changed. The low coastal plain, studded with settlements of huts that sprouted from sandy
soil like withering toadstools, rose to hills dehydrated by sun and scorched by wildfire.
A blow-dryer heat fanned the couples' sweat through clothes grown soggy wherever squashed
between skin and bus seat. There was no game to be seen, only domestic animals: goats and
cattle. Ubiquitous chickens strutted here and there, but under a sky with nary a bird of
prey. Parched. Dusty. Barren, by comparison. Coconut-palms were supplanted by baobab and
pale-skinned poison trees standing in isolation. Remote-seeming, mercilessly arid
stretches of road were nonetheless populated; village after village signified
people—seasoned by hardship, praying for rain.
"How can so many folks eek out a living from such an unforgiving
wasteland," Sebastian asked rhetorically? "And where have all the critters gone;
migrated, dead from drought, poached to depletion?"
The ride from Beira to Tete had become an endurance test. With one
liter of water between them, each gulp felt precious. Yet both the weary travelers
welcomed the change. Beira had been boring; they had left without regrets.
"Do you know the story about baobabs, Yayuk? Seems they were
complaining, shortly after Creation, about having been made with inelegant barrel-shaped
trunks, envious of their slender more graceful peers, and God overheard. As punishment for
their rank ingratitude, He plucked them from the earth, turned them upside down, and stuck
them back in. That's why their branches are stunted and their roots spread out
Yayuk liked this depiction, charmed by the baobabs, too, their weird
dimensions modeled as on some pre-schooler's 'concept' of a tree. She also
liked it when Sebastian gave credit where credit was due. Who made the baobabs? Who made
the sky above, the earth below, and everything in between? Allah, that's who. She
knew this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Not with her mind—that was Sebastian's
province; anything outside logic he would dismiss—rather with her heart, and its
alter-ego, her immortal soul.
"You never will know life without you learn about spirit,"
she would declare. "Body without a spirit is body dead."
In Tete, a town about one hundred kilometers from the Mozambique/Malawi
border, they were greeted by blistering heat and Constantine Argropouli—a Zairian
Greek—who was sharing his Carling's Black Label with Pensão Alves's pet
baboon. Claiming to have crossed paths with the couple (who failed to recognize him) on no
fewer than three occasions, Constantine befriended Sebastian and his... wife?... pleading
their case to Sophia, the innkeeper's daughter—using flattery, brazen histrionics, and
transparent lies—managing to secure them the last room available. He then went back to
playing the monkey's uncle.
Lodgings set, the "newlyweds" went for an evening stroll...
coming upon a mosque as the faithful were called to prayer.
"Let's go in, shall we?" Sebastian suggested.
"I feel dirty, go inside a holy place with you."
Despite Ms. Kertanegara's loose interpretation of Islamic
practices—adhering, as she did, to almost none—she still considered herself a cultural
Muslim. And a Muslim woman, even in easy-going Indonesia, was not allowed to
non-Muslim man—nor was it acceptable to traipse around the globe with one. Her relations
with Sebastian, therefore, made her feel "unclean."
Why indulge in them, he wanted to know? Why accept his invitation to
see the world?
She had refused to answer.
Next morning, after turning down an almost done-deal with a
black-market money-changer at the long-distance bus stop, Sebastian had his pocket picked.
A young man had forced his way onto the jam-packed mini-van the couple was boarding, then
off again, arousing their suspicion. Upon checking his unpinned pocket, Sebastian found
their seventy-thousand meticais gone. With shades of Johannesburg darkening an otherwise
sun-shiny departure, he tossed his pack to the already seated Ms. Kertanegara and tore
after the culprit... apprehending him, as luck would have it! The thief (one of said
money-changer's henchmen) stood trembling with red-handed anxiety, terrified lest the
police be summoned—or worse, the gathering crowd seek vigilante justice. Producing the cash, he implored
its owner (in Portuguese) to count it, then begged (mostly through body language) for the
foreigner's mercy... which he received, as Sebastian merely wagged his finger at the thief
like some reprimanding schoolmarm.
"Should I have let him go,
Yayuk? Hell probably do it again to some other traveler."
"When someone do wrong, then admit it, best not push," was
Ms. Kertanegara's opinion.
Shortly thereafter they were
crossing the mighty Zambezi River, herds of cattle being driven through its shallower
sections, reed-covered islands diverting its primeval flow, snaking its way from the
hinterlands like some ancient Serpent of Lore...
... and three overcrowded hours after that, once delivered to customs
at the Mozambican border, having finally converted their wad of rescued cash, Yayuk and
Sebastian found themselves sidesaddle and astride the back fenders of two single-speed
Chinese bicycles, having agreed on the fare of eleven thousand meticais (their last
dollar's worth of local currency) for the five-kilometer ride to Malawian territory.
Yayuk held on for dear life—uncomfortable in, and mortified by the capulana
Sebastian cajoled her into wearing ("in deference to local mores," had been his
device), while his less meaty pedal-er fell far behind... a purple sky brewing wet
welcomes... the hilly countryside lush and adorned with Springtime green... their exit almost
accomplished without undue incident.
Cresting what he dearly hoped would be their final hill, Sebastian saw
his predecessor in what looked like protective custody. An AK47-toting militiaman had
stopped Yayuk midway, demanding she—and now Sebastian—present their respective
passports. They did—the latter waxing poetic about Mozambique's "marvelous
hospitality," blah, blah, blah, endeavoring to secure (without a bribe) their
unhampered passage, conceding they would be lucky (eyeing the gun) to escape with their
Judging the pair not worth hassling, evidently, the
soldier, with a nod, granted their
release. Off they rode...
... good-bye Mozambique...
... hello Malawi!
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