We walk down a country lane fringed by swaying coconut palms and luxuriant vegetation through which the Indian Ocean can be glimpsed. I am walking with Das, who is a part-time handyman at a local hotel, on a coastal path in northern Madagascar.
Das is full of curiosity for everything around him. He shows me the wild, parasitic chilli peppers climbing up an unsuspecting tree; he explains how essential oils used in French perfumes are extracted from the leaves of the ylang-ylang trees we pass. He points out cocoa trees and describes how the nut is sweetened to make chocolate, and speaks of the fecundity of these trees in the rainy season. He knows the names of flowers, plants, trees and everyone we meet.
He shouts out to people seen and unseen, his remarks sometimes causing fits of giggles from girls all but hidden in the green. I suggest we go fishing and his eyes light up; he has time on his hands and we decide on the following morning.
We push the outrigger pirogue into the sea at 7am with the high tide. It is, essentially, the same kind of boat in which the first peoples arrived from the Borneo-Malaysia region 1500 years ago. Malagasies guard closely those traditions and customs that lean towards their Asian origins.
It’s some time since I have paddled anything so my muscles quickly feel the pain. Das chats as he paddles; he makes observations, at times juicy, on the inhabitants of most of the coastal houses we pass. There’s the German who made a lot of money but his Malagasy wife ran away with it; there’s a previously abandoned hut now inhabited by an unquiet spirit. Das also points out a house he has built for someone.
The pirogue is taking water; the boat has been on the beach for several months with its planks shrinking in the sun. Das uses a silver ice bucket from the hotel where he works to bail. He laughs that he has communist leanings in his belief that things should always be shared.
We pass the village that marks the end of the road; Das informs me it is taboo to fish in front of the village on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It seems a princess of the village instituted the taboo centuries ago and it is still respected. Unlike many Malagasy taboos, this one has a practical origin – she had wanted the men to work in her fields on those days.
While Das is gossiping his eyes continue skimming across the water and he points out things I would otherwise have missed, such as the domed shell of a turtle that is swimming near the surface and a dolphin’s arched back not far off. He counts to five and the dolphin surfaces, and again after another five. “He rises every 5m,” Das explains. He counts again but no dolphin appears. He stops at 15 and we don’t see the dolphin again. He seems surprised; I disguise a small smile – he doesn’t know everything.
We put pieces of shrimp on a hook at the end of a line that has a sinker and I am the first to catch a fish.Das seems surprised at my success but I grew up fishing on the banks of the Shannon River in Ireland. Das soon overtakes me, whooping and shouting: “Madagascar 5! The World 2!” He wants a real competition but he’s too good for me; he has the reflexes I’ve now lost. The fish he catches are small but startlingly colourful.
He speaks of his two young children with different women. He suggests, ironically, that all women have the same problem – they talk too much. He shouts greetings to the fishermen in the pirogues that pass us, their sails billowing.
He tells me he feels free here and I think he means the beauty all around us, islands big and small, near and far, ranges of mountains shadowed in the distance. I have the feeling of sitting on the edge of a continent.”Not like that,” Das says. “I mean no hands-up. No stop-stop.”
We have drifted towards shore with the wind. The outgoing tide is clouding the waters but I see it clearly enough. We are in about 3m of water; a magnificent turtle swims ponderously, near the bottom. I see it coming from under the boat as I lean over the side.
I imagine a romantic rendezvous and eggs on the beach covered gently with sand by the mother before abandoning them. I picture tiny turtles scuttling to the sea trying to escape the many wily, waiting predators: a brutal and early lesson in life. Unlike mother duck, mother turtle has a rather laissez-faire attitude to maternal duties.
We head back with enough fish for Das not to be teased by his work colleagues. Das refers to all the fish by their Malagasy names; the only one I remember is ‘kakwanga’. The tide is out so we beach the pirogue 500m from where we launched it and I walk slowly, digging my toes into the soft sand. Das will wait for the tide to rise.
I feel he would have made a great teacher but would have regarded a classroom as a prison. Das is one of life’s truants, a great educator but somewhat irresponsible and roguish.
Far out, standing on sandbanks, fishermen are casting their nets, standing waist-high in water. They appear as two-dimensional, shadowy silhouettes under the fierce sun and look a little unreal, like an ancient biblical sketch. Then, gusts of light flashing spears off the water remind me – this is here, this is now.
Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.