“Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour!”
A group of kids run after me, their thin legs and knobbly knees pumping vigorously. I’m half expecting a trip-up, a group implosion.
“Bonjour, Mister!” they shout in chorus.
I slow down. They reach me, thrust their cupped hands forward and whoop, “Bonbon, Mister! Bonbon!”
It’s been a hell of a ride. The trail is compacted clay and deeply grooved by rain. I cycle at half mast and jump my bike over these groves. My cameras leap and bump from side to side on my back. My shoes and calves are caked in reddish dust. My legs are stiff and my right knee throbs.
I’ve arrived at a remote village in the heart of the Madagascar highlands. The cluster of thatched roof dwellings are single story, with an ochre crazed plaster finish that looks like someone has smeared it on with the palm of their hand. The air is pungent with burning wood. Women squat inside dim interiors and cook on small fires with glowing embers. Tendrils of smoke leak from the windows. Along the trail, I’ve seen rake-thin men, brows oiled with toil, faces dark-worn leather, carrying eucalyptus saplings in loose bundles across their shoulders. This is their fuel - no switch to flick here.
The children are no taller than my bicycle saddle. Their eyes are wide and deep and dark and glisten with curiosity. They have a ubiquitous snotty nose, dusty, mud-caked feet with small sausage-like toes and chipped nails. Their clothes hang off them the way washing does on a line.
I’m part way through an exhausting 500 km cycle ride, traversing the island from east to west. In the last week I’ve cycled beside sky-scraping granite mountains that reduced me to a two-wheeled rotating speck, alongside wind-sculpted sandstone canyons cross-stitched with layers of time, and across expansive plains of waist-high, honey-coloured grass with blades that dance to unseen currents, then stretch out and dissolve into a hazy horizon, empty, empty - except for the occasional diminutive arthritic tree reaching out its contorted fingers. Cycling alone, these were moments of thrilling isolation, the rotations a rhythmic meditation, the grassy plains filtering gently across my mind, producing a zen-like tabula rasa.
Then, this golden canvas stopped. Abruptly. The view became an eerie sooty black: a smouldering, charcoal landscape, like something from a Hitchcock movie, complete with black crows that whined a disconcerting and remarkably human sound. It is here that the villagers, driven by their empty stomachs, have slashed and burned the fields to make way for crops. Clearing land - like the pioneers of our own country 200 years ago, so that now we have farmland for food and pockets of conserved forests for weekend strolls.
And I'd parked my bicycle beside the trail and stood stock still, watching a chameleon, this bizarre, ancient, colour-changing reptile, moving slowly, reaching out, extending its front ‘fingers’ tentatively, like a climber scaling a cliff face, each handhold tested, precise, before gripping the branch, and pulling itself forward, then, without any haste whatsoever, repeating the motion with the other leg. And so on. Slow but assured. It felt like a metaphor. Cycling is about the journey. Slow down. Linger. Breathe...and change to embrace each new condition.
“Salama...Salama.” I give the children the Malagasy salutation and get off my bike. I massage my knee. I grab the camera - click - then display the image to them. They squeeze in scrum-like, jostling for position. The air is heavy in my nostrils, thick with unwashed bodies. Then there’s an eruption. Howeee! They scream and hoot and laugh, pointing at the camera. But one little boy bursts into tears. I reach over and tousle his bristly hair. “It’s okay,” my smile says.
I walk to my bike. They follow. The chant “Bonbon” begins again.
Soon there are requests for money.
Damn. Bloody hell. For the last five days I’ve been hassled and hustled. Tips. Bribes. Bargaining. Straight out rip-offs. I'm a walking ATM. A bit player in an informal economy that coerces money from the haves for the have nots. Money is a lubricant that makes things happen: enables you to bypass the long snaking queues at the airport, costs you twice as much for the taxi that gets you to your hotel, gets your luggage transported from Arrivals to boot, leaves a waiter lingering with a look of expectation.
I move past the pleas for lollies and money and cycle onward. There’s a long uphill ahead of me, leading to a crater lake at the top of a mountain. My head is down and I’m sucking in deep lungfuls when I catch something out of the corner of my eye. One of the boys has caught up and is trotting alongside me.
“Bonjour. Comment allez - vous?” he pants. His trousers are flapping around his legs. He’s wearing a billowing oversized knitted jumper. The sleeves leak over his hands.
Play dumb, I think. Then maybe he’ll drop back and leave me alone.
“Je ne comprends pas,” I say.
“Which country?” he asks. I shrug. “English?”
He tries again. “Mister. Where are you from, Mister? Which country? I live with my mother and brothers and sisters. I go to a privé school.”
I’m in no mood for this.
“Italian? Come te la passi, Mister? Vivo con mia madre. Vado a una scuola privata...”
“Where did you learn Italian?”
“You are English.”
His name is Patrick. Pat...rrrr...ick with a long rolling R.
Beads of sweat run down my forehead. “Look, stop trying to keep up with me.”
I want to sprint off. Free myself from any obligation. Stopping is also an option. Just say No! No money. Not interested. But here “No” is water off a duck's back.
I slow down.
“Do you have children?”
“Much older than you.”
“What did they study?”
“Languages. You are good with languages.”
Patrick shares a brief autobiography - part fact, part fiction. It’s not so much that he’s bullshitting. Rather, he’s amplifying his need.
“I go to a privé school.”
We are getting near the crest of the hill when the moment arrives, the reason he’s kept pace with me all the way up the mountain. “Would you like to buy these precious stones? Very good quality.”
I glance down at a couple of egg-shaped stones glistening in his palm.
“No, no, thanks.”
“Very good quality.”
“No, really. No. Maybe later. When I come back down.”
“No, no,” he says. “There are other children at the top. They will want to sell you something. You can buy from me.”
A small girl suddenly appears. Her name is Sandrrra and she wears a faded blue dress and is half Patrick's height. She too has stones cupped in her hands (very good quality) and goes to a privé school.
“But if I buy from you, I can’t buy from Patrick,” I say to her.
“It’s okay. We are partners,” she says.
“Really. Well. Perhaps later,” I say.
“Promise?” Sandra says.
“Promise?” Patrick says.
He offers me his hand. This catches me by surprise. His palm is moist, his grip light.
“Sure, sure,” I say.
I head up the mountain track to the crater.
On the way down, Patrick and Sandra trot alongside me. There is a bunch of kids lingering behind, like stray dogs. There are two fossils in Patrick’s hand.
“How much?” I ask. Suddenly I’ve shifted, crossed over a line.
“What! No way.” I could walk away but the pull to make the transaction is strong now.
“You can bargain,” Sandra chips in.
I shake my head.
“It’s okay to bargain,” she says.
“10,000. I’ll give you 10,000.”
“29,000,” Patrick says, without missing a beat.
My eyes widen. “Fine. Okay. Here’s 30,000.”
I spread the notes out in his small hand. One miniscule contribution to equalising the disparity in our global economy.
“Do you have change?”
When I head off, there's a long, sweet downhill ahead of me. On the horizon lies a range of mountains that rise like graphic silhouettes, their tops as flat as a table.
I glance back at Patrick and Sandra. They are surrounded by a throng of children. It's as if Patrick has just scored a goal in a major football game. ‘Admiration’ is the word that comes to mind. Because that's what I feel for this plucky, perceptive, creative, clever, entrepreneurial, tenacious kid.
Just before I speed down the slalom ride, I see Patrick and Sandra trotting back towards their village. Side by side.
P.S: 30,000 Ariary is just over 10 NZ dollars.