Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 4: Emotionally destabilising

Read the previous posts: part one, two and three.

From now on, I will skip the chronology, and rather than following the rollercoaster of my moods I will try to sum up and convey some of the most important impressions of the trip, both the immediate impressions based on my journal and the reflections several weeks later. What I have already noticed when writing the previous posts is that some memories have faded away while others have become more intensive and disturbing.

We left Tana early in the morning, our bags on top of the van, all of us cheerful and full of expectations. Mami, our guide, told us that on that day we would drive 170 km through the mountain plateau, which felt tolerable, and I was anticipating stunning views from travel agent's site. It took us about two hours to get out of Tana, with the traffic and no traffic lights, and when we eventually got out, the city just seemed to go on for ever, one huge slum along the road, expanding every now and then into a village or town. We stopped at one place to watch people making clay bricks, the clay dug up from rice fields and dried in the sun. For the rest of our trip we would see huts made from these bricks, endless ochre-coloured huts, some quite large, two-storied; as Mami explained, the ground floor was for storage and possibly fowl, while families lived in the upper floor. Some of the huts under constructions, just empty shells. No doors, no windows – gaping openings. But building, building, building, to provide for exponentially growing population. To be fair, you could see that some houses were minimally decorated: a hint of a brick pattern, occasionally some paint. It made me feel slightly better, that even in utter misery human beings do not lose the sense of beauty. But like in many poor countries, rubbish everywhere. The scenery, when visible at all, was dull, not quite mountains, not quite desert.

I had not been prepared for this. I had been anxious about strenuous walking, but I had not been prepared for the mental and emotional shock. I hoped once we left Tana we would be in the middle of nature, but of course there is very little nature left and rapidly disappearing - the endless refrain: “It all used to be forest” - and I had not thought about it at all. We tend to get indignant about deforestation and people destroying nature, but looking at the endless rice fields you suddenly realise that people do not destroy nature because they are evil, but because they are hungry.

My frustration of the first day was counter-productive. What can you do? Why don't they use machines in agriculture? Why don't they use solar energy? The children and young people we met, they must learn, they cannot go on like that, exploiting nature. So naïve, so imperialistic.

I had seen poverty and misery, and this was not much worse than the Russian countryside, while the climate is better – you cannot stay alive in a Russian winter without doors and windows. (Although my relatives, deported to Siberia in the '40s, partly survived in clay huts in minus 40C in winters. There was not much choice, survive or perish). My travel companions were fascinated, but apparently with my background I saw something that they didn't see. I simply could not watch it with a detached attitude; it was too much reminiscent of personal experience. I was thousands of miles away, but unimaginable squalor seemed to be the same. No electricity? No running water? When I worked for charity in Russia, in the '90s, we learned that 60% of maternity hospitals lacked running water. When I was in Moldova, we learned that 90% of households outside the capital lacked electricity.

And yet, when we stopped in villages, for whatever reason, and took a walk, I did not feel threatened as I had felt in some other places. People were friendly, cheerful, smiling, trying to make a conversation. They were not sour Russians in provincial towns; they were not Armenian teenagers throwing stones at tourists; they were not Moroccan beggars and annoying vendors. They were not sitting idle along the roads; they were building, farming, making things. Whenever we stopped, we were surrounded by people who apparently just wanted to meet us. We felt welcome, and yet I also felt uncomfortable. 

One of my early positive experiences in the middle of squalor was a sanitary stop along the road. Public toilets are the best indicator of a country's level of civilisation. This one was a primitive timber structure on a slope, a drop hole, but clean and smell-free. There was no door, take it or leave it. I had no problem with it. Everywhere we went, with one exception, toilets were fine, as long as you brought your own paper. Of course, we didn't go to places that might be less civilised. The endless markets we visited were filthy, with open sewage next to meat and fruit.

Because of eternal stops and because of the state of the road (we didn't know yet that the road was excellent by Malagasy standards), the 170 km took the whole day. But, I kept telling myself, forty years ago the main road between Moscow and Leningrad was in the same condition. It's good to have a frame of reference.

When we arrived at Antsirabe on that first evening, I was mentally exhausted. Our hotel was an oasis, literally and symbolically, although by no means luxurious, a clean and comfortable cabin, where I hid from the misery of the day while Anton and the rest went for a walk. I was, and still am, ashamed of my feelings, but it would be dishonest to omit them, and also they were central to my whole experience of Madagascar, and my struggle to overcome them was my most important lesson.

