Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Ah, think twice, just another day for you and me in ....."

I returned by plane to Antananarivo an hour ago and am now holed up in a rather disappointing, dirty, but internet-friendly hotel near the airport. From here I will spend my last two days in Madagascar before the long flight home. Finding my room depressing, I decided to use the lobby to write you a few thoughts about where I had been this past week. In my embarrassingly broken French, I asked the intelligent young lady at the front desk for the network password and remarked to her I had just arrived from the east coast where I had been out in the ocean on the primitive island of Ile Sainte Marie. She responded in equally broken English that she had only heard of that wonderful place, told me she had never been there, and the chance of ever going near there would be financially impossible. I mention this conversation because it reminded me again of my life's serendipitous blessing and the dichotomy I have continually experienced throughout my trip of seeing amazing beauty and unique wildlife intertwined with a world of poverty.

My driver took me on a route along the Indian Ocean through small robust towns and fishermen's villages and then, as planned, we split up and I went off on my own, making a two hour crossing of the sea to the renowned island. The landscape for the entire week was so lush and tropical. There were crystal clear lagoons, reefs, wide sandy beaches and palm trees everywhere. The travel agent who organized my trip had considered maximizing my pleasure and booked me each night in tourist-oriented resorts owned mainly by French expats. These hotels were guarded, self-contained  and walled off to minimize crime or any other unpleasantness that might occur from too close proximity with locals. What is paradise for some, I found just the opposite. The atmosphere was downright annoying. The other guests, mainly French tourists, most who still smoke and also drink too much, were generally unfriendly and pretentious and, as stereotypes go, seemed mainly interested in eating. Partially out of mischief, I avoided the almost obligatory dinners in the hotel's overpriced restaurants or several times ordered only a breakfast omelette instead of lobster tails. I explained to my frustrated and thoroughly perplexed guide that I didn't come to Madagascar to be with French people or for French cuisine. I asked to be taken into the nearest village to eat healthy ro mazavah* in Malagasy restaurants, in which I was treated respectfully and was charged the normal  price. During the days, I sat relaxed alone on the beach in a deck chair under the hot sun, read a book, swam in the warm calm water or snapped pictures. I also kept my eyes peeled for people among the work staff or hawkers on the beach to draw.  I've included several photographs which are intended to clarify the above narrative. As I look at these pictures, they fall so short of capturing the content and intensity of the week. They don't include the morning I spent touring at an old stone fort built by the English to protect terrified natives from the forays of Arab, Dutch and French slavers nor are there pictures of the wizened old man who related the historical events and then took my photo.
In any case, I have included only fragments of an incredible week, typified by three solitary beach scenes which convey a certain tranquility I experienced. Perhaps they describe some of the loneliness I felt as well.

Another photo shows one of the perpetrators of a terrible commotion of hoots and screeches just before dusk from the canopy above my cabin at a resort. Although not necessarily indigenous to the area, somebody introduced and released a family of variegated ruffed sifaka lemurs. There were obviously doing well, since I spied several young ones clinging and swinging through branches nearby.

*The food photo shows an upscale version of a plate of Ra Marzava I was served in a better restaurant and really doesn't portray accurately the authentic meals I ate had among the locals in little eateries. Normally the dish is prepared with either chicken, fish or pork which is boiled in its own broth together with cooked greens of cassava leaves, bok choy or sweet potato tops. This mix is then added to a large mound of rice and eaten in traditional Malagasy custom, cut up, shoveled up and lifted to the mouth using a large soup spoon. Most everyone adds varying quantities of hot peppery sauce or paste, some of which was so hot, that the smallest drops brought me practically to tears.

The last picture is a quick sketch I did of Anita, a server at a hotel. I drew quite a few folks on the trip, and found art a great way to relate to people. As usual, some drawings turned out okay and others not so good, but at least I became accustomed to the pressure of a crowd of people looking over my shoulder..  Special gratitude to Dawn, Steve, Sheryl, Jane and others who have encouraged me to find joy in drawing.


  1. Wonderful, beautiful captures and a great way to end your trip! Thank you for sharing. Have a safe journey home.

  2. You covered so much diverse ground in this post that it's a bit difficult to get a handle on it. I had to read it twice to find something to focus on (not that I minded) and I was finally able to narrow it down to two things:

    The first is that no matter how much you want to, you can't truly experience the life of a person in a third-world country, or even in your own country, unless you can share their limitations. And one of the greatest of those limitations is the lack of mobility. Just the very fact of your being there--the fact that you could get to Madagascar and get home again, not to mention travel all over the island while you were there--underscores the inevitable class difference. Or should I say class barrier? I'm referring of course to that girl who will probably never see Ile Ste-Marie in her whole life, even though it's a part of her homeland. It's a place she can only dream about.

    The other thing I kept coming back to is that plate of Ra Marzava--now that really intrigues me! For one thing, I didn't know sweet potato leaves are edible. As soon as I finish this comment I'm going to try and track down a recipe for it. I guess it can't be truly authentic without the local hot sauce, but from what you said that might not be such a bad thing.

  3. It does look lonely despite the lemur. I am wondering what the resort looked like. I feel sad for the girl who can only dream of seeing the island. And your ability to capture the way people really look is getting better and better. I'm glad you kept drawing. I know you enjoy it. Thanks for sharing your trip!

  4. Well, I've been out-of-touch of late, so it was good to read of your latest adventures! What great fun, in spite of boorish French tourists and other knumbknuts! I didn't realize you were so artistically talented. On May 10, we were celebrating Lois' birthday by kayaking down the Silver River, and we've got the pictures to prove it on Ocala (Florida) Photos. :) I'm assuming you made it home safely and probably are still sleeping!