Star Date: June 2009
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Mbola tsara anaro!
(Slowly, slowly - Malagasy)
"Life is never what
you expect. That is what I live for – the unexpected."
To boldly go where no road has gone before. Forty hours straight through to the west coast frontier town of Tolear. Brutal, but our only option without flying. Arriving at the taxi brousse (bush taxi) station we were amazed to see our new Mercedes 'limousine'. Looking like a gigantic cattle truck it had welded steel benches for over 100 people, all covered with a tarp to keep off the dust, sun or rain. We met Nirana and his 12 year old daughter, Sandrina, who told us that the taxi brousse stops for the night in his village of Tsiombe. "Would you like to spend the night with us?" We graciously accepted. The beginning of each leg on a bush taxi truck starts off with great excitement of the adventure ahead. After about 6 hours, the novelty wears off as does the skin on your bottom. Bumping in after dark, 10 hours into the journey, we arrived in Sandrina's little village. A small lake filled the center of town from a downpour that morning but luckily we were met with stars and a glorious display of the Milky Way, unrivaled anywhere but possibly the Outback of Australia. We followed Sandrina and Nirana home to their dark, dusty little home and before we knew it were offered one of the beds alongside them in the only bedroom of their 3 room shack. Sandrina apologized for the unkempt state of affairs as his wife was in Tolear while their 2 boys studied. Feeling a bit strange we laid out our ever present silk cloths over the bedding and fell fast asleep, that was after we fell flat on the floor as the bed gave way when Joseph rolled over the first time. No problem. Up we got while they fixed the frame, and we were soon sound asleep until awakened at 7 am. Ear plugs are a gift from heaven. We soon discovered that the toilet was not a place safe to even enter so we improvised a new squat and run technique for life in a busy village. Finding a back corner of the yard we dug a hole, put up Joseph's umbrella to cover one side, as we took turns holding up the ever ready piece of silk cloth for privacy on the other. Business accomplished. Adapt or perish. Grabbing some fruit and great photos in the weekly morning market we zoomed off in a cloud of dust about 10am, profusely thanking our hosts for their hospitality. We spent a unique day driving through dry spiny forests, home to prehistoric looking endemic thorny trees. From wild octopus trees, to compass trees always facing south, to pencil trees whose sap is used to make cheeky chewing gum by the children (which we tried), to the giant fat baobabs, which the gods planted upside down by mistake. There are 11 varieties of baobabs in the world, 9 of them here. One kind is nicknamed the 'vahaza' (foreigner) baobab for it's shedding skin, which resembles a white person peeling after burning in the hot sun. Remote village after remote village offered a glimpse into the lives of the hardy locals barely surviving in these harsh conditions. Eating mainly manioc roots, these welcoming folks were curious and friendly, with those warm Malagasy smiles abounding. In one village we despairingly noticed our radiator lying on the ground beside the truck. Well, I suppose that will throw our 'schedule' (ha-ha) off. Arriving in our intended town of Betiocky, completely dark at 2am instead of 10 pm, we decided to continue on jarring along to Tolear. After seeing the condition of these trucks we didn't want to be stuck for a week or so awaiting the next 'limousine' to arrive. Cold and numb by then we slept off and on, sometimes jerking awake as our hard heads met the hard steel bar in front of us. Two small eggs, a sore nose and 4 mosquito bites were the only battle scars as the truck stopped in the forest for our morning 'find your nearest tree' break.
Our new friend, Michele, was a French nurse back in Tsiombe heading into town for some supplies. Having worked in the field here and in Africa for over 20 years he provided invaluable insight in the life and living conditions of these two groups of locals, 2 of the 18 different tribes on the island.
