Star Date: May 2009
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Good day - Malagasy greeting)
"Think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the
best. Look at the sunny side of everything. Give everyone a
smile. Make all your friends feel there is something in them. Be as
enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater
achievements of the future. Spend so much time improving
yourself that you have no time left to criticize others. Talk
health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet..."
When people first sailed to Madagascar over 1500 years ago it was not a place for the faint of heart. Godzilla vs. King Kong. Splitting off from Gondwanaland 165 million years ago it was a place of rare and monstrous beasts, preserving many of the continents species and unfolding many astonishing new ones. Screaming geckos, large blind snakes, and 1000 pound elephant birds standing 10 ft tall (laying eggs containing 3 gallons of liquid) all fought for turf. Monkeys died out as lemurs of all descriptions survived, the largest species the size of a gorilla. A lion-like larger version of the ferocious present day fossa, Cryptoprocta spelia struck fear into the hearts of natives, still looming large in local folklore; to this day scaring the Malagasy. Scientists can't pinpoint when or why these terrifying creatures disappeared but C. spelia is rumored to survive in some remote pockets on the island. Zahamena National Park in northeastern Madagascar, also known as the Impenetrable Forest, is so uninviting that no one has made any detailed maps of its interior. Who knows what is hiding there?
Making the effort to explore Madagascar's
National Parks or Reserves any nature lover is rewarded. Outside these
fragile reserves all the animals have been eaten for food, their habitat
destroyed by the exploding population, or collected for private pet
traders (locals receiving 3 cents per chameleon, sold illegally for $100
or more to
international collectors). Hope lies in eco tourism where
money spent to view live wildlife far outweighs the pennies received
in illegal animal trade.
Of the hundreds of reptiles and 80 known varieties of snakes, none are deadly poisonous; good thing, because as I write this a small neon turquoise, green and red chameleon is climbing up the side of my laptop to have a look. Malagasy folklore tells of the harmless 'fandrefiala' snake dropping tail first from trees, stiff as an arrow, stabbing any unfortunate cattle or humans below. In fact it seems that most danger on this fascinating island exists only in folklore. Malagasy culture is steeped in magic and 'fady' taboo, gri gri or voodoo spells, or dancing and partying with ancestral bones. At 'Famadihana' or the 7 year turning of the bones exhumation ceremonies, music is played as the tomb is opened and one by one the straw mat wrapped bones of Aunt Mara, Uncle Mega, Grandma, etc are danced above the heads of party goers eating and drinking home made rum. The cleaned bones are then wrapped in new, pristine white shrouds, marked with magic marker (wouldn't want to confuse Auntie for Grandpa), and all the relatives line up for a family photo. Smile! Fadys or taboos dictate village laws such as which animals to eat and when, not being able to whistle while walking along a stretch of beach, if salt is safe to consume, how to prepare the manioc roots (cooking whole but never slicing before), eating citrus oranges or wearing all red on a boat spells disaster, etc. It is interesting to keep your ears open for local taboos of each village; one to match each superstition. Animal life or human culture, this is a place like no other on earth.
Off in search of the long lost fasa we were grateful to have the gift of two days of glorious sunshine, no mosquitoes, nominal leeches and endless lemurs at Ranomafana National Park. This gem of 42,000 hectare rainforest, amidst the cleared hills from encroaching village crops, is where we had our first close encounter with the fascinating primates, the lemur. Close that is if you consider the soft fluffy tail of a lemur brushing my hand while jumping by, close enough. The golden bamboo lemur was discovered in 1986 and through the perseverance of American primatologist, Patricia Wright who still works here occasionally, this tract of land was set aside. The second growth forest with it's roaring river, waterfalls, large trees, orchids, viewpoints and a wide variety of lemurs (12), over 400 snake, chameleon and frog species; is certainly worth hiking the often steep trails to take a peek. Visiting birders are definitely in for a serious OOE (Ornithological Orgasmic Experience in bird speak). Up at 6:30 we hit the trail early to catch the lemurs busily feeding, swinging from tree to tree, standing wide eyed on branches in family groups and happily clucking as they gorged on strawberry guavas. The road down from the park, about 3.5 miles, weaves through this gorgeous river valley with forests all around. A perfect hike, we chatted to villagers along the way and ended up in Ranomafana Village at the small but lively market area. We bought large sacks full of fruits and vegetables to prepare, definitely the stall owner's best customers in a long time, grabbed some large waters, and caught one of the many taxi-brousse back up the steep hill to our rustic little cabin snuggled in the forest. The village was named for the hot springs on the edge of town, which we understand are relaxing to swim in after a long hike through the forest. They were closed for cleaning the day we planned to go but having just had such a great day of animal viewing our spirits couldn't be dampened. We took two evening walks hoping to see the tiny 1 ounce mouse lemurs, the world's smallest primate, but they were 'so small we couldn't see them'. Gives us something to watch for as we continue around the country. Night treks, during which the guides secretly slipped bananas to the mouse lemurs and meat to the carnivorous fasas ended 3 months ago, much to the disappointment of hardy hikers and animals alike.
