Wendy and I had this exact same thought. Our first overwhelming impression, in our separate taxis from the airport to Antananarivo. There is no better way to describe the encompassing thrum as people piece together their daily survival before your very eyes.
It’s such a contrast from home, where the jobs we perform have nothing to do with our actual daily needs. For us, the facts of life happen behind the scenes. Somewhere else. But in places like Madagascar survival plays out each day in a constant-motion drama. It’s arresting to see how hard *most of the entire world* works, for such incongruously humble lives.
Don’t get me wrong; I was never one of those who thought that if someone is struggling to make ends meet, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. (Nor that I have any real clue about the life of the people I’m seeing.) Even so…the scene is striking. People walking, walking, everywhere. Barefoot. Bare feet! Rolling tires down the road. Infant tied into the small of a woman’s back – or the back of another child – head flopped to the side in oblivious baby slumber. Carrying you-name-it on her head: planks of wood, birds, oranges, carrots, laundry, barbed wire, firewood, sacks of rice, bricks piled 10 layers high. Wandering zebu, chomping dry grass. Stalled cars. Fixing bikes. Whole families pushing carts. Together. Uphill, burdened high with rice or wood. Maybe a youngin’ perched on top. Embroidering linen. Selling honey, self-collected; different flavors from different trees. Riverbeds crowded with washers: of clothes, of zebu, of cars. Of themselves. Planting rice, ankle deep in shiny water. Scattering seeds, skirts a fabric bowl. Plowing muddy terraces. Burning land. Tending to a mud-brick kiln, black smoke seeping out the cracks. Smearing homes with red clay stucco. Children walking home from school, blue-uniformed herds. Women braiding hair. At wooden stalls. Stall after stall after stall. Selling nuts and nails and everything in-between. Making. It. Happen.
Then there is a different kind of work. We became very aware of pretty young Malagasy paired up with vazaha men. Particularly middle-aged ones. In fact, our favorite hangout was Hotel Glacier – a notorious prozzie bar with an open friendly ambiance and fantastic food. We expected a sad scummy joint (as we’d read in advance what was also “on the menu”); what we found challenged our preconceptions and made us debate our multiple types of naiveté. Were we really looking at prostitutes, or just pretty girls from a poor country who dream of finding a foreign saviour? It was impossible to tell. On top you saw just an ice cream and pastry shop on one side, a cafe on the other. A gem of a place where locals and vazaha mingle, for reasons that all look sweet on the surface. Gorgeous smiling locals, dressed like any in a London lounge. Chatting friendly in the washroom. Helping me dig-up some TP. Back in the bar, receiving drinks from mostly middle-aged white men. Was that it? Laughing. Smiling at us like we’re all on the same page. We did not actually see any women leave with any men. But we looked, simply because we do not understand. So much we do not understand.