Traveling and The Art of Confusion

This is a guest post by SO Dirt, who is currently in Mozambique as a Peace Corps volunteer

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Disclaimer: the words below are my own views and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps organization.

It is almost impossible to travel without packing along some confusion. It shows up in little things, like trying to remember your planes gate number or the polite manner to consume foreign food. Confusion can trigger different reactions – the sudden disappearance of familiar comforts in lieu of foreign landscapes can be exhilarating for some and gut wrenching for others. It is impossible to eliminate confusion from travel, but you can practice it.

In this current life I am a Peace Corps volunteer teaching Physics and English in a small secondary school in northern Mozambique. Ten months ago, I left home in the midst of fall and 18 hours later, after two sunsets and one sunrise, I landed 10,000 miles away to a Mozambican summer.

The first two months in-country were spent training and living with a host family. During this time I learned the cult classics: treating a snake bite, killing a chicken, the nuances of bucket bathing, and the proper way to wring out your clothing while hand washing (stern Mozambican woman will judge you for your wringing technique, wear it like a badge of honor). Time was also spent doing technical, safety, and language training, which involved going through a lot of hypothetical scenarios. If one of your female students is consistently missing class because she has to stay home and work do you talk to her parents, to her, to your principal? If someone tries to mug you, do you give them money or pee yourself and cry? Do you use the future conditional or subjunctive to conjugate that – tive, tinha, tenho, tivera? What do you do if you’re confused?

Training eventually comes to an end. Lovers cry from the anxiety of separation and some of us praise baby Jesus to finally be out. We are forked off into our respective groups: south, central, and north Mozambique. I was in the outcast group destined for end of the earth, northern Mozambique. A small plane chartered us off to the largest city in Northern Mozambique, Nampula. As we landed, cumulus clouds were casting shadows over the igneous intrusions jutting out from the dusty, stunted ground.

Mozambique Landscape

The group is segmented again to be driven off to our respective region. At this point, all I know is that my site is called Namuno and that maybe it has toilet paper and whiskey. Two other volunteers and I are steered into a Land Rover, the kind used in Jurassic Park, minus the dinosaurs. My stomach knots up realizing that it’s time to do this.

Mozambique 2

We arrive to Namuno as the sun is setting, all of our asses are sore from driving through potholed, clay roads in the backtracks of Mozambique. I am greeted by the dean of the school where I will be teaching. He speaks Portuguese quickly with an accent my non-native ears have trouble deciphering. I smile and attempt to remain respectful while figuring out what the fuck is going on. I turn around and the industrial Land Rover that cradled me to my site is getting ready to leave. I want to cry, “No, wait, I am not ready!” I feel like I am 5 years old and it’s my first day of school. It dawns on me: Training is over and I no longer have the security of 50 fellow Americans to cushion the shock that is being a stranger in Mozambique. I snap back to reality standing in a cloud of dust. The sky is pink. My bags are at my feet. I am standing alone and a group of small children has amassed to see the akunha (foreigner in the local language). They are staring at me, the little ones shyly ducking behind their taller siblings. I am one of the first Americans to live in Namuno, my bright blond hair and white skin make me stick out like a sore thumb. I am confused, and so are they.

Mozambique 3

Fast forward two weeks. It’s my first time leaving Namuno. I am not really sure if I am doing this right. I just climbed into a vehicle with a man dangling from the tailgate hollering Montepuez (the closest city to my town 70km away down a bouncy, dirt road). I am sitting in the back of a Chinese-made pick up truck. The kind designed for carrying loads of gravel, or boxes, or non-living entities. Defying the laws of physics and safety we have somehow managed to cram 30 people plus their cargo and livestock into the bed. My fingers are mindlessly rubbing my knees attempting to alleviate the tension from tightly tucking them into my chest for the past two hours. The guy sitting to my right is drinking gin from a dollar plastic bottle, drunkenly leaning on me, and calling me his wife. The women sitting across from me smiles sympathetically, and in the back a goat is screaming, or is that a child? My face twists into an exasperated grin and I chuckle, mumbling “what the fuck” running my hands through my freshly, buzzed, uneven hair. Everyone is looking at me skeptically speaking the local language rapidly, I hear the word akunha thrown around. I know they are talking about me. I don’t know If I should be angry or happy. So I settle on the feeling I’ve come to rely on: I am confused.

It has started raining. To avoid melting, we pull a frayed blue tarp over ourselves. I am unsuccessfully trying to hold it in a logistical position, wrestling the wind turning it into a sail. It is flapping in my face, periodically giving me a wet, sandy slap. We come to a sudden stop, I duck out from under the tarp to see what has happened. Oh cool, we are stuck in a river, water lapping at the sides of the truck. Do I get out and push with the men? Or stay seated with the women? My numb legs ungracefully jump me out of the truck. I run out of the way and silently stand observing from a distance.

Mozambique 4

The flooded engine groans as it fails to turn. People are cursing and walking away from the scene. Some guy laughs my way and says “vamos para casa”. Does this mean I am walking home? I look down the wet, clay road. All I can see is tall grass and corn. I have no idea where I am and start walking in the general direction of home.

Mozambique 5

After a half hour of soggy hiking, I hear a crowd ahead and see a large truck tipped over in the clay.

“Boa tarde senhora professora.” I find the voice and don’t recognize the man, but right now he is my best friend. Someone who recognizes me as more than a random white girl in the bush, I want to gratefully hug him, but instead fumble out a couple sentences.

“Ola, como está o senhor? Que aconteceu? Alguém está ferido? Nós estamos longe de Namuno?”
Hello, how are you, sir? What happened? Is anyone hurt? Are we far from Namuno?
“Não, ninguém está ferido. 5 kilometers até Namuno. Está a vir de onde?” He responds.

No, no one is hurt. 5 kilometers to Namuno. Where are you coming from?
“O chapa que estava a passar em de Montepuez caiu no rio. Estou a andar para casa.”
The chapa I was in got stuck in the river. I am walking home.
He chuckles and wishes me luck.

Mozambique 6

I exhale and tighten the straps on my pack, the action straightening my back. My feet are sore and pruned, but move me forward. I repeat a phrase I learned in Macua like a mantra – miki rowanee, I am going home, and lose myself in thought. The welcome sign for Namuno greets me and I smile in relief.

As I fumble with my keys to my front door my neighbors are all judging me for disheveled appearance. Looking like Indiana Jones here gets you no street cred. I fill up a bucket with water and scrub away the layer of orange that has grimed itself into my skin. My head hits the pillow, “fuck, today was confusing”.

I am ten months into my service and confusion is as constant as my morning bowel movements. Consistently reminding me that sometimes you will have all your shit together and sometimes it will all fall apart, but eventually you will figure it all out, well, unless you don’t. But, regardless, confusion never equates a failure. The world has an infinite order of things and if you have nothing more to offer than your own confusion then that’s more than enough.

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