It has been almost exactly a month since I left Africa, flying first from Johannesburg back to Dar for one last round of goodbyes, and then onwards from there.
It already feels like a dream. The first time I saw a giraffe. The way Lake Malawi glimmers as the sun sets. Touring Kigali on the back of a motorbike. Watching the world spin below me from the top of Kilimanjaro. Shivering next to a pool of boiling lava in the Congo. Drinking red wine and eating pizza and talking books at Saverios Restaurant in Dar. An afternoon with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The dusty red roads of Kampala. Kissing a giraffe in Nairobi. The Tanzanian line dance on my 30th birthday. Christmas in Ethiopia. Swimming in a waterfall in Madagascar. Laughing until I cried in Maputo.
These things that I know to be true. The sunset is most spectacular in Zimbabwe, the sky most beautiful in Madagascar, the water most blue off the coast of Tanzania. Maputo has the best egg tarts, Dar the best Indian food, Ethiopia the best coffee. On a good day, it takes 24 hours to drive 400 kilometres in Madagascar, 15 hours to cover the same distance in Malawi, 12 hours in Tanzania, anybody’s guess in Mozambique.
There are good people everywhere, more parts happiness than sadness. One day, a child in Goma smiled at me and gave me a piece of lava, from the volcanic eruption that destroyed his family home. I carry it in my purse. Another day, a woman sitting beside me on a long bus ride bought me some bananas, a piece of manioc, and a bag of peanuts. She didn’t speak English but she smiled at me when I thanked her. I carry this with me too.
When the picture accompanying this post was taken, I was sitting on the beach with four people I had met a day earlier, eating crabs we had marinated in garlic and tomatoes, drinking a 2M beer, and talking about tides and wind patterns and 3 am departure times. A picnic spread out on the canvas sails we had removed from the boat to use as a tablecloth. Happiness in the form of a poem.
I carry all of it with me.
I counted the stars in Madagascar. I know I am very lucky, both for the adventures and the people I have met along the way.
These are the things I have learned.
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.
When I was growing up, my family used to take summer road trips in a giant motorhome borrowed from my grandfather. During these family vacations, my brother and I fought about many things, one of which was who got to sit up front with Daad. And in those days, my family owned only one cassette tape – Bryan Adams’ So Far So Good, which looped endlessly year after year as we drove from Edmonton to Vancouver to Montreal.
So, roadtrips, for me, are about watching the world from the front seat of a van while listening to such musical masterpieces as Cuts Like a Knife.
Surprisingly, road travel in Madagascar has been much the same. My brother isn’t here but there are no shortage of people to fight with over the front seat.
There are no bus companies in Madagascar and all travel is done by bush taxi, converted minivans that are stuffed with at least three times as many people as they are designed to hold. The most comfortable seat is the front seat. Although distances are short, travel times are long. It is not unusual, for example, for a 300 kilometer journey to take over 24 hours. As such , passengers will fight hard to secure even a small advantage in the seating arrangement. The front seat has an actual seat cushion (rather than an overturned box), ample legroom, and a head rest. Although there are no real schedules and bush taxis only leave when they are full, passengers often try to reserve the front seat weeks in advance. And competing bush taxi companies try to lure passengers to their vans by offering the front seat, sometimes promising it to several different people and rescinding the promise to all but one at the last minute.
Last week, I scored a major win and landed the front seat for an eight-hour journey. Shortly after we pulled out of the bush taxi station, the driver began blaring a Bryan Adams CD. I felt like I was 12 years old again.
As our car rolled to a stop, the park ranger told us that we were the first to make it all the way to the entrance gates of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park this year. The park is inaccessible during the rainy season in Madagascar, which runs from November to the end of March, and which transforms the dirt road leading to the park into a giant mud pit. I arrived at the park in mid-April and, while the roads were open, they were barely passable. It took our car seven hours to travel the final 25 kilometres to the park. I have lost count of how many times we got stuck in the mud.
The road to the park was littered with casualties. We passed an American couple whose driver had tried to cross a ‘puddle’ which turned out to be several feet deeper than anticipated. The water flooded the car, drenching their luggage and killing the engine. The tourists spent the night in a nearby village and at noon the next day were still trying to get the car started. A French couple had gotten stuck in a particularly bad stretch of mud and had spent the night in their car. We helped get them unstuck. Spanish and Italian tourists, whose car had gotten stuck early in the morning, had spent the day drinking their extensive supply of Madagascar rum. By the time we arrived they no longer seemed concerned with reaching the park.
Although frustrating, the journey to Tsingy de Bemaraha was filled with laughter. Every time our car got stuck, a group of villagers would rush to help us, filling mud puddles with sticks and branches and pushing the car. Eventually, our driver decided to pay a group of them to act as scouts and they jumped onto the back of the SUV, helping to navigate us through the worst stretches of road and testing the depth of puddles before we tried to cross.
Most of the people we encountered on the way to the park were friendly, but one small group of villagers decided to take advantage of the mayhem on the roads by demanding a toll for safe passage. They had set up a barricade of rocks and sticks and surrounded our car when we approached. They asked the driver for $10, and gently nudged our tires with their machetes when he tried to argue. After a series of lengthy negotiations, the driver paid the toll and the villagers moved the rocks and logs aside for us to pass.
Tsigy de Bemaraha National Park is worth the effort. The park is a stone forest – a series of limestone formations which are home to lemurs, birds, and reptiles. A few years ago, a Spanish climber outfitted the formations with steps and footholds, and it is now possible to climb up and down the limestone towers, as well as cross them on swinging bridges. I spent the day climbing up and down the formations, exploring caves, and watching lemurs jump between the rocks.