The city’s abattoir attracted them, he said. It pumped fresh blood straight into the Indian Ocean.
“I see many shark here. Many big shark, small shark. Tiger, hammerhead, zambezi. Dis place, we have most shark in Madagascar.”
He was Rija, a slight fisherman, 61 and ancient for a man from an island where humans mostly missed the twilight of their 50s. He was equally rare in his English-speaking ability since he had never left Madagascar—he’d spent his entire life fishing offshore in the vicinity of Toamasina, the island’s largest port, a place so full of sharks, ocean swimming had been banned. A bloody seashore was no place to surf, either, which is why after deplaning from Réunion I immediately exited Toamasina, the former French colonial resort city, and vanished into the bush.
I’d met Rija on the sand a few dozen yards from the door of my wooden beach bungalow; the sunrise was blinding and already the day was hot. He was cheerful and barefoot and color-coordinated in his tattered beige cap that said New York, an orangey Oriental-patterned collared shirt, and threadbare beige shorts. He and his friend, wearing a gray V-necked women’s sweater and white bucket hat, had just beached their dugout wood lakana (pirogues) and were plucking shiny gray hand-size reef fish from tangled green nets; the men’s’ day had begun at 3:30 that morning, launching their pirogues beneath starlight.
“Do you fish each day?” I asked.
“Oui, but not in weather bad, like cyclone. Then not possible.”
“Who do you fish for?”
“For family. Also for hotel and market. Sometimes I make big money to buy something new, like bicycle.” He smiled, his teeth made whiter by the intense low sunlight. I mentioned that all hotels I’d seen here looked empty, I hadn’t encountered a single tourist, and I was the sole guest at this collection of rustic bungalows managed by a beatific young Frenchman named Jason. Like everyone else’s, his business was dead.
“Oui, za crisis!” Rija said, referring to the political violence 140 miles away in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. Anti-government protests had started in January, and by June, when I visited, 135 people had been killed and the conflict remained. Initially the protests were directed at then-president Marc Ravalomanana and were organized by Antananarivo’s then-mayor, Andry Rajoelina, who in March declared himself to be Madagascar’s new president after Ravalomanana’s forced resignation. Because of the turmoil, foreign countries advised their citizens to avoid the island, and tourist revenue plunged 80 percent.
One hundred and sixty million years ago, Madagascar split from Africa and became a complex eden home to 5 percent of Earth’s plant and animal species—more than 80 percent were endemic to the island. It was a haven for naturalists, but culturally Madagascar was in bad shape. The United Nations declared it to be the world’s poorest and one of its least-developed countries. There was the low life-expectancy, rapid population growth, frail infrastructure, poor health care, famine, and high infant mortality. Just 5 percent of the land was arable—vanilla, coffee, and cloves were the main exports—and although Madagascar was a big island in the Indian Ocean, commercial fishing was nonexistent. More than 85 percent of its 20 million people survived on less than $1 a day, and food insecurity and malnutrition were chronic, especially in the east and drought-prone south, which was loaded with swell and setups but plagued by strong onshore tradewinds and lack of access. Flights were costly, roads were terrible, and it was generally mandatory that you spoke French or, better yet, Malagasy.
Despite the island’s 3,000 miles of coast, tiny Anakao in the southwest was where 99 percent of foreign surfers went because surf camps existed there and the waves had proven themselves. The southern villages of Lavanono and Fort Dauphin were the other two zones visiting surfers sought but, overall, Madagascar was one large, unsurfed wilderness.
Rija didn’t surf, though a few of his kin did. They were all of the tribe Betsimisaraka, which meant “numerous and inseparable,” and traditionally they were fishers, seafarers, and traders—simple, peaceful—who thrived galaxies from the feuds and strife of the teeming capital. The 2009 political mess was a spectacle and somewhat trite compared to the fierce cyclones that had recently thrashed the Betsimisaraka coast. Rija’s life orbited around nature, and in the bush he was wholly self-sufficient, surviving off land and sea—tourism cash was a bonus, not crucial. In 2004 his wife died in her sleep, but he had a brood of relatives scattered in and around Toamasina; 11 years ago he lost a nephew to a tiger shark in three feet of water, an incident that sent schisms through Rija’s dirt-and-thatch village. So he moved away, not far, but far enough to numb the pain and blur visions of that mutilated 8-year-old boy.
Rija’s beach was an alcove of tranquility, enough so to attract the soft-spoken Frenchman Jason and his spartan brand of leisure—his bungalows were clean and functional, well-built from local wood and clay. He didn’t surf but knew of the shallow gems offshore, particularly the Malagasy Velzyland in the crosshairs of my front window.