Love for the mato (bush)

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After crossing 350 km of bush for a week, I finally arrived in Lubango very tired. But instead of staying in the largest city in the south of the country I decided to continue 15 km uphill to Humpata, a small village located on a plateau at 1920 m high. There, Father Sabino received me in the Catholic mission that is located in the middle of a solitary eucalyptus forest. I needed to recover my energies because I was not ready yet to leave the tribal heart of Angola; after a few days, I would go for more.

When I got to Humpata I was so dirty after not having found water to bathe for 10 days, that even though it was 8C at night, I decided to clench my teeth and bathe with buckets of ice water. In Humpata there is almost never electricity or running water, as in most of Angola outside of their cities, so I did not have many other alternatives, and although cycling hygiene is not my priority, everything has a limit. I spent three days there with the friendly Fathers and the seminarians of the Mission, who have looked after me like a brother, while I recharged my energies in that beautiful forest on radiant days of cool dry winds and icy nights. Once I recovered my strength, I set off again to the tribal heart of the bush where I would return to a world without roads. But not before a much-awaited descent.

It was by deliberate decision that I extended my route in 120 km, only to reach the top of the magnificent pass of Serra Da Leba. From there,  at an altitude of almost 2000 meters, I would able to cycle all the way down its dozens of switchbacks, descending for 17 km along a narrow wedge that forms on the slopes of several mountains. Having already left behind the effort that I needed to make in order to get there the days before I took the break, I now stood up there for a few moments, breathing deeply, looking down at the Namibe desert from above. Now it was time to descend this pass with the unbridled joy of a child sliding down an endless slide. It was a radiant Sunday and there was almost no traffic. Serra Da Leba was practically all for me, just as I had dreamed it for years, and how much I enjoyed it!!

The rough sweetness of the bush

The easiness of the descent along one of the few perfectly paved roads of Angola ends abruptly after Bibala, where the unusually fresh air of the plateau vanishes and temperature rises again to the usual highs of the bush. From there north, the road again splits into a new random network of sand trails that appear and disappear whimsically in between the bushes. Following them is how I intend to continue almost all the way to Benguela. I'm back on adventure territory, without knowing exactly where or how I am going. 

Soon after I leave, I start living again with these magnificent tribes of the region that never seem to end. I visit one after another, I can not remember the names of so many, muamwila, mucumba, mundimba, the list is endless. However, in each one without exception, the constant is the purely affectionate reception; the warmth of the people embraces me and their happy smiles draw a bigger one on my face.

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Not long after gaining its hard-fought independence, Angola entered a long and painful period of 27 uninterrupted years of civil war, during which the MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola), a communist / socialist roots movement that had achieved independence from the Portuguese in 1975, fought with the support of Fidel's and Che's Cuba, the Unita of Jonas Savimbi, supported by Apartheid South Africa who in turn was unconditionally backed by the United States as part of its infamous Cold War against communism around the world. In 2002 with the assassination of Savimbi, the war came to an end, but the remains of a shattered country are still visible outside of Luanda, where buildings in ruin in the middle of the bush have become improvised rural schools where children attend to satiate their need to educate themselves. Seeing this kind of spirits is extremely motivating.

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The trails of the bush became more and more difficult as I moved forward, not only because of the amount of sand, which was often like trying to pedal on a beach, but because of the multiple bifurcations and the little human presence that led me constantly to lose myself. Sometimes it meant having to go back several kilometers, using the very same trails that I had just used to get there with so much effort. After that, I would have to wait for someone to walk between villages or some motorcycle on the way somewhere so that I could ask and find the right direction. At times I would sit hopelessly on these sand traps, demoralised while looking at 1/4 of the tires buried in the sand. I would look around me trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there.

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In other places, I I would stay trying to communicate with someone from some new tribe who passed by. However, whatever the case, I thoroughly enjoyed being there; my deep union with the bush and my encounter with the people of the tribes of southern Angola filled me with a beautiful feeling of patience, of lack of rush, of understanding that life isn't running for what we think it is lying ahead of us ( the serious illness of which we all suffer to different degrees), but by living in fullness what it going on with us at this very moment, the present moment (the simple antidote to all our problems). For days, I moved forward with considerable difficulty dodging the poor quality of these sandpits, stones, shrubs full of spikes but with the variant that in Angola, due to the absence of wild animals (which are gone as a result of the war) I could treat myself with the great pleasure of pedaling at night on the bright moonlit nights.

