Monday, February 10, 2014

Madagascar 2013


I'm old.

The taxi-brousse from Antananarivo down to Morondava on the coast takes fourteen hours, which would be feasible with an early morning departure, but to avoid traversing a particularly bandit-ridden stretch on the other end at night, they depart Tana at 5pm daily.

After a grueling sleep-deprived string of flights getting here, I just couldn't bear the idea of another sleepless night. So I toddled down to the Air Madagascar office, took my place in the LONG queue, and then laid down my credit card for a very expensive flight.

I'm old.

Antananarivo (or at least the old quarter of Isoraka where I found a ramshackle hotel) is by far the most charming African city I've experienced. This neighborhood actually reminded me a bit of a hill town in the south of France. Narrow winding lanes full of galleries, bars,  patisseries,  and restaurants (French primarily, but Thai thrown in for good measure). It made for an enjoyable place to recover from the long journey.

Morondava is a classic tourist beach town: charming, but bristling with folks who are eager to separate you from your money. 

My first task was to organize transport by road up to the Kirindy Reserve for a night walk in the forest. When my intentions became known, the sharks began to circle, quoting exorbitant prices for the 4x4 that was certainly "required" for the journey. But then I found Max, with his battered old Renault taxi, irrepressible (though nearly toothless) grin, and the firmly held belief that I would be able to understand his French if he simply repeated it loudly enough. Luckily I could generally get the gist of what he was saying, so before he went hoarse, we negotiated a price considerably less than half that of the sharks.

We left early the next morning, hoping to catch the sunrise over the famous "Avenue de Baobabs" on the way to Kirindy.  It quickly became apparent that I would have to be satisfied with the early morning light, rather than the actual sunrise, as we first stopped to pick up a spare fan belt, and then within ten minutes had the wisdom of that purchase confirmed. The Renault wasn't fast, but it proved to be up to the task of negotiating the 60km of sandy track up to the forest reserve, and the trip was well worth it: We sighted loads of lemurs, chameleons, mongoose (mongeese?), giant  jumping rats, and of course snakes (lots of snakes), but none of the big fosa predators thqt Kirindy is famous for.

There was a bit of drama the morning I left, as during the raucous farewell party the night before (for a group of international students who were also leaving in the morning), somebody managed to steal the tip box from reception, containing a considerable sum. Max, and his helper Edmond, were immediately viewed as the likely culprits, and subjected to an intense interogation, and then the Renault was given a thorough search. Nothing was found, but I'll be honest with you, I'll never be certain they didn't do it.

As relatively smooth as the drive up in the Renault had been, the return trip was a bit of a disaster. First the left front bearings went, were repacked on the side of the road, then they went again. I can't be certain how well the second repacking went, because shortly thereafter, we had two quick flat tires. The spare replaced the first one one, Max caught a ride on a oxcart to go fix the second. While we waited, Edmond stripped the rubber off the hub, on which we proceeded to drive to the next small village. At that point I gave up on the Renault and flagged down the first passing vehicle; and that's how I ended up returning through the Avenue de Baobabs bouncing in the back of a pickup with bags of live crabs.

I guess you get what you pay for after all.

My next task is to find transport down the coast. Having already had one harrowing experience in a dugout in open water (see Sierra Leone), I intend to be a bit particular about who I head out with. The first destination will be Belo sur Mer, with it's wooden ship building industry.

Wish me luck!


Yea verily, we flew down the coast.

I don't think I negotiated my best deal ever, but Gilbert and Terry are highly competent Vezo boatmen, who proved themselves reliable, so after initially hiring them for just the first day,  I eventually arranged for them to take me all the way from Morondava to Salary. 340 kilometers in a minimum of  five days of sailing, in a small outrigger canoe, 2 feet wide, and maybe 18 long (I had initial flashbacks to the dugout in Sierra Leone, but the outrigger made all the difference, as did the reputation of the Vezo, famous for the 
longest annual human migration, traveling more than a 1000 miles by pirogue to reach favored fishing grounds, they literally grow up on the water). The wind was mostly good, so we made optimal time, each night reaching a village with a hotel. Had the wind been bad, we were prepared to camp on the beach, and knew that it could have taken as long as ten days sailing.

But we flew.

Until we didn't.

