Miracles and Maybes in southern Africa

DSCF2492Last week was one of loss. A coworker lost her unborn child. One of my staff members lost his 8-year-old daughter (after having lost 2 daughters some years before). And a colleague lost her life and was laid to rest on Tuesday. I reached out to a woman who has been a priceless resource for my archival work and she recounted that she, too, had lost someone – her father.  As a distant bystander to it all, these past few days have taken a lot out of me, so I can only imagine the loss of those more immediate.

India was full of near tragedies. Almost collisions were saved in the nick of time by a ‘Sai Ba Ba’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ Lives lost had some kind of meaning – disease or illness or some sick twisted bastards brought together by male bonding turned on its head. Senseless death is something I understood from Newark, not from New Delhi. Some idiot with a gun can steal you away in an instant. A misfit with a death wish can definitely take you with him or her whenever they so choose. But, even that kind of death still has an explanation that you can sleep with at night. Wrong place, wrong time, but there is surely someone to blame. Those deaths leave a cause in their wake – something to fight for, or better yet, something to fight against.

Random death, however, with no explanation or sense of understanding, is not something I’ve ever known until I arrived here.

On my very first visit to Maputo, I was greeted by what would soon (-er than they thought) become my family. Drunk on laughter and cheap South African wine, we awoke jet lagged the next day to hear that a cousin – who had been present just the night before – had woken this morning only to lose her life just hours later. In a battle with what exactly? No one seems to know. Just in her third decade of life and with only so much as a stomach ache to show as a preamble to death, she was snuffed out and there was no one to blame. There was no autopsy to understand. There were no inquiries to explain. We never found a smoking gun. She was gone in an instant and everyone seem to accept it without question. The requisite week long death ceremonies began at once.

I had forgotten that sense of emptiness and fatigue. But it all came back with a vengeance.

What can you say to someone who lost an 8-year-old to a choking accident? Do you blame the maid who wasn’t watching? Or the mom who decided to leave for the market and thought she could trust the maid for just a few short hours? (Can you ever really trust the maid?) Do you blame the object itself and risk blaming the kid in the process?

There is no cause to rally behind except, perhaps teaching the Heimlich in grade schools. But, then again, most school-going 5 year olds here don’t recognize even one letter from the alphabet, so that’s an idiotic ambition. You get no peace no matter which way you manipulate your well-intentioned mind and your dear creative heart.

Here in Mozambique, I find people who are deeply religious and deeply reckless. There is the sense that you can go at any time and it will be when you least expect it, and probably for reasons you least deserve. You can be taken for reasons that have nothing to do with your will to live or your exposure to nefarious elements or your contribution to society. Mozambicans aren’t likely to die from some senseless act of preventable gun violence, like their African neighbors to the South. Actually, with the proliferation of free ARTs, Mozambicans are more likely to thrive with HIV than to die of AIDS than ever before in the nation’s history.  So, when death does come it comes like a thief in the night, into the homes of people who until that moment thought they were too poor to steal from.

In a place with no police protection; where ambulances are only available from private clinics and, even then, it’s a taxi for a gurney not a life saving vehicle; where power cuts plague the country, but the government is negotiating to export electricity to South Africa; where Julius Nyerere Road looks like the pock-marked face of a hormonal 14 year old boy with acne, rosacea and eczema topped off with sunburn… people pray.

They pray for everything and nothing, at the same time.

This is a place where luck, steeped in religion, lives supreme. Every day that one wakes up alive, is a day worth celebrating to the tilt. Those that drink until the wee hours of the morning in celebration, also tend to wake up at the crack of dawn to pray. They find their solace in believing that a God somewhere has spared them. These people have a faith unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not about knowing God, or even loving God – really. It’s about begging for an other worldly protection, since it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the living.

I’ve heard people ask if God has forsaken Africa. For their sakes (maybe our sakes?), I have to hope not, but my own observation leaves me pondering.  Until I came here I didn’t fully understand the question.

