Leda Smith - Madagascar 2004
Leda Smith, 26, from Alaska (our first volunteer from the Arctic!), spent 3 months with us as a volunteer working actively on our outreach and education programme in Andavadoaka village.
The ocean comes to me when I think of my time with Blue Ventures. I do not mean the lyrical Latin names that float through my head while I weed carrots or the thoughts of bioluminescence surrounding my body as I dolphin dove in the mild surf at night, the sounds of muffled breathing through a regulator deep among the reef. These things, and many more, stay with me.
What impressed me most was the might of the sea. Living on the beach, it surrounded us. I remember waking in the middle of a stormy night and wondering if the noise I heard outside was the bending of palms, fronds crossing and cutting at each other outside my window, or whether it was the sea licking further and further in, raspy against the rocky shore. The land and sea became one habitat there. We lived with both ecosystems there: not on, or against, but right along side, together.
To live with something that is inhuman is to make concessions, I believe. Living in Madagascar, makes one realise how much of our lives are indeed human. By human, I suppose I mean easy. Made to suit a consciousness that wants to know, manipulate and ultimately control everything. Computers allow us this capability, as do smaller things like toasters, electric ranges, adjustable seats, climate control, maps and GPS units, and a host of other everyday gadgets. We surround ourselves with things of human invention, things to make life more pleasant and bearable, things that cost money, energy and resources to produce. From the distanced vantage of a place like Andavadoaka, it became fully clear that these items were the controllers rather than the controlled. What a relief, I heard more than one volunteer say, not to be tied to the computer or not check voicemail every 10 minutes. As days turned to weeks, the inconveniences of lacking things in life faded, and conversations turned to the ludicrous costs of living back home. Living in a shared bungalow with only a few hours of running water for showers and filling water bottles, and limited electricity and communication, made us live far more in the moment. Life is not the same in Andavadoaka as it is in most "developed" nations, and I for one am very glad of that.
We woke to a sunrise over the small village of Andavadoaka. Even when I woke for a 5:30 am dive, the local fishermen were always out before me, tying on the sail and outrigger for a pirogue ride out to the best chances for fish. We all looked to the sea and looked to the sky for direction - would there be waves, was a storm brewing, what was the tide? All of this affected our days more than schedules and planning. We dove twice a day on most days. We would identify fishes, collect data and try desperately to take in the colours, textures and beauty of the reefs. We spent afternoons hiking to the baobab forests with GPS units and data sheets, walking the beaches with binoculars to keep a running tally of local birds, visiting a local school to teach a few words of English, or to take a Malagasy lesson from Monsieur Roger, a local teacher. Each volunteer found his or her own niche in the ongoing research projects, or else enveloped one of their own alongside the daily dives and walks. I cannot overemphasize the beauty of the physical and cultural landscape in Andavadoaka, nor the importance of this sort of work. I felt, in simple terms, to be of use. Living as a Blue Ventures volunteer mixed the intense beauty of Madagascar's coast with some of the harsh realities of day-to-day life in a rural village. Paraphrasing John Muir, we also found that when we tried to pick something by itself, we found it hitched to everything else in the universe. Who were we to say that fishing should stop or decrease in Andavadoaka?
All of our food at camp came directly from the sea and from the efforts of local fishers. Could we in good faith tell people to stop killing sea turtles when we owned countless items created with nearly as destructive means? We learned, through direct experience and observation, that all of these issues are far more subtle than right vs. wrong.
I very much appreciated the integrated research approach that Blue Ventures undertook and I was thoroughly impressed by the way volunteers were able to integrate themselves into the broad range of conservation, education and research activities underway on site.
Along with the beautiful aspects of Andavadoaka, we also surveyed the destruction in some areas and grew to wish we could reverse it. We measured bleaching events and found physical damage to corals. We heard stories of sea turtles caught and eaten in the local village and listened as villagers told us that they catch fewer fish than they caught five years ago. We find ourselves quietly vowing that the trend will not continue. I remember spending a week of afternoons at the weigh station on the edge of the beach, counting and weighing octopus and squid as women and children brought them in to sell. I had been diving and snorkelling those beaches for a month and had never seen a one, then watched as hundreds and hundreds of kilos came in a day. One of the research roles that I had been allocated was to weigh each one, logging where each had lived on the reefs, from the 50 gram juveniles to the 6 kilogram monsters. Immediately, I became aware of how little I knew as a visitor to the sea, and how adept the Vezo people are at their craft.
