Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ankarafantsika to Bekopaka

The morning we left Ankarafantsika we breakfasted early on bread, butter, and jam. The day before we’d had large chunks of baguette and spreadable cheese, but this morning the bread was sliver thin and there was no cheese. We got the impression that the two baguettes we bought on the way into town were being stretched after the generosity of the day before.  After packing up and loading the minivan, we set off for the drive back to Tana, where we would spend the night before flying down to Morandava in the south on the Mozambique Channel.

We knew we had a long day of driving ahead of us, and so we urged our driver and Ndemy to play their own music in the car to pass the time. They hooked up Ndemy’s phone to the stereo, and we enjoyed listening to some Malagasy music, which seemed to us to be akin to folk music, with harmonies and a guitar-like instrument.

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The drive took us up over a series of hills that we wound in between, climbing a series of switchbacks.  The landscape was completely different from anything we’d seen before, but truly beautiful.

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At about 9 am we stopped in a town to grab something for lunch, as we wouldn’t be anywhere near a town at lunch time. While our driver took the car to get gas, Ndemy translated for us at the reputable restaurant in town.  We were offered chicken sandwiches, but we knew they would be sitting in the warm car until lunch, and we also saw no sign of power in the restaurant, so were very hesitant about getting a fast sandwich made from meat where there was no refrigeration.  We decided a simple cheese sandwich would be a safe bet. A few minutes later, the cook came out with two bagettes tightly wrapped in cling film, and we got in the car and got back on the main road.  Unfortunately, whoever made the sandwiches didn’t think a cheese sandwich was enough for us; around noon, when we opened up the sandwiches we discovered they were cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches, with lettuce and tomato.  And they had been sitting in the sun in the back of the hot car for more than 3 hours.

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Anyone who knows me knows I don’t eat mayo, fresh or not, but David wasn’t about to eat it either given its history (the three hours were less worrisome than no refrigeration at the restaurant where the jar of mayo was stored). Fortunately, we had braced for this possibility before we left Thailand, and brought a jar of peanut butter and some granola bars along with us. The photo below was David’s lunch.

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I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, so I left him to it. After we got to Tana and got a refund (or 'première nécessité') from the Kenya Airlines office for our lost-luggage expenses, we had an early dinner at the restaurant in our hotel, which made good pizza (the hotel was owned by Italians). I didn’t feel so great (foreshadowing!),  but I thought it was just from eating too much after not eating all day.

Somewhere around midnight I devolved from not feeling well, to bolting for the bathroom. I spent a good portion of the rest of the night lying on the floor next to the toilet.  I had that worst kind of diarrhea, the kind that runs out of you like water, again and again and again, improbably voluminous. In between I lay down on the cool tile in the bathroom, not caring how clean it was, or what I might be catching from it. My world had narrowed down, and down, and down into the pale figure of the toilet illuminated by the moonlight coming through the opaque window. Or it could have been a streetlight, it didn’t matter. I couldn't even bother with pulling up my pajama bottoms, I was that weak and out of it.

I hadn't thrown up, but I knew eventually that would happen (it didn't get beyond retching), so I wasn't willing to be far from the toilet and the trash can. I spent the rest of the night there, alternately on the floor and on the toilet, eventually having to put my head between my knees as my vision narrowed and got all sparkly. Eventually David woke up to the alarm and not finding me there, knocked on the door to the bathroom. "Are you ok?" he asked, opening the door a crack. He had missed the whole episode, sleeping more soundly than we had in the 10 days we'd been in Madagascar. It was just as well--there wasn't much to be done for me.
"No," I said, shaking my head back and forth on the cool tile floor I was lying on. "I am not ok."
He worried about whether or not we should cancel our flight and stay put, but I had him get me some immodium, antibiotics, and some water with gatorade powder we had brought along for this purpose, and shrugged my shoulders. He would get some breakfast; I would try to pull myself together.
Somehow when he was gone I managed to slowly, carefully pull some clothes on and get my suitcase zipped.  After that I sat on the edge of the bed and stared into space, trying to summon some kind of control over my body, which had been firmly in the driver's seat for the last eight hours.

