Monday

Belize Survivor, part 32

As the pale blue VW bus passed by the quaint cottages of Brighton nestled among the immaculate gardens of the southern English countryside, Max Lord and his childhood friend, Ian Fairbanks, congratulated each other on the success of their trip. So far, it had been flawless.

"It doesn't get any better than this, does it, old boy?" said Max, slapping Ian’s shoulder good-naturedly. “I thought I'd never finish my time in that stinking Boers' army. Really, chum, it was a brilliant idea. And what a concert that was! The Isle of Wight is sure to go down in history.” He squinted slightly and pointed ahead. "Looks like a couple of good-looking birds hitchhiking. Want to give them a go?"

"OK,” said Ian, with an impish smile, “but only if I get the dark-haired one."

“Deal,” Max replied. “But you'll be sorry when you get a good look at the redhead. She's a knockout." The van slowed down and pulled over; Max had the door open even before they came to a complete halt.

“Hi! Thanks for stopping," said the dark-haired girl, as they both climbed in. "My name’s Janine and this is Gabrielle.” The girls arranged their backpacks on the floor on the van and settled themselves comfortably in the backseat. “Where are you guys from?"

"South Africa, Natal Province," Ian answered for both of them, as he put the vehicle in gear and brought it back up to speed. "This is Max Lord and I'm Ian Fairbanks."

"Gabby is from California, and I'm from Chicago,” Janine added. “I’ll bet you were at the Isle of Wight concert, huh?”

"I’ll say! In fact, I feel like I’m still there. The music's still playing over and over in my head; I’ve barely started to come down from the buzz," said Max.

"I’m sorry we missed it, but unfortunately, we just got to England yesterday," said Gabby. She and Janine had met at Heathrow and decided to knock around Europe together for a while. They were going to France and Spain first. “How 'bout you guys?"

“Europe first, of course,” Max answered. “Then on to India. It’s almost eight thousand kilometers overland. We’re not really sure. But we've got nothing but time, so it doesn't really matter. Why don’t you girls hang out with us on the Continent for a while? You need the ride and we'd sure enjoy the company.”

Ian jumped at it. “Yes, I second the motion. How 'bout it, ladies?"

Over the next several weeks, the foursome enjoyed the little cabarets of Spain and France, partying, dancing, and plying themselves with wine and French pastries. They finally parted company in Milan when the American girls decided to go south to see Florence and Rome. Per the original plan, Max and Ian intended to continue their trek east through the Balkans to Turkey and on into the great deserts of the Middle East.

All across Eastern Europe, they’d heard frightening rumors about the safety of the Turkish border crossing, so naturally, they were apprehensive when they found no one at Immigration to check their papers. After waiting nervously for someone to see them through, when the border guard finally arrived, he was smiling and friendly. And in spite of the language barrier, he sold them some prime-quality hashish, stamped their papers, and sent them on their way with a crooked yellow smile. Pleased with such an auspicious entrance, Ian and Max changed their image by purchasing Arab-style clothing. Clad in native headdresses and flowing robes, they further endeared themselves to the local population by making a sign for the front of the van that read Inshallah – if Allah wills.

In the months that passed, the van trundled bravely across the Middle Eastern deserts in spite of incredibly harsh conditions. The desert was blistering by day and freezing by night. In many seemingly unending stretches, there were no roads, no signs, only the faint tread marks of previous vehicles in the shifting sands. On occasion, a truck would approach from the other direction, putting on its high beams within a hundred meters of the vehicle. Both Max and Ian had screamed curses at this impudent behavior until a helpful English tourist explained it as a local courtesy to prevent collision with stray camels. Through the weeks and months that followed, the elevation increased sharply, and not long afterwards, the jagged mountain peaks of the great Kush of Afghanistan pierced the distant sky.

Once into India itself, Ian and Max visited the Vale of Kashmir, reputed to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. In Benares, the great holy city of India, they visited the Theosophical Society, where Max spent many hours in the immense library, enriching his mind with the teachings of the great philosophers and holy men. Slowly, he began to soften and forgive the wounds of the past, giving up much of his anger and hurt, especially when his eyes were opened to the suffering and poverty of India's masses. He read of Mohandas Gandhi, the struggle for freedom under Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and the destruction that followed in the tortuous separation of Hindu India and the Islamic Pakistani states. At last, in Bombay, Max and Ian sold the van and boarded a ship bound for the Seychelles and the ports of eastern Africa.

Of all the places he'd been, the Seychelles most embodied Max's ultimate fantasies. He sat on the beach under the coco de mere palms found nowhere else in the world. The women were the most beautiful he'd ever seen, the French ancestral blood mixing with the dark-eyed Ceylonese and the smooth features of the East Asians. The weather of the islands was always perfect, as it varied little from the median temperature of seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. As he stared into the cobalt blue of the ocean's depths, Max realized he’d found the tranquility he’d sought and was ready to return home. Ian postponed his departure. Finding a dark-eyed beauty of his own to distract him, he opted to stay in the Seychelles for a few weeks longer, but they arranged to meet in Durban in one month's time.

Max advised his family regarding his return, and asked if they could come to Durban to meet him. Then he boarded the boat heading due west from Victoria for the final leg of the journey down the African east coast. Visiting the ports of call one by one – Mombassa, Dar es Salaam, and Lorenzo Marques, he realized he had come a long way, and not just in the geographical sense. He felt different, looked different, and carried peace in his soul for the first time. With new eyes he saw a new Africa; his experience had taken him outside the provincial world in which he'd grown up. Now he was ready to return to his father’s plantation in Zululand; where he wanted to put his newfound knowledge and compassion to use, to assume his position on the farm, and begin a new life.

Having been gone for just over a year, it was at once strange and familiar to be returning home. As Max walked off the gangplank in Durban, he tried to get the attention of his father, who was still searching the deck for him.

"Here, Dad!" he yelled above the clamor of the crowd. The dock carried the sharp acrid odors of curry, stale sweat, and urine. Departing passengers shouted to their relatives, carrying live chickens or leading goats as they shoved through the crowd, their children scurrying behind.

"Over here," he shouted again. "Dad, Mum, Clarice! Here I am."

"Max!" shouted Sophie, spotting him and pointing. "Mummy! Look at Max!"

As the family got closer, they stopped short, staring at a person they no longer knew.

"Max," said Ellie, "What the devil happened to your clothes? Look at your hair."

"It's good to see you, son," said Guy, breaking the ice. "But where are your shoes? What's happened to you?"

Max suddenly realized how drastically his appearance had changed. His hair had grown more than six inches since his departure and was now down to his shoulders. He sported a full beard, cutoff blue-jean shorts, an Afghani sheepskin vest with no shirt underneath, and leather sandals. Under one arm was a set of bongo drums, and a small backpack was slung over the other shoulder. Looking back at them, ignoring their looks of shock and disbelief, he smiled and said serenely, "I was gone and now I'm back."



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