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Letter From Madagascar

I AM WRITING this letter from the Isle aux Nattes, a tiny island a few hundred meters across the lagoon from the Isle Sainte Marie, which is off the Eastern Coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The two islands are surrounded by a coral reef against which the waves break with a constant roar. Humpback whales breed here, every year at this time, and one can watch them blow and rise out of the sea from some beaches. On Sainte Marie, there is Pétanque in front of the Garage Nael, behind the bar at Chez Simone’s. Nael keeps a burlap bag full of ten rusty balls for the community to use. On Nattes, they play at various bungalow-restaruants, at Chez Régine, and rumor has it, at Chez Titi.

The “hotels” on Nattes are simply small groups of individual bungalows made of palm wood and thatched with palm leaves, and a shaded “restaurant” area. Today, we went from place to place in search of fresh langouste, which is a huge spiny lobster without claws. Fisherman in pirogues catch them, when the weather is good, out by the coral. Today we found a basket of them tied to a pirogue in the water, in front of a small, three-table restaurant. Our cook rubbed it with ginger, pepper and turmeric and other spices, then grilled it over charcoal for our lunch.

Nattes is absurdly beautiful, a caricature of the stereotype of an island paradise. There are no cars, but lots of soft sand, and the water is bath warm. For a selection of Martha Lewis’ photos from the islands..

We are staying on Nattes and Sainte Marie for a week, after having spent four nights in the capitol, Antananarivo (Tana), and four nights in Toamasina. I came to Madagascar to organize a Pétanque tournament, in the name of La Boule New Yorkaise, and to play boules.

Millau to Tana

We left Paris for Tana on August 16th, the day after my defeat in the Doubles Championship at the Mondial de Millau. This Summer (2006), I played Pétanque in France from May to mid-August, with a brief excursion to Sonoma in June for the American World Championship Qualification Tournament. I posted career-bests in the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque (losing the 6th game, tied for 65th out of 4,200 teams starting) and in the Mondial de Millau de Pétanque (I lost in 1/32 finals in Doubles, tied for 33rd out of 1,450 teams starting. Much more important, my friend, Kader Benefissa, one of my first playing partners in Marseille, won the Marseillaise, with Joseph and Antoine Dubois. My reports and Martha Lewis’ pictures from these events have been posted on the La Boule New Yorkaise Website. The rest of this letter is about Madagascar.

Madagascar is, according to differing U.N. sources, either the 11th or 13th poorest country in the world. It is also a Pétanque Superpower. The Men’s team won the World Championships in 1999, and usually survives at least to the quarter-finals. The Juniors won the Worlds in 2003, and the women also play at an extraordinarily high level (third in the Worlds in 1994 and again in 1996).

Last year, I decided to organize a major tournament in Tana, home to Madagascar’s best players. Under the official sponsorship of La Boule New Yorkaise, and with support from the FPUSA and many individuals, I was able to collect $750 for the event. I contacted the president of the regional federation, called the Ligue de Pétanque d’Antananarivo, who graciously agreed to put the Ligue in charge of the tournament. We arrived at midnight, met by Ligue officials. Lavish gifts were distributed.

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