November 1 -- crag of doom

We wake this morning to bells -- well, actually I was up 30 minutes
before, but whatever.  The Catholic Cathedral rings the bells at 5:45
or so.  And then again 15 minutes later.  Kind of odd timing, but it's
all saint's day, so I cut them some slack.

Late last night, after the a Capella nurse extravaganza, which was just
about the best thing ever, we checked into a Norwegian Lutheran
missionary house, run by MELCAM.  Like my pad in Tana, this is a
palace, by Malagasy standards, and we've slept well, showered, etc.  I
was on a bunk bed with mosquito netting.  Cool, huh?

Having finished everything yesterday, we are now ahead of schedule.

I can see the cathedral, from here, and I ask if we can go visit it.
Sure, Lanto says, and I am inexplicably very pleased.  So much
Lutheran, these days.  I suppose I'm yearning for my Catholic roots.
When I get there, Doug suspects: "So, are you CATHOLIC?"  I don't want
to get into that, because there's something else on my mind.  What I'm
thinking is that this church is so small.  So... pathetic.  A
cathedral?  I know it's a political designation, not a square footage
one, but this is smaller than the church in my neighborhood at home.
Meanwhile, it has all the Italian fiddly bits all over the front, but
they only manage to make it look squalid.  The inside is equally
uninspiring: the stations of the cross, some pews and some paint.

I am going to have to pay a visit to the church near SALFA to find a
priest who speaks English, as my French isn't going to cut this one.
I need to know why this is a cathedral.  What makes it one?  I
remember the one in Cartego, Costa Rica, with its votive candles and
little models of body parts, inside a building that not only put this
crap pile to shame, but could practically put it in the vestibule,
with room to spare.

There's a pride thing here.  Such a building was built to show the
power of the Church in a way that the Lutheran churches were not.  You
don't build a Lutheran church to impress the local potentates.  You
build it as a reasonable place to collect and meditate and communicate
with God and each other.  Catholic churches are all that plus a
demonstration of centralized power.  What this building proves is that
Rome ain't worth worrying about, and they built this AFTER the
Lutheran church was already up.  You don't build an 85% job after the
other guy already built a 100% one, you build a 30% one which shows
you don't have to prove anything, thank you very much, or a 150% one
which shows what a putz the other guys is.

And interestingly, the masque in town was built the same year as the
cathedral.  What's the story there?

It's All Saint's Day, and the place is packed, so I can hardly stop
some priest and ask "Do you speak English?  OK, great, so why does
your church SUCK?"  And besides, they're waiting for me in the car.  I
don't think Ramona and Doug see what I see.  I think that it's full of
people, and that's the impressive thing.  I see a church full of
people I have heard sing incredibly these past weeks, and instead,
they're singing the monotones of a standard liturgy, translated to

I'm left thinking that the Catholic church didn't care, here, and
didn't know what it had to work with.  This was just a place on a
map.  A space that needed to be filled.

The mosque is surrounded by a wall, and while I know, if there was
someone home, I could salaam malaquem my way in, I'd still be a
tourist, and that's impolite, when the door is initially closed.

I'm not sure which way is north (toward mecca), anyhow.  But hey, that
would have confused my hosts!  (Fun, but also impolite.)

After seeing the remaining water springs, we head off into the hills
to see the crater for the volcano.  Yes, volcano -- hence the hot
springs and also the somewhat fertile soil around here.  They grow
corn, here, and wheat, and potatoes, and a number of other crops which
won't grow near Tana.

The streets here are largely straight and at ninety degree angles.
City planning, Lanto points out.  This town was a resort for the
Europeans, and they laid out a city to grow here.  

All around the city, we see charcoal for sale, and even places where
they're making it.  Carts of small tree-parts trundle around the city
to vendors who burn them into charcoal.  The charcoal gets sold as a
heating and cooking fuel.

A note on dust

Ever pick your nose and get out black boogers?  Carefully clean your
eyelashes to remove the grit?  Clean the inside of your ears and get
less brown on your q-tip from the ear canals than from the inside of
the pinnae?

In the car the passengers shout "windows up!!!" to each other when
another car comes by.  The roads are incredibly dusty.  This is a place
with dirt floors, in many homes, dirt roads, eroding ground which
blows around, and a lot of somewhat disposable hand-made brooms.
People sweep in front of their homes.  I don't quite see the point.

