In the Shadows of Ilha's Relics

Saturday, August 12, 2006 | Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique (map)

The crumbling yet still vivid façades of Ilha de Moçambique's buildings are just one part of the island's charm.
My pensão ("hostel") on Ilha was unnamed, and faced one of the island's verdant squares. Its young owner, generally found squatting in the dust beside the front door playing bao with a friend, had painted the building a shocking yellow green with blue trim. I rose early that morning, wishing him "Bom dia" as I passed the game on the way out.

I walked to the Church of Santo Antonio, on the island's eastern coast, passing through the waking village on my way. Many residents of Ilha's southern shanty town, lacking running water or indoor plumbing, were relieving themselves on the beach, and kicking sand behind them like cats as they turned back toward the houses. Though it may bring funds for restoration and tourism revenue, there is a price to pay for having the UN decide that the place you live is to be "preserved." The shanty town is excluded from major development and renovation funding yet must still abide by the
strict World Heritage building guidelines, a factor which likely contributes to the lack of modern amenities, like indoor plumbing, in the ramshackle homes. Overall, the relative exclusion of the island's southern half from tourism development projects appears today to have preserved little more than poverty there.

The island's large Hindu temple, which I visited next, was a series of courtyards and open-air halls. I walked through the lush gardens of its interior cloister, untamed but their beauty actually enhanced by their natural state.

The Fort of São Sebastião, the hulking Portuguese defensive position on the island, is currently in use as the local high school. A herd of students in blue and white uniforms were mingling in the wide courtyard when I arrived, while others repeated after their teachers in the barracks, armory, general's quarters, and other halls. An eager young guide about my age, Henry, led me behind the fort where, tucked into its towering stone walls beside the sea, clings the extensively restored Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately the weight of this fact is significantly diminished by the fresh coat of stucco and brilliant white paint which the chapel clearly receives on a regular basis these days, leaving only a few original parts to poke through, worn and dull gray in comparison.

After lunch (fresh fish, salad and warm bread from a nameless grass hut in one of the island's parks), I visited the Palace of São Paulo, a former Portuguese governor's mansion now exquisitely restored as the island's main museum. After removing my shoes so as not to damage the ancient carpets lining the halls, I received a personal tour. The guide led me through room after room full of intricately hand-carved furniture decorated with delicate cutout patterns and ivory inlays, much of it gathered from other historic houses on the island.

A dash through the nearby Maritime Museum and Museum of Sacred Art was followed by more meandering through the streets for the remainder of the afternoon. At dinner that evening, our group suffered the slowest restaurant service imaginable despite the cafe's Western appearance. Not enough tourists have yet passed through for Ilha's residents to really figure out what it is that the picky foreign visitors want and don't want. As a tourist, however, this disadvantage is a small price to pay for the benefits of traveling in a country so devoid of crowds.

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