As part of our Frequent Flyer series, we post follow up stories from previously spotlighted travelers. Jeff is one of those rare and interesting people who is able to seamlessly balance being both creative and scientific. He has spent several years traveling the world (from Peru to Bangladesh), and is passionate about photojournalism as well as education. In his previous feature, he shared some of his experiences teaching abroad in Kenya and Thailand, while speaking to his love for taking portraits of the people he meets during his trips. Now he's back to speak to some of his recent experiences traveling throughout Madagascar and the importance of connecting with a country’s people to better experience its culture.
What have you been up to since you were last featured on your experiences teaching abroad?
When we last spoke I was literally in the air, midway between Vancouver and Peru, where I was headed to shoot portraits as the recipient of Passion Passport’s fourth The Bucket List Initiative grant. My time immediately following our last interview was spent camping in the Sechura Desert and shooting portraits in the tiny industry villages of the Piura region’s North West coast.
After that, I returned to my home country, Canada and spent my summer researching and applying to graduate programs. I finally settled on a Master’s program at the University of Melbourne‘s School of Chemical Engineering. That took about three months in all, and by the end I was itching to get back on the road. Within a week of accepting my offer I had picked up a short-term teaching contract, this time in Bangkok where I spent my September, following which I took a month-long trip to shoot portraits in Madagascar. I’m currently back in Canada where I’ll spend the holidays with my family before heading back overseas for school.
What sparked your interest to visit Madagascar specifically? What route did you take to get there?
Madagascar’s been a long-term infatuation for me. I still remember spotting my first ring-tailed lemur, its otherworldly eyes peering out from the pages of an elementary school textbook. These animals weren’t like anything I’d ever seen. I had to dig deeper. I quickly realized how much this lonely landmass is defined by oddities and contradictions. 90% of its endemic species exist nowhere else on the planet. Geologically, the island split off India rather than Africa. Ethnically the first people are of Austronesian origin and crossed the Ocean from Borneo in dugout canoes yet never made it to mainland Africa. Even now, if you search the hashtag ‘Madagascar’ on Instagram you’re more likely to get screenshots from a series computer animated movies that are hardly even set on the continent.
Of course, one of the reasons I hadn’t visited yet is how bloody far away Madagascar is! Living on Vancouver Island, I had to cross literally half the planet to get there. Although the primary route most North American’s take is via France, laying over in Asia made a lot more sense – this was where Madagascar’s first people came from after all. I poked around and quickly learned that Air Madagascar, an E.U. blacklisted airline that also happens to be the country’s national carrier, has two direct connections to Asia; one through Gangzhou and one through Bangkok. At this point Bangkok feels like my third home so I reached out to a few Thai friends to arrange a fun layover. What I’d planned to be a couple days turned into a month when a contact offered me that coveted short-term teaching contract I alluded to wanting during our previous interview. The kicker was that I’d need to arrive in Bangkok by Sunday for a Monday start (it was currently a Tuesday.) I worked my butt off to wrap enough commitments at my current job to justify taking off and was on a red-eye two nights later.
What surprised you most about your experience in Madagascar?
Leading up to this trip I reached out to a number of contacts. The predominant piece of advice I received was: Your English will be useless, your French passable in urban centers, but learn Malagasy if you’d like to go anywhere else. This was a half-truth. I found French to be remarkably useful throughout the country, down to the 10-house villages I stopped at during my canoe trip down the Tsirihibina. Although the Canadian schooling system gave me enough pseudo-fluency in French to, say, work in a bank, I certainly lack conversational charm outside of my mother tongue. This became painfully obvious when I went on an excruciating date with a French Journalist I met in Madagascar. You don’t realize how much of your personality is embedded in your mother tongue until it’s stripped away.
By the end of my month in Madagascar, I’d spoken English twice—once with an American traveler I met; the second time in a fit of fandom after stumbling into Dr. Patricia Wright in Ramanofana National Park. This is the only time I’ve travelled so exclusively in a language that isn’t my own. But the extra bit of effort that went into day-to-day conversation has left me with a vivid word-for-word memory of nearly the entire trip.
What were some of your experiences?
True to everything I’d come to expect, Madagascar really doesn't fit the mold of any other East African nation. But what surprised me most is how many unexpected parallels I found between the island-nation and places I’d visited in the past. The best way to sum up Madagascar is it looks like East Africa: the influence of Bantu immigrants from across the Mozambique Channel is evident in the majority of the ethnic group’s features as well as the local textiles (not to mention those sunsets!) It feels like a Pacific Asian Island: the role of taboos and superstitions in daily life and the incredibly friendly and safe atmosphere. It tastes like France: I don’t think I went a day without a morning cappuccino and an evening rhum-arrangé.
What would you like people to know about your experience within the country that is little known?
The predominate narrative surrounding Madagascar is that it’s an incredibly impoverished nation. As with many isolated countries with developing economies, the people are depleting the island’s very limited resources just to survive. In reality the situation is much more complicated than that. The island is incredibly rich; however, most of these resources aren’t being exhausted by the Malagasy people, but rather foreign businesses—primarily Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and French.
