We follow after our professor like lost ducklings down the beach, dodging fishermen as they haul in their nets or groups of children digging for crabs in the sand. Our guides from the Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines are in deep conversation with the local fishermen. I see them repeatedly point far out to sea where they say the town’s algae farm is located. All I can see are a few makeshift buoys fashioned out of plastic water bottles bobbing on the horizon and the massive expanse of ocean at high tide.
It’s only when the fishermen start dragging out two tiny, outrigger canoes that it dawns on me: I’m about to lose my phone, camera and entire backpack to the Indian Ocean. As five of us pile into each rickety canoe, the edge of the boat sinks further and further until it looks like we’re all sitting exactly on the surface of the water. It’s our second day in Tulear, a coastal town in the South of Madagascar, and today we have too much to see to bother waiting for the tides.
The fishermen paddle us out over the suspiciously calm sea. On the horizon, I can see the white crests of waves breaking on the coral reef which keeps this lagoon still and protected. We’re here today to visit an algae and sea cucumber farm run almost entirely by the local Malagasy with the support of the University of Tulear. Not too long ago, researchers and NGOs were scrambling to convince the local people of the value of growing these products as an alternative food source to fishing. Now as we weave our way through row upon row of floating lines of algae, it’s clear to see that this town has not only accepted but embraced this new way of life.
On the canoe away from the bustling beach, I completely forget about the oppressive humidity, the stifling bus ride down pothole-littered roads to get here, and the fact that my electronics might be in imminent danger. We all fall silent until the only sound is of the two fishermen dragging their paddles through the water. Out here, I don’t see a single motorized boat or hear the engine of a commercial fishing vessel. Only wooden canoes built with trees from the same forest for the past hundred years and sailboats with colorful, patchwork sails. Somehow, it feels like I’ve been transported back in time.
However, this tiny town squeezed between the desert and the ocean is anything but stuck in the past. I jump out of the canoe (fully dressed, it never occurred to me to wear a swim suit today) straight into the sea as warm as bathwater to get a closer look at the algae farm. We each tear off a piece from the line to taste—crunchy and extremely salty, unsurprisingly. Further down the row, our professor points out a few lines that are being used for the experimental production of plastic from an algae extract.
It seems almost anachronistic, the driftwood canoes next to the state-of-the-art biochemical technology. But this has been a common thread throughout my stay here. Grass thatched roofs with solar panels leaned up against the house. Women cooking at charcoal stoves while texting on a smartphone. Taking a taxi to a fast food chain in an old Renault 5 obviously from the French colonial era.
Back in Tana, when the other students and I are sitting in the dim light from the windows when the power goes out and we’re waiting for the rain to let up, we talk about this. We go around in circles talking about political corruption, lack of infrastructure, unemployment, as if we knew the full story of this country after only two months. Five American college students with all the answers.
Algae from Madagascar aquaculture is sold to Europe or the States for 40 cents a kilogram. Every line of this farm, once harvested, dries down to about one kilogram each. Looking around me, I count about 50 lines. After two months of growing, harvesting, and drying, the whole town will make at most 20 dollars.
But it’s a start.
We walk back to shore across the sand, now uncovered at low tide. My soggy clothes dry quickly in the midday sun and miraculously, my backpack has survived the journey. Driving back to the city through the desert, we pass the mangroves lining the beach with their roots sticking straight into the air. Next, through the spiny forest where boys climb up the baobabs’ massive trunks to reach the reddish, brown fruits before they fall to the ground and are eaten by tortoises. Back in the city may be the strangest environmental of all, with the odd mix of French and Italian residents, restaurants and bars devoid of tourists, and the throng of Malagasy selling their wares at every street corner and curb.
At times, I feel more like a tourist than a student, and always more like a foreigner than someone who could blend in with the crowd. Here in Tulear even more so where our classes often consist of snorkeling or guided tours of nature reserves and parks. The rest of the trip passes quickly as we wind our way back up the coast, never spending more than one or two days in any one place.
Even after seeing the majestic baobabs, famous ring-tailed lemurs, and idyllic beaches, I’m anxious to get back to Tana. I miss the crazy, hectic time spent with my host family and my daily walk to school through the vegetable markets. I know my host family will be as excited to hear about my adventures as my friends and family back home are.