Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 4: Emotionally destabilising

Read the previous posts: part one, two and three.

From now on, I will skip the chronology, and rather than following the rollercoaster of my moods I will try to sum up and convey some of the most important impressions of the trip, both the immediate impressions based on my journal and the reflections several weeks later. What I have already noticed when writing the previous posts is that some memories have faded away while others have become more intensive and disturbing.

We left Tana early in the morning, our bags on top of the van, all of us cheerful and full of expectations. Mami, our guide, told us that on that day we would drive 170 km through the mountain plateau, which felt tolerable, and I was anticipating stunning views from travel agent's site. It took us about two hours to get out of Tana, with the traffic and no traffic lights, and when we eventually got out, the city just seemed to go on for ever, one huge slum along the road, expanding every now and then into a village or town. We stopped at one place to watch people making clay bricks, the clay dug up from rice fields and dried in the sun. For the rest of our trip we would see huts made from these bricks, endless ochre-coloured huts, some quite large, two-storied; as Mami explained, the ground floor was for storage and possibly fowl, while families lived in the upper floor. Some of the huts under constructions, just empty shells. No doors, no windows – gaping openings. But building, building, building, to provide for exponentially growing population. To be fair, you could see that some houses were minimally decorated: a hint of a brick pattern, occasionally some paint. It made me feel slightly better, that even in utter misery human beings do not lose the sense of beauty. But like in many poor countries, rubbish everywhere. The scenery, when visible at all, was dull, not quite mountains, not quite desert.

I had not been prepared for this. I had been anxious about strenuous walking, but I had not been prepared for the mental and emotional shock. I hoped once we left Tana we would be in the middle of nature, but of course there is very little nature left and rapidly disappearing - the endless refrain: “It all used to be forest” - and I had not thought about it at all. We tend to get indignant about deforestation and people destroying nature, but looking at the endless rice fields you suddenly realise that people do not destroy nature because they are evil, but because they are hungry.

My frustration of the first day was counter-productive. What can you do? Why don't they use machines in agriculture? Why don't they use solar energy? The children and young people we met, they must learn, they cannot go on like that, exploiting nature. So naïve, so imperialistic.

I had seen poverty and misery, and this was not much worse than the Russian countryside, while the climate is better – you cannot stay alive in a Russian winter without doors and windows. (Although my relatives, deported to Siberia in the '40s, partly survived in clay huts in minus 40C in winters. There was not much choice, survive or perish). My travel companions were fascinated, but apparently with my background I saw something that they didn't see. I simply could not watch it with a detached attitude; it was too much reminiscent of personal experience. I was thousands of miles away, but unimaginable squalor seemed to be the same. No electricity? No running water? When I worked for charity in Russia, in the '90s, we learned that 60% of maternity hospitals lacked running water. When I was in Moldova, we learned that 90% of households outside the capital lacked electricity.

And yet, when we stopped in villages, for whatever reason, and took a walk, I did not feel threatened as I had felt in some other places. People were friendly, cheerful, smiling, trying to make a conversation. They were not sour Russians in provincial towns; they were not Armenian teenagers throwing stones at tourists; they were not Moroccan beggars and annoying vendors. They were not sitting idle along the roads; they were building, farming, making things. Whenever we stopped, we were surrounded by people who apparently just wanted to meet us. We felt welcome, and yet I also felt uncomfortable. 

One of my early positive experiences in the middle of squalor was a sanitary stop along the road. Public toilets are the best indicator of a country's level of civilisation. This one was a primitive timber structure on a slope, a drop hole, but clean and smell-free. There was no door, take it or leave it. I had no problem with it. Everywhere we went, with one exception, toilets were fine, as long as you brought your own paper. Of course, we didn't go to places that might be less civilised. The endless markets we visited were filthy, with open sewage next to meat and fruit.

Because of eternal stops and because of the state of the road (we didn't know yet that the road was excellent by Malagasy standards), the 170 km took the whole day. But, I kept telling myself, forty years ago the main road between Moscow and Leningrad was in the same condition. It's good to have a frame of reference.

When we arrived at Antsirabe on that first evening, I was mentally exhausted. Our hotel was an oasis, literally and symbolically, although by no means luxurious, a clean and comfortable cabin, where I hid from the misery of the day while Anton and the rest went for a walk. I was, and still am, ashamed of my feelings, but it would be dishonest to omit them, and also they were central to my whole experience of Madagascar, and my struggle to overcome them was my most important lesson.

Many years ago I went to St Petersburg with a colleague who had little experience of Eastern Europe beyond luxury hotels and air-conditioned coaches. It was during the short span of time after the collapse of the Soviet Union when informal cultural exchange became possible, but the new infrastructure hadn't emerged yet. We had come by car via Finland, and the road from the border was rough (although not worse that National 7 in Madagascar). The hotel was nice, although shabby, and my eyes did not register anything extraordinary. But after a couple of days, my travel companion broke down on Nevsky Avenue, unable to cope with filth and decay. I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to the posh international hotel where my friend quickly recovered in the foreign currency bar.

I couldn't help thinking about this episode when I locked the cabin door in Antsirabe, trying to escape from depression; I couldn't read, because reading the novel I had brought felt ridiculous, almost offensive. I read the guidebook, trying to make sense of what I had seen. I felt unable to socialise and went back to the cabin after dinner. Anton went out again, and on return told me that they had talked to rickshaws in the streets, the most prominent feature of Antsirabe, according to the guidebook. None of the rickshaws owned their vehicles, but rented them by the day. Unless they had at least one tourist ride a day, they were losing money. There were hundreds of them, and only a handful of tourists. Local rides were cheap. It hurt me watching barefoot young men, almost boys, pushing carts with people sitting in them. Too many things hurt too much.

Each day we were given two three-course meals, far too much for me, but how can you leave half of the food on the plate when you know that people around you are starving? The food was excellent, although somewhat repetitive: zebu steak, zebu stroganoff, zebu stew, grilled zebu. Mami told us that local people maybe eat zebu once or twice a year. We ate more zebu in ten days than a family eats in a year. If you thought about it too much, you would choke on your steak. Breakfasts was continental, unsuitable for low-carb person like myself, but you could order eggs at extra cost. Bottled water was also extra charge, but ridiculously cheap. By the end of the trip, when we came to really dry areas, Mami asked us to save empty bottles, which he filled with tap water and gave people along the road. He also asked us to save hotel soaps and distributed them among children we met, who carefully broke the tiny soaps into four pieces and shared.

I didn't discuss any of this with Anton, except when he asked me, as we were walking past a miserable timber hut: “Can you imagine living in this house during rain season?” He couldn't. I reminded him, as I kept reminding myself, that lots of people we knew or had known used to live like that, and not in a tropical climate.

Of all the places we stayed at, Toliara, the final point of our trip, was the worst. Unexpectedly, it was full of beggars and pushy vendors we had not seen before; it didn't feel safe anymore. It was horrendously filthy; the mangroves I had been looking forward to see turned out to be a sewage ditch. Mami had run out of ideas of what to do with us, and we spent some hours in a “typically Malagasy” bar, drinking beer at slimy tables covered with flies, with two stray dogs walking around.

The initial itinerary of our tour started from Toliara. I am glad they reversed it because I might have turned and gone straight back home.

To be continued.

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