CHAPTER ONE

PROUD WITH A BROKEN UMBRELLA

Egypt

    

     Egypt! To Ms. Yayuk Widyani Kertanegara, Egypt—principally Cairo and Alexandria—meant something altogether different from what it meant to her beloved. Egypt meant privacy. After three months of having to share Sebastian Lazarus with his friends, colleagues, and, worst of all, his former sweethearts, Yayuk finally had the undivided attention of her bachelor companion. In Egypt, she and he both were out of context, strangers to every other soul except their own. In Egypt, their travelers' anonymity cloaked an illicit intimacy as effectively as any veil—of which they had seen many; Yayuk's Muslim counterparts peered through thin black curtains drawn against masculine impudence and a hypercritical world.
    "Like his," she had insisted of the Market-Street barber back in San Francisco, who obligingly applied the clippers to Yayuk's scalp in turn, replicating the close-cropped haircut just given to Sebastian. Had she known then that short hair, in Egypt, signified ‘male,’ and that her impish figure, diminutive stature, and Indonesian features would further confuse the locals (men and women alike), she might have reconsidered. Yet, as vexing as it was to be mistaken for her lover's son (their ages—his forty-six, hers twenty-nine—another factor), the kinship Yayuk felt while shedding her near-ebony locks, watching them topple, mingle with Sebastian's even longer grayish-blond ones, and her subsequent delight in stroking the fuzzy upshot, hers no less of a bristle brush than his, was compensation enough for the stares she now attracted.
    "Stupid, these Arabs! Why they think I’m a boy?"
    Heads, for the umpteenth time, had swiveled in the mixed couple's wake, on their promenade along the break wall, arm in arm, skirting the ancient harbor's stone crescent, with Qait Bey Fort anchoring the northwestern tip like a sand-colored lunch box... an early October sunset dimming the Alexandrian skyline into silhouette... horse-drawn carriages, quaintly anachronistic amid the 21st century traffic, clip-clopping street side, Yayuk choosing to stroll atop the soot-smudged division between walkway and sea, regally, summoning her aristocratic blood in highfalutin empathy with Queen Cleopatra—who had committed suicide in this once most-literate capital of the civilized world.
    "Life!" Yayuk rhapsodized with an open-armed gesture, as if the breadth of Allah's Creation could be encompassed by her petite embrace, her childlike enthusiasm gushing virgin-spring fashion, luring Sebastian's less spontaneous character from its crow's-footed refuge. His hug more than closed the seventeen year gap between them; it unified their respective maturity and youth. It displaced Yayuk's naiveté and Sebastian's cynicism, forging in their stead a more enlightened entity; or it started the process. Two halves, unaware of their incompleteness, resist becoming one whole; Ms. Kertanegara and Mr. Lazarus had yet to admit their mutual partiality.
    "We eat at home tonight?"
    Her question was actually a reaffirmation of their plan to dine on the shoddy hotel room's balcony. Restaurants, even in Third World countries, stretched Sebastian's meager resources. Better to scavenge among the city's plebeian food stalls. A spitted chicken could always be found rotating, neck to tailbone, alongside sizzling peers. Fruit-juice stands abounded; guava, mango, sugarcane (for the genuinely impoverished), and pomegranate were available, freshly squeezed. A little bread (discus-sized and about as palatable), an order of newsprint-wrapped chips, and one gloppy but aromatic helping of fried aubergine rounded off their evening purchases—with a honey-saturated nut and shredded-wheat pastry for dessert.
    Dinner in hand, the two budget travelers scaled their lodgings’ colorful staircase—five flights—each storey a story, a distinct slice of life connected by marble steps scuffed and polished (the lift long dysfunctional) by numberless ascents and descents... past a ground level café's murky kitchen... then three drab floors of import-export related offices... climbing to the top floor's Gamil, Dar Mekka, and Normandie hotels. They entered the latter and proceeded to number 4 (written in Arabic), a corner room with all the charm of a dilapidated watchtower. Picturesque in its decrepit way, with sweeping views of the waterfront afforded through twin portieres, the room was noisy; horns honked incessantly well into the night; and dirt cheap, its most endearing quality given the ideal location. Anywhere similar, in the West (cockroaches notwithstanding) would have cost a fortune.
    For Sebastian, who was bankrolling their entire trip (including Yayuk's flight from Java to California), money was an issue; too often the   issue. For Yayuk, who was penniless but from a well-to-do family, mentioning how much things cost indicted one as "a villager."
    "Shut up, Sebastian."
    "Maybe you’d care to pay for this meal yourself."
    These were the key phrases at Fu Sheng Chinese Restaurant (back in Cairo) where the ‘loving’ couple had dined on rice, fried noodles, and bile—mostly the latter—Sebastian having committed the unpardonable sin of bringing up the daily budget by way of steering his table-mate toward the menu's least expensive entrées.
    "What happened with you!" was Yayuk's pat recrimination. True, she could contribute not one piaster to their travel fund, but was that any reason to be niggardly about what she ordered for dinner—at a nice place, too, one "a little bit familiar" because it linked Cairo to San Francisco, to Chinatown in particular, where the AWOL Ms. Kertanegara had felt closest to home? Furthermore, was it not at Sebastian's invitation that Yayuk had come to America, then to Africa, his insistent letters brushing aside her lack of funds? She had finally agreed for no other reason than her desire that they be together. "I want with you, even in Hell," she once had affirmed, jokingly. How dare he remind her, after the fact, that she was totally dependent upon him financially! Not dependent upon him morally, however. Without a marriage proposal, Yayuk felt no obligation whatsoever. Nor any gratitude. She was there for curiosity's sake. Against her family's wishes (had they been apprised of her ‘elopement’). Against her religious beliefs, as well (though these were liberal, even by Indonesian standards). Sebastian simply failed to understand.
    "You are like pig head; just go straight with your ‘fair.’ Even railroad track go a little left, a little right, a little around. You are inflexible!"
    Too true. The Gordian knot of Sebastian's reasoning might take a lifetime to untangle, snarled as it was by a loner's self-centeredness—often in cahoots with a haughty self-esteem.
    "A simple thank you, now and then, would be greatly appreciated."
    "What for, must I thank you? We are together. That is enough." By which Yayuk meant: ‘no lip service’; she had scant tolerance for niceties between a man and a woman (their unwed status, at that stage, notwithstanding). Thank yous were implicit by the undeniable fact that she was there.
    Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, she prized beyond all measure. The pink roses Sebastian bought to brighten up their Cairo hotel room fit into this category. As did the Godiva truffles he gave her just prior to their departure from California—chocolates she guarded with an almost fierce covetousness; ‘Yayuk's diamonds,’ these precious, self-rationed morsels came to be called. Yet even more cherished were his less traditional gestures: transferring a peppermint (their last one) from his mouth to hers when she smelled it on his breath; asking her to choose which of his four rayon traveling-shirts she would like to see him wear; his willingness to play the fool, affecting an idiot's walk and loony facial expressions in full public view; the seductive way he ‘helped’ while Yayuk brushed her teeth, nuzzling the nape of her neck with his gone-gray whiskers. Nuances—tender tones of voice, a casual caress—were the trivialities which most moved her, which stirred the wizard's brew of emotions simmering in Ms. Kertanegara's neophyte breast.

