Posts Tagged ‘Sunburn’

My Daylong Adventure Vacation

February 1, 2008

In Malagasy, nosy kely literally means “small island.”  However, like the French presqu’ île, “almost an island,” the phrase typically refers to a peninsula.  Just such a Nosy Kely extends south from Morondava, a bustling beach town on the west coast of Madagascar, where the a tangle of mangrove forest nearly consumes the Morondova River.  At the end of the peninsula, the mouth of the river empties into the Mozambique Channel and separates Morondava from Betania, a small fishing village on the opposite bank.

One afternoon I went with a friend, a woman from Quebec who works with handicapped children in Morondava, to visit the village and lounge on the beach.  We walked from town to the end of the short peninsula, where we waited on the beachhead with a group of uniformed schoolgirls from Betania, on their way back to the village after a day of classes.  Everyday, one small boat crosses the river back and forth to ferry people and goods between the village and the town.  The pirogue, a small dugout canoe with one outrigger and a ragged handmade sail of woven rice sacks, returned from the opposite bank and unloaded a group of women who balanced large tuna and sharks on the tops of their heads.  They wet the fish in the seawater before they continued their walk to the market over the hot afternoon sand.  With our sandals in hand, we waded to the boat through the muddy river bottom.  We paid less than a dime worth of local currency and then squeezed into the wet canoe bottom with the other passengers.  The schoolgirls sang hymns as the wind blew us across the river.

On the other side, we waded back through the river mud to solid sand and then at last to dry beach.  We joined the young girls for the short procession along the coast to the village itself.

Dozens of pirogues dotted the sea, some near and some still far away, as the fishermen returned from their day at work.  The sea pulled them to shore in rapid succession, like an endless supply of little toy boats on a liquid conveyor belt that deposits its cargo and then drops out of sight only to reemerge out at sea and collect the next wave of shorebound boats.  Women and children chatted on the beach, huddled in the shade of umbrellas propped in the sand. 

A family rushed to meet each pirogue as it landed.  Together, the men, women, and children worked to drag the waterlogged boat from the surf to higher and drier ground.  There, everyone had individual responsibilities.  The men disassembled the boat; they lowered the makeshift sail and then they used the bottom half of a bisected plastic water bottle to bale the excess water from the canoe.  The women prepared the catch to be sold at the market.  They cleaned and gutted the fish, then dropped the entrails to the sand.  While the adults worked, the older children watched the younger children, who played nearby on the beach. 

When they finished, they all went their separate ways.  The men walked to their homes for a bucket shower to rinse the salt and sand away.  The women propped the fish on their heads and walked in the direction of the market in Morondava.  The children continued as before.  A dirty red bloodstain marked the spot in the sand where the women had buried the inedible fish organs.

We watched for a short while, full of questions.  When the next boat landed, we ran to it and hauled it from the sea with the others.  We hoped to use our small and unrequested act of kindness as an excuse to ask them all our questions about their lives and livelihoods.  Nathalie, who arrived in Madagascar more than a year before me and therefore spoke far better Malagasy, interpreted for us.  She often confuses her languages and never catches herself when she does it. 

“Nathalie, ask them where they bought their boat.”

Ou est-ce vous avez acheté votre pirogue?” she asked in French to the men who spoke only Malagasy.

Tsy mazava.”  They looked confused.  I reminded Nathalie to speak Malagasy to the Malagasy.  She tried again.

Taiza no ividianareo ny lakana?”

Tany Belo-Atsimo,” they replied.

Tany Belo-Atsimo,” she said to me.  I reminded her to speak English to the American.

“In Belo-Sur-Mer.”

They answered with patience as they finished their work, and Nathalie did her best to translate between her second and third languages.  As we started to leave, they gave us a small fish from their catch and that emboldened me to ask one last question.

“Can I fish with you one day, on your boat?”

They said yes with a smile and we agreed to meet the very next morning at four o’clock.  They explained that we needed to catch an early wind, and I deferred to their greater knowledge of local weather patterns. 


