It was 7:04am Christmas morning when I looked at my watch. Not that time mattered while I sat in a dugout pirogue with two local fishermen off the western coast of Madagascar fishing with a line and hook, but it was Christmas day after all, and I wanted to mentally note this particularly unique setting in which I currently found myself.
I found myself there because of yet another series of wild adventures, which have become as much a part of my life in Madagascar as rice has become part of my diet (that’s to say, sometimes for all three meals of the day).
I decided to spend my few holiday days off in a small fishing village on Madagascar’s western coast, allegedly home to some of the country’s most exciting scuba diving. It is the coast that flanks the eastern side of the Mozambique Channel, the location of the highest density of sharks in the world. Not one to pass up adventure, I took the plunge.
As we returned to shore that day, I watched a mass of locals crowd around freshly dragged in fishing nets. I looked on as the anticipation built, the men furiously chucking out large jellyfish and clumps of seaweed to see what prizes flopped beneath. The excitement of this process was infectious. I, too, ran over to see what the day’s catch would bring to the dinner plates of these villagers.
The whole event was so entertaining that I tracked down some fishermen and organized a way to get on one of the pirogues going out fishing the next day.
And so, there I found myself at 7:04am on Christmas morning sitting off the shore of Madagascar with two young fishermen. We were surrounded by at least another dozen pirogues full of hardworking men diving, spearing, and fishing for anything from sea cucumbers to octopus to fish. The two fishermen I was with were using the simple traditional method of a line and hook, yanking up the line with their hands when a nibble was felt. They set me up with my own line, and as we bobbled on the Indian Ocean that morning, I took in what felt like the rare pleasure of getting back to the basics in life.
The rest of my day progressed in this remarkably unremarkable way. Nothing happening today was any different than what happened any other day in this Vezo fishing village, and yet that was precisely why I was enjoying it so much.
The men fished, the women cooked, the kids played in the ocean. I strolled through the village, half expecting things to be shut down, but still found the old woman selling second hand clothes from her roadside hut and the old man selling pyramids of lychees and mangoes. Later, I walked down to the shoreline to show some splashing kids how to make a “sandman”, something I explained that many kids from my country made on this very day with a freezing white powder called snow.
The day culminated with a delicious dinner of fresh seafood and a walk back to my bungalow along the beach with nothing but an outrageously starry sky lighting the way. The absence of light pollution in this little fishing village means that one can see the milk in the milky way, a pretty spectacular sight when one’s feet are planted in the ocean and the warmth of a sunburn and a full stomach dominate the senses. It was one of the most invigorating Christmas days I’d ever had.
Christmas, as most will agree, is typically a time of tradition. We often share those traditions with close ones, revelling in the familiarity of the tastes, sounds and comforts associated with this particularly festive time of the year.
While Christmas was always an exciting and abundant time in my childhood, my adult years have been marked more by a desire to experience other peoples’ versions of the holiday(s) than re-living the comforts of my own. It was with this motivation in mind that I set out to get a taste of the traditions or customs of Christmas day in coastal Madagascar.
As I quickly came to realize, however, what made this Christmas so special wasn’t at all a particular tradition or exotic celebration of any notable kind. Instead, it was simply a continuation of business-as-usual, another day in a life where the sea gives only to the extent that one shows up. So on this year’s Christmas day, everyone showed up as they did yesterday, as they will tomorrow, and as they will for every other day of the year.
Sometimes, I concluded, the beauty of tradition is found not in elaborate celebrations of periodic frequency, but in the commitment to a humble and steady practice over a lifetime.