raising little ones in the great outdoors

The Big Red Island: Part 1

This week we’ve got a special guest — Jason Albert. Like so many adventures, his family’s work trip to Madagascar started as an inspiring idea, got painfully epic in the process and ended up being the most important journey  in Jason’s life. There is a lot of insight in Jason’s words, but I’ll let him speak for himself.  Please stay tuned for the next two parts later this week.

Madagascar bleeds after monsoon rains fall on its tree-stripped terrain. Images from space during the monsoon reveal a country denuded of vegetation and, in turn, its soil. With nothing anchoring this iron-rich earth, it washes through river arteries, discoloring them as they flow blood red to the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel. Inhabitants of this island for a sliver of geologic time, humans have become blight. Madagascar is a throw back; a country quaint in its habits, sordid with its prospects. Africa it is: unique in this region it is not. Sadly, Madagascar’s most viable export is a flamboyant lemur: a Dream Works Entertainment fabrication.

I married a nascent anthropologist specializing in the minutia of ring-tailed lemur behavioral ecology. Abstract texts and erudite academic journals were filed this way and that in all our living spaces. Yet I understood this as a sign my passport would secure a Madagascar stamp. In my own travel, I once had been mistaken for an arms dealer by Burma’s Karen rebels, sipped yak-butter tea in downtown Lahsa’s Jokang monastery during a tense post-Tiananmen period, escaped a forty-foot climbing fall with a six-month case of numb hips. Madagascar would be an affirmation of a life well lived. What I did not foresee was an adventure with a two-and-a-half year old tagging along. Instead of my tent pitched as a personal rip-stop sanctuary in prime lemur habitat- as I had once envisioned- it became a multi-purpose venue; serving as changing room, nap-time area, and padded cell as we struggled with international immersion.

Having children changes one down to the cellular level. Energy reserves are easily depleted. Stress hormones become a frequent blood chemistry companion. As Darwin sailed on the Beagle, he ruminated on the beautiful biodiversity around him. He got something right. Despite the chemical, emotional, and physical pitfalls, making offspring is seemingly inexorable. With this mirror of ourselves, we preserve ourselves. Our educations are steeped in biology- a reflection of our desire to sift through information and logically deduce an outcome- and we believed this would serve us well.IMG_2651

Bringing my child to Madagascar — with its layers of decay — required me to toss away any preconceived notions of the country’s ineptitude. Imperfect in my thinking and prone to judge, I did not want to continue a cycle where my own child perceived a less fortunate people, an exhausted timeworn landscape as lesser. I imagined I would be the lens through which my son could see the simple beauty of a place, how human beings strive to live with dignity and create their own life stories. And as this big-eyed child enters these stories, he too becomes a part of their telling.

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Boys typically potty train later than girls. And our son showed little interest in a proper commode. My wife and I, seasoned developing world travelers, had never adventured with a full-on, terrible-twos toddler. I have a photo of my family in front of my parents’ home. Rhododendrons blossom. A sea mist coats the lawn. We are relaxing amidst six expedition-fat duffels. Despite our desire to pack simply, to tread lightly, we are the emblematic excessive westerners. So thorough was our packing that a child’s training potty was stuffed in this black hole of baggage.

But kids poop in Madagascar, and surely the keen maternal network of caregivers there had a formal method of training children to keep their waste away from their dwellings. In all our parenting wisdom, “love and logic” training, our presumed cultural adequacy, it never crossed our minds to think the children of Madagascar can thrive. I would assert this “baggage” we carried is not unique to us. It is the cultural relevance of thinking of one’s self, one’s whole way of life as a reflection of mindfulness. This could not have been further from the truth. The photograph serves as evidence. We are simply an image of the pre-economic-bust liberal traveler trying to keep it real.

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We flew from New York, to London, to Cape Town, to Mauritius, and finally landed in Antananarivo. In the capital for a few hours, I lifted my son up on my shoulders and cast out into a new fabric of life. The acrid smell of unfamiliar spices, diesel fumes, and urine mixed in the air. I was curious if my son noticed the scab-riddled children begging. My son, so little at the time, must of understood the novelty. He was a sponge, yet unprepared for this sensory overload. His routine of high-perched tourism from my shoulders busied us for a time. Although two weeks waiting for what we had believed were easily accessible visas, sucked the life from us.

I recall a drizzly, spring day when my son gestured to dismount my shoulders. Feet planted on the ground, he proceeded to have a breakdown that in his six years of life I have not witnessed the likes of since. His screams of despair startled market-goers. He convulsed. He was a spectacle: blubbering and snurffling on soggy cobblestones. Here was a ghost white American kid displaying what a healthy amount of daily calories and jet lag could produce. I became concerned for his safety when his writhing attracted the stare of some rubber-neckers. I know now, had I been subjected to callous imperialism and lived hand to mouth, that seeing a sorry foreigner struggle with his demons is sport. I can only assume my son needed to purge a funk deep within. His explosive tirade was an exorcism of sorts. Using my body like a fisherman landing an once-in-a-lifetime catch, I scooped him up. I held tight to the flopper. I endured the screaming until ten minutes later I plopped him on our dank hotel bed and exhorted to my wife: I want to leave.

IMG_1853The cyclic suffer fest of exhaustion and tantrums soon waned. In the image of the bloated over-accessorized travelers that we were, our stately caravan of three white Land Rovers with cuddly endangered species emblazoned on the doors, sped away from Tana. Three long days later we pitched our tent at a remote research site 30km from the nearest sizable town and a day’s drive to a post office and phone. The road into the research camp is part goat path, part sand dune, and part cratered pavement. Once leaving main travel arteries a trekker is enveloped in a world with a pace and technology like that of mid-1800’s rural America. Our motorcade, the only combustion engines for miles; the vast skies above devoid of aircraft. We passed locals walking home in late afternoon low angle light- their feet kicking up red dust- giving the light a thickness. We stopped for a break adjacent to cryptic termite mounds. Moments later the dusky light seemed to percolate from the skies. Quiet slipped in and unfamiliar constellations spoke of our remoteness. I felt a profound sense of worry. Being responsible for a child driven by tactile sensory input while living in an environment with denizens like scorpions, Boas, and an army of quirky insects put me on edge. At its core, our parenting is premised on guided experience- to allow the senses to serve as a compass- to drink in the uniqueness of place. Yet I recall traveling to camp this first time, clearing my throat of dust, turning to my wife and asking, “What had we done?”

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Wednesday….

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One Response to “The Big Red Island: Part 1”

  1. kelly says:

    wow, awesome. what transitions, and what an amazing experience to give the lil’ nipper — can’t wait to read more in part 2.

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