Out here in the desert the only river dries up and they are without water, except small amounts dug in the sand, for up to 5 months a year. This water is brown so they prefer to not use it to do laundry, instead they drink it and will use the pure water provided by visiting NGO's to wash their clothes. Sanitation is a new concept that must be taught. All but one of the water purification plants are all defunct in town due to lack of maintenance. Seems putting money into projects without follow up, is just a waste of resources. The people here suffer mainly from TB, malaria, parasites, skin diseases, and many children are malnourished, big extended bellies telling the story. Michele helps wherever needed but has become frustrated with the improper use of chemical drugs, handed out pell-mell by untrained doctors with sometimes as little as a year's education under their belt. He was excited to learn about MMS (see our health page) and hopes to use it in his clinic when he returns. Death is common and a reason given for producing large families, in a land of no social services. When a person dies in the Mahafaly or Antanosy tribes of this region, the body remains in the home until a large painted cement family tomb covered with symbols and statues of sorts is created, up to one year later. Zebu cows are killed and the meat given to neighbors, reminding us of the keeping up with the Jones' burials in Suluweisi, Indonesia; also taking years to pay off the debt. Once the body is buried, the house by custom, must be burned, so often a little house is quickly erected for this purpose to preserve the larger family home. This island nation is being consumed with overpopulation as thousands of these barely clothed and fed children explode in thatched roofed villages and devour what meager natural resources are available. Back to overpopulation as the root cause for so many problems in a developing country. Education is crucial and Michele believes after all his years of experience that education of the women is the key.
Arriving high noon in Tolear, about 48 hours since leaving Ft. Dauphin, we showered and collapsed into bed, near comatose. A tasty Italian pizza and a full night's sleep made us good as new. After a few days of exploring this rambling but friendly town we had to satisfy our bush taxi fix. Off up the coast to Ifaty, actually Mangily, we wandered along a sandy lane down to the shore for 4 soothing nights of lapping ocean waves against the white sand beach. We meandered down the sandy main road buying fruits and vegetables and through rustic Servaso village compounds in search of the giant prize 'teapot' baobab'. Over 1000 years old this wise old wizard of the spiny forest has seen many things come and go, including us. We had fun wherever we went while having an 'authentic village experience', retreating to our beachside hut at night to sleep in a clean bed with a clean toilet. Infrastructure is so welcome at times, especially after weeks of hard travel.
colder winter weather so far we knew it was time to go back up
through the cold high plateaus to get to the warmer northern
regions; flip side now that we are in the Southern Hemisphere.
As things often go with us, Joseph, a former gemologist, had been
interested for old times sake in visiting the sapphire mines in
Madagascar. 'By coincidence' he met Volker who told us to
stop by his home near Ilakaka and he would take us to the mines.
We enjoyed the company of Volker, Edgar and their Malagasy wives,
while exchanging ideas, songs and cooking outside under the stars.
Spending 2 days surrounded by the stark mountains of Isalo
Park was inspiring. The geological beauty of this area is
another astonishing facet of the varied landscapes of Madagascar.
It was fascinating watching the rows of Bara workers in the sapphire
mines moving mountains one small shovel full at a time, dreams of
brilliant gems dancing in the heads of their foremen. The pits
they leave behind are yet another scar on the face of Madagascar.
A highlight of the area was the astonishing little Bestilo tribal park next to Anja Village, 12 km. south. Without a doubt one of the best we've seen in Madagascar; it was a combination of spectacular mountain scenery as you scramble up large granite boulders, and down through forests while dozens of ring tailed lemurs frisk about near you. These unique creatures aren't afraid of humans and love to sit perched above you on rocks or in trees arms outstretched taking in the morning sun, curiously watching you watch them. A real up close encounter. This village has stopped chopping trees in the 35 hectare park and eating lemurs since 1991. The large cave where the lemurs sleep at night was once the secret spot for the villagers who were forced into hiding by the Merina Kingdom who would sweep the countryside in search of slaves. There are also several ancestral tombs high in the rock faces, off limits to grave robbers in search of the prized hand spun silk shrouds wrapping the bones. We walked 3-4 miles through the spectacular scenery and fields back towards town and stopped by a little village on the left, noted for the big rock and church steeple. We stepped into the crumbling church and immediately were joined by the whole village, dropped jaw amazed that we were there. Soon we were pounding rice with the women, showing our family pictures, playing games with a balloon, and learning village songs and dances. What a lot of fun. They were sad to see us go and we were sad to leave; but it was over 8 kms. back to the town and the afternoon sun was setting fast.
