Our new driver was named Sosoe. He spoke little English, but that didn’t stop us from kidding around—he definitely had a sense of humor. Sosoe liked to go fast whenever possible, and didn’t mind slamming on the brakes if necessary. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard tires squealing on a dirt road. We were now in a part of the country where prickly, dry bush encroached on the narrow, one-lane “highways,” forming a sort of roofless tunnel. On the rare occasions that the road was smooth and straight, Sosoe put the pedal to the metal, and we barreled down the narrow alley like a turbocharged hedge trimmer.
Meanwhile, we got to know our guide for the next few days. Stella is a fine art painter. The inspiration for much of her work is Malagasy folklore, and with a little coaxing I was able to get her to tell us a few stories.
World Woman* traveled very far and long until she arrived at a village at the foot of a mountain, near a river. Hungry and thirsty, she went from house to house asking for a bite of food and some water, but everyone turned her away. Finally, at the last house in the village she came upon a woman with many children. Although her house was the poorest in the village, she gave the stranger food and drink and offered her shelter for the night.
World Woman thanked her for the hospitality, but declined to spend the night. Instead, she said to the kind woman, “Heed my warning. Go to the top of the mountain tonight with all your children.” Then she left.
The kind woman gathered her children and walked to the top of the mountain in the last light of day. During the night, a great rainstorm came. The river swelled and changed course and swept the village away. The people cried for mercy to the spirit of the river, who, as you may have guessed, was disguised as World Woman. To the people she replied, “You have shown yourselves, through your selfishness and indifference to the suffering of others, to be inhuman, so become the cold-blooded creatures of your true nature.” And with that, the people all turned to crocodiles—all except the kind woman and her children, who became the ancestors of one of Madagascar’s 18 tribes (Betsileo?), who are famous for their hospitality and whom crocodiles never attack.
*World Woman is a name for a stranger who has traveled far.
If you ever have any doubts about human beings all being essentially the same, just go to the most far away and exotic place you can think of, and ask someone to tell you a story. The tale of gods testing people for kindness to strangers is a classic theme (see Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon; even the Bible tells us to show hospitality to strangers, who may be angels in disguise), and in this case we get the origin story (like Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling) of crocodiles as a bonus.
Grand Tsingy and Little Tsingy are limestone formations that have weathered into a natural cathedral of sharp-edged spires and ridges. Our first view of these spectacular cliffs was during an early evening hike into Little Tsingy with Stella and a local guide named Mara. Besides the unusual rocks, we were hoping to see the lemurs that lived in the park.
Mara seemed very concerned for our comfort and safety. As he led us along the access trail that marked the boundary between pastures and park, he took great pains to point out every pile of fresh zebu dung, lest we accidentally step in it. He was diligent. Karel and I were greatly amused by this, and naturally started teasing him. Mara’s English wasn’t the best, so Stella found herself in the role of translating our insults for Mara, while trying to explain to this very earnest man that we were joking.
The limestone formations were amazing and the hike was really fun, but we didn’t see any lemurs, so of course, by the time we were back in the car we were mercilessly on Mara’s case with the teasing. At some point I threw out a comment along the lines of “Mara’s a pretty good guide. He can’t find any lemurs, but he sure is good at spotting zebu shit.”
Stella turned to face us with a stern look. “Ey,” she scolded. “Zebu shit fixed the car. Respect the zebu shit!” Which had us in stitches.
Words of wisdom, if ever we heard them.This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa