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?!
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…)