A student asked me the other morning what I thought ‘the real Madagascar was’ and I was surprised to find myself blankly staring at a crumbling brick wall, unable to answer. I started to talk about the national parks and the places where you can still primary forest and breathtaking vistas but that didn’t seem real enough. I thought about lemurs and baobabs and the thousands of other endemic species that can be found nowhere else on earth. I thought about the Peace Corps and USAID and all the development workers here trying to help. I thought about the endless number of white Land Cruisers and every NGO I can’t remember the acronym for. None of these things seemed adequate to answer with. Fortunately, I was rescued by the arrival of our taxi-brusse and so escaped without having to admit that after more than three years in Madagascar I still couldn’t answer a very simple question.
A few hours later, as we slowly wound our way down from the plateau toward the southwest, I found myself absently enjoying one of my favorite things in Madagascar which is to quietly and meditatively stare out of a car window. Travel here is slow, painfully slow. It takes days to cover the ground you might cover in hours in other places in the world. There are only a few paved roads in this country (which is bigger than California) and none of them are wide enough to be considered two lanes. The road is, at best, almost big enough for two cars to pass without cause for concern—but it never is. Each oncoming car presents a hazard and you must slow, swerve and recover constantly to get where you are going. Because of this the average speed here is something around 25 mph and so being able to enjoy window gazing is a sort of survival skill that you must develop if you want to live here.
I found myself mulling over the question about the real and decided to start small. I found myself thinking about the bustling markets with their perfectly stacked piles of vegetables. I thought about the old cars and the potholes and the diesel exhaust and the stray dogs and the endless piles of rice, the cobblestones, the bad car stereos, the way rain sounds on a tin roof, the cheap school uniforms and the smell of burnt rice tea. I thought about the sing-song of Sakalava and the high-pitched tones of the Merina. I thought about silk and vanilla. I thought about the piles of charcoal for sale along the road. I thought about power outages and the trees that stretch and fan their branches into perfectly usable rainbows.
And it was somewhere along a familiar stretch of the RN7, that I realized I was seeing little glimpses of the real in the blurred images that were constantly streaming past the window. It occurred to me that the real Madagascar was the commonplace. The everyday comings and goings of 25 million people was what was real. I realized, for the first time, why I can sit for hours and watch the red island slide by. I realized, for the first time, that this what was real. There was something real in the smile of the woman as her young son dashed beneath her dress. There was something real in the repetitive lifting and dropping of a sweat-smoothed wooden mortar as two little girls pounded rice in the rounded socket of an old tree. The giant sacks of charcoal propped up by sticks were real. The winding roads and the broken bridges seemed real for the first time. Two little girls stood behind their brother in the realest possible way. The absurdly tiny windows were real. The corn drying over second floor balconies were real. The thatched roofs and the broken doors were real. The shadows cast across the dusty clay were real. There was beauty and wonder and amazement in the way thousands of bricks were left to dry among the fields. The world seemed to be overflowing with ‘the real’ and as we neared our destination the setting sun ignited the low mud-brick huts and turned the rice paddies into emeralds. I saw a brilliant white egret fly low toward the horizon.