It's hard to believe that you're going to the right place when the only thing that drives you there is a narrow wedge in the earth surrounded by shrubs. You have to have to practically trust blindly in the local people to have the conviction to go ahead without knowing where you are going. But finding certainty in the uncertainty of life and the world, is to be aligned with the universe following the logic of life, and that frees me from worries. It frees me up to absorb every step of the way I take without looking back, without looking ahead more than a few pushes on the pedals; this is instinct, this is living properly. This what I believe J.Krishnamurti was talking about when he encourages us to ask ourselves - " are we really observing, are we really appreciating".

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It's been several days already since there are no more water pumps on the way and finding water becomes an increasingly difficult task for me. The water is not in front of the eyes in the bush, not at first sight at least, but much water still runs in the bowels of this arid land and that is the only one that ensures that life is still possible here, far from any kind of urbanization or infrastructure. I have no choice but to rely on people to find it. It is in many of those great dry rivers that I have been passing all these days where it is still found, but it is hidden beneath these sandy riverbeds on which at some point in history water actually ran. Angelina leads me to it, on her way to wash the dishes with her little boy on her back.

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We walk on the river bed for 10 minutes until we stop at a point that for me is like any other except for the fact that it is clear that we have deliberately stayed away from the cattle that shit everywhere on the little water that is present on the surface. She tells me with certainty - "it's here" - and I wonder what she means. She accommodates her washbowl on the ground, bends over, and with a small tin cup begins to dig in the sand. I just look at it skeptically until after 5 or 6 repetitions the moisture begins to sprout, rising to the surface as if by magic. I find it hard to believe, but I worry about the cleanliness of it, remembering the tremendous shigella that I had caught in Ethiopia, an experience that I prefer not to repeat ever again. However, 5 more repetitions and the water becomes perfectly crystalline, transparent and free of impurities. I take a sip to taste it and the taste is perfect. This is how all the people of this region, whom I now understand why I find scattered across the river beds of these dry rivers, survive here, digging water from the sand every day.

In the Angolan bush, as in practically every place in the world, it is at dusk when magic looms over the earth. I can not deny that after more than 4 months without seeing a single drop falling from this sky, who stubbornly persists in remaining immaculately light-blue 360 degrees around, I already miss almost desperately the clouds. But I'm on my way to the tropics, so I try to stick my mind to enjoy these last few weeks of drought; after all, the rain always complicates everything much more, and sooner or later I will value (and perhaps I will long for this drought). The end of the day in the bush, the absolute solitude, the silence of the starry nights, which now the bright moon reduces to a minimum is mesmerising; I have the whole world for me, I can choose to camp anywhere, and I do it on the riverbeds, surrounded by baobabs whose branches seem to try to add some drama to this spotless sky, the drama that the clouds took away with them. I sleep under their shade, under these magnificent trees, the most beautiful and greatest baobabs I have ever seen, they are the guardians of my nights.

The good thing about traveling alone is that you are as alone as you want to be and the bush is no exception. Just as much as I choose the days of peace and solitude, I also choose those of company depending on how I feel at the end of each day. More than 8 days have passed and I have not done more than 300 km, but I have never been alone because the people of the tribes of this remote south of Angola are extraordinary and I could extend my stay here for a month easily, to pass more time accompanied by them.

Instead of getting easier, the road becomes more difficult the closer I get to the crossing of the sealed road that will finally lead me to Benguela. A mountain of a gentle slope but of deep sand, whose climb extends for some bloody 25 km, reminds me of the worst days of Namibia and my body is already screaming for a break again. After so many days of accumulating fatigue and dirt, I start to long for the return to easier roads (even if for a little while) because you can not live only on extreme trails. The need for simpler days leads me to enjoy the encounter of the sealed road to cycle the last 30 km to Benguela, where I will spend several days resting by the sea and discovering the more modern Angola, which will not be any less charming than tribal Angola.