This is the penultimate chapter from a work of fiction about a search for fossils left by D-amino-acid-based life. I myself went on this private expedition and didn't find anything, but what follows about Maputo is precisely what I saw and heard (and smelled). The narrator and his colleague, between whom I split my ideas and experiences, are inventions, but nothing else is: Maputo is as it appeared, namely one way a capital can come out of a civil-war wringer. A few months before my trip, I sought to get a Mozambican visa and to this end checked the Washington, D.C. phone book for consular services. There were listings for both an Embassy of Mozambique and an Embassy of the People's Republic of Mozambique. I tried the latter first, but no one picked up the phone. I then called the former, and the guy who answered said, "Ha ha, there's no People's." What their capital ended up like, I cannot say.
New York City folk, if they don't feel blasphemed already, may yet be discomposed by what I am about to say next. Or maybe they won't be. New Yorkers openly love affronts. To them, taking crap is what life is all about - by enduring it as ostentatiously as possible, they show you how hardy they are. So let me get right to it. Maputo, on first sight across the caney bottomland that itself looks like New Jersey, looks like Manhattan. Really - Maputo.
We saw that from a minibus, not an airplane. We'd motored as planned, Friday morning, to Manzini; there we'd learned there was a direct connection to Lomahasha, on the Mozambican border. The land crossing was virtually snag-free. Cholera never came up. If our movement into Mozambique was retarded at all, it was only when Ron had to explain, to a dim soldier who fancied himself a customs inspector, what Bazooka Joe was. The colloquial Portuguese word for chewing gum is chiclete, but these were plainly not Chiclets. Anyhow, a second soldier interceded, courteously waving us on, and with scant delay we found that minibus bound for the capital.
The closer we got to it, I will freely allow, the less it resembled Manhattan. For that matter, the alluvium before it really wasn't like New Jersey, but Brazil. It was only that very first glimpse that was of a skyline, a majestic manmade corrugation. Until we got closer to it, until its taller structures resolved themselves into just a weedy troop of chunky Slavic condos, there was this humid band of Portuguese South America. It was at least Portuguese - the toned speech of everybody jammed inside this old van, the block lettering on the small two-storey shops we passed. These shops were, with their seamless concrete, their antacid-tablet pastels, and their skirts of rain-kicked mud, more specifically Brazilian. Except for the ones serving fried chicken, they would have fit right into Mato Grosso. The irregularly worked fields might have been of Mato Grosso, too. Not of Goiás, though. In Goiás we'd seen agronomy; in Mato Grosso, and around here, it was tillage.
Tillage was nevertheless an achievement. Here, it told us there couldn't have been too many landmines about.
Maputo loomed. It wasn't the Big Apple, but I frowned anyway, expecting it to become something else. It seemed not to become anything at all. We glared vainly at this hotel-less strip. Not all the architecture was Soviet. There were other styles. But they were residential styles, just other ways of building apartment blocks. For a long time, Maputo appeared a city where people lived and lived only - it remained to be seen where people visited, or, for that matter, worked.
We passed, on the left, a broad square. That, and the loud slapping beat of what was probably a flat tire, suggested it was nearly time to get out and do some walking. A few blocks on, at a spot looking exactly like any other we'd seen so far, we did this.
We had a long hike through very wide, very empty streets. We ended up at the first hotel we'd seen, the only other hotel we'd seen having been full. Ron noted that the first hotel, the Turismo, had been recommended by the solicitous Mozambican diplomat in Mbabane. The visa application form asked the applicant's address while in Mozambique; and as long as the diplomat himself was filling it in for Ron, he felt free to make his suggestion. Back in Johannesburg, where we'd first requested visas, we'd filled out these forms ourselves, and nobody had objected to our leaving that particular space blank. (I'd thought fleetingly of putting in "Holiday Inn," but did not know if the consular staff had any credulity to strain.) Anyway, here was the Turismo. And there was no Holiday Inn, or any other inn. Though under no legal obligation to do so, we registered at the Turismo.
