We are looking over the menu at a small restaurant on the beach in Beira, Mozambique. The borders of this city hang into the ocean; appropriately, Beira means “the edge” in Portuguese.

Although it is dinnertime on a Saturday night in the heart of the country’s second-biggest city, only one other table in the restaurant is occupied. Upstairs is a deserted discotheque; to the right is an empty pool hall. Our table is right on the beach, and the restaurant’s weak lighting barely illuminates the whitecaps as they break on the sand.

The menu is impressive: ten pages of pastas, meats, fish, and fancy drinks. Of the four people at our table, three of us have lived in Brazil, so we are naturally thrilled to see some Brazilian delicacies on the menu. When the waiter comes, we order only to find out that they don’t actually have any of those dishes available. Further into the ordering process, we find out that they don’t have much of anything. I politely ask for the pasta alfredo. “We don’t have that,” replies the waiter in a heartfelt, apologetic tone. I request the pasta with garlic instead. They don’t have that either.

“Which of the pasta dishes do you have tonight?” I inquire.

“No, that’s what I mean,” says the waiter. “There’s no pasta.”

Deterred, I reopen the menu and motion to my husband, Joe, to make his order. He discovers that there is no stroganoff, nor chicken, nor shrimp. Of the full page of fish dishes, only one is available. Joe takes some time to regroup.

“Do you have the vegetable salad?” I ask.

“Sorry, no.”

We all end up ordering pizza.

While we’re waiting for the food to arrive, Joe and I step out of the wall-free restaurant onto the smooth sand. A twelve-inch-wide piece of concrete juts out of the sand and leads out into the ocean. I walk on the concrete while Joe holds my hand, suspicious of my balance. We can see the concrete disappear into the sea and we stand there on the edge, deeply disoriented. It doesn’t feel like we are right by the shore. Waves rise up like monsters and crash all around us. We could be in the middle of the ocean, on a boat somewhere, lost at sea. I am dizzy from the sloshing and pounding and frothing of the waves. I could lose my balance, fall into the water and be lost forever. The stars glint and glimmer on the ocean’s dark surface; all at once, they are trapped by two vast skies. I tilt my head back to meet them, and my head swims with all the light — there is nothing so limitless as the African sky. If you’re not careful you could tumble into it, head over heels, heart over feet, to that blurry horizon where ocean becomes sky, where no one could ever find you again.

When the dizziness is too much for me, I jump off the concrete and join Joe on the beach. We write notes to each other in the sand until the waves wash them all away and we’ve gotten our feet wet. We have been married for only a few months; every day is still a honeymoon.

The waiter beckons to us. Our pizza has arrived. Although we ordered different kinds, the food all looks pretty much the same.

As we are finishing our meal, two obviously intoxicated women stumble to the table next to ours. I don’t know what they’re on, but it is pretty clear what they’re after. They can barely sit up in their chairs, but they are making eyes at my husband. I am slightly angry, but mostly I am filled with pity. I try to imagine what I will do if they make my husband an offer; I can’t decide what exactly, but I’m certain it will be awkward for all of us.

A restaurant security guard comes over and asks the two women to leave the premises. One argues loudly with him; the other, with glazed eyes and frizzy, explosive hair, is slumped over the table like a corpse. The guard has to physically remove them both from the restaurant.

The waiter comes over to apologize. “Some people have no shame,” he laments.

While we pay the bill, I think about the two women and what their lives are like. Sometimes we are so quick to assume that people have made choices, when really life can be a blinding sandstorm of disappointment. What happened to these women? How did they get where they are at this moment? How can lives dissolve so quickly, like so many handfuls of salt cast into the open ocean?

As we leave the restaurant, we notice the two prostitutes in the street. The silent one is laying in the dirt as a puppy laps at the hem of her jeans. The loud one is standing over her, shouting something at the security guard who is watching from across the street with his arms folded over his chest.

We drive away into the night, moving west until we can no longer hear the rushing sound of the waves.

Three hours north of Beira is Gorongosa National Park, one of Mozambique’s remaining big game parks. A couple of months have passed since our first pizza dinner on the beach, and we are starting to realize the many ways that Mozambique’s civil war, which ended in 1992, still affects everyday life. I am no longer surprised by restaurants with long menus that only serve thin pizzas. As we have visited schools, orphanages, and health centers, we have seen the more vital ways that the civil wore tore down this country. People are still trying to build it up.
When we arrived at the park today, after a dusty early morning drive, we went in search of bottled water and found, instead, the park’s director.

“We don’t have any food here,” he said. “As you can see, we are still trying to rebuild.”

It didn’t take him long to explain that Gorongosa used to be the best game park in Africa — nay, the world. He said that before the war, people came from all over the planet to see Gorongosa’s animals. During the war, however, all the game parks in Mozambique were virtually destroyed. The rebels used one park as a base of operations and many animals were killed for food because local populations were starving. Since then, it has been difficult to draw tourists to visit the game parks. Most people go to Kruger Park or other famous game parks in neighboring South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

Despite all this, we are sort of tourists, and the clouds are perfect. The landscape seems to change and undulate as each moment passes. One minute we are surrounded by feathered trees, when suddenly the horizon comes into view and the tall grasses sway in the wind, ruffled like ocean waves. There are few animals, but I am content with the trees. Joe and I are riding on the top of a land cruiser straining our eyes for a glimpse of a baboon or warthog. We missed the lions — apparently, they are sleeping. We are searching for the elephants, but they are shy.

As we drive further along the dirt roads, bumping over potholes and brushing grasshoppers off our arms, reality fades away until I can remember it just vaguely, the way you remember how salty seawater feels on the back of your neck when you are living in the desert. I can’t remember what Africa is, or America, or even the planet Earth. It is just me, the husband that I am leaning on, and an azure sky that stumbles into the horizon and bumps into one especially tall gnarled tree. When I look closer I see that the tree is filled with monkeys.

What was apparent our first week here becomes increasingly clear as the months pass by: There is more than one kind of post-war reconstruction happening in Mozambique. Some people have dedicated themselves to attracting tourism to the game parks and nightlife, but the real and most vital kind of reconstruction is happening quietly, little by little, in individual homes. Things fall apart and get torn down; every moment is a good time to start the process of fixing. I have met social workers, teachers, volunteers, nurses, government officials, and aid workers who are dedicated to building up individuals and families and communities. They are the ones who will really reconstruct this country and every other country, and eventually, if all goes well and their wishes are granted, the whole star-speckled universe.

Despite the amazing differences, every place is strikingly similar to all the others. Wherever you go, there are happy people and sad people and empty restaurants and blue skies and, occasionally, eternally tall trees filled with noisy animals. There is nowhere in the world like Mozambique, and by that I mean it is just like home.

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