The Tourist’s Veil

There is one more story from Madagascar that I haven’t had a chance to tell. To set the ambiance for this event, you should know that the issue of walking at night was an ongoing debate amongst us three. I had read consistently that in Tana it was a no-no. However, our hotel was mere minutes from the places we tended to eat, around Boulevard de L’Independence, and Adam and Wendy are more the “Oh…it’ll be fine” type. I admit it was tempting. You feel silly and wussy and a little xenophobic to hesitate walking such a short distance, even when the locals tell you not to. Usually we settled the debate by asking a disinterested party: our waitress, the handyman at our hotel, etc. Always they said “Take a cab”. One time, after a skeptical look from us, our advisor said “Remember: when you’re white, not at night.”

The west coast fishing village of Mangily was one place I’d been told we could venture after dark. We discovered that it is one thing to feel tempted to walk a short way along the familiarity of busy city streets, knowing the locals will absolve you by insisting you should not. It’s another to have been told you’re perfectly safe to walk alone down a quiet dirt path into the black, black night of Nowhere.

We had just finished our second dinner in a row at the fantastic Chez Freddie and embarked on the 15 minute walk back to our beach bungalow. Our only light was the moon above, and some bleed from the few structures with electricity along the beginning of the route. The sandy road ran behind the line of beachfront accommodations to our left; to our right was total darkness, and some trails that disappeared into it. It already felt like a demarcation between Mangily-for-tourists and the villages that burrowed inland, like our only way home was the alley behind a restaurant. Then came the crying.

It was a woman, somewhere at the end of those night-eaten paths. She was wailing, somewhere in the distance. We travelers locked eyes, but at first we kept walking. It was faint, and clearly none of our business. What were we going to do, jot off blindly into midnight fields of goodness-know-what? The normal person in me felt cowardly; the Anthropologist in me chided “arrogance” at the idea that we’d be the only ones to save her. My mind filled with images of ways it could go wrong: fighting our way through clutching, waist-high vegetation to find someone with a limb cut off in an accident (and we would help how?) or perhaps a girl being attacked by men wielding scythes; stumbling into a village ceremony of some sort, the unwelcoming whites of eyes all trained on us; fumbling into the darkness, never to find a thing – including our way back. No images arose of us actually being helpful.

But we could not ignore someone so clearly in distress. We stopped in our tracks when it became clear it wasn’t a fleeting lament, twitchy and struggling with our conscience vs. our logic. But Wendy is an innate Protector of Women; she had that look in her eye and I knew she was considering plunging into the darkness after the voice. She would do it, too.

“It doesn’t sound like she’s hurt, or being attacked,” I noted. “I mean, it’s going on and on and on. That’s not fear or injury. She sounds…sad.” The other two nodded. “That’s grief,” we determined. Snatches of calm male voices floated to us from around the bodiless keen, as if trying to comfort her. In some sense, we felt better. “But what if it’s not grief?” Wendy had to ask.

Just then a woman rushed out of a stick house on the ocean side, hastily wrapped in a lamba (Malagasy sarong). She tore across the road, crossing just feet from us, and dashed confidently inland into the darkness.

“Look, she’s got support,” Adam pointed out. “Wendy, we simply can’t help,” I concluded. And with that, we continued to our temporary home, heavy-hearted and uncomfortable.

The next day a local boy sat talking to me on the beach. Surprisingly, he had nothing to sell; he seemed to just want to chat with the vazaha. Maybe he was practicing his French. I asked him about life in the area and, eventually, if he knew everyone in the surrounding villages. When he said yes, I mentioned the night’s events. “I didn’t hear anything from the villages last night, but it is the anniversary of a tragedy from three years ago…a woman left her house and shut the door, with her 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl sleeping inside, and a candle burning.” He did not have to describe how fiercely a house made of dried sticks would blaze. “The smoke was very black and thick, and the boy could not find the door.” My new friend mimicked the boy’s search with outstretched hands. “And they never got out?” I asked, without thinking. But sadder yet, he nodded. “Yes. They did, but it was too late. It was…very awful.”

Suddenly the sounds this woman was making made all too much sense and the images stung my eyes. It is difficult to describe the feeling it gave me. The story had little do with the loud things that divided me from this woman: the poverty, the local importance of skin color, our basic standard of living. Even where tourists are from, children die in house fires, parents make terrible mistakes. But at the same time, those elements felt relevant. Maybe it’s because when children are literally all a person has, losing them so cruelly reminds me just how little Luck cares about balance.

Whatever the reason, I also felt intrusive to have overheard her pain. Like I’d peeked behind a veil of privacy that separates all tourists from the life of locals. A veil which obscures the fact that, behind everything we see, there are people living, breathing, celebrating, suffering. It is both something we should not forget and none of our business. That night’s mystery symbolized the veil that had been there all along, as we passed through town after town in our car: people were working hard, but they looked okay. They all appeared fed; children laughed in the streets. But the truth lay at the end of dark roads that are too terrifying for us to go down and we are ill-equipped to even try.

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