It was - hell, is - the worst hotel we ever stayed in. When the rent is levied in hard currency, one knows one is in trouble. One knows one has come, not merely to a bad hotel, or even a bad city, but a bad world. One has landed on a planet which has been running low on gravity, and believes or hopes that tackiness will substitute for it; to a society where elegance is plentiful but comes in just two flavors, "latterly ruined" and "spurious all along."
I said: "That smell..."
Ron was sniffing too as we walked down the ninth-floor corridor to our room. He tested the air as one does when the stink is thick, seemingly trying, with the inhalation, to suck the nose safely into one's skull.
"Is it a...pet odor?" I asked. "It can't be."
"I was thinking it was a laboratory odor," said Ron. He glanced around the hallway; children wailed, from several unseen points. All the doors were shut. We came to ours. I opened it as Ron said, "It is a laboratory odor. And a pet odor." He sniffed again. It was just as strong on the threshold. "It's rats."
We entered the room. I pulled open the curtains, opened the windows, and turned on what proved to be the only light, a foot-long fluorescent tube. Above each carefully made bed there had been others, but they'd disappeared. I stepped around a dried, sticky-looking splatter as I went over to inspect the ripped-out wires. There were small wall-mounted radios above each bed, but their knobs twisted freely.
I found Ron in the bathroom, examining the bathtub. Its dimensions were curious, though the aberration was hard to pin down. One thing was clear: if you slipped, all you could grab was the shower curtain. There was no toilet paper. There was one towel. There were four bars of soap.
"We can flip that dime for the towel," Ron said. "You call it. 'Clean' or 'green.'"
"Let's get out of here." I went back to the windows to secure the screens, which were in good condition. Through them I noticed, for the first time, the Indian Ocean. "Maybe a sea breeze will flush out the stench."
"The central air conditioning sure won't." Ron pointed, straight up, at an air vent. "I should have brought that remote control from Phalaborwa."
"You should have. It would be no more ineffective than" - I scanned the walls, blinked, then scanned again - "than no wall-mounted thermostat at all."
Ron made a laughing sound, one that didn't require too much breathing. Then he opened his duffel and pulled out towel and soap. "Let me wash my face before we go." From the bathroom he told me the hot-water tap gave no water.
We decided to walk all the way down rather than wait for the one working elevator. Waiting, we would have had to stand next to an ashtray with a banana peel in it. "That hot water," I said. "That's what separates this hotel from, say, a lousy South American hotel. The latter wouldn't have had hot water either, but then it would never have promised hot water."
"I can truthfully state," stated Ron, "that this hotel is worse than what you see in the ex-U.S.S.R."
I smiled as we spiraled down to the next flight of stairs. "You know, I was just thinking that Communist dignitaries - there's an oxymoron for you -"
Ron lit up. "Kind of like 'television personalities.'"
"- yes, very much like that - I was thinking that visitors from, say, North Korea must put up at this hotel. If North Koreans go anywhere, they go here. It's in the capital of a 'revolutionary' state, plus it has no competition. But best of all, it's so comically unsplendid. It tried to be splendid. But no harder than a Mozambican, or a North Korean, is esthetically equipped to try. For them, splendor has mass but no mechanism."
"Ya gotta put a radio inside the radio box, guys. Ya gotta put an air conditioner behind the air conditioner vent."
We toyed with this idea on the long descent. We tried to guess who precisely from a pariah state would bunk here. Not the chief mucky-muck, of course. But privileged (if that is the word) underlings.
"Ultra-pedantic philology professors whose monographs are published in English in Prague," I hazarded.
"The secret-police-academy soccer team," Ron proposed.
"Chief Assistant Gofer To The Commissar In Charge Of Rice Shortages," I posited.
"Only if there are several Chief Assistant Gofers," Ron corrected. "People from these countries always travel in groups."
"Are you sure? Wouldn't our towel have been cut into strips then?"