When I awoke that night at about two o’clock, I decided to drag myself from bed rather than risk a little more sleep, perhaps a little too much more.  I stepped outside and looked up through the palm trees at a sky full of stars, the whole scene lit by the metallic sheen of the moon.  The gaps between the treetops made natural frames for the stars above.  Abstract silhouettes glowed around the dark cores of clouds.  The silver luster of the moonlight sparkled in the palm fronds as they swayed like supple blades of steel.  Patches of moonshadow danced on the sand.  The surf crashed softly, and the crisp salty breeze off the sea was just enough for goosebumps in the tropics. 

I had to walk for an hour through town and back out the other side to get to the beach at Nosy Kely, where the two fishermen told me to meet them.  I passed homeless families asleep on the side of the road.  Stray dogs fought in the dark allies.  A handful of haggard young tourists ogled the women outside a beachfront nightclub.  The dance music faded behind me as the surf crashed in front of me.  I walked alone to the end of the peninsula where I sat on the beach to wait for my guides.

Everything in Madagascar operates on fotoanagasy, or “gasy time,” which most often functions as a nationalized excuse for tardiness.  They claim that, because they have no watches, they have to use the sun to tell time.  This, they believe, entitles them to about thirty minutes leeway on either side of an appointed time.  In reality, however, they never arrive early, and never only thirty minutes late.  I forgot that little quirk of the culture that particular morning.

I waited on the beach long enough to notice a shift in the stars and a red glow to my left.  Aries, the ram, dove into the Mozambique Channel to the west while the unseen sun started to light the sky to the east.  All the while, at the coldest time of the day, just before sunrise, I fought recurring tropical chills.  A strong wind blew in from sea and I had to tuck my knees into my shirt to warm my exposed legs.  I wanted to go back to bed, inside my room, away from the wind, and under my one thin sheet.  I reminded myself that it gets hot fast in the tropics.

On the other side of the river, Betania stuttered to life one house at a time in the morning darkness.  Lanterns, like giant fireflies, floated from home to home, disappeared and reemerged, and sometimes congregated together on the sandy pathways between houses as the men gathered their supplies for the day. Then, one by one, these fireflies left the nest and broke for the beach.  From my distant vantage point, the village returned to its dark and silent sleep.

A moment later I heard voices nearby on the river, then the sound of their oars as they pulled against the water.  At last they faded into view and ran ashore at my feet. 

Salama.  Tara be ianareo.”  I complained as I pointed to my wrist.

Azafady.  Fotoanagasy izany.”  They explained and looked at the eastern sky.

We carried the boat back to the surf where they handed me a paddle and used a series of grunts and motions to explain what to do.  First, we waited for a wave to crash and lift the boat from the sand.  Next, when the current started to flow back out to sea, we ran with the boat and pushed it to deeper water before the subsequent wave shoved us back onto the beach.  Then, as the waves tried to bash us back into the sand, we jumped up and into the pirogue and paddled hard and fast to escape the shore.  It was the only truly exciting moment of the day.

We continued to paddle for most of that windless late morning.  With a good wind, the men go as far as twenty kilometers out to sea in their little pirogues.  That day we made it about five, just beyond sight of land, and it took hours, even with occasional bursts of friendly wind.  All the while, as they stroked in unison and I tried to follow along, the sun rose higher and higher and the day got hotter and hotter.  My dreams started to turn the opposite direction, back to that one room, no longer to warm myself under my sheet but to cool myself in front of the fan.

At last we came to a dense community of men and boats, isolated at sea like a cluster of planets in an endless expanse of blue space.  Here, with nothing but blue in any direction, up or down, left or right, dozens of Betania fishermen congregated in their pirogues, sails down, anchored to the sea floor about forty meters below.  Everyday, all the males in the village relocate to sea for their own private fishing club.  They joke and laugh and call back and forth to each other, cheers for a good catch and jeers for a lost fish.

