Monthly Archives: October 2011

Making it Happen. Every. Single. Day.

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.


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Processing Madagascar

I am still dreaming of Madagascar.

Every night my lids are plump with images that have scattered by the morning like fragments of a jigsaw. Red earth, scorching and fumes, humble shacks. River banks clothed in fresh laundry spread to dry. Easy smiles framed by dimples, full of surprisingly perfect teeth. Children who come running as they see your car pass, cheerfully waving: “Bonjour, Vazaha!” And Lionel Richie (more on that later).

One thing the Malagasy do not lack are dimples, near perfect teeth and a welcome, sweet gentleness. Vazaha is pronounced ‘vaza’, and when the children greet you with gusto it comes out sounding like the old Bud Light commercial: Whazzuuuuuup?!

Some fun posers in the town of Antsirabe.

Vazaha means “stranger”, almost always meaning a white person. We laughed heartily at the idea of swapping places with them on the streets of America. Running out to their car, waving happily “Hello, black/Indonesian person!” But in a place like Madagascar, it felt like something richer. A rare moment of uncomplicated exchange, where there is nothing incorrect about naked curiosity. There was something settling about being observed as much as we were there to observe.  Like the exchange we represented was of more than just tourist dollars. That impression remains precious.

We processed the vast differences in our worlds, and poked fun at ourselves, with a long-running challenge: what things do the Malagasy not need? That’s a hard one, not because they couldn’t use a lot, but because they already find clever ways to manage with…everything. Soda cans: made into model airplanes and cars. Empty water bottles: transport packaging and honey containers. Talk about reduce, reuse, recycle. These people have got it down.

Many items from infomercials got mentioned in our challange. The winner, by far, was a chain of gyms. To our surprise we did find one customer among those stuck in a life of back-breaking work: a man in bright red underwear performing his morning stretches on a giant boulder sticking up from a valley of rice terraces, for all to admire. That was lovely and strange. A winking show of vanity in a place where there is little time for such things. Good for him.

And then there’s Lionel Richie. Madagascar seems to have a thing for him. If you’ve ever wondered if there’s a place where old 80’s albums go to die, this is it. This is their afterlife. We were hoping to ride in our car to the sounds of local music. But (our driver claimed) there were rarely music stations along our roads. So Dancin’ on the Ceiling it was. And I heard it several places other than that, like the “cabaret” at Hotel/Bar Glacier. A little Beyoncé, too. But mostly Lionel. Ballerina Girl will be in my head for a long time, as I could not help but think of my home town friends-turned comedians Rhett & Link (who have a thing for that album). But I didn’t tell anyone about that. It seemed something else they didn’t need from me. But they probably would have smiled and politely found a use for it anyway.

(More Mada commentary to follow later this week…)


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