t-shirts as pajamas. I brushed my teeth with my finger, and quenched my thirst by drinking straight out of the bathroom tap (there was, to my horror, no drinking water available in the house, and I knew that June would freak out if I told her I was ingesting farm water!). Incredibly, I managed to get some sleep, and was woken up by the constant hum of the 100,000 layer hens clucking away at the egg project site just a kilometer away from the plantation.

In the morning, all of us nursing hangovers to one extent or another, we made calls to our colleagues in Maputo and Matola to get the latest updates. Apparently, at 5am, an agreement was made with the Prime Minister for the chapa price to go back to the previous range of 5 to 7.5 meticais. To compensate for increased operating costs over the years, and to avoid backlash from the taxi drivers, the Government agreed to subsidize fuel.

As the situation seemed safe, we decided to drive back into Matola. Fortunately for me, Ahmed had gone to pick up his car from the office at just the same time, so I was able to get a ride back to Maputo with him. It was incredibly nice to be back at home, with Rico, with the boys, with no need to go out for anything for the rest of the day.

The way the streets looked this morning will stay with me for quite some time - burned out vehicle shells lying on the side of the highway, debris everywhere, the guardrails on the EN4 completely ripped out of the ground, the chain link fence that used to serve as a median twisted and bent where people had trampled over the metal, still smoldering bits of tires and tree trunks in piles on the asphalt. However, I will equally remember the way that I unexpectedly bonded with JR, June and Chinney in the midst of the confusion. I wonder how long it would have taken for us to have the kind of conversations we had last night if it weren't for the rioting, or if they would have even happened at all...


Linda said...

Wow, that was exciting. We get riots here too in France which can be scary. One phrase sticks in my mind however--monkey gland sauce? What does that taste like?

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

1) Happy you're okay and

2) MONKEY GLAND SAUCE, umm, please to explain at some point.

laundrygirl said...

Wow! What a life you live!
I have not visited here in awhile. I have missed you!