We stare out the windows of our car, traveling thousands of kilometers around this other worldly place, at first marveling at the green landscapes then looking deeper at what is being lost or washed away. We arrive in new places, sometimes rainforests, other times in desert landscapes reminiscent of our own red rock canyons and national parks, not understanding at first that the rainforests have been selectively logged. The desert grasslands, so beautiful to us are a sad reminder to our guide of the time the horizon was full of trees, filled with the animals that no longer visit. Special pools and oases have filled, plugged with the sand and silt of lands washed free of soil in the higher elevations. The land everywhere we visit is dissolving, carried forth in thick, muddy waters. We gaze at the ribbons of chocolate brown as they weave through verdant green rice fields. We see them as gorgeous contrasts, as we snap photographs of traditional Malagasy ways of life centered around their mud and brick homes. We visit remnants of forests and grasslands, awed by their unique
ness and grandeur, not really considering what once existed and is now lost. We are unable to relate to or comprehend the poverty that led to the forest being cleared, the need for wood and charcoal to cook rice three times a day. Women sit by the roadsides, small piles of charcoal before them, knowing that the the three cents they receive for each pile will not cover the cost of water needed for that day. They know only drought or cyclones, not the gentle rains or temperate climates of other distant lands.
We drive over a bridge toward our next stop at first wondering why so many children and women are in the river. We pause, watching them pan for tiny remnants of semi-precious stones from the discarded tailings of a nearby mine, sapphires and other objects valuable to people from distant lands. The town is full of trucks, each one overflowing with young boys, most of whom have just passed the age of 11, the average age when most kids in Madagascar are finished with school. Some boys look even younger as they hang on tight to each other and the jostling sides of the trucks, more than a dozen, perhaps even two dozen in each truck, heading for a day of hard physical labor in the open pit mine. Without education, in such a dangerous environment, we feel their future slipping by like the many grains of sand washed away by the women and younger children searching for shreds of sapphires among cast-off stones.
Madagascar is an exotic destination, a lure for the traveler wanting to venture to more hidden corners of the planet, and it is easy to admire what remains of its special places, the 2% currently preserved. Its people are genuine, quick to smile, and culturally as diverse as the wildlife. They are treasures as is so much of this richly diverse land described in our “Other Worldly” posting. We typically post the fun pictures, the beauty of the places we see, and this country deserves to have its treasures shared. But like so many places we have seen, we are reminded that the treasures are being lost at a rate that was not unlike our country’s own as we settled the east then ventured west. Like so many visits, we can become captured by the moment, by the surface of our views, but when we look deeper, we always find greater complexity. Each society, including our own, struggles with its ideals and its hopes in the face of change, individuals seeking to create opportunity while maintaining values. As Americans who have traveled much for the past few years, we have come to deeply appreciate our own opportunities realized in a place of significant freedom and the democratic ideal that regardless of ethnicity or gender, all could be welcomed as contributing members of society. Both of us were taught the importance of showing compassion for others, regardless of our “tribe” or origin. As we reflect on what is stable and what is being lost in Madagascar, we cannot help but wonder the same about our own country. The international and national press is keenly focused on the election and this one, more than most, may tell us which of our own country’s values continue and which will slip through our fingers, lost hopelessly downstream…..washed away.
Posted in Antsirabe, Madagascar. Images are of a young boy begging for money after filling holes in the highway with dirt, erosion below rice fields, and women and children panning for sapphires near the llakaka boomtown.