CHAPTER FOUR

SOLO WITH TWO-PART HARMONY


    "If we cannot together, I understand you leave me; but you must looking what kind..."
    "You’re missing the point, Yayuk. It's not a question of whether or not our doing something together is ‘possible’; I’m asking why it always has to be ‘preferable.’ Don’t you ever feel the need to be alone?"
    "No."
    Not true. Yayuk had been quite content on her own in Indonesia. Reared in a family of twelve brothers and sisters, solitude had been a rare and treasured state. She had craved it, then cultivated it—since leaving home for Jakarta at age seventeen. Now, after a month of constant companionship in America, followed by another two-plus months in Egypt, South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi, she, no less than Sebastian, was feeling the strain. But she, unlike her partner, was committed to couple-dom—at least for the duration of their trip.
    "Who I am, if not with you?" she would ask rhetorically, expecting her awkward position to be understood. But Sebastian, a bachelor almost by profession, was hopelessly self-centered. Steeped in the traditions of ‘rugged individualism,’ ‘self-reliance,’ and ‘to-thine-own-self-be-true,’ he adhered to ‘man apart’ as a philosophical given—acceptance of which denoted, for him,  intellectual honesty, an existential 'nobility'... gluing him to himself, according to Yayuk, which was cowardly, a worming out of his agreement to see their relationship through—or a lame excuse to do things behind her back; she mistrusted him. Partly because of his experiences with a variety of former intimates; partly because she eschewed such experiences herself; and partly because Sebastian was incorrigibly noncommittal.
    This discussion, not yet an argument, had been initiated upon Yayuk's displeasure at Sebastian's suggestion that she resume a nap while he go off to buy a pair of swim trunks... alone... as in out of her immediate vicinity... raising all manner of contrary gripes and alarms. Having engaged the services of Gerald and Alex (Malawian editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) as guide and ferryman for a day of snorkeling, barbecuing chumbo  (a local fish), and hiking on nearby Thumbi Island, the couple realized they were deficient in appropriate attire. Javanese modesty, on the verge of prudishness, recommended Yayuk swim in her clothes; Sebastian, far less persnickety, sought second-hand trunks... accompanied, in the end, by Ms. Kertanegara, the privacy issue submerging like a snaggletooth crocodile.

    Days at Cape Maclear were drawing to a close, as Yayuk and Sebastian waited for the once-a-week ferry to put in at Monkey Bay. Until then, the illusion of their being residents was pleasantly sustained, the luxury of establishing a routine having reinforced the couple's feeling at home. From two of the local crafts-people they bought gifts: a hand-carved mahogany chess set with matching table, and a simple ebony dish in the likeness of a duck. Yayuk loved the duck.
    "It's yours."
    "No, Sebastian. You give it to your friends in Dar-Es-Salaam."
    "We’ll buy something else for George and Ratiporn."
    With a little more convincing, ‘Yayuk's duck’ the roughhewn dish became, wrapped carefully in a capulana and stowed in its proud possessor's cumbersome shoulder bag. The chess set posed more of a problem. Intended for a long-time mutual friend in Los Angeles, a professional chess player who had introduced Ms. Kertanegara to Mr. Lazarus via transpacific mail, the table, its three interlocked legs, plus thirty-two chess pieces would have to be packaged, transported to the nearest post office, inspected, weighed, stamped, approved, and ultimately sent—not so easy a process in third-world Malawi. Matthew Mtongola solved problem number one, delivering the table and legs he had made all trussed up in recycled cardboard and strips of nylon bias from a shredded tire (Sebastian threw in an extra twenty kwacha for these materials),  to which was added Edson Mhango's chess pieces. Next came an eighteen kilometer trip to Monkey Bay. The 6:00 A.M. public bus already having left, Steven's private pick-up was their only option—an illegal one at that, its typical overloading incurring progressively heavier fines when caught en route by the traffic-control police. About five kilometers shy of their destination, the truck broke down.
    They walked—as did all seventeen of the other dislodged passengers—down a shortcut bordered by fruit trees and freshly-tilled fields. Sebastian, then Yayuk attempted to carry their package native-fashion, enjoying, despite the heat, this unexpected trek through the rural countryside, laughing at their alternating ineptness as each head proved ill-suited for bearing and balancing even so small a burden. Eventually they intercepted the main road, detoured into a maze of shops and kiosks in search of a replacement for a burnt-out flashlight bulb—actually finding one—then proceeded to their primary destination... only to be told by the sole postal official that their parcel was unacceptable. Its two securely connected sections needed to be separated—adding to the cost, and increasing odds that part A, from part B, would forever go astray. It also demonstrated how four hands employed to perform a task where two would have been sufficient could incite a veritable squall of mutual aggravation—with Sebastian's pique more pronounced than his "meddling" mate's.
    "Would you let me do this!?" Sebastian snapped.
    "Your faults like elephants, but you see none; my faults like ants, but you see all," Ms. Kertanegara retaliated.
    Finally, the operation an excessively-sutured success—and with little else to do in the uninspiring port—the couple plotted their return to Cape Maclear. Two chances at public transportation passed through town at roughly 1:30 and 6:00 P.M.—roughly as in unreliably. Another possibility was Helmut's puke-green truck, which just so happened to be yawing toward the unpaved parking lot of Monkey Bay's bus depot. Helmut, a German expatriate sporting two gruesome six-month-old machete scars, one bisecting his nose, another running the right-side length of his cheek (souvenirs from Uganda, where he had been waylaid, stripped to his knickers, and left for dead) pulled over to where Yayuk and Sebastian were standing. "Ja," he was going back. "Ja," he would give them a lift. "Ja," for ten kwacha each, the going rate.
    Once underway, with the couple safely stowed up front in the cab, another would-be passenger—plus entourage—flagged Helmut down.
    "Nein! No way. I don’t risk my vehicle to carry so many people; police all over the place. You know the price of petrol?!" and other remonstrations comprised Helmut's wily negotiation—all intended to up his price for transporting what appeared to be a wedding party left stranded outside their church. Five-hundred kwacha soothed the expatriate's protests—without, in the least, assuaging his sarcasm.
    "And the Blacks wonder why the Whites have all their country's money? Look at the children; big stomachs—full of that worthless nsima—and little brains. I know; we hire the Blacks at our brewery. Five days a week, month after month after month, you tell them, do your job and never, no matter what, push the red button. Gutt, gutt. They work. Not well. But at least they work. Then one fine day they say 'look at the nice red button,' and—phupht—they push it!"
    With this outlook, it was hardly surprising that the folks now clamoring aboard had as low an opinion of their cabby as he of his fares, especially after a group of freeloaders crammed themselves among the legitimate guests—occasioning the hot-headed Helmut to leap from behind the wheel and start issuing orders.
    "Out! Everyone! Out of my truck, do you hear me!? EVERYONE OUT OF MY VEHICLE!"

