Archive for February, 2008

For Most, Nothing Ever Happened

February 28, 2008

Like everyone else, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on Septmeber 11, 2001.  I was in my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Madagascar.  I happened to be listening to the BBC on my shortwave radio just before four o’clock in the afternoon when I heard a brief and unremarkable news bulletin about a fire in one tower of the World Trade Center.  A few minutes later the regular program was interrupted, and a reporter in New York tried to explain the breaking news.

A plane had hit one of the twin towers; little else was known at that time.  It sounded like an awful, tragic accident, but nothing more.  I was still listening when a second plane hit the second tower.  There was no more talk of an accident; it quickly became a terrorist attack.  I continued to listen.  A third plane hit the Pentagon.  A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.  One tower collapsed, then the other.  I heard it all as it happened, and I felt the enormity of it even from so far away.

I felt restless, anxious.  I went for a walk and made my usual circuit through town.  I talked to everyone I met about the traumatic events so close to my home, but so far from theirs.  I needed a connection, just a little bit of decent conversation to let me release all the thoughts and emotions trapped, by isolation and linguistic separation, inside me.  But with everyone I encountered, we only managed the same feeble and petty chitchat that we always did, the only discussion possible across such an enormous cultural gap.  I tried to explain to them about jumbo jets that hit skyscrapers, and skyscrapers that collapse to the ground with thousands of people trapped inside.  They heard the urgency in my voice and tried to sympathize.  But in the end they just feigned a somber expression to mask their confusion.

Very few people in that small town in Madagascar ever understood much at all about the attacks.  I had my shortwave radio to keep me informed.  They had only the very occasional French news bulletin, relayed, between dance tunes, one the one local radio station.  Even now, years later, I bet most people in that town still know little if anything about what happened that day. 

On my international radio, politicians, journalists, and all the men and women interviewed as bystanders described the attacks as a global tragedy, a moment that shocked the world.  They called it an attack not just on the United States, but on civil society everywhere.  Everyone agreed that the event heralded the start of a new era in history, with radical changes in air travel, immigration policy, domestic security, international relations, even our own personal liberties at home.

“The world changed today,” everyone said.

But on their local radio in Madagascar, this whole grand drama, this drastic change in the state of the world—it all sounded like nothing more than a break in the music.  Nothing changed in that small town that day, and for everyone there, life continued as before.

People in Madagascar live in a very different world than we do here in the United States.  They are far more dependent on nature and its cycles.  They eat at dusk and go to sleep just after that.  They rise with the sun the next morning.  The seasons determine what they eat, when they work, when and how they travel.  They live a subsistence life that forces them to rely on their natural environment without all the cushions of our artificial luxuries.

We, however, live in a world that, to a certain extent, we can control.  Electricity lets us decide whether we want to sleep, or read a book, or work into the night.  Canned goods and freezers let us eat whatever we want, whenever we want.  We work jobs that have nothing to do with natural rhythms, in businesses of our own creation, far removed from any sort of subsistence interaction with the environment.

We live in a world of human fabrications, a world that we created and that leaves us vulnerable to evils of our own creation.  Manmade disasters like terrorism and war, stock market collapse and depression, have enormous effects on our manmade world.  But they have little impact on people in places like rural Madagascar, people who live without that artificial buffer between themselves and their environment.  In such remote locations, events like the terrorist attacks of last September pass almost unnoticed.

Most people in the world live like my neighbors in that small town in Madagascar.  Distant manmade problems mean little to them.  Instead they have to worry about their crops that season, or maybe even their source of food that very day.  For all of these people, the majority of our global community, little happened on that September day that changed the world.

H.G. Wells wrote a short story, The Star, about what was almost the end of the world.   The entire story, except the very last paragraph, describes the frantic and desperate final days for everyone on earth as Neptune, dislodged from its solar orbit, hurtles towards the planet.  In the very last paragraph, just before the apocalyptic near miss which would have incinerated the earth, the perspective changes.  Martian scientists peer through a telescope and observe with objective detachment as the comet streaks past earth melting a little polar ice but otherwise causing no noticeable changes.  From their distant perspective, the earth goes on as before—the end of the world for us, a scientific curiosity for them.