Many years ago I went to St Petersburg with a colleague who had little experience of Eastern Europe beyond luxury hotels and air-conditioned coaches. It was during the short span of time after the collapse of the Soviet Union when informal cultural exchange became possible, but the new infrastructure hadn't emerged yet. We had come by car via Finland, and the road from the border was rough (although not worse that National 7 in Madagascar). The hotel was nice, although shabby, and my eyes did not register anything extraordinary. But after a couple of days, my travel companion broke down on Nevsky Avenue, unable to cope with filth and decay. I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to the posh international hotel where my friend quickly recovered in the foreign currency bar.

I couldn't help thinking about this episode when I locked the cabin door in Antsirabe, trying to escape from depression; I couldn't read, because reading the novel I had brought felt ridiculous, almost offensive. I read the guidebook, trying to make sense of what I had seen. I felt unable to socialise and went back to the cabin after dinner. Anton went out again, and on return told me that they had talked to rickshaws in the streets, the most prominent feature of Antsirabe, according to the guidebook. None of the rickshaws owned their vehicles, but rented them by the day. Unless they had at least one tourist ride a day, they were losing money. There were hundreds of them, and only a handful of tourists. Local rides were cheap. It hurt me watching barefoot young men, almost boys, pushing carts with people sitting in them. Too many things hurt too much.

Each day we were given two three-course meals, far too much for me, but how can you leave half of the food on the plate when you know that people around you are starving? The food was excellent, although somewhat repetitive: zebu steak, zebu stroganoff, zebu stew, grilled zebu. Mami told us that local people maybe eat zebu once or twice a year. We ate more zebu in ten days than a family eats in a year. If you thought about it too much, you would choke on your steak. Breakfasts was continental, unsuitable for low-carb person like myself, but you could order eggs at extra cost. Bottled water was also extra charge, but ridiculously cheap. By the end of the trip, when we came to really dry areas, Mami asked us to save empty bottles, which he filled with tap water and gave people along the road. He also asked us to save hotel soaps and distributed them among children we met, who carefully broke the tiny soaps into four pieces and shared.

I didn't discuss any of this with Anton, except when he asked me, as we were walking past a miserable timber hut: “Can you imagine living in this house during rain season?” He couldn't. I reminded him, as I kept reminding myself, that lots of people we knew or had known used to live like that, and not in a tropical climate.

Of all the places we stayed at, Toliara, the final point of our trip, was the worst. Unexpectedly, it was full of beggars and pushy vendors we had not seen before; it didn't feel safe anymore. It was horrendously filthy; the mangroves I had been looking forward to see turned out to be a sewage ditch. Mami had run out of ideas of what to do with us, and we spent some hours in a “typically Malagasy” bar, drinking beer at slimy tables covered with flies, with two stray dogs walking around.

The initial itinerary of our tour started from Toliara. I am glad they reversed it because I might have turned and gone straight back home.

To be continued.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 3: Tana

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

As I mentioned, I wanted an extra day on arrival because every now and then I get violently motion-sick (by which I don't mean that I throw up and live happily ever after; violently sick to the degree that knocks me out for days). But fortunately this didn't happen, and in the morning we were ready to explore, although our guidebook helpfully suggested that there wasn't much to see or do.

When we first made our plans, Anton said that one of his former classmates from San Diego lived in Antananarivo. What were the chances? But Anton's former classmates from San Diego seem to be spread all over the world. It turned out that Nick was stationed in Madagascar with Peace Corps, and he gave us the best imaginable introduction to Tana. Without him, I wouldn't have ventured out at all or turned back after two blocks. Although – and here I cannot say that it wasn't worse than Russia, because it was much, much better than Russia; it wasn't worse than Morocco or other Southern places I'd been to: hot, crammed, crowded, buzzing. An exciting city to walk around, with someone who knows it.

Tana has a population of two million, and not one single traffic light! But it wasn't worse than some East European cities with traffic lights, and there seemed to be no traffic accidents. It seemed to work just fine, for cars as well as for pedestrians. I guess when you have learned the rules it's not a problem.

