The Hot Zone: Black Death Returns to Madagascar
sat in a helicopter as it banked around and down toward a clearing in the center of Beranimbo, a village of 80 or so palm-thatched huts tucked away in the emerald mountains of Madagascar’s Northern Highlands. My pilot, a blocky German expat named Gerd, had already made one attempt to touch down the shaky single-engine copter, but he’d aborted the landing after the rotor blades kicked up enough dust to cause a brownout.
A few hours earlier, when we’d set out for Beranimbo—a three-hour journey from the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo—Gerd had seemed excited. He doesn’t normally get jobs like this, typically making his money flying film crews around the countryside to shoot B-roll for ecotourism documentaries, usually about lemurs. “You want me to do a pass?” he asked, and before I could find out what he meant, we were swooping low through the hills. My stomach lurched upward; from this altitude we could see the spiny forest vegetation, tall ravenala trees, and great gaping wounds in the countryside, scars of systematic deforestation.
We were there because, in the fall of 2013, Beranimbo had been an epicenter of a black plague outbreak that resulted in nearly 600 cases and more than 90 deaths across the country. Madagascar reports the most instances of the disease in the world. Depending on which century you’re talking about, it’s perhaps best known as the plague—a scourge generally associated with the Middle Ages, when rats, fleas, and poor hygiene resulted in the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people. The disease remains an enduring threat in third-world nations; public-health watchdogs report up to 2,000 cases a year.
In the 1930s, the rise of antibiotics dampened and then nearly extinguished the clinical threat of the disease, at least in the developed world, and it lost its status as a global killer. But for years, epidemiologists have warned that Madagascar is particularly vulnerable to widespread rural and urban contagion. I wanted to find out just how dangerous this medieval disease is in the 21st century, and why it persists in this corner of the world. That search led me to Beranimbo.
When we arrived, Gerd’s nervousness was apparent. “This may be too dangerous,” he muttered into his headset intercom as he tried to land the helicopter. Gerd’s concern wasn’t for his own safety, but rather the security of 200 people gathered around the makeshift landing pad below. Any one of them could have easily lost an eyeball to a pebble or twig whipped upward into the air. Helicopters are rare in Beranimbo and always attract attention, as they usually carry aid workers from the Red Cross. When we finally found a suitable spot to land, villagers ran from the dusty complex of huts to greet us.
On the ground, I was introduced to the village elder, a thin old man in a light jacket and safari hat. To celebrate our arrival, he had organized the slaughter of a zebu, a type of domestic cattle with a large, camel-like hump, for a celebratory lunch. “The sacrifice of the zebu marks our friendship,” he told me. “I can’t express enough our happiness. Enjoy it with all our gratitude.” The animal’s neck was cut, and I was taken to meet Rasoa Marozafy, a 59-year-old father of seven who’s spent his life in the village. Rasoa is a plague survivor, and part of the reason I’d come to this place.
Frank Zappa once said that “music criticism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” We’re onboard with that statement, which is why this time of year always gets our goat, and then rams a splintery chopstick up our poor goat’s dickhole. It’s year-end top-50 review season.
Allow us to explain a few things about year-end top-50 review season. It’s a moment when neck-beard music critics get to throw their weight around, kick their Converse up on their desks, and wax critical about something that’s fully accepted as impossible to quantify—the best albums of the year. According to Billboard, something like 75,000 albums are released each year, and that’s not counting stuff your dirtbag cousin throws on Bandcamp. With an average running time of 45 minutes per record, the average human could listen to music 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and not make a dent.
All this mathy stuff illustrates that year-end lists are based 100% on taste. There is no canon of pop music, and anyone who says there is most likely just wants to keep his job as a music journalist. So allow us to present our taste, in order, as collected in 12 issues of VICE Magazine over the past year. Before you get all pissy in the comments and accuse us of neglecting HAIM, Chance the Rapper, Jon Hopkins, or whatever garbage you think deserves critical respect, keep in mind that A) 99% of all music is terrible, B) some of these reviews are on the top 50 because we liked the review, not the band, and C) we really, really, really don’t care.