But we don’t have to go all the way to Mars for such a drastic change of perspective.  For people in smalltown Madagascar, the terrorist attacks of last September were just another curiosity of world events.

The Fairway

February 22, 2008

According to the guidebooks, there’s no official name for the coastal alley between Mananjary and Manakara.  The Fairway is just what we dubbed it, and is surely what the experts would call it as well.  We expected adventure in the wilderness.  For most of the way, we found something more like a golf course.

We had, at the time, five years of experience between us as volunteers in Madagascar.  Rob worked with the national parks service in the desert southwest.  Mike worked in a health clinic on the central plateau.  I was an English teacher on the west coast. 

We owned all the guidebooks and we met many of the tourists.  We knew all the popular spots for vacations, how to get there and what to do once there.  But we wanted to get away from those places, to do something new and unknown, something not suggested in the guidebooks and not considered by the tourists. 

We scoured our maps with an eye for adventure.  We saw potential on the southeast coast.  The highway that connects the two largest coastal towns in that region swings well inland between them.  Over a hundred kilometers of pristine shoreline separates the towns.  A broken footpath stretches part of the way along the coast.  There are few villages, and there are several large cuts in the path where rivers flow into the sea.

We decided to hike that coast, from Mananjary in the north to Manakara in the south.  It sounded wild and adventurous; it was a lot easier than we expected.

It was raining the morning we left.  Mike and I searched the market for food and other supplies, while Rob haggled with the boatmen for a ferry ride across the first major cut in our path, the river that empties into the Indian Ocean just south of Mananjary.  We bought six baguettes, two tins of sardines, six small triangles of processed cheese spread, and six oranges, enough for two skimpy days of food.  We hoped to scavenge more food along the way.  We also bought small plastic bags and large waterproof rice sacks for raingear.

Rob and the boatman never agreed on a price.  In the end, boatman let us on board, but he refused to paddle.  Instead, he sat in the back and heckled us as we paddled ourselves across.  Still, we had to pay a little.

The sky was clear and the sun was warm and bright on the other side.   We stepped from that dugout canoe into a fantasy vacation that, with only a couple slight hitches here and there, continued all the way to Manakara.

The path started right at our feet and led up a gentle slope to a flat lane of soft grass.  Low bushes lined each side of the grassy corridor.  Here and there, palms towered over the bushes.  Through the trees to our left, we saw the beach and then the long blue horizon of the Indian Ocean.  To the right, we saw the turquoise freshwater canal that runs the length of the east coast of Madagascar.  But before us was only that alleyway of grass.  It looked like a long and spectacular par five.  We took off his shoes and walked barefoot.

We had our only real trouble with the trail later that afternoon.  The bushes and trees grew taller and thicker.  They crept closer and closer to us.  The trail narrowed.  We lost sight of the sea to our left, the canal to our right.  Then the trail disappeared and everything looked the same in every direction.  We were in a jungle, with a thick, dense tangle of creepers all around us.

We still heard the crash of the waves on the beach, still to our left.  We decided to hack in that direction.

Our jungle was a lot smaller than we thought.  A few steps later we emerged onto a bright and sunny beach, right at the feet of a group of women bent to gather fallen coconuts.  They dropped their coconuts and ran to hide behind a one-legged man who seemed to be their supervisor.  This unusual party guided us back to the soft, grassy corridor; we never lost it again.

Early the next morning we came to a small village where we supplemented our meager supply of food.  We bartered for some rice and fish and then paid a little extra to have it all cooked for us. 

In the meantime, we entertained.  Everyone in the village came to watch, to gawk, to laugh.  Rob juggled and danced.  Mike made faces and tried to tell jokes across the language gap.  I photographed the whole madhouse affair.

Here, we saw the Madagascar that we hoped to find on this hike away from the colonial big cities.  The villagers were still using the ravinala palm tree for nearly everything:  the wood for the frames of their homes and the fronds for the roofs, for pliable fishnets, baskets, and even for waterproof clothes.  They all wore a small, unique palm frond cap with four points and no bill.