Joined at times by other sailing pirogues, and occasionally pods of racing dolphins; the dolphins didn't seem as amused by the image of me under my frilly parasol as our fellow piroguers did. Jumping tuna, as thick as my leg, captured the attention of my Vezo boatmen, so we stopped a fisherman to buy bait, then ran a line out behind us, which was tied to Terry's waist. The first strike resulted only in a mutilated bait fish, so it was filleted, and the slab of meat wrapped in the foil from a food package. An hour or so later, a solid strike. Terry proceeded to pull in the tuna by hand, until it was close enough for Gilbert to gaff it. The excess of tuna steaks meant that we were joined by the entire extended family from the hotel for dinner that night.


The next morning the tides required a 3am departure, not easy for me, but with the moonless sky brightly lit by unfamiliar southern stars, phosphorescence  in the dead calm water swirling with each stroke as we paddled out of the lagoon, and a meteor shower producing bright tracers 3-4 times a minute, it was a most sublimely beautiful experience. The painted sky of sunrise was a fitting finale.

Our good wind meant I had plenty of extra days to lounge about in a string of Vezo fishing villages. The first in Belo-sur-mer, with it's 
Noah's workshop boat-building industry (big broad-beamed things lining the lagoon in various stages of completion), and sandy street-side beer stalls, complete with groups of six-year-old girls line-dancing very proficiently to the blaring Malagasy music.

The second in Morombe, with it's decaying French colonial charm, "halal" restaurant that was happy to serve me beer with my grilled fish, a "casino" featuring a bicycle-wheel turned wheel-of-fortune, and cock-fighting rings that spring up on the main street in the late afternoon for heavily wagered matches. Particularly pleasant in Morombe, was Le Crabe, a small hotel run by aging French bon-vivant Didier and his charming Malagasy wife. It had a particularly comfortable ambiance, all the more so because of Didier's obvious and endearing enthrallment with his two adorable daughters, eight and nine years old.

Morombe "Casino"


Then two days in Andavadoaka, with it's stunning white sand setting, slightly upmarket hotel ($25 instead of the usual $10 night), beachside "Bar-Disco" for evening beers, and snorkeling around offshore islands.


Andavadoaka Beachside Bar


From Andavadoaka it's just another 80 kilometers to Salary, where I could easily find road transport the rest of the way down the coast to Toliara, but the morning we left, there was an obvious change in the weather, the north wind had shifted around to the south, in our face instead of at our back. We beat our way into it for much of the day, but by early afternoon, when we usually would have covered the full 80 kilometers, we had managed only ten. As we turned back to Andavadoaka, the wind worsened, so that by the time we returned, it was howling at our backs. A bit unnerving for the non-Vezo amongst us. That night we spoke to an internet connected captain of a trawler, who confirmed what the Vezo suspected once the wind had started: it was forecasted to last at least three to five days. After coming some 260 kilometers down the coast, the last 80 kilometers to Salary we're going to prove unattainable to me.

Arg! Just one less day lounging about.

The next morning, we turned back north to Morombe and Le Crabe, with the good wind at our back arriving by 10am, much to the amusement of Didier and the girls. My choice was then to either return all the way to Morondava, or take the 15 hour camion-brousse (truck taxi) to Mangily, leaving at midnight. It ended up taking 18 hours to cover the 120 miles. Think for a second what that means about the condition of the road.  Sitting here writing the morning after my arrival, I'm struggling to find a comfortable position to sit on my bruised bum.

It could have been worse though, our big Tata truck had padded bench seats. That in contrast to the really big Mercedes rigs we passed with just wooden benches in the back of the trucks. I procured the seat up front next to the driver, the only viable one for my legs, and as we lurched through the night I had enough room to lay over on my bag and actually dozed off a bit. The sunrise revealed that we were passing through spiney forest (Google it), and groves of towering baobab. The driver and I bonded initially over my shared ginger Altoids (consistently popular the world over), and then the bond was cemented by our shared amusement over a reoccurring phenomenon. Rural Malagasy don't have the chance to travel much, so aren't necessarily familiar with the camion-brousse procedures. You don't negotiate the fare with the driver, but rather with the conductor, who in our case was sitting on the other side of the vehicle. At least half a dozen times when we stopped to pick up a family on the side of the road, the father would approach the driver at his window, only to be told: "no, the other side". They would then come around, register surprise in their eyes to see a large white man sitting there, but still launch into their negotiation over price and distance.  It would take some effort to interrupt and direct them further back to the conductor.  Both the driver and I were careful to be respectful, but inside we were both breaking up, all the more so as it happened over and over.  Our arrival in Mangily was delayed by multiple long stops to load and unload, and the driver knew that I was concerned to be getting there after dark, so incredibly, he paused long enough to send his helper too carry my bag and deliver me to the doorstep of my hotel when we got there.  A grueling, but overall  enjoyable experience, as African transit often is.

