The evening before this photograph was taken, I arrived in Beira, Mozambique. As usual, I had no hotel booking, only a list provided in my guidebook for possible accommodations. Wary of the impending darkness, I hurried through the twilight to the place most promisingly described. It was, indeed, a good value at (probably significantly) less than $30 a night, with all the indications of being a well run, professionally staffed, safe spot to lay my expensive medium format camera, backpack, and head, down for the night. Unfortunately, it was booked solid.
The helpful, young, uniformed, worker at the counter, directed me around the corner to another establishment. After walking (more than once) past a man sitting behind a small desk at the bottom of an apartment building’s staircase, I realized that he was the gatekeeper of my destination. Completely different from the first hotel, this was a mixed use building, with single-room-occupancy apartments for rent by the night or week, alongside larger apartments inhabited by families on an apparently ongoing basis. Slightly taken aback by the peculiarity of the situation, I decided to try one more guidebook-listed hotel that was just a few blocks away: the building with storefronts shown in the accompanying photograph.
This next hotel was one of the strangest time capsules I’ve encountered during my travels. When I tried the front door, I found it to be locked, with almost all the lights in the hotel off, the long halls, stairs, and 1970’s chic lobby all shrouded in darkness. At the reception desk, however, a man was sitting watching television, who upon seeing me try the door, immediately hustled away with a motion indicating that I should wait. Perhaps five minutes later he returned with key in hand. Opening the door, he ushered me in with great enthusiasm, proceeded to turn on lights (which flickered more than illuminated), and walked me along the hallways, through the dimness, from room to room. Many of the rooms had a certain dilapidated charm, some of them more functional than others, but overall the ambience was that of a never truly elegant, cavernous, somewhat frayed version of The Stanley Hotel in “The Shining”. Clearly, like the Stanley, this establishment was completely empty, only it was not in the remote location of the Rocky Mountains but instead a purportedly somewhat dangerous coastal city in Africa. Loath to insert myself into such an unusual equation, and despite the friendliness and apparent good nature of the concierge, I opted to return to the unconventional apartment building hotel with the comforting sounds of families and a gentleman sitting guard at the base of the stairwell with ledger and pen.
After thanking the man who had guided me along the time-worn carpets of the uninhabited monolith, and exiting through the front door (that was again locked behind me), I returned to what was now a very gritty street - stores dark and shuttered, just two or three dim street lights exposed the sinewy bodies of the out-of-luck or addicted as they scavenged and congregated. Slightly disoriented and very tired (I had in fact been traveling for a full day), I attempted to get my bearings, fully aware that the backpack weighing me down would make a very desirable score for any thief in the area.
Looking down the street, I noticed a completely incongruous pair. A rail thin, dark, Black woman, in an elegant and sexy dress and stiletto heels, who must have been more than six feet tall, was walking alongside a rotund Whitish man, who couldn’t have been more than five feet and a few inches, wearing shorts, sneakers, a Hawaiian shirt, Panama hat, and a fabulously ostentatious large gold chain. His pudgy hand affectionately on her waist and her spider thin arm gracefully encircling his shoulder, he spoke softly to her, and they both turned in my direction. Making a hissing sound to summon my attention (despite the fact that I was staring directly at them) the woman beckoned me over.
Normally, I might not have wanted to approach strangers at night on a sketchy street, but sensing that there might be eyes sizing me up from the shadows, I leapt at the opportunity to engage. The tall woman, in broken English, with a look of concern, asked what I was doing, and immediately stated that it was “toooooo dane-jer-us” for me to walk alone. Wonderfully, she and her companion escorted me through the dereliction and half way back to the apartment building/lodging-house I was hoping to return to. Only three blocks we walked together, almost in silence, but that was enough to get me to the thoroughfare of illuminated businesses and sober society. More than a decade later I still remember their generosity.