Letters to Home: Madagascar, Like the Movie

Madagascar: If you've seen the movie, you pretty much know what it is like to study abroad here for four months. Just like the dashing Alex-the-Lion, I escaped from the confines of my New York internship and crossed the seas in an epic voyage, emerging blinking and confused in the brilliant light of this strange new world. The sands stretched out before me in their blinding whiteness, dappled by the swaying shades of palm trees, and the waves of the impossibly blue ocean tickled my toes, inviting me to dive in. And dive in I did.

This is where the similarities between the movie and my life in Madagascar end. Although there are indeed lemurs everywhere, some that will alight on my breakfast table with their sharp orange eyes fixed on a morsel of banana or a sliver of mango, they do not sing and dance with perfect choreography. They do like to move it, move it, leaping great distances between octopus trees and slipping their slender black fingers miraculously between the bristling spines along the tree trunks without ever drawing blood. To me, this choreography is even more impressive than the one Pixar invented.

In the real Madagascar, the people dance even more than the lemurs in the movie.  Every day without fail, the air is filled with music, often played louder and earlier in the day than one would like, but all in the spirit of great joy. Even people who have nothing will beat on empty gas canisters and strum their fishing-line guitars with energetic gusto, feet stomping the hot sand with more joy than I have seen in any high-class discotheque. Always eager to share, Malagasies will grab the hands of the nearest vazaha (white person) and drag him or her, willing or unwilling, into the party as well.

The film Madagascar did not prepare me to walk seven kilometers across mountainous sand dunes with a bucket of water on my head just to be able to take a shower or cook my dinner. It did not prepare me for the crimson blood or twitching bodies of fresh-killed chickens at my feet. It never indicated that I would be sharing my concrete "bucket shower" with a millipede, several geckos, and a large frog.

The movie did not show me the marketplace of Fort Dauphin: the smell of trash and body odor and sharp gasoline mixing in a dizzying concoction with fresh fruits, rotting tomatoes, and boiling oil. In the meat section, a tumbling swirl of flies and odors greets me as I try to pick out something to cook on my charcoal stove for dinner. There, under the swaying feet of a chicken that hung by its neck, I select a small pile of ground zebu, pointing specifically to the section that was furthest from the mound of intestines that sprawled nearby. The lady serving me nonchalantly seized a handful of the bloody pile and shoved it into a small, probably pre-used, bag, seemingly unconscious of the man who stood not feet behind her whaling away with a machete at a leg of zebu to break the bones and strip away the flesh. I briefly considered going vegetarian again.

Most importantly, though, the movie gave me no indication of how warm and loving the people I would encounter might be. My homestay mother, the city midwife, was a bit of a nurturing "Gloria," and I certainly met a vivacious "Marty" or two, but in general I was overwhelmed on a daily basis by the generosity and love of people who give everything they have and more to someone they barely know. This is Madagascar: a land that is so poor, but whose beauty and people are so rich with love. This is something no movie could capture.