Christian Workout Power Pack
Capital Christian Distribution
You were probably proud when you found the Desperate Bicycles’s Remorse Code LP in the dollar bin, but when I came across this gem I felt like fucking Friedrich Miescher. Get this: it’s specifically and explicitly a triple-disc collection made for Christian women aged 30 to 45 to help them break a sweat at the local YWCA. Plus, there are no digital downloads, it’s only available in Christian bookstores, and Christianity is a vicious celestial dictatorship that encourages ignorance, cruelty, and genocide.
UV RACE/EDDY CURRENT SUPPRESSION RING
Australian punks are the best punks. This is because they drink the blood of kangaroos, which makes them all “hopping mad” and really good at pogoing. Does this mean that kangaroos are the punkest of all animals? I dunno, but I am sure those fuckers will kick you in the face something fierce, with or without steel-toed Docs. They definitely get some kind of props for that.
When he’s not busy making proggy black metal with his other band, Liturgy, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (son of Helen and Jimi, for all you flower children out there) is making blackish prog rock with his new project, Survival, and—hey, Joe—let me just tell you, I’m mad about this album. Hunt-Hendrix, along with bandmates Greg Smith and Jeff Bobula, expertly revives first-wave math rock with the added punch of hardcore gravitas, and it’s got me floating, got it? I would almost even go so far as to say it’s as good as it gets! I know what women (and men, sometimes) want, and it’s more spasmodic rhythms and unpredictable melodic narratives from this Brooklyn trio. Are you experienced, yet? I’m just trying to pay it forward and bask in the rays of the new rising sun.
In The Red
Sometimes when I’m listening to Drake’s lyrics, I’m all like, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, this is totally something my mom would say.” Not so with these dudes. Sure, they could be talking about white-wine spritzers and alimony, but who the fuck can tell? They’re loud, they have unintelligible lyrics, and they named their band after a diaper. Drake can go shit his pants standing and then suck a good man’s dick.
TYLER, THE CREATOR
Kids are so fucking scary now. I’ve always thought that the most terrifying horror and thriller movies are the ones with really stoic, black-eyed kids in formal wear who have no emotions and wait around to slash your ankles or face with found objects. I would literally be afraid to be in the same room as Tyler, the Creator. He looks like he’d peel off a person’s top layer of skin with the very tips of his front teeth and fingernails so that he could later don the victim’s epidermis as a cape onstage while calling your mother a series of very bad names. Which, I think, is exactly what he’s going for, so we can do nothing but encourage it (or die).
How I Scored Visits to the Nicest Hotels in the World…for Free
In 2010, a friend of mine started a travel magazine and asked if she could publish an article I had written about a Kashmiri tailor, during a month I spent living on a houseboat in Kashmir.
I had stayed on the tailor’s boat during the winter, and I was the only guest. George Harrison had stayed there 47 years earlier, when he was studying the sitar with Ravi Shankar. I typed the piece on the hotel owner’s typewriter. But my friend who ran the magazine, a grifter like me, couldn’t pay real money. She compensated me instead with “hotel trades.”
She explained how it worked: I would approach independently owned hotels with a copy of her media kit and a proposal. In exchange for a two-night stay, I would write a 500-word review. She advised me to avoid big corporate hotels, because press people there had to go through so many chains of command they would often dismiss the request outright. “You need a small place,” my friend said, “where somebody can make the decision right there.” She added, “Don’t bother with inexpensive places. It’s bizarre, but the more expensive they are, the more likely they are to agree.”
I grew up in a state of financial volatility. Until I was 18 and my grandmother died, my grandfather would visit me and my mom at our home in Houston, from his mansion in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and for a week, money would flow like water. One Christmas, he saved all the money wrappers from the cash he’d spent and proudly put them in a photo album: they totaled $10,000. But then he would leave, the money would dry up, and we’d go from feast to famine. Sometimes, our lights, water, or phone would go out. Sometimes we’d spend $80 on tomatoes. Or my mom would spend $8,000 on Chinese antiquities, but we’d run out of gas on the way home. It wasn’t that bad, it was just crazy.
If it was a time for anything, 2013 was a year that saw the Snow Fall(ing) full-bleed layout solidify itself as the du jour template for longform non-fiction storytelling on the Internet.
Right up until 9:14 PM on November 22nd, 1987, what appeared on Chicago’s television sets was somewhat normal: entertainment, news, game shows. That night, as usual, Dan Roan, a popular local sportscaster on Channel 9’s Nine O’Clock News, was narrating highlights of the Bears’ victory over the Detroit Lions. And then, suddenly and without warning, the signal flickered up and out into darkness.
