The Grande Hotel; I finally got in!
I couldn’t count how many times I have driven past the Grande Hotel, staring up at this magnificent, yet derelict building and wondering how to get in!
I can hear some of my smart ars readers saying, ‘Well just use the door silly woman,’ but of course it’s not that simple. I’ve taken many photos of this building from the outside. I’ve tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, not wanting to draw any attention to myself. I’ve shot the hotel using the speed setting, I’ve whizzed past her at close range, I’ve pretended to take photos of something else altogether then turned around at pace for a quick snap at the hotel. I’ve taken every exterior shot possible – yet have never known how to get in even though her doors are wide open.
The reason is simple. No-one enters a house where they are not welcome! The Grande Hotel residents do not like their hotel being photographed! Point a camera at the hotel and you will be told off in no uncertain terms, to stop and go away. Needless to say, most people don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling to come on right in!
This weekend, I got lucky. I met a couple of Americans who had arranged to do a video interview on the top floor of the Grande Hotel. I jumped at the opportunity, recognizing immediately that it’s not what you know but who you know! In the case of entering the Grande Hotel, you need two things. One, you need someone who knows their way around. And two, you need permission from the resident building secretary to take photos,interview residents and to enter.
For those of you who do not know the history of the Grande Hotel in Beira, it was once a 5 star luxury hotel that was erected when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony. When the civil war started and the Portuguese were evicted almost overnight from Mozambique, the hotel would never be the same again. During the war, it became the residence for the military and for war refugees. These days, it’s a massive slum – housing over 3000 people. There is no running water, no electricity, no ablution facilities or rubbish disposal.
One of the reasons you need to go with someone who knows their way around is because like with every large residence – there are house rules, prohibited areas and designated areas for particular actions. And as a visitor to the Grande Hotel, you really want to know about them! I’ve heard that the sewage system was destroyed when the Portuguese left. There are no toilets, water pipes or drain pipes working. This is the No.1 reason for going with someone who knows their way around the hotel; to avoid the staircases designated for piss and poop! Another reason is because the elevator shafts have been left wide open. If you do not know your way around the dark and dank passages, there is no barrier preventing someone from falling down one of them, a regular occurrence for the residents – especially for the children and crawling babies during a power shortage.
The Grande Hotel is a sensory experience. The sounds of children chattering and playing in the corridors echoing from one end to another. Dirty dish water being hauled over the balconies, splashing on the ground floors. Mothers scolding their children, warning them not to go near the edge. Shady looking characters slinking into the dark corridors. Inquisitive children all wishing to see themselves on the camera screen and competing for attention. Spectacular architecture, crumbling away, stripped and rotting. Spiders weaving their webs furiously as resident flies find themselves trapped in a maze of dark and dingy hotel walls.
Inside is no more welcoming than the outside! All the doors to the resident rooms are firmly shut. To photograph a premises, I firstly need to meet a resident (obvious!) and ask him/her if they would allow me in to take photos and I also need a permit from the secretary.
For my next Grande Hotel post, I will be interviewing an elderly man who has lived in the Grande Hotel since the war. I hope to learn about what it is like to live in the Grande Hotel, the problems, the positives, the war history, the rules and to visit places of interest like the old hotel kitchen and the banqueting hall.
I’d love to hear from people who had the opportunity to stay in the Grande Hotel during it’s years as a tourist facility. I’d love to hear their memories so that when I revisit this mysterious and derelict building, usually off limits to the tourist – I think of those days that the guests meandered their way down the grand staircases, dressed to the nines and who dined and danced the night away in a place that was once known as a luxury paradise.
I spent most of my visit on the top level of the Grande Hotel. It boasts spectacular views of the port, the city and the beach. I also got close to the famous wild fig tree growing in the cracks of the hotel walls.
This post is just an introduction to the Grande Hotel. In the next few posts, I hope to get well aquainted with the hotel residents and it’s dramatic history I also hope to share with you an up and coming project that will involve dance, theatre and the 2000+ children living in this massive slum. And last but not least, the irony that this luxurious hotel, once a fashionable playground for the rich is now home to some of the poorest families in Beira. More coming soon….
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.”