Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Low tide and high wind

Let's see. How far did I get in the last post about Madagascar? Oh yes, I managed to describe our first full day in the country.

Let's see if I can move things along at a speedier clip this time.

But first, a quick note about the spiny forest. Remember I mentioned caltrops? And you probably thought I was crazy? Well here is a picture:

These are the most tenacious burs I have ever met.
Anyway, hiking around the spiny forest was Sunday the 5th, so the next day . . .

Monday the 6th. In the morning, we walked along the coast, exploring the tidepools created where weather-etched limestone meets the sea. The water was a lovely temperature for walking through--cool but not cold. The tide went out as we did, revealing Madagascar's beautiful, and sometimes dangerous, intertidal life.

The density of death-dealing denizens is lower than in Australia (where everything wants to kill you), but long-spined Diadema urchins are nothing to be trifled with. Nor are tropical cone snails--predatory molluscs with venom-filled projectile teeth. Your best defense is the Stingray Shuffle, a patented (not really) technique for sliding your feet through the sand as you walk to warn all the beasties out of your way.

In addition to urchins and cone snails, we saw: snail egg cases (pretty ribbons!), fuzzy crabs (snuggleable!), gorgeous pink/green anemones, bright green Dictyospheria algae, blue Haliclona sponges, and a cuttlebone (but no cuttlefish--they're not exactly intertidal). I took tons of pictures but they are all on my missing camera. I'll be able to share them when Tom & Kirsten send me copies, but for now, fortunately Anton took a few pictures too.

This is our favorite sea star, probably Protoreaster or related.

In the afternoon, I took a nap.

Tuesday the 7th. In the morning, I went with Kirsten to Ampasilava, a smaller fishing village down the coast. She and her team were conducting socioeconomic household surveys, and I was tagging along out of curiosity.

It was lovely to see the village and listen to the smooth, vowel-rich sounds of Malagasy, with occasional translations from Brian (a Blue Ventures employee who speaks 'gasy fluently). Yet so stark, to witness the dire poverty. The threadbare clothes on the children. The baby's hacking cough. The mother who looked about fifteen.

But they all seemed so calm, so relaxed, so ready to smile and greet a stranger. The  children played in the sand with sticks and stones for toys, fully immersed in their environment, untouched by televisions and computers.

I copy these passages directly from my notebook:

The village is half empty. The houses we walk past are closed up, silent. We ask neighbors where the families are and they answer: On migration. Up the coast. Brian tells me that an estimated 60% of Ampasilava migrates away every year.

The little child plays so quietly. Making no sound, she toddles around, wide-eyed, looking at people, watching them talk, sitting in the sand, running it through her fingers. But she is so gentle, patient! No hurry. No need for attention or entertainment. Clearly all the adults have her in their sights, but they don't give her toys or distractions. What an interesting way to grow up!

A simple question to the old man they are surveying--How old are you?--gets the answer: I had changed my identification card three times when they sent the people overseas. They have to decipher it. In 1975 the government sent mercenaries from this area away. You get an ID card at 18 and change it every 10 years.

The child plays on his grandmother's back as she lies on the sand. Every now and then she turns and says "Hey!" when the child is too rough. But mostly she ignores the child as she talks to the surveyor and fiddles with pieces of grass in her hands. Bienvenue, the surveyor, sits with her back to a palm tree, asking questions slowly.

The wind rocks the palm and tamarind leaves overhead. My permethrin-infused shirt seems to have no repulsive effect on the fly that is bothering me--indeed, he alights and rubs his mouthparts on my sleeve with evident relish.

A woman opens the door and throws plastic sandals and a wooden spear out. She's going gleaning for octopus, Brian tells me.

The older children play a game like checkers, the board scratched out in the sand. One is sticks, one stones. I watch intently, but can't quite grasp the rules. They seem entertained to have an audience.

In the afternoon, worn out with sun and sand and social surveys, I took another nap. I was delighted to find myself in such a siesta-friendly culture: even in large cities, most stores are closed from 12-3, and in Andavadoaka, the single general store often doesn't open until 4 or 5.

We went down to the store later in the evening, where Anton rummaged through an assortment of plastic toys, cooking utensils, wire and nails to find parts for his wind-powered generator.

Oh yes, the generator. You see, we had not been in Andavadoaka a full day when Anton realized he had a Project staring him in the face. The wind was blowing something fierce, and the villages have no electricity. Could not the former be harnessed to change the latter?

Tom, a hobby engineer himself, was immediately excited about the idea, and the two began brainstorming different ways of building a turbine with local ingredients. They wanted to come up with a design that could be replicated by villagers up and down the coast with readily accessible resources.

During the rest of the trip, in between walking and snorkeling and generally exploring, Anton set himself up a small workshop and experimented with turbine design. This activity generated a great deal of curiosity from the Blue Ventures staff, but unfortunately (I will skip to the end) never generated any electricity. The real sticking point was the lack of a magnet. However, Anton and Tom are both still contemplating the Project, so I wouldn't be too surprised if a brilliant solution and blueprints are someday written up and posted at SocialHacker--and distributed among the villages of coastal Madagascar.

Okay, so this time I got through two days. If the exponential pattern of growth continues, it will only take me two more entries to cover the rest of the trip! Yay!

I leave you with one more picture:

This is a Blue Ventures staff hut. The typical village huts are smaller and do not have wooden doors, porches, or concrete foundations--they are built directly on the sand.


  1. Love your posts--I can really feel like we are there. Building on sand--that probably is part of a beach and gets "renewed" during severe storms, No? Anton, do you recall Stan Butler's vertical axis turbine--- no need to align with changing wind directions. Perhaps that is almost always from the sea at the sites you are considering. If one puts power (wind, water, or?) to the the spindle or business end of an electric motor, doesn't that make it a generator? Maybe not one that can last very long though. I suppose that if these communities don't have electricity, they don't have many electric motors laying around. Does Josh use solar chargers at "Burning man"? I would like to know about a solar array that could charge 18volt batteries for cordless tools in remote sites. Love, Dad

  2. I don't remember Stan's turbine, but it sounds like something that Tom was recommending I try. He was pointing out that my "windmill" style blades would require a lot of tweaks to actually spin quickly. And that a more vertical configuration would be better. I think I'd like to try it out, I've been thinking of getting some people together to continue the project here in Cali. And yes, a motor run in reverse is a generator. But as you surmise, getting a motor is difficult.
    The problem I have with solar, and the problem I was trying to solve is that there's no way for the community there to make a solar panel. But they have the tools and knowledge to put together a wind generator. I was trying to design something that would work bottom up (produced locally, costs little to nothing depending on what you have available) vs top down (produced in first world and sold at "low" cost to developing nations). Mainly because "low" cost to us is just not low cost to these sorts of communities.


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