At 5:30 a.m., the sky cracks open and dawn is peeled back by a blood-orange sun. It’s my seventh morning in Madagascar, my third sleeping open-air on the banks of the Tsiribihina River. Embers smolder as Daniel, my guide, prepares coffee. I stumble toward the shore to wash the sand from my hair.
Africa boasts some of the world’s most legendary rivers; they thunder across continents; bring deserts back to life. Madagascar’s Tsiribihina is not one of these. Much like the country, it’s unassuming and relatively unknown. Parched from eight-months of drought, the river at my feet slithers westward from Miandrivazo to the Mozambique Channel with the speed of a bloated brown snake.
Up until now, I haven’t been one for guided tours. I’ve forgone porters in the Himalayas and animal trackers in the jungles of Thailand. Yet since arriving in Madagascar last week, I’m having a change of heart. Within 10 minutes of arriving in the highland town of Antsirabe, I’d been accosted by salesmen. Amidst bruised French accents, a single smile perched in the back of candy-red rickshaw drew me over. And Tony, with his pay-what’s-fair mentality despite the bare feet with which he powered hit cart, inspired me to see employing local labour from a new angle. Rather than a compromise to my fierce independence, to ride the mile and a half into town in Tony’s rickshaw seemed like the most empowering method to pitch toward his next pair of shoes. After a day of showing me the city, Tony introduced me to his friend, Daniel, who ran pirogue trips down the Tsirihibina. His first quote came in at 50% of that advertised at my already budget hotel.
“My championing of solo expeditions, once felt to be the ultimate test of physical fitness, suddenly feels like a cheap affront to a skilled workforce. How could a few weeks of my own personal research even be considered on par with that of a proud national who has shared his country with visitors for over thirty years?”
Overhead, a white heron cracks the dry air with its wings.
Although relatively little has been written about Madagascar, the dominant narrative surrounding the Island Nation is this: like most third world countries, Madagascar’s population must deplete their resources to simply to survive. Food goes directly from terraced hillside to the belly; wood, from canopy to the stove. Yet as the first logging rafts appear on the riverbanks, stacked tall with squared-off trunks of palisander, it is obvious that a far more organized deforestation effort is at place.
“This was once a sacred place,” Daniel says. “But in 2008 our government reached an agreement with the Koreans who now have exclusive access to it for 99 years.”
Only a few colossal baobabs break-up the stump-studded wasteland, punching skyward on the Northern horizon. These trees, iconic of Madagascar’s coastal region, appear to be so prominent only because their wet, fibrous wood serves very little purpose to humans.
“It looks like they’ll run out of forest before then,” I say.
“Not all of this has been strip-logged. Much was burned-down by the Malagasy people in protest.” Daniel’s low-tone makes it impossible to tell what he thought of this strategy.
During my first day in the country, I’d bruised my forehead against a chattering bus-window. Rice paddies jigsawed the hills of the Merina highlands, disappearing only around excavation sites where clay bubbled up from the earth like blood. For two hours we rolled through green and red. Then suddenly the farmlands turned to soot. This pattern repeated itself over the next one hundred and fifty miles as we zigzagged our way upward toward an ambivalent sun.
“Of course, the idea of there not being enough food on the fourth largest island in the world is absurd.” On my first night in Antananarivo, I’d met with an expat from Barcelona. Tendrils of smoke escaped her lips between soft consonants. She was midway through a two-year mission with Unicef and refused to believe that Madagascar’s problems were internally wrought.
“Then there are spices, gems stones, and metals. The problem is, how do the people produce goods with so little infrastructure and how to they export them to a distant world? The answer is they don’t. Foreign business does that for them, but those leave too little investment behind.”
In Antsirabe, Tony and his barefooted colleagues rent their wooden rickshaws from a Pakistani mogul. I stayed in Indian, French, Chinese, and Italian hotels during my twenty days on the Eighth Continent—at first out of ignorance, but once I began to seek out local businesses I was amazed by the lack of options. According to a 2008 report, Madagascar has approximately 550 hotels, yet only 110 of these are classified as meeting international standards. One night, after arriving late to Fianaratsoa, the second largest city, I walked the shattered streets of Base-Ville for hours before collapsing into the sheets of a French BnB.
I met five other tourists during my seven-day decent of the Tsirihibina. Each had booked his or her trip through an international booking agency. For this convenience, prices fluctuated wildly—between 350-700 euros per head. Daniel assured me that almost all the guides receive a near-identical wage. I asked if he had a website I could share and he gave me a local cellphone number. With only 198,816 tourists arriving in 2013, Madagascar depends on High Cost – Low Volume tourism for economic growth. Yet affluence often comes paired with a taste for convenience. Despite what the Internet has done to empower independent business in the rest of the world, the sleek booking sites that invite foreign dollars are still beyond the budget of most local operators.
“I now strongly believe the tourist has a moral obligation to invest in the countries he chooses to visit.”
After one week as Daniel’s guest, I begin to feel ashamed of the independence that just one year ago inspired me to boastfully ascend Nepal’s Annapurna solo. I raise my finger to point out a family of red-fronted brown lemurs, knotted amidst a canopy ravinala palms, and he sternly advised me to bend my outstretched digit—to point directly at a lemur, considered to be the resurrected ancestors of the animistic forest people, is considered fiercely taboo. My championing of solo expeditions, once felt to be the ultimate test of physical fitness, suddenly feels like a cheap affront to a skilled workforce. How could a few weeks of my own personal research even be considered on par with that of a proud national who has shared his country with visitors for over thirty years?
It’s been just over a month since Daniel’s gentle scolding in the forests outside of Belo-sur-Tsirihibina. I now strongly believe the tourist has a moral obligation to invest in the countries he chooses to visit. One wouldn’t sneak his own drinks, guilt-free, into a gala supporting a cause he cares deeply about—let alone boast about it. Yet so many shoestring travel advocates forgo this sentiment when it comes visiting a country they claim to be otherwise worthy of an internationally purchased plane ticket and a couple weeks of your time.
It’s your duty as a visitor to invest value back into the nations that host you—especially if the future of that nation hangs so desperately on the industry you apparently promote.
At the end of my week on the Tsirihibina, I sat on a patio over-hanging the mangroves swamps of Morondava. Beneath me, bare-foot children combed the tidal mudflats, plucking up crabs indiscriminately and placing them in home-sewn nets.
“You cannot blame them,” came a voice from behind me, “but a wiser fisherman would take only the males so the colony may continue to grow.” Smile lines were etched into his mahogany face. Whether he worked the flats himself I did not know.
“A talented fishermen will come home and feed his family. A wise fisherman will make sure his family is fed for generations to come.”