Friday, January 3, 2014

Bangkok to Antananarivo

We had heard there was a direct flight from Bangkok to Antananarivo in Madagascar, but we couldn't get there that way.  We could fly there via Paris, Johannesburg, or Nairobi.  Nairobi seemed the closest connection, so we chose a nine hour Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi, with a layover and then another two and a half hour flight to Antanananrivo.  Our flight left Bangkok at 12:30 am, on the timetable of international flight that doesn't deal on local time.

We had to check out of our hotel at noon, and so we killed time in the plentiful shopping malls, trying to avoid being outside. It's hot and muggy outside, and that's a reason, but our main goal is to avoid getting caught up in the Thai New Year, called Songkran.  On Songkran a few drops of water and talcum powder are pressed to the forehead of the elders as a sign of respect. But really, after that is done in the early morning hours of the day, it becomes a water gun and talcum powder fight in the streets.  We don't want to lead into 11 hours of flight soaking wet and powdered in talc. We have read about where the water fights are prohibited, and so we stick to our hotel lobby, the elevated railway, and the shopping malls. There are guards with large garbage cans by each entrance to the train, and teenagers empty their supersoaker water guns in them. They are soaked to the skin. As the day progresses they are covered in smears of talcum powder as well.  The trains are crowded and it's increasingly hard not to get damp and talc-smeared as more bodies press into the train cars.

It's after dark when we leave for the airport. Our hotel is connected by an elevated walkway to the MTR, which we have to take to connect with the airport train. All day we've watched water fights from inside: teenagers filling their guns in fountains, workers at a nearby restaurant throwing buckets of water into the street, onto people on motorcycles, and people with windows open on city buses.  Everyone seems either gleeful to be participating, or sullen and wet, avoiding eye contact.  I think back on watefights from my childhood, thinking about how long they might have lasted. Certainly not all day, or in the case of Songkran, for three days. And usually there were for our five of us. I wouldn't have believed you could get a whole city--a whole country--to participate in a water fight unless I had seen it myself.  We begin to get nervous about our own journey to the airport, so we leave with plenty of time to get there, just in case. Just to get the journey over with.

The trains are crowded and we're taking up more than our allotted space with our bags strapped to our backs and fronts. We try to stand between the poles in the middle of the train, parallel with the doors and back to back. More and more people get on the train, pressing their soaked bodies into our dry ones.  When we reach our stop I have to push and scream to get off the train before it gets moving again, fighting against the surge of people who insist on getting on the train before we've gotten off. It's the most aggressive we've had to be on public transportation anywhere, and I can hear panic in my voice as I shove my way out.

Once we get out, we have to cross to another station where the airport express train departs once an hour.  We nervously glance around, looking for people with water guns waiting to soak unsuspecting backpackers.  As we get our tickets, we see that the train leaves in a minute, and the next is an hour away.  We run as fast as we can with bags that collectively weigh 45 pounds each, which is not very fast.  We strip off our bags and sink into seats, examining the wet patches on our clothes, from sweat and being pressed against Songkran revelers in the MTR. Neither of us seems smeared by talcum powder which seems lucky.
20130413_223950_SGP4_2013-04-13 22.39.50
I close my eyes and let out a shaky breath. This is our last night in Thailand. Our last night in Asia.  We arrived in Singapore on Valentine's Day; back home, tomorrow will be Tax Day. We've been in Southeast Asia for two months.  Of all the countries: Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, it's Thailand that's been the hardest on us.   David got horribly sick on the train from Chaing Mai down to Bangkok, running a high fever, passing out and then throwing up all over himself.  We spent three days in Bangkok hunkered down riding out whatever got him sick.  He slept and ate soup. I went in search of a pair of long pants that I realized I'd need for hiking in the next leg of our trip, Madagascar.  Trying to find a pair of pants over a size eight in an Asian country is laughable.
We went down to the Thai islands for a week, where it was so hot and soupily humid that we spent several of our days laying in our bungalow's bedroom underneath the air conditioning unit, doing as little as possible. We took a snorkel trip that was somehow entirely filled with Thai tourists.  Despite having snorkeled our way through the Galapagos and the Great Barrier Reef we were required to wear life jackets in the water.  The lunch was cold and inedible. I cut my foot deeply on a coral beach later in the day.  We enjoyed our time in the water as much as we could, but were thankful it wasn't an expensive day trip. We tried to take another snorkel tour on a private boat owned by a crazy German ex-pat, but something was wrong with his motor and he just brought us back to shore after a large, lazy circle (at least the motor acted up while we could limp back!).  We had a kitchen in our bungalow but couldn't find a supermarket to buy food we could cook for ourselves, so we ate out, which was not all bad. We ate a lot of meals at short tables pressed into the sand, or sitting on pillows on a dock over the turquoise waters.

