Souvenirs and Ethical Dilemmas

Beach Vendor Burleigh photo

I am not a shopper, but I feel that one obligation a visitor has to a poor country like Madagascar is to be a tourist, spend to help the economy and demonstrate that leaving some forests for the animals means they will be there for everyone. I changed $200 into local currency and was an instant multi-millionaire. Six colorful and well constructed baskets cost under $15US total and nested inside each other for easy transport. I found it was difficult to use up my money as planned.

In Ansirabe, several women stood outside our hotel waving plastic tubes that contained small minerals chunks heat sealed into little pockets and crudely labeled in French. Quartz, jasper, amber. I will have to find a French-English dictionary to identify the rest but I liked the idea. I offered half what was asked and I felt fine with the price. Then a friend bought the same thing for 1/3 what I paid. Why was I annoyed that I did not get the better price when the point was to spread the wealth? Principle, I guess. I like a bargain as well as the next person, and do not like to feel cheated. But that really is a different issue. Better to focus on supporting the economy and if I feel I have been taken for a fool by the sellers, it is my problem, not theirs. They are just practicing good free market principles and asking what the market will bear.

In Ifaty, hopeful women crouched at the edge of the beach property where we were staying. They displayed their offerings on portable tables:  bright clam shells, shiny brown cowries the size of a fist and patterned cone shells that had to have been taken off the reef when the animal was alive. As a scuba diver, I am horrified when I see pristine shells for sale, knowing how the removal and trade in such shells can upset the ecosystem. The reef along the coast is lengthy and only a few people are harvesting the shells now so their populations are sustainable. One way to think about the shell trade is that it brings in cash which might buy food and time for the remaining trees in the forests, a tough choice. However, it may be a bad precedent to encourage the shell trade. How will the reef populations be sustained when the demand grows as the tourist trade increases? People or trees or reefs?

I did not buy any shells.

On the last day, I still had half my Mad money left. Our last stop before leaving the country was at a market full of the souvenirs we had seen and more. I managed to get the cash into the economy through a combination of bad bargaining and expensive gifts. Unfortunately, the U.S. Agriculture Inspector confiscated my unprocessed vanilla beans (36 for $7.50). I bought several ammonite fossils, but two large ones ($20 for both but valued at over $200 at home) broke in transit because I had not realized they were so fragile.