Monday, and back to the grind in Belo sur Mer

We went to Mekany today. A little town an hours walk by beach from Belo sur Mer, or 20 minutes or so by boat.

A small group of fishermen and their wives who sell the fish, and in this town, grow seaweed, with a few kids, were our audience.  Although this community is more remote than others I’ve worked in, these guys seem like they have it together.

After I talked about caring for fish on their boats, as fish are sold in the round here, usually with no refrigeration, they seemed to immediately agree the fish WOULD be better quality if they cleaned them on board, kept them in a clean container, and kept them as cool as they could with ice, ice frozen in water bottles, or if they can’t find anything else, a wet burlap bag or wet piece of old sail. But, they said: let us check with our customers first. WOW. These guys get it. I’m excited now.

Then after talking about sea cucumber farming here, we went to look at a site where they had a test plot once. They got some cukes from the nursery in Tolear, the center of cuke farming here, to see how it would work. It worked great…….until someone stole the sea cucumbers. They are worth a fortune, relatively speaking, here, and the farms in Tolear now employ a guard in a tower in the center of the farm who watches over the place 24 hours a day to guard against thievery.

The best part of it looking at the site was that they sent a kid with us who smokes fish!  That’s what he does. He buys fish fresh, smokes them, and then sells them.

We’re cooking with gas, now.

So, I talk to him about asking around to the lodges about smoking their clients fish. Then tell him how vital that service is to us in Juneau for my customers and the whole town. He likes the idea.

Today I somehow see the seaweed farm in a new light. It’s impressive. About a mile long, with float lines about 15 feet wide made of empty water bottles about every 15 feet. I can’t exactly tell if the seaweed lines run parallel to the beach or perpendicular to the beach, but no matter. It’s a serious kelp farm in my book, and they are able to work it by “hand” at lower tides, where I’m guessing the water is up to their waist or chest, so don’t need a boat to tend it. And, you won’t get cold in this water. It’s warmer than any pool I’ve been in.

fishing canoe with large sail off the coast of Madagascar's bluegreen waters

Sunday in Paradise

Belo Sur Me

We traveled to Belo Sur Mer by boat from Morondava. About a 1.5 hour ride in relatively calm waters. We’re staying at Ecolodge, owned by a French couple. Nice thatch bungalos at the entrance to the cove. The husband was a realtor and the wife a social worker from what I could understand. They had visited Madagascar once or twice, found this place online for sale, and jumped in. The bungalos are nice. Beds with mosquito nets, shower and sink and toilet and running water. They run on solar power. There are lights in the rooms, but no outlets. If you need to charge something, you take it to the bar, where there are power strips for this purpose. The couple are wonderful hosts. There’s a restaurant in the middle of the compound. The food is very good. Seafood from the nearby sea. Fish and crab.  It would be a perfect place if it weren’t for the mosquitoes that come out at night. One little crack in the mosquito net fortress and one gets in and invites all their friends.

If you’re up at 5 am, you’ve already missed a lot. Dozens of boats are already in the distance fishing from their canoes with their sails up. The entrance to the cove is right in front of my bungalo, and about 50 yards wide  at low tide; I have a front row seat as the fishermen paddle by. .   I saw a group of people coming along the beach. When I heard the singing, then a cross, I figured it was church. When I saw the little casket carried on men’s shoulders, I understood it was a funeral procession. I sat on my porch unnoticed. The women sang a song in Malagasy. Maybe the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. The women wore bright formal lapas around their waists like the one presented to me in Betania.

When the group got around the corner, they were now on the beach outside of the cove. I then saw a large canoe and several smaller ones emerge from around the bend. Perhaps they are taking the deceased to a distant island where there is a graveyard. Not long after, many of the procession returned down the path to town. Almost all women. Smiling and in lively conversation.  Mostly they past by age. The younger, faster walking women first, and the grannies bringing up the rear. Maybe it is the men’s work to take care of the ceremony in the canoes from here. A person wants to ask the passersby about the ceremony and what just happened, but some questions are more appropriately left unasked.. And glad I did not. I found out from the others later a young boy with some sort of limb deformity drowned yesterday while washing his clothes in the cove. The size of the casket fits the story. So sad. With no way to preserve the body, the casket must have been made yesterday and today the burial.