Lots of street vendors to whom Nick spoke friendly, but firmly in Malagasy. He claimed that he had learned very little Malagasy during his three years, but he seemed quite conversant. We went to several markets, food markets and craft markets, which reminded me again of other places, most of all Old Town in Jerusalem. Everybody knew Nick and greeted him cheerfully in Malagasy and French: “Nicolas!” There were some nice things, carved wood, raw silk scarves that I might be prepared to buy, but I didn't know what was to come yet, and without Nick I wouldn't have known what the reasonable price was. So when I found a pretty set of dollhouse-size table and chairs, he bargained at length, which I would have done myself if I were good at maths to convert money into a familiar currency. Moreover, Nick pointed out that the set I initially fancied was rosewood, illegal to sell and export, which I didn't know – one of many, many things I hadn't known and learned during the trip.

Then we walked up a very long, steep street with pretty colonial architecture, in a area I definitely would not have entered on my own; and I was very proud of myself that I was so fit that I kept pace with the young men. The street brought us high up on a slope, with a grand view of the city; then we went down a thousand steps.

Nick had a Swedish friend who worked for an NGO and hadn't spoken Swedish for three months, so she was eager to meet us, and we had lunch at Cafe de la Gare, railway station now turned into a miniature shopping mall. Both talked enthusiastically about Madagascar and Tana and other places they had visited. I had a zebu steak, which felt wonderfully exotic, not knowing that it would be staple for the next ten days.

Among many other things, Nick told us about a friend from Peace Corps who went into a small, remote and very poor village, looked around, taught the people to make goat cheese, and the village is now thriving, selling their famous cheese all over the country. I hope it is a true story, because I like it, and it means that the utter poverty we would soon see can be overcome.

It was otherwise unclear, and still is, how the people are who sell things in a market can support themselves. During the whole day we saw no other white people. Selling souvenirs to almost non-existing tourists cannot be profitable. Or can it? This became all the more evident later. The pocket change I paid for the wooden dining set would apparently feed a family for a week.

On the other hand, we saw lots and lots of new expensive cars. They could not all belong to the very few rich people. It is hard to understand a country unless you have been there for a while, preferably with someone knowledgeable, like Nick. His introduction to Tana was the best that could happen to us on that first day, because, as I say, I would probably not have ventured beyond the main street.

By three we felt we have done enough and went back to the hotel, full of expectations. In the evening, we met our guide, Mami, and our travel companions, including Mike whose luggage hadn't turned up; Mark, from Washington DC, whose luggage had been lost and found; Joan, from Los Angeles, whose luggage got irretrievably lost; Lynn and Cathy from Australia, who had just met. All experienced travellers, sharing memories of Galapagos and Arctic, Borneo and Chile. We seemed all to be on the same wavelength.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 2

Read the beginning of this story here.

Maybe I hadn't done my homework properly after all, or maybe I remembered Staffan's and my trip to Kruger Park and thought it would be the same, only better. Because we were going to sleep in tents in the rainforest and be there for whole ten days. So when the trip turned out to be something completely different from my expectations, was it my own fault? I thought I was going on a wildlife safari. When the trip description said: We will visit a gemstone factory, or We will stop for lunch in the town of This or That, the centre of wood carving, I knew that such visits were compulsory, and tour guides got commissions when tourists bought something. It was perfectly fine with me.

We bought or borrowed everything on the list the travel agent had sent us. We got our malaria pills. I trained hard, had trained hard the whole year. I was anxious that I wouldn't be as fit as other people in the group. I was anxious about the long flight. I wasn't at all anxious about my emotional well-being. Sometime before the trip, Anton expressed concerns about the ethics of travelling in a country of extreme poverty, and I replied, like we used to as we travelled with the children when they were small, that by coming there and spending our money we were hopefully contributing to their economy. It turned out to be more complicated than that.

But I am going ahead of myself again.

The travel agent offered to book flights for us, but the best he could find was a 48-hour flight with 16 hours stopover on Mauritius, and I couldn't bear the thought of it, so I booked myself, London to Paris and non-stop to Antananarivo, which I by that time learned to say without stuttering. It felt too famliar to say Tana, as we soon would do. However, the flight to Paris was at seven in the morning, and after considering many less attractive options, such as a limousin from Cambridge at four, we went for the easiest: booked a hotel at Heathrow, I came from Cambridge in the evening, Anton flew in from Stockholm. Since I am a poor flyer, I wanted an extra day to become human, so there we were, starting our adventure on what I called Day -1 in relation to Day 1 of our tour. 5:45 shuttle to terminal 4, painless check-in, nice coffee and croissant on the short flight to Paris, smooth change of planes, easy flight (reading, listening to music, lunch). Late arrival, which I was anxious about. Some confusion at the passport control because we had read that you could obtain visas on arrival, but it turned out that we didn't need visas at all, which, paradoxically, took longer time than if we had had visas, and the baggage took longer time still, and all the time I was anxious that we wouldn't be picked up and trying not to show it. I had firmly decided to be as brave as possible, not to make Anton regret that he had come with me. Actually, the wait was by no means worse than what I had experienced repeatedly in Russia. (I would make this reflection again and again: not much worse than in Russia).

