In Cuamba, A Riot That Wasn't

Monday, August 7, 2006 | Cuamba, Mozambique

Cuamba: every bit as boring as it looks.
In a hurry to see as much as I could before returning to Dar es Salaam in a few weeks, I decided to wake early and leave the city of Lichinga on a 4:30 AM minibus bound for Cuamba, though Joop and Rene would stay behind and take their time.

In mid-morning I found myself sitting on a pile of dirt beside the road, eating corn from a can and breathing the dust of the few passing cars as the minibus driver ploddingly changed a flat tire. Joop and Rene, who had slept in and hitched a ride from Lichinga hours after I had left, pulled to the side of the road right in front of me, relishing the moment and telling me how good their breakfast had been.

Thanks to the tire their driver lent ours, I finally arrived in Cuamba later that afternoon, and located the Dutch pair. At Cuamba's train station, we discovered that the train we hoped to take
across the north of Mozambique to the city of Nampula wouldn't leave until Sunday, two days later. We returned to their cheap hotel, where I also stayed for the next two nights as we waited for the train. The hotel was clean and cheap, and we were quite pleased with the accommodation—at least until we gradually pieced together the facts and realized that it doubled as a brothel.

The next day Ben and Emily arrived. The young British couple had been among the guests back on Mango Drift and had opted to spend an additional day on the island rather than join us. Having gotten lucky with transportation, they had caught up to us, so we spent the day together, exploring Cuamba's markets and wandering its wide avenues which, lined with low buildings and scraggly trees, lent the town an unmistakable "Wild West" appearance. That we were in the dusty town waiting to catch an old passenger train only added to that image.

Ben and Emily had arrived in Cuamba with stories, gleaned from another traveler they had encountered, of violent riots in the lines to buy tickets for the train. Writhing mobs, deft pickpockets who would strip you of anything you hadn't tied down, brutal police officers wielding clubs and forcing people to pay bribes to get tickets—all these were on our minds as we headed for the ticket window that afternoon. We had brainstormed some strategies: "Should we find a hardware store and fill our pockets with nails to hurt the pickpockets?" "No, let's form a human battering ram and shove someone forward to buy all five tickets." "They can't steal from us if we're all naked!" In the end we opted to go with nothing but the clothes on our back and the ticket money, leaving the rest of our belongings at the hotel.

To be honest, after all that discussion, the sight of only a few sedate locals calmly buying tickets when we arrived at the booth was something of a letdown.

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