As I watch the fishermen leave for the sea, I think about their lives, sitting below the sea surface in their canoes, and living much of their lives with 20 inches of free board. Their craft are perfect. The canoe with a single outrigger, almost always on the starbard side of the canoe. The outrigger stabilizes the canoe, with the weight of the outrigger bending the canoe towards it, and the flotation of the outrigger pushing back against the canoe. Physics in action. I’ve only been out in the craft once in any sort of a chop – just 1 to 2 foot seas – but the craft didn’t wobble or tip in the least. A 20 hp outboard pushed our craft loaded with 5 of us with ease. The fishermen use sails.

They certainly live every day, with no two days at sea the same. They see changes to their environment that man’s invented instruments can measure, but only in numbers. Climate change and foreign trawlers vacuuming up their fish before they get nearshore where they can catch it is their reality. They receive all the impacts of the outside forces, but receive little of the benefits the industrialized society created. Perhaps a little improved health care and a cell phone. But no power grid. No mass transit system. Not even a dock for their village. Retirement isn’t a concept. Never did it make sense to save money, if you had any to save, because the inflation on this paper you exchange for goods is so high that what a dollar will buy this year, it will take a dollar fifty to buy it next year. You work til you can’t work anymore. Then maybe someone will take care of you.  You hope your good deeds in your lifetime now provide some level of care from your family. But of course, they have to work, too. Elders with skin that still shines – the men still with well defined biceps and grannies who can squat to sit with their heels against their bottoms – still limber as a teenager from a lifetime of physical work outside. “Development” agencies are now offering them programs like aquaculture and mariculture and tourism to give them livelihoods which they can’t make from the sea anymore. My guess is the fishermen would rather have the pittance back from the sea that they used to take with their primitive craft and simple fishing methods, rather than have their fish caught offshore by foreigners and now have to find a new job. Like climate change, it seems no one in the world has the strength to stop trawling as a fishing method. Anywhere in the world. Even when we see the evidence of its impacts.

More fishermen continue to leave the cove in their boats, chit chatting to each other as they paddle. Maybe these two grew up together. Perhaps both will have their own boat someday, and fish side by side for a lifetime.

It’s been great to have another Peace Corps volunteer on this assignment. 30 years my junior, but we both get the inequities of the world having had the mutual Western privilege of our government sending us to live in rural Africa for two years.  All expenses paid.

Several of the others went out on a boat to an island today to snorkel and have a picnic. I couldn’t bear the notion of more sunburning on my pasty white vitamin-D deprived body from all the years in Alaska under long sleeve shirt and pants. I’m already burned trying to keep covered, and with so many more little workshops still ahead of me, I thought it best to sit tight in the shade. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. There’s so much to see here in a day. A canoe with what I assume is a husband and wife, laden with heavy bags of perhaps trade goods like salt or rice or beans, either just bought or taking in to sell. People on the distant beach across the cove digging up sand and putting it in a mosquito net and sifting through it, looking for what I do not know.

fishing canoe with large sail off the coast of Madagascar's bluegreen waters

Wednesday in Betania

I wrapped my foot in plastic we bought at the store, and luckily it kept my foot dry after walking through the water to get to the transport canoe.

We talked about onboard handling today to a dwindled crowd. I hope I’m not boring them to death.

On the way over, we saw a swordfish on the ground.  I was sad to see this once beautiful fish covered with sand. But I’m guess the sand washed right off as of course it wasn’t cleaned.

A woman bought the fish, then two people help hoist it up onto her head and away she went.

woman on beach carrying large swordfish on her head

A trip to see Sister Juliette

I stepped on one of these nasty snail shells yesterday. There’s no way getting around walking in the water to get into and out of the canoes at the stages of the tide we cross to Betania and back. The shells are in the mud in the estuary, and the water is murky so you can’t see where you put your feet. I knew they were there.  Lurking. You just step lightly and pray.

Well, I found one yesterday. I felt a little pain as I put my foot down. I think the tip of a spine just barely was in the callous of my foot under my big toe, when I lifted it, and I thought it fell off, but it didn’t. When I put my foot back down, I drove the spine further into my foot. I thought it was a little painful, and a minute later when I moved my foot, I saw a blood spot on the dugout canoe floor. We motored around to a boat ramp where we could almost get the nose of the boat to dry land, but not quite. When I got off with my sore bare foot, it was a nasty bottom and there was fuel in the water we were walking through.  Basically a sesspool. Nice.

When I got to the hotel, I quickly cleaned off my foot in the shower. I looked at it and it didn’t look like anything was left from the spine of the shell in my foot, and the wound looked clean.

