Friday, March 25, 2016

Other Worldly

If something is so different, so strange, so utterly bizarre and foreign that it elicits exclamations of “that’s weird” it may fit the definition of “other worldly.”  We have travelled to many other countries where we have seen things unlike what we have in the U.S. and have watched as various cultures have shown or described beliefs that are dissimilar from anything we have known.  Here in Madagascar, we have found that “other worldly” applies to something, be it plant, animal, or cultural beliefs, on a daily basis.

On this large (1000 miles long by 350 miles wide) island, ecosystems were isolated from the rest of the world for nearly 150 million years as the land mass drifted away from the continents.  We have likened portions of the landscape and certainly the wildlife to that of the Galapagos Islands, but with that said, we find it stranger and more jaw-dropping.  The Spiny forest, where we spent two mornings this week, is like a page out of a science fiction novel describing a new planet, not the one we call home.  Most of the species we see   Over 98% of its mammals, reptiles and amphibians, as well as 90% of its plants are found nowhere else.  As we stare at several species of ancient baobab trees that have been described as trees turned upside down and stuck back into the ground, and the octopus plant reaching its thin, spined arms toward the southern sky, we see flora that has adapted to its environment over millennia.  Surely the hollowness of the baobabs, which store water during the dry part of the year, and the cactus, which guides lost locals by indicating a direction, are part reality as well as the basis for many myths in this isolated corner of the world.
here are endemic, found only in this one place in the world.

The fauna is bizarre, to say the least.  We pull leeches off our our ankles as our local forest guide helpfully describes the four times the small, black, wiggly creatures got behind his eyeballs, causing him to shed tears of blood until the satiated leeches went their way.  A chameleon watches us through eyes that rotate 180 degrees separately, one looking forward as it finds its way, the other staring backwards at us, all the while not moving its head.  It moves slowly forward as a person climbing a pole, one leg gripping the branch, then another with its oddly pincher-shaped feet.  It stops and sways gently, forward then backward, as it imitates the movement of a leaf moving in the breeze.  Lemurs stare at us with huge, round, unblinking eyes as they grunt then jump gracefully at lightning speed from one tree to another, stopping to snack on bamboo and other foods.  There are over 100 species of these distant primate cousins, found only here in Madagascar.   Some are quite large, others brilliant white, and some small enough to fit into an eggshell.  Colorful grasshoppers the size of cigars sing to us from the numerous bramble bushes, while night crickets rise up on hind legs to box as we touch them with a stick, ready to deliver a fatal blow if we are unwary.  Tenrec, a family of mammals also found only on Madagascar, are represented by several species; the one we encountered rolled into a tight ball, like a hedgehog, with perfectly interlocking spines protecting its vulnerable head.  We held it, gazing at an evolutionary experiment in a land 10,000 miles away from our Colorado home.

Certainly, there are plants used by the various tribes as remedies for many common ailments, but when bitten by a poisonous insect, if the plants do not work in two days, it is time to visit the tribal witch doctor.  Cooking fires used in house kitchens are vented through windows, as chimneys are believed to be gateways for evil spirits.  The practice of razana, a celebration of the life of dead ancestors, is ongoing and a rich part of all of the different tribes’ culture on this island.  Death is the beginning of the best part of existence and the dead ancestors are considered to be a real part of current family life.  Fady, the the belief that actions related to food, activities, or days of the week are risky or taboo is practiced, but it varies from tribe to tribe and family to family.  While all of this sounds interesting, it is made real when we meet the newly adopted twins, abandoned at birth, who are considered evil omens as is the fate of being born in December.  In the past, such babies were placed before herds of Zebu to be stamped to death or in a forest as the mothers sadly walked away.  Today there are orphanages and other pathways for those who are feared.  We talk on the long drives with our guide, who explains patiently the day his grandfather ate the foreskin of his penis after circumcision, placed in a bit of banana and swallowed whole to ensure his future vitality and reproductive success.  We lack the courage to ask him if he plans on doing the same for his grandsons! 

While we could write novels about what we see each day and night and the experiences we have had, we think it best to end this blog entry here.  Visiting this place, a dream of Jess’s for many years, teaches us, again, that we know so little of the world and what it holds for all of us.  If “other worldly” experiences have been the norm here in isolated Madagascar as life drifted across the seas, arrived, and adapted to new environments, what then is in store for all of us as the world changes and life must adapt to a warmer planet, a place of greater extremes?  We ponder what will “other worldly” mean in the millennium to come.    

Posted in Antsirabe, Madagascar.  Images are of a lesser hedgehog tenrec, Baobab trees in the Spiney Forest, a blue-legged baby chameleon, and a Verreaux Sifika.            

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