Happy September and Fall! May this new season, a time of harvest and change, bring to you the fruits of your efforts and time to savor not only the abundance life has to offer, but also the growth that comes with change and new beginnings.
In this, the second part my Missive on my trip to Madagascar, I want to take you from my arrival in Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo (Tana as the Malagasies call it), through my experience of the city and some of the utter craziness of there, and then to the workshops that handle virtually all of crystals and stones that come from Madagascar.
But first, I have to say that Madagascar is a looooong way from LA. It’s LA to Paris (11 hours), a 4 hour or so layover, and then Paris to Tana (another 11 hours) – so about 26 hours altogether with no delays. So you definitely don’t want to be in a rush to get there!
...Madagascar is a looooong way from LA. ...about 26 hours altogether with no delays. So you definitely don’t want to be in a rush to get there!
Upon my arrival in Tana, I was picked up by Elka, one of the two Malagasy sisters that would be my hosts, teachers and guides while I was in Madagascar. Elka, being the owner of one of the largest crystal and stone workshops in Madagascar, came with her huge pick-up truck and one of her workshop assistants to help get me and my one large bag back to her home. I was actually well rested as I slept on the flights, and I am blessed to never suffer from jet lag! So I took a quick shower and then I started my adventure by going out to a traditional Malagasy lunch of the beef they eat, called Zebu. After lunch we went back to the Elka’s house and began planning all we would do during my nearly 3-week stay in the country.
Elka and her sister Ita live next door to each other. Their mother also lives on the same street. Being the owner of a very successful business, both Elka and Ita live in very nice homes, quite large and comfortable. Both have house assistants that live with them. Elka’s assistant is an older woman who takes care of her house and laundry. Ita’s assistant is a young man who cooked for everyone every night we were there. He was a great chef! Ita and Elka have three brothers, one of which lives in Tana would often drop by to join us for dinner. Their other brothers live a plane flight south of Tana, in a city near a sapphire mine to which they own the mineral rights. One aspect of the street on which the sisters live which I found interesting was that it dead-ends on one side, while on the other, at the entrance, there is a big sliding metal door, with a peep hole in it, that is manned by two guards who manually open the gate to let people in and out. This is basically how all of the homes and businesses of well-to-do Malagasy are set up – behind some type of large, protective metal barrier. Madagascar is not the safest or most secure place I’ve ever visited for sure.
After lunch, we began to plan our itinerary for my stay. I think the sisters weren’t quite sure that I’d actually make it until I showed up at the airport, so they didn’t plan anything in advance. This ended up leading to more than one challenge. For example, we decided that the first place we would go would be to the blue celestite mines outside the city of Mahajanga. Most people in Madagascar speak French as the French ruled the country for nearly 80 years, and so many of the cities in Madagascar are still called by their French name. For Mahajanga, most Malagasies call the city Majunga. But I digress. We wanted to make plane reservations to fly from Tana to Majunga in the next day or so. But there’s only one airline in Madagascar, Madagascar Air. But the Malagasies call it Mad Air. So you get the idea. The plane flights to pretty much any city are only a few times a week, and they are often cancelled, and cancelled at the last minute. As a result, when we tried to book a flight for the three of use, there were no seats available on any flight in the coming days. There were some “first class” seats, but they are reserved for the military or government officials. We could book them, but then get kicked off at the last minute if one of the “special” people showed up. So a plane flight was out.
I think the sisters weren’t quite sure that I’d actually make it until I showed up at the airport, so they didn’t plan anything in advance.
We then turned to getting private driver to take us up north to Majunga. Are you ready? An 11-hour ride(!), but we’d handle it. As it turned out, however, there was a huge religious festival going on in Majunga when we wanted to go and all of the private drivers in Tana were already booked up. We then tried to book what was sort of like a semi-private air-conditioned tour bus. But all those were all booked too. I was starting to bum out that I wasn’t going to get to the mines, which was one of the main reasons I went to Madagascar. But after another hour or two of Elka on the phone, we managed to find the last 3 seats on a non air-conditioned minivan that would take us to Majunga. So it was going to be eleven hours, in a hot, packed minivan riding through the countryside of Madagascar. But I was going to mines; the adventure was on!
But before we left for Majunga, however, we spent a few days in Tana. What an experience! I’ve traveled all over the world; really, to a lot of places. Tana wins the award for the worst traffic of any capital city I’ve ever been to. Worse than Bangkok, and that says a lot! In fact, I’d say that Tana was the most “third-world” capital I’ve ever visited.
