Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Madagascar: Tana to Diego Suarez


At the end of our Bangkok to Antananarivo post, we had discovered our luggage was delayed—but not lost.  We didn’t know how our bags were going to catch up with us while we were moving to a new location each day, but fortunately, we had booked all of our travel here through a local company, Cactus Tours.  We knew one of their employees was waiting for us on the other side of security, and we hoped he would know.  We found Parany holding a sign with our names on it, and after we explained why we didn’t have any luggage, he exchanged contact info with the baggage claim office.  He drove us through the outskirts of ‘Tana, past several hand-propelled carts, each carrying an amazing number of empty barrels.  We also passed ox carts, lots of cyclists, and many pedestrians on our way into central ‘Tana.  Before he dropped us at our hotel, he advised us not to walk after dark, or on vacant streets even in daylight. 


The capital is hilly, surrounded by plains and flood valley filled with rice fields.  Our hotel, the Chalet de Roses, was in a hilly region, and there is a wide range of architecture, but there is a 50’s feel to much it—possibly due to the slower pace of development since independence in 1960. 


The streets here were cobblestone.  We walked to a nearby ATM and withdrew a fat wad of cash (the exchange rate is 2,100 Ariary to one dollar, and the machine dispensed only 5K and 10K notes).  There were two armed security guards watching the ATM, and as we stepped up to use it, one of them moved to stand between us and the street, facing towards the street.  That, combined with Parany’s warnings made us a little more nervous than we’d been since we first arrived in Quito.  We weren’t yet sure if it was the same sense of false-insecurity, or not.  However, we felt confident enough to walk to Sakkamanga, a nearby restaurant for lunch, which was the first real meal we’d had in 24 hours, and it was excellent.  There were many families walking on Sunday afternoon, and our instinct was that we were quite safe.  The warnings did convince us to stay in after dark, and we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was a mix of excellent flatbread and tinned-tasting pasta.


In the morning, we put the same clothes we’d been wearing for two full days, and Parany drove us back onto the plain, to meet with Rina at the Cactus Tours office.   Rina was the woman Lana had arranged all our travel details with via email, and she was wonderful to us.  She had heard about our luggage, and gave us each a straw hat and a shirt with the company logo.  They assured us they would take care of getting our luggage to us, once it arrived from Kenya.  The bags would still need to clear customs, so we gave Rina the combinations to our luggage locks—we hadn’t even thought of that detail.  Our driver took us to the Jumbo store—fairly similar to an Alco, or a miniscule WalMart—to buy some spare clothes to get us through the next three days of hiking.  We managed to find an odd assortment that was a relative improvement over what we were wearing, as well as some disposable razors (we both had our toiletries in our backpacks—including our anti-malarial drugs, but David’s electric razor was in his larger bag).  Then back to the airport, and two short hops to Diego Suarez at the northern tip of Madagascar, where we met our guide, Shielo: 

 Shielo was very enthusiastic, telling us all he knew about Madagascan culture and sharing bits of his life with us. He was very religious (he went to church every morning) and was married with five children. They hadn’t meant to have five, he said, but the last two were twins.  Despite the fact that the twins were keeping him and his wife up at night, he was lighthearted with a wide, lingering smile.

 After picking us up at the airport in Diego Suarez, he took us out to an area northeast of town called Sakalava Bay, where we wandered along the sugary white sand beach, watching kite surfers while having a picnic lunch he’d packed for us, as our flight had been delayed.

We were pretty weary at this point, although the picnic lunch revived us enough to take a walk along the beach, and then drive to see some baobob trees—our first of many to come.   The are some of the most interesting and majestically weird trees in the world, with fat trunks that poke up high above the surrounding landscape, topped by flat, radial branches that appear so bare that they look like roots reaching for the sky. They are also known as “upside-down trees” which seems an apt name once you see them.

 We were still wearing the clothes we’d put on Saturday morning in Bangkok, and it’s now Monday afternoon.  Our main priority in purchasing clothes was to find items with full coverage for protection from sun, undergrowth, and mosquitoes during during the several hikes we had scheduled before we’d see our luggage again.


David ended up with a pastel state trooper look, and pants that were 2 inches above his ankles, but were long enough to tuck into his socks (which he discovered when we ran into swarms of mosquitoes issuing from the tall grasses we walked through on our first hike).  And clearly, Lana is pleased with her outfit too:


In fact, these clothes were ill fitting and ridiculous enough that Lana ended up washing out the clothes she had worn on the plane each night and laying them out to dry so that she could wear them the next day. She did buy a different bra (the sizing was a guess at best, and there had been no dressing rooms at the Jumbo), but then it broke after the first wearing so she ultimately ended up wearing both bras together. 

Our first 48 hours in Madagascar had left us disoriented, off-kilter, and out-of-sorts. But even still, our eyes were already wide with the wonder of the countryside. Men running barefoot in the center of the capital city pulling ox carts behind them.  Flooded rice fields filled with cattle egrets, black herons, and naked children.  White vans that took the place of city buses in Tana, heaving with people, back doors swinging open and fare-takers hanging out the back ready to pull fresh passengers on. Dusty streets filled with makeshift market stalls in Diego Suarez.  Turquoise waters and fine white sand and purple trees against an azure sky. We seemed so disconnected from the modern world that we were shocked to have wifi at our hotel that night (and downloading the just-published copy of The New Yorker to our Kindle underscored that chasm). It seemed impossible that this place could exist in the same world as where we were from, or where we had already been.
And we hadn’t even seen a single lemur yet. But all that would change on our third day in Madagascar.