João squinted in the luminous African sun that was creating heat ripples on the tarmac. The humidity was oppressive, the air putrid. A dead bird, its entrails exposed, was gently roasting on the simmering concrete near the aircraft’s landing gear. A second bird pecked at the carcass.
João briefly paused at the threshold of the ramp propped against the plane’s hatch, wiped his brow and, casually tossing his jacket over his shoulder, descended down the metal steps, inhaling the sweet odor of jet fuel as he went. When he reached the bottom, he followed the other passengers towards the main gate, above which a sign missing several letters read: “Aerpoto Intercionl de Maputo.”
“Bless Africa,” he thought. “Bless Mozambique.”
João ambled wearily towards the main terminal, an unventilated expanse decorated spartanly with yellowing posters of palm trees and beaches. A sign directed those disembarking into three lines: one for Mozambicans, another for southern African residents, the last for everyone else.
João joined a queue in the third line behind a handful of passengers who, like him, were loosening their garments in the oppressive heat. When his turn came, a rotund woman with thick glasses and a sweat-stained uniform leafed through his passport indifferently. Without looking up to confirm that the resemblance of the person in the travel document’s photo matched that of the passenger standing before her, she stamped the passport and lazily motioned for the next passenger to approach. João was waved through customs without having to utter a word.
The baggage carousel was just beyond the customs line. No sign indicated which flight corresponded to the luggage it would circulate. None was needed. It was obvious by the low volume of arrivals.
Minutes later, the rusty apparatus sprang to life with a piercing screech that sent a few birds perched on a nearby rafter scurrying. Passengers on João’s flight from Johannesburg waited patiently for their bags as the oil-deprived contraption creaked and whined. Finally, bags began to emerge.
João retrieved his valise and, after withdrawing money from the airport’s single ATM, exited the arrival gate where several policemen stood smoking, taking little interest in the surrounding commotion caused by the exiting passengers. As João turned towards the terminal’s main exit, a crowd of cab drivers motioned furiously at him. “Senhor, Senhor,” they cried out.
João momentarily paused, sizing up his options. Then a boy pushed his way through the rabble, brazenly marched up to him and, in one quick motion, grabbed the handle of his valise. He pivoted and began wheeling the bag outside, pointing to a cabbie as he went, making João’s selection for him. Slightly taken aback by the boy’s temerity, but only because he hadn’t been in Mozambique in 12 months, João obligingly followed his lead.
João, the cabbie, and the boy made their way to the taxi and, when the cabbie opened the trunk of his vehicle, the boy, who was probably not much heavier than the valise himself, heaved it in roughly. He then turned to João and, with a distressed expression, made a gesture that mimicked placing food into his mouth. “Por favor, Senhor. Por favor. Estou com fome,” he pleaded. He was hungry.
João anticipated the request. He knew how things worked. Not that he resented it. The boy, like everyone in this country, was trying to squeeze out a meager livelihood against great odds. “A necessidade não tem lei, mas a da fome sobre todas pode,” João thought, recalling the Portuguese proverb, “Necessity knows no law where there is famine.” Yet, he had erred.
Typically, he brought pocket change left over from previous visits, but on this occasion he had forgotten. As a result, the smallest denomination of Mozambican Meticais he had was that dispensed by the ATM, which was the equivalent to €6, far too much for a task that he had neither solicited nor needed.
João managed to fish out his backpack a spare €1 coin and, thinking it more than reasonable compensation, handed it to the boy, who was still grimacing. The boy recoiled. “I can’t change that,” he said with a gasp. “It’s no good. Meticais. I need Meticais. Or Rand,” he added, referring to the South African currency.
“I’m sorry,” João said in Lisbon-accented Portuguese, “it’s all I have.”
“No! I saw you get money,” he bellowed, pointing to the airport terminal. “You have Meticais. You have what I need!”
João shrugged while getting into the vehicle. “Really, I’m sorry,” he repeated, rolling down the window.
The boy’s eyes pulsed with hostility. As the taxi wheeled around, he shouted with a scowl, “Go to hell, you dirty Portuguese dog. Go home! Leave!”
The confrontation didn’t dampen João’s spirits. He was happy to be back in Mozambique regardless, and promptly engaged the cabbie in light banter during the 15-minute ride to the Southern Sun Hotel, located on the waters of the Indian Ocean.
