I draw my collar closer around my neck as I hurry across the dark road. It’s quiet now; two men sweep the dusty pavement outside their shop, a minibus rattles past me, headlights glowing in the morning gloom.
I stop a woman and ask: “Chapa? Junta?” She points me to a street corner, motioning me to wait for the bus that will take me to the main station, and hurries across the quiet street.
I wave down the bus and grab an empty seat, admiring this early morning city, so different to the chaos of daytime. Woman carrying plastic bundles board the bus. I wonder where they’re going at 5 in the morning.
By 5:45 I am tucked up next to the window in a bus bound for Inhambane. More passengers arrive, stowing their bundles and bags on the rack above their heads and on their laps. A man climbs on the bus and switches on his torch to light up his wares: toothpaste, batteries, toilet paper, soap, Nesquick, lip balm. A woman passes by selling cakes; another offers bread rolls; airtime and sim cards are sold by men wearing yellow mcel vests.
The sky is light now. Finally the driver starts the bus and inches out of the side street. But we don’t go far. The driver stops for every potential passenger, the hoppers cajoling them into climbing aboard the already full bus. We stop again and again, each time we are surrounded by people selling bread rolls, piled high on their heads, juices, even whisky and Crackling, toiletries and shiny plastic jewellery, headscarves and fabric, each one a different print.
It is 8am. The sun is up, but not yet hot. We set off, leaving the grubby, rubbish-strewn city streets for open country roads. We are heading north and have a whole day’s journey ahead of us.
This is my favourite part of travelling: the going, the being on the way, curled up next to a window in a cramped bus, wondering how we can fit another person and her belongings on board, and inching over another bit when the hopper packs her in. I love watching the scenery pass by, alone with my wandering imagination, getting to know my fellow passengers just by watching them, trying to understand why we’ve stopped, what was said, where we are, seeing that things are different but also deeply similar across the world.
Joburg is cold these days. And I have time. Two perfect reasons to get out of town. On a Tuesday night my brother put me on a bus bound for Maputo, Mozambique, and by the next morning I was tramping around the rundown capital in a T-shirt.
In Dark Star Safari Paul Theroux describes African cities as villages on steroids (or something like that – I’m taking liberties here). They’re more often than not dirty and derelict, shells of their former European-built glory. After a day of looking up at sad-looking buildings, and drinking over-priced but average coffee, I was ready to leave Maputo, to head north to the sandy beaches and turquoise waters of the Mozambique in my mind. After all, I had run away from South Africa in search of a reprieve from the cold.
So I travelled north. First to Tofo, which I didn’t like for its touristic existence and enclaves of holidaying South African families, and then, many more hours north, in another cramped chapa, to Vilanculos, which I did like for its realness, for its market – a maze of sandy pathways leading to stalls selling anything and everything – for the women selling pyramids of naartjies and buckets of soft Portuguese bread rolls along the broken streets, for its never-ending stretch of beach and deeply receding tide, for the colour of the sea, the smell of salt in the air, the smiles on the faces of the people I met there. Barefoot wanderings.
PS. I went diving with a bunch of cool people and it was awesome. We saw turtles and moray eels and one singularly gianormous grouper. And I’m still echoing in one ear from being under the water.