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...
(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
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
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).
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
"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.
"Ill 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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