Under the Stars in Madagascar

There are times when writing about memories from as far back as my eighteenth year feels wrong.

How much am I relying on feelings and emotions, diluted by the passage of life rather than cold hard facts? Long lost imprints of emotions and feelings, waving and dancing at me through the mists of time, barely visible through the clutter of my mind.

Yes, reliable memories are hard to come by.

They are all too often obscured by the will-o’-the-wisps of your mind, toying with you from the deep recesses of your soul – the further back in time you go, the stronger and more playful they become. And regularly returning to the memories doesn’t help…every time one is aired, the will o the wisps pounce on it, mischievously corrupting it further, sharp edges fading, the fogs engulfing it.

It hurts…it hurts that there are moments in time that you know you should remember, that you want to remember…you long to re-experience. But they are going, fading, disappearing.

And so to Madagascar.

1989.

A night filled with cold, adventure and trepidation.

Fear, even.

I think.

For it would seem the will-o’-the-wisps have also added magic and mysticism, revelations, romanticism and absurd surrealism to the night.

Some cold, hard facts – acting as beacons – still try to shine through, past the vague impressions and memories imprinted on my minds eye. Cold, hard facts trying to see past the ghostly figures floating through the Madagascan desert, acting out a never ending loop within my head. Figures that wave at me, stuck in time. Beckon to me, trapped. Beg me to bring them back to life, rescue them from their journey into the obscure mists, knowing their tragic metamorphosis into an unambiguous death by ambiguity cannot be halted.

The facts.

They remain as beacons, failing but trying, to disperse these mists.

The facts:

Jessica was there, a school friend. We planned, travelled, journeyed, adventured and returned home together…but…perhaps an early victim of these fading memories, she was also not there on that one night, fading in and out of these self centred, self absorbed recollections.

The facts…

Travelling down the spine of Madagascar from Antananarivo to Taolagnaro by Toby Deveson. March 1990We were travelling back up to Antananarivo from Tôlan̈aro – or Fort Dauphin as it was known then – on the back of a truck. Or perhaps it was a bus…we had definitely been on a truck on the way down, but I am unsure if the return journey was on one too…

The facts…

It was due to take us 64 hours and, photographically speaking, these were extremely early days for me. I was reeling off films, learning and experimenting with movement – as vast landscapes flashed by I panned with them, shutter speeds low. I played with ISOs – 400asa film was set at 12asa and 100asa set at 6400asa – my taste for heavy negatives taking root. I even succeeded in getting a few images from this experimental madness, images I still use. Though sadly, looking at them now they don’t scream ‘Madagascar’…but it doesn’t matter, I was having fun, enjoying myself and discovering photography through a heady mix of innocence and enthusiasm.

Travelling down the spine of Madagascar from Antananarivo to Taolagnaro by Toby Deveson. March 1990These, then are my overall abiding memories and emotions of that trip – my photographic growth alongside the confirmation of a blossoming need for adventure, exploration and discovery. All tinged and coated with this touch of regret that I have since added – to have been in Madagascar without the photographic voice and experience I now have…oh, to be able to return, knowing what I now know, photographically.

Back to that one night…

Under the stars…how my memories evolve as I return to them in order to write this. As I try to distinguish, in this thick gloopy murky sea of moments, between the mischievous hands of the will-o’-the-wisps and the beacons of dependable, untainted reality…

The bus, or truck comes to a gentle halt – or perhaps a violent stop – in the harsh daylight of the vast sandy desert. Or perhaps it’s already dusk, or even night…and perhaps the desert is scrub, interspersed with the majestic baobab trees I had always longed to see…I can no longer know…but it seems a wheel has come loose, bouncing away into the distance…or perhaps it’s still attached to the axle, violently wobbling and shaking the bus…or truck…perhaps, perhaps…

Travelling down the spine of Madagascar from Antananarivo to Taolagnaro by Toby Deveson. March 1990Such a sense of calm and wonder as the cliches of African long distance public transport spill out of the vehicle, into the openness of our surroundings, small and vulnerable, insignificant and trusting. Families, individuals, young and old, chickens and goats fade away from the inside of the bus and appear outside the truck. No moments of panic or worry, just a deep sense of belonging and knowledge that all will be well, the wheel will be fixed and we’ll soon be on our way. The acceptance of the situation creating a sense of normality that keeps my worry and fear at bay.

