We happily greeted the man behind the counter and sat down on a rickety bench to order a beer. He was in fact wearing a cowboy hat, and I was clandestinely thrilled.
-Do you know all our beers are warm here?
We did. He smiled. We smiled back. He started talking.
I have forgotten this man’s name but not his story. Despite having electricity, a population of well over 30 000, and a seemingly endless supply of warm beer, Ambalavo did not have access to running water. One would have to purchase barrels of water from the delivery trucks that stopped through the city. This made farmers particularly reliant on the rain to water their crops.
He went on to explain that in the past few years, it had been getting warmer and warmer in Ambalavao. We nodded. Mari and I had noticed the same thing in our respective countries…
In a warmer Ambalavao, he continued, the rainy season came much later in the year, leaving many farmers and families scrambling for subsistence. His family was one of these, and he hoped the small income generated from the bar would enable him to purchase enough food and water. I was shattered. We ordered another beer.
I knew the choices I made in Canada affected others, but for the fist time the impact of my choices had a human face. This man’s life and livelihood were threatened by the warming of his city.
I drive. I heat my home with electricity. I enjoy pineapples in the winter and cold beers in the summer. I have contributed to the warming of the planet MUCH more than this bar owner, yet he was the one suffering from it.
It may be hard to see (or easy to ignore) the effects of our behaviour in developed nations, because for now, the negative impacts are not yet threatening our livelihoods. But these problems do not disappear. They are passed on to others, and to me, it seems they are passed on to the ones that are already struggling the most.
"I enjoy pineapples in the winter and cold beers in the summer. I have contributed to the warming of the planet MUCH more than this bar owner, yet he was the one suffering from it."
I was heading to the market the next morning at 8am with one of our guides, Roger, to purchase supplies.
-Go quickly, buy batteries, and come back quickly.
My Explore colleagues Alice and Bertrand knew I loved the market, and that I would stay there hours if I could. But not tomorrow. Tomorrow, we had a schedule to follow.
Roger showed up an hour late with a wide grin on his face. It was a beautiful morning. A beautiful morning to buy batteries.
The thirty minute walk to the market required some nimbleness and acrobatics, as I began to navigate the small slick walls separating the muddy rice terraces. A stray foot would occasionally slip right or left into the grey muck, and curious spectators would howl in laughter. I was glad to reach the winding dirt road that would take us the rest of the way.
-We’re going to stop off at a friend’s place on the way, Roger suggested.
The “friend” was a friendly local who ran a small and bustling rum commerce out of his one-room home. His pineapple and ginger-tinged concoctions made him a favourite among the valley villagers. Complimentary drinks were poured before I even had both feet in the door. Followed an hour of music and discussion among new friends. Roger sings pretty well…
The sun was high in the sky when we finally reached the market, and I was quick to find friends willing to help me haggle down the price for a couple a batteries. Roger had temporarily disappeared, and my pals wanted to celebrate my newly acquired purchases with a few beers. Not one to turn down inter-cultural interactions, we sat down and lazily discussed the pleasures of market day in Namoly.
Roger finally re-appeared with a stern look on his face. A local villager had passed away the night before, and he wanted to pay his respects.
When someone dies, it is customary to separate the men and the women. Roger led me to a nearby hut, the “man hut”. I could hear women crying nearby.
-I’ll wait outside, I said.
-Come in. It’s ok.
I walked in. All the men inside greeted me, and we sat against a wall in the one-room home. One after the other, the men took turns sharing memories of the recently departed, exchanging anecdotes and stories. Between each, a stifling silence. I sat quietly and felt awkward. It was pretty clear I was not a local.
When we finally left I breathed a sigh of relief.
-We need to go see the body in the women’s hut, added Roger.
Relief turned to panic.
There was a large crowd in the hut, but you would not have guessed it when I stepped in. The crowd parted in an instant to make room for the new visitor, leaving me face-to-face with the deceased. Some of them knew I kept my camera in my pocket, and urged me to take it out to digitally capture the unfolding events.
This was too much for me to handle. If I wasn’t the first white person they had ever seen, I was surely the first white person they had seen turn even whiter. I thanked them for their graciousness and stepped out.
I was not squeamish, but was overwhelmed by what felt like an inter-cultural over-share. Here I was, a recently arrived visitor to their village, invited to a private wake.
-You okay?, Roger asked.
He could tell the whole proceedings had taken me by surprise.
-“These people are really nice”, is all I managed to say.
We stopped at the rum house once again on the way home, and stayed for much longer. Roger also plays guitar.
When I finally got home, Alice and Bertrand were next to the tent and looked quite puzzled. I had not “returned quickly from the market”, as per our evening arrangement. It was about 4pm, and I was slightly buzzed.
I told them I was tired and went for a walk. I sat on a big boulder overlooking the rice fields and watched the sun sink into the mountains. I took a picture, hoping the way I felt would somehow be captured in the image. An overwhelmingly amazing and beautiful day was coming to an end, and I didn’t really know how to react. I started to cry.
What started off as a quick market trip became one of my most memorable Madagascar journeys. Plans change. Let them.
"What started off as a quick market trip became one of my most memorable Madagascar journeys. Plans change. Let them."
We met Florinne on the outskirts of Andringitra National Park. She was hired to be our cook for the first few days of our adventure, as the team and I were getting ready to hike the tallest accessible peak in the country, Pic Imarivolanitra.
The peak was formerly known as Pic Boby, Boby being the first dog to reach its summit, but the name was changed to Imarivolanitra in a trade-off of poetics and pronunciation. No word on how the dog is doing.
Back to Florinne, who’s just announced she would also guide us to the top of the summit. Florinne was at least 2 decades older and 2 feet shorter than I was, but she scrambled up that peak like a pro, deftly balancing a water bottle on her head as though it was glued on – leaving only dust, and a group of volunteers in awe behind.
My hiking shoes and clever pants with the zipper that transforms them into shorts were no match for the determination of this moccasin-toting woman.
Elizabeth was sitting down with our guide Roger and going over plant species, having quite the time trying to decipher the scientific names and uses of all the greenery laid at her feet. She made many mistakes, but kept a small notebook to help her study and improve.
Elizabeth was an aspiring tourist guide, and she was also old enough to be my mother.
Even though she wheezed through our forest excursion, we could still hear her picking up various plants and mumbling their scientific names under her breath for hours on end.
I still think of this woman, a reminder that you’re never too old to learn – or plan a career change…
"...she scrambled up that peak like a pro, deftly balancing a water bottle on her head as though it was glued on – leaving only dust, and a group of volunteers in awe behind"