From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

Elisabeth and The Bonbon Girls

02/02/2022

Alone, I walked along the dusty path that led away from the termite-ravaged back gate of the small French colonial-style hotel. It was a clean and friendly place but still eagerly awaiting its first star so there was nothing there to lessen my desire to escape. As I surveyed my surroundings, trying to decide which way I should wander, an undernourished girl who I guessed was about six years old saw me from the point where the track forked and approached me without any sign of trepidation. She wore a brightly coloured dress roughly hand stitched together from a variety of materials, a large proportion of which appeared to be the remains of a red and yellow striped beach towel. As she got nearer she looked up at me with a face partly encrusted with the residue of a cold. Kids in Madagascar didn’t seem to carry freshly laundered monogrammed handkerchiefs, or even tissues for that matter. A pair of shoes would have been of even more use to her but she didn’t possess those either. Big bright eyes enhanced the warmth of a smile that did nothing to suggest that she was anything less than happy in her world. 

Of all the things she lacked in her life and might have asked me for, she came out with ‘Bonbon, monsieur. Bonbon s'il vous plait.’ She giggled a little nervously to suggest that she didn’t make a habit of requesting sweets from strangers, though I suspected that she did.

I had been prepared for this. On my trips to poorer countries I had always taken with me bags of sweets from my local corner shop. I carried them in a small rucksack along with my camera, water bottle, a tool for removing stones from the hooves of indigenous species and a collection of other giveaway items that might be called upon. Two of the principal rules for travelling in the tropics is to be nice to the local people and to never carry sweets in your pocket as conditions are already sticky enough without your last Mackintosh's Rolo in its liquid form running down your leg.

Some members of our group had pooh-poohed my strategy of giving confectionery to the children we met as it would rot their teeth. I couldn’t help but wonder how few sweets a youngster living in a ramshackle hut with a diet consisting predominantly of rice and things that fell out of trees or jumped out of rivers was likely to enjoy during the course of its childhood. I was sure that it wouldn’t be many. And sure doesn’t a bit of luxury cheer anybody up even if such luxury amounts only to a solitary sherbet lemon? However, I didn’t completely ignore their point and since then I’ve refrained from offering sweets to children in places like Chippenham where sugar-based treats are more plentiful. There it reduces the risk of them suffering dental cavities and me suffering prosecution.

Despite the teachings of the amateur dentists in my circle of friends, I chose to stick to the toffee eclairs (though not literally) and my new acquaintance was utterly thrilled to have been offered one. She gazed at it incredulously, held it up to the sun, removed the wrapper, sniffed it, enjoyed the crinkling of the wrapper between her fingers, sniffed it again, put it in her mouth and shrieked with delight as an English child might if given the entire contents of Hamleys toy shop or a Ferrari or a Leeds United replica shirt on Christmas Day.

‘Merci Monsieur! Merci beaucoup!´ she sang as she danced around me. It seemed that not only had I made her day but been present at a moment she would treasure for a long time to come.

Like hitchhikers on a slip road of an English motorway, as soon as one had got what they had been looking for, a couple more appeared from behind the bushes. Two girls, one older and one younger than the first and clad in matching patchwork dresses, so I assumed they’d be sisters, joined in the celebration. They didn’t ask directly for ‘bonbons’ but by showing their happiness at their sibling’s success I detected that they knew what they were doing.

My bag was unzipped again, out came a couple more sweets as two more big smiles and four more big eyes appeared on the new girls’ faces. Ten minutes of silence interrupted only by a little slurping was brought to an end with a barrage of chattering. I don’t know much French but I do know that ‘une autre’ means another and the accompanying embarrassed should-we-or-shouldn’t-we laughter quickly confirmed my suspicion that they were still a bit peckish.

Fearful of further infringing the Chippenham Tooth Cavity Law I spurned their request, bringing a hint of sulkiness to those little faces. But I had another trick up my sleeve (or in my rucksack, as sleeves were too much to bear in the oppressive heat of the day) to salvage the situation. Forgive me for sounding a little conceited but I feel that I am a grandmaster of donating old T-shirts to poor children in Third World countries. I have even given lectures on it at Chippenham College of Adult Education, a seat of learning that I discovered by accident in the expectation that adult education would include adult games and adult movies but the best they had to offer was a coffee machine that was only able to dispense Bovril with extra sugar and the town’s first revolving door (it now has three).

