Mora mora is the Madagascar way of saying, "Take it easy." That's what I'm doing with my installments about our trip. I wanted to work something up that conveyed the magic of the travels, but I'm in the middle of edits and my brain is all sensorized, pretty-prosed out. My timing is ever thus. I comforted myself, too, with the thought that the photos aren't online yet, and I should wait so I could coordinate words and pictures. But waiting is hazardous when there are 1500+ photos to sift through. Therefore, in the meantime, here are the first days, impressions, and events, double-spaced for ease on the eyes.
Following a flight that lasted less than 45 minutes, Julien and I disembarked on the tarmac of the airport in Nosy Be, Madagascar (Nosy=Island; Be=Big). For those who don’t know, here is the location. It's lovely to arrive at one's destination fresh and jet-lag free.
Men and women behind a chain-link fence shouted at us and made signs like, “Hey, friend, we’ll meet up afterwards! Good to see you.” Since English has only been one of the official languages in Mada since April of this year, all this took place in French. We got our visas without a hitch and were helped with our luggage by an airport attendant who then tickled Julien’s elbow for his tip. Translation of help: Watch another attendant put the bags on the trolley, accompany the trolley seven of the fifteen feet to customs.
After a cursory look at our bags, an official unlocked! the door to the exterior and let us out into a crowd of Malagasy taxi drivers and moneychangers. The trip being a surprise for me, I hadn’t read up on what to expect, but apparently it is perfectly normal (not to mention advantageous) to have one’s moneychanger climb into the taxi and conduct the transaction en route to your destination instead of visiting a staid bank where one is pushed and shoved and must jealousy guard one’s place in line, only to receive an inferior rate.$
Our taxi driver offered to be our personal guide and chauffeur for the duration of our stay as he sped along the narrow, rural road to Hell-Ville,* honking at pedestrians and swerving around other cars, his foot pressed firmly the accelerator of his Renault 4L (pronounced “quatrelle”; the queen of cabs in Mada). He did, however, pull over and kill the engine to let two zebu bulls finish their head-butting competition in the middle of the road. The moneychanger got out in Hell-Ville, and the driver took us to the village of Madirokely, on the southwestern corner of the coast, honking all the way in refusal to those looking for a ride. He was operating on a special fare and we had the car to ourselves.$$
The landscape was different, vaster and flatter, than our island home, but the vegetation was much the same except for the low earthen grids marking rice paddies. Tiny houses on piles gave the roadside a picturesque charm that is missing from Mayotte now that most homes are made of cinderblock or corrugated tin.
We checked into Chez Senga and were led to a room with a balcony overlooking the bay. The hotel clerk came back up the stairs a few moments later with extra candles and the news that the generator was out of service so no electricity for the night. (The island had electrical power until recently; now all homes and businesses are back to operating on private generators.)
J was afraid someone would inadvertently ruin my surprise by speaking of what was to come--Madirokely is truly a village and many of the businesses have family ties--so as we sat on the balcony, he revealed that we were going to leave for seven days on a pirogue with an excursion company, Alefa. (The English is poor, but the pics are nice.) The idea of the trip was so wonderful, I got teary eyed just hearing about what we would do and see.
We arrived on Tuesday and our departure with Alefa was on Friday, so we had two full days to fill, and it being my surprise, Julien wanted me to help choose what we should do. A walk on the beach that night helped us decide. Or rather a timid gentleman named Dany did with his offer to be our coordinator and guide to the Lokobe Reserve for the fee of 50,000 ariary each (around 21€).$$$ We said we’d think on it and arranged to meet at 9am with our answer. Exhausted, we were in bed at nine.
Julien ruined me on the trip by waking up that first morning at 5:30. I stumbled out of bed at 6 to admire the already-light sky, and after a quick shower (no hot water at Senga), we went for a walk on the beach. Women carrying huge baskets of fruit on their heads sold us mangoes, tangerines, bananas, and a pineapple, which we took back to the hotel to accompany our breakfast of toast and jam. After eating we went upstairs to brush our teeth, and lo, no water. No electricity to run the pumps, so... Good thing we already showered. It was still early, so we walked down the beach in the direction of Ambatoloaka, the village just beyond Madirokely, to book a dive for the following day. Dany was pacing outside the hotel when we got back.
