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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on July 11, 2011 with 1 Comment

Having no access to internet and no electricity after 9pm, has been the best two things to happen to me on this trip. Since I arrived in Madagascar, I have recovered all the sleep I have been depriving myself for several months.

After 10 hours on bed, I started getting ready for another long day on the road. Ifaty, our last destination on route N7, was over 200 kilometers away.

“We will make some stops for photos and in the sapphire town, for precious stones. You don’t have to buy them. They will show you the difference in purity of the gem,” said Mami.

I hoped I was not charged for the performance as I certainly was not interested in buying precious stone.
I am probably one of the few women who are not into jewelry. I hardly wear earrings. It has to be very very rare and unique piece of jewelry for me to “fall in love with it”. I still keep the Tanzanite necklace that Kevin -the American traveler I met in Egypt and one of the loves of my life- gave me. He had brought the tanzanite from his trip to Tanzania and made it customized when he came home to the United States especially for me. The color of the Tanzanite was a purple-blue. It was not a random decision he bought that tanzanite. He knew it was my favorite color. Most important, it came from someone I loved and who had picked it especially for me. It meant so much to me that I fell in love with it instantly. I treasure it so much, I have always been afraid of losing it if I wear it. It is not just a piece of exquisite jewelry. It is a dear memory…

“Are you sure I won’t be forced to buy something or to pay for a performance?” I asked Mami as he drove.

“No, he is my friend. He will just show you the purity of his gems,” Mami assured me.

At distance, the massif of Isalo looked imposing in the early morning. This giant rock formation in the middle of dried plains looked unreal.

“That is the queen!” pointed Mami at a rock formation on the road.

“It looks more like Buddha!” I replied.

Mami laughed.

A few kilometers away from Isalo, a police officer stopped us at a security point. We were getting into Ilakaka, also known as sapphire town. It is said that around 50% of the world’s sapphires can be found in this remote region of Madagascar.

“Better not to take photos,” warned Mami.

Entering Sapphire town

Since mayor sapphire deposits were discovered in 1998, this arid and hot plains have given birth to sapphire towns including Ilakaka, which has grown tremendously in popularity as many people (from Madagascar countryside and abroad) have been flocking to here in search of wealth.

But sapphires have not only brought wealth and growth, but also violence. Dozens of people are killed a year in here. Many people are armed to their teeth, and that is the reason of the high presence of police checking points in what it looked like a small town still.

Although tons of money was being made and gleaming buildings are being constructed, the town itself looked very poor with tons of ramshackle market stalls and a lot of children and women sitting on the dirty sides of the main road, which display countless of signs that read “Precious Gems for sale”.

Searching the new gold

Also in t he main road, dealers and brokers looked for business, while diggers all of ages looked for gems in the arid mountains and in the river.

“A lot of people from Sri Lanka, India and Thailand,” said Mami. “Many people from the countryside have come here for jobs. They have stopped cultivating. Now it is all about the gems,” explained Mami.

We crossed the town and continued to drive until we came across with another security point. It was another sapphire town, but don’t remember the name. Malagasy names are just too complicated to remember.

A white new house stood out in the main road.

“My friend works there,” said Mami.

Unpolished gem stones

We got into the house that was still being renovated to become a gems showroom.

“This way,” said Mami as we ended a dark office.

A chubby man who looked Hindu sat behind a desk and was on the phone.

“Sorry, sorry, I am Mohammed. Please have a seat,” said the chubby man while finishing his call.

Mohammed was from Sri Lanka but spoke Malagasy. He had come here for the gem business.

“You see this? It is like this US$300, but cut and polished I can sell it in Sri Lanka or USA for US$1,000. And this? This is natural blue, this cut and polished can cost US$3,000!” he showed me with such excitement all the different uncut gems he had.

“I am sorry I don’t have any polished now, but I just made a big export. All legal,” he took the books that proved that.

“Don’t worry. I am a woman who doesn’t wear jewelry, but if I ever marry, I will tell my husband to buy the engagement ring from you. I love blue, so I definitely prefer blue than a diamond.

“For sure, for sure,” said Mohammed. “Do you have facebook? I facebook you with some photos of the new good gems!” he said.

I laughed. We were in the middle of nowhere in a sapphire town, I haven’t had internet for over a week, yet this man has found a way to stay connected? And through facebook? It is amazing how social media has spread to the most remote corners of the world and among all sorts of people.

