Journey Through the Fire Swamp: Mozambican Edition

Imagine The Princess Bride. Imagine that the whole movie was an extended fire swamp scene. Imagine the fire swamp was actually a 100 km road through a deserted Mozambican game reserve. Imagine instead of the Dred Pirate Roberts you have missionary Alan Howell and charismatic Mozambican Domingos. Imagine Roberts’ 3 companions are 3 Tanzanians (1 mother and her 2 children that you lovingly named Falcon & Morning Star when you couldn’t figure out their names) and they have no passports. Imagine there are 6 Princess Buttercups. Imagine 2 are male. Imagine none have showered in a week. Imagine all 11 and their belongings are traveling in a 5 passenger truck that is similar to the torture device in that every time you go over a bump you lose a year of your life. Imagine that instead of the fire there are trees lying in the middle of the “road.” Imagine that instead of R.O.U.S. there are tsetse flies attacking. Imagine that instead of quicksand the radiator starts leaking and you have to stop every 5-10 minutes (or less) to fill it with your drinking water. Imagine that it lasts 22 hours. If you have imagined this, you have loosely imagined my day.

Palm Trees

At 6:30am we pulled out of the compound with Alan, Domingos, 6 interns, and all of our stuff. We had to stop in Mangaka to pick up 3 of Domingos’s relatives who randomly asked to come to Montepuez (1 mother, 1 daughter, & 1 son). They also asked Alan to buy them a gigantic pot for their church. Between the random requests and the extremely long time it took to do anything, Alan’s patience was wearing thin. Not too long after we got on the road the kids were screaming in the back and the pot was flying off the truck and clanking down the road. We finally got to the border, which didn’t take long at all. We were making great time and taking a short cut. Alan had heard about this short cut and asked the guys at border control about it. They didn’t know what he was talking about. But no worries. They were government officials. They probably didn’t live around there anyways. Plus, Alan had been to a village part of the way down the road, but he had just never gone the whole way down the road.

After driving for a few minutes we found ourselves stuck in the ground with a tree in the road. I thought to myself, “Surely we’re going to turn around.” An hour and a half later we had traveled 12 km. When we go 45km in we found a village, but Alan said he had never been there before, leading me to believe we had just a bit further to go. This thought was incorrect.

Village

I rolled the windows and hung my head out like a dog both because it was comfortable and because it freed up much more room in the back of the crowded truck. That’s when they came.

Beginning with Bailey in the front seat they took us down one by one, assaults coming from all fronts. The tsetse flies carried out guerrilla warfare, biting on all sides. We were forced to take up our shields and roll of the windows. POWs in the front seat were slaughtered. Those in the back seat were released unless they proved themselves unintelligent, in which case they were terminated.

The body count rose with the stench of sweat and filth as the sardine-like soldiers wielded Chacos and missional texts against the dreaded foe, screaming out their battle cry as our commander navigated the trail.

At the close of the first battle morale was low. Phrases like, “This is Hell,” and “I’ve never wanted to go home so much in my entire life,” were used. Sweat dripped down our faces as we looked out the window, past the splattering of tsetse carcass, to see the continued offense – thousands of militiamen swarming the truck, awaiting their next opportunity to strike. They would not wait long.

Allied forces (Domingos) approached our camp (knocked on the window of the cab) and expressed his desire to take a more offensive approach (he needed to pee right here in the middle of a tsetse stronghold). The truck came to a halt just beyond enemy lines. It was a battle to be faced head-on. There was no opportunity for retreat. We reached for the door handle as the shadow of the enemy began to black out the sunlight. We flung the doors open and the second battle commenced – a suicide mission by anyone’s standards. They filled the cab of the truck and seemed to be reproducing warriors by the second. We closed the doors again, sealing our fate and theirs, both sides knowing that only one would come out alive.

A Tsetse fly, post-attack

A Tsetse fly, post-attack

After what seemed to be continuous combat the tsetse forces had finally surrendered. With blood smeared across every window and sweat smeared across our brows, we finally returned to our assigned quarters. But we were not out of the forest yet.

Though we thought we had defeated the tsetse fly and exited its territory, opening the door we discovered otherwise. A lesser extremist tribe of gnats parachuted into our faces, attempting to infiltrate from any accessible orifice. This was not a morale boost for some lieutenants. They say there ain’t nothing funny when a soldier cries. Nobody was laughing. Except me. I stood against our tank with my shirt pulled over my face, my eyes shut, and my hands over me ears, sensing the little gnat legs tracing my eyelids and making their way through my hair. There was also cause for concern because the engine was overheating, leaving the commander and colonel to fight off gnats and do repairs. After repair we continued on feeling a sense of victory and a certain readiness to be back home in Montepuez.

But there was another foe yet to be faced. One far greater than those before.

In the valley of the shadow of death (the gnat field) I had gone to the bathroom. I returned to see Domingos kneeling in front of the car and he appeared to be praying over the engine and casting demons out of the radiator. I later confirmed that this was indeed what was going on. I was consumed by two extreme emotions. The first was dread at the thought of being stranded with no food or water in the middle of a game reserve. The second was a morbid excitement at the thought of being stranded with no food or water in the middle of a game reserve. The radiator was leaking, grass was getting caught in the undercarriage, and the truck was overheating very quickly. We continued to drive, stopping every 5-10 minutes, sometimes less, to let the engine cool down. When the radiator stopped leaking we began to fill it with our clean water, almost completely depleting our supply within a few kilometers. The goal was to reach the control center and have them call the park rangers to send a truck and email Rachel to tell her we were alive.