But they all wore evidence of the outside world, as well.  They had old, ragged shirts, cheap windbreakers, and stained shorts that had trickled down to them as donations from wealthier people all over the world.  In villages like this one, these discarded fabrics die their final deaths, first worn to rags and then scrubbed to shreds and only then discarded.

We hired two men in the village to ferry us along the canal in their dugout canoe, a ride that helped us cover almost fifty kilometers that day and shaved one whole day off the length of the trip, not that we wanted to rush.

The boat ride ended in the sort of paradise one expects to find at the end of a rainbow, a small village of stunning real estate named Tanambao.  It sits atop a high sand dune on the inland side of the canal.  The town itself is built on the fine, white sand of the dune, but all around it is a field of low, green grass.  Palms shade the town and line the grassy field.  Across the blue water of the canal is the narrow strip of land that separates the freshwater from the saltwater sea.  Tall pine trees, an unusual surprise on a tropical coast, tower over a grassy path.  Beyond that is the beach and then the Indian Ocean.

Just before dusk that evening, the trail came to a dead end at one of the cuts in the coastline where a river flows into the ocean.  We decided to worry about it in the morning.

We picked a cozy spot nestled in some pine trees and made our camp.  We went to bathe in the freshwater of the canal, always alert for nearby crocodiles.  That night we ate the last of our food.  We slept outside, around our campfire, under the stars.

The next morning, we waited only thirty minutes at the mouth of the river before a fisherman drifted by in his canoe.  A short but heavy downpour blew in and back out again while he paddled us across.  That was our last little bit of difficulty or discomfort in four days of hiking.

We ate boiled, unripe jackfruit for lunch that day.  We had come to another small village, and that was all they had to offer us.  It tasted terrible and gave us diarrhea for days, but it filled us when we had no other options.

We spent several hours in that little village.  We sat and watched an old woman weave a mat from palm fronds.  We drank coffee with a group of men.  And again, we played with the kids.

If we wanted to eat dinner that night, then we had to find the next village by dark.  After an afternoon marching doubletime, we made it with only a sliver of dusky sunlight left.

 We were now near enough to Manakara that the village had a small market.  We bought a gluttonous amount of peanuts and homemade biscuits which we ate ravenously right in front of people who never get to eat so much in a day.  We bought rice and fish and again paid someone to cook them for us.  And then we bought eggs because it was taking too long for the rice and fish to be ready.

No one seemed to mind.  In fact, a spontaneous party followed our arrival.  Everyone came to meet us, but this time they entertained us; they sang and danced while we ate.  Later, the Prezidenta ny Fokonolona provided us, for a modest fee, with a room for the night. 

We made it to Manakara the next afternoon.  It was another easy and beautiful day along an easy and beautiful trail.

We crossed a small footbridge and saw a hotel and a string of bungalows on our left.  Mike sat outside in the shade while Rob and I went inside.  We bought some snacks and asked about the distance to town.

“Twelve kilometers,” they said.  We were shocked.  We thought we had another hour of walking at the most.  “But a lobster truck comes here every afternoon to buy from the local fisherman.  Ask him for a ride into town.”

And that’s how our adventure ended, in the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on top of several coolers of live lobsters.

Transportation Expectations

February 20, 2008

I had done some traveling in underdeveloped countries before my two years in Madagascar. I had learned to accept a reasonable degree of deprivation and discomfort. Still, I admit, when it came to buses, boats, and all other modes of transportation, I always took the tourist option when available. It was never anything luxurious, but it was also never the most basic way to get from one place to the next.

Madagascar has no tourist option. There, I was forced to cope with transportation in its most basic forms.

In the United States, we have very different expectations than people in places like Madagascar when we buy a ticket to get from one place to another. We expect to leave at a certain hour, travel in relative comfort for a specified amount of time, and arrive as scheduled. In Madagascar, people expect only to get within a reasonable distance of their destination, eventually. We have schedules that we most often manage to follow. In Madagascar, the bus leaves when it fills, whenever that happens to be. What is considered legroom in the United States is space for another family of passengers in Madagascar. In the United States, attendants serve us food when we travel. In Madagascar, wise travelers carry their own food in case the bus breaks down and they get stranded in the desert or jungle for hours or days.