On our way up RN7 to Antsirabe we met Pastor David, a Lutheran minister, who had attended seminary in the US. He and Joseph spent hours discussing health and myths about the world religions. Pastor David and his wife came by our hotel room, "to learn more", proving his open mindedness. He left with his laptop loaded with a new library and his head spinning. He wants to meet us in Tana before we leave to further discuss all the new ideas presented to him. Antsirabe is a quaint city with broad tree lined boulevards, cathedrals and colonial architecture. Sunny days were followed by chilly nights, when you could see your breath. This changed our plans of heading west to Miandrivazo. Camping at night along the Tsiribihina River seemed a little out of reality for these former Hawaii cold lightweights. Back in Tana, via a station wagon packed to the gills, (with Gills) we realized how much had happened to us over the last 1.5 months. After our horrendous travel on taxi brousses in the south, we didn't even notice how uncomfortable the ride was because we were on a paved road. It's all relative.
Heading north towards warmer climes like moths to the flames, we set out to explore the remaining parts of this fascinating island. We arrived after dark in Ambondromamy, (still don't know where it is) and ended up at the only clean small hotel in town. There we met Bary, a gem buyer and voodoo master. 'Fanafody' is the Malagasy art of traditional medicine or herbal healings. Bary would be called an 'Ombiasy' or healer. We warned him not to use the word voodoo around westerners. Even though we are supposedly less superstitious in the west, talk of voodoo still sends shivers down our spines. After some of the stories we have heard here this may be well founded, but Bary just like to use his powers to help people. He never charges for his work. A surprising evening woven with talk about sapphires, gold, traditional Malagasy herbs and good luck spells.
Up we got at
5:30 and off to the taxi brousse stand but the damned thing never
came; broke down somewhere along the way. At 12:00 our
helpful touts flagged down a friendly guy heading north in a
brand new SUV. We worked out a deal to share gas and spent the
day like royalty, barely feeling any of the bumps. This
vehicle actually had shocks, windows that worked, soft seats.
taxi junkies, we were disoriented with the luxury for a while to say the least.
The Pirate Republic of Libertalia, in northern Madagascar, was founded by French adventurer Captain Mission and defrocked priest Father Caraccioli. Like Robin Hoods of the high seas they sailed about freeing ship loads of slaves, always with minimal bloodshed. Establishing a thriving community up north in the early 1700's, they were joined by pirates from many countries and lived peacefully until being massacred in masse unexpectedly by the surrounding Malagasy residents. While no one can deny the lively history of pirates in Madagascar, Libertalia still is hazed by conflicting stories and legends. Portuguese sailors first named Madagascar but they, and subsequent European fleets failed to establish colonies here. It was these hardy European and North American buccaneers who expanded their territory from the Caribbean to Isle Saint Marie, establishing a new base in the Indian Ocean, from which to plunder. In their hey day over 1000 pirates terrorized ships en route between Europe and the Far East. One of the world's most infamous pirates, Captain Kidd, lived on Isle St Marie. Commissioned as a privateer against the pirates of Madagascar in 1695, he himself slipped over to the dark side and plundered several wealthy ships passing by. The wreckage of his ship, the Adventure, was discovered by divers in 2000 but most of his treasure has never been recovered. Hi aye Matey.
Montagne D’Ambre National Park
was like stepping back to a time when man and nature lived
side by side. Madagascar's oldest park (1950's) is richly
clothed in lush greenery, colorful orchids and stately old trees.
