We walked out of the rainforest in the early afternoon. The difference from one side of an old rusty sign announcing the park boundaries to the other was stark and shocking. The cool air and subtle darkness of the forest gave way to the type of heat that leaves your clothes dry and streaked with the salty residue of sweat and burns your skin. The light was suddenly bright and sharp and difficult to adjust to. We immediately noticed how much we were sweating and our packs seemed to have gained weight in the few steps between the forest and where the forest once was.
A few minutes beyond the park boundaries a woman was standing on the steep slope of a hill tending to a garden of some crop that I did not recognize. She wore the woven, squared hat that is typical of all Tanala people. She wore a t-shirt showing the face of some failed political candidate and a long skirt. From where we passed it was impossible to see where she came from. A deep valley cut between our path and the hillside that she stood on and so we greeted her and waved and she returned a quiet greeting and watched as we walked off into the distance.
Thirty minutes after leaving the forest we climbed down into a valley that separated two steep hills. The ground was carved and shaped into a series of terraced rice paddies that were tucked into the eastern corner of the valley and stepped down and out as it spread across the floor. A river framed the area and a tiny village sat high on the hill across from small dirt path we had descended. The houses were square, like all Malagasy houses, and made from sticks and mud. Most of them were one room structures with thatched roofs. High on the hill two young men were building a new home and were nearly finished nailing the saplings to the inside and outside of the larger corner posts. When the wattle was finished, they would haul the thick red clay from the river bed up to the village and daub the space in between the saplings and wait for the sun to bake it into a home.
We set up our camp on the upper reaches of the terraced paddies. Hours before we descended from the hills our porters had arrived and already set up a makeshift camp kitchen and had several fires already burning and pots of vegetables and rice set out to cook. After a few hours of rest, we walked as a group up to the village to make a formal greeting and thank the people there for allowing us to camp in their rice fields. The village doesn’t receive a lot of visitors and so a group of 15 foreigners and some local guides was, obviously, the most exciting thing on the docket for the day. Kids hid behind the small houses and peered from the shadows unsure of our reason for being there. It was obvious that they were all waiting for one brave child to breach the awkward ground that separated us from them. It is impossible to determine exactly when that happened but suddenly the silence and coy gazes gave way to laughter and smiles. Malagasy kids have an uncanny ability to make a game out of nearly anything and pay no attention to language barriers, personal space and social decorum. Within minutes children were being chased around the village, riding around on stranger’s backs and fighting over who got to hold the hands of each and every visitor.
Meanwhile we made our formal speeches known as Kabary and gave a small token of appreciation to our hosts who had no idea that we were coming before we showed up. The head of the village offered to come down to the rice paddies later in the day and bring some local musicians and dancers and throw a big party for everyone. Such is the hospitality of the Malagasy people that a group of people who had no idea we were coming a few hours before offered us there land and to provide entertainment for everyone. By the end of the evening they were offering apologies for not having prepared a better fete and better accommodations and wishing that we would come back and stay with them in their humble homes.
The terraced paddies that cover every available piece of land in this country are both aesthetically beautiful and scientifically ingenious. They are designed to allow water to flow from high ground to low and through an array of complicated channels, dykes, dams and canals they systematically flood and drain the land in sequence. All of this can be done without the use of anything more than a thousand years of shared knowledge—a history that stretches back across the Indian Ocean to the island of Java— and a shovel. Many of the large swaths of paddies are owned by dozens of families and there is a tacit understanding that each family must trust the next to control and guide the water in such a way that every field is cared for in succession and that the paddies in the upper reaches get enough water before passing it on. It is also imperative that the upper paddies control the water until the lower paddies are tilled. If people do not work together it would be all to easy to destroy or starve the crops lower in the valley.
The walls that channel the water and separate the paddies are made to be paths that people use to traverse the fields. Walking them can be a bit perilous and eventually, even the most surefooted of traveler will end up submerged to their knees in the thick muck that rice best grows in.
I left the party early and retreated up the stepped paddies to a little triangular swatch of land where I had pitched my small tent. My intention was to find a quiet place to pass the night and subsequently, a lovely spot to greet the morning. From where I sat I could see the villagers and students dancing and singing a few hundred yards away and watched quietly as the sky lost its last hints of color and darkness seeped in. Before too long I was greeted by the humorous sight of a little line of headlamps traversing the winding walls that criss-crossed the largest part of the paddies. I watched as the individual lights panned left and right and briefly illuminated each other as they made their way back to camp. I sat and thought about the simple beauty of those little beams of light snaking along a path and I thought about how each little lamp represented a greater light, unique passions and talents and how each one had represented a different impetus and reason for being together in such an unlikely place. More than anything though, it was a reminder that each person here had willingly set forth on a journey to discover beauty and intrigue, to share in the pain and sadness and joy of people we don’t know and to discover a little bit about what it means to truly live in this world.
My thoughts turned to the struggles and issues that would undoubtedly arise over the coming months but how no matter the discomfort, frustration and the inevitable setbacks, nothing would come close to eclipsing the pure lightness of being that one experiences dancing barefoot with new friends in an old rice paddy the entire world away.