20 September 2007
No phone? How about a conch shell and a mountain top
IMORONA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, I’m writing by the flicker of candle light from a village called Imorona, where a group of farmers sell vanilla on the international market. When I arrived this morning, ass-chapped and sore from a jolting ride in the back of a pickup truck, I climbed a dirt staircase up a mountain to take a in the lay of the land. It is absolutely paradise here. A river snakes through the feet of mountains, leaving the lime-green patchwork of rice paddies in its path. The mountains are still covered, mostly, in dense forest. And the ocean is a kaleidoscope of blues. It is striking to me how untouched this place is, at least by outside influence. Last night, for example, word came to town that a tsunami had hit southeast Asia … and that the wave might be headed here. That news came from a concerned relative who drove here, several hours, on a motorcycle, just to deliver it. Once it arrived, a moderate panic set in. About 500 people, the mayor told me, assembled in the middle of the night on top of the mountain to assess the situation in sure safety from any rising water. The planning of that meeting is what’s particularly awesome. Did they call everyone on the telephone? Of course not, they don’t those. Did they interrupt the usual television programming? Nope, no electricity here. So an official climbed the mountain, high above the town, with a conch shell in hand. When he reached the peak, he blew hard into the foot of the shell: “OOOO-EEEEEE!!!!!” He let out a high-pitched call that all the town could hear. Everyone scampered up the mountain right away to see what was the matter.
In an interview today, the mayor imitated it for me. The shell is the “telephone Malagache,” he said. It’s so cool that places like this still exist. Love, John