Our mandatory park guide was excited to see us, the first English speaking clients in weeks. Jose, was very knowledgeable and helpful, as we spent over 5 hours exploring the park, on trail and mostly off. From a local family with 15 children he understood right away what this boom in population is doing to devastate the environment. What the western logging companies started in the 70's by pillaging all the rare forest hard woods, the need for increased food and shelter from the mushrooming Malagasy numbers is finishing. The last President of Madagascar supposedly opened several parks up to logging/mining while squandering the nation's resources. From profits he opened Swiss bank accounts and bought a private jet. Without the watchful eyes of the wider world conservationists, where will it end?
Sitting by the side of the road, the typical mist and rain of this remote rain forest descended like a wet blanket. Never making reservations, we had hesitantly paid ahead for 2 good seats on to Manakara, but the driver forgot about us and raced by. Apparent that something was awry we changed plans mid stream and caught the next mini van back to Fiana. Transportation workers worldwide are notorious for unscrupulous behavior and a lively circus started back at the station. When the driver lied, Joseph hilariously pulled the strings on the jacket of the conniving little fellow, much to the delight of no less than 100 onlookers and jury members that had gathered by then. He then enlisted the help of passing policemen and all but $2 of our $22 was refunded for our tickets. Case closed. A grey day thus far, the sun broke through as we discovered the only existing working stretch of Madagascar's railway system had a small train leaving the following morning. Riding 2nd class as usual, we had a really great day climbing back up over the mountain range, across teetering bridges spanning waterfalls and stopping in rustic villages with lively venders selling every imaginable cooked form of cassava or manioc root. We feasted on cassava chips, steamed rice and bananas wrapped in leaves, and enormous shiny mountain apples. We had fun with our compartment buddies, including the chickens and kids, and when we arrived in Manakara we were happily reunited the following days in the markets with some of our fellow local travel companions. The avocado vender excitedly told everyone around that "This was her friend from the train," and "Look at her hair, braided like ours! We spent a full day with Manitra exploring the town and dramatic windy beach and were invited back to her home. In our usual style we stopped by at the local market to buy supplies and together cooked up a large bowl of tasty vegetables over the charcoal fire for husband Jose, baby daughter Anstra and the little green eyed niece living with them while going to school. Only having 2 rooms I'm sure they would have even figured out a place for us to stay, had we asked. The warmth and genuine hospitality of the locals of Madagascar is touching. We raved about the minuscule rustic board shack in which they lived and had a pleasant evening during which Manitra continued practicing her English. After commenting on how much I liked the hundreds of different ways the creative local women braid their hair I found myself sporting a new 7 braid 'doo'. Walking her back towards home the next day she was thrilled as we bought an almost new jacket and shirts for the baby and niece, from the mountains of recycled clothes along the way. Mending ripped clothing isn't the norm here so by the time the tattered clothes fall off the poorer locals there is barely enough left to use as a rag and these portable thrift shops seem to keep the country clothed. Viva recycle!
Told over and over that there were no passable roads south along the coast we were grinning ear to ear as we set off in a jam packed taxi brousse or bush taxi for an adventure into the uncharted territory of the south east coast. Took off after delays totaling 5 hours that is. An unbelievable comedy of errors in our minds was just business as usual in slow moving, mora mora (slowly, slowly) Madagascar. Even though the courteous young driver had been waiting for over 4 hours for the taxi brousse beast to fill it's belly, only when the quota of 18 passengers was finally reached did we spend another hour filling up on gas, air, and even lunch; things easily done during the previous hours of waiting. But then there goes our logical mind trying to fix things. The best solution is always to smile and observe.
