Big Blue

Camille Montalbano

Our bus carefully maneuvers down the bumpy road, sinking and rising through potholes, weaving to avoid oncoming cars and pedestrians. We’ve been on the bus for so long that it feels like home – and yet, I am a foreigner in this country, surrounded by people from an entirely different cultural background. We boarded the bus just after sunrise, not expecting to arrive at our next destination until dinnertime. This is a typical travel day in Madagascar.

The bus, aptly called Big Blue for its blue exterior, consists of six rows, each seat occupied by a student or local guide. Many students fill the hours by journaling or reading for class – we pass around the limited copies of the day’s reading so each of us can skim through. Others use their headphones to provide a soundtrack for our travels. There are occasional games of Catan, bouts of singing, and, more often than not, attempts to catch up on sleep.

The national road is winding which gives me a dizzying sense of car sickness. I crack open my window and let the fresh air hit my face. The lingering taste of ginger candy in my mouth settles my stomach. We drive through a village where family-owned shops and produce stands line the road. The locals are waving to us as we drive by, yelling out greetings in both French and Malagasy: “Bonjour vazaha!” and “Salama!” prompting us to wave in response. Zebu are herded beside our bus. Chickens and stray dogs search for food in the dry dirt. Before we know it, the spacing between the houses grows larger until the end of the village – we push onward.

I choose to pass the time by observing the world outside of Big Blue. We are in Madagascar, after all. This is a beautiful island country halfway across the world, and most Americans know nothing about it. Before we departed, our families and friends joked about the animated movie, suggesting that we may see lions and zebras once we arrived. We know now that this is not the case. The primary mammal here is the lemur, and the Malagasy people have much different problems than zoo animals escaping from New York – poverty, resource depletion, and a changing climate, to name a few.

From the window of Big Blue, I have watched the landscape change from tiered rice fields with grazing Zebu, to magnificent mountainous regions, flatlands scattered with Baobab trees, and eventually, the cacti-filled desert in the West. We’re traveling during the rainy season, which means the downpour typically starts in the evening and does not let up until morning. In the desert regions, the heat feels unbearable, the air heavy with humidity. One of the primary focuses of our classwork is the connection between the Malagasy people and this unique environment. With each change in landscape, the houses are built from noticeably different materials, and food in the restaurants adjust to the local flora and fauna.

We finally arrive at our hotel – only a few stops today, at gas stations to use their restroom and a restaurant to order lunch with the help of our guide, Dani. The chilled Orange Fanta boosts our spirits. The views from these restaurants are always so beautiful; the combination of fresh food (Mine Sao again – my favorite) and scenery fills me with a sense of gratitude. I am so lucky to be able to hike through these rainforests, swim in the Mozambique Channel, stand under a family of ring-tailed lemurs hopping from branch to branch — and countless other adventures one can only experience in Madagascar.

It’s easy for us to lose sight of the destruction in this region if we don’t take the time to observe. Interspersed with the rice fields and farmland, our guide frequently points out areas of deforestation. Slash-and-burn agriculture has caused huge plots of land to be destroyed, leaving behind nothing but burnt tree trunks. I was shocked at the size of the fields that had been chopped down, all by the hands of Malagasy farmers. When comparing these barren fields to the lush grasslands and rainforests, it fills me with a sense of mourning. We were witnessing firsthand the destruction of endangered animals’ homes and food supplies.

The Malagasy people have a complicated relationship with nature and the economy. In poverty-stricken regions, families farm, craft goods, and provide services to earn a paycheck. Famine is widespread; it’s common to see children with bloated bellies playing outside. It is important for environmentalists to understand that sometimes, the smartest option for survival – or the traditional practices which are enforced by Malagasy culture – may have a negative environmental impact.

I lie in bed enveloped by the mosquito net. The sound of heavy rain patters on the cabin’s roof. My roommates are already asleep; we have an early morning tomorrow, and can expect to be awoken by the chattering birds and the Indri Indri lemur’s distinctive call. Now is the time when I can reflect on my gratitude. At home, I never have to worry about putting food on the table or the availability of safe drinking water. I close my eyes, promising myself that I will not take these simple privileges for granted once I return to the States.

The human impact on the world today is perhaps more evident than we would like to admit. Traveling across Madagascar – speaking to the local guides, walking through villages, and witnessing wildlife in its natural habitat – has demonstrated the strong connection between human actions and the environment. The pollution we create ends up in oceans, affecting the small fishing villages on the coasts of Madagascar. The products we purchase create demand for local resources, until supply runs dangerously low and certain plants and animals are wiped out. The carbon emissions we produce have global impacts as well: Madagascar’s rainy season is no longer consistent, which threatens local industries like tea and vanilla plantations.

My experience in Madagascar has taught me to be mindful of my impact on the planet. We must be aware of our landscape, including the limitations of resources. In Malagasy restaurants, our group often bought the kitchen out of certain ingredients as resources were in short supply. We also toted around stacks upon stacks of water bottles, knowing that drinking the local water posed a health risk, and thankfully having the funds to plan ahead. Our choices had significant effects on resource usage on top of our economic contributions.

While there are complexities regarding conservation in the poverty-stricken regions, those of us with the privilege to make choices about what we buy must focus on sustainable consumption and lowering our carbon emissions. This will be our impact for the preservation of biodiversity and the beautiful land of Madagascar.

    Camille Montalbano is a 2020 graduate from SUNY Geneseo with a B.A. in History and Political Science and a Spanish minor. She is eternally grateful to have started the year 2020 in Madagascar as part of the History, Environment, and Conservation course led by Dr. Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea. Camille is currently working as a Paralegal in Rochester, NY. She hopes to continue pursuing justice both legally and politically in the future. Photo credit: Camille Montalbano