I mentioned it to my supervisor, and almost wish I hadn’t.  The next morning, as I was thinking how I wish I hadn’t forgot my first aid kit, I realized I had lots of hand sanitizer. So I slathered that over the little puncture wound under the ball of my foot at the big toe – where a callous always is, fortunately, and put some tp over it and then some tape to hold the tp in place with the sanitizer.

Knock-knock-knock. It was my supervisor from next door. I should have seen this coming. We want (meaning you must go) to take you to the doctor. I tried to get out of it but he insisted. I said you know we will be there all day, right. He understood that I understood the number of patients waiting versus the help available at African hospitals in populated areas. I reluctantly agreed, not wanting to stop working on my workshop slides for today’s big meeting at Betania.

He found a Catholic clinic instead. A very pleasant clinic and not many people waiting or in line. I saw a western lady inside. She was a nun and a doctor. About 60 seconds after I told my supervisor I didn’t want to jump the line or receive special treatment because I was a westerner, they called me into the room. I decided not to make a scene and just comply.

They set me on an exam table. After the doctor looked at the wound and marveled at the size of my boots, a young Malagasy nurse took a look at the wound, while another nurse held a flashlight from a cellphone for light. Out came a small scalpel, and I immediately said “what’s that for!”, like a 4 year old, as all the chatter between my supervisor, the nurses and interpreter had been in Malagasy to this point, so I didn’t understand. Just to cut the callous away. Whew. I thought he was gonna slice open the puncture to see if there was anything stuck in there. After he did this – and was very good at it – out comes a needle. My four year old self had the same reaction as to the scalpel. Just to probe down the puncture hole to be sure it’s empty and nothing lodged there. Again, he was very good at it and no pain.

He slathered the puncture in peroxide, then betadine, then some kind of brown salve, put a nice piece of gauze on it, and over that a clear bandage on the bottom of my foot- nice and tight. Couldn’t have got better care anywhere.

I sheepishly apologized to my supervisor, as of course this is was the proper course of action given the situation he was in as being responsible for me.

On our way out of the clinic, I gave the Sister my contact info in case she ever made it to Juneau.  As we passed the receptionist, I told her through my translator I was so relieved I wasn’t pregnant.  She almost fell off her chair.

On the way home, we went to a shop and bought some clear plastic we can use to bag my foot up, as I’m going to have to get to Betania and back today and tomorrow and so will want to keep the foot dry.


This week’s Madagascar miracle

Crap this job is fun.

In Ecuador I saw power and home freezer, but where to get ice when it hit me: just freeze water in water bottles and clean the bottles off each day. Not perfect but a cheap start to chilling fish and improving fish quality. Then here I am in Madagascar. No power or home freezers in the village, but ice in blocks available in the town.

But with catches so sporadic now with the trawlers hoovering up the fish offshore so there’s not shit inshore it’s risky to buy ice knowing it will definitely melt but no certainty that there will be fish to cool.

I was just channelling my Peace Corps trainer Eileen and brainstorming to my supervisor and mentioned salt, knowing it’s usually a costly commodity. He says we got yer salt mine right here and it’s cheap! So I get cracking researching salting fish.

We go to get a bag and it’s two freaking dollars for a 60 kilo bag! That’s about a penny a kilo to salt fish at 3 to 4 kilos salt to 10 kilos of fish. We figured this out 2 days into the 5 day assignment, so we bought a bag of salt and some fish and the community women cleaned and cut the fish like they would to smoke them  and we salted them down today and didn’t uncle Mark get that little rush, like catching a king salmon or taking a deer.

Monday in Betania

Today had a workshop on calculating yield and pricing for various fish products, estimating cost and benefit of shipping fish to Tana, and cost and benefit of investing in their business, such as buying more smokers, and salt and containers for salted fish. Mostly the women attended again. Not sure if men were out fishing or just not interested.

We also went over salting fish in preparation for a salting practical today. We bought a 60 kilo bag of salt for 7,000 Ariary, or $1.75 US, today at the port dock. A 60 kilo bag will salt about 200 kilo of fish, or less than a cent per kilo. A great deal.  And hopefully an doable substitute for a refrigeration, as they don’t have power in the village.

If they salt fish when they are abundant and the price is low, they can freshen them in water and smoke them later and sell them when the fish are scarce and the fish price is high.

They can also  stage fish in the salt when their smokers are full so they can meet their contract with a fish buyer, who pays them a better price than they get elsewhere.

It’s never as simple as it sounds, but let’s hope it might work.