That day, of course, attention turned to the stranger among them.  I never understood the comments from the other boatmen, but I always understood the response from my companions.

“Careful, he speaks Malagasy.”

We made ourselves comfortable and waited for a bite.  We adjusted ourselves and waited some more.  We changed the bait and then waited a bit longer.  I got thirsty, hungry, tired, hot.  As I always do when I get uncomfortable abroad, I daydreamed of home, of refrigerators full of food and drink, of my favorite restaurants and my favorite dish on each menu, of my own familiar bed, with clean sheets, in my air conditioned bedroom.

But instead of a rented video and a bowl of popcorn, we had to talk to pass the time.  As one might expect from three men alone on a boat at sea, conversation quickly turned bawdy, or at least as bawdy as my language skills allowed.

“Do you have a wife?” they asked.

“No.”  We all laughed at my misfortune.

“Do you like Malagasy women?”

“Yes, very pretty.”  We all laughed at the inevitable next question.

“Do you want a Malagasy wife?” they asked as if they had someone in mind.

“No, but thanks.  I don’t want a wife.  I’m still young.” 

This confused them enough to end that line of questions.  No one in rural Madagascar is 25 years old, single, and happy with it.  The only bachelors at that age have some sort of serious physical defect or character flaw.  They scanned my body for misplaced appendages.  When they found nothing, they let the subject go.

“We like white women,” they said with eyebrows raised in suggestion, as a hint more than a statement.  I think they expected me to hand them a nude photo with an address in Morondava scribbled on the back.  “For a good time call…,” all their fun arranged by their white pimp friend with the inside connections.

“Me too,” I said with a smirk.

I reached for the two bottles of beer that I brought as a gift or payment and that, once and for all, ended all the talk about girls.  Instead, the guytalk shifted to alcohol.  I prefer beer, they like toakagasy, the Malagasy version of moonshine.  The government regulates a nationwide trade in toaka, but illicit and illegal varieties do exist in local markets.  The smell alone of these stronger, cruder local batches, like pure ethyl alcohol, makes me dizzy.  The taste stings and burns all the way down, and, for me, all the way back up again.  I told them so and they laughed at me. Now they knew the physical defect behind my single marital status, as though my weak belly explained everything.

We drank our warm beers in silence as the sun attacked us from every direction.  From above, it burned every last patch of unprotected skin and I watched myself turn an ever deeper red.  I sweat in a constant flow that seemed to evaporate before it even hit the air, vaporized from within by my body heat alone.  The sun bounced off the water below and even burned those few areas of skin that I managed to shade from direct light.  The bright white glare strained and exhausted my eyes.  Even with them closed and my head down, I still had to squint to dull the leftover glow on the backside of my eyelids, a flashbulb exploded inside my eye.  I huddled as deep as possible within the shallow canoe to escape the onslaught of heat and light.  I had only one shirt that I sometimes draped over a patch of skin and sometimes rolled and then tied across my eyes. 

No breeze, however faint, blew to relieve us.  No fish nibbled to entertain us.  My day of freedom on the open sea, my big adventure, fast became a prison in the sun.  Water, water everywhere, with only warm beer to drink.  To add to my torture, my cellmates wanted to talk, so I had to fight my way through one broken conversation after another.

I tried to sleep but they nudged me to ask about the trip from my home to theirs.

“Plane.  Two hours to Washington, eight hours to Paris, ten hours to Tana, one hour to Morondava.”  The same 21 hours over land in Madagascar almost gets you from Morondava to Tana, not even 500 miles away.

They asked the question that I feared.  “How much does that cost?”

I considered a lie to hide my relative wealth and their relative poverty.  But I told the truth.  The difference between the actual figure and any reasonable fib is like the difference between two levels of infinity; it’s incomprehensible

“One thousand dollars,” I said.  “Seven million franc malgache..”