David came back and was impressed enough with my progress to move our bags out to the lobby for our guide and driver, Ndemy, to take them out to the car.  When he saw me, Ndemy said "David says your stomach is upset?"  This seemed so far from the image I had of myself on the bathroom floor that I almost laughed, but instead just shook my head.

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In the car I turned my face to the window and watched the city with all it's swirl of colorfully dressed women and men driving zebu or running with a two wheeled cart behind them. I could feel the waves of fret and worry coming off David, but I didn't have the energy to allay it. Ndemy had a low conversation in Malagasy on his cell phone as he drove, and while I knew he was calling someone to see if he should do something other than drive us to the airport, I was doing my best to just sip a little gatorade and try to sleep a bit.

We were running late, adding stress to the situation, but we made it in time. I even managed to keep down a Coca-Cola and make several trips to the bathroom.  I began to feel the liquid sugar have an affect on my energy and attitude.  I might forgive my body for this episode after all. After some nervous hovering, Ndemy left us at the airport in order to get his boys to school.

The flight south to Morandava was short, only 45 minutes or so, which was the only reason I thought I might make it. I dozed through the flight but woke up long enough to get a drink called Bonbon Anglais, which was billed as lemonade, but looked more like Sprite and tasted like a cross between liquid cotton candy and bubble gum.  But it gave me another little sugar bump, for which I was grateful.  I leaned my head back and tried to drift away from myself. It was surprisingly easy.

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When we arrived in Morandava we could see the sand and water of the Mozambique channel from the air, and the air was a cool sea-scented kiss as I navigated the wobbly stairs off the plane with wobbly legs. My packet of materials said Ludo would meet us at the plane, but some of the other guides had changed since the itinerary was printed, so I was never sure who we would get.  It was in fact Ludo, whose smile was as snowy white as his t-shirt.  Ludo was only slightly taller than my 5'7' height, but he was very muscular with broad shoulders. His English wasn't as good as Sheilo's or Ndemy's but he smiled often, was easygoing, and seemed to have a good relationship with our driver, Jose.  He sometimes would look off over your shoulder when talking to you, as if he was looking for something, either to find the right words in English, or maybe it was just his way of breaking eye contact. He had a demeanor of both swagger and shyness at the same time.

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We met Jose out at the vehicle, a red Nissan Patrol which we would spend a great deal of time in over the next few days. Jose wore shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with flip-flops. He was bald with a smile so broad that you could see he was missing a tooth on one side. Something about that made me like him more, right from the start.  Sometimes you just get a feeling about someone, right away, and they fit right into your heart. Jose was that kind of person.

Ludo had gotten the message that I was not well, and assured us it wasn't far to where we were staying. We didn't have anything that we had to do that day (I vaguely recall some kind of tour of town or something on the itinerary), and so we were to just rest at the resort.  David let him know we needed some drinking water, so he took us to one of the roadside shacks that passed for a local supermarket everywhere in Madagascar. Generally run by families of Sri Lankans (although often these families had lived in Madagascar for generations), these slat sided structures carried dry goods and shelf-stable items, sometimes some baguettes, and drinking water by the case. He suggested we buy our water that we would need for our entire journey. David thought a case of six, two liter bottles would be fine; Ludo suggested two. They amounted to about $2 per case, so he shrugged as Ludo shouldered the second one.

The next day we would travel by Patrol for nine hours to get to our destination: the Grand and Small Tsingy de Bemaraha, one of the most remote and stunning geologic features of Madagascar. On our way there we would go by the Avenue of the Baobobs, the giant upside-down trees that looked as if they had been uprooted by some giant, and plunged into the ground with their roots in the air, the kind of joke a baby giant might enjoy playing.  The goal was to see both the Grand and Small Tsingy in one day, but Ludo told us that would depend on how I felt, and what the weather had been like. It had been dry, and therefore the water might not be high enough for our other planned excursion, a trip on the river in dugout canoes. But we would see when we got there.  On the way back, we would visit the Kirindy reserve, where we would have the chance to see the Verreauxi sifaka and the fosa (a kind of large cat), that was one of the only non-human predators of the lemurs I loved so much. And then we would see the Avenue of the Baobobs on the return journey, just in time to photograph them at sunset.

