Escape From Maputo

    "If someone I know would wash my jeans this afternoon, I would buy her lunch."
    "You always buy lunch, Sebastian. You pay all."
    "So, because I do it all the time, my offer is worthless; you won’t?"
    "No; of course I will."
    Yayuk was not about to leap into another money argument. Nor was Sebastian attempting to bait her. They had, in fact, made love that morning, suppressing all sounds in hopes that the Englishman they had befriended, and who was sharing an adjoining room, would not overhear. A leisurely stroll had followed through their favorite place to date, a peaceful seaside village on an extended finger of land called Inhambane... where they presently sat outdoors, under a corner restaurant's water-sack-anchored awning—'sacks like IV bottles,' the convalescents mused—their lunch of salad, chips, omelet-simplés, bread, and soda pop well underway. Tuckered out from an earlier reconnaissance—all troops friendly and seemingly more relaxed than folks in Maputo—the couple see-sawed between solemn conviviality and playful abuse. After days on end of coping with the frustration, irritation, and cabin-fever tedium inflicted by their back-to-back illnesses, a tenuous truce prevailed, eclipsing their usual difficulties in getting along with each other.
    Had he found the wrong woman at the right time—this high-maintenance, high-strung, high-and-mighty aristocrat—Sebastian pondered?
    While Yayuk similarly fretted about her lover's Western ways... 'eyes, on the street, looking other women'... 'easy to say finished, without try to fix the problem'... 'many friends in the past, just chit-chit-chit, then having sex.'
    Would their relationship fall from its already questionable state of grace?
    Without legal, moral, or familial sanctions, Ms. Kertanegara had crossed the Pacific Ocean... then, after sampling Sebastian's bohemian San Francisco lifestyle (which made her status even less secure) she had crossed the Atlantic Ocean... now, having taken up residence at a hotel normally reserved for Mozambican railroad trainees, she gazed out across the Indian Ocean, wondering whether this inexplicable love (her first) would ever be returned—returned, that is, in a manner and form she found acceptable. Sebastian was dead-set against marriage—which rendered him both available and unattainable (the bachelor's dichotomy). Ruling out traditional means of friends becoming lifelong mates, Yayuk was at a loss. Her culture disapproved of every alternative. A woman was either a virgin, a wife, or a whore. Terms like "significant other" and "common-law partner" bandied about in California were foreign to her, at best; at worst, they were mere excuses for bad behavior. Yet even were marriage an option, Yayuk had her doubts. Sebastian's was a culture of disposable products, of throw-away mentalities. Fast food, faster women, rushed marriages, quickie divorces were American norms. And forty-six years of habits would be hard to break. Did she really want this typically Western male? Forever? Or "forever and a day"—the duration upon which Sebastian insisted when he was feeling pathetic and unloved? Loyalty constituted the glue of their togetherness, the glue for Sebastian, whose mother had left him and his younger brother when they were teenagers. His subsequent relations with women had fallen into a predictable pattern of noncommittal attachments, one or the other of whom eventually strayed—Sebastian claiming it was always he who got beaten to the Dear-John punch. The glue for Yayuk, on the other hand, was difficult to explain... perhaps Sebastian's nonconformity (even in its "Left Coast" context) attracted her—then held her like a dragonfly stuck to tar. Or the fact that she was a one-man woman, born and bred, whose virginity had been surrendered to this middle-aged man (some might say squandered on him). Could she have been duped? During the seventeen months they were apart (after their initial whirlwind affair), friends and family looked askance when the subject turned to Yayuk's truant "pen pal." He had continued to write, wooing her anew with his crafty pen, sweet-talking her into believing she was something more than spice for his round-the-world adventures. Had he preyed on her again, used her as he had for that impolite novel? Was he not doing the very same thing this trip, twisting her perfect love into a shape she scarcely recognized once translated into English, using her, as he did everyone, for his own selfish purposes? How could a man who acknowledged the existence of nothing more important than his own silly self, ever expect to produce any lasting literature? Human beings were not "mere dust specks in the Universe." Human beings were special; of that she was sure. Sebastian's self-styled Godlessness was maddening. And he rambled on about her intellectual limitations! She, at least, had faith—without which he would never become the artist he proclaimed... or the man, the match, the mate of Yayuk's damaged dreams.