Of course, you pay for what you get. In Madagascar, I paid all of three dollars for the bus ride from my small town to the nearest city. It was about a hundred kilometers, and it took five hours in the dry season when the roads were good, ten hours in the rainy season when the dirt turned to mud.

Once, I got to the bus station early in the morning to claim a good seat. I picked my spot and sat down with a book, ready to defend my personal space from the hordes to come.

Several hours later, I still had a suspicious amount of legroom. I looked up from my book to see all the other passengers piling into a different bus, a giant ten-wheel Mercedes truck with a bench along either side of the back cabin, two more down the middle, and a tarp draped over a frame to cover the whole passenger cabin. The driver waved me over and told me that they had needed to change trucks because of some mechanical trouble with the first one. A toothless old man smiled at me from my preferred seat. As I yelled at the driver, all the other passengers settled into all the other decent seats. I squeezed in somewhere between a spare tire and a wall of rice sacks. The malarial old woman on the floor in front of me drifted into my lap as she fell asleep. Late in the afternoon, too late for any hope of arrival before dark, we left.

We bounced along at the usual slow pace for hours and hours as it got darker and darker. I felt the hot and sweaty flesh of everyone near me. The stench of body order filled the cabin. A cloud of bugs thickened throughout the day; I inhaled several with every breath.

A few kilometers short of our destination, and well past dark, the driver stopped the truck and refused to continue. The rain and mud, he claimed, made the road impassable. In absolute darkness, and pouring rain, we had to hike through foul, slippery mud laced with painful thorns.

Everyone else seemed to expect something of the sort. They had provisions, like food, water, raincoats and flashlights. I had a bulk bag of curry, my toothbrush, and a change of underwear.

“But I have waterproof, gortex hiking boots,” I thought to myself and snickered at the unfortunate fools around me who stepped barefoot into the mud. Then, a few steps from the bus, my heavy boots disappeared deep below the mud.

I was stuck. With the added resistance of the boots, and with nothing nearby for a handhold, I had no hope of pulling myself free. I floundered in the mud, the rain, the darkness, my arms swinging wildly to keep my balance as I tried to lift one leg then the other, as I tried not to fall into added humiliation.

Azafady,” I called to the points of light already well ahead of me. “Excuse me, a little help please.”

A few of the other passengers came back and snickered themselves. With a couple of shoulders to hold onto I managed to pull one foot free. Of course, I had nowhere to put it. I let my foot drop back into the mud while we worked on another plan. I had to reach into the mud and unlace my boots; I pulled my feet free with relative ease; then I stood there in my socks and fished my boots from the muck.

Like everyone else, I walked the rest of the way barefoot.

What little patience I have, I developed in Madagascar. I learned not to care about departure and arrival times, about the time it takes to get from one place to the next, about the schedule. If unforeseen delays happened along the way – and the unforeseen always happened – I considered it more time to read my book. Even if I had to get to my destination in time for something important, I learned to accept delays with a shrug of the shoulders. I never stressed over the schedule.

When I went back to the fast pace of moving and shaking in Kentucky, I noticed an immediate return to the hurried life. Suddenly, I had somewhere to be and a certain time to be there. I rushed to maintain my very important and very tight schedule. Red lights, slow drivers, traffic jams – they infuriated me. I cursed, fidgeted in my seat, and sighed with frustration.

Of course, I never have anything very important to do, wherever I happen to be. Very few of my activities require any sort of punctuality. Travel was fickle and erratic in Madagascar so I learned to accept a certain unreliability. But in the United States, we expect order and efficiency so, when there, I get impatient with any degree of disorder and inefficiency.

It happened the moment I got home from Madagascar. My mom picked me up at the airport. She asked if I wanted to drive home, my first time behind the steering wheel of a car in two years. We left the parking lot and came to a red light at a busy intersection. She was bombarding me with questions about Madagascar, my flight, my health. I didn’t answer.

Instead, I stuck my head out the window and glared at the persistent red light. “Change, damnit!” I urged.