All the streets are single lane. Some aren’t paved. In the streets, and I mean literally “in the streets”, you have a comingling of cars, pedestrians, oxen (zebu) pulled carts, rickshaw type transports pulled by humans, pick-up trucks and even semi-type trucks packed with goods. And then, on most roads there are street vendors on the sidewalks, perched right on the edge of the road, in little wooden shack booths selling various products. It’s a zoo. It’s crazy. And nothing moves. Nowhere. In describing Madagascar to people, I have often said that what sums the country up best is this: There is not one traffic light, anywhere. Truly, there isn’t a single traffic light in all of Tana. It’s a free-for-all. And as a result, you need about 90 minutes to get just about anywhere. There are a few open stretches of road in the city, usually along some rice fields. Yes, there are rice fields in the city. But these stretches, and a few stretches in some of the suburban part of the city, are about all the smooth sailing you get on the roads in Tana.
It’s a zoo. It’s crazy. And nothing moves. Nowhere. In describing Madagascar to people, I have often said that what sums the country up best is this: There is not one traffic light, anywhere.
Keep in mind that Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but only about 23% of Madagascar’s population has electricity. And only about 50% have access to safe drinking water and plumbed sanitation. Truly, as I would drive through Tana, the capital city of this country, I would see many, many people living in wood shacks or mud huts clearly with no electricity or running water. Clothes would be drying on the hillside next to the road. This isn’t in the countryside where maybe it might be expected. This is in the capital city. Of course, there are upper and upper-middle class people, like Elka and Ita, that live in very nice homes. But the disparity in the living conditions between the rich and the poor is vast. You may think there’s an income and living gap in America, but it is nothing compared to Madagascar.
...the disparity in the living conditions between the rich and the poor is vast. You may think there’s an income and living gap in America, but it is nothing compared to Madagascar.
Given that we had a couple of days in Tana before we left for Majunga, Elka decided this was a good time for me to go see all crystal and stone workshops in Tana, including Elka’s. Strikingly, there are just four major workshops in Tana, and really in all of Madagascar, that produce all of the crystals and stones that come out of the country. There are other companies that mine, cut, and polish precious and semi-precious gemstones and gemstone jewelry, but for the types of crystals and stones I deal in, there are only these four major workshops in the whole country.
We went to Elka’s workshop first. Like all the others I saw, it was enclosed in behind a huge concrete wall, with a big metal gate at the front entrance. But in front of the gate, off to the side was a large soccer field. Some of the employees were playing, while others were eating lunch outside when I arrived. Elka made it a point to let me know that she made a special effort to provide her employees with the best possible working conditions and pay. She said she had known many of her workers for years, and felt many of them were like family to her.
Once inside the workshop area, Elka began to show me around. There were many workstations where people were shaping and polishing stones and crystals. There was a very large outside area where there were brick three-sided and fended enclosures where lots of rough stone were stored. There was also an area where the rough stone was chipped away by hand to get it ready for shaping and polishing. And finally, there was the packing and office area.
Going to see crystals in Madagascar is much, much different than doing so in Brazil and Uruguay. Whereas buying in South American countries involves going to see individual pieces in large showrooms, small showrooms, and many individual homes, purchasing in Madagascar is limited to the workshops, and most of the workshops are producing many multiple pieces of the same stone, with generally the same shape and size. So in Madagascar, buying is much more about buying in quantity, from what is called a “lot” of rough material, and having it cut and polished into a number of pieces that are generally the same size and shape, but with two never being exactly the same. There were some individual pieces I did see and purchase, such as some quartz clusters, and our two huge rose quartz cacti, but my buying there was more about getting a significant quantity of labradorite free form pieces and some rose quartz hearts and spheres. One thing I would say that is similar between the workshops in Madagascar and the South American countries, is that the virtually all of the polishing of the stones and crystals in both places is done by hand. I think we often lose sight of this fact when we see a polished point or a sphere; that someone actually sits at a sander and polishes each piece to the specific shape or form that you ultimately see in our store. Each piece is actual a work of custom natural art.
I think we often lose sight of this fact when we see a polished point or a sphere; that someone actually sits at a sander and polishes each piece to the specific shape or form that you ultimately see in our store.
I then visited two of the remaining three workshops in Tana. One of the workshops is owned by a gentleman who spends half his time in the U.S. and half his time in his workshop in Madagascar. His workshop, also behind a closed gate, was similar, but a bit smaller than Elka’s, although he did have an outdoor space that was filled with pieces of petrified wood. Each was standing on end, and it looked like a petrified wood forest! Interestingly, this workshop owner, like Elka, went out of his way to emphasize to me how long many of his workers had been with him, and how well he treats and pays them. I would say all the workers I interacted with seemed happy and the workshop was very clean and well organized.
The final workshop I went to was again very large. It was similar to Elka’s, but this workshop was also making sinks and tables and other utilitarian objects out of the stone. The person there I spoke with said they could make pretty much anything I wanted, in any size I wanted. I could even order a crystal bathtub or chair!
...they could make pretty much anything I wanted, in any size I wanted. I could even order a crystal bathtub or chair!
After our visit to the workshops we went back to Elka’s home and had an amazing homemade dinner of meat, chicken and seafood make by her house assistant. I slept great, and then got up the next day to begin our 11-hour drive to Majunga. And that’s where I’ll pick up next month.
Until then, many blessings to all of you,