Monday, September 19, 2016

My Trip to Madagascar, Famadihana

As I reported in my previous blog post, I got a very intimate sense of living in Madagascar when I was invited to an exhumation.  The locals call it 'Famadihana': Turning of the Bones.  This is the tradition of exhuming the bodies of the dead, which takes place every 3-7 years, depending on the family's wishes.  The body is removed from the mausoleum or dug out of the ground.  Bodies are wrapped in white cotton sheets for burial, and after the dead have spent an afternoon among the living, the sheets are renewed and they are buried again.  The spectacle takes place with a lot of music, dancing, speeches, food and beer.

They let the dead participate, in other words, in their world and their daily life for a day.  Many tears can be shed during that day and the dead are kept in close company, they are hugged and "introduced" to the children.

The exhumation we went to took place near the town of Betafo.  Paved roads are few and far between in the area as well as elsewhere in Madagascar, and the mausoleums we went to were located in the countryside near an old Catholic Church, that was erected by the French, of course.  We drove several miles on a nearly impassible dirt road with the jeep and the rest of the way we had to climb on a small path uphill.  Near the hill top, we were greeted by the extended family (about 100 people as far as I could make out), as well the town population that had helped to set up the festivities.  The kids had never seen white people (they call them "Vazahy") close up so they crowded around me curiously while I took photos, and then came even closer to see their images captured by the camera. 

Rice Terraces near Antsiraabe

Surrounded by Kids in Madagascar
The set up had begun the day before with 'tents' made of tarp, wooden benches and tables for food, the rice was cooking on charcoal piles in the back.  Beer, rum, and water had been carried up the hill.  Since there is largely no electricity, life takes place during daylight only.  The day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.  People go to sleep at around 8. Running water is also rare, so the washing is done in nearby lakes and rivers, it is dried in the grass, and the washer women carry it back to town on top of their heads.  This means that festivities like a Famadihana start early and end early.  No late night parties, in other words.  And they are a lot of work to prep. A generator had been lugged up the hill for this one, so that music other than live instrumental music could be played on a stereo.

Rice Cooking for the Festival

Our lunch shift was at around 11:30.  Since we were considered part of the closer family - a great honor - we were seated with them to eat.  Feeding 200 people on a hilltop requires a bit of organization, so it was done in sets of 50-100.  The aluminum dishes had to be washed between shifts and the giant aluminum cups with rice water were shared among several people.  Everyone got seated on the wooden bench, rice and pork stew were ladled out from a plastic bucket.  The stew was extremely tasty but also extraordinarily fatty. Irene's family, who is fairly well off (in part because of the business Jochen brings), can eat meat once a week.  Others may not see it for months.  Maybe never.  So fat, when available, is much appreciated.  Except by us rich people, who get too much of it and try to eat less!

Lunch - Rice Water for Sharing in the Big Pot

For me, eating that much fat is consequently less of a good idea.  It's not like I'm lacking in calories.  Plus all the extra money I spend eating out then costs me extra personal trainer sessions to lose (what a waste, when you really think about it that way).  Anyway, Jochen gulped all his down because he really loves it, but that turned out to be a mistake.  It all came back out the wrong way that same evening.  I guess not everyone can eat gobs of fat without some form of either remorse or punishment, or both. 

After lunch, the official ceremony began. Along with the enthusiastic "music" played on old and half broken trumpets, clarinets and drums, we trekked a half mile across the mountain over to the mausoleum.  The clan all wore the color orange as it had been decided that it was the representative color for the event and the men wore hats in addition (so they could be removed for the anthem, as far as I could follow).   Incidentally, hiring musicians is expensive for the Malgasy, and since July and August are the months of the exhumations, they have to be booked ahead of time (at least one year).  The late "summer" months are the winter months in Madagascar, with dry and sunny days, 80 degrees during the day and around 40 at night.  It is very comfortable and dry weather. 

The Straw Mats are Used for Carrying the Dead

These are the Mauseloums where the Dead rest
The mausoleums are made of brick, painted white, with a cross on top.  The majority of the population here is Catholic, but as everywhere, local traditions like the exhumations, are mixed in.  Not everyone can afford those, however, so most dead are buried underground - which does not stop the tradition of exhumation, incidentally.  Families pool their money to build a mausoleum, in this case, about a dozen people were housed in the same grave.  The doors are locked of course, and only the clan leader has the keys.  Opening the doors requires official permission from the local government.  There are no graveyards per se, you can find the mausoleums together in groups of five or six, on the outskirts of town, close by for people to see and to visit.