    No one seemed impressed or in a hurry to comply, as Sebastian grew apprehensive about the escalating vehemence—while Yayuk caught a glimpse of someone stooping to 'inspect' a threadbare tire. Helmut, by this point, was apoplectic; those at whom he hollered were equally out-of-sorts; Sebastian interceded, attempting to keep the peace.
    At last a semblance of order was grudgingly restored: Helmut returned to the driver's seat; Cape Maclear—residents only—settled in behind; Sebastian rejoined Yayuk; and off they went... bygones quickly bygones (it was a celebration, after all)... the guests breaking out into song... the bride and groom following in a VW mini-van bedecked with fresh-cut flowers and colorful remnants... the procession soon winding its way through a rain-doused Lake Malawi National Park, its fertile aromas rising like heightened expectations, as those anticipating the reception at journey's end accelerated the already up-tempo merriment... their whole village turning out upon the newlywed's horn-honking arrival... women and children dancing in the mud-puddled streets... Yayuk and Sebastian congratulating themselves for a mission accomplished... Helmut cursing in exasperation at his truck's left rear flat.

    Next day, rising at dawn to catch an early bus, the couple bade adieu to Cape Maclear.
    By 8:00 A.M. they were aboard the Ilala, docked at Monkey Bay.
    By 9:00 A.M. they were under way, bound for Chizumulu Island... the waters calm... the ferry not nearly as crowded as they had been led to expect... the alleged horrors of economy class no more unendurable than a few squalling infants, one incessant boom-box, and a quartet of rowdy teenagers mixing Coca Cola with Kachusu (a locally distilled hooch). These elements remained fairly constant through two meals; lunch, when the couple sampled beef stew and nsima  (the latter justifiably maligned, a tasteless corn-based substance with the consistency of paste); and dinner, when they switched to the only other choice, beef stew and rice. Sebastian felt vindicated for disdaining the moderately better but twelve-times-as-expensive first-class cabins; Yayuk was less exultant, her half of the ruptured upholstery being a bit damp, leg room restricted, smells too pungent now that both portholes were sealed and the holds likewise shut against the cool night air. Another port of call contributed a plethora of new passengers. Air quality degenerated. Malawian conversation ("sounds like fighting, they talk so loud") lost its meager charm. The sallow overhead lights gave their cramped quarters a jaundiced cast, underscored when rain drove those on deck to join the madding crowd indoors. Coughing, sneezing, and sputtering, these interlopers took up every available space save the fiercely guarded two and a half meters of bench occupied by Yayuk, lying lengthwise, and Sebastian, seated with his head on folded arms atop their table—which incidentally doubled as someone else's bunk. The proximity of said occupant's shoes (used as pillows), in combination with an acute lower-back ache, soon prompted Mr. Lazarus to rearrange Ms. Kertanegara, molding his body to hers like interlocked spoons—discomfort thus coequal... as the voyage dragged on... sleep remaining elusive... odors repugnant... noises interminable. "But an interesting experience," Sebastian remarked, attempting to sugar-coat the cockroach—earning, from his shipmate, a withering stare.
 

    Daybreak brought relief only insofar as it ushered in a draught of inclement weather. Lifeboats, lowered to off-load folks bound for Likoma Island, pitched and tossed like corks on temperamental waves... whereupon pointed remarks (in Chechewa) were made in the couple's direction. The clique of "rude young men" had propped their bare feet too close to Yayuk's face (in violation of Malawian, not to mention Indonesian, etiquette), refusing to budge until a local woman gave them a good verbal thrashing—Yayuk adding a few choice words of her own.
    "Be polite to foreigners, or your country get bad reputation."
    Then finally, at long LONG last, the Ilala reached Chizumulu Island... or nearly. Lifeboats were again lowered, again jostled by rain-pocked swells, delivering residents and visitors alike within wading distance. Sebastian stepped overboard, bags in hand, and sloshed ashore, returning then for Yayuk, whom he toted through the shallows piggyback to what would be their home for the next seven days (when the Ilala was due to collect them for their journey's continuation).

 

MIND-RAPING...

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