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 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, 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 othercheap 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.