"Nah. They'd just mark the strip boundaries with a ballpoint, and each person in the group would have to dry himself on his strip and nobody else's, then pass it along." Ron paused on the landing, before the final flight of stairs down to the lobby, and looked at a glass case with uncaptioned photos of soccer teams inside. "We'll have to check that towel closely when we get back."
Now Maputo could be reviewed properly. Unburdened of baggage, and with a hotel and an ocean by which to triangulate, we were physically and mentally ready. The city was mostly but by no means entirely wretched. And "wretched" itself must be qualified. I do not mean the streets were clogged with lepers. I mean the streets bore names like Nationalizations Avenue and People's War Avenue...if they were named at all. They should have been. Here was a grid; nearly everything was perpendicular to something, and most things were, as I've said, wide. Somebody had planned, had pictured a big city doing big things.
Or, more likely, a big city doing sanitary things. The layout probably honored late-19th- and early-20th-century precepts of urban hygiene. That era showed itself as much in the vertical scale as in the horizontal. Once we learned to ignore the apartments - not very difficult, after all - we saw how low Maputo really was. There were many two-storey structures, pillars, balustrades, sheltered sidewalks. They bore dates: 1931, 1938, 1901, 1922. They had charm. If the city fathers weren't doing so already, they'd soon be calling it "colonial," with crazy pride, believing it a good marketing ploy, a way to lure tourists.
First, though, they'd have to shovel out all those burned-out shops.
We did a couple of useful chores. The SAA office was nearby - we reconfirmed our flight out of Johannesburg. We weren't sure how we were going to get there from here, but decided not to sweat it just yet. We could spend at least tomorrow (Saturday) in Mozambique, visiting the Komati estuary, which was nearly visible from Maputo itself. Whatever we did tomorrow, though, we'd need money. The banks had proved uncooperative. Fortunately we found a shoe-repair shop doubling as a black-market currency exchange.
An old man in an easy chair handled the business. He had pale skin, a long gray beard, dark formal clothing, and a strange hat. There must be a Middle Eastern name for it, for he identified himself as an Arab - but born right here in Maputo.
He didn't want to speak Portuguese. He much preferred English. He said he had degrees from Oxford and/or Cambridge - I never discerned the conjunction.
"Oxon?" I asked. "Or Cantab?"
"Yes," he answered.
We were shown to a back room, where a son or grandson or some male heir opened a safe. For a hundred-dollar bill we got a tall stack of Mozambican pelf. It took some time to count it all.
We tried to chat with the old man when the trade was concluded. It wasn't easy, though his English was mostly clear. Just before we took our leave, he said: "You know, Lent is the best thing."
I was startled. "Lent?"
"Yes, Lent. It's the best thing. Don't you think?"
He was patient with us as we figured out he meant "land."
"Yes, land," he said, as if he'd been saying that all along. "It's good, isn't it?"
I said, "Well...some land is better than other land." The old man endorsed this profundity.
As we continued our wandering, I thought about Anne Applebaum's book Between East and West, and how everyone in it, when discussing land, sounded either imbecilic or cranky. At least this gentleman in Maputo was not a crank.
We went down to the water. Specifically we went down close to the point where an oblong estuary, a ship channel running roughly east-west, the confluence of several small rivers, opens into the Bay of Maputo. Northward up the bay, out of view from here, is the mouth of the Komati. We had to angle by an unfortunate park. The trees, though numerous, were leaning precipitously, and the grass, though shaggy, was blackened in places. It looked as though homeless people had sought to build fires, not by cutting down timber but by pushing it down; then, having half-succeeded, lost heart and simply ignited the grass at each tree's base. The scene was very peculiar. Just beyond it, happily, was a row of palm trees, all erect, along a wide walkway. There was a low barrier on which one could sit and view the sea and the sky.
Ron said, "I wonder if Luanda is like this. Is Luanda on the ocean?"