Back in Bangkok we tried to pick up a package David's mom had sent to us General Delivery, which contained the next three months' worth of my daily epilepsy medication. We'd tried to get it on our first trip through Bangkok, and we got another package she sent with things like shoes and deodorant, but the packet with the medication wasn't there.  When we returned to the post office, it was closed for Songkran, two days early, and would be closed until Tuesday, two days after the holiday. Our flight left at 12:30 am Sunday morning. 

There's no way to put it other than I became hysterical, in front of the closed post office, as people stared as they walked by. I was mostly angry at myself for miscalculating when the post office might be closed. I was also panicked about how I was going to get enough medication to last me for the next two months through Madagascar, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey until we got to Europe.  And I think it was also just one final, ugly straw. I'd had enough. Enough hot and sweaty and dirty and stinky and food that I didn't know what it was and trains without air conditioning, and bad hotel rooms and indifference.  I wept, and screamed, and raged. People were kind but I saw it all through a blur of my own tears. An older man who spoke English tried to help, talking to the security guard and someone who worked in the back at the post office. He lent David his cell phone to call his mother in Colorado to see if there was a tracking number.  He was the counterpoint to everything bad that happened to us in Thailand, and he is one of the only reasons not to hate Bangkok. For all his kindnesses, it became a problem that couldn't be solved at the post office. 
Eventually David put his arm around me and led me back to our hotel, much in the way I'd cleaned up his vomit when he threw up all over himself on the train. I'd stripped his clothes off him, pulled down his bag from over our heads and got him fresh ones, and stood by train bathroom door that I insisted he leave open while he changed his shorts for clean ones.  In his turn David rubbed my back and propelled me down the street when I just couldn't see anything through my puffy eyes, dodging low hanging awnings and waving off the endless string of tuk-tuks asking "Where you from?" I was so angry with myself for not being more insistent when we were there earlier in the week, for not knowing the post office would be closed. I was so mad and I wanted to hit someone, but only had myself to blame.

Back at the hotel David found a pharmacy he thought might carry my medication, and that spoke English.  After all my anguish, we found the pharmacy, bought three months' worth of my medication for $350 (that would cost $1,500 in the US--and this was name brand), and went to lunch.  It was an expensive yet somewhat anti-climactic solution.

We found this to be true on each continental leg of our journey--by then end of our time there, we were ready for something different. As much as we had loved Southeast Asia, Thailand had soured us on it.  We were ready for the exotic pull of chameleons and lemurs, and also for three weeks that were completely planned, paid for, and guided. 

The flight from Bangkok to Nairobi is the longest one we've had in awhile, since our Christmas night flight from LAX to Fiji, where we had a day-long layover before flying on to Auckland, New Zealand.  We're braced for it though. We've got books to read and podcasts to listen to. I've dressed in leggings and a long tunic top, with a stretchy bra top underneath. I'm not a good sleeper on flights, but whether it's the late departure time, the stressful trip to the airport, or the tumult of the last few days, I'm exhausted enough to sleep.