A 51-year-old bachelor with an average build, João had black hair worn combed back from his forehead, and brown eyes deeply set behind an aquiline nose whose slope pointed in the direction of a prominent chin. His skin was olive-toned.
A small scar from a childhood accident ran sideways down his check, and high on his arm was a tattoo of a dragon. With his slightly hooked nose, these were all that distinguished him.
João, in short, was nondescript. His colleagues at a furniture supplier outside of Lisbon where he worked joked that averaging the facial and body features of every man in Portugal would yield the amiable, if reserved, bean counter from the back office. He was the perfect mean. João liked it that way. He took pride in it. He liked to blend in, to dissolve in the crowd. Conspicuousness was no virtue. Quite the opposite. The protruding nail, as the Japanese say, gets hammered down.
João never would be hammered down; his manner was a prosaic fit for his profession. He was neither gregarious nor introverted, neither convivial nor dour. He was an acquired taste, if hardly a repellant one, either. He had a few friends, but no more than that. Woman, too, did not gravitate to João, yet neither did they begrudge his company. He had tallied precisely three substantial relationships in his five decades, one of which nearly culminated in marriage.
That was long ago, though. Much time had passed since then, and though he once longed for companionship and even children, all dreams are perishable, as were his own. João had a routine—Benfica matches on television whenever his beloved football team played, church, cards—that he was no longer willing to give up for a woman. None were worth it.
If João’s daily routine was the organizing principle around which his life was structured, he strayed from it once a year when, during the height of winter, he fled chilly and damp Lisbon for Mozambique, a sunny southern hemisphere sanctuary. A Brazilian businessman João met at an actuarial conference was responsible for his annual treks to the former Portuguese colony.
The businessman spoke glowingly about Mozambique and its undiscovered beaches that were veritable Edens. There you could cheaply rent undiscovered seaside accommodations and luxuriate in the white sand, cerulean blue water, and fiery orange sunsets over the Indian Ocean without tourist congestion.
The country, he conceded, was politically unstable. Tensions still ran high even though its horribly bloody civil war had long since concluded. Violence here and there was always possible without warning. Crime was bad. The country was also crawling with seedy Portuguese men looking for cheap sex, and whom the desperately poor locals were eager to accommodate. For all of its shortcomings, however, Mozambique had majestic natural beauty.
João was intrigued. The description appealed to his limited sense of adventure. While he would not be on his own territory in Mozambique, being a native Portuguese-speaker meant that he would not be on altogether alien terrain, either. An excursion to the country promised to be a happy compromise between imprudent risk-taking and gutless risk-aversion. Mozambique, then, perfectly suited a man of João’s studied averageness.
The following winter, he decamped Lisbon for Maputo. As his Brazilian acquaintance suggested, he spent just a night in the country’s capital before heading up north to its breathtaking coastline.
During successive trips he ventured beyond the relative comfort and safety of secluded ocean resorts. His annual vacations now typically included short stays in Mozambique’s bustling capital, and several days in Beira, the country’s second largest city situated in Sofala Province, where the Pungue River meets the Indian Ocean. Sometimes he also ventured to nooks and crannies in far-flung places like Cabo Delgado Province on Mozambique’s northern border with Tanzania.
This was João’s eleventh trip to Mozambique. He always lodged at the Southern Sun. The elegant tan-colored hotel, with its terracotta-tiled roof and portico veranda, resembled an Italian villa. Its finely manicured rear lawn facing the majestic expanse of the ocean was its best feature, however. The open waters lay beyond a line of palm trees and shrubbery on the far side of a pool and a small wall made of stone, perhaps just waist-high, which delineated the hotel property from the public beach.
The small structure also delineated two Worlds: the First and Third. João comfortably lounged on the side of the former. The lawn was green, the pool blue, and its inhabitants almost exclusively white. It was climate-controlled, commodious, sanitary. The air smelled of jasmine and the ambiance was pleasantly casual. Time moved languidly.
Beyond the small partition was an alternate universe: dirty, humid, and crowded. The smell of decay was consuming, and the feeling of tension palpable. Life was a struggle here, in a pure Darwinian sense. The unexpected occurred routinely, and tragedy was commonplace everywhere. Time was short.