I do miss the varied days and nights in Andavadoaka. I have not seen such pristinely clear, starry skies before or after my stay there. Or appreciated a cold and carbonated Three Horses Beer as much as I did at the canopy dining area overlooking the lagoon at night. I think back of dancing with the governor of the region at his inauguration party held at the site, and walking for an hour at 4 am to help launch a huge new transportation boat in the next village. We had to arrive when the moon was fullest at the highest of high tides. I miss the vary (rice) at every meal, with omby, ovy, tongolo (zebu, potatoes, onion), and of course, fia (fish). I loved the satisfaction that came with learning a new phrase or question and using it correctly and I laugh at some of my mistakes (trying to tell a man that I did not understand, I once told him, repeatedly, that I have no bananas, I really have no bananas. Akondro and azoko, amazing they can mean such different things.)
I find it difficult to write one day in the life of a volunteer, knowing full well that every experience is different. Each of my days was different. Emotions run wild in new environments, and I simultaneously savour and hate this. Living in Andavadoaka, I was able to make the experience rich and rewarding and to get out at least as much as I put in. So I think back now, as I often do, and I see a sunset over the rocks and sand. In my mind, the last pirogue is coming in for the evening, perhaps full of fish and perhaps full of hopes of more tomorrow. His stance is comfortable and free, standing on the bow of his canoe, and his face is quiet and serene. What is it that I love about this face of the sea? Is it that it seems to know, when I do not? Or is it the quiet resignation, the capitulation to unknowing? There is such beauty and grace to knowing exactly where you are within the context of your world, who you are, and where you stand. Perhaps that is salvation. Perhaps salvation is no more than the look of contentment in the mind. Perhaps it takes the ocean, so large that many of us are overwhelmed, to allow us this peace. After living in Andavadoaka, I have learned many things. One is that to look at the horizon like that is to look at the space between water and air and infinity. Here goes with my account of a day in the life of my time with Blue Ventures…
So, you wake up as the horizon is just warming. It seems like the sand just cooled down from the day before, and here comes the sun rising over the horizon of octopus trees, grasses and sand, over the village of 2000 Malagasy fishers and gleaners already rumbling about their work, getting hot bok boks out on the street to sell and tying the pirogue sails on to the dug out pirogues for a day on the lagoon. But you woke to the sounds of the "waker-upper" (another volunteer) letting you know that it's time to dive.
You put on your wetsuit and get your kit together and haul it all down to Alo Alo, BV's motor boat, and head out of the cove. With GPS and memory, your team locates the dive site, maybe one you've been researching all week, or maybe doing a new dive on less-studied terrain. And on the first of the three dive, dive, dive! commands, you plunge backward into the water and together descend to the colourful reef. There, you will be proud to collect usable data, you will recall all of those fish species you memorised the week before, and will hover silently over a measuring tape carefully identifying the benthos. Hard coral and soft, tunicates, branching, mushroom, digitate and submassive, turf-algae, sand, gorgonians, rubble... All surrounded by two-toned chromises, snappers, butterflies, angelfishes, sweetlips... You record your data underwater on a slate knowing you will later enter it into the camp computer, adding to the ever-increasing mass of local information.
You may dive twice today. Perhaps a night dive, or a late afternoon dive before dinner. You will fill the rest of your time with other sorts of tasks. You walk to the mangrove forest and snorkel in the leaving tide. You see the young fish that will, you hope against hope, soon inhabit the reefs that you study. You may walk out to the boabab forest to catalogue birds along the way and continue mapping the trees. You may lay down quadrats along the beach and look at the invertebrates of the intertidal zone at low tide. You may study for an upcoming exam to get your rescue diver or divemaster certification. You may take a break between these things, sit on a hammock in the shade and look out at the sea. You may start yoga on the beach with some other volunteers.
You will see so much life in Andavadoaka. From fish to plants to insects and land animals. You will live the now-Western cliché of trying to "eat locally". You will eat fish brought in from your lagoon each day. You will forecast weather by looking at the sky.
You will see so much culture in Andavadoaka. The actual village of Andavadoaka lies less than 200 meters from your bungalow and you will hear children singing on the bluffs in the afternoons. You will probably be invited to a local party in town, you may get a Malagasy dancing lesson from a man who laughs at how you speak. You will constantly try to learn more and more Malagasy phrases and be proud to converse, at least a bit, as you walk through town. You may teach English to children. You may learn Malagasy as you do.
You will finish your day in the hotel restaurant, having dinner and discussing the day. A dinner of rice and fish, maybe some manioch leaves and potatoes, and a slice of pineapple or fried banana for dessert. You will be full in belly and mind. A day well spent. You may forget which day it actually was today, but you will feel it meant something real. You will fall asleep ready for more.
Leda is now the coordinator of the Blue Ventures Carbon Offset programme.