For the rest of today, though, we could hang out at the resort, which served meals and had a pool. There was a beach sauvage about a half kilometer away, if we wanted to go for a walk.  Two weathered and greyhound-lean men took our luggage the short distance to our bungalow from the car in a elaborately painted cart which looked like it was intended to be pulled by zebu.  The resort appeared to have a collection of these carts, with the more frail ones situated at intervals as a kind of landscaping sculpture.
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At our room, Ludo explained our journey and showed us the various light switches, one set for generator power, and one for solar power. The generator power ran from 5pm to 11pm. The solar theoretically ran from 11pm until 5pm, but in reality it petered out sometime the next morning. Ludo then left us to our own devices. Our little bungalow was quite beautiful, and one of the nicest places we stayed in all of Madagascar. It was made out of some kind of local hardwood, with a front deck complete with two cushy papasan chairs and a king size bed four poster with mosquito netting. There was a flat-screen tv with satellite channels, and air conditioner and a fan, all of which didn't work until the generator was turned on at 5pm. The fan was supposed to work on batteries charged by solar power, but there wasn't enough power left by the time we got there at mid-day.  The bathroom was similar to others in Madagascar, with a showerhead on one wall and a slow-moving drain in the middle of the floor. There was no such thing as a glorious shower in our time in Madagascar, but still we were grateful for every one we got.

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At this point, however, I was too exhausted to even get out of David's way as he took pictures of the room to go along with his journal entries. I lay down on the bed, which was delightfully large and cushy, and slept the sleep of the sick.  The day was hot, although the sea breeze was cool and sweet, and we did nothing much.  Eventually we walked up to the restaurant for some lunch, pushing through the soft sugary sand that served as a pathway.  We couldn't see the Mozambique channel, but all of our other senses were finding hints  of it, from cool, salty skin to the sharp smell of brine in the breeze. We could hear groups of kids walking to the beach together, shouting and laughing on the other side of the fence that surrounded the resort. It wasn't certain if we were being kept in or they were being kept out, but the divide was palpable.  Later we would learn that the resort was owned by a Sri Lankan family that owned several resorts, and the walls would make more sense, somehow. There was the understanding that the places like this resort, similar to another we stayed in on the northern resort island of Nosy Be, were only possible because the money came from elsewhere.  It didn't seem as if anyone thought it was a dream you could even conceive if you were Malagasy, the amount of money necessary for flat-screen tvs in every room.  There didn't seem to be anyone else  at the resort, except for a staff that outnumbered us ten to one, all attention in their boredom.  We passed a quiet day, I ate a little rice and some more gatorade, and slept.

The next morning I was definitely feeling better, and I thought that if I could just make it through the day without having to find some bushes for a bathroom I might just recover on the long drive. All I had to do was enjoy the scenery from the back seat.  Ludo explained we had about four hours, and 57 miles of driving on a sandy track of road, and then we would cross a river. On the other side of the river we would have some lunch, and then carry on from there, where the road would be more rutted, but not sandy, and much slower going—about 5 hours for another 50 miles. We would cross another river, and then we would be at Bekopaka, and just a short drive up to our hotel for the night from there; the drive would take us all day.

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The sky was a sharp blue and cloudless when we left Morandava, at 6 AM.  It was already warming up and we had the windows down and enjoyed the breeze.  The Avenue des Baobobs is just a short drive out of Morandava, and we took pictures and marveled at the enormity of these oddly singular trees. The were outsized and seemingly out of place in the low scrub and sand around them.  Ludo pointed out that there was some fruit hanging high up on one of the bare branches. He said you drink the juice, and it was sweet but good. David said he wanted to try it. Ludo said he would try to find us some, but we got distracted and missed our chance.