Sadly, ecologically speaking Madagascar has been changed forever. Knowing this we drove through the hills covered with wild stately groves of endemic traveler's palms and enjoyed the current gardens created where the big trees of the forest had once stood. Women balancing baskets of just picked enormous mandarin oranges surrounded the vehicle at every stop. Everyone rode along eating the sweet delicacies (only 2.5 cents each), singing along to the local Malagasy tapes, looking out as the late afternoon sun lit up the landscape with a golden halo. Even the greedy policemen at the 4 checkpoints were pacified with a handful of oranges and a folded up 5000a bill hidden in the tasty treats. The newly paved road all of a sudden disappeared into a patchwork of potholes, slowing our progress to a crawl in places. Daylight gave way to night skies sparkling with millions of stars in the total darkness. Arriving in towns without street lights is always an interesting experience. Dark shapes bustle around with obvious cat like night vision while other shadows drift by on their way home. We were told there are two hotels in town, 'the clean one' and 'the not so clean one'. Glad to bed down in the clean one we awoke to a glorious blue sky and set out exploring the markets of our new "off the map" village. We can literally spend hours in a lively market buying fruits and vegetables, eating coconuts and just hanging with the locals. One friendly woman spoke a little bit of English and offered to walk us to the taxi brousse station so we could enquire about the next leg of our journey. "No, the taxi brousse, the only one this week leaves this afternoon, not tomorrow." Not wanting to be stranded for 7 days we hurried home to pack about 1pm, along the way meeting a woman also heading to Manartanina. She promised to call our hotel when the vehicle was ready to leave. Little did we know what lay in store for us. Have no expectations, but go with the flow. At 4 pm we walked to the restaurant and had a leisurely meal. At 9pm, after watching a movie, still no word and a phone call revealed that the vehicle was still back in the last town but the driver would stay at our hotel and we would jump in at 7am. At 7:30am no driver of course, another call revealed that he was still back at the last town and would be here in 3 hours. Traveling puts you into the NOW. It transforms potential waiting into just being in the moment, observing what is going on around us. One has to be flexible, bending like bamboo in the wind, as the brittleness of our western conditioning and impatience causes us to break under stress. From the time we thought we were going, 18 hours elapsed during which we ate a delicious dinner, watched a movie, slept a full nights sleep (we were glad it wasn't a night trip) and the following morning listened to classical music and worked on our computers while overlooking the quiet garden. Having few bags, which are easy to pack in a hurry is an important piece of the puzzle. When the taxi brousse drove by it had transformed into a large cargo truck. We were to ride in the back but first it needed some repairs. Departure 3pm. Now only 26 hours since we first prepared to leave, off we went again to enjoy a meal at our favorite local restaurant. "Back again!" they exclaimed and proceeded to fill us up for our long journey ahead. At 10 pm, after another evening of movies, the proprietor knocked at our door. A kind man who spoke a little English, he was trying his best to help get information for us. Away he went. He had been gone for 7 hours and obviously had had a few drinks during his reconnaissance mission. He sadly informed us that the truck had been repaired but the driver had a run in with the local police and couldn't leave until 7 am. After another good night's sleep we were ready and raring to go. Walking down to the truck we were informed that, "Sorry we can't take you, we have too much cargo to haul." We had waited for 44 hours and now back to square one. Luckily we were able to enjoy the village and the peaceful garden of our little hotel in the process. This was in fact a great Madagascar village experience as we enjoyed life around us while (ha ha) making other plans! So much for all this theory about having no expectations and living in the moment. Why does the theory have to be tested to the max? Patience my Son! On to Plan D! One of the problems with really remote areas is that everyone is where they want to be. They don't need to go to anywhere else. "Why do you want to go south?" seemed to be the general consensus. We decided to go to the next town and a rattletrap of an old station wagon, taxi brousse picked us up. After waiting at the stand for an hour, it started pouring rain, for the first time in days, and we were all transferred to a regular size mini van, one of the oldest ones we have ever seen. With the rain the roads dissolve into an unbelievable mess of deep ruts, washed out hills and puddles that vehicles, once entering them, have been known to never resurface. As we slid, bumped and jarred along people were laughing and chatting while we shared photos, jokes and peanuts 'pistach'. Leaving late means arriving after dark but there goes that logical mind again. There were only tiny very rustic villages dotted along the way through the rolling forests. We stopped for a bit at one larger one, expanded single handedly by the couple next to us with 14 children. We enjoyed all the people who had come down to watch this rare vehicle unload cargo and villagers home from the big town. Unbelievably muddy and dirty the little snot nosed kids laughed with us while they learned the valuable life skill of how to peer through the goggles of 'junior birds men.' Tickled at our encounter they giggled, villagers posed as Joseph photographed them, and a melodic harmony of voices rang out as women sang traditional songs in a distant hut. Saving the best for last the road dissolved into the largest ruts to date, filled with squishy red goo. Our driver wasn't very experienced and soon had us hung up, high and dry - or should I say high and wet. After digging for an hour we saw lights coming up behind, the first all evening. Like rats abandoning ship we flagged a ride and crammed in with a pastor and his family. Not believing God would protect him, we sat next to a soldier or body guard with his machine gun banging my leg the whole way. We have not noticed a bit of unrest or trouble since we arrived, even though the military tries to keep a high profile during these times of governmental transition. Possibly this pastor was formerly aligned with the opposition. Who knows? At least we would try to get to the next town. Definitely making it on a song and a prayer, we arrived. But where? Everything was completely dark and after finding the one 'restaurant/hotel' in town I set about trying to cook food while Joseph looked for a bed to sleep in since this restaurant was without rooms. A kind family offered us a little thatched hut ($2 ), without Jacuzzi, and we spread out our 'silks' (lightweight material used to cover less than clean bedding) and we slept like logs until the roosters told us it was time to go. Like a giant mirage, the cargo truck from our last town appeared, and we piled in the back along with the rest of the passengers, about 20 or so. Once we claimed a place near the open back and got a blanket and some foam to sit on we were all set. After all it was only 60 miles to the next town - no problem.