If, like some of my poker playing friends, I believed in the voodoo, I'd be telling you that somehow I  had managed to obtain a curse on my glasses. The day before departing Morondava, I was cleaning them when they just sort of fell apart in my hands, breaking clean in half. I was crestfallen, but darted into town in a pousse-pousse (pedicab) to grab a pair of cheap reading glasses at the market. Just before heading back to my hotel, it occurred to me that super-glue might do the trick, so I stopped again, and was a bit astounded to find some. Back at my hotel, I was astounded again to find that it worked perfectly, you almost couldn't tell there had been a break. Fast-forward a week to Andalavoaka, I get up for a morning swim, and when I return, I can't seem to find my glasses, I look everywhere, five times over, but they are just inexplicably gone. I search the beach, I search the compound, but they're just gone.

At least I had the back-up pair of readers.

Fucking voodoo.

Let me wish you all a happy summer solstice!




Finally left the coast, which made me a bit sad, as I'd become accustomed to the heat, the rhythms of the day (up and out at dawn, noon nap, then up and out til late), and the incredibly friendly culture of the Vezo.

The first stop was Isalo national park, with it's sandstone formations that remind me of southern Utah, except that the rainy season provides enough water for the valleys to be choked with tropical vegetation and rice paddies.


I did an 11 mile Christmas Day hike to a series of waterfalls and swimming holes that are the main attractions right near the entrance to the park, and all I could manage with just one day there. I was a bit groggy for our 7am departure though, because Christmas Eve was a raucous free-for-all that kept me out until 3am.  The evening started out for me at the beer and brochette stand just next my hotel. It's appeal was both in it's convenience, and also in it's proprietress, the lovely Angeline who ran the place with her mother and her cousin Emma. We all got along well, so I lingered, and then as they were closing up for the night, Angeline invited me to come with her and Emma to the local (tiny) disco. You all know how much I like to dance, so of course I said yes. Along with a guide who had been lingering as well, we headed out.  The disco was quiet when we got there, but as the Malagasy music started pumping people trickled in, and the dance floor filled, soon it was a swarming mass of people, everybody dancing with everybody in ever changing provacative configurations. With particular songs, everybody on the floor would congeal into elaborate line dances, and then after revert to the ever popular twerking. It was really extraordinary. A couple of older guides who were regular customers of Angeline and Emma came in and joined us. After a few minutes I noted that they were staring astounded at the dance floor. They said that they had come there at least 30 times before, but had never seen it anything like this, with the heaving mass of hormone -soaked humanity on the dance floor. We speculated about why that was, and they said they thought it was both because of the holiday, but also that the boys/men were more restrained and respectful because I was there. I was skeptical,  because I really spent most of the evening ensconced to one side (with Angeline leaning back against my chest between darts out to the dance floor), but I also noticed that a few times when a man was being to aggressive with a woman, he would look over at me, see me frowning and shaking my head, and then back away from her. Early on a man had come up and started pawing Angeline, at which point I reached out and grabbed his wrist with enough force to send a message. So maybe there was something to their theory. The next day Dolphin, my guide for the hike and Angeline's cousin, unprompted by me said that the night had been very different because I was there: "the boys are more respectful with a white man there, so the girls are more free"), but regardless, it was an incredibly enjoyable night. As it went on, I began to also realize how lucky I was to be accompanied by Angeline. The guides wanted to know how I had accomplished it, because "she never goes with anyone" (with one of them it was obviously not for a lack of trying). I'm not quite sure myself, but I'm not complaining. The night ended with us rolling back to the restaurant, and back into their living quarters, where her mother was waiting for us with a pot of rice, cassava leaves, and pork. The perfect finale.

It did however make for a bit of a rough 7am start to the hike the next morning, but the first plunge into a cold pool was the perfect cure.

