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City of the Future: Maputo

Strolling back to the Polana Hotel, with a bellyful of fat Mozambican prawns and a buzz from the local beer, I walked into an all-too-familiar African nightmare. Two armed men in ragtag police uniforms emerged from the bushes to demand my papers. I was with a Johannesburg photographer, who was in a condition similar to mine. They asked for her papers too.

The cops spoke in broken Portuguese, but their intent was clear. We could have shown them Milwaukee library cards. What they really wanted was cash. And as luck would have it, they found a lot.

One of them patted a suspicious lump in my right pocket and discovered I'd just been to the bank. Encouraged by his submachine gun, I extracted the notes. He inspected them carefully. Elsewhere in Africa, the story would most likely have ended here. This, however, was Mozambique. Here was a windfall equal to half a cop's yearly salary, and the guy couldn't decide what do. After a furtive glance at his equally nervous partner, he edged my cash toward his pants pocket. I grabbed his fist and recovered the bundle, shouting in English. With a great show of disgust, I stalked off, photographer in tow. Trust me, I'd never try that anywhere else in Africa.

There is something magical about Maputo. It is, in a sense, storybook Africa. The bandits are often inept. The fruits of capitalism can be found on streets with names like Karl Marx, even though poverty still weighs heavily in the side streets and outlying slums. Floods and drought alternately plague Mozambique's hinterland, yet the capital throbs with the promise that someday, somehow, Maputo will rule.

Too many African cities are going the other way. Harare, capital of neighboring Zimbabwe, feels more and more like hostile territory to those who once loved to stroll its gently flowered streets. Abidjan, the French-accented mini-Manhattan of West Africa's Ivory Coast, has a hard, ominous edge. And so it goes. Ah, but Maputo.

These days a wide highway brings a holiday crowd from South Africa in jeeps threaded among the cargo convoys. Or, for a few hundred dollars, you can jet in from Johannesburg, hole up all weekend in a grand old hotel, and eat the fabled seafood until your toes curl.

Trains still pull into Maputo's central station, a large-domed, green-and-white steel structure bolted together by Monsieur Eiffel two decades after he finished his more famous Paris tower. By night the old terminal rocks with a club called Locomotiv and also Charles's Bar. Some Lisbonesque grandeur remains from Mozambique's days as a Portuguese colony. Streets could use more sweeping, but bits of trash seem easier to overlook when they're covered by a colorful carpet of acacia and jacaranda blossoms. The broad beaches are not exactly pristine, but you can still swim in the balmy waters. When evening colors play off monsoon clouds and a hundred cook-fires perfume the humid air, the waterfront is just about perfect for an African kind of dreaming.

Street names left from years of Marxist squalor and civil war seem incongruous in a city whose economy depends as much on free-market capitalism—legal or not—as on tourism. Techno and rave music spill out of doorways on V. I. Lenin. The Sheik, on Mao Tse-tung, is raunchy but upscale, the sort of place you might find in Vegas or Atlantic City. From the Mini-Golfe Funky Bar to nameless jazz clubs whose patrons aren't fussy about things like names, there is a continuous, lively Afro-Latin beat.

It's important not to overstate the case. For all the new money going into Maputo's factories and fancy shops, the average Mozambican earns barely $220 a year. There is a stock market, but its board is hardly big. You wouldn't exactly call the government corruption-free, or a model of 21st-century efficiency.

Antediluvian floods last year set back an already fragile infrastructure. Perhaps the year's best-known Mozambican was Baby Rosita, born in a tree while her mother was seeking shelter from rising floodwater.

Tourists are still a bit wary. The Polana's 200 rooms run at 62 percent occupancy and the similarly opulent Cardoso at slightly less.

But no one who has been to Maputo underestimates its charms. It's rare for rebel leaders in Africa to abandon a long, vicious civil war to put on neckties and take seats on opposite sides of parliament. Foreign investment may be heavily South African, but it rolls in, nonetheless.

People in their right minds do not make long-term predictions in Africa. Yet there is hope in Mozambique. The master plan calls for greater foreign investment, with more happy visitors, resulting in enough dollars, or rands, to reach families that now go hungry. It's the sort of development that might bring a measure of prosperity to a place that could use it.

In the meantime, a hearty band of Maputophiles keeps the faith. They reason that any city that has suffered so much, and worked so hard to advance against the tide, deserves a break.

"I love the place; I just love it," says David Ankers, a Briton who has managed the Polana for 12 years. "It's the people, I think. There is a nice, relaxed vibe that's hard to explain. In so many African countries, there's an aggression, a hard edge. Not here."

So far, so good. The capital still exudes much of its former charm. And best of all, visitors who come to sample some of Africa's best food and to dance to its catchiest rhythms stand an unusually good chance of returning home unscathed to rave about it.

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