I am swinging in a hammock in the shade of an abandoned hut that is being consumed by dunes. Its thatched roof has collapsed, and the sand pressing against its walls makes it list dangerously, but the porch still provides the respite from the tropical sun as originally intended. There is no shade here other than that created by humans, and the temperature today, as most days this time of year, exceeded 100 humid degrees Fahrenheit. It has been a busy day of orientation by the research team to the upcoming dive lessons and science training, and I am savoring the relief offered by the sinking sun and the blessed breeze, watching the villagers sail their hand-hewn pirogues past our cove as they make their way home after fishing in the Indian Ocean.
The journey turned out to be a marathon: nine full days of demanding travel. The first two days were spent flying, first to New York then to Johannesburg and then on to Antananarivo, the Capitol of Madagascar, only to be met at the airport by immigration graft and gangs of aggressive porters, and once that gauntlet was navigated, to be greeted at the hotel by untrustworthy, bullying personnel.
One by one, the other members of my expedition team arrived at the hotel, exhausted and a bit shell-shocked, until 11 of us were assembled—ranging in ages from 18 to 30 years old– from the U.K., Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, and Cyprus.
Our one day in the Capitol was witness to unspeakable filth and fierce, frantic poverty—over 90 percent of the population of Madagascar lives on less than 2 dollars a day. It was also my introduction to the horrid reality of being a tourist in a third world country. We made our way through the crowded streets, surrounded by an ever-present scrum of beggars, determinedly marching past the man defecating along the lakeshore, ignoring the baby drooling in the gutter, and stepping around the mother of indeterminate age feeding a naked toddler from her breast surrounded by her other listless offspring sleeping on the sticky sidewalk. All because the tourist information center said it was a “must” to visit a monument to Malagasy independence, entry to which was blocked by threatening gatekeepers of uncertain credentials.
The next day we piled our gear on top of a Mazda minivan, folded ourselves into the seats, and began a four-day drive south through the central highlands. Once out of the city, the desperation of urban poverty relaxed into rural villages, poor but self-sufficient. The two-story houses were made from the earth on which they stood and overlooked flooded rice paddies and the grazing hump-backed cattle, zebu, which feed their occupants.
We stopped along the way at two national parks, seeing some of the species for which Madagascar is famous—ringtail lemurs and leaf chameleons—and hiking through parched open plains down into narrow river canyons to make good use of the swimming holes hidden there.
As our minivan dropped out of the highlands and approached sea level, however, the desert began to take hold. The houses started to shrink and the rice and zebu disappeared until the villages dissolved into solitary, tiny, thatched hovels with no water or source of food in sight.
Our travel by road, often more potholed than paved, ended in the seaside town of Tulear, where we were met by Blue Ventures staff. After a day for last minute currency exchange and the purchase of luxuries such as peanut butter, soy sauce, and sunscreen, we traded our minivan for three 4x4s and undertook an 8-hour off-road odyssey along the coast to our camp.
The pickup truck I was riding in got stuck twice—once in sand, once in dust. The first time, our convoy was still together, and everyone pitched in to push the truck out of the sand. When we got stuck the second time, however, our driver had followed the wrong track and the rest of our caravan did not know where we were. Our own efforts failed to free us, so our driver walked to a nearby fishing village to ask for help. Twenty or more locals, ranging in age from 3 to 30, came to dig us out with their boat oars, the youngest among them running into the thorny brush to gather rocks to place under the tires for traction.
The other two volunteers and I couldn’t handle even standing in the sun, so we walked to the village—all the huts were within reach of the sea—and rested in the shade of an overhang, while a young mother cradled and soothed her baby in the doorway alongside us.
When we finally arrived at the Blue Ventures camp, we were dust-covered and cotton-mouthed. We had given the villagers cash in return for their help, but they also asked to be given our bottles of water, a request that was impossible to decline in this desiccated landscape.
The BV camp itself is relatively luxurious. It is part of what passes for a hotel here, so we have huts with toilets and brackish water showers. They feed us three meals a day—scrambled eggs, rice and bread for breakfast, rice and beans and some zebu or fish for lunch and dinner. There is even a bar where you can buy beer, hard liquor, sodas, and bottled water. The camp has filtered, chlorinated well water to drink, but it tastes awful and the chlorine makes me nauseous. I am going to be unecological and buy bottled water; staying hydrated is more important, I think, and god knows I don’t want to throw up while scuba diving! I can assuage my guilt a bit with the knowledge that my empty bottles are used to float nets from which villagers grow seaweed for market as an additional source of income.
Our huts sit just on the cliff edge above a sandy cove. The water is over 85 degrees right now, almost too warm to be refreshing, and way too warm for the coral that we are studying. Three months ago, before the water temperature began to spike, 5% of the coral was bleached and possibly dying. Now almost 35% of the coral is. I can only hope that the rains will come or the currents will shift bringing cool water in time to save the reef.
Andavadoaka, a small village, is 100 yards away on the next cove north—we went there yesterday to meet the “nahooda”, the village elders. Each of us introduced ourselves in Malagasy, then we had to dance as a group to blaring Malagasy disco music. Fortunately, we were joined by throngs of gleeful children, their eyes shining and smiles flashing in the deep shadows that engulfed the meeting hall.
The expedition group is coming together well, I think because of enduring the trip south together. I am the oldest member by 25 years and the only American, making me a bit of an outsider. I am quickly becoming aware that one of the unexpected challenges of this expedition will be to learn to be comfortable in my 55-year-old skin in the presence of so much youth and enthusiasm. But my age makes me irrelevant to the social maneuverings and gives me the leeway to skip the late-night drinking sessions, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Everyone has headed back into the village tonight to go to Dados, the local bar and disco. I can hear the music pounding as I write. The women got all dolled up–they brought sexy dresses and makeup, jewelry and hair ornaments—things that never in a million years would have crossed my mind, either at 25 or 55. I can think of nothing I want less than to be trapped in a crowded bar with compatriots drunk on rum, surrounded by Malagasy villagers drunk on the local moonshine, then having to make my way home along the beach in the dark, watching for land mines of human feces. There are no toilets in the village.
Instead, I hang here in my hammock, focusing on the rhythm of the waves lapping in Half-Moon Cove and the serenity of the half moon hovering in the sky, which has darkened to deep blue as I have transcribed my tale.
Greenhorn has definitely gone beyond her comfort zone on this one. But it is good. All of this is important to see, to experience. And I have much to learn, not least of which is about who I am in this parched and prickly place where I have no reference points. What keeps coming to me, again and again, is exactly what came to me in that other strange and unfamiliar place, the Arctic: I am simply who I am. And I am glad for it.