Sugar Cane, Mansoor, My Sister & Me: My Best Travel Memory
In this time of pandemic, I basically am in solitary confinement. The things I love most are my children (my husband died when he was young, and I raised two little kids by myself). Next on my list are my siblings and other family members. And third are my passions: research, writing, and travel. Now, because of the global pandemic, my travel plans for this summer are totally uncertain. At the ripe old age of 70-plus, I had three trips planned for my 2020 summer break, but it doesn’t look like I will be able to take any of these. And so I have been traveling in my mind.
Of all the experiences I have had in many years of traveling, there is one I will always remember with special gratitude. This happened in Egypt, thanks to a humble, poor, and extraordinarily kind man.
First, you need to know a bit of my background. My father was a chemist, a general manager and part owner of two sugar factories. These factories were located in rural India, in a little village called Lohat, very close to the border with Nepal. When I think of my childhood, my remembrances are of beautiful, fragrant flowers of blazing colors, and trees laden with unique fruits. Both my parents were avid plant-lovers and experts in agriculture; my father’s organic chemistry background included medicinal plants, and while my mother had no formal education, she nursed each sick plant and each flower bed as if they were her children, and she understood plants and their lives better than many botanists I have known.
At that time, there were only a few families who lived in the village. There was one British gentleman who lived there with his wife, and who was also my father’s boss, until they left India for England. Their daughter was Betty. She was a bit older than me, with freckles that looked as if nutmeg has been sprinkled on eggnog, and she attended a boarding school in England and came back to us during summer holidays. For me at that time, England might as well have been the moon. She was called Bettybaba, a term of endearment in Bengali, our mother tongue.
Betty was wild. She often climbed on cows and water buffaloes and was totally fearless. I often wondered what tales she told her classmates when she went back to her boarding school. Lohat was surrounded by fields of sugar cane. Most of the inhabitants were associated with the factory in one form or another and many were farmers who grew this crop. Our lovely huge bungalow had a red-tiled roof, a fireplace in the drawing room, white-washed walls, high ceiling fans, bougainvillea of all colors climbing the walls, and multi-colored verbenas near our front gates.
Sugar Cane Fields
My earliest memories of childhood are of going with or without Bettybaba into the fields of sugar cane and occasionally getting into a bullock cart by myself, driven by one of the farmers who were bringing the canes to the factory.
There were no schools for girls. I am a middle child and a self-declared lonely bookworm. I don’t even remember how I learned to read and write, but I buried myself in books by Hugo, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, poetry by Keats and Yeats, and many other English writers, as well as many amazing Bengali writers such as Rabindranath Tagore (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature). When I was growing up, I read.
When I wasn’t reading, I was hiding among the sugar canes to torture the poor animals I found hiding in holes or on the leaves. Occasionally, when Dad was too busy to scold me, I pulled sugar canes out of the farmer’s bundle and chewed on them. There is a trick to savoring this crop; you pull out the skins with your teeth, discard these outer covers, and then bite out a piece from the white flesh, which is basically sterile. Then you chew on these juicy morsels. Juice runs gloriously down your chin and your hands become totally sugary while the bees and many insects circle around you.
This is not the same as drinking sugar cane juice, which is now offered in many countries as a liquid prepared by a grinding machine, manual or automatic. You have to try my technique to really experience the exoteric flavors hidden in these plants. Close your eyes and chew and chew and chew, until you have nothing left but some white fibers in your mouth, which you must spit out before taking the next bite of your sugar cane. Have you ever seen a cow chew sugar cane leaves? I can only say that chewing on sugar cane as the ruminants do is an experience you must try in order to really appreciate what is involved in the process.
No matter where I travel, I ask my guides to see if they can find sugar canes for me. Thanks to their efforts, I have savored sugar canes in Cuba, Ethiopia, Madagascar, several other countries in Africa, and also in many Asian countries. We would go to markets and buy sugar canes while my fellow travelers and guides would look at me askance, perhaps thinking I had grown up as a savage child, as I chewed to my heart’s content.
A Special Connection in Egypt
In Egypt, I did the same. My sister, her husband, and I were sailing on the Nile on our own sailboat, and whenever we were anchored or landed to see some sights, my eyes were on the beautiful plantations. As always, I implored my tour guide to find me sugar canes.
One day, when we were on land, our driver Ramon was taking us through the green countryside. Flowers of all kinds and vibrant colors were everywhere and so were acres and acres of sugar cane. Suddenly, we approached a donkey cart loaded with sugar canes driving by the side of the road. I asked Ramon to stop and buy one sugar cane stick for us.
Ramon, the kindest driver I have encountered in my travels, got us a whole bundle. I gave money to Ramon and asked him to give it to the farmer who had given us the coveted goods. The farmer refused. He said he wants you to enjoy his country and what he has to offer, Ramon translated.
Nothing would persuade the farmer to take the money. Looking at his attire, the condition of the cart, the donkeys and the labour I imagined he did in his fields, I knew he was a poor man by our standards, who probably barely eked out a living by manual labour. Yet no matter how hard I tried, he still refused and said his goodbye as he drove away in his donkey cart.
After putting our bundle of sugar cane in the trunk, Ramon started to drive. A few minutes later, we saw the same farmer again, still driving his cart. Upon my insistence, Ramon stopped the car. Translating my request, Ramon asked if we could take a photo of this kind young man; the farmer agreed. In the photo above, you can see my sister with the purple scarf (she is the prettier one), Mansoor, the farmer, with his cart, and me in a hat. After we had all thanked him, I put some bills in his palms and closed his fists over them. Again, he shook his head and kept refusing. I persevered and insisted that I would always remember his act of kindness and that this was the least I could thank him with.
In all my travels, all over the world, I have never come across another act of kindness such as this. For me, of all my travel experiences, all the people I have met, this was the most poignant moment. This experience was better than seeing the monuments or museums or any sights in this world. Wherever Mansoor is, I wish him the best and hope he is coping with the pandemic and the global crisis. In a time such as this, my thoughts fly to him again, as a shining example of the unexpected gifts that we can receive when we travel and of the goodness that exists around the world.
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