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Muddling through in Madagascar Paperback – April 27, 1990
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About the Author
Dervla Murphy has written more than twenty books recounting her adventures all over the world on foot, mule, bicycle, and just about every other conveyance imaginable. Her books Full Tilt, Eight Feet in the Andes, The Waiting Land, Muddling Through in Madagascar, On a Shoestring to Coorg, Cameroon with Egbert, Transylvannia and Beyond, The Ukimwi Road, and South from the Limpopo are available from The Overlook Press.
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Just the first chapter, an excellent history of the island, is worth the purchase price. It was the largest fertile area of the world that was uninhabited until the arrival of Malayo-Polynesian groups around 900 AD. Various African groups came thereafter. Then the Portuguese showed up in 1500, and then the English and the French showed tepid interest for a few centuries. Only well into the 19th century did the London Missionary Society get serious in sending missionaries, who are often the advance wave of colonists, as all too many colonized have learned. In 1896 Madagascar officially became a French colony, which was its status until independence in 1960. The human settlement and interactions there have been historically unique, but what truly sets the island off, in terms of uniqueness, is its flora and fauna, with numerous species found only there, and nowhere else in the world.
Murphy wrangled a visa, and an all-important "permission letter" of the "to whom it may concern" variety from the embassy in Paris. She and her daughter flew there the cheap way - via Aeroflot and Moscow, arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, mercifully called "Tana." The newly independent government's push for autarky means that few things work well; and many things don't work at all. Imports are virtually non-existent. And in particular, for a traveler, the roads are abysmal; in some cases they are passable only on foot. And for sure, the buses don't run on that very alien concept: "time." Rather, they run when they are full... and don't break down.
In what seemed to be a couple of months, they covered a large part of the southern two-thirds of the island. The central highlands are the most populous, and the town of Antsirabe (the "Vichy," that is, the spas and mineral springs, of Madagascar) seems to be the most viable and enjoyable. They went to the western coastal town of Tulear, but stopped to see the lemurs on the way, in the Parc National d'Isalo. Due to the lack of accommodation, they camped there. They checked the guest book, and there was only one page of names spanning a decade. (I checked on the internet, and there is now a very nice looking lodge there.) One of the "gutsy" (or crazy?) things they did was camp in the wild on several occasions. From Tulear they had another epic journey by vehicle, spanning days, across the southern part of the island, to Fort Dauphin. And then it was back to Tana, and beyond to the coast, with broken vehicles along the way, and a fairly vigorous hike at the end.
Murphy is a keen observer of all, and has strong descriptive powers. She also carries a fair load of erudition, and weaves it into her account. The people, though poor, and in a daily struggle for so much that the "civilized" west takes for granted, seem to be happier, and certainly kinder to the stranger that she and her daughter are. Yet, and Murphy specifically makes this point, the island is no Rousseau fantasy. There is evil and unhappiness there also.
She has been criticized for being too "new age." I didn't see that in particular, but I did feel she was a bit reckless in the treatment of her own health, particularly after being cut with a knife. In terms of her observations, I've marked many a passage, one of the best being: "The distortion of human relationships, rather than the building of Holiday Inns or the sprouting of souvenir stalls, is the single most damaging consequence of Third World tourism." Murphy also quoted extensively from Dr. Alison Jolly's naturalist work A World Like Our Own: Man and Nature in Madagascar, which is a book I've owned for 30 years, and have yet to read. Murphy's push will finally remedy that deficiency. Overall, 5-stars.
Few travel writers have such an innate ability to go beyond the obvious -- after all, there are many books on Madagascar, and even more in French, but I found few (if any) that capture the essence of the country as well as Murphy. Madagascar is sometimes baffling and often inexplicable. Much of its richness lies underneath its surface: tradition remains a powerful force not just in far-flung villages. The Malagasy temperament, the joye de vivre of its people, the good natured rambunctiousness of their children even after being stuffed into a bursting taxi brousse for 24-hours, the graciousness of strangers -- none of it is easy to describe, yet Murphy does so unerringly.
"Muddling Through Madagascar" isn't just a story of a long-ago trip through an exotic country; the human element that Murphy evokes, puts the books in the same league as the writings of Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin or Peter Matthiessen. It's an inspired, timeless piece of travel non-fiction. As interesting as it is for anybody lucky-enough to have spent time in Madagascar, it is also a remarkable book for the armchair traveler, vividly bringing the world that's Out There into the living room. The experience of traveling, going "there" from "here," all its trials and tribulations, as well as the more obvious rewards, makes for genuinely inspired reading. Today's trend calls for travel writing that's virtually indistinguishable from travel-brochure copy: fluff having replaced substance. Murphy's book takes us back to a time when this wasn't at all the case: her experience is genuine, as is her book, which is precisely what makes it so enjoyable to read.