    Arriving at Cine Teatro Tofo, Inhambane's sole movie house, which doubled as a meeting place for a charismatic Christian congregation, the couple overheard loud voices—definitely not from the film they had come to see.
    "This not right," was Yayuk's snap judgment, upon peeking in on an exorcism of demons, or some such ceremony. The stage, under a huge banner hallowing Jesus, was occupied by four people paired off—two penitents, two confessors—the latter bellowing incantations, then gripping the former by their temples, and, presumably, flicking away their several sins. "Like sweat from guilty brows," had been Sebastian's portrayal, while Yayuk saw the proceedings as grossly sacrilegious.
    "Shock me when I see drunk people come back to normal," she explained, anxious to refute Sebastian's contention that she was "close-minded." As if he, of all people, were open-minded about religion, he who maintained that the more people knew about faith the less likely they were to subscribe to it. His was a prescription for doubt and disillusionment, cunningly disguised by his liberal chatter. Yayuk sensed this, but was no more equipped to articulate it in a foreign language than she was able to fend off Sebastian's relentless attacks.
    "Irrational," he had called her, unaware that Yayuk understood the term to mean 'without reasons.' She always had reasons for her opinions. Sebastian disagreed with them; that was all. Why? Because seldom did they fit with his concept of  logic. Yayuk considered logic pikiran buntu—Indonesian slang for 'dead-end thinking.'
    "If we cannot fit, Sebastian, and I go home, don’t bother me; I won’t bother you. No letters; I want forget everything about you."
    There was a plan for this contingency, a flight path that went Nairobi / Cairo / New York / LA / Honolulu / Jakarta on January 5th and 6th, allowing Yayuk to use her round-trip ticket, the second half, before it expired, thus cutting short their travels together in Africa. Cutting short her travels, that is; Sebastian could continue for as long as his funds permitted, after he escorted Yayuk to Kenya.
    However, the Egypt Air portions of both their tickets were good for one full year, meaning they could write off Yayuk's ticket home and re-book their Nairobi / Cairo / New York / LA / San Francisco flight whenever it suited them. Their current traveling pace was aimed at this second option. Their constant bickering shifted that aim toward the first.
    Meanwhile, Inhambane was providing them ample opportunity to enjoy life. It had sufficient creature comforts: cafés, mercados, a banco for changing money, and the cleanest accommodations they had known since leaving the States, plus authentic African village life: grass shacks, thatched roofs, penned in livestock, plentiful mango, papaya, and banana trees, coconut palms, wrought-iron and ceramic cooking pots hung over earthenware hearths, choruses of local chatter issuing from the community water well, all set against a seaport backdrop of ship works, outboard-motor-powered ferries, and timeless-looking dhows of the single sail variety whose roughhewn masts and triangular flaps of canvas cruised the tranquil inlet between mainland and peninsula.
    Their days usually began with a café simplés (black no sugar) for Sebastian, and a galão (sweet coffee in condensed milk) for Yayuk, at a small bakery/restaurant where the two sat opposite, writing, often for hours. Well before then, at about 6:00 A.M., their days ‘officially’ began, as Mozambican pop songs commenced from somewhere on the Railroad Employee Hotel grounds. Whether this was a cock-crowing 'service,' or merely an annoyance, the pair could not decide, though feeling healthier helped them to regard it appreciatively... as they did the view from their mosquito-screened windows, looking out at deep-orange soil on a nearby football field that competed with royal poinciana blossoms... at a rust-colored locomotive on display behind the seldom-used train station... at bright-purple bougainvillea overgrowing one whole section of track... at dark-green palm fronds swaying in the distance with mango trees up front... and at a powder-blue sky overhead to complete the polychromatic panoply.
    After coffee, they would walk, letting whim guide them on meandering treks around town, a traveler's aimlessness and casual curiosity nudging them to pause at a construction site to watch masons laying cinder block, then to poke their heads into a remnants shop and finger its mostly-Indian assortment of fabrics, while locals, one and all, ogled Yayuk with wonder, attempting—sometimes aloud—to guess her nationality.
