The chapa departs the town of Pemba jam-packed at 4.00am. In the hazy sunrise, a boy sleeps on my arm as we bump like feedlot cattle in the open bed of the truck, the tattered walls of woven rice-sacks keeping in the miasma of fishy smells, halitosis and rank BO.
We stop for various reasons at regular intervals – loading or unloading cargoes, brief social visits by the drivers, several orgies of fruit-buying after which the passengers gorge en masse, sucking mango juice from their dripping fingers like creatures after a famine. Small rolls, gritty with sand, are being sold from the roadside. I am nauseous with hunger; the boy has no change, so I buy ten. I eat four but cannot manage the other six, and I have no container in which to place them, so I put them in my hat. I now have a hat full of bread.
The road is dirt, and little more than 70km long, and the journey takes five hours. The towns are hamlets in a scorched savanna, the houses daub-and-wattle, women patching the lattice with great handfuls of mud, the roofs all palm-thatch laid atop bamboo. At last we arrive at the dhow port at Tandanhangue, in reality nothing more than a dusty clearing with an enormous baobab for shade, the muddy flat opening thru the mangroves, where the boat will launch at high tide, six hours hence. It is difficult to overstate the anticlimax in this arrival.
I buy a warm coca-cola and some sickly-sweet biscuits, then retreat to a shady spot with my bags to nap, laid out on the sand. An hour later I am woken by a goat.
I trudge tiredly down the estuary where children will not keep calling ‘muzungu’ at me, and sleep on the damp sandbank there, waking sunburnt from the overcast, and worrying suddenly about the possibility of crocodiles. By two, the tide is coming in, and I climb into the waiting dhow, which loaded with some 40 souls is just barely seaworthy, and threatens to swamp every time we hit a patch of chop, the water less than a foot from the gunwales.
Across the boat, a mother has flopped one enormously swollen breast free of her blouse, and is nursing her child in a grotesque spectacle of drooling and grasping, the huge-nippled breast like a tortured party balloon as the infant wrings and twists it. When finished, she leaves the breast hanging out, like something she might need later. At her feet in the floor of the boat, her other child, perhaps two years old, is dipping a length of filthy rope he found into the two inches of unspeakable bilge-water pooled in the floorboards, and then sucking it out thru pursed lips like a tasty treat. I’m incredibly relieved when he switches to just eating paint flakes. The mother’s breast is still out, flopping.
At the pier at Ibo island, I’m followed by a skinny youth of eleven who dogs my heels thru the blasted and crumbling lanes of the old town.
“Entiendo que quieres ayudar a los viajeros,” I say to him, “Pero odio un poquito cuando alguien sigeme, entiendes?”
He keeps following me.
At the door of my guesthouse he gravely shakes my hand and walks away, leaving me feeling, as usual, like an asshole. In the courtyard of the guesthouse, I meet the owner, lounging supine upon a bench like Snoopy.
“How long did the chapa ride take?” he asks me.
He waves a hand at me dismissively.
“Ha. Twelve hours. Twelve hours is the record.”
“So,” he asks, as I set down my bags, the sweat drying at last on my filthy clothes, “You want a room?”