A man hailed us. We walked over to him. He wanted money - a certain amount, enough to gain admission to a trade fair. As we were at this moment standing outside it, the request did not sound quite so bizarre. The fair covered maybe ten acres, and was walled, not fenced. It seemed there were restaurants and bars, fixtures, within the compound, along with the more ephemeral business-oriented exhibits. One could go in for a small fee, and circulate. It was pretty good.
We talked with the man. He was not a Xironga-speaker, but a Xangani-speaker. Of course he spoke Portuguese too, and some English. He was a student - he had a spiral notebook stuck in the waistband of his trousers to prove it. I was unable to follow his account of how he had gotten down to Maputo. It did not sound as if he were a refugee. He said there were no landmines hereabouts, but up there in the mato, the savanna...
Ron quizzed him on transport to the Komati. Yes, there were busses to Marracuene, a town just up the mouth of the river; there were boats too. He couldn't say when they left, or from where. But if we had a little Portuguese, we'd be able to ask around, find out.
So we gave him the money he'd hoped to cadge, overriding his protests that he didn't need it after all. And when the sun went down, we ourselves visited the trade fair.
It was more than pretty good. It was certainly more wholesome than a mall. You don't see backhoes or bandsaws at a mall - and even if you did see one, could you order a pizza within a hundred yards of it? We could. Our meal was competently assembled, despite some local misapprehensions about toppings: those the waiter listed would not have been out of place on a Brazilian pizza. You can get chicken and eggs on a Brazilian - and, we learned here, a Mozambican - pizza. But we were able to specify more conventional garnishes. The pizzas were fine.
We walked them down beneath a cool starry sky. There were crowds about, people of all ages, families, moving no faster than we were. The area was well-lit, and there was music coming over the PA - it was as festive as an amusement park, though there were no amusements in the accepted sense. Except for food and drink, you could scarcely spend money in here. Almost everything displayed was a non-consumer item. There was, on one pad, a showroom full of security gadgetry, alarms and whatnot. But that was nearly all there was in the way of less-than-corporation-size purchasables.
Nearly all. Not far from this was a booth, lemonade-stand-size, shilling something even more personal than a steering-wheel lock. We had to step up close to see what it was. It was condoms.
"Did you see those T-shirts in Swaziland?" Ron asked.
I opened my mouth, then closed it. "I guess not, since my question was going to be, 'Which T-shirts?'"
"There weren't many. They had a picture of a shield and what I guess was an assegai, like what's on the Swazi flag, and under that it said, 'This is what protected Swaziland in the past.' And under that, there was a picture of a condom, in its wrapper, and the words, 'This is what will protect Swaziland now.'"
"Oh, so that's what that was." I nodded vigorously. I had seen these, but failed to catch the lower image: a condom in its wrapper doesn't look like much of anything.
Ron grinned. "Pop culture. We haven't seen much of that at all on this tour." He gave me a pompous look, his impression of an untenured sociologist. "I'm defining 'pop culture' as 'any preoccupation which can be silkscreened onto a T-shirt.'"
"I thought pop culture was 'any marketable neurosis,' Ron."
Ron lunged, one foot forward, arms spread. "WAIT A MINUTE IT'S BOTH." Then he cackled.
Before retiring to our hotel, we split a bottle of beer. We'd asked for cerveja nacional, and what we got bore no label, no cap insignia even; it may have come from the Beer Factory we'd seen earlier today. Fábrica de Cerveja was what the sign had said - not Cervejaria, "brewery," and never mind a brand name. It was tasty. We drank it fast, as the breeze got chilly, then headed back.
At the hotel, the elevator operator was unable to stop the elevator within two floors of our own, as the numbers flickered impossibly: "1," then "2," then "3-5-7," then "2-4-6," then "12." In our room finally, we tried to boil water for tea, but could do so only after finding the one socket whose porcelain casing's holes weren't out of line with the electrical contacts within. While Ron was coping with this, I discovered exactly what was wrong with the bathtub. Its sides weren't steep enough, and so there was an insufficiently wide flat bottom to the basin - twice I skidded dangerously, unable to plant my feet far enough apart. This hotel was an ever-scrolling list of design defects and upkeep shortfalls.