The Bodies are being Carried Outside
Before the mausoleum is opened, there is a lot of dancing, and during the unlocking of the gates, official family leaders climb on top of the mausoleum and make speeches about the dead person. The tomb can only be opened with official permission of the park authorities (more correctly, the public officials in charge of the land).  The key is kept by one of the elders.  In this case, that was an older uncle.  

After the tomb is opened, the family members, and anyone else who wants to, can go inside to visit.  Then the anthem is played and the dead are carried outside, rolled up in straw mats that are carried up the hill for the occasion.  Immediate family members are put together into the same burial cloth.  One of the cloths, I was told, contained four or more people.  There were a total of four cloths being carried into the sun.  There was a bit of a mishap with one of them (Irène's father, who passed away 17 years before) - the roof of the tomb had been leaky and the burial cloth had gotten moldy.  This caused a few tears among the immediate family, but it was decided just to leave the bodies in the sun a bit longer to dry it up. 

Children and Relatives are Spending Time with their Ancestors
After a couple of hours, more music, more dancing, and a lot more beer, a fresh layer of cloth was wrapped around the bodies and closed up with a single rope which, for reasons that escaped me, is not allowed to be cut.  Everything is done with great care.  The family gathers very closely around the bodies, laying next to them and holding them at times.  The children are shown their relatives and are allowed to touch the silk.  Everything is very respectful and loving, and very natural at the same time. There is no awkwardness around the dead as there usually is in the West.  I was allowed to take photos but Gael, who had hijacked my camera with great pride and had taken dozens of photos of the event (later posted on his facebook page), gave it back to me when I wanted photos of the bodies.  Too emotional for him, he said.

Gael, Our Driver
As the day grew to a close, the bodies were brought back inside - again with lots of music and dancing - and the festivities ended.  I don't think a lot of white people are ever invited to these events.  That's what I was told anyway.  Not many Vazahy there or anywhere else for that matter.

Back at the hotel, I calmed my own nerves with some South African white wine and Zebu steak with fresh vegetables, salad and foie gras sauce to the background sound of Western music. Creme caramel for dessert.  A bizarre contrast to the day! 

A Difficult Ride Home

Work started early again the next morning.  The broker women began lining up at 7 a.m. - after all, we were only gem buying for 5 days and one of them was taken up with the festival.  I woke up to the excited chatter in the yard and Jochen brought me a cup of coffee made in his room with filtered coffee.  Ready for another day of buying....

More about my final purchases, photos and prices in my next blog entry.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

My Trip To Madagascar - Part One

We arrived safely in Antanarivo, Madagascar, after a few hiccups: baggage not checked through, plane delay, long lines upon arrival and a nail in the tire on the way to Antsirabe.  We got to the airport at 2 a.m.  The airport is small and a big plane from Italy arrived before us - too much for the police to handle so it took a while to get through all the lines.  Our arrival party, Jochen's friend Irene and her cousin Gael had waited for us for two hours, which is rare in such a tiny airport.  They deposited us at a small a local hotel to catch a few hours of sleep because we had been traveling 8 hrs from Amsterdam, and 3 from Nairobi with a 5 hr layover.  I barely remember getting to sleep.

Immediately after breakfast, we set out on our trip to our final destination, Antsirabe, with Gael's uncle's jeep.  Antsirabe is about 100 miles south of Antaraive on a single lane paved road which is (somehow) shared with traffic in both directions.  It took an hour to cross Antanarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  My immediate impression of the country, I admit, was the poverty.  Dust everywhere, hundreds of people walking barefoot, carrying heavy goods on their heads, small overcrowded shops, and small huts for houses.  The countryside was beautiful, however.  Madagascar has very reddish looking dirt which is used for making bricks, and everywhere you see the terraces built for planting rice.  Bricks and rice are among the most important goods produced here.  I'm told there are over 10 different varieties of rice in Madagascar alone.  The trip was supposed to take 3 hrs but we took a road side pit stop after which the jeep decided to stall.  People are nice here - so another vehicle packed with people stopped to help (I didn't know this many people fit into a vehicle but few have their own cars so they pool or take overcrowded small buses).