On my big trips abroad I have always packed my bag with old clothes and then gradually given them away as I have worn them, saving me the trouble of washing them or taking them home dirty. This is probably not the most hygienic method of updating a child’s wardrobe but I’ve always felt that my dirty clothes were significantly cleaner than what they were wearing at the time and what probably hadn’t been washed since the previous band of European travellers wandered into town months or even years before. On this occasion I was more concerned about the motifs on the fronts of the shirts being acceptable to these poor, unsuspecting kids. But I unfolded my wares in front of them and they seemed to have no problem with the references to Siouxsie and the Banshees 2002 Tour, Kelly’s Bar Belfast or Saying NO! To Tory Cuts emblazoned across their hungry little bodies. Delighted as they were with their new garments, they didn’t put them on over their existing clothes to model them. This I put down to at least one of the following: (i) the new clothes were far too big for them to wear even as a long dress, (ii) the weight of the fabric was too much to bear in the oppressive heat of the day, or (iii) they wanted to take them home for their mum to put in the wash.

I asked them a few questions about their lives. The usual things like where did they live, what work did their parents do and which school did they go to. I didn’t get any answers and hoped that this was because of the language barrier that existed between us and not because there simply were no answers. I did manage to coax their names from them which, in order of increasing height of little girl, were Hanitra, Sarobidy and Tanita. I asked if their family name was Tikaram but again got no answer.

Then there was a five-minute vocal barrage comprising entirely of ‘merci beaucoup’ and ‘au revoir’ before they disappeared down a path into the long grass, singing as they went (probably about a fat white man who had more bonbons and T-shirts than sense).

Alone again, I continued my walk, passing a number of huts, each a complex and unique jigsaw puzzle of bits of wood held together by rusty nails, string, mud and things that might have fallen out of animals. They resembled the pigeon lofts that you might see on allotments in Northern England but I suspected they were people’s homes. Strangely there were no people or pigeons about. I assumed they must have all gone away somewhere, maybe to take part in a race.

Eventually I heard voices and barking dogs in the near distance as the track widened, opening out to reveal a broad river and a throng of activity both on its lush green banks and in the crystal clear water between. Not having gardens that they could call their own, probably because of the density of the vegetation around their huts, it seemed the inhabitants had gone down to the river to do just about everything that they couldn’t do at home. Trying to catch fish in your living room never goes without problems so I wasn’t surprised to see a few people in the river with nets and on the banks with rods. One of the more professional looking anglers wore a tweed hat with a couple of flies hooked into its brim. I was sure that he imagined himself as having gone up to the Tay for the salmon. His only other attire was a pair of shorts which looked to have been made from remnants of the same red and yellow striped beach towel that I had seen earlier. Nearby, kids played and swam to entertain themselves, keep cool, keep clean and scare away the fish that their parents probably saw as their only source of food for that day. I was tempted to donate what remained of the bag of toffee eclairs in a sort of single-handed famine relief operation.

Other people in the water included a washerwoman doing what you would expect washerwomen in poor countries to do. What made her stand out from the crowd was that she was attractively made up and wore quite chic looking European-style clothes. Her handbag and shoes were in a neat pile on the ground, just as you might have seen in a British night club in the 1970s. There was obviously a lot of money to be made in washerwomaning. I wondered when she would get round to laundering the village’s newly acquired T-shirts and why the contents of her heavily laden baskets didn’t include anything made from the remnants of a red and yellow striped beach towel.

A family waded through a stretch where the water was only thigh deep to carry what appeared to be a roughly made wooden coffin from one bank to the other. They seemed to be struggling with its weight so I imagined that it must have been occupied. There wasn’t enough coffin to keep all of the adult members of the family busy so some carried small children, huge plastic bottles of water, baskets of flatbread, long clusters of bananas, an electric fan and a bicycle. All the accoutrements you’d need for a half-decent funeral.    

A man on a raft sold mangoes to passers-by near to where cattle and pigs basked in the mud.  Chickens that looked a long way off being oven-ready cooled their feet in shallow water after the morning’s long hot dusty walk from the wooden huts. Only a few metres away a snake making plans for lunch kept a beady eye on them.

On the banks above the river there were more kids playing; their intermittently miskicked football making a not insignificant contribution to the scaring away of the fish. Women cooked food in cast iron pots over fires as more children, flanked by dogs that could only be described as half Pavlovian and half rabid, gathered around their feet. Men sat under trees, talking or sleeping or both, as the combined aroma of animal droppings, cigarette smoke and fried fish swirled around them in the most laid back tornado the world had ever witnessed. A man clutching a Bible in one hand and a large bottle of the local Three Horses beer in the other shouted at the half dozen or so people who cared to listen, though because his words were in the Malagasy tongue it was hard to tell whether it was his preaching or his alcohol that had caught their attention.