But at least the room had aired out. We slept rather well.
Because no kids vocalized in the night, we forgot about them. But we were reminded in the morning. Waiting for breakfast, we found out why they were here. A typed notice on the dining room door was threatening a crackdown on military personnel who abused their meal privileges. Too many people were showing up and eating. The reason was, these military personnel were billeted here with their families. The fact (we learned this later) that some soldiers were polygamous could only have increased the strain.
The kids were on the loose now. They were frisky but not unruly. Many carried plastic containers, Third World Tupperware, we supposed for squirreling away extra food. We watched them from the table with the least intensively splotched tablecloth we could find. Then we ordered.
I stared blankly at the slimy eggs, the tomato best described as exhausted, and - last but not least - the French fries, a glistening slack heap looking much like deceased marine life. Ron hummed as he cleaned the blade of his knife between thumb and forefinger.
I looked at him. I said: "God."
"I mean -"
"Hey, I know." He was grinning - almost laughing. "This hotel - they can't rate it with stars. They rate it with black holes. Haw!" He dissolved at his own joke. When he regained control of himself, he said, "Now this is almost - almost! - as good as that restaurant I visited one night up in Imperatriz. There, the waitress stopped halfway to my table so she could spit on the floor." Ron began to shake. "Then... then she scuffed it out with her foot!"
And he collapsed in wheezing mirth once more.
But he ate no more than I did. When we'd done, Ron said this meal reminded him as much of Portugal as of upcountry Brazil. "In fact, until this meal, I'd completely forgotten what I used to eat when I was in Portugal. Or the rest of Europe, for that matter. You always get French fries in Europe. And they're usually pretty bad." He rocked forward until his face was pointed directly down at his plate. "Sometimes: even this bad."
We left. Our objective today, which is to say our objective in Mozambique, was to reconnoiter the Komati River where it met the Indian Ocean. As simple as this sounded, we were uncertain we could get back in time to check out of the Turismo. So we took a little time to drop in on another hospice we'd seen. That was the Pensão Central; we'd walked by it yesterday afternoon, but after we were installed at the Turismo; it looked very kempt, and we'd cursed ourselves for not finding it first.
But it wouldn't have mattered. Just from paperwork tacked up by the unmanned desk, we could tell this inn was not only booked solid, but given entirely to long-term residents. Hotels, in Maputo, were just extra apartment blocks.
We had no choice but to pay for a second night at the Turismo. At least we found that we could pay in Mozambican money. It felt good to be carrying a somewhat less thick brick of the stuff. If your problem is that you have too much money, the Turismo will solve it for you.
While we were in the lobby, we cast another longing look at the attached travel agency. We had seen in its window a list of boat tours proceeding various distances up the Komati. Any of these would have been perfect for our purposes. Food, drink, beach-hopping - and on each beach we could have done our chemistry shift. It would have been a fine challenge, explaining this to the other trippers. And today's weather was excellent - on such a day I would have loved to be banging through Indian Ocean breakers. But the travel agency had been, and still was, closed.
Ron shook his head. "You know something? I have never, ever seen a travel agency with a model of an Aeroflot jet in it that was actually open for business."
We tried the railway station next. This was near the Beer Factory, and was the most beautiful building we had seen in Maputo. Though painted the color of an after-dinner mint, it was at least painted; with white window frames and black ironwork, it was sharp. It befit a capital city. It was a place to begin some great passage, and as a matter of fact one could be begun here: it was possible, albeit circuitously, to travel by rail across the lower trunk of Africa, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
It was also possible, but scarcely easier, to travel by rail the thirty or so miles to Marracuene. We'd missed today's dawn departure. This from the only available informant, an amiable old man with a dead left eye, blank like rained-on sheetrock. No schedules were posted, no ticket window (and there were only two, I think) was open, and nobody was around. There were plenty of souls in front of the depot - but that was because it happened to be a municipal bus stop. Inside the depot proper, there was only this gentleman.
