People say our trip to Madagascar must have been “awesome” or “amazing”. I would just say that the experience was “enlightening”. Driving from the airport in the capital, I was shocked to see streets lined with people hunched behind small stalls, each selling only a bowl of oranges or a plate of biscuits. Countless others were milling around, or just staring blankly. Diego, where we met Katie, had beautiful French architecture from the colonial period, now in ruins, and beautiful beaches lined with shacks of sticks and straw. There is no infrastructure. Where we traveled, the few paved roads are crumbling, and outside of the major cities there was no electricity or running water. As we drove through the countryside, the beauty of the mountains, rivers, plains and beaches was viewed against a backdrop of poverty.
Katie lives in a small town in a sparsely-furnished two-room mud house with a tin roof. The facilities consist of a hole in the ground in a shed in the side yard. These are luxury accommodations compared to many of the neighbors. On one wall in her living area is the “wall of fame”, an Obama “Yes We Can” fabric to which she pins all of the cards, postcards and photos that you send her. The stick fence around the yard is lined with small faces peering in, and there is a constant chorus of “Kah-tee, Kah-tee!” which is the children's version of her American name. The children are beautiful and fun loving, but Kah-tee, finds their sun-up to sun-down fascination with her to be a bit much.
Madagascar is the tenth poorest country in the world. The vast majority of the people of Madagascar live in one room whose walls consists of sticks gathered from what remains of the nearby forests, with a palm frond roof. Within the walls are 2-5 adults and numerous children. Every meal consists of rice, rice and more rice, with some variation as to what sauce is put over the rice. On very special occasions, a scrawny chicken might also be served. Having had one of those chickens we can attest to just how little meat is on a semi-feral chicken (but at least the SPCA will be gratified to know that they are “free-range” chickens). Yet, despite living in conditions that we would find appalling, with high levels of malaria, dysentery and life spans that are considerably shorter than almost anywhere else in the world, the Malagasy are a people with a ready smile and a polite welcome. Their clothes are mostly castoffs from more developed countries but they are remarkably clean. There are perhaps many things that they could learn from us but there are at least a few things we can learn from them.
Environmentally, Madagascar is a country of stark contrasts. The coastlines could easily be mistaken for paradise pictures of the Caribbean or Fiji, but up close the walk to one of those beaches may follow a stream that consists mostly of raw sewage. There are hills so verdant and green that they take you breath away. But there are other hills, hundreds of miles of hills that also take your breath away because virtually no living things grow on them –they have been stripped not only of trees but of grasses and even weeds. There are lemurs which look like shrunken old men, lemurs that look like witches, lemurs that jump so gracefully and quickly from tree to tree that monkeys would be put to shame. But so many of the lemur species are close to extinction that we’re facing a species extinction “cascade” for this branch of our primate relatives.
Katie is in Madagascar because she believes that she can make a difference. For one of us, hiking the Appalachian Trail many decades ago was a major accomplishment, certainly at the physical level but also as a serious emotional challenge. However, living in a village that’s a three hour drive to the nearest town (i. e., a settlement that has running water, electricity, and a store that stocks more than rice, tomato paste and candy), living with people who are culturally literally half a world removed from one’s comfort zone, makes hiking the AT look like a four month lark – a walk in the woods (to borrow a phrase from Bryson). To do it for two years, possibly three years, is way beyond a serious challenge – it’s a commitment for a chunk of one’s life. Although she asked us to focus on our impressions of the country and its people and to leave her out of our comments, we can’t help but add that her courage and conviction make us very, very proud.