Somehow I am confident, with my limited mechanical know how that, perhaps, somehow, maybe the (single) wheel nut had shorn off, the thread worn on the rear axle. There is no jack, just sheer man power to lift our transport, to slide the wheel back on. Once it has been fixed, of course, once a solution to the shorn, worn axle has been found.

Silhouetted people amongst beautifully formed cacti, a community of strangers creating an impression of permanence in a whispered slice of time, ethereal in my mind, floating in the desert under the moon. The light of the stars…it must be night by now…vast and shimmering, magnificent and awe inspiring. A sheet of light above, steady and clear, not a twinkle in sight. People are asleep on the ground, I am asleep on the ground, I am in the thick of it, fixing the axle, and or perhaps I am just watching from a distance, or am I helping? Lifting the bus or truck, laughing, joking or silent, thoughtful and shy…Or perhaps, yes, I sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag, huddled up and peering out from the top, watching everything, invisible to everyone else, sat against a rock, leaning back, lying on my back, head on my rucksack…bonfires lit…scattered around, keeping us warm…maybe…

Yes?

No?

My mind grasps, trying to know…unsure…where have all the facts gone?

Where are my beacons of truth?

Should I accept the will of the will-o’-the-wisps? Grant them victory?

Or fight them?

What to do, what to do?

People singing, people talking, sleeping, staring into the sky, such perfect moments, such romantic moments, insects singing, in love with life, discovering, confirming the early days of my life long affair with the goddess, my mother nature – It is one of those times when your senses are heightened by a curious mixture of fear, loneliness, self awareness, exhilaration – such a rare cocktail of emotions in these days of mobile phones and connectivity.

Then a crescendo of murmurs, as I watch the driver and his cohorts of advisers and helpers reach a solution. I rush to see. Or perhaps I am already there? The solution is genius in it’s simplicity – the inside of a roll of tape fitting perfectly onto the axle, I think.

Why or how my mind would invent such a solution? It must be a fact! Finally a beacon shining hard and true, it must be – the absurd reality of it more surreal than the depraved imagination of the will-o’-the-wisps. A roll of tape. Used to hold a wheel onto the axle of a bus. Truck. It did happen, it must have happened. I watch it slip on, coincidentally a perfect fit, screwed on tight and firm, taped on firm and tight, no doubt it will work.

None at all.

The stars remain bright and steady as ghostly figures melt and flow back onto the newly restored transport, a days travel ahead as Antananarivo beckons, a day through the hot desert still to come. A day in my memories in which the clear, sharp, bright sun can light up my mind, chasing the will o the wisps back into hiding, cacti and baobabs take shape again within, tall, visible and so so oh so real.

Travelling down the spine of Madagascar from Antananarivo to Taolagnaro by Toby Deveson. March 1990Tangible facts finally fighting intangible impressions.

Day replaces night, ghostly and ethereal becomes bright and solid.

And yet…

Still I feel the question remains unanswered. What was the truth? What is the truth?

Does it matter?

At times I cannot help but feel that it doesn’t. That it isn’t important.

And yet…

As I write, airing the memories the fogs come and go and the beacons pulsate. As I write, I fear, fear for my future – for what is a future without a past?

Can a future with no anchor survive?

Will the fogs engulf the present?

Will my photographs salvage my past and form my future?

Will I float forwards lost, at one with the mists, fearing the light?

Lost?

But?

Reality?

Was it that different from the creations of the will-o’-the-wisps? They filled in the gaps. That’s all. Is it that bad? They turned a night of cold hard reality into one of revelations and awakening. And what imagination they have, what colour they add to my past, what interest they give me.

For life without a hint of magical realism is just not worth living.


My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantasticGabriel García Márquez

The ludicrous element in our feelings does not make them any less authenticMilan Kundera

We want Realism’s wealth of experience and Symbolism’s depth of feeling. All art is a problem of balance between two oppositesCesare Pavese

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember itGabriel García Márquez

On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truthGabriel García Márquez

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