Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Madagascar: Nosy Be

After spending much of our days hiking in Montagne d’Ambre and Ankarana, we had some lower intensity days of travel and relaxed day trips scheduled. We headed northwest to the coast, where we would take a ferry over to our next destination, an island in the Mozambique channel called Nosy Be (pronounced Nosy Bay). That is where we would finally be reunited with our luggage. We had been in contact with Rina, from our tour company, and she promised that it had already been delivered to our hotel. It’s funny how much attachment and affection we had for that small amount of stuff that comprised our worldly goods. When you’re excited to be reunited with your bras, you realize how much your life has been changed by 8 months of travel (David was more interested in his hat, razor, and the battery charger for his camera).
20130418_082337_7D_IMG_20800But before we were back with our luggage we had a morning’s drive worth of ground to cover, which included lots of interesting things to look at. The cattle in the photo above are a brahma variety locally known as zebu. Zebu meat, steak more often than not, figured prominently in our meal choices. We had good zebu, and some really bad (tough, not spoiled) zebu.
Along the way we saw this panther chameleon at the side of the road in someone’s front yard. It’s hard to think of anything that might be in our front yard that would compare to a chameleon. One of Madagascar’s great charms to us was its absolute difference, both from our own lives, as well as from any of the other countries we’d visited.
This was a typical mode of transportation that we saw often in our driving throughout the country.  If you look closely the baskets strapped to the top of the car you can see they are filled with chickens. Later in the trip, down in the south, we saw two sheep being strapped to the roof of a car. How they managed to get them to lay down in order to tie them to the roof was a mystery to us, but they did.
Finally, after a few hours of driving, we made it to Ankify, the place where we would take a ferry over to Nosy Be. After losing our luggage and several hours of driving slowly over largely potholed roads, we were hoping transportation issues were going to get better. Not quite yet.
Before we even got out of the car there were men banging on the windows trying to get us to buy tickets from them. They seemed to act on a free-lance basis, all of them selling tickets to the competing ferries.  As it turned out, most of those ‘ferries’ were a guy in a small speed boat. Shielo told us to stay in the car while he left to buy our tickets. We watched wide eyed; it was unlike anything we’d seen, even in ‘Tana. It looked a bit like the floor of a stock exchange, but with wrestling thrown in. There was a lot of pushing, shirt pulling, and posturing.  We saw one man stuff the money from a ticket purchase into the front pocket of his jeans, and then struggle to keep another man from extracting it—he eventually lost at least a portion of the proceeds. We weren’t sure who was in the right. We decided to put the rain covers on our back packs, both in anticipation of the ferry crossing, and as a security layer (in retrospect, the first assumption was well founded, and the other likely not). Finally it was time to go, but from the moment we got out of the car, we stepped into chaos. Despite the fact that we had tickets, people pulled at our clothes, shouting at each other, sometimes even coming to blows. As we headed down to the water to get in the boat, we stopped at the shore, trying to figure out how we were going to get onto the boat, which was floating a few feet from shore, in water about 2 feet deep.  As we were thinking about taking off our shoes, the salesmen started plucking at David’s sleeve, demanding more money for the tickets Shielo had already bought from him. Shielo was about to intervene when the salesman began to point animatedly at the bag David was holding. David asked Shielo what they were saying, and he said “he likes your shirt.” This was one of the shirts they had given us at Cactus Madagascar; we were carrying our clothes in plastic shopping bags (in lieu of luggage), and that shirt was visible at the top of David’s bag. Because we knew our luggage was on the other side of this boat ride, and because we didn’t have a lot of extra room in our packs for shirts that we were unlikely to wear (they were quite hot, and men’s sized), David handed the shirt over to him without a second thought.  The man’s partner looked crestfallen, so Lana dug into her grocery sack for her identical shirt (which was on the bottom, of course) and handed it to him.  They looked like they’d won the lottery.  Before we knew what was happening, they knelt on either side of Lana, each grabbed one of her legs, and lifted her up onto their shoulders, while she shrieked and laughed.  They walked carefully into the water, and set her down on the boat, then returned, and lifted David into the boat the same way.  That seemed to provide great amusement for the passengers onboard, including Lana.