As we came out, there was a man with a sign for Unique Madagascar, who took our luggage, shooed away boys offering their services, took us to a minivan and started, but suddenly remembered that there was somebody else he was supposed to meet. He parked again and disappeared, and it took a very, very long time, because our fellow traveller, Mike from Manchester, had lost his luggage.

Statistically, it seems, in a group of ten visitors in Madagascar, half lose their luggage and half get diarrhoea. It was very close to this in our group of seven.

Meanwhile, we were counting the hundreds of thousands in local currency that we received in exchange for a hundred euro and deciding how much was appropriate to tip the driver. It was 1:30am before we were at the hotel. In retrospect, it was lucky that we arrived in pitch darkness because the sight of the suburbs might have triggered my depression two days earlier. But at the moment, everything was fine, and we went to sleep.

To be continued.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Madagascar diaries

It has now been over a month since I returned from my unforgettable trip to Madagascar. Unforgettable is an ambiguous word. Most often it is synonymous with wonderful, fabulous, splendid. But if you think what it actually means, it is “hard, or impossible to forget”, and it can have both positive and negative connotations. Something can be unforgettable even though we would like to forget.

Over a month after I came back from my unforgettable, overwhelming, life-changing trip to Madagascar I am probably ready to share my experience. Carefully. Gently.

I kept a diary when I was there, many pages every evening. A lot of what I wrote is too private to share, and I will try to make sense of it, not by omitting anything, but by sorting, structuring, reflecting in retrospect. There will be a selection of pictures from the two thousand that Anton took.

But let me start from the beginning. I may have seen Madagascar the movie or I may just have seen trailers and posters. It didn't leave a lasting impression. One of my fellow travellers shared an anecdote she ascribed to her sister-in-law, whose little daughter, on receiving a globe and studying it for a while, asked: “Mummy, where is Madagascar?” to which the mother replied: “Oh, it's not real, it's just a movie”. So much for education.

All I knew about Madagascar when I was that age came from my stamp collection. Thinking about it now, I wonder how a Malagasy stamp found its way to Soviet Russia and into my stamp album, but I remember the stamp well (featuring, unsurprisingly a lemur, although I didn't know it then), and because I, as appropriate, sorted my stamps into countries and countries into continents, I eventually found out that Madagascar was an island off Africa's east coast. A strange tear-drop in the ocean. Madagascar wasn't on my school curriculum in any subject.

I wouldn't swear that this is my stamp, but something like it. 

Madagascar didn't feature in any of the adventure novels I read as a child, nor in any children's books I read professionally. If there are any, I would like to know. I can imagine that it is a gratifying setting.

In my dreams of exotic countries I wanted to travel to when I was young, Madagascar did not appear at all, and when my dream of Amazonas came true three years ago I thought that I had seen everything I wanted to see.

Then Staffan and I watched David Attenborough.

Let me tell you: Attenborough's nature programmes are a pack of lies. They are compiled of rare moments captured on film in areas far too remote for any mortal to reach. They give you the impression that, contrary to alarming reports about ongoing extinction of species, there are places where “millions of...”, “biggest in the world...”, “largest diversity...” Yes, yes, I know. But, seriously, my own garden has larger diversity of species than I saw in Madagascar. Yet, I am ahead of myself. After I had watched Attenborough's Madagascar programme I decided that there was one more place I wanted to visit before I died, and there was one person I wanted to do it with, Anton. There are many reasons why Anton: because we share interests in strange things, because we have travelled to Australia together, twenty years ago; but mostly for very selfish reasons. I knew that I wouldn't dare to travel alone, I knew that Staffan wouldn't want to go with me, and Anton seemed a natural choice. I wanted it to be a wild safari rather than a luxury trip, and I knew that Anton would find it attractive.

Anyway, I asked Anton whether he would like to come to Madagascar with me and whether Kory, his girlfriend, would mind – or whether she would like to come too (to which Anton informed me that Kory preferred culture to nature).

