Friday, 28 October 2016

Trading in Madagascar

I was lying blissfully on my bed enjoying that beautiful moment just between sleep and wakefulness on a typically scorching Madagascar morning. 

"Get up here now, get up on deck now Karen." Will's voice rudely boomed.

"But I'm not wearing much." I replied, ripped from my reverie.

"I don't care. Come now."

"Look, he's got a crocodile."

A local man who goes by the name Baby had paddled out to Chantey transporting a live crocodile in the hull of his dugout canoe.

"Vous voulez acheter un crocodile?" Came the jolly reply. 

Eek, Mrs Smith's GSCE French class didn't prepare me for this eventuality! A return train ticket to Lyon or directions to the local pharmacy, YES, but a travelling salesmen knocking on our nautical equivalent of a front door selling a live crocodile, sadly a big fat NO. 

We politely declined with a "non merci," but he did have limes and bananas which we were happy to receive. If it had been me paddling a canoe containing a grumpy crocodile, which I hasten to add will never ever happen, I would arrange my other merchandise behind my crocodile's tail.  But no, Baby was comfortable stepping over the crocodile's snarling snout to retrieve his fruit sack stored in the canoe's bow. Our business for the morning concluded and he paddled over to the next anchored boat. It reminded me of the double glazing salesmen and those people that used to knock on our front door at home to convince us to switch electricity companies, only a little more bizarre. 

Roasting locally harvested coffee beans on the beach

Over our time in Madagascar, we've dropped our anchor in a number of remote bays that appear to be uninhabited, then ten minutes later, dugout canoes show up to visit us. Often we've no idea where they've come from. But they've come to trade. With almost no access to the nearest town, let alone the outside world, many Malagasy have few possessions and it is said the average citizen survives on $1 a day. It's clear to see that this is one of the world's poorest countries. Our canoe visitors bring us small quantities of mangos, limes, tomatoes, eggs, lobsters, crabs, even a live chicken. They ask in return for t-shirts, shorts, hats, fishing gear, particularly the elastic for spearfishing guns, sometimes exercise books abs pencils for school. Most seem happy to trade, which makes us happy. It is quite tricky though to know what to do. When you meet someone who has so little, it's hard to take from their limited food supplies. But we don't want to encourage reliance on charity or welfare either. It is such a fine balance and makes us feel very humble.

We've now visited a few villages and standards of living appear quite varied. I am guessing factors such a a good leader, arable land and proximity to tourism all affect the quality of life. The village that made us the saddest reminded me of a dust bowl scene from a charity commercial. We'd even heard two children had recently contracted malaria. But we've also visited hives of industry too where men are carving beautiful wooden masks and ornaments and women are sewing intricate lace tablecloths. The inhabitants of these villages have sense of civic pride with villages well ordered and nicely presented; life has gone beyond just survival. But there is no doubt life in Madagascar is tough. 

We even had a father and sick son visit us for medical advice.  We are not doctors, so just did the best we could to diagnose and advice. We believed the young boy to be suffering from chicken pox by the look of his skin. Our school French has certainly come in handy these last few months. 

Russian Bay was our favourite spot in Madagascar, we ended up returning three times. Over this time it was a pleasure to meet Meena, become her very first customer and watch her blossom into an empowered local business woman. A French lady had met Meena in the beach settlement and encouraged her to sell hot home made bread rolls to the anchored boat crews at breakfast time. On the first day, she was extremely shy and could not even make eye contact, so had to be accompanied by the French lady for moral support. The next few days she brought her friend who did all the talking and by this time, they had increased their offering to include mangos, papaya and homemade jam. The final time we went to Russian Bay, Meena was out there alone paddling her canoe and that breadbasket was always empty by the time she got home on the beach.

My all time favourite trade was for some wild honey where the locals smoke out the bees from the hives in the forest. I've only ever bought honey from the supermarket before so this is quite a treat, all one and a half litres of it!