These enormous old growth trees surround you in a primeval energy, like
few remaining places on this planet. Immense branches high up in
the canopy provide a playground for
hundreds of noisy, frisky lemurs. Colorful chameleons, birds and butterflies came out of hiding
while we hiked the trails or relaxed in front of the many
beautiful misty waterfalls. We were overwhelmed with the primordial beauty and
soon high on an oxygen overload, a gift
from these wise, old giants of the forest. Locals believe that when the
surrounding land was
logged and disturbed, the spirits of their ancestors fled to
Amber Mountain, where they live in the trees, stones, and
waterfalls. Many still come to magical Sacred Falls to make offerings
and commune with their 'tromba' or ancestors, reconnecting with Nature.
Spending the night in Ambilobe we were told that the taxi brousse across the mountains to the remote NE Vanilla Coast, only went for 10 hours overnight. Not wanting to believe it we booked a seat on a 4x4 from Diego supposedly leaving at 8am. Why go if you can't see the scenery? At 7:50 a jeep arrived and hurriedly tried to get us in. Someone from our hotel told us to check the vehicle number to our reservation and it didn't match. This band of characters had literally tried to kidnap us to fill up their vehicle, right out from under their competitor's nose. We only pay once we are under way on a journey so it didn't matter to us, but it was kind of intriguing. We knew we were in for yet another wild taxi brousse adventure. We laughed about the 'mora, mora' slowly, slowly Madagascar scenario with a jovial Korean gem dealer we had met. When he enquired about the time of departure for us he got the standard answer, "Show time! - when it's full." When we were waiting to depart a full 44 hours on the SE coast it was bearable because we were hanging around our hotel and the village. This time waiting around a dusty taxi brousse stand started to lose it's appeal real fast. Promised it would leave at 8am, then 10, then noon; by 3pm we had had it. Realizing that we were embarking down a rough road, full of breakdowns and delays, we simply looked at each other and said, "We've already done this. Enough is enough." We later saw our 4x4 truck still 'trolling' for customers at 5pm (only 9 hours later than the 'promised' departure time). We got our money back and caught a taxi brousse to Tana, a smooth but very long 22 hour 'flight'. After sitting/sleeping next to someone for that long the 20 passengers become like family; sharing stories, pictures, food, and singing along to the Malagasy music.
It got colder and colder as we got near the capitol and we knew that we were heading back to the coast for sure the next morning. Winter had arrived with a vengeance, a storm spreading cold rain throughout the region, our first bad weather in 2 months. Hind sight is always 20/20 and we wished we had stayed up at lovely, warm Ramena Beach near Diego. Once down from the central highlands, landing in Tamatave on the East Coast, the temperature moderated and we peeled off the layers. We spent a glorious day walking over 5 miles back into the jungles of Park Zoologique Ivoloina Nature Sanctuary. There we were enveloped in the quiet beauty of trees, lakes, and animals. An active training center for children, and a breeding and rehabilitation project for endangered species, we spent hours enthralled by the shenanigans of groups of semi-wild large black and white ruffed lemurs and smaller crowned lemurs. Not aggressive in the least, some of these dear primates even jumped on our shoulders for a closer look. We were also treated to barely moving tortoises and boa constrictors, cherry red tomato frogs, squawking birds and several chameleons who thought we couldn't see them. Walking through the villages en route along the river was just as good as the park. Like the Flintstones everyone was busy mining sand from the river bottom or breaking rocks. When we caught a ride back in a large truck, on a load of hand made gravel, it was like being celebrities waving from a float in a 4th of July parade. Everyone knew us from our walk up so they waved and laughed as we bumped our way back down the dirt road.
This coast is touchy weather wise, with horrendous cyclones December - March and now a wet season that ends in August or October? A Frenchman who has lived here 10 years said it rains here a lot and in fact he moved back from Isle St. Marie because the weather was worse out there. Doesn't know what all the fuss is about for tourists to spend time on the island. Now having limited time, the rains washed our plans of seeing the southern Vanilla Coast and Masoala Peninsula Park from our minds, knowing what happens when Nature reclaims the already treacherous, bumpy roads. In fact we all piled out of our taxi brousse when heading to Ivongo and walked on the thin 16 inch ledge of remaining road. The only road north had simply slumped away 2 days previously leaving a huge ravine, as is the case of thousands of hillsides everywhere in Madagascar. When the trees that hold the soil are gone, eventually the soil erodes away. We were luckily met on the other side by a truck that dropped us in town. All cars on that side are just that: on that side for good, with no way to leave. That is until the government does something. Don't hold your breath; the politicians are busy trying to remain in power, as infrastructure collapses around them. Not only the soil is eroding in Madagascar.
Expectations. We always know things will work out for the best and we try to not have too many expectations as we travel along. Have no expectations.... just go with the flow. We each had a picture in our minds what Madagascar would be like. It is completely different. Indescribable at times. After our big taxi brousse fiasco up north we decided to head to Isle St. Marie and chill for our last 2 weeks. Wrong. Most of the time 'lady luck' stacks the unlikely odds in our favor but not this time. Flights there just doubled with the supposed high season, although no one is here (Air Madagascar's silly monopoly). The rough seas this time of year have cancelled all sailings of wooden boats that haven't sunk in previous storms. The daily 'fast boat' which would cost us $140 rd trip (get real) for both of us, for the short 5km trip over was full. (Our Lonely Planet quoted $10 each way for the 2 hour sailing). "There must be a mistake. We just traveled for days via bumpy roads on long taxi brousse rides to get here!" We stood there tired, dropped jawed, dazed. Our paradise bubble popping before our very eyes. As we looked at the island in the distance Joseph declared, "What difference would it make if we were on the island looking out at the ocean or on the coast looking over at the island?" He set off in search of a little beach bungalow to call our own, on the white sand beach of Ivongo. Expect the unexpected. Flexibility. Change. Plans, what are they? So we settled into our new little home away from home, happy to be warm and immobile, thankful and satisfied at having explored so much of this truly exhilarating Mad Island!
And so it goes.........................................Next the mysterious, dazzling, raw continent of Africa. In this land of intrigue, for only the intrepid, seasoned traveler, life is never what is expected. Again, thanks for sharing this website with friends. First hand experiences and current information via this high speed technology, helps us to learn more about this fascinating planet we all share. Keep Smiling! Glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch! Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00US =2,000 Ariary
Etoile de Mer: fairly expensive (8000a) and only small to medium portions, but they cook up a great tasting Indian curry.
just beyond Ifaty:
Reniala Botanique Spiny Forest: Just down the main road, 10 minute walk from Alex's Guesthouse. Turn left on the main sand road, then right down a sand lane to the forest. Worth the walk to see a great array of baobabs. No need to get a guide as the 10,000a includes a guide for the 1 hour circle hike.
Tropic Hotel, another option, clean, Chinese run place on the north edge of town, 1
Mami at Cap Nord Voyages, good travel agency for flights, next to the Colbert Hotel. phone # 20 82 235 06.
The Hotel de Poste is north down our hotel's street, on the left. Good views and the legume or pomme de terre sauté, vegetables or potatoes sauté's are excellent - for only 2,000a each. Free wifi internet while you eat - they are relaxed and friendly so you can catch up on your emails but skype and downloading does not work.
A highlight is turning right at the beach and in the trees next to the 5 Pres? Hotel 50 feet, lives a family of lemurs. They love fruit and in the morning or evening will line up for a piece of banana. One jumps right on your shoulder so he won't miss his turn. Lots of fun.
Nautica Hotel, one new room right on the beach. They would have let us have a room for 25,000a for 4 nights. The taxi brousse turns around at the water in the village. Standing looking out at the water, the hotel is down the beach 25 feet on the left. There are many hotels to choose from along the beach. The Oases reminded Joseph of India - give it a pass.
Take a taxi brousse (2,000a) to Ramena. For the Badamera jump off 300 meters before the village. For the Nautica stay on until the end.
Isle St. Marie:
We met Albert, the friendly owner of La Baleine, 5 km from the port out on the island. The photos of his place looked good and he was willing to give us a weekly rate of 16,000a/night with bathroom, right on the beach. Check it out. Call and they will pick you up from the dock free. (phone # 0320237826)
Unique Books on Madagascar: