CHAPTER FIVE

THE SECRET OF SEAWEED


    After Chizumulu Island, something changed, most noticeably in Sebastian, who became atypically playful in social situations: kidding with crafts-people, chatting up waiters and waitresses, initiating conversations with absolute strangers. Yayuk's spirits similarly lightened, supporting her companion's cheerfulness by sometimes joining in. They were friendlier to each other, also, an invisible valve having opened to release former steam.
    Nkata Bay was where they left the Ilala, gratefully, having suffered three and a half hours of intense economy-deck swelter amid baskets full of reeking sun-dried fish. When they disembarked they did so for good; their travels north through Malawi would henceforth be on terra firma. After checking in at the Heart Hotel—a run-down homey little place off the beach-front's beaten track, their room's single bed just wide enough for two, its dusty green mosquito net bearing plenty of hasty repairs—the couple again congratulated themselves on securing the basics. They even had a flush toilet and fully-functional shower (out back, that is). Being the only guest house in an otherwise un-touristic area, ordinary life was the Heart's main appeal—a welcome change from establishments that catered to Christmas-recess backpackers whose mid-December influx had whitewashed the town.
    Famished, the couple went out for a late lunch, wolfing down omelets, toast, and salad, closer to the dinner hour, at which time they made an unsuccessful attempt to sample spitted goat... "Sorry, folks," they were told at a place further up the shore, "those Norwegians we sent to buy the goat must still be toasting its health. Would you care for fish, instead?"... returning to the former establishment for spaghetti, cheese sauce, and tea.
    Tasks to be accomplished in Nkata were: getting visa extensions; cashing another hundred-dollar travelers cheque to fund the additional time; and re-plotting their itinerary to arrive in Tanzania, then Zanzibar, post holiday crunch. Meanwhile, they experienced the mainland's hustle and bustle: vehicular traffic for the first time in a week; a market place brimming with foodstuffs, handicrafts, and trinkets; a variety of eateries (most featuring pizza); numerous bars and bottle stores; a post office, bank, police station, and dismal-looking jail. If this was civilization, they much preferred Chizumulu... or Livingstonia, should it live up to its billing. Reputed to have "some of the most spectacular views in Africa," the town atop Livingstone Escarpment was marked as the couple's next destination. Getting there was the problem; no public transport was available once reaching the village of Chitimba—which was sixteen long, steep, barely passable kilometers...

... from where the couple finally stood...

Christmas on the Escarpment

(after a classic Malawian bus ride, their overcrowded vehicle chugging feebly into Rumphi, where at last it broke down, all passengers stampeding onto a similarly overcrowded motor coach, which rendered it, for the duration, barely endurable)

...under a roadside shade tree that sheltered two fellow travelers, one of whom had been waiting for a lift "up" since 9 o'clock that morning. It was 4 P.M. The other, looking equally bored, had already "done" Livingstonia, and was waiting for transport south. As luck would have it, five surfer-type South Africans in an air-conditioned mini-van soon came to the rescue...  almost...  but, after agreeing to take on three more passengers, and after negotiating the first kilometer of an abominable road, and after idle conversation confirmed that Livingstonia was nowhere near a cabana  much less a beach, they U-turned—Yayuk and Sebastian baling out, grateful for the head start (sort of), the latter eager to "hoof it," the former (with grave reservations) falling woefully behind.
    Four hours and fifteen grueling minutes later, their sore-soled steps guided by a flashlight's oblong beam—Yayuk's bad ankle and Sebastian's bum knee tormenting them in tandem—they reached "Stone House," founded in 1894 by the Free Church of Scotland, its solid structure worthy of any God-fearing upstanding lassie or lad. Part guest-accommodation, part national monument cum museum, the huge rooms, high ceilings, and turn-of-the-century furnishings made it seem to the exhausted couple like they were entering a private residence—which in fact they were, the ghost of Dr. Robert Laws still very much at large. A hot shower and a bed—with complete sets of freshly laundered linen—underscored the homey impression, and though there was nary a morsel of food to be had, Yayuk and Sebastian retired for the night, confident daybreak—and breakfast—would enhance the estate-like grandeur.

    Distant thunder, with contradictory blue sky visible through their curtain-framed window, lured the couple outdoors next sunup onto a huge verandah... where, far below, Lake Malawi sprawled... mountainous Tanzania forming the northern-most horizon... Luromo Peninsula arching like a sickle off to the west... Mount Chumbe, crowned by cumulus, lording over the south...  vistas, as reported, both sweeping and magnificent, plus virtually unobstructed save by a few trees and shrubs... the foreground trimmed with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and deep-purple morning glories... the background a regal panorama, seen from on high, conferring a proprietor's joy on those who, in reality, were transitory visitors. Expecting to stay through Christmas, everything seemed ideal, with one noteworthy exception: the ill-reputed dearth of a decent meal.
    In hopes of evading standard-issue beans and rice served ad nauseam at Stone House (or so they were forewarned), Yayuk and Sebastian, arm in arm, lamely went in search of more diverse cuisine. At Livingstonia's only restaurant—indistinguishable from the under-stocked grocery store it likewise impersonated—they arranged to "dine" that evening on pre-ordered omelets (supplemented, alas, with beans and rice).
    "No meat?"
    "No meat."
    Dreams of a Yuletide roast quickly fading, the pair continued to forage: mangos, bananas, tomatoes, and peanuts were the village market's meager offerings; pineapples grew toward ripeness in bordering hillside fields—where a few goats grazed; chickens, of course, scuttled through several front and back yards; but prize pigs, fatted calves, and tom turkeys were nowhere to be seen. Nor, when questioned, did the locals confide any plans for gastronomic festivities. Sebastian thought this odd, in a Christian community; perhaps they had asked an unrepresentative sample. Yayuk, to her credit, took things in stride.
    "If beans and rice is all, so what? Be flexible."
    Nevertheless, when the couple came upon five men slaughtering a cow alongside Livingstonia's main dirt road, visions of future carnivorism jointly revived. And when Patterson, the cook at Stone House, agreed to go and buy some of the fresh meat, Sebastian canceled their order at the restaurant-cum-grocery-store.
    That night, sitting down to a meal of beef chunks—over beans and rice—the boon of animal protein lost its appeal. Their New Year's resolution might well be vegetarianism.

    Sustenance irrespective, Stone House was another enchanted isle, this time defined by a surrounding sea of wide-open spaces and cloud-crowded skies, the escarpment itself a promontory perched above Lake Malawi like a massive step up. Its russet color-scheme of flame-red, burnt-orange, and deep-burgundy foliage splotched the land with pockets akin to autumn in New England. Cool temperatures (there were blankets on the dorm-style beds), brooding weather systems (rainy season had begun), and pine scent in the air (from a nearby stand of evergreens), likewise set the stunning plateau apart, as did its colonial architecture (almost all constructed with locally quarried stone and man-made brick). Conceived, designed, and built as a technical training center by the aforementioned Dr. Robert Laws, replete with trade school, teachers college, and a fully-staffed educational hospital, Livingstonia, in its heyday, was a model of industriousness and ingenuity—qualities noticeably absent a century hence. Like most post-colonial sites the couple had visited, a sense of decline was pervasive, creating the distinct impression that standards of living were higher in times gone by.
    "Why?" Sebastian wondered aloud to Ms. Kertanegara. "It sounds racist to observe that the Black man consistently falls below the White man with respect to attainments, but, by and large, in Africa—and in the States—I'd say it's true."
    "Too much pushing the red button," Yayuk concurred.
    And though it could be argued that underdeveloped peoples (along with the circumstances keeping them in that condition—be they political, social, or economic) were doing far less damage to the planet than those more technologically advanced, if given a choice between First and Third World lifestyles, most folks in the Third would willingly trade places with most folks in the First—just as Tenderloin denizens in San Francisco would gladly relocate to Pacific Heights. Factors keeping the poor from advancement, therefore, were not philosophical; the poor existed because they chronically under-achieved—when measured against the yardstick of success-geared mentalities. Such was Sebastian's grudging conclusion, at any rate, after giving the complex matter considerable thought. Yayuk, unaffected by the American Civil Rights movement, thus free from pangs of guilt about failed remedies like Welfare and Affirmative Action, summed things up without Caucasian compunction.
    "In my country, when we see gap, like America high and us low, we want high, too. But not with want alone; we want with sweat."
    Indonesia—a developing country, an aspiring country—was eager (over-eager) to emulate the West, and recognized such ambitions could only be realized through plain hard work. Envy, especially the species rampant in many less productive Black populations, simply led to resentment, sometimes hatred, but was useless without the will, the means, and the wherewithal to get the job done. Listlessness had become the African status quo.
    Why were most backpacker accommodations foreign-owned, for instance? And why were the few exceptions run so inefficiently? Yayuk and Sebastian had seen example after example of local Black people employed by White outsiders, but no examples of the opposite. When they did find themselves staying at a Black-owned and operated establishment (like Stone House), service, maintenance, and amenities were markedly sub par—the larder's routine paucity a sore case in point.
    Starvation was averted, however, thanks to Patterson—waiter, cook, accountant, and busboy all in one—who heeded his guests’ advice by re-stocking the Stone House kitchen. Things perhaps had gotten a trifle lax; the owner was out of town at a relative's funeral.
    "I’ll try," was Patterson's stock response to the couple's requests for a more varied menu, resulting in chicken the following night. And, next morning—alongside the usual gooey-rice, tea, and greasy fritters—eggs and tomatoes showed up. Better. A far cry from Chizumulu. But, whatever his limitations, Patterson aimed to please.

 

"... because they offend...

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