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
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
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�; 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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