From Isalo I drove north to Fianarantsoa, a seven hour trip through a stunningly beautiful landscape of big sandstone formations and mountains. All of us who started in Isalo changed vehicles after a couple of hours in Ihosy. While we waited there for the new taxi-brousse to fill, a flash new BMW pulled up and dropped off a older man, who was quite distinguished, despite just wearing an Adidas track suit and baseball cap. He was clearly a bit disappointed to learn that I was in the "premier place" up front, put was satisfied with settling in between the driver and myself as we departed. He turned out to be Alphonse, a 38 year veteran and current colonel in the army. Friendly and engaging, and eager to practice his English, I quite enjoyed his company. He was stunned to hear about my trip down the coast, even more so when I pulled out my Ipad and showed him my pictures: "in that boat!? Oo la la!". I was never quite clear about why he was traveling by taxi-brousse, when he was clearly a wealthy man (three of his children are at university in France), but his presence definitely changed our experience at the innumerable police stops, normally resulting in an exchange of money, that are the norm of road travel in Madagascar. He and I would be in the midst of some friendly exchange, when we would be motioned to stop, his demeanor would change, going silent and just staring straight ahead, we would roll to a stop, and the policeman would approach with the normal officious swagger, but then stop suddenly when he spied Alphonse silently staring forward without looking at him, and motion for our driver to be on his way. Alphonse would chuckle slightly as we pulled out, and our conversation would continue.  I found it very curious, because he wore no insignia, and like I said just a track suit and cap, and I'm pretty sure they didn't recognize him personally, but somehow knew that this was a man whom they didn't want to impede.  Luckily we weren't stopped when he fell asleep with his head on my shoulder, because at that point he had far less gravitas.

I'm spending the day here in Fianarantsoa, and then in the morning taking the dilapidated train (but with a first class ticket!) down to Manakara on the east coast for a day or two. Then it's back up here where it's possible Angeline might be able to join me for New Year's, and then on to Antananarivo for my flight home on the third.

Belated Merry Christmas to you all!

Seattle/ Antananarivo

 I wasn't particularly happy to hear they had moved the announcement of the official election results up to the day of my flight (it was supposed to be the seventh), but my flight was midday, so I left the hotel early enough to avoid any possible trouble, although it doesn't seem like there was much, thankfully.
I'm sad to leave for lots of reasons, it's been a great trip.

I did make it to Manakara for a couple of nights, the real highlight being the trip down on the train. Rumbling, decrepit, and atmospheric, there were loads of stops long enough to give me time to poke around the little villages. Loud blasts of the horn gave plenty of warning before departure. The enterprising engineer would let you ride up front for a small fee, and by up front I mean sitting on the front gangway with your feet on the front coupler, nothing between you and the tracks but inertia. I clearly couldn't resist, and was likely his best customer.




Upon returning to Fianarantsoa, I was pleased to find that Angeline was able to join me there for New Years. All you need to know about how we got along is that she burst into giggles from the result when I asked her to pull my finger. My kind of girl.

The night before New Years, proved kind of interesting. Angeline and I had gone out to a bar kind of late (fun,  it nothing like the night in Isalo), and although I know better, I left my passport behind in the hotel, along with my money belt. I know better, because the Malagasy police are famous for demanding your papers in an effort to extract a bribe, especially at night. Sure enough, as we returned to the hotel at about midnight, our taxi was waved over.  After asking for the driver's papers, one of the three officers said "et votre passengers?". Shit! This was one of those situations where I pretend not to be able to speak any French at all, so that I can pretend I don't understand the request for a bribe. These three though spoke pretty good English.

 "Your passport please?", "It's in my hotel room", "you don't have a copy?", "No, but my passport is in my room, just around the corner", "come with us please". Shit.

As I got out of the taxi to join them at their car, I could tell Angeline was keeping herself in check.
"Is there a problem?", "Yes sir, you have a big problem".

There was much back and forth, at the car, with Angeline closely monitoring things from the taxi across the road.

 When it became obvious that I was not immediately offering a bribe, they escalated things: "In the car please, you will spend the night in the commissary, and we will sort things out in the morning", "No!", "You refuse to get in the car?", "Yes! Is this the way you treat tourists in Madagascar?".

I was worried, but I also knew that without having sent the taxi on it's way, they were likely bluffing about taking me in for the night. We went back and forth "In the car sir!", "No!", "You refuse?", "Yes! And you know that if you take me in for the night, I will write about it on the internet, is that good for Madagascar?", "In the car sir!", "No!", "You refuse?", "Yes!".

After about ten minutes of this "You refuse?", "Yes!", "Okay, you are free to go".
What a circus, but I'm still grateful that it wasn't ultimately serious, and that none of us witnessed Angeline responding if they had actually tried to haul me off.

A long day in a taxi-brousse to Tana, through the central highlands, and then preparation for my flight home.

Madagascar was very good to me.

 Back in Seattle now, and looking forward to seeing my dog tomorrow.

Max and Renault
Ave de Baobab
Belo sur Mer


Butcher Keen to Pose

A complete surprise at villages up and down the coast was the abundance of really pretty accomplished street or graffiti art. At first I thought they must have all been done by one talented person, but I was told not, and in fact things were done in very different styles, only their quality in common.