Very well, when were we both available to go to Madagascar? What was a good time to go to Madagascar? Apart from Attenborough's technicolour paradise, I did not know anything, I repeat: I knew absolutely nothing about Madagascar. But a year is ample time to do your homework. Because a year it would take before we were both free to go and before it was right season; and I searched the web and found the best travel agent for the kind of trip I was looking for, not “Madagascar's beautiful beaches”, but “Unique Madagascar” with ten days on the road, basic accommodation, no more than twelve people per group. People who come on these trips are usually people I can stand.

That's how it started, and there were many small issues during the year, but some time last spring I bought a guidebook, and Anton gave me the book Mammals of Madagascar for my birthday, and I got my medical statement signed by my GP, and we bought insect repellent and head torches.

Let the big adventure begin!

To be continued.

Real literature

As children's literature scholars, we often hear colleagues and friends say: “And when are you going to write about real literature?” To explain that children's literature is real is pointless: the prejudice is too deeply rooted.

This summer I read four real books, all recommended to me, for which I am hugely grateful because I would probably not discovered them on my own: The Luminaries, The Name of the Wind and sequel The Wise Man's Fear, and The Goldfinch. As I was reading, in this order, I kept telling myself, This is the best book I have ever read... or at least the best book I have read in a long, long time... a book that I don't want to end (hopefully, there will we a third volume of The Name of the Wind). Contrary to the current studies, I don't get distracted when I read on screen as opposed to reading a printed book. If anything, I read slower and more concentrated. All the four books are slow reads because they demand attention and memory if you want to follow the plot, although, frankly, plot is the least interesting aspect in them. All the four are beautifully written so that I almost did what I claim I never do: read them outloud for myself.

As I was reading, I couldn't help asking myself why I was enjoying them so much, and my only explanation was – sorry, children's literature friends – that they were real books.

Except for The Luminaries, the books feature, wholly or partially, very young people, children. Then what makes them real books rather than children's books? My colleagues and I have been trying to answer this profound question for the past forty years: what makes a children's book a children's book; in what ways is children's literature different from real literature? (I will go on calling it real literature in this post, although I never do so in my academic studies). We have dismissed the ridiculous claims that children's literature is simple; and we have shown, convincingly I hope, that there are no themes and issues that cannot be treated in children's literature. Just the other day, I had an email from a journalist saying: I have discovered that there are some children's books depicting death, it must be very unusual. I replied, as I always do, that death is the most prominent theme in all children's literature. She didn't get back.

The four real books I read this summer are full of violent deaths, but this is not what makes them real books. They all have happy endings, which some scholars claim is the hallmark of children's books. It is not the young protagonists' budding sexuality (The Wise Man's Fears has some exquisite erotic scenes), because children's, or if you prefer, young adult books are seasoned with sex to saturation. What then? As a scholar, I might say something I argue in my clever academic books: children's literature has a particular narrative voice; it reflects uneven child/adult relationships; it speaks to the cognitive and emotional experience of a young person. Well, maybe the last aspect brings me closer. My real books speak to me as a grown up. But I cannot really explain how, and it is frustrating, because I have been paid for the last forty years to be able to explain.

As a reader, when I contemplate reading real books as opposed to children's books, I feel that the former are slow-paced. Contemporary children's books can be nine hundred pages long, but these nine hundred pages are filled to the brim with action; dialogue is used to propel the plot, characters' reflections are to consider the text step. (This is a crude generalisation, to be avoided in academic work). I want to finish a children's book because I am curious how the author will manage to round it up. That is, with good books, because with bad books, I am not even interested in that. I don't finish bad books these days, unless I must.

But with real books, I want them to go on forever, because real life typically goes on forever (as opposed to childhood that is finite), and I want to get to know the character because their lives tell me something about myself. Children's books can only tell me something about what I once was or wasn't or could have been. But then, children's books are not written for me. I only read them because it is my job.

Mind, I am not saying that children's books are inferior, which people outside the world of children’s literature scholarship might easily infer from my argument. My professional interest is to pin down the difference, the children's-literature-specific aesthetics, its specific social and psychological function. My interest as a reader, common reader, not professional reader, is to understand why reading real literature is on the whole a greater pleasure than reading children's literature. I guess the answer is, because it speaks to me as an adult. It doesn't mean that the four real books I read this summer won't speak to a young reader, but in a different way, as a projected future rather than past conditional.

PS. I do have some strong objections to The Goldfinch. A serious author should have asked a native speaker to check her Russian. I wonder whether the Dutch is all wrong as well.