We likened the ride itself to something between crossing the river Styx and a three hour tour on the S.S. Minnow. There were three inches of water in the bottom of the boat. There were no seats left by the time we boarded the boat, and many people were already sitting on the edges of the boat; the only empty edges left for us were at the rear of the boat, on either side of the steering wheel. Between us were three other people and a large, industrial boiler making the journey over to the island (and the pilot had yet to squeeze behind the wheel). The speed boat was not nearly as big as the boat below, closer to the size of the small boats pictured above. We counted 25 people in our boat, easily 10 more people than should have been in it. We were fortunate enough to get life jackets, but there weren’t enough to go around.  We got soaked from the wake (this is one of many times when the rain covers on our backpacks, which we wore on our chests, earned their keep), and if all that weren’t terrifying enough, once we were out of sight of land entirely, the engine quit.  The pilot got it started again, and we got far enough to see the island when the engine seemed to really die. Eventually the pilot coaxed the engine to a stuttering idle and we puttered very slowly toward the far shore.  It quit again when we got into the harbor, but we managed to crawl to the dock. We were very grateful that we didn’t have our bags with us, because everyone else’s bags were either sitting in three inches of water or had been sprayed with water in transit.  We were also very lucky that the seas were calm, as we had no power to keep the bow into the waves—the small ones only rocked the boat a little.
We’d arrived in Hell-ville (no hyperbole, that is the actual name, but it is also known as Andoany), which is the only town of significance on Nosy Be. But we weren’t staying in Hell-ville. A driver from our hotel picked us up at the dock and drove us to our hotel on the opposite side of the island, where we were finally reunited with our bags. Lana actually crouched down and hugged hers. After checking in and getting our bags, we were shown to our own bungalow, complete with a beautiful view and a hammock to enjoy it from.
We also found this guy inside our room, waiting to greet us. Such a bright and cheerful welcoming committee.  By the time we reached Madagascar, we’d been in the company of geckoes in our rooms in Ecuador, Bali, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. As they kept the bug population down, we were always happy to see them, though they did sometimes wake us with their peculiar cries.
While we were delighted to have our bags back, that elation was dulled by the discovery that David’s bag was soaking wet.  His clothes smelled mildewy, and the cotton bag we used for dirty laundry had black mold spots on it, so it likely had been wet since Kenya.  Also, his electric razor was missing.  We assume that it fell out while clearing customs in ‘Tana, since a small box of cotton swabs stored in the same pocket was also missing, and not a likely theft item.  Fortunately, the hotel had laundry facilities, and David’s clothes smelled fine after a wash.  The razor was an inexpensive travel model, so the loss wasn’t so much monetary as functional.  David will look pretty stubbly in pictures from this point forward.
Hotel Grand Bleu was one of the few places we stayed that had power all day long, in addition to an air conditioning unit in our room (such extravagance!) for an extra $10 per night. Moreso even than those luxuries, the fact that the wifi worked, and worked fairly well, was enough to get us to hang out by the pool and relax for the rest of our first day in Nosy Be. We had some lunch, checked our email, and generally tried to recover from that crazy ferry crossing. 

The next morning we headed off for a day excursion to two other, smaller islands near Nosy Be: Nosy Komba and Nosy Tanikely.  The hotel driver took us to a small resort town called Djamandjary in a tiny Renault 4 (almost all of the taxis on the island were identical) that looked like a car out of a Richard Scarry book.  When we arrived at the beach, there was a problem with our tour, and we had to wait a little while, and ended up joining another small group.  We weren’t sure if the problem was this boat that was being pulled onto the beach or not, but fortunately the boat we ended up taking was quite pleasant, and not dangerously overloaded.

After we arrived in Nosy Komba, we were taken to a glorified petting zoo, where we saw black lemurs, which are sexually dimorphic (only the male is actually black, while the female is brown).  The lemurs there had been habituated to people, and were quite willing to jump on your shoulder for a piece of mashed up banana. Despite the fact that it felt sort of wrong, Lana was all-in for a close up encounter with a lemur. The lemurs weren’t captive, and we saw them come and go from the area of the “zoo,” but they were certainly happy to settle in on your shoulder for a photo session.
Our guide was very willing to take photos of Lana with her camera. Unfortunately, as you can see from her expression in the photo above, that David took from behind the guide, he managed to smear smashed banana all over her camera. Her unbridled joy in this experience was therefore a bit tempered.
Still, it was pretty darn cool, and the banana paste wiped off (handkerchief for the win!), and Lana’s smile got wider.
The photo below shows you the difference between the male and female black lemurs, and the male was certainly less shy than the female. But eventually she decided the banana Lana was holding was worth it.  A little description of what it’s like to have a lemur perched on your shoulder: first of all, they don’t smell bad, not even particularly musky. Our guide smelled bad, but the lemurs didn’t. Secondly their little hands are very soft and without any type of claw (they have fingernails, with a few exceptions). You can see they have an opposable thumb, which makes them very dexterous, and is the reason they can leap from branch to branch and tree to tree with such ease. They’re fairly light, and very gentle.  Finally, it made Lana ridiculously happy.
We were stopped along the way by a chameleon, who wondered if one of us had the time. Lana obliged him by showing him her watch. Unlike the lemurs, chameleons have relatively sharp little claws, but they’re so small it feels more like they’re just sticking to you rather than clawing you. Watching this guy’s eye swivel around to take each of us in was so fascinating.
Finally, after an hour of “free time” to wander through an extensive marketplace, and then a school yard that was on recess, we hopped back on our boat and headed to Nosy Tanikely for lunch and some snorkeling. Lunch was various skewers (shrimp and the ubiquitous zebu) and rice, various salads, and baguette; dessert was a plate full of pineapples and bananas, which were scrumptious. For some reason the bananas in Madagascar don’t ripen to yellow, but remain green, even when ripe. They were sweet, but also had the complex flavor that any banana does when eaten near where it was grown.
After lunch we spent some time snorkeling in the waters offshore. Much of the coral had either been damaged by the cyclone which had whipped through Madagascar prior to our visit or by bleaching. Still, many of the corals were beautiful, and we swam through large schools of small silvery fish, which swarmed and dodged around our bodies playfully.
After we came back up on the beach to dry off, one of the women coordinating our tour offered to take us up to the lighthouse at the highest point on the island. The view was beautiful, and we saw some common brown lemurs as well as one last sighting of a panther chameleon (ho hum, just another chameleon!).
At the end of a long day, we motored back to Nosy Be under a sky full of beautiful clouds.
We left for Hell-ville early the next morning, in time to hit up the only ATM on the island before our return to the mainland. Madagascar was the kind of place where we learned that you don’t pass up an opportunity to use the ATM. They are so few and far between, and everything operates on a cash economy. After a more subdued version of chaos on the pier in Hell-ville, we managed to get on a boat that had half as many passengers as our previous trip, enough life jackets for everyone, dry storage for our luggage, and no standing water in the bottom of the boat. Our couple of days on Nosy Be were a nice interlude of relaxation between a few hard days of driving. Our next destination would take the better portion of two days to reach over roads that were paved but badly in need of repair.