The Crater

The road to the crater is long, narrow and dusty.  Several times, we
have to back up, pull over, etc. to allow someone coming the other way
to get by.  This is not the special road to the crater, this is the
general road from one village to another.  The road up the hill to the
crater is no better, but there's less traffic.

Well, less car traffic, but not less human.  There are urchins all
along the road, perhaps 20 of them.  They're all young, cute, unwashed
and selling something.  Mostly it's woven hats and polished stones,
but there's one boy here selling polished snail-like fossils.

These fossilized creatures are for sale everywhere, and they're
beautiful.  I don't know where they come from, but I'd love to see
the original rocks.  Is it just one huge deposit somewhere around
here, or is Madagascar floating on them?  It requires that the lad
here be sea-floor at some point, and that some point has to be well
after the beginning of life on the planet.

These are tightly would creatures with ridges on the shell.  They
range from 1.5 cm diameter to as much as 10 or 12 cm diameter.  They
form perfect discs with that ridged, coiled tube.  What was
protruding?  A tentacled mouth, like a nautilus?  A single foot like a
snail?  A feeding array resembling an anemone?  I have to clue.  There
is definitely a difference between the rock far outside the structure
and the rock just outside the end of the curled tube, so some day, if
there are any of these left unexhumed and polished, xrays or smarter
analysis techniques, combined with some computer modeling might be
able to tell us a little bit about the soft tissue of these creatures.
Or maybe zoologists already just know somehow.  I remember the Stephen
J. Gould book on the flattened fauna of a particular deposit and the
art one scientist made representing it.  Gould shows just how
incredibly wrong those analysis were.  I didn't much like the book,
but it shows how the pictures we see in our high school textbooks can
turn out to be uninformed fabrications, beautiful and exciting, but no
more realistic than the cover of a Edgar Rice Burroughs' Warlord of
Mars book.

Another example of the same thing occurs at the field museum.  The
dinosaur exhibit used to be in a badly lit but large hall with dirty,
grime covered pictures on the upper portion of every wall depicting
pre-historic scenes.  They were all wrong.  But they were beautiful,
under that grime, and the Field is working to keep them, and restore
them, but they're lacking the courage to just present them as is,
rather than struggling hard to put them in context.  I think the room
stood on it's own fantastically as beautiful architecture and as art.
An ugly little sign saying that the panels are COMPLETELY WRONG ought
to be enough.  I'd love it if they put the dinosaurs back in that
context, and stop making little Disneylands -- the best things at the
museum are still the cases done in the 1920s, because the
presentation, while cramped and straightforward, has incredible raw
materials to work with.  But the damage is done.  The room is gone,
and would cost a fortune to recreate, and you could argue that it
belongs at the art institute, not at the Field museum of natural

I'm not gonna buy one of these things, anyhow.  Not here.  Even though
I am covetous.

The walk up to the crater is easy, the walk around and down to the far
side of the crater is not hard, the walk back up is more difficult.
The crater is water filled, and looks less to me like a crater than
crater which has a huge collapse.  The rock is vertical.  It's
striated and exposed, not melted, and the water, a Cousteau society
diver found, is 100+ meters deep.  It's clear water, and some people
swim in it, as there are some good high diving rocks, as well as an
easy, rocky exit point complete with a path to it, like a planned

Children play at the dock, and walk around with the tourists.  On one
hand, they'd like a tip, but on the other, I think they're pretty

There are trees around the crater, and it's these trees which keep the
soil from pouring down into the crater, and thus keep the water
clear.  There aren't that many trees in the area, and the town, like
all Malagasy communities is growing.  They need to provide raw
materials for a school begin but for them by the government, for
example.  So they are up at the crater cutting trees into lumber.
Lanto talks to one of the adults in charge, and is assured that these
are just trees felled by the most recent cyclone, and that they take
good care of their trees, here but Lanto seems to me to still be
suspicious.  Madagascar once had many, many trees, but since 400 AD,
the time when humans first arrived, they've been cutting them down.
Now there's not enough, and anyone can see that at least near the main
highways, wood is at a huge premium.

Without the trees, the crater will be ugly, and the water cloudy, and
thus there will be fewer tourists.  The tourists bring money and pay
an entrance fee.  Keep remembering Easter Island, Madagascar.