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I had a joke I kept making in my own head, which I didn't even say out loud even to David, it seemed so grossly misplaced.  As we passed further and further from civilizations, no towns or even villages but just small groupings of stick and mud houses, I kept thinking, Really, if you wanted to kill us, this is already the middle of nowhere. We don't have to go any further.  Much like hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I had read that getting to the Tsingy was as much a part of seeing it as actually hiking in the Tsingy. Everyone talked about the length of the journey, the arduousness of the travel, even our previous guide, Ndemy. He had promised we would forget it all once we saw the Tsingy for ourselves.  I was taking his word for it.

After driving most of the morning, we reached the first river.  There was some kind of outpost at the ferry crossing, a place to buy a squatting meal from a large bubbling pot, a couple of shack stores. We got out of the truck while Jose navigated it across a set of metal ramps, then scrambled aboard. The ferry was two hulls with a wooden platform on top, and a wheelhouse on the back. They all seemed to know each other well, chatting and laughing in Malagasy.  One one side of the ferry there were about fifty wooden chairs lined up, on their way to the town on the other side of the river, part of a load of goods being transported from Morandava, or a container ship at Fort Dauphin further south. Somehow one had been smashed in the transport, and it stood out like a broken tooth. I kept thinking of that phrase: re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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But the ferry seemed sturdy enough, and we enjoyed our trip across, which entailed traveling downriver as well. The whole transfer took about a half an hour.

We had lunch in the dusty river town, where I ordered some rice and a couple bananas, if possible. David wearily ordered the ubiquitous zebu on the menu.  Immediately after ordering we watched someone head out to the market with an empty basket to pick up a few things for our lunch, most likely some bananas, but possibly a cut of zebu steak as well.  About 30 minutes later, the same person returned, and after another 15 minutes, our meals arrived at our table.  After lunch we ordered our lunch for the return journey, so that it would be ready when we got there, rather than having to wait for it to be purchased and then prepared. This was common practice everywhere in Madagascar, but it did give you some confidence about the freshness of the food. Not that I was interested in anything I didn't peel myself for a while.

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Ludo said that this was the point at which we'd really be on a 4WD road and the next bit would take us another five or so hours. It was 50 miles to the second river crossing.  Really, if you wanted to kill us, this is already the middle of nowhere. We don't have to go any further.

The road really was rough, with deep grooves that seems like they were from some serious torrential rain. (Foreshadowing!) Sometimes we drove in them but more often we would straddle one set.  "You weren't kidding about this road being bad," David, or more likely I, said.

"The road is very good today," Ludo said, "We are lucky!"

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There wasn't much traffic, thankfully, but we stopped to chat with each vehicle we did pass, including some supply trucks for one of the hotels.  They spoke Malagasy to each other but it seemed the conversation was always about the road. We learned the Malagasy word for thank you on the road to Bekopaka.  At one point we overtook a taxi-brusse, one of the long distance transportation options, essentially a pick-up truck with a canopy and benches in the back, that carried as many people as it could, some men hanging off the back. As we pulled up alongside them for the requisite chat, we realized that there was a white man in the back of the taxi-brusse. The first one we'd seen all day.  I had a brief thought that maybe he was traveling more authentically than us, meeting "the people" and having a truer experience. Ludo pointed the Frenchman out to us, although we'd already seen him, and he waved to us through the slats that made up the structure of the back of the truck. We waved back, and felt like rich bastards with our driver and guide and Nissan Patrol.  He didn't seem to begrudge us our experience, and I thought back to my night on the bathroom floor and admitted my experience thus far had been "true enough" for me.

If I had known what was in store for us in the near future, I wouldn't have wished for a more authentic travel experience, but it was always hard to imagine what was to come next. So far this portion of our year-long travel had been filled with newer and greater hardships: the loss of our luggage for the first five days (a first for us), some kind of nasty GI bug, very little electricity, cold showers, and bad food and too little of it. But despite all of this, we were constantly amazed and astounded by the geology and wildlife of this place. It seemed to have been waiting for us to come and discover it. It seemed for every hardship, there was an even greater reward, whether it was an opportunity to feed a lemur from my shoulder, or my joy at finding the exquisitely tiny minima chameleon, holding the most fragile, tiny life I had ever seen on the tip of my index finger.

I would have to hold on to this thought quite a bit in the following couple of days, as Madagascar had more dramatic landscapes and surprises in store.

To be continued…