Rice Fields in Antannrivo

After some helpful stares under the hood, much discussion in Malagasy, and a few phone calls the jeep decided to comply on its own and started up again.  We drove to the nearest gas station, where it was decided we need an oil change and water.  It was lucky we stopped because that's when we saw the giant nail in the rear tire.  So Irene, her six month old baby, Jochen and I set out to find a restaurant while Gael stayed behind to get the jeep into shape.  We found a place pretty much only white people could afford, and the three of us had duck with vanilla sauce, duck with pineapple sauce, as well as curry chicken for a whopping $22.

Refreshed, we set out for the other half of the trip and arrived, three hours late, but without further incident, at our hotel where we were greeted by a small group of women that had been eagerly waiting for us so they could show us their gems.  My visit had been announced weeks in advance and there was much anticipation about what I would buy or how much I would spend.  Despite the interesting collection of gems Madagascar has to offer, there are surprisingly few foreigners who come here to shop.  Perhaps this is because those without connections don't get good prices - approximately the same as in the US.  Luckily for us, Irene is a well known and respected broker, and she had placed dozens of calls ahead of time on our behalf.  All the selling would take place here at the hotel, and people lined up to see us all day.

After having seen the poverty on the ride to Antsirabe, I had lowered my expectations considerably as far as the hotel was concerned.  But I was in luck because Jochen had found one of the nicest spots in town on his first visit about 13 years ago.  Hotel Greenpark consists of a little more than a dozen individual round brick "huts", spacious and reasonably well equipped by American or European standards.  The huts are surrounded by a botanical garden planted by the owner of the hotel - it has a few ponds, bridges, shadowy seating areas and local trees and flowers.  You can hear the birds sing all day. 

 Our Hotel in Antsirabe

I didn't get much of a chance to enjoy the scenery, however.  The brokers, many of which have known Jochen for more than a decade, were eager to show their wares.  After throwing my bags into my hut and taking an extremely brief shower (I was so rushed I didn't realize that towels hadn't been brought to my room yet), I joined the group in the yard.  Irene had arranged a system by which each broker had received a number according to which they would be received.

After four hours of sleep, I was in less than perfect condition to think about prices but I gave it a try.  I was so curious what they had.  In fact, Irene had already provided me with samples during the ride and had arranged that I would get to see the things that interested me most.  From what I was able to learn so far, the system goes like this: in Madagascar, foreigners are not allowed near the mines.  Therefore, one has to go through a broker, who either borrows from a dealer or is a dealer him or herself.  Many dealers don't show their gems themselves because they don't want others to know what they have and where they live.  Getting robbed is always a distinct possibility.  So the broker, who gets a commission, is needed. 

Upon arrival, the brokers place their goods on the table, one by one (usually small boxes with one or many pieces).  They go slowly unless you insist to see everything more or less at once - that's usually the better idea because otherwise it takes too long.  Each person has maybe 20 boxes.  You look, you can open, you select what you like, you ask for a price.  You expect it to be a first offer intended to figure out how you react.  Less experienced brokers just read off prices and have to call the dealer to confirm.  Others know their prices and can negotiate.  You have to assume the first offer is too high, sometimes way out of whack and sometimes reasonable.  That depends on the broker and/or your relationship.  I had an idea of what items to expect and so I made sure I knew my stuff beforehand.

Money has to be in local currency, Ariay, cash only, or cash at the end of the journey if you have a good helper like Irene who is respected.  Or, if you really have "street cred", money wired via Western Union after you leave (bank accounts are not common here).  But no credit card, no foreign currency - credit cards are virtually unknown.  The problem this creates is that currency is 1 to 3000, so there are literally plastic bags with bills changing hands.  You need a calculator at all times and some initial help so you don't miscalculate.

The first offers I was made were way too high.  I counter offered, the dealer was called. I was honest (too much money, not nice, window, no clients, etc - whatever reason belongs to the set of true answers), but I also made some smaller good faith purchases, for more or less the right price. That way people didn't think I was just "eye shopping" or had no money or didn't like the merchandise.  French being the language most people share except for the local Malagasy, I had to dig out all my high school French to be able to communicate.  After a day or two, I was doing ok with that.

At sundown, the selling ended - for the obvious reason, no light.   

Of course you want to know what kinds of gems I saw and what they have here.  So here goes:

Beryl -  lots, blue, clear, greenish, some pinkish (no heat, just about all of it).  Even some emerald, but the price for that is too high because the thinking is, it's emerald and so that's very special.  The emeralds I saw were included and small, and I passed.  There was some nice big size aqua though.  

