I wonder what they are selling over there?” Dianne said as she pointed out a more substantial stall set back from the others where a large crowd was waiting patiently. As we watched a two wheeled open cart with solid wooden wheels drawn by a pair of long horned Zebu rumbled into the clearing. It was laden with a huge pile of freshly cut green leafy branches. The throng stirred and began uncharacteristically for these usually reserved and well-mannered people to jostle each other for more favourable positions in the queue, whilst others attempted to mob the cart. A pair of stern looking men armed with stout wooden staves took up their positions atop the wagon and whacked anyone that dared to approach too close whilst the cart was manhandled into position behind the stall. As we watched, the crowd parted as a man armed with a sharp machete appeared behind the table and wrote a number with a flourish on a flat jagged piece of dark slate with a chalky piece of seashell. As he held it up the mob grumbled a little and then surged forward each holding a fistful of money, whereupon the guards lightly tapped the worst offenders on the crown of their heads with their staves until they subsided a little. Then as we watched fascinated, the man with the machete grasped a handful of shiny leaves from one of the branches, cut them free with a deft flick of his knife and exchanged it for a bundle of cash being waved toward him by one of the frantic members of the unruly horde. Each time he did this the mob stirred as if they feared that the supply of shiny leaves would run out before they had a chance to obtain any for themselves.
“The foliage looks like curry leaves or perhaps even tea leaves.” Dianne said quietly out of the corner of her mouth as we approached as close as we dared to the excited throng. “Look! They are eating them” she said as we noticed that the successful bidders had begun to drift away and were stuffing a few of the shiny leaves into their mouths and masticating contentedly upon them like cows.
“It must be coca leaves.” I said observing the dazed look that began to appear upon the faces of those that were chewing.
“You mean like those that cocaine is made from?” Dianne queried.
“I think so. After all we know that they grow vanilla and cocoa beans which both originated in South America, here in Madagascar, so why not coca plants too?”
“No! You are mistaken. This is not coca.” We looked up surprised as a thickset European man appeared next to us like a genie out of a bottle. “Please excuse me for eavesdropping but since you are the only other white people in this village I knew I should came over and introduce myself and so I myself could not help overhearing your conversation. My name is Pierre.” He said extending his hand towards me. “Don.” I said grasping his hand and winced at his firm handshake as I shook it. “This is my wife Dianne, my son Bill and my daughter Morgan.” I continued as I watched fascinated as he solemnly shook hands with each of them in turn. “We have just arrived ….” I began.
“Yes I watched your yacht, the Sailfish Pisces, when you arrived last night and dropped anchor in the bay.” Pierre interjected. “I myself am a visitor of sorts. I am here to study these fascinating people.” He smoothed his bushy black moustache with his forefinger. “You see I am an Ethnologist, from Paris. “ He explained by way of response to my raised eyebrows. As we spoke I noticed that the leafy contents of the Zebu cart had disappeared entirely and the once excited customers were now slowly drifting away munching serenely as they did so.
“In that case are you able to tell us something about the leaves that they are chewing?” Dianne asked as she kept a watchful eye on the children who had wandered over to where a weather-beaten turkey was gobbling as it strutted purposefully behind a reed barricade.
“Indeed I can, since their use of the plant forms part of my research. They are…………………………