We didn't talk long. We should have - the aged fellow had to be full of yarns. He was also a Xironga- speaker, or Tsonga-speaker, as he (and Johannes) had preferred to call the language. But his desire today was to describe his Christian affiliations. We wrapped up the interview as quickly as courtesy would permit.
As we drifted out, Ron said, "I hope we weren't impolite."
"No. We were all right." After a moment, I laughed. "He did not tax our goodwill by suggesting we submit to an E-meter test!"
"No - he was all right, too." Ron sighed. "You know, once again I could not think of a single thing to say in Xironga."
"Oh yes you could. But it's too early in the morning to drink beer - even the unfermented variety." I shook my head. "Our rehearsals were ill-conceived, Ron, and that's all there is to it. We simply never learned how to talk Xironga, how to shoot the breeze. We're grammarians, not raconteurs. There's no blarney in us."
"But there must be blarney in someone else. And we ought to be able to get it out. You know what we should do? Review that Interjections list. Then find another Xironga-speaker, and just say, 'Hello,' then 'Uh-huh,' then 'No kidding,' then 'Sure,' then... ."
It appeared our sole remaining travel option was a minibus. I had the notion that all intercity traffic followed the route we'd come in on yesterday, so we decided to walk up north to it, then east, toward the presumed hub of such traffic. Maputo is wedge-shaped. We had spent most of our time on the railway-station- Hotel-Turismo-trade-fair axis, parallel to the southerly edge of the wedge, the edge on the ship channel. We could climb back into midtown, then over to the easterly edge, the shore of the Bay of Maputo. Somewhere on the way, we'd cross paths with the minibuses.
We never did, though we came close on several occasions. We'd find that out later in the day. For now, we seemed to be on an urban treadmill. Maputo wasn't monotonous, yet only at the far end of our hike did it... how shall I say...collect itself as a true metropolis must: marshal strengths, demonstrate that it had indeed strengths to marshal. Otherwise it was and would remain what I called it earlier, just a place where people lived and lived only.
Some people lived a little more handsomely than other people. Sone neighborhoods, their streets a little less wide, their trees a little more lush, were almost snug, almost had a firm but benign familiarity to them. Good place to play hopscotch or kickball, Ron said. Good place to be a kid, I thought, or to have been a kid. Maybe in the U.S. I'd meet somebody with a skin color - Mediterranean? - a surname - Swahili? - an accent - Indian? - I couldn't place. I'd ask Where did you grow up. He'd say Maputo. I'd say Son of a gun.
But we saw few children, or members of any other age group. I began to wonder if I'd got things backward. Until now I'd supposed the sparse foot traffic was due to limited shopping and eating opportunities. But maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was a deficiency of shoppers and eaters. Maybe this capital was underpopulated.
About this time I reminded myself that Maputo was indeed a capital. It had been easy to forget - we had seen just one embassy, the British. The Union Jack is a potent symbol, but we scarcely paused to contemplate it. Though a foreign country was flying its colors, we pretty much dismissed them as decoration, never stopping to realize that envoys from afar had run them up a flagpole.
We forgot that visitors might not come here so much as be sent here. Those visitors' dispatchers must mean business. The substance of such business - what have Britain and Mozambique to swap? - eluded us. But business there must surely be, and at last we knew where serious emissaries dickered when we saw the Hotel Polana.
The Polana was a large, brilliantly white fortress at the top of a bluff, the top of a broad shrubby palisade footed by the coastline road, a palm-lined walkway, and the sea itself, the Bay of Maputo expanding into the Indian Ocean. The hotel's motif was not precisely nautical, yet I imagined an admiral would be pleased to inspect it. This was a superstructure, atop a swept deck as high as that of a ship of the line. And the view was fair sailing to Madagascar, the Maldives, and Perth. Though we'd spent most of our time on the channel, only here did Maputo feel like a port, a place where people brought things other people valued, treasured even.