The boys approached Alan and told them they were willing to run ahead until they reached the control center. Alan talked it over with Domingos, who agreed that it was quite possibly the most ridiculous solution to the problem, but they pretended to mull it over in Makua while the boys stood waiting for a response. The boys walked up to the window and said to the girls, “We need someone’s backpack to carry water and supplies. We’re running until we find the control center. It’s literally our only option.” It was at this point we realized that they had gone completely insane.

After going hours without seeing anyone, we finally saw 2 men randomly biking along the trail. They may have been angels. Despite their angelic nature, they didn’t exactly give us the gospel. They confirmed that we were on the right road and that the control center was ahead, but it was a very long way off. We continued on, with a slight morale boost complimented by a wariness at the sight of the sun beginning to set.

At last we reached the control center. Domingos exclaimed, “Alleluia!” as he fell out of the truck. A man met us at the gate and informed us that he had no water, no food, no wifi, and the walkie-talkies were broken. However, he also told us that the next village was only 3km away. Surely we could make it that far. With that encouragement we emptied the rest of our water and prayed we would get to that village. The GPS had long been dead and this was our only hope.

Thankfully we arrived at the village just as it was beginning to get dark. We paid them to get buckets of water, which we taped up and stuck in the back. Alan laid out our options: spend the night in this village, try to make it to Nairoto and get towed from there, or try to make it all the way back to Montepuez. It was about 6:00pm when our earlier vision of taking a 12 hour drive and getting home before dark collapsed. Alan was still anxious to get home though, so we decided to go for it. With some extra radiator water and some loose directions we headed off into the dark forest with the goal of getting back to Montepuez.

Sunset

Time and time again we came to a crossroads, 7 roads diverged in the dark forsaken wood and we tried to choose the one traveled most. We stood in the middle with our flashlights trying to assess the depth of the tire tracks. We were in a constant state of uncertainty, stopping often to refill the radiator and go to the bathroom. The murky village water seemed to clog up the hole quite a bit, so long stops became less frequent.

An hour into the drive Domingos halts the car. He gets out to look around. He touches some markings on the trees, then bends down to sift some of the dirt through his hands. He brings his hand to his mouth and licks it. “Sawdust.” he says in Portuguese. As it turns out, we were on a logging road, not a road to a village. We turned around and backtracked for an hour before getting to the first crossroads. We went in the opposite direction onto a much bumpier road, but everything looked like it was leading to a village and our iPhone compasses were all going southwest toward Montepuez.

In the case that we did not survive the journey we began to make videos documenting our journey. In the shadows of the headlights Celeste filmed me telling of our expedition and doing other ridiculous things.

Around 11:30pm salvation was granted to us. We pulled into a village and practically fell out of the car to kiss the ground. We were all laughing uncontrollably and Domingos shouted over and over again, “Alleluia!” and we always responded, “Amen!” We danced to the blaring music coming from the bar we stopped at. We were so relieved that we barely noticed the drunk people crowding around to watch, becoming even more confused than they had been. Alan bought us some drinks and some cardboard cookies, then called Rachel since we hadn’t had service all day and everyone thought we were taking a short cut.

We were still 3 hours out of Montepuez, but Alan was slap happy about being back on a recognizable road. I sat next to him for the rest of the ride and he was either randomly clapping to keep himself awake or giggling about how he had been driving for 19 hours. We played Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” and “Crazy Train” as we drove through villages that we finally recognized. To stay awake Alan insisted that we listen to his NPR podcasts, including one about a man who does clarinet duets with animals and one woman reading a narrative of humanity which included, “We opened our eyes. We shut our eyes. We opened our eyes again. We called it blinking.”

Just outside of Montepuez we were pulled over to be inspected. The police officer came to our window and asked what we were doing out so late. Alan deliriously informed him that we had been driving for a day and the radiator was quickly leaking. The officer laughed and asked which one of the girls wanted to marry him. Alan said we’d have to all fight over him and make a decision later. On that note he let us go on.

As we pulled into Montepuez around 2:00am we cranked up “The Final Countdown,” and Alan honked the truck horn along to the beat. We screamed the lyrics at the top of our lungs and I’m sure we woke up half of Montepuez. We leapt out of the car at the Howells’ house where we were greeted by Rachel, Domingos’s whole family, and all of the land guards. Rachel said she could smell us all as soon as we got out. We unloaded all of our stuff, went inside to change clothes, and sat down for dinner around 2:30am.

I walked into the bathroom and realized the full extent of my filth. I smelled like a fish market. My green headband was brown. My fingers and toes were black. My hair was everywhere. My eyeliner and dead gnats were smeared across my face. There was a thick layer of dust covering my whole body. Straw was sticking out of my skirt in all directions. Around 3:00am I took a glorious shower, the first one in almost a week. At 3:30am I put my head on my pillow, embraced my cleanness & comfort, and thanked God that we had all survived one of the most interesting days of my life.

Go to Week 6!

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