Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rock and Roll Madagascar Style


Map picture

I had not intended to write this afternoon, but frankly, short of lying in bed, this is about all I can do given the current sea conditions. The winds outside are a steady 50 mph with even higher gusts. They have whipped the sea into a frenzy of white water with long deep swells. The captain just came on to the ship’s speakers to inform us of the obvious – his earlier forecast for clear skies and calm seas was proven to be incorrect. According to the captain, there is no metrological reason for our current conditions, but nevertheless, that is what we have. He is hoping that as the sun sets conditions will improve, but for now, he has closed off all access to the outside, and asked everyone on the left side of the ship to please keep their doors closed and to remain inside. The Silver Wind is not a large ship; it only carries a maximum of 280 passengers, so in these conditions the motion of the ship is quite severe.

On top of everything else, poor Lisa has been ill for the last three days with a bad bronchitis that has now set off her asthma. She has been on antibiotic and steroids for several days, but is back down now seeing the physician for another breathing treatment to calm her asthma. Still I was amazed to see her gamely go outside this morning for our 4 hour tour – in hindsight that was perhaps not a good idea. The air was filled with dust and smoke, and that clearly made her condition worse. Let’s hope her treatment will help.

Today, we visited the island nation of Madagascar. Earlier in our trip we visited one of the small islands (Nosy Komba) just off the coast, so today was our first chance to actually set foot on the big island. I say “big” because Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, covering over 227,000 sq. miles. It is home to 5% of the world’s plant and animal species, of which more than 80% are endemic to it alone.

At Nosy Komba we found a primitive third world culture, and I wondered if that was typical of what we would find on the main island; the answer is, yes. We docked at the port city of Tulear on the southwest corner of the island, and from what I could see, the dock could only support one ship at a time. Transportation was primarily by walking, bicycle, or rickshaw. IMG_5872 There were very few cars, and fewer still buses. We made our tour in small mini-vans that would hold six people each. They were not air conditioned and were poorly maintained.

We drove to the City Market for our first stop. Along the way it was obvious that most of the population lived in very small shacks. Some are made of cardboard cartons, some are made of thatch, and many are made with galvanized sheet metal. Some were nothing more that old sheets and feed bags hung on posts to give some measure of privacy. The market was colorful, and as usual, people were friendly and mildly curious. The one thing I saw that was a little unusual was that people were carrying live chickens for sale. IMG_5897 The poor birds had their feet tied together, and were carried upside down by their legs in large bunches. A buyer would approach the merchant and then begin holding up one chicken after another until finding one to his liking. Our walk lasted no more than 30 minutes after which we all crawled into our little vans and started a drive out of town.

Coming to the edge of town, we were confronted with a police checkpoint. Every vehicle and person entering or leaving the city had to be securitized, and their paperwork examined slowly. As a tourist vehicle, we should have been waived right through, but apparently the guards were not aware that our ship was in port, so a heated discussion ensued before they finally relented and allowed us to pass.

Once outside the city, the landscape changed dramatically. We were on the National Highway, which was nothing more than a narrow one lane paved road filled on both sides with people walking or riding ox carts. IMG_5950 There were very few cars, and almost no signs of civilization. Occasionally there were some huts by the roadside where the families had set up a refreshment stand, but pretty much, the road went for miles and miles with just people walking in the barren dry hot landscape. Every couple of miles, we would come to yet another police or military checkpoint.

We drove for perhaps 30 minutes when the road begins to climb in snake like fashion up the low surrounding hills. We climbed, and climbed, and suddenly on a straight stretch of road, our van pulls to the right side and attempts to do a u-turn. The road is too narrow, so he backs up and completes the turn and in doing so pulls to a stop along the side of the road. At this point, we had been driving for around 45 minutes outside the city and we are stopping where? There is absolutely nothing at this point that is any different from the miles and miles of roadside we had just traversed. Soon the other five vans pull in behind us and everyone gets out and stands around. Our guide starts to tell us about a tree along the roadside, and then we walk into the bushes about 10 ft where he continues talking for a few minutes. IMG_5954 That’s it; tour over, everyone back into the van for our next stop! More than I was a little confused by this antic, but get this – we are all herded back onto the vans, and we pull onto the road headed back to town. Two minutes later the vans pull over and we are asked to once again get out. This is basically the same spot where we just stopped a hundred yards up the hill or so. Same view, but this time they point out what they did not mention before, that we could see our ship. IMG_5965 Perhaps we would like to take a picture of our ship which is about 15 miles in the distance, it was suggested. We could and did take that picture at the last stop.

Back into the van we all go and this time we travel about a mile back along the road to town before turning off to the left on a small gravel road that will take us to an arboretum. As we turn a corner, we come across a beehive of activity where small groups of people are making bricks by hand. It took some doing to get our driver to pull over, because this was not on his list. Finally, he relented and we all poured out to go take a look. We walked over to a group of thee people. A small boy was carrying water from a nearby stream and pouring it into a trench dug in the soft clay soil. In that trench, a large man was mixing the soil with the water to produce the clay, and from time to time, he would pick up a big handful of clay and raise it over his head and put it at the feet of the third worker. IMG_5982 That worker would then put a mold over the clay and quickly lift it up and carry the molded clay over to the flat ground where the clay, now in the shape of a brick was removed from the mold and left on the ground to dry in the sun. Eventually it would be set on its side to complete the sun drying process, after which, the bricks would be used to construct an oven like structure. On the inside of the oven, wooden logs would be set on fire, and the intense heat would harden the bricks. After cooling, they would then be sold. After proudly showing us their work, the workers gathered around and asked to be paid for allowing us to take their pictures – well, they got that part right.

Back into the vans and a short distance down the dirt road brings us to the arboretum. The earlier clouds have now disappeared and we are taking the full brunt of the mid-day sun. The climate is dry and dessert like and everything is baking in the heat. After a quick bathroom stop, the groups set off into the arboretum. Because of the dry climate, the trees and specimens on display do not produce much in the way of shade. Our guide starts down the path, and after going about 5 ft. stops to describe some bush or other, and then repeats this process every 5 ft. or so. IMG_6042 She is very hard to hear, but when I can catch what is being said, it amounts to nothing. I’ll give you an example. We come upon a sign that list the birds of Madagascar. Our guide has everyone gather around the sign, which takes quite a few minutes. Then when she has everyone’s attention she says “these are the birds of the forest, but you will not see them because they hide from you. Now let’s move on.” After 45 minutes of this heat torture, I leave the group and set out on my own to return to the entrance and shade, where a cool bottle of water awaits me. The group spent almost another hour working their way slowly back to the entrance, and most people were beet red and exhausted.

Once again, we climbed into the little vans and headed back to the city. Along the way, we saw the Madagascar International Airport – it consisted of an old WW II hanger and a concrete building with a long dirt airstrip and had a very narrow and much shorter paved section in the center of it. We passed the National Radio and TV Station, which I suspect is still using equipment with vacuum tubes. The Federal Bank of Madagascar was a small rundown building next to an even more rundown building that was labeled the Ministry of Tourism. The only building that seemed even remotely busy was the City Hall, again pretty run down.

After a short stop where we could buy souvenirs, IMG_6082 we headed back to the cool comfort of our ship, and said our goodbyes to Madagascar. Considering all that this island has to offer the world, it is a shame that it is so enmeshed in poverty. This is one of the few countries we have visited where the government does not even provide the children a basic education. Parents may pay to send their children to private schools, but very, very few can afford to do so. The few schools we saw were extremely run down and we saw very few children dressed in school uniforms. Most people on the island are not educated and will remain so given the current conditions. How sad.


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