Dawn. Four hours by the side of the road. How do you say ‘bathroom’ in Portuguese? The back of a truck. Crowds. Portuguese buns. Another few hours by the side of the road. The midday sun. No, really, how do you say ‘bathroom’ in Portuguese? Another truck, this time a seat up front. Dirt roads. A whisky-drinking driver. Imprecise calculations. Safer to get out or stay in? Dirt in my hair. Someone stepped on my toe. Someone stepped on my hand. 3 and 4 am departure times. Why doesn’t my guidebook have the portuguese translation for ‘bathroom’? Women with babies. Chickens and rice in my lap. More imprecise calculations. Are there more chickens or babies on this truck? Darkness sets. Repeat. Repeat again.
This is public transport in Mozambique.
Shortly before I arrived in Malawi, CAD $1 was equivalent to about 150 Malawian Kwacha. Today, $1 equates to 250 Malawian Kwacha. Last week the government released new 1000 Kwacha notes, as a response to the rapid inflation (the previous highest denomination was 500 Kwacha). There are posters all over town advertising the new currency and prices are shooting up.
Blantyre is supposedly Malawi’s biggest and busiest city.
There are two traffic lights in town. There are cars. A supermarket. A bank. A restaurant that serves pizza. Most of which I have not been able to find elsewhere in Malawi.
And, yet, in many ways Blantyre is more like a village than a city. I can walk around the city limits in about half an hour. Nobody really abides by the traffic lights. And the restaurant with pizza was closed when I stopped by.
There is not much to do here except wait for my visa for Mozambique to be processed.
After spending a week in isolated fishing towns that are not mentioned in guidebooks, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by tourists. Isalo National Park is the most popular park in Madagascar and “La Fenêtre” is the most popular attraction in the park. The natural rock formation serves as a window to the setting sun.
I arrived shortly before sunset along with about thirty other tourists, all pushing for the chance to be photographed next to the rocks. I told my guide that I found the surrounding countryside much more spectacular. Surprised, he turned to me and said, “but it’s like the Eiffel Tower of Madagsacar, everyone wants to be here”.
I didn’t really like the Eiffel Tower either.
This is the story of how I ended up stranded in a small village on the western coast of Madagascar, beyond the reach of any guidebook or map.
The week before, I had met two travelers from France, P and J, who had told me it was possible to rent a pirogue in Morondava and spend a few days sailing to Morombe, several hundred kilometres down the coast. I was growing frustrated with the snail-like pace of travel in Madagascar, and this would allow me to bypass some of the most awful roads in the region. A sailor I met in Morondava explained that it would take four days to reach Morombe, that we would sail in the mornings and I could spend the afternoons exploring fishing villages that are not accessible by road.
On the first day, we left Morondava shortly before sunrise and arrived in Belo-sur-Mer at noon. The winds were good and I was surprised at how quickly we zipped through the water. J, another traveler who had joined me for the trip, whispered something about how sailing is so very efficient that motorized transport is completely unnecessary. “Why doesn’t everyone sail everywhere, all the time?” he wondered.
Later that afternoon we were surprised to catch up with P and J, who had advised me to sail the coast rather than try to negotiate public transport, and who had taken four days to sail the route that had taken us just six hours. P and J were were decidedly less enthused about sailing than they had been the week before. “The first night we camped on a beach two kilometers from Morondava”, they told me. “The next day we didn’t go anywhere. Yesterday, we hiked fifteen kilometers with our backpacks and then realized we were still over 25 kilometers from Belo-sur-Mer and had to hire a zebu cart to take us the rest of the way. We haven’t really eaten or showered in several days”
Oh no, I thought.
That evening, Gilbert, the head sailor on our ship, came to tell us that the winds had died down and that we should probably get an early start the next day if we were going to make it to the next town. “So, we’ll leave at 3 am”, he decided. “That way we will have plenty of time to get there before sundown”.
Does 3 am even qualify as the morning? I thought. Isn’t that still night?
The next morning, we rowed out into the Indian Ocean under a blanket of stars. The ocean glittered too, with phosphorescent plankton, and it seemed that the stars were both above and below me. I counted ten shooting stars. The wooden pirogue was small, my legs were cramped, and sleep was impossible. But the light show was spectacular.
At 7 am the sun rose and the winds died. Our little wooden boat drifted aimlessly on the ocean. I tied a t-shirt around my head to protect myself from the sun and drifted into semi-consciousness. The hours melted together. There was nowhere to buy breakfast or lunch. There was no room to move.
In the afternoon, a small breeze picked up and we began to move again. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Finally, in the late afternoon, Gilbert decided that we should dock and find a place to spend the night. “There is a small village about three kilometers from here,” he said. “With the winds against us, it will be faster to walk on the beach”.
We walked for three hours on empty beach. Slowly, the beach began to fill with people. A woman carrying fish. A boy playing with rocks. A man driving a zebu cart home. They all stared at us curiously. The woman said something in Malagasy and then laughed.
There was no restaurant in town, but we bought some fish samosas and manioc at the market. There was a bar with cold beers – the only building in the village with electricity. When we arrived the owner turned on a small tv in the corner so that we could watch music videos. Almost instantly, hundreds of kids flooded the bar, singing and dancing along with the videos. Older kids loitered outside, staring at us through the windows.
We went to bed early that night. Gilbert had planned another 3 am departure. The next day would see us stranded again, having to hitchike to get to the closest town.
But that is another story for another day.
Belo-sur-Mer is a friendly village on the west coast of Madagascar. The city is popular amongst tourists looking to relax for a few days; the Indian Ocean is a deep blue, the streets are filled with sand, and garlic and ginger marinated crab is for sale for 25 cents a pound.
There is another city in Madagascar, located on the banks of the Tsiribihine River, called Belo-sur-Tsiribihine. I asked the owner of my hotel what the word “belo” means, thinking it is Malagasy for ‘town’ or ‘village’.
“Oh”, he said. “Belo means something bad. Really bad. Like a hundred rotting fish or just as many dead dogs”.
Maybe I didn’t stay long enough to find out where the city gets its name, but I thought Belo-sur-Mer was beautiful, with its white beaches and coral waters and smiling people.