That was the most unbelievable road trip we had ever had. Pouring rain had transformed the roads to ruts and mush and only this intrepid, daring truck had the guts or craziness to even try it. We got out and walked over rickety, unsafe bridges, up impassable inclines as the workers grunted and groaned, digging out the wheels, hauling rocks and pushing the belching beast through the worst of it. It was best to just off road it, as the ruts from previous failed attempts were impassable. Across streams and at one point over the top of a beautiful waterfalls we inched our way along; one painful mile after another. Sixty miles - 12 hours with no stops. There weren't any towns let alone restaurants and we made use of road delays to pee behind the trees.
Sound like a disaster? Although tired and jarred we had a really fantastic day. It started with Joseph goofing with the workers hanging off the back and we spent many hours joking and laughing. Their enthusiasm and joviality under these dire circumstances was contagious and we got to know each of the fellow passengers as we walked, talked and bumped along. One man spoke a little English and translated for us as we showed our pictures and told 'our story' Everyone it seemed took turns telling their story, an art lost in the fast paced world of TV. The five Muslim men, washed in streams and laid out prayer mats for call to prayer. The women chatted and the girlfriend of the main 'clown' worker who had been sending me daggers all morning finally relaxed when I turned down her boyfriend's offer to be his new girlfriend. My second offer of the morning. We all bumped along, thrown side to side in a writhing mass of humanity, eating fresh oranges from a woven basket and never missing a chance for a joke or laugh. We crossed over a dozen small newish metal bridges and rode, with our truck, across an equal amount of one vehicle ferry crossings. The smooth ride across various bodies of water always ended with one of the most challenging ascents up the 'road' from the ferry. The landscape which we drove through was spectacular from thick wet jungle areas to high rolling golden hills, punctuated by rivers, inlets, cascades, lakes and a backdrop of either distant central mountains or the crashing surf below. Villages were only near the ferry crossings or in the forested areas and we drove for hours and hours without seeing a soul. Mostly sunny all afternoon the rain would spit down from occasional passing clouds. Large pitcher plants, with little lids to shut out the rain, lined the roads, a few lone birds passed by and large butterflies like floating leaves caught the gentle breeze. The only animal we saw was a furry little lemur on a rope at a thatched hut. I guess everything else has been eaten long ago. Long lines of villagers would come out to stare in amazement as this ghostly mirage rumbled by, probably the first in months as the rainy season drew to a close, by the calendar that is. Stares of utter amazement told us white faces aren't common around here as group after group pointed us out to their friends and family. After we smiled, waved and greeted them with a friendly, "Salama", we were caught up in a wonderful warm form of communication that only happens in these remote regions. Such shy but welcoming villagers points out how it is always our responsibility to make the first friendly move. Locals are often scared or intimidated by foreigners, especially those completely out of context like crammed into the back of a cargo truck with villagers, but we are always given a return gift of a large wide grinned smile and reply. One finds what we look for in life. And we sure have found the smile capitol of the Mozambique Sea, right here in Madagascar.
