My travel adventures have come to an end and it is time to start posting, in earnest, my reflections on what I have seen. Also, now that I am home, I can start posting some of the many photos I took overseas. I’ll start with some photos of the original inhabitants of Madagascar, the lemurs. I took many photos of them, which include several species (the posted photos have all been reduced in resolution. If anybody wants the original, high resolution photos, let me know). I even got some nice videos of them. They are very interesting animals.
Their rival, in beauty, is the chameleon. I was able to see, and photograph, a few wild ones but they were not as spectacular as the ones I saw in the reptile reserves.
I saw many Baobab trees in Madagascar. Apparently there is some disagreement as to how to pronounce “Baobab”. So I ended up using the Malagasy word for just one of the varieties: fumi (pronounced “foomee”) while there. The bark of the fumi is widely used for housing construction. After a fumi dies, there is an edible mushroom that grows on it. I would have tried it but it must be cooked properly or it is poisonous.
One of the things that struck me, after I had time to reflect on the many things I saw in my travels, was the symbolism of the baobab tree versus the cathedrals. The baobab trees, growing in their natural environment, seem to hold up the heavens. They seem to say, “we are the pillars of the status quo and we are here to ensure that the world carries on as it always has.
In contrast, the cathedrals of Europe – though they resemble huge trees or forests – seem to say, “we strive to pierce the heavens and defy gravity, even nature itself as we test the limits of what humans can build.” Cathedrals are, in my mind, the baobabs of Europe. And, even though the baobabs do not contain lemurs, the cathedrals do have their own lemurs, so to speak. From their lofty heights, the gargoyles gaze down upon the masses. Their own grotesqueness is now dwarfed by what they witness on the streets of Europe but they do, in a way, resemble lemurs. One wonders if some early explorers, having seen lemurs, provided the inspiration for those gargoyles*.
The ambition that drove Europeans to breach the clouds with their cathedrals, also lead them to explore new lands and subjugate their peoples. Although, in theory, Madagascar gained its independence from France in 1960, it still appears to be a colony. When confronted with Europeans, even the Malagasy elite must surely have realized how primitive they were in comparison. To this day, the Malagasy is daily reminded of the paucity of his own heritage, culture and language. The Malagasy language, though still very much alive, is heavily influenced by French. It goes without saying that they have many French loan-words. This is to be expected. But the influence of French goes well beyond this. Even the place-names in their own country are often pronounced in the French version. About half the billboards are in French, as it is considered the language of the elite. The capitol, Antananarivo, is designed very much like a French city right down to the cobblestone streets. Many of the street names are in French and many of them commemorate historical French figures or events. Madagascar is still the playground of the French, who flock there for their vacations. The French make no effort to learn Malagasy because they don’t need to; almost everybody can speak French. The traditional religions of Madagascar are rapidly retreating in favor of Christianity. Within a couple of generations, Malagasy rituals and holidays will take the same role that pagan European rituals and holidays take now – surviving only in the shadows and disguised as “Christianity”.
The Malagasy is reminded of the inferiority of his own heritage every time he opens his mouth. That foreigners can arrive and have their pick of Malagasy women is also a relic of the colonial mentality. There is a general lack of national esteem and and their leaders, though they provide security and order, do not seem to be taking the nation in any particular direction as far as I could tell. It appears as if the Malagasy must make a choice: become modern and relinquish almost all of his heritage or retain his heritage and remain primitive. What they need is a dynamic and distinctive Malagasy culture that is geared toward the future. This is difficult when 18 ethnic groups, each with its own traditions, inhabit the island.
In the end, the ambitions and ingenuity of the Europeans broke through the natural barriers of nature, the barriers of distance and the oceans. For a while, Europe was able to maintain control over the forces it had unleashed but it was inevitable that the genie, once let out of the bottle, would become its own master. Now it is Europe that is being colonized. Over time, the cathedrals will crumble – but the baobab will remain.
*By way of analogy, the stained glass windows resemble chameleons in their vivid colors.