Sapphire - Madagascar is famous for those, but I saw fewer purple ones than I expected.  I bought a small lot (parcel) of pinks to be nice.  I asked if there were larger purple ones.  Most of what I saw was blue, blue green, yellow, bi color blue and yellow.

Was offered some kornerupine but that wasn't kornerupine but diopside according to Jochen.  Not that people are dishonest.  But not everyone knows and not everything's obvious.  Anyway I passed.  Sphene - nice but included, not very green. 
Chrysoberyl - very little available but I got some. 
Demantoid - got one super nice piece, am hunting for more because that stuff is rare here and interesting, not like the Namibian or the Russian.
Ruby - mostly small stuff or included but I got one that has to go to the lab.
Apatite - galore, some green stuff too, some nice stuff at a reasonable price.
Sanidine - pretty.
Danburite -  looks identical to brown topaz, very strange.  Not like the yellow Tanzanian stuff at all. Tourmaline - lots available also but not necessarily pretty.  Lots of yellow stuff, or yellow green, windowed or included like mad.  Lots of cats eye but UGLY.  A lot depends on what is available or found that particular week or month.  And of course they all know that sapphires, rubies, emeralds, are what all the world buys.  Tourmaline is also popular.  Cat's eye sapphire here is interesting but I didn't really like it, neither did I like the stars.
Garnets - there was tons of regular red but I passed on all.  The Malaya was more interesting.  Tsavorite - rare here but not that nice.  Passing.
Unusual stuff - grandidierite, phenakite, moonstone that's local (most moonstone comes from Tanzania or India). 

Tourmaline and Morganite

On the second day in the morning, all the women and some new ones returned.  There was essentially an all day picnic in the yard, with people waiting their turns, several kids, grand kids, other friends, people hanging out on blankets and bringing their lunch.  Even though Jochen was also shopping (for tourmaline slices, rough stones, and crystals), most of the brokers had been waiting for me, as it turned out, some of them since 7 a.m.  I was shown much of the same merchandise but also new stuff.  One woman whose stuff I had rejected told me that the owner of the gems was willing to come down in price of the merchandise - by half.  Standard procedure.  The trick is - I've learned this the hard way with the old time dealers in New York - to get the buyer to make an offer.  Because if the offer is accepted, that's a deal.  Since there are no returns or exchanges, the offer is binding (unless the stone was a fake or something but even then it can be tricky - more likely you won't buy there again).  Therefore conversation goes back and forth.  After initial offers are made, one has "une discussion", or the price is "a discuter."  The broker keeps asking what I am willing to pay, I ask what a more serious price is.  I decide if I am going to make a low ball offer because I don't like the piece or the price is way off (low ball meaning maybe 20% of asking).  Or if I offer half, which is more serious - in one case, where the seller really wanted to make a little money - my offer of half was accepted immediately.  That meant I bid too high.  But that was that, the deal was made.  Luckily it was just $50.  Other goods get put aside because I say I will think about it, "je vais reflechir".  I can ask if I can choose from a lot but that rarely pays.  Mostly lots are cheaper, sometimes they are 1/4 of the price.  Those always include "dogs", stones you don't want.  And per carat prices are not on the box.  So you have to count and estimate, or weigh the contents (I did both), count out the "dogs", subtract them as a loss, and then reprice the lot price into carats, compare to what you pay at home and decide if you want it.  If you take nothing the seller won't be happy and might get pushy.  One should not take offense though because this area is so economically depressed that a sale of a few hundred dollars is a really big deal.  Even $50 is good.  At 3-5% commission for the broker, it will make a day's wages and the trip won't have been in vain. 

Goods are often shared between brokers, or one owner uses several brokers, so you can't be surprised if you see the same stuff more than once or in someone else's hands.  And don't expect them not to share with each other what you bought and for how much.  That's important information, and it has to be treated as public.

For lunch, we took a 2 hr break and went to both of the local markets (Le Circle and Hotel Diamand) to show our faces and let everyone know we were here.  Insofar as they didn't, because there are probably only about 50 booths total between both markets.  Both Jochen and I made sure to go inside each and every booth so as not to offend and show willingness to look at everything.  I arranged with Irene that if I said I liked something, she would speak to the seller, get a price, and borrow the merchandise for me to look at in the hotel.  That is common practice, and it worked well.  It saved us a lot of back and forth, and it reduced the selection down to what I was interested in.  Each booth only has 50 lots or so, which makes it fairly easy to scan.  And it helps when you know what you are looking for.  Also since the stones are all local, there isn't anywhere near as much stuff as at a gem show.

