Hilary Bradt talks... cruises

The founder of Bradt Travel Guides reveals the world of difference a cruise can make – to you and the locals

8 mins

We Wanderlust readers tend to be a bit sniffy about cruises. Aren’t they just floating luxury hotels with no relationship to real travel?

I certainly thought so, until I was invited to lecture on expedition ships and discovered that education can be a two-way business.

Most recently I embarked on the MS Clipper Odyssey for a voyage from Zanzibar to Mozambique via my old haunt, Madagascar. Passengers often feel guilty about the wealth/poverty ratio on these cruises, but as a long-term expat resident in Madagascar told me: “Never forget that for the kids here you are the equivalent of the best-ever television programme. They will talk about your visit for days.”

But brief encounters in port stops tell you nothing about the lives of these kids. For this you need people like Kim and Colin Radford, a couple who run HELP Madagascar, a small charity working with deprived children in Toamasina, the island’s main port. We invited the Radfords to come on board and tell us about their work. They brought three wide-eyed students with them, and after describing their difficult home lives and achievements, told us the story of Lalaina.

A few years ago the ten-year-old boy was sent by his mother to sell cassava in Toamasina’s market with his aunt; it was a half-day bus journey from his village. Their work done, Lalaina’s aunt told him to wait while she bought them something to eat, then they would go home. Lalaina waited. And waited. She never returned.

For two nights he slept in the market, surviving on food he bought by selling the last half-basket of cassava. On the evening of the third day, a night-watchman working for the director of the local zoo cycled past and saw this little, crumpled figure sitting on the side of the road sobbing his heart out. The watchman, Leon, took Lalaina home, and gradually his story unfolded.

The desertion was deliberate. His mother accused him of witchcraft and being complicit in the death of his elder brother; she never wanted to see him again. But this was Madagascar, and when one door closes another opens. Leon welcomed the little boy into his family and asked the Radfords if they could help with schooling. Lalaina is now one of their star pupils.

As a lecturer on board the Clipper Odyssey I could talk about Madagascar’s wonderful wildlife and customs, but not about the real lives of real children like this. There was barely a dry eye among the passengers as they listened to this story from Kim and Colin. Several have pledged to give continuing help to the children.

As for the kids themselves, Kim has since emailed me to say: “Our three students were enthralled and have had extra-bright smiles every day since their visit. I am not kidding when I say that they have a different sense of confidence after having such a unique experience.”

And what did they like most about their lunch on board and tour of the ship? The gourmet food? The swimming pool? No, it was the lift. They would have ridden up and down in it all day, if allowed.

Yes, much better than television.

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