Turbo Jet Route

    After an all-too-brief five days in Alexandria, they took the Turbo Jet bus back to Cairo's inhospitable airport, catching a 2:30 A.M. flight to the "Dark Continent's" other extreme...

 

 

South Africa

 

... a strategic error in that Cape Town, South Africa, proved to be as pricey a city as most in the so-called First World.
    "This is Holland, not Africa," was Yayuk's disillusioned observation. Hailing from a country that had endured Dutch oppression for three hundred and fifty years before winning independence, her regard for Afrikaners was anything but charitable.
    "Dutch, Dutch, Dutch, damn colonials!" she would spit with U.S. invective, pingponging from an aesthetic appreciation for Cape Town's immaculate streets, manicured gardens, grand European architecture set against the spectacular backdrop of Table Mountain (looming like a monolith of eternal stability), to her rabble-rousing condemnation of the racism on which said ‘good-life’ was founded. Well after Nelson Mandela's historic election, South Africa remained intact. Which was remarkable when considering the hordes of have-not squatters leading miserable existences on most city outskirts, one glum shanty-town example of which they had seen when coming from the airport. Yayuk took it all in with a critical eye-for-an-eye distrust.
    "Be kind to me, I will be more kind. Be bad, I can be more bad!" she would warn, unmasking her pixyish veneer to reveal the troll underneath. Had Yayuk been a totally nice person, she and Sebastian would have had too little in common. But she was as harshly judgmental as he (with much less experience of the world on which to base her opinions)... hot tempered, vindictive, sometimes hysterical when provoked (especially when he compared her to his former intimates)... and, when the reins finally broke, Yayuk would charge full-gallop into a rage of loudmouthed tongue-lashing.
    "Passive, submissive people, after a long period of repression, tend to react violently," was a remark made by David Hamzah during a visit the couple paid to his home across the street from one of western Cape Town's many mosques. Yayuk had once read something in a Jakarta newspaper article about South Africa's Malay population, and was eager to see the grave site of an exiled Tidorean prince. Wandering through the far-less-posh Muslim section, she and Sebastian had searched local faces for Asian features, asking directions of a young man who smiled broadly at their Bahasa Indonesian greeting. They found the shrine, tall grass overgrowing its fenced-in burial ground, two Black caretakers seemingly sound asleep on the crypt's concrete floor.
    "Should we leave some money?" Sebastian offered upon seeing a poor box.
    "No; this is not about money. They will understand."
    Further inquiries led them to Mr. Hamzah, who, as it turned out, had written the aforementioned article. Afrikaans, the language of South Africa, was Malay in structure, they were informed, not Dutch, due to the fact that it was developed by the 'literate' slaves so they could communicate with their mostly-illiterate Boorish masters. Of Sumatran ancestry, Hamzah knew enough Javanese to win Yayuk's affection, and the two spoke freely about ongoing human rights violations in their distant homeland. "A little bit familiar," was this impromptu 'audience' (neither guest aware, beforehand, of their host's renown), and it proved to be both informative and prescient; Hamzah's prediction of future bloodletting in Indonesia, not in South Africa, foreshadowed pressures building within Yayuk herself.

    Cloudy again. From their window seats in Rumble's Coffee Shop on Upper Kloof Street, Yayuk and Sebastian watched Table Mountain's mood change, broodingly, scarcely a blue perforation above its cliff-face scarf of gray, on this their last day in Cape Town. To sample non-White company and to save fast-dwindling Rand, they had decided on third class train passage to Johannesburg next morning. After a week of youth hostel 'comfort'—bunking ten to a room with a dorm-full of backpackers, surfers, and post-adolescent fun-seekers—the thought of rubbing shoulders with 'plain-folk' gained appeal.

 

Okay, okay, okay...

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