After the gem markets we went to the local farmer's market to have lunch.  There are several large "kitchens" - areas with a tiled huge table and wooden benches where someone makes a few dishes that can be served over rice.  We had (a tiny) pork chop, rice and peas, and some tomato.  There were several kids hanging about, looking at our plates, and I was wondering if they wanted money.  That wasn't the case, after I was about 3/4 done with lunch, a little boy I had photographed earlier tugged on my shirt.  Jochen explained he wanted to know if I was finished because he would pour the left over rice and the pork bone into a tiny used plastic bag.  "They bring it home" he said, it gets cooked in a big bowl of water to flavor it and cook out the fat.  I felt bad, ordered a little more food, gave it to the boy, and added one of the bananas Gael had gotten for us while we were eating. 

The Gem Markets

The food, by the way, was surprisingly tasty.  Simple but well prepared. I shared my moist napkins after the meal - Irene who had one of her favorite foods, deep fried fish head, really needed it.  Gael was intrigued but also challenged by the packaging.  He pulled out several wipes at once but then shared with Maria, Irene's 16 year old daughter, and her child.  The wipes were definitely a hit.
Food is generally excellent here.  There's not a huge selection, and the wines are hit or miss (mostly miss), but you can have your zebu meat (the local cows which have really big horns) with freshly cut fries, fresh and well prepared veggies, or rice.  The food is French inspired (i.e. you can get foie gras) with a local touch (curries are common, or vanilla sauce or something similar).  Breakfast can be local - something called Vary Marainy - rice with a little veggies and dried pork - or French inspired continental with a Baguette,  butter and jam, coffee or tea, fresh pressed juice of local fruits (had courassol this morning but don't know what it is), and an omelet or eggs sunny side up.  The local bakery has a small selection of cheeses that can be bought separately and some sweets that look French inspired.  Croissants are available too.  Didn't try any of that yet.

On the first morning, Irene joined us for breakfast.  She looked for us at the hotel but didn't find us there since we were up early.  So she came over to the bakery - it's Jochen's local spot.  A discussion over local and chain food ensued and I explained that in America, no matter how far you drive, you can always eat the same food at a chain like McDonald's.  (That's not the case just about anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in Madagascar). Irene politely listened but I realized quickly that she wasn't understanding something.  Jochen caught on faster than me.  "Do you know what McDonald's is?" he asked Irene.  "No."  That explained it.

I don't think I have words to express how refreshing this was to hear.  Fast food has NOT taken over the universe.  Irene has a TV (though no fridge) and has finished school.  She uses the internet all the time - you have to buy it in data units though so it's expensive.  Yet McDonald's had somehow escaped her.  I was thrilled.

 So yes, not everyone has a fridge.  Since not everyone has shoes this is not a surprise.  Not everyone has a house, and most houses do not have glass windows.  This is not terrible since the climate is mild - in the winter it's about 40 at night and 80 during the day.  Heating and air conditioning are unknown.  Life generally takes place outside.  Rooms are tiny indoors, and used for sleeping, protecting from the summer rains, or watching TV if that exists.  Cooking is done outside in general, on big pots on top of charcoal.  Hence the rice with stew or vegetables.  That makes the most sense and can be consumed immediately.

I got a better sense of local living on my third day here, when I was invited to an exhumation.  This will take some explaining.  Let's see.  So in America and most places you and I know, the dead are buried or burned and then it's done and over with, save for photos and mementos. Not all places have photos or mementos though because not all countries have cameras or things.  How would you remember your family member if you didn't?  Here's a thought.  You remove them from the mausoleum in which the bodies are kept every few years, i.e. every seven in this case, seven being an important number.  You take the body of the ancestor out of the mausoleum - wrapped in a white sheet of course - and bring them outside with the accompaniment of a lot of music, speeches, and, in this case, beer.

You let the dead participate, in other words, in your world and your daily life for a day.  You then "dress them" in a new sheet which is wrapped around the old one, and after a few hours of daylight which they get to spend among the festivities - in a manner of speaking - you bring them back home into the tomb, again with a lot of spectacle, and put them back to sleep.  Many tears can be shed and the dead are kept in close company, including hugs and tears, for a few hours.

More about the exhumation and the rest of my trip in the next entry...