We land in Nairobi at 5:30 in the morning, a slight of hand from traveling westward, where a nine hour flight only takes five.  The Nairobi international terminal reveals itself to be one long curving hallway with cinderblock walls and what looks like a tin roof.  In the bathroom a Muslim woman takes off her bright pink hijab to wash her face. Standing in line waiting for a stall, I feel like I’m invading her privacy even though there is no place else to look. But then I realize that we’re women together away from men, and I’m included in her privacy. I realize I’ve been seeing things the wrong way. I realize this over and over this year, so many times in so many places.

We sit near an outlet to charge electronics for a couple of hours, and then when it's time our flight should be leaving, we go to the gate.  The signage is bad in the airport and we can't understand the announcements, when there are any, and we end up having to rush to get on the last bus out to the plane.  Months later, after we're home, the airport goes up in flames, and we watch it television. It's no big loss, I say over and over. We did not have warm feelings for Jomo Kenyatta airport.

As we gain altitude over Kenya, we can see Mt. Kilimanjaro out the window.  It seems improbably solitary, and reminds me of the volcanoes we saw in Chile: conical and perfect, snow-capped, wearing a shawl made out of clouds.

Once it's out of sight we face forward again, squaring our shoulders for the next portion of our trip. There always seems a point on our journey when we were suddenly heading toward something, rather than leaving something else. Years ago I saw a documentary about lemurs which was, improbably, hosted by John Cleese. He traveled all over Madagascar looking for various kinds of lemurs, hiking in jungles and tiptoeing around at night looking for nocturnal species, and all the while being very, very witty. I put it on my "someday" list then.  It was the first place to be put on our list when we decided to travel this year. I had loved all of our destinations, to a greater or lesser degree, but this was the piece I had been looking forward to. We would be here for three weeks, traveling fairly rapidly by a combination of plane and private car, from the very north, all the way down the "backbone" of Madagascar to the south beside the Mozambique Channel.  I'd planned the whole thing months ago, arranging all the of the parts with a travel agency in Tana, a flurry of emails impeded by time zones.  It was a significant part of our travel budget, especially in relation to the amount of time we were going to be here, but this was one of the places we wanted to make sure we really got to experience in the amount of time we had.  We knew the travel would be somewhat hard going, and that we would be firmly in the developing world, but we couldn't wait to see what Madagascar had in store for us.
As we land the world is bright green and brick red. The capital city Antananarivo, or 'Tana as it's know locally, is nestled into the side of a knife-edged ridge. It is the only city of any size, and nearly smack-dab in the middle of the country.
It's a short walk across the tarmac toward the terminal, and immigration is a blur. We stand and wait for our bags in baggage claim. We can watch the progress as two men unload bags from the plane, by hand on to a cart, pull it over to the outside portion of the baggage carousel, and as is the want of baggage handlers everywhere, drop the bags unceremoniously onto the belt.  They are careless and taking forever to do it.  We wait, cart after cart, until the carts stop coming. We wait some more, and finally ask an overalled cart-pusher "C'est tout les baggages dans l'avion a Nairobi?"

"C'est tout." 

His eyes fade past us as if he's looking for someone in the crowd that's milling about, asking each other the same question. 

Our luggage is lost. It isn't the first time it's happened to David (his bag went on to Auckland from Fiji on an earlier plane that we flew on), but it is a first for me. But we've done this drill once before, so we head to the baggage claim ahead of several other people wandering around in hopes their bag is hiding somewhere.

"Your bags are in Nairobi. They will arrive on the next flight."

We learn the next flight from Nairobi arrives on Tuesday. It's Sunday morning. On Tuesday we will be 683 miles away in Ankarana, in the north of the country. It's a two day drive or an hour flight. This seems like a nightmare, especially as I simultaneously remember two things: we are scheduled to do a "sportive hike" on Tuesday in a national park, and I'm wearing a stretchy, absolutely unsupportive but very comfortable for sleeping bra top.

For once, and for the first time in our nine months out of the country, we have someone on our side to help in this type of situation. And he's waiting outside with a sign with our names on it. 

(to be continued…)