Of all the quick saves. All the split second decisions. All the life saving measures that I’ve seen spare human life its final phase. I’ve never seen it happen here – not ever. Not once have I heard someone say, “You won’t believe what happened…” end with a positive outcome. Every car accident I almost saw happen, happened. Every coma wasn’t followed by an other-worldly recovery. In my humble experience, miracles don’t exist for Mozambicans.

Why not here? Why not now? Why not these people?

There have been so many maybes in our whirlwind of goodbyes.
Now I understand the question.

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Descanse em paz nossa Rabeca e Teresa

Tourist Fatigue

I am tired. I am tired of hotel lobbies. I am tired of wake up calls from hotel lobbies. I am tired of people offering to take my bags to and from hotel lobbies. I am tired of guidebooks on the front desks of hotel lobbies. I am tired of the insinuation that I should see something outside of the hotel lobby. I am tired of being a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Please don’t confuse my fatigue for blame against this lovely town or country. I remember having this same feeling when I lived in Spain. Around month seven I was pretty sure that I had seen every Catholic church in the entire north east. And I was also sure that if I saw one more rendition of Mary and baby Jesus, I would jump off the rock of Gibraltar. These days it’s not the Holy Trinity that makes me want to drown in the Indian Sea. It’s forts and palaces.

But, I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I arrived in Hyderabad and decided that I didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t leave the hotel all week, actually. My friends chided me for not being more motivated. They wanted to take me out, but chose the inopportune time of 4pm during an Indian summer. So, we all quickly undecided and postponed for cooler times to come – neveruary.

I don’t know how to break the rut of tourist fatigue. I don’t think there’s a way, exactly, except to just give in and be exhausted. Forgive yourself just this one time. Know that the city won’t collapse around you just because you didn’t see the Mecca Masjid. You’re not a bad person because you came to town and didn’t see the Golconda Fort or the Falaknuma Palace. Being a tourist is supposed to be enjoyable. When it stops being fun, you should stop yourself from faking like it is. Here are the top five things I do when I have stopped being a tourist. Maybe you frequent fliers will recognize this in yourselves and prevent the guilt from hitting you like a ton of Fodor’s guides. Just open up a Lonely Planet book on the plane ride back, read about it, and say you did it.

This is how I know it’s bad…

1- I swing by the grocery store on my way to the hotel.  Straight from the airport, I have the car drop by a grocery store along the way, so I don’t have to ever leave the hotel once I check in. I don’t pretend like I want to try the newest restaurants reviewed by Food & Wine magazine. I really just want to eat cereal out of the mugs they left in the room for self-brewed coffee. I don’t kid myself.

2 – Download free episodes from itunes. A girl can’t live on BBC World News and CBeebies alone. I load up on all the free episodes that itunes is giving away. If they’re giving, I’m taking. And I watch with reckless abandon.

3- Always keep the door on DO NOT DISTURB. Always. Do you hear me? Always…except when they catch me in the hallway and ask if I’ve run out of potable drinking water. Then, and only then, do I consider taking off the prohibitive sign. But even then, I think long and hard.

4- Tip well. When I’m not planning to spend much time in the hotel, then screw ’em. I’m not making that much trouble anyway. I’m out being a tourist! But, when I plan to stay camped out in my hotel room, wrapped in the hotel bath robe, using up all the shower gel and asking for boutique pillows at odd times of night – I tip well. We’re going to be seeing an awful lot of each other. And I don’t want them to steal my stuff or spit in my food.

5. Carry lots of books. I know I sound like a dinosaur for saying that I read books at all, but some of us actually enjoy paper. You people with thick corneas can perhaps handle all that backlight. I digress. On this last trip, I brought one self help book, one book of short stories, one novel, and two autobiographies. Two books, I had already read before I arrived, but I needed to write an article about them while on the road – done by day three of week one. In that same one week, I read two of the other books and kinda gave up on the last one. I’ll get to “Dreams of my Father” one day, but on this trip it too was fatigue enhancing.

My traveling friend, don’t be bullied into being the good tourist. You don’t owe any city the effort needed to get over your malaise. It can certainly be inconveniently timed, but being tired on the road isn’t an indication that you must fight through it. Just like when you’re at home, sometimes fatigue is a good indication that you should rest and be still. 

May the power of the do not disturb sign be with you.