We must have looked like toothless shuffling mendicants, gawking humbly just off the front gate. There were no trees here to hide behind. I asked, "Are you sure our North Korean junketeers would be bedding at the Turismo?"
Ron's eyes were raised. He said: "Yes."
"How can you tell?"
He brought an arm up and pointed. "Look."
I followed the arm to the finger. It was aimed at the flags - there were several. I said, "I don't recognize that red and green one."
Ron turned to me. "It's Portugal's."
"Ha!" I clapped my hands, then hurriedly stuffed them in my pockets, lest we draw a reprimand. "Of course!" I hissed. "No 'revolutionary' dares put up in a hotel that flies the flag of its ex-colonial master. To do so would be an ideological impropriety not soon to be pardoned."
"'But man,'" Ron quoted, "'I'll bet the Polana has more than one light bulb per room.'"
I took my hands out of my pockets and adjusted my sunglasses. "This building is even better - certainly more elegant - than the railway station. Maputo's been stray crumbs on an imperfectly wiped kitchen table, which only makes this inn look downright magnificent." I shifted from foot to foot and looked at Ron. "And I'm not just saying that because we're marooned in the Polana's only competition."
Ron spat gleefully. "Competition!"
I tilted my head. "Well, maybe not a competitor, exactly. A complement, let's say. Maybe this is one of authoritarianism's starker contrasts. Dictators and their dirty work at the Polana, dictatorships' outriders and their dopey play at the Turismo."
Now Ron shrugged. "Could be. Or could have been, once upon a time. Not now. Now, in this town, it's just - what? Us. And lifers." He focused on the doors of the Polana. "I wouldn't be totally surprised if we walked in and found nobody at the desk." I personally would have been surprised about the walking-in part: this place was intimidating. But Ron didn't test me. With sudden vagueness he said, "Sure would be interesting if these hotels had parking lots - we could look at license plates. Imagine doing that in Africa!"
Did anyone ever drive here, ever whoop "Road trip!" and truck on in? I couldn't say, and it had never occurred to me, or Ron, or anyone in the entire continent of Africa, to wonder. This seemed to be the end of our discussion. Maybe we'd found the essence of this city. Not that it was a capital with only two hotels, but that it was a capital with no perceived need for a third.
We hove off. This can never be the locus classicus of Maputo; I do however feel our perishable insight was insight all the same. We patrolled the hilltop a while longer, as the district was pleasant, but we knew we had already got what there was to be had. (Which wasn't a bus to Marracuene, by the way - no intercity transport, and very little local transport, plied here.) We withdrew soundlessly, our voices having said enough, and our footfalls made no impression, no vibration. We were invisible here, and not just because this was where foreigners would look least out of place. We on our occult mission belonged in the hotel Maputo had yet to invent.
There were a few restaurants hereabouts, but we would up lunching very near the Turismo. The food and the decor were of high quality, "grand" as a Lost Generation author would have put it and believed it. An adjoining café, separated by a heavy glass partition, was a vision of '20's Europe. Young people at small tables talked in low intense voices - they might have been dogmatizing over cubism. The fact that they were drinking orange soda meant nothing. We ourselves had some more local beer, then tumbled out to conclude our Africa project.
Not knowing the conclusion was so near, we continued our innocent quest for a bus. Or train: we could hardly believe we had got the definitive lowdown on railway movements. At the station we found a murky flyblown snackbar, asked the ill-dressed staff questions, and found we had got the definitive lowdown after all. The counter people looked tired in a long-term way, the way of poverty, but were very helpful, sending out hangers-on to inquire after trains, and ultimately buses, for us. It was good practice - we were, as we ought to have been, "having a little Portuguese" - but the directions we got were difficult to follow in a city with few landmarks or streetsigns. We followed them anyway.
