The Most Terrifying Thing I Ever Did
The most terrifying thing I have ever done was hand small children highly flammable objects, light them ablaze and then send the kiddies out into the dark streets of their already dangerous capital to play.
Now before all my dear friends at UNICEF start howling at me in outrage, remember that a) it was all conducted with a respect for the culturally acceptable celebratory practices; and b) that I did at least make a concerted effort to keep the large kitchen knife used for cutting up candles away from the smallest members of the party.
It’s not always clear what is best (or worst): over-zealous, cautionary parenting born out of a culture that loves their law suits in the west and the lackadaisical, free-for-all in the rest of the world. I am not sure if one is better actually, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, which one I found myself in on Saturday night.
The event started off on the right foot. I had made plans with a friend and about Thursday or Friday of last week, she sent me a text saying that she had a proposal. June 26th is Independence Day here in Madagascar. Since it ain’t no party ‘til you spend a week lighting off firecrackers and tooting party horns into the wee hours, the Saturday night, (the 25th) was just as exciting. In fact, I think it’s the big event, sort of like Christmas Eve – you have all the fun and excitement and anticipation and then Christmas morning involves a lot of quality family time spent in one’s pyjamas.
My friend sent me a message saying her housemate, who runs an orphanage, is going to do the traditional Independence day lantern walk and would we like to come along and help, because they could certainly use some extra adult supervision. Well, who’s going to say no to a bunch of orphans?
We decided to go do the lantern walk and push our plans back a few hours. I have volunteered in a few kid’s homes and youth programs as volunteer before this and I even did it for pay in my own wild youth. I worked at a high-adventure camp for kids. We routinely sent kids off a 70 ft zipline. We woke them up in the middle of the night and told them the camp was being invaded by the bad guys from the Matrix and that they had to save it with their flashlights and smelly-felts. We had milk chugging contests and let them wrestle for inner tubes. We devised all sorts of madness and nonsense for crying out loud. Nothing prepared me for this.
There are a range of stimulants that can produce team wall-bouncing in a group of 20 children: new faces, dinner time, fun and games… did I mention there were 20 of them? All these factors together colluded to create utter mayhem. In my amazement, as I watched these kids run and skid into each other like roller derby champions, I felt a nice patting sensation on my head. The patting changed to a light massage and before I knew it there were little hands braiding my hair from multiple directions. This is also not so strange in a group of small children.
However, it was a bit strange that it was the 10 and 12 year old boys who ended up being the stylists. But I am not one to judge. And if that is what they want to be when they grow up, then I, Kiki Tegelberg, will happily be their hair model.
As the makeover was winding down, the boys were drawn to bigger and brighter things – literally. I had made the mistake of pulling out my camera and setting off the flash, at which point (photographic evidence to follow), not a single one of them would rest until they had their chance to strike innumerable poses. Luckily I was saved by other lights: a small rustling over in the corner started gaining more and more participants. What was that rustling? It was the unfolding of accordion-style paper lanterns. Now, I am all for this lantern idea and being the silly vazah that I am, I thought they must have little battery-operated flashing LED lights inside.
Nothing but live ammunition for these precious little ones. The rustling was the lanterns, but the ominous thwack that punctuated the roaring din of 20 children all talking excitedly at once was definitely from the one child (let’s be generous and say she was eight or nine) who was using a sizable kitchen knife to cut candles down to size and then melt off the ends to stick them in the lanterns. Small hands grabbed from all sides, giant paper bubbles bobbed and batted around and a nice layer of melted wax coated the scene.
Is anyone else hyperventilating at this point? Because my breathing was certainly mildly uncomfortable. If not, well, prolong the mayhem and fire for another forty minutes while each and every lantern was lit and then relit and after that factor in the flailing coats and scarves as the children suited up in their “winter” gear for a chilly night walk. It was, after all 20 degrees Celsius – better bundle up!
Finally we assembled the crowd and set off into a completely dark street, save for the other bobbing paper lanterns of hundreds of other children. I know this is rather anticlimactic, but it all went swimmingly. Maybe it’s because children aren’t pampered here with functional electrical grids that provide a steady supply of light and power and are sensitized to the fact that that flamey thing will hurt like the dickens if you touch it. Maybe we were drenched in divine providence. Probably a bit of both.
I was not quite sure what to expect: how far were we walking? (Please not far) What happens if a candle burns out? (catastrophe) What was the end point? (we’re still not sure). Out in the dark street, I felt a bit of trepidation. It was 20 of them and about 8 of us adults. Sure, good odds if you’re in Canada where people can afford leashes for their children. We had no such leashes. We didn’t even have a street lamp. But I didn’t need to worry about the dark. We quickly joined one of the main roads through the village and there we joined the throng of bobbing lanterns held by other children and their accompanying adults. It was a bit touch and go to keep track of the kids when in that lighting, and since I really didn’t know any of them, they all sort of looked the same as the other 700 running around, but somehow we managed.
The final destination was mercifully only a few blocks, where we proceeded to promptly turn around and head home (my friend who organized this wasn’t completely mad). I can remember as a child going out trick-or-treating and felt like we conquered everything between the Tsawwassen ferry terminals and the North Shore, but I am sure it was a similar situation. We were lucky if we made it to the end of the block with out getting a bunchy wedgie from our costume and needed to be carried home out of exhaustion (or perhaps, my Dad was lucky if we made it any further). I wasn’t upset when it was time to round them up. It’s easier to breathe slowly and enjoy the bobbing, brightly coloured lights when you know that the direction is home.