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 teamplayed, 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.
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.