Afternoon was diminuendo: slow but, in the end, on time. The project was waning without precisely fizzling. We talked to a lot of people. They showed us where to go. I mean they led us on long stoic marches, a lot of purposeful zigzagging, north a block, east a block, et cetera, taking us to nameless empty quadrangles serving as bus plazas, inaccurately repeating our questions for such street vendors as there were, and - finally, inevitably - foundering. Marracuene could have been Anchorage. Nobody knew how to get to it, though everybody knew how to get near it, to get us near enough to it to let us extrapolate, with crossed fingers, the rest.
Later, Ron would say he spent this afternoon sending out telepathic signals to Maputo taxicabs, which never showed up, thereby proving that there were no Maputo taxicabs. As for me, I fixed my drooping eyes on our guides' shoes. They were never more than cracked flattened sheaths. On old African asphalt, under tedious sun, no item of spoiled clothing communicates penury better than spoiled shoes.
Around 3, we desisted. I mean we sat down on a bench in the Botanical Garden and didn't get up.
"Ron," I said, "we aren't getting to Marracuene."
"And even if we were, I'd wonder if we could get back." He recrossed his legs, evidently resting each foot in turn. "Hard to believe we were in Mbabane just yesterday morning."
I didn't know what to say.
Ron leaned back. "I suppose we could rent a car," he said. "We saw a rent-a-car place."
"But who was there to crew it?" I spoke plaintively. "It looked like our travel agency. Desertion in both cases was total. We could not even gauge the antiquity of these enterprises. There were cars to rent, as there were boats to ride - but when? Shortly after the French and Indian War?"
Ron smiled dimly. "I'm teased by all we've heard today. Nobody said he just plain didn't know about the buses. Know what I think? Everybody we pumped was speaking truthfully. When they said they knew about a bus, it meant they had once seen that bus. Everybody was right - or, rather, had been right once. It seemed everybody was wrong. Not so." He laced his fingers behind his head. "Not so at all, I'd wager."
I grinned wearily myself, and splayed my elbows, draping them over the back of the bench. Ron's bet would be well placed, I thought. Anyway, it was good to just sit. This garden, not far from the British Embassy, was exceptionally hospitable. Nothing we'd seen - well, maybe nothing but the Turismo - had been forcefully inhospitable. But this was the first and only wayside that had accommodated us as if generosity were its vocation. Even that low barrier by the ship channel, to which we'd been headed when that Xangani intercepted us yesterday, ran alongside a cratered walkway no one was hurrying to repair. But this garden had a cared-for richness that seemed automatic. Strollers strolled, the guy on the next bench greeted us and turned on his radio, and a swarm of boys descended. They shouted to one another, whirled around a lamppost. To Ron I said, "So what shall we do?"
Ron shrugged, but ineffectually - his hands were still behind his head. He moved his eyes toward me. They didn't quite make it, though. I turned my head to see what he was focusing on. He'd stopped smiling, though the brows were still high.
The boys were digging in the trash can bolted to the lamppost. "What's... ." I answered my own question before I even finished it. "Is that a disposable diaper?"
The boys started to play soccer with it.
Ron reacted to this as he had reacted to breakfast. Come to think of it, I was reacting as I had reacted to breakfast.
Ron roared with laughter. "What were we saying about growing up in Maputo?"
"Yeah, we just might get a fine spray of that any minute now, Virgil!" Ron swung his arms over his head, down to smack his thighs. He stood up abruptly.
"Come on," he said.
"To the end of our project. It's time for Plan B. B as in Bay of Maputo, which is as close as we're going to get to the mouth of the Komati River. Maybe it's close enough after all."
"From a point near the Polana, I could see some beaches, north to northeast. We could sample the sands."
Ron consulted his wristwatch, then peered into the canopy above. He moved his head until a ray of yellow sun found his face. He was measuring its angle.
I said, "Oh, I think we can walk, not run. There's time and light enough. No need to charge to the water's edge." I got up. "As we had to back in Amazonia."
At the memory Ron made a tightlipped roguish smile. "We didn't know how good we had it back then," he said. "If we run here, people might mistake us for soccer players, and try to pass us a bag of b.m.'s. No Brazilian would ever do that."
© 1995 J.A.Hutter