They looked down and blinked a few times.  Their heads stayed down a while longer than I expected.  They looked distracted.  Maybe they felt even more isolated from the rest of the world at that moment.  Not just isolated in space by the Indian Ocean that surrounds the island.  Not just in time by all those hours on the plane that it took me to get from my home to theirs.  But also by economy, by all the money, or lack thereof, that separates them from the rest of the world.  On the other hand, I doubt they ever thought much about andafy, the world outside of Madagascar.  Maybe they just needed a moment to do the math.

My turn again, I questioned them about the economics of their business.  They most often catch tuna, which they sell for 5000 francs a kilo to vendors at the market.  These women, the middlemen so to speak, add 500 francs to the price of a kilo.  On a typical day they catch several tuna, each about five kilos, and they fish every day of the year that weather allows.  Every three years they have to buy another boat because the wood rots.  A boat costs 300,000 francs, their only regular major purchase.

“When did you buy this boat?” I asked.

“Four years ago.”  One year past rotten, I thought.  I looked for the nearest land but saw only water.

“How much money do you have saved for the next boat?”


That day we caught two tuna, two short moments of excitement during several hours of discomfort.  They do not use poles, so when a fish bites, one of them pulls in the line by hand.  When it gets near enough to the boat, the other harpoons it, lifts it from the water, and holds it just over the side of the boat.  From there, the first man grabs it by the gills, pulls it onto the boat, holds it down, and clubs it to death.  The fish sits dead at the bottom of the boat for the rest of the afternoon.

I wanted to try to help, to learn the tricks of the trade, at least to work my own line, the one that I bought brand new for the occasion.  But they did almost everything for me, and no fish ever bit my line anyway.  I spent much of that day balanced on the outrigger, out of the way, as they tried to pass from one end of the boat to the other.

They started to raise the sail to return to Betania, but I still had one last thing to do.  I sat my shirt aside and stood on the side of the boat with an eager glance down at the water, ready for a cool victory swim after a long, hot, dull day.  As I dove, I noticed every pair of eyes on every boat look my way.  I hit the cool, glassy surface of the water just inside the outrigger and swam out from the boat.  I surfaced to cheers and catcalls and incomprehensible jokes at my expense.  But it felt wonderful, my first swim beyond the sight of land, surrounded by blue, Mozambique to one side of me and Madagascar to the other. 

I steered for a short while on the way home.  They showed me how to perch myself at the very back corner of the canoe, on the edge, and how to hold the oar and wedge it against the side of the boat as a rudder.  They told me to hold it steady to keep the boat on a straight course for the beach.  I held it steady and we turned hard and fast to the left and I lost all control.  One of them rushed to replace me while the other adjusted the sail.  They guided the boat the rest of the way while I, once again, sat in the corner, out of the way, and watched.  My one chance to participate, my one opportunity to learn something, and I nearly flipped the boat. 

We gained momentum as we neared the shore; the wind and the waves strengthened.  Dozens of naked boys, their bodies glistening in the sun, abandoned their driftwood surfboards and scrambled in fear as we rushed upon them.  Despite the velocity, the wet sand cushioned our landfall and we stopped on the beach with a soft and gentle thump.  Everyone present, from the frail, old, and toothless women to the little naked boys, helped carry the boat to higher ground where ritual repeated itself as the men, women, and children did their respective duties.

My fishing buddies invited me back to their house for a late lunch of fresh fish, but I decided to risk offense and declined the offer.  Even through an itchy layer of salt and sand, my taut, dry, and burnt red skin radiated a palpable heat.  The direct afternoon sunlight no longer bothered me because my own body heat so overpowered it.  I wanted to go home and dump several buckets of cold water over me, to get rid of all that salt and sand and to at least try to cool myself.  Then I wanted a good, long sleep, with my body fully extended to keep each scorching appendage as far from the others as possible, and with the rotating fan positioned just right, to sweep my body head to toe and back again.

I wanted my daylong adventure vacation to end.  They, of course, had to go back and out and do it again the next day.  I planned to sleep late, take a cold shower, and stay out of the sun.