Leaving the place is hard, because Doug and Ramona, to their credit,
want to buy something from the girl who walked around with them.  But
when they show interest, we're mobbed.  All these children so desperate
to sell things, and charging a lot as a starting price.  They haggle
down.  But it means you can't buy something cheap from them quickly.
We give up, and take off, feeling like both heels and victims.  Lanto
and the rest of the guys (quite rightly) don't want to encourage
begging -- you have to buy, not give.  But buying from one, and not
all, is impossible for us.  We're so rich, compared to them, but we
can't buy a rock for $10 from each of the fifteen kids.

We drive off, kids running, literally running next to the car, holding
up their wares, and we finally leave them behind, dust flying

Our next stop is Lanto's parents house.  His mother is home and she's
a sweetie.  No English, but clearly nice, and welcoming.  We sit for a
while in the attractive front room.  It's large and has not just a
couch and coffee table, but the only fireplace in home.  It's also
where they store their rice.  The family owns some land and it's
farmed for them -- they split the take of rice.  The harvest is down,
these days, and lower quality.  Lanto's family blames the rice seed
itself -- it's less robust, now, mixing with other rices around.

Malagasy rice is good stuff.  It's better tasting than the Chinese
stuff I buy, has bigger grains and has more husk and vitamins.  On the
other hand, it's dangerous for your teeth.  They dry the rice just
about everywhere, and the dirt gets everywhere, so ultimately, the
rice has grit and rocks in it.  Every so often (at least once per
meal) my rice goes CRUNCH.  Sometimes I find the stone, sometimes I
swallow it.  And this is after the careful washing of the rice by
Malagasy cooks.

The Malagasy people eat mounds of this stuff.  The huge sacks I see
only represent a few months supply.  Koreans eat less rice than the
Malagasy.  The stuff they put on the rice here, while tasty and
nutritious, is practically just for color.  A little on top of a big
mound of rice.

Lanto's mother has quite a garden, including a lot of plants in pots.
Orchids are out of season, but she still has one blooming, and it's
very pretty.  Ramona comments about one flowering tree -- Lanto's
mother has one six feet high and fully fleshed out as a shrub.  Ramona
grows the same thing in Minneapolis, achieving less than a few branches
and a couple of feet.  The weather is nice, here, the growing season
long, and there is plenty of sun and usually plenty of water.

On the other hand, the topsoil's crap.

On our way out I notice the pond out front.  It's a small, artificial
one, with fish of a bottom-feeding variety.  I'm a little horrified and
disappointed.  It's teeming with mosquito larvae.

Such a pond contributes to the mosquito population of the area.  It
transmits disease.  And rather than being a source of mosquitoes, this
could so easily reduce the population.  It just takes the right choice
of fish.  Bottom feeders won't eat much from the top, but some
aggressive eaters who browse the top, like guppies for instance, will
eat the rafts of eggs laid by mosquitoes.  Mosquitoes will still lay
eggs there, of course, and those eggs will never hatch.  Hence,
mosquito population goes down.

But there are no pet stores, here, from which to buy a dollars worth
of guppies.

Mosquito larvae, by the way, are really nasty customers.  Get one
under a microscope, at some point, and see those nasty grab
teeth-things round the mouth.  Mosquitoes eat fruit for most of their
adult life, but these larvae will grab and eat small fish.

Returning home, I pay more attention to the tree-cutting, of which
there's some to be seen, including one grove of trees which seems to
be being harvested in total.  The trees are cut down, the trunks and
hewn into lumber (no machines, here -- axes and saws) and the scrap,
presumably, goes for charcoal.

When we finally get home, Doug and Ramona and I finally get to meet
Pat Benson, who's back from the States.  She's been instrumental in
helping us all get here.  She's an American woman who first came to
Madagascar right after bible school and who has spent the larger part
of her life here--more than thirty years.  She's quit SALFA and come
back, and quit again and been called back.  She speaks Malagasy with
the people around her, and while she says she doesn't speak it well, I
envy the facile grasp that she has with this language that she clearly
learned in her adult life.

When Doug and Ramona talk about the hospital at Antsirabe and their
desire to get donations, Pat is annoyed.  She encourages the
donations, of course, but points out that Antsirabe gets so much from
the outside, because it's what outsiders see.  There are so many
hospitals is much greater need, but the donations go to Antsirabe.
She doesn't put it in so many words, but I extrapolate: Antsirabe has
one old, overworked auto-clave.  What if it broke?  They'd have no
true sterilization.  But other hospitals around Madagascar have no
working auto-clave, and no complete sterilization, right now, today.
And the yet the surgery has to continue.