The Child-Rape Assembly Line: In Ritual Bathhouses of Jewish Orthodoxy, Children Are Systematically Abused
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg—who is 63 with a long, graying beard—recently sat down with me to explain what he described as a “child-rape assembly line” among sects of fundamentalist Jews. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to be graphic,” he said.
A member of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim fundamentalist branch of Orthodox Judaism, Nuchem designs and repairs mikvahs in compliance with Torah Law. The mikvah is a ritual Jewish bathhouse used for purification. Devout Jews are required to cleanse themselves in the mikvah on a variety of occasions: women must visit following menstruation, and men have to make an appearance before the High Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the devout also purify themselves before and after the act of sex, and before the Sabbath.
On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, Rabbi Rosenberg entered into a mikvah in one of the holiest neighborhoods in the city, Mea She’arim. “I opened a door that entered into a schvitz,” he told me. “Vapors everywhere, I can barely see. My eyes adjust, and I see an old man, my age, long white beard, a holy-looking man, sitting in the vapors. On his lap, facing away from him, is a boy, maybe seven years old. And the old man is having anal sex with this boy.”
Rabbi Rosenberg paused, gathered himself, and went on: “This boy was speared on the man like an animal, like a pig, and the boy was saying nothing. But on his face—fear. The old man [looked at me] without any fear, as if this was common practice. He didn’t stop. I was so angry, I confronted him. He removed the boy from his penis, and I took the boy aside. I told this man, ‘It’s a sin before God, a mishkovzucher. What are you doing to this boy’s soul? You’re destroying this boy!’ He had a sponge on a stick to clean his back, and he hit me across the face with it. ‘How dare you interrupt me!’ he said. I had heard of these things for a long time, but now I had seen.”
The child sex abuse crisis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, like that in the Catholic Church, has produced its share of shocking headlines in recent years. In New York, and in the prominent Orthodox communities of Israel and London, allegations of child molestation and rape have been rampant. The alleged abusers are schoolteachers, rabbis, fathers, uncles—figures of male authority. The victims, like those of Catholic priests, are mostly boys. Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, thinks the real number is higher. “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage.”
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
Scrap or Die: Metal Thieves Are Tearing Cleveland Apart Piece by Piece
One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson. Dressed like a plumber with a crumpled blue baseball cap on his head, Jay’s muscular physique belied the fact that he was once a crackhead. These days his life still revolves around illegally acquired goods, but not ones smoked, snorted, or injected: Jay makes his living stripping copper and steel from abandoned buildings like the one we were sneaking into, selling his yield by the pound to scrapyards for quick cash.
“Scrapping is just like being an entrepreneur,” he said, leading me toward a gaping hole in one of the warehouse’s walls, which we then scurried through. “It’s just a job, and you can make as much money as you put into it.”
Earlier that day, I’d used Google Street View to map out our jaunt through the epicenter of the city’s thriving scrap trade, the neighborhood known as Central (counterintuitively located on the east side of town). But the building Jay and I broke into looked completely different from what I had seen on my computer screen. The photos on Google, taken in 2009, showed a tidy vacant office building with nearly all of its windows intact and sturdy wooden boards blocking off its many entrances. But now it looked like the aftermath of a drone bombing in Afghanistan: every window was blown out, every orifice torn open. The stinking carcass of a rodent was splayed on the floor. The drop ceiling had been ripped down, revealing empty tracks where ventilation, piping, and wires once snaked through the building. I couldn’t believe that we were only a ten-minute drive from the stadiums, skyscrapers, and fine dining of downtown Cleveland.
The place may have looked like a dump to me, but to Jay it was a treasure trove of unknown proportions. “I could bring my torches in here and cut that steel box right over there,” he said, tiptoeing as he critiqued the work of the scrappers who’d already hit the spot, rattling off a litany of different ways to dissemble the building “properly.”
Above: Drug addicts gather by the hundreds under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in west Kabul to shoot up, smoke, buy, and sell.
Below: This former Afghan soldier who calls himself Shir Shaw lives under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in Kabul, shooting up during the day and hustling for money at night.
From Swimming with Warlords