Monday, November 22, 2010

Peanut butter, my lifeblood. When you don't want to cook, when you want something that reminds you of home, full of protein and fat--two nutrients not easily gotten here--peanut butter.

My town does not have peanut butter. It's my only complaint about where I live. My addiction to peanut butter drives me at least once a month to the nearby city (read "large town kind of") of Vilanculos.

The lone mode of transport is the chapa, a large grey van that seats 12 comfortably but is considered full at around 25 people (plus live goats, chickens, babies and luggage--once a live goat was strapped to the roof). It's cheap and completely unpredictable. Sometimes they leave every half hour, sometimes not for a few hours at a time. I've been in chapas that have broken down on the road many times. Once I was in a chapa whose engine was continually overheating, necessitating a stop every two miles or so to cool the engine with water fetched from a river that parallels the road. Another time the chapa came to a complete and normal stop, and the door fell off. Yet another time they couldn't get the door open, and I was stuck in that glorified RC car with 20+ sweating bodies for almost an hour without moving.

But you make it work, and you get better at accepting it. After all, there is no alternative. Mozambican patience is, generally speaking, heroic, and it figures.

Remember that almost anywhere I go in my corner of Mozabique, I cause a stir. This applies especially to chapas. I approach the chapa stop and I am bombarded with "My fren! My fren! Where you go? Where you go my fren?" I try to stay calm and explain where I am going in Portuguese. "Oh!" they say, "you speak Portuguese!" Yes, I do, and that gets me a handfull of respect, enough to ensure that they don't try to rip me off, usually.

The problem is that in chapas they do not speak Portuguese. And the stir continues when I get in. My tiny amount of Shitswa is enough for me to know when they are talking about me, that and the fact that they stare, point and laugh quite openly. Sometimes I try to respond in the little Shitswa I know, sometimes I just address them in Portuguese to break the ice. But as the jokes go on, and am I talked about more and more but personally acknowledged less I find myself paralyzed. "Why is the white man riding with us in the chapa?" "Doesn't the boss have a car?" It's the most alienating experience I have ever had.

I want to tell them not to call me "boss", first of all. But explaining to a complete stranger the racial ramifications of the word boss out of the blue is not an endeavor I would recommend. Your good intentions are hampered by language barriers, massive cultural barriers, and the simple fact that most people don't want to be burdened with that kind of stuff. I sympathize, I don't want to be burdened by it either. But when you are a racially sensitized white American surrounded by black Africans and they are calling you "boss" over and over it's hard not to feel like you are drowning in it.

It will calm down after a few minutes, because I have lived in my community for so long most of the time the chapa driver or someone on the chapa knows me, and that diffuses the situation.

I get off the chapa after 3 hours and I can't feel my feet because the chapa is so small that my knees have to be raised to fit, so only a fraction of my butt touches the seat at any one moment. But I need my damn peanut butter and I'll do whatever it takes at this point. If I thought the chapa was bad, Vilanculos proper is far worse. In the market there are men whose profession is to scam white people. As I approach they see me and pounce. They ask me if I want to change money, they ask me what I want, offering to get it for me at jacked up prices. I tell them I don't want anything, and sometimes they follow me. I ask them to leave me alone and a brave few will continue to follow, asking what I want over and over. When I threaten violence and scream at them that I am not some %$^#@ tourist they will almost always leave, laughing as they go (this is to diffuse the tension, a very common Mozambican maneuver). They may follow at a distance though, on the prowl as I look for the best prices on peanut butter.

Everywhere I go kids shout "Milungo!" at me. People call me "boss" (it sounds like "boys" when they say it. And when you ask them what it means none of them know), one time a man on the other side of the street selling phone credit shouted "sista! sista! sista!" over and over again, perhaps "sister" being the only English word the guys knows. Children ask me for money, adults ask me for money. It’s not everyone or even most people, but it feels like I am being sized up and calculated. My shirt, my bag, my sunglasses and especially my shoes give me away, let alone of course my skin and hair. Some days it feels like every friendly conversation ends with them asking me for money.

I'm on my guard, on edge, the whole time. Ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that when I travel I can be brutal, especially to people who think they can rip me off. My community isn't anything like Vilanculos. It's smaller, quieter, I'm well known, and sure I get harassed now and then but after a short conversation I can usually introduce myself and ensure that that person will never call me "boss" or "milungo" again. But Vilanculos is a hardened tourist town. White people pass through all the time and they are almost all tourists, none speaking Portuguese. I am just another white, a target for some, a novelty for others, or ignored (as I would prefer it).

I get my peanut butter and go home. Being in Vil is exhausting, riding on chapas is exhausting, and it all makes me feel like an outsider with no means of being anything but white, and that feeling is the most exhausting and hopeless feeling a volunteer can get..

Once back in town though I say thank you to the driver. I stop by the market and say hi to my friends there. I joke around with Nina who sells me tomatoes. Luisa who breast feeds her baby as she talks to me in my broken Shitswa. True story:

While buying bananas a little girl looks at me and says "milungo!" And Julia, one of the banana ladies stops her and says, "Hey, that's not a milungo, that's Colin." I thank her like an idiot ("You don't have to thank me!" she says, almost annoyed) and go home with my peanut butter tucked under my arm.


Family t-minus one month.