I don’t know if Ranomafana should be described as a large village or a small town but it’s what I found as a bend in the river forced my route up towards the road. It was certainly a bustling sort of place with brick-built houses, shops, a church, both kinds of sleeping policeman (i.e. a traffic calming system near the school and a constable who might have overdone it a bit with the Madagascar rum), and a market that stayed open only until the sun’s rays began to sting.

Tentatively, I looked inside the most upmarket of the few small shops. It had a sign above the door bearing the words Epicerie Mahavonjy which, using my amazing powers of deduction, I deduced was French for ‘purveyors of bananas, bread and beer’. So I bought myself a bottle of beer which, to my surprise and delight, was the coldest thing that I had encountered since my conversation with the man at the Air France check-in desk at Heathrow Airport a week earlier.

Outside, I sat on a bench beneath one of the many traveller’s palms (ravenala madagascariensis – an intriguingly beautiful fan-shaped fruit-bearing plant indigenous to Madagascar that isn’t really a palm but looks a bit like one) that lined the road. Here I watched women walking in every direction with heavy baskets of goodness knows what on their heads while a group of men stood around a 1950s sky blue Peugeot 205; three of them kicking its tyres as a fourth tried to get the engine to start. A mix of boys and girls, probably a bit older and more skilful than the kids I had seen by the river, were playing football. Without fish to scare I supposed they were more likely to be concentrating on the game.

As I had noticed on the length of my morning walk, nobody appeared to have much of a care about what was going on in the world. They had almost nothing by way of possessions but also almost nothing by way of worries. As long as they had something to eat, games to play and something to talk about they seemed to be happy. To me their lives couldn’t have been more straightforward. I suspect they encountered difficulties that I was unaware of. What they would do in the event of a big storm or a crop failure, and how to survive with a total lack of medical care were the ones that came to mind, but during the time that I spent there they seemed to be all just ambling along in a contented, uncomplicated way.

 

Vanilla pod Elisabeth.

Vanilla Pod Elisabeth.

 

I was woken from my daydream by a woman who appeared to be middle-aged but was probably much younger; working in the hot sun no doubt having accelerated the way that time had taken its toll on her.

‘Vanilla pods! Will you buy some?’ she began the conversation in broken English.

Not really having any need for vanilla pods but not wanting to turn away the poor woman who was doing her best to earn a living, I selected a bunch and gave her a couple of thousand Ariary (about twenty pence).

‘What do I do with them?’ I asked, genuinely not having a clue.

She told me I should store them in a large bag of sugar to keep them dry and then I could use them for cooking or to sweeten my coffee. Accepting that it had been a bit remiss of me to travel all that way without a large bag of sugar, and even in Epicerie Mahavonjy it was an item that I hadn’t seen on the shelves, I put the pods in my bag and changed the subject.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked her.

The most beautiful smile illuminated her face as she responded ‘Elisabeth. What’s yours?’

I didn’t understand everything that she said but I got the impression that she was happy that I was taking the time to talk to her as many people travelling through took absolutely no interest in what she had to say or sell. Foreigners, to her, were all crazy.

‘What? Even me?’ I pretended to be offended.

Putting a hand on my shoulder she laughed raucously and said, ‘Maybe you are crazy in a different way, Monsieur Turlough!’

I explained that the ‘monsieur’ bit wasn’t necessary, emphasising my point by suggesting that she would need to be Madame Elisabeth, and she reluctantly agreed. She struck me as the happiest, loveliest, friendliest person I had ever met on my journeys. I really wanted a photograph of her but often I’d found that people, especially in less developed countries, were reluctant to pose for the camera. I asked her anyway and what I had expected turned out not to be the case.

To my delight she answered, ‘yes!’ putting on her official serious face, which wasn’t really what I wanted. Despite all the laughter from minutes earlier she was finding it difficult to even smile. After some cajoling from me she did, but only a little. Then I showed her the image on my camera’s display screen and the riotous laughter started again.

‘Will you send me a copy?’ she asked during a pause between laughing fits.

‘Of course, but you’ll have to tell me your address,’ I replied.

‘I’ll write it down. You have paper and a pen?’

‘No’ I had to say. ‘Haven’t you?’

She shook her head. For around thirty seconds we looked at each other, our faces blank with disappointment. Then she said, ‘Never mind. Just bring it the next time you come to Ranomafana, when you need more vanilla pods.’

Her laughter resumed as she walked away to talk to some Europeans on the other side of the road, leaving me to think how easy it had been for two complete strangers from different continents to enjoy each other’s company for fifteen minutes. My life was filled with the extravagant trappings of a European culture. Hers was filled with vanilla pods and hilarity. I supposed that I envied her more than she envied me. Her life was simple while mine was a complicated mess. A love for vanilla pods and laughter were all we had in common but on that occasion it was all we needed.

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