Friday, March 25, 2016

Washed Away

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.

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.            

Friday, March 18, 2016

We Never Know

Oh…OH….OH…exclaimed Jess as the cold shower water cascaded onto her head and shoulders.  The hot water faucet was, in reality, the cold water faucet.  Even so, when turned on for several minutes, the promised and highly anticipated hot water was nonexistent!  We, therefore, proceed to grit our teeth and take showers in cold water, again, grateful that there was any water at all.  This has been the scenario many times during our travels as we ponder not only the availability of hot water, but the way we think things are supposed to work and the outcome of many situations we encounter on a daily basis.

Travel on public transportation, for instance, whether it be by plane, bus or boat, can be bizarre.  Why, when we bought plane tickets from one airline’s company, are we we sent to another airline’s counter to check in, eventually flying on a third airline (with no explanation or prior notification)? We have yet to fly with the company we booked in any of the four African countries we have visited this spring.   We walk to what we think is our gate and nothing is announced on the speaker system as we watch passengers just get up and get in line to board.  We follow, wondering if our luggage will arrive at the same place we do.  How do we know which queue to join as we survey the infinite number of minibuses at a chaotic downtown street corner?  There is no schedule and asking a driver gets a response “yes, yes, this is the bus.”  Several minutes later, someone scurries over and herds us to a different bus already packed to overflowing.  We squeeze in with our luggage on our laps and off we go, wondering where we will end up.  Occasionally that bus is the one that takes us to our hostel or hotel; other times, it flashes its lights as we are transferred like cargo to one heading in a new direction and to a new place.  We watch to see when locals pay and how much as every place has its prices and systems.  Boats can be just as challenging as we wade out to one boat and then are motored to another boat moored farther from shore where we shakily transfer our luggage and ourselves.  Rarely do we know in advance when we will do a wet transfer or a dry one from a dock.  We never know.

In a life in which our residence is changed on an almost daily basis one never knows when opening the door, if it will feel like a Christmas present or Pandora’s box!  The simplest lodging can be some of the most comfortable while the more expensive and modern abodes can have hidden frights.  We rarely have the opportunity to see what we are booking before we hit the pay button on a website, and we have been surprised more than once, often pleasantly and occasionally dreadfully.   We often wonder if there will be toilet paper when the real question is whether there will be a toilet.  We never know if we are going to get the best and most comfortable night’s sleep we have had in the last several weeks or wake up the next morning with 200 love bites administered by bed bugs during the night.   We now carry a UV light to prevent the latter, but still, you never know. 

Of course, the scenarios above are not always the case, as travel in many places has been very smooth.  But we have learned that flexibility and humor are important traits as we navigate through the maze of everyday experiences in our travel lives.  What is this food that has been placed before me when I thought I had ordered a chicken and rice dish?  There is a bit of chicken in it, but it also includes beef and pork, too!  Why is it that my laundry still smells dirty after having it washed by the hotel?  The laundress thought I was saying “no soap” when, in reality, I was asking for “no softener”. 

The reality of travel, for us, is keeping our sense of humor and being flexible enough to “roll with the punches”: eat what is placed before us, smile when we are sent to the wrong terminal, walk from where we land, and keep our luggage in plastic when anywhere near water.  On an almost daily basis, we look at each other and say “We never know…”  Of course, many times, the confusion comes from our lack of local language or our expectations that things should work in other places as they do back home.  This is one of the reasons we love traveling.  We experience things we do not always understand and learn to appreciate that our homegrown expectations should not always be the global standard.

Posted near Ranomafana, Madagascar.  Images are of Jess in one of our recent abodes, Sally waiting hopefully for our luggage to arrive, and bedbugs from one of our Tanzanian hotels.