João was of the rarified First World, but no stranger to its analog. To see it up close was invigorating—the knowledge that one would be soon returning to a more pleasant place made it so. Indeed, João enjoyed exploring Maputo, Beira, and other Mozambican cities, imbibing the local flavor. It made him feel alive, close to God.
He wanted to know how people survived in such trying circumstances. Most tourists weren’t interested in such anthropological exercises. They gravitated to the familiar in unfamiliar places, wanting nothing to do with those without anything. After all, vacations were about abdicating all forms of responsibility, not taking them on.
João thought this unseemly. What was the point of travel if not to open one’s experiential aperture? Better to stay home, cossetted and carefree.
But worse than avoiding deprivation where deprivation was the norm was to gaze at it from a safe remove. Such poverty porn, voyeuristic and cruel, was distressingly commonplace. Local operators even offered prurient Europeans “familiarization tours” of Maputo’s shantytown—from the comfort of a Land Rover, of course.
João gladly engaged Mozambicans, and treated them with dignity and respect. He was an outsider from another world, to be sure, and he had no illusions otherwise. His life experience was incomprehensible to the average Mozambican, and theirs to him, but he refused to let that barrier be determinate. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he would remind himself. He was proud of his Christian-inspired egalitarianism. It made him feel superior.
And yet João couldn’t resist the Southern Sun’s back lawn. The stark juxtaposition of wealth and despair on the respective sides of the wall was intoxicating. He was ashamed of its allure, as he wanted to believe himself above such lurid fascination, yet he would spend hours staring out at the beach beyond the invisible partition.
Mozambican children and the occasional couple frolicked in the sand during the day. The waters themselves were fetid and dirty—open sewers drained directly into the bay—so few dared wading in, though those that did could walk into the surf a great distance without being submerged. Small boats dangerously overcrowded with fishermen occasionally bobbed by. The crafts were not propelled by outboard motors, but by long poles that the sailors used as punts in the shallows.
It was the occasional passersby who approached the wall and peered at the hotel’s luxurious rear lawn that particularly piqued João’s interest, though. ‘What were they thinking?’ he wondered. What did they make of the opulence, which contrasted so starkly with their own deprived existence? Did it elicit anger or were they inured to life’s unfairness? He yearned to know.
After checking in following the short ride from the airport, João retreated to his room, a clean, small suite adorned with the basic amenities, and showered. He then climbed into bed and slept a few hours before his alarm rang. He didn’t want to entirely succumb to travel-induced exhaustion, lest it disrupt his sleep pattern. Consequently, in the early evening, he roused himself, washed up, and walked down the beachside road to a seafood restaurant located not far from the hotel.
The Jardim do Marisco was jumping. A group of Americans were seated near the entrance, yapping in their voluble manner. One didn’t need to speak English to identify Yanks abroad. These human megaphones always advertised their presence. A Portuguese columnist once posited half-seriously that a country’s relative global heft was discernable by the boorishness of its inhabitants when abroad. By this standard, American hegemony wasn’t in doubt.
The rest of the dining room was filled with Europeans, some of whom were chatting up the local Mozambican women hovering shamelessly around their prosperous companions. João was seated at a table on the edge of the dining room abutting the beach. The plastic table was covered in a white tablecloth dotted with grease stains.
A charmless waiter took his drink order and returned minutes later with a cold beer and listlessly placed it in front of João. He took João’s dinner order while two children holding up a mass-produced print of a herd of zebra slowly shuffled by on the far side of the barrier separating the dining room from the beach. Their deliberate gait gave onlookers time to examine the artwork. When they reached the end of the barrier, they pivoted and shuffled slowly back in the other direction, giving each of the restaurant’s patrons a second opportunity to view the print.
Ten minutes later, the stoic waiter returned with a plate teeming with giant prawns, crabs, and fried fish, and another with rice, French fries, and lemon slices. Famished, João wolfed down the meal, ordering another beer to wash it down. Satiated and content, he leaned back in his chair and watched the surf.
João, mindlessly rubbing rosary beads in one hand while clutching a beer in the other, was lost in thought when a wizened-looking Caucasian man in starched khakis and a striped oxford approached. “Você é Português?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” João replied with surprise, affirming that he was from Portugal.