Yes, Madagascar’s people are quite poor. But the one thing these reports tend to overlook is how much damn potential the place has. From natural resources like hardwood, precious stones, and metals, to the agricultural potential of the nearly 600 square-kilometer island, to becoming a touristic treasure akin to the Galapagos—so much could go on here developmentally that would lift the Malagasy people out of their current situation. The problem is a lack of infrastructure and an incredibly corrupt government that allows offshore nations to siphon off resources with little to no lasting investment in the country. The island itself is far from a backwater wasteland.
What recommendations do you have for future travelers interested in visiting Madagascar?
Madagascar is a particularly small island to begin with; however, poor infrastructure makes it feel 10 times bigger than it actually is. I’d say give yourself as much time as possible and arrive with plenty of patience and an open slate. Visas up to 90 days are free on arrival for all nationalities. It’s also important to keep the weather in mind, as you’ll spend a lot of your time on tiny backroads. Much of the West Island is particularly difficult to access between late November and early March.
That said, even with a short itinerary there is so much to do. In one month I hiked the highlands, descended a river by canoe, saw the famous baobabs and Tsingy de Bamahara, trekked three different national parks, saw dozens of unique species, went rock climbing, and ate so much amazing food. Although I chose to forgo much of the coast in order to return to lemur country, I heard phenomenal first hand accounts of the diving and surfing that was always just a day trip away. My advice in a single word: Go!
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
From day one my Madagascar itinerary was incredibly lose. I really only had one must-do: visit the lemur that first planted my seeds of obsession with this place 20 years ago.
Refusing to let the trip climax too early, I decided to tick off some other boxes. I took a canoe west along the Tsirihibina River to check out the opposite side of the island. However, one morning when I was about as far as I could possibly get from ideal ring-tail viewing territory, I woke up craving my encounter at least. I spent the next three days bussing through backroads in the reverse direction and building up a potentially disastrous amount of anticipation.
Fifty hours later I arrived at my destination. Despite whipping rains, I was able to convince a local guide to bring me into the forest. Within 20 soaking minutes, I was ambushed by a couple hundred heavily habituated rings-tails. I’d paid the guide for two and half hours but after seeing the stupidly huge grin on my face, he secretly doubled the length of our expedition at no additional cost.
I ended up getting spit out near the main road at dusk—an hour after the final bus—but was able hitchhike back into town. I treated myself to a fantastic dinner and killed the batteries on my camera flicking back and forth through the LCD slideshow of one of the best days of my life.
Travelling can appear to be very glamorous from the outside, however that is not always the case. Can you share any frustrating (and unglamorous) moments you experienced while traveling and how you overcame them?
Whenever I try to envision my ideal trip it features next to no downtime. Between visiting sites, meet-ups with locals and arranging portrait shoots, I want to be pounding the pavement of a new neighbourhood from dawn until dusk. Complacency doesn’t sit well with me. But in truth NOTHING happens quickly in Madagascar. Even the simplest activities tend to bleed time and it’s impossible to adhere to a plan.
You will wait 30 minutes (if you’re lucky) to be served that quick lunch you hoped to squeeze in before golden hour. Your 120 kilometer bus ride will turn into an eight-hour odyssey following three flat tires and, even though you’re only five kilometers out of town, your well-intentioned bus driver will refuse to let you get out and walk. You’ll spend up to 15 minutes haggling with each and every taxi-driver and still not arrive on a price that’s ‘fair’. And if you pull out a camera anywhere near a town center you’ll be forced to take a portrait for every single witness.
This of course, is the Zen of Africa. And beneath all this perceived chaos is a very fine rhythm you’ll be given no choice but to adopt. It beats its way into you. With time it recalibrates everything down to your breath. You return home with less numerous but more meaningful memories. Africa, in my experience, is about intense personal connections. Getting to know your neighbor on a 16-hour bus-ride can mean a lot more than developing a mental map of every city on earth.
Of all the images you captured during your trip, which would you say is your favorite? Please also share the story behind how it was captured.
After years of shooting portraits in foreign nations I’ve become incredibly opinionated about my process and the ethics of the whole affair. Make sure the experience is mutually consensual—approach an individual as a person first and the subject of a photograph second. Get to know them, explain why you’d like to capture their photograph, and let them know your intentions if you plan to publish or share the image. Finally, do all you can to allow them access to their image. If you’re lucky e-mail will work—you’ll be able to stay in touch after as well—but I like to carry an instant camera or a portable printer with me just in case.
Ironically, my favourite portrait from this particular trip involves me breaking most of those rules (see image above). I was drifting quickly down a particularly rapid portion of Madagascar’s Tsirbihina river when I spotted this stunning young woman bathing near the banks of a palisander logging camp. Our communication was limited to a wave, me pointing to my camera, her composing this incredibly stoic face and me returning a thumbs-up and folding my hands and bowing in a thank you gesture. Moments later she was gone. I’ll never know her name and she’ll never know what became of me or her image.
I’d have loved to share a more powerful interaction but sometimes life is imperfect. The mystery behind those piercing eyes will continue to haunt me.
What’s next for you?
I’m due in Melbourne on March second for school so my days of sporadic international pinballing are limited—at least for the time being. I’m currently planning to layover in Asia on my way across the Pacific—I’d love to see Thaipusam in Malaysia but have also been keeping my eye on the news of Typhoon Hagupit, which just hit the Philippines. The fact that Tacloban City is falling victim to its second natural disaster in just over a year breaks my heart so if relief efforts are mounted I’ll gladly sacrifice my two months in Asia to go help out.
Images Courtesy of Jeff McAllister