    "Sheena," the children would call out.           
    "Not China; In-do-ne-sia," Yayuk would correct.
    "Indo-niece," the youngsters happily chimed, glad to have their interest acknowledged by the alien.
    At other times, the pair would wander along Inhambane's outskirts down narrow lanes of dirt and powdered sand, drawn into a world little-changed over centuries; water, foodstuffs, and laundry were carried atop women's heads; bare ground was raked to give property a tidy appearance; shade was the key determinant for when and at which spot a siesta would be taken—entire families stretched out to snooze on bamboo mats; and charcoal-black pigs with rabbit-like ears grunted from their pick-up-stick enclosures, chickens clucking gutturally, goats bleating plaintively, the inter-relatedness of everyday essentials patently obvious—so much so that societies more "advanced" seemed lacking by comparison. Problems such as waste disposal, recycling, and pest control required immediate, therefore relevant, common-sense solutions; animal, vegetable, mineral were connected unequivocally. Even back in town an agrarian, holistic consciousness appeared to hold sway. The time elapsed, for instance, between Sebastian and Yayuk placing their order for a meal and when it arrived, was a stomach-grumbling reminder that someone had to peel the potatoes, slice the tomatoes, kill, gut, and pluck the chicken, before entrées could be cooked, arranged on platters, and served with a smile. How would the 21st century cope with this gap between labor and leisure? How, the couple wondered while gazing out to sea, could a generation bent on surfing the Internet appreciate that real-life waves were not computer generated?
    Or was it ethnocentric in reverse to indict one's own technological culture in the face of one that lagged by retaining its primitivism? Sebastian, a First World resident, was more apt to advocate back-to-basics remedies for the earth's complex ailments—privilege being easier to forego once sampled to its dregs. Ms. Kertanegara, on the other hand, a Developing Nation resident, was predisposed to identify needed improvements: electricity, clean water, properly equipped schools. Indonesia had settlements similar to those in Mozambique, and, even though Yayuk valued the cultural benefits of retaining native lifestyles, a more desirable goal, she felt, was to raise the standard of living.
    Afternoons they would shower, nap, then, as evening-tide swelled the shallow bay between Maxixe (pronounced "Ma-sheesh") and Inhambane, Yayuk and Sebastian would go to dinner... as bats, on wild maneuvers, chased after bug swarms... as palm fronds, leaves, and thistles turned the ocean breeze into breathy whispers... as lights along a concrete pier reflected from the water like silver Venetian blinds.
    "Your beauty twinkles its brightest in the twilight, Yayuk."
    "Bull-bull," she retorted, uncomfortable with her lover's sentimental praise. "I hate you forever," she added to deflect further nonsense, ensuring a certain distance—despite her physical need for maintaining contact. Mentally she let Sebastian ramble off alone... to dark places, forbidding places, empty places, her intuition warned. A Godless man was a lonely man, she concluded, lonely like no other living soul on Earth... and so un-Indonesian. This American both enchanted and offended her. Rude—but not boring—his was a type of candor she often found unchaste, his intellect like some spiny little creature best left undisturbed... his heart encased in bone—with a soft spot, like the skull of a baby. He cried, too; she hated that. She had seen him do it, made him do it on occasion, though often he shed tears for no known cause. Nothing specific, anyway. Some unaccountable twinge of fellow-feeling? Why would a man who prided himself on disliking people weep on their behalf, she wanted to know? Perhaps Sebastian's misanthropy, like his atheism, was a false front, behind which hid a kindly, spiritual human being? Probably not. Besides, he seemed to enjoy being misunderstood. Which was why, she was convinced, his work went largely unpublished. He may not have set out to be obscure, enigmatic, unfathomable, but in harboring a defensive contempt for anything and everything that became popular, he guaranteed his novels would never know fame. "Fuck ’em," was Sebastian's attitude, a defiance much less admirable than it was immature.
    Next morning, November 16th, the couple left Inhambane for the village of Vilanculos.

 

"The cicadas screamed...

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