“Of course you are. You’re practically the personification of the country,” the stranger said with delight, “The motherland embodied. Anybody ever tell you that?”
“Never,” João replied dryly.
“I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t offend. I’ve had a few too many. “I’m Fabião,” he added, holding out his hand. “Mind if I join you?”
João was slightly annoyed with the stranger’s impudence, but he smiled and shook his hand. “Not at all. Please, sit,” he replied, motioning toward the vacant chair opposite him.
Fabião had a heavy brow, sunken, sallow cheeks, and thinning white hair. Salt-and-pepper stubble covered his ruddy cheeks and recessed chin. His eyes were small and dark yet conveyed sincerity and warmth. He looked like the charmingly roguish uncle whose mischievousness was easily forgiven on account of his kind countenance.
“So, my friend, where are you from and what brings you to this wonderful wasteland?” he asked while sitting down.
“Lisbon,” replied João. “I’m here on vacation. And you?”
“Ah, beautiful Lisbon, birthplace of Fernando Pessoa,” Fabião said with a flourish, referencing the Portuguese poet. And, of course, home to Benfica. I trust you’re a Benfiquista.”
“I trust you’re right.”
“Yes, of course.” Fabião then broke into song: “I’m from Benfica / It fills me with pride / I have in me the spirit / That allows common greatness / I’m from a brave club / That in the hardest of the battles / A rival has never met / In this Portugal of ours / Being from Benfica / Is having in your soul / The mighty flame / That conquers / It lifts you to the immense light / From the sun, that high in the sky / Smiling gently kisses / Full of pride / The very bright shirts / Vibrating through the fields / Like jumping poppies.”
“Bravo,” João said of the rendition of Ser Benfiquista, the club’s anthem.
“Very obliged,” Fabião replied, placing his hand to his heart. “My father was a dyed-in-the-wool Benfiquista. He was from Lisbon and never lost his devotion to the club, even after living in Faro for decades. He used to sing that song every match day. It didn’t even matter if Benfica was playing. He’d sing it anyway!”
“Clearly, he was a great man,” João said.
“Do you live in Faro?”
“No, Braga,” Fabião replied, citing Portugal’s third largest city located between Porto and the Galician city of Vigo. “But I was born and bred in Faro and that’s where my heart is. Can’t make a living there, though. The market crashed six months ago. All construction ceased. Half-completed beach bungalows, luxury hotels, trendy duplexes—been a contractor for 37 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. The Scandinavians building vacation homes vanished. Gone. Sayonara. But I can’t complain. I make ends meet on smaller projects—installing windows, fixing pipes, that sort of stuff. It’s a life. Can’t be that bad, I’m still able to vacation here. You, what do you do?”
“I’m an accountant. I work for a furniture distributor. Been doing it for decades. It’s steady and secure. I can’t complain, either.”
“What brings you down here?” asked Fabião. “Beaches, bitches, or both?”
João chuckled. “I’ve been visiting Mozambique for years. I came on a lark at first. I had never been to Africa, aside from a brief trip to Morocco, but that hardly counts. I fell in love with the place. ”
“It’s easy to do,” Fabião said, taking a swig of beer. “It’s strikingly beautiful. The food is delicious, as are the women! Here’s to Mozambican ladies,” he roared, prompting him to take another slug.
“And to think such a rich place is so poor. The poverty and penury, deprivation and dinginess—so sad. The Mozambicans blame us for it. ‘Oh, the terrible things the Portuguese did to us. The barbarity. The injustice.’ Please! He who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it, but he who obsesses over it won’t surmount it, either. The country won its independence decades ago. What has it done since? Were there a Fourth World this Third World rat hole would’ve plummeted down a notch! It’s the same everywhere in Africa: Zimbabwe, Angola Congo, Nigeria, Sudan. The Negro has squandered his inheritance.”
João shifted in his seat nervously and scanned the restaurant to see if anyone overheard his garrulous companion. None appeared to have.
“The thing is, the Negro can’t accept it. He can’t accept that he’s made a hash of things, which is why he’s so fixated on the white man. That’s the real white man’s burden: to be forever responsible for his forefathers’ sins. There’s a perverse logic to all; the victim, after all, has no responsibility. He’s free—free to complain. There’s power in that.”