Arriving into our destination town turned out to be a gathering of thatched huts huddled together, with ducks enjoying the rain and wide eyes peering out from dark candle lit doorways. We gave our business to the lady who was riding in the prized spot on our truck - the front seat - in fact the proprietress of the only hotel/restaurant in town. Settled into our unique little bamboo hut we dug through the boxes unloaded from our truck and with the help of her friendly 17 year old son, figured a way to cook them up. A sudden downpour found us running for cover, glowing coal fire in tow, but somehow, against all the odds, a hot plentiful curry was concocted, amid the delight of the many village women who helped me peel and chop. "Me Sauta". Thank you! We bought a papaya off their table and set off to bed. Talking with a young French NGO worker earlier who taught the children how to grow vegetable gardens, we realized how lucky we were to be sitting all day on boxes of vegetables, in this land of meat or fish and rice meals. We often buy vegetables and fruit when see them but we can only carry so much so we leave it up to chance. Off we went to bed, still moving in our sleep from our rough day on the road. Knowing how bad the roads are and wondering if another truck could even get through the mud wake we had left behind, we decided to be on our cargo truck when it left the next morning, no matter what. We were told that we were to sit in the front, (hooray!!) of another cargo truck headed to Ft Dauphin and said a warm goodbye amidst chattering and handshakes to our daring comrades from our truck. One of the workers even tugged at Joseph's pants amid a roar, just like he had teased all the vulnerable workers hanging off the back of our truck the previous day. Crawling down a washed out incline we felt right at home and soon were speeding along, looking forward, not backwards at another 12 hours on the road. All of a sudden a noise caused the driver, the father of our last polite but excellent driver, to pull over. To our utter dismay 10 minutes later the axle was laying on road. Not looking good Joseph took one of his long walks ahead up the road and I hung out, waiting................, something we are getting the hang of. Actually if you don't look at it as waiting, rather just part of the trip and observe what is going on around you, as if it was part of the itinerary: such as "Tuesday, Day #3, 2 hours interacting with locals in their native environment", time passes without all the frustration and anxiety. Besides what are the options? These were the only 2 vehicles we had seen for days. Apparently 'missing us', our first truck chugged up an hour later and everyone set about rolling up their sleeves and tackling the greasy mess before them. It was proclaimed an hour later that it was broken and everyone would have to double up and pile into our truck from the previous day, which now was empty in the back, with nothing to sit on over the jarring road ahead.
Complaints? Not a one as
everyone broke into laughter, moving bags, chickens, kids into the
older truck. We said goodbye to the father, who would have to
wait with the truck for 5 to 7 days until his son's truck returned with
the part, maybe. It is the 'maybe factor' that always plays a
roll in these journeys. Had we waited in the last town and
this truck had broken down en route, we may still be there
'waiting'. We picked up Joseph about 5 miles up the road.
He had spent great time in the tiny thatched roof villages, been
entertained by one of the local hand made ukulele type guitars, and
watched as boys did back flips off the sand dunes. There was a
disagreement about sitting arrangements and I had a turn sitting up
front while Joseph sat in the back and played snag the rice bag with
Ali Barber, proud Muslim owner of 3 wives. The scenery
brightened our day, with one glorious vista after another. It
was a long, arduous, jarring trip and we arrived 15 hours later,
barely making the last few river crossings (no bridges here) as the
skies opened up and the water quickly rose up to the tops of the
gargantuan tires. Almost midnight we
practically swam towards our hotel room, sore and totally exhausted,
but smiling because we had just had a real 'Mad escapade'.
The only gap in our life is from missing family and friends, a void
filled by our reunions, phone calls and emails. We have
discovered that if we start feeling overwhelmed, or are on the brink
of exhaustion, all we have to do is take a break. We clean up,
get a good night's sleep in a decent hotel and announce we will move on only when we
feel like it.
Sometimes it takes 4-5 days, sometimes a week or two, but the
longest we have ever stayed in one place was 2.5 months on Hainan
Island in Southern China, avoiding cold weather up north.
After a longer stay somewhere we always look at each other, nod, and
away we go, hitting the road once again. It's something in a
person's blood, the passion to discover what is over that next
mountain or around the next bend. We are never disappointed.
And so it goes.........................................Next month from the southern tip to the northern tip of Madagascar. Until then lets look for the best in ourselves and those around us. The dear folks of this friendly island remind us that no matter what happens there is a sunny side to everything. Share a smile with those around you and watch your day improve. It starts with us. Again, thanks for sharing this website with friends. Glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch! Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 2,000 Ariary
Parks of Madagascar:
Train: Worth the effort to ride this last remaining stretch of rail. Just arrive early and pile into the 2nd class coach where the action is. The 1st class only can be reserved, at an extra 20,000pp, to sit in similar seats with often complaining tourists. One of the ladies from this car threw candies like she was scared, to the kids who swarmed the car, only encouraging further begging from foreigners. Slip a treat, sticker or pen to a youngster you get to know or who is well behaved but come on........... Think! Be a responsible traveler.
Internet: Order a tea at the very pricey Kaleta Hotel up the hill and you can use internet for free.