Much to the surprise of both Yayuk and Sebastian, the eleven hundred kilometers between Cape Town and Johannesburg were covered in reasonable comfort and unprecedented seclusion. After briefly sharing their compartment with a toothless, slightly tipsy domestic, then with a grandmother-grandchild combination collected en route, all four berths were vacated, leaving the pair alone. On occasion, the heavy metal door slid open, but Sebastian's white skin appeared to work as a repellent; either confused by, suspicious of, or uncomfortable with the oddity of a Caucasian traveling third class, would-be occupants looked elsewhere. True, the seats were rock hard, the long night chilly, and the neighbors a bit rowdy, but, all things considered, the couple thought themselves uncommonly lucky.

25 Hours To Disaster

    Fifty meters outside the Johannesburg train station, their luck ran out.
    Despite reports of a soaring crime rate (muggings, rapes, and stabbings had become commonplace in a city that lured expatriates from countries less well-heeled), arriving at 10:15 on a Sunday morning, in a crowd, and heading up a short walkway past food stalls and produce vendors should   have been a fairly safe disembarkation. It was not. Coming on the run from behind, dog-pack fashion, six male assailants, possibly seven, overtook Sebastian (who carried both bags) and Yayuk (wearing a money belt), punching, clawing, and snatching at whatever they could steal.
    "Nothing inside! Nothing inside!" Yayuk screamed in the wake of three thugs making off with her prized possessions, while Sebastian, hollering "BASTARDS!," fought to keep hold of their primary luggage—bystanders doing what they do best, standing by—the attack carried out with a speed and efficiency indicative of predators overpowering prey.
    Hustling his badly shaken but physically undamaged companion across the street and into a cafeteria, Sebastian stowed Yayuk and their blessedly salvaged bags (one torn open like a ruptured bladder) behind the counter, briefed its sympathetic attendant, and, against everyone's better judgment including his own, went off in pursuit—a course of action as foolhardy as it was ineffectual.
    Upon his empty-handed return, Sebastian phoned a youth hostel that advertised free downtown pick-ups, took out the first aid kit and applied disinfectant to three raw gouges on his upper right arm, then quizzed his still-trembling partner about what had been filched. The list was short, at first; it got longer as Yayuk's shock wore off: medicine, eye glasses, a diamond and blue sapphire ring, two ruby ear studs, a pearl necklace, a pocket calculator, twenty U.S. dollars, miscellaneous toiletries, and two photographs (with negatives) of her mother and of her dearly departed dad.
    "It was my only one, Sebastian. Like you, my father hated his picture taken. It was my only one."
    In losing that rare, slightly out-of-focus, unflattering snapshot, Yayuk had lost her father all over again, the memory of his untimely, cancerous death darkening her immediate trauma like a bruise on a wound. Nothing else mattered so much. Nothing else hurt so deeply. Nothing else loomed so priceless or so irreplaceable.
    Why this keepsake, along with a small fortune in precious stones, was in Yayuk's luggage in the first place was due to the haste with which she had packed prior to leaving her home. Wanting nobody to know, lest her family (Mom in particular) attempt to "block my step," she had thrown a few things together as if going off for a weekend. One month later she was sending postcards from the Golden Gate Bridge... three months after that from the Cape of Good Hope.
    "I forgot I had them. Photos, a little bit of jewelry were still inside my bag. Now I'm hopeless!"
    To console Ms. Kertanegara, and to avoid their returning to the train station, Sebastian parted with a sizable chunk of Rand, booking a four day safari to Kruger National Park, arranging to be dropped off afterward in Nelspruit, one hundred kilometers or so from the Mozambican border. That done, the couple holed up well outside the city center at a place facetiously titled 'Backpacker's Ritz.'
    "Why so cruel like that, Sebastian? Why so rude and wild? Why don't Blacks here want to help Mr. Nelson Mandela?"
    Yayuk resolved to write the president a personal letter.


   
The legitimately wild animals appeared tamer shortly thereafter; four days of a catered safari through South Africa's largest game reserve proved a trifle overprotected for the couple's taste. Electric fences girded their campsite's landscaped grounds, air-conditioned tour buses queued up at man-made water holes, while guests from resort-style lodgings were served elegant meals at coat-and-tie restaurants. Wilderness Wheels was their host, an outfit specializing in game park experiences for the disabled, or ‘physically challenged,’ to use the politically correct term, tents adapted with wide entrance flaps to accommodate wheelchairs, the park doing its fair share by providing access ramps to toilets, hot showers, and coin-operated laundries. A nice idea, in point of fact, but with too few para and quadriplegics signing on to make it profitable, April, the chief guide, cook, and bottle washer, had to tap into the backpacker market to make ends meet. Politics and religion were the two taboo subjects around the campfire, but six of this trip's able-bodied safari mates were such a hard drinking, boisterous lot, they talked about anything they damn well pleased.
    "After that election," April commented, bending her own rule about appropriate conversation, "the Blacks thought they were just going to take over all our homes."
    As did the Indonesians, ultimately, in Yayuk's country. Those Dutch too stubborn to leave voluntarily had been burned out, the land purged of an invader who had sapped national pride and resources for over three centuries. Yayuk spoke with militant zeal whenever recounting this chapter in her nation's history, admitting that the subsequent brain-drain had severely bankrupted an already ailing economy, and that the influx of low-class replacements had made colonial standards of hygiene, order, and civic splendor impossible to maintain.
    "They cannot keep clean," Yayuk lamented, embarrassed by the rack and ruin that blighted once picture-perfect cities like Bandung and Bogor. Fifty-plus years after independence, Indonesia was still trying to recover from its erstwhile oppressor, with many a member of the privileged class looking back nostalgically, Yayuk included—though hers was the poorest side of the Kertanegara clan.
    "Better fire and suffer afterward," was Yayuk's verdict...
    ... while Sebastian withheld judgment, hamstrung as he was by two counterpoised beliefs; namely that love, a la Jesus Christ's, Mahatma Gandhi's, and Martin Luther King Junior's, was the only salvation for the human race; and that the species, as a whole, was so ignoble it was not worth saving.
    "I am as I am; so what!" Ms. Kertanegara would sometimes blurt out, as if to distance herself from the outmoded prestige of her father's royal lineage, resisting the temptation to hold it aloft parasol-fashion—proud with a broken umbrella. Rarely did she flaunt her family's well-known name.
    Sebastian, blue-collar in origin, had nothing to flaunt, nothing to hide—his frequent indiscretions inciting Yayuk's consternation.
    "Not their business," she would insist, in vain attempts to curb Sebastian's tongue. She bristled, for example, whenever he recited the "unexpurgated" version of how they had met. And his using it for his fiction was such a gross betrayal she never   would forgive him.
    "Unfair, that book, Sebastian. Embarrassing. Why are you so selfish, so impolite?"
    To make amends, Sebastian had granted his heroine editorial rights over his next piece. But try as he might to portray Ms. Kertanegara objectively, honestly, sympathetically, all he seemed to accomplish was "negative, negative; everything negative!"
    Meanwhile, the list of wildlife the couple saw grew impressively: an unusually close encounter with a browsing white rhino; elephant cows and calves on dusty parade; a backwater full of grunting, yawning hippopotami; an enormous crocodile on the prowl, its eyeballs protruding from the Limpopo River like prehistoric periscopes; hundreds of impala, so prevalent that those viewing their tapered horns and elegant bodies became blas´┐Ż; giraffe nimbly pruning spring-green leaves from among the acacia thorns; blue wildebeest and Burchell's zebra recreating primal tableaus that Sebastian had seen all his life in movies and on televised nature programs, while Yayuk, less a media child, hoped to catch sight of the hyena that whooped its hungry night-cries at their camp's perimeter. She was disappointed... and no lion, cheetah, or leopard, made appearances either. But the couple was satisfied, nonetheless, to be ogling African dreamscapes, the Africa of limitless space and numberless creatures, the Africa of tribal societies, traditional customs, and of knife, shield, and spear, the Africa that scarcely existed outside these national reservations. Commercial interests and population pressures were closing in, access priced in tourist dollars to compensate for the acreage required to keep alive indigenous animals at the expense of indigenous peoples, most of whom were so impoverished they could not pay to visit the very land that once had been their birthright... an irony lost on neither Yayuk nor Sebastian.

    Time to move on. As prearranged, the couple was dropped off in Nelspruit, a friend of their hostess uttering these parting words: "Why in the world are you going to Mozambique?! Up to six weeks ago, they were still blowing up vehicles along the major thoroughfares."
     Sebastian's answer (unvoiced): 'Mozambique should be cheap'.

 

Yours truly again...

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