At that moment, the waiter approached, quieting Fabião in mid-harangue. The frowning fellow inquired dryly whether the two wanted anything else.
“Let me ask you something,” Fabião said, sending a chill up João’s back, as he expected something offensive to fly off his inebriated companion’s tongue.
“Do you sell German beer?”
The waiter shook his head.
“How ‘bout Pilsner, you got any of that?”
The waiter again shook his head.
“Fine, then give me another of these,” he said, pointing to the lukewarm beer on tap in his glass.
“See that?” Fabião remarked after the waiter disappeared. “His attitude. The haughtiness. The disdain. Mozambicans are all the same. They hate us. They hate us because of what we did to them, but they hate us more because we’re reminders of their forfeited moral superiority, since we treated them no worse than they treat each other. They can’t abide it. The wretches, those Negros.”
João winced. Racism held no appeal to him. Never had. A passerby in Oslo had called him a “vile Arab” during a school trip to Norway, apparently because of his olive skin, and it had left a bitter memory. It seared. But presently his concerns were more pedestrian. He feared Fabião being overheard and tried changing the topic by asking his bigoted companion where he was staying, but it didn’t work.
“Do you disagree? Fabião asked. “If so, what do you ascribe Mozambique’s poverty? Is it fate’s cruel whimsy?”
João wasn’t sure. What he did know was that civilizations rose and fell. It was always so. Portugal once commanded a mighty empire, the first and longest lasting of its European counterparts. Its explorers—Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartholomeu Dias—conquered the seas, settled lands near and far, from Nagasaki to Salvador. But today Portugal was a land of faded glory, a museum piece.
Mozambique, unlike Portugal, had no glorious past and an unknown future. Maybe it would be magnificent. A place that produced Benfica’s greatest player, indeed, one of football’s greatest ever, the elegant and dignified Eusébio, could not be discounted.
João shrugged. “I don’t know. What I do know is that I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Well, my friend, what is evident to me may not be to you, and vice-versa,” Fábião replied somberly. “‘What we see isn’t what we see, but what we are.’ Pessoa said that. How true.”
“How true indeed,” João repeated before excusing himself to go to the bathroom. He hoped the pause would reset the conversation away from such fraught topics, but when he returned Fábião was gone. A freshly delivered beer sat untouched on the table.
João waited patiently anticipating his companion’s return, and eventually made the rounds of the restaurant and peered out onto the beach in search of him. Fábião was nowhere to be seen. After twenty minutes, João departed, returning to the Southern Sun by the beachside road, passing en route vendors selling beer by campfire.
João woke up early the next morning and lay in bed reading for an hour. He then showered, dressed, and ate a light breakfast in the hotel restaurant before taking a taxi to Maputo’s Central Market, a gloriously chaotic bazaar housed in an elegant Portuguese-colonial style building.
After meandering around the venue, taking in the lush and colorful mix of fruits and vegetables, tapestries and rugs, arts and crafts, he ate a lunch of spicy chicken and rice at one of his favorite eateries nearby and, feeling drowsy, returned to the Southern Sun. The following day he would catch an overnight bus to Biera, a scheduled 15-hour trip that often took much longer, so he was content to have a low-key day.
The hotel was eerily quiet. Aside from a couple nibbling on hors d’oeuvres in the lounge and few businessmen tapping away on their laptops in the foyer, the place was virtually vacant. João liked it that way. Typically, the hotel was overrun in the summer with well-lubricated Europeans and menacing, voluble Yanks. But on rare days the Southern Sun was a quiet oasis from the frenetic city pulsing with anxiety and tension. This was one of those days.
João retreated to his room to gather a few personal effects and then made his way past the French doors to the back lawn. He nestled down in his favorite spot, a wicker chair near the pool, and ordered a cold beer from a gruff waiter. The sun had crested and was beginning its descent towards the horizon, turning the sky orange. A light breeze gently ruffled the leaves of the palm trees on the other side of the glistening pool.
João was writing a postcard to his mother when, upon glancing upward, his eyes locked with those of a man on the beach motioning for his attention. Industrious Mozambicans often congregated at the wall, enticing hotel patrons with carved items, shirts, and other cheap wares.