“Maybe Mami and I should quit our jobs to work in the mines. We will make more money for sure,” I joked.

“Good business, but I also have a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of people work to get it. It cost me two million Ariary a day!” Mohammed said.

I really wondered how much those people were earning from what Mohammed made.

Mining sites in the distance

“You can tell me how much is worth in your country and get me an appointment (with a jewelry shop), and I would go and sell it. It is best quality my friend,” said Mohammed.

Becoming a gem dealer is one thing I am no interested in, but Mohamed seemed so excited about the idea of collaborating, I pretended that I would think about it.

We continued to drive, passing more dried plans.

Fires were set up everywhere, near the road and far in the horizon. The land was so vast, endless… and bald.

We went miles and miles without seeing anything but nothingness. Once in a while some bushes and grassy plains would surround the road.

Mami and I stopped for some photos, and as I stood in the middle of the road, it gave me the sensation of seeing and feeling the roundness of planet earth with a 180 degree view. The air was fresh but no longer cold.

Malagasy sunscreen

Right after crossing a hill, suddenly spots of forests rose in each side of the road, where a few seconds before there was nothing. This is a strange land indeed.

We passed a small village where women covered their faces with yellow and orange paste. Mami said it was Malagasy sunscreen.

As soon as we stopped, children and women joined us, smiling and asking for cosmetics. I took some small bottles from my bags and gave it to the eager crowd, which held those shampoos and creams as if they were treasure.

“We must continue. The driver is waiting for us in Toliara,” said Mami.

The first baobabs came into sight in this arid landscape. The first images I had of Madagascar were precisely of the spiny desert with its gigantic baobabs. Another stop and another crowd ran to greet us. The entire village came out to us with inquisitiveness. Children looked at me and murmured.

“They are confused. They wondered if you were Chinese, but then realized you were a Vaza!” Mami laughed out loud, and so did the children, many of whom followed me around as I filmed and took pictures of the trees.

Ofon, a 12-year-old boy, was fascinated by my camera and I handed it to him so he could take the photos.
I was entertained playing with the local kids, but I knew Mami was worried about the time.

The air became warmer and warmer as we drove further. We finally saw the sea. We were entering Toliara.

There was a security spot. The police asked for Mami’s driving documents and my passport.

“Venezuela.Bo-li-va-ri-ana,” pronounced slowly the police, trying to make sense of what he was looking at.

He spoke in Malagasy.

“He said he has been working here since 2000, and never seen a Venezuelan passport before,” smiled Mami.
The officer looked through the passport over and over again with confusion and fascination until he finally gave it back.

Toliara is a bustling and dusty coastal city in the south of Madagascar. I have realized that as much as I love the wilderness of this country, and its extraordinary landscapes, its cities have the opposite effect of me. I really wanted to get away from me as soon as possible.

We drove into a dirty strewn alley where we would change cars to drive to Ifaty, a nearby village where we would spend the night on a beach hotel.

I was expecting a four wheels car, but instead a small car came for us. I guess Mami didn’t want to take his car into the dirty and sandy road ahead.

The driver was skilled and despite his small car, he drove it as if he was on a Hummer. While we bounced inside the little car, I looked at the blue Indian Ocean and the gigantic sand dunes along the way.

We made it to our budget beach hotel. My bungalow was right in front of the beach. I threw my things and went to meet and feel the waters of the Indian Ocean.

An old lady covered in “Malagasy sunscreen” approached me to sell me souvenirs and other beach merchandise.

“Mami, could you explain to her that I don’t buy souvenirs, but I would very much like some of that Malagasy sunscreen,” I said.

Mami spoke in Malagasy. The lady looked confused and then smiled. She walked away and came back with fresh water, a piece of wood and a rock.

We sat face to face on the sand. She wet the piece of wood and smashed it into a rock until an orange paste came out of it. Softly she spread it over my face, making sure she didn’t miss any spot.

Enjoying sunset and Indian Ocean

“Merci,” I said when she finished. She smiled and so did the other ladies that worked in her tent. They came out to see the result and all smiled.

Mami and I sat with them, and watched the sun turned red and disappeared in the infinite sea.

I went back to my bungalow and felt asleep listening to the waves crashed into Malagasy land.

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There are currently 1 Comment on NO MAN’S LAND…SAPPHIRE TOWN: WEALTH AND MURDER. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. Very nice passage of your time in Madagascar.
    You are a natural writer and passionate talkative to your readers.
    Thanks for this beautiful diary.

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