João typically ignored them, but the absence of any other guests on the lawn, save for two women sunbathing, made the task more difficult. He felt in the crosshairs.
He returned to writing, but eventually unable to stand the weight of the man’s gaze any longer, João put down his pen and walked around the pool’s perimeter to the wall and, bending down, greeted him. The skinny salesman looked to be in his mid-twenties. He wore ripped red shorts, a shirt with the letters “CIA,” and plastic sandals. In his hands he held several scarves and beside him were two plastic bags filled with more.
“Take a look at these,” he said, handing João several scarves. “They’re beautiful. For your wife, girlfriend, or mother. Made here in Mozambique. Genuine African.”
One of the scarves was burgundy and had a stylized image of a giraffe and the other brown with yellow hieroglyphic-like lettering. João examined both. The young salesman then handed him three more.
“See, beautiful. Silk. Genuine African. Top quality. I’ll give you a good price. Best price.”
“Oh?” João replied. “What are you asking?”
“Special deal for you: 1,500 Meticais each.”
João didn’t particularly want the scarves, much less at the equivalent of over €35 a piece. “No, that’s too much. Way too much.”
“Okay, what then? What do you want to pay? I give you good price.”
João was pondering a figure when he spotted small tag on an inside fold of one of the scarves. He drew it close and saw in small letters the words, “Made in China.”
“I thought you said there were from here,” João said, pointing to the small tag.
The salesman brusquely grabbed the scarf from João and closely examined the tag. “These are from Mozambique,” he replied defensively. “They’re designed here. Right here in Maputo. They’re only printed in China.”
“But it says that they’re made in China,” João said, contesting the point. “They’re not local.”
“Yes they are,” the agitated salesman snapped. “I know the person who designs them. Made with African silk, too. Just produced in Chinese factories, but from African material and African design.”
João gave the salesman a quizzical look.
“You don’t believe me?” the salesman asked with annoyance.
Just then two other men quietly approached from opposite directions. Both were also carrying small tchotchkes and were perhaps drawn by the scent of a sale. João looked at the scarves again. It didn’t matter that they were knock-offs. His mother wouldn’t know the difference. But he was not going to pay top dollar for them.
“Fine,” João said, “I’ll give you 500 Meticais for the two.”
“What?” the salesman replied incredulously. “They’re worth more than that.”
“Maybe if they were actually made here.”
João’s comment set the salesman off. “I told you they’re from here. Are you calling me a liar?”
João didn’t reply, but instead pointed to the tag.
“That means nothing!” yelled the salesman, his face contorting in anger. “It’s just a tag. Like I said, they’re designed here and made with African silk!”
João, still squatting on the edge of the lawn, shrugged. “Five-hundred Meticais for the two,” he repeated. “If they were made here I’d give you more.”
Just then, one of the two men who had approached moments earlier, stretching out his arm, pulled João towards him, as if in an embrace. Crouching and unprepared, João lurched forward without resistance and, as he fell, the man pulled out a knife with his free hand and thrust it three times into João’s chest. The assailant then pushed João backwards and quickly absconded, as did the other two salesmen. For a moment, João, still crouching, blood pouring from his chest, was motionless. His backwards momentum having crested, he teetered in place on the threshold that so enthralled him. Before him was the wall and beyond it the beach, and behind him the hotel’s pool.
He looked down at his bloodstained shirt, then back at the Indian Ocean, and finally up at the marmalade sky. The final movement was enough to shift his center of gravity, and he fell backwards into the pool, his hand still clutching the scarf.
There were no witnesses, and João’s motionless body lay unnoticed in the now-reddening pool for several minutes. It was only discovered when one of the two sunbathers got up for a drink and, spotting the lifeless body, blood seeping from it, screamed in horror.
Two waiters ran out onto the lawn and gathered by the pool while a concierge, maintaining his calm, ushered the two stunned sunbathers inside and cordoned off the area. João’s body remained untouched until the police arrived an hour later and fished it out of the water. His limp body was then zipped up in a body bag and taken away.
That evening, the pool was drained, scrubbed, and refilled. By morning, the Southern Sun’s back lawn was reopened. It was a beautiful day. The hotel would be busy.
Jon Shifrin is the founder of the popular web magazine, The Daily Dissident (www.dailydissident.com).
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