We climbed into the rented car with him and our driver and away we went to Hell-Ville to buy supplies for lunch and to change more money. Dany didn’t say a word, and J and I joked amongst ourselves about paying a such a timid guy to be our guide. On the road to Lokobe, we were stopped by the police who were trying to make the driver bribe them. We got away without paying anything. Several kilometres later, we turned off onto a dirt track that was more ruts and potholes than road. The track sloped between the trees of an ylang-ylang plantation, and Dany asked the driver to stop so he could fetch us each a blossom and tell us the name of the tree. Woo! we thought, he speaks! The 4L was having a heck of a time, almost stalling out, going downhill, and we asked our loquacious guides if they thought we’d have to push it on the way back up. No, no, it’s fine, they assured us.
We arrived in the village of Ambatozavavy and got out of the car, direction pirogue, for there is no road to Jungle Village, the entrance to the reserve. It was low tide, so we had to walk a ways through the mangrove to reach deep enough waters for the five of us (pirogue owner, Dany, Dany’s brother, Julien, and moi). We all took up a paddle and twenty minutes later reached the beach of Jungle Village. Dany handed over the groceries to be cooked up for our return and we had a quick look at the wares on sale for tourists before starting our walk with Dany and his brother, who turned out to be the “real” guide. During our hour-long walk, we saw the black lemur, male and female, the nocturnal lemur, a python, a boa constrictor, crested drongos, kingfishers, two different types of chameleon, and geckos.
Upon returning to the village, we found lunch was ready for us, and momma mia was it delicious: shrimp in spicy tomato sauce, grilled mackerel with coconut rice, cucumber and tomato salad, and tiny bananas for dessert. Dany said it was custom to take three servings (and rude if you didn’t), so my eyes were popping by the time we got to the bananas. We bought several things (I’ll spare you the shopping list) from the artisans, and made our way back to the pirogue. Ah, nothing like paddling to help you with digestion. Back in Ambatozavavy, we stopped by Dany’s parents’ house so he could give them some money. The residence was constructed on piles, half of palm branches (just the spine) and half of tin. Slats of light shone through the planked floor, the wood so thin, I feared I’d drop through it. The entire home was the same size as our hotel room and, as J put it, witness to great poverty. Dany’s mom sat on the living room floor, his father retreated to what was, I think, the kitchen, and Dany, J, and I sat on the three chairs that took up most of the space. We waited in the disorderly gloom as Dany and his parents stared at the floor, out the sole dusty window, occasionally saying a word or two to one another in Malagasy.
On the dirt road, on our way back to the pavement, we had...::drumroll::... car trouble! We chuckled--it just contributed to the ambience--and climbed out while the men fixed it. Some ten minutes later, we were once more on our way. God bless the days of simple engines. This time, our driver wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, so when the police stopped us, they tried to fine him. He asked J to pay it, and J said he had no money, so the cops let us go. The things that make you go hmmm.
The following day, after another early rising, we moved our baggage to a hotel called La Marée Basse (the Low Tide) because Chez Senga didn’t have room for us that night. We didn’t mind since LMB had electricity and running HOT water. We spent the morning with Forever Dive and did two dives in the reserve around the island of Tanikely (Little Land). Lots of fish, huge sea slugs, masses of black coral!
We had lunch in Ambatoloaka with Loïc and Emilie, a couple we met at Forever Dive who used to live in Mayotte. Everyone’s lunch was good except mine--something was wrong with my shrimp, blurk! J didn’t think so, though, and finished them--but the “scenery” left a lot to be admired. Nosy Be is infamous for its sexual tourism and this village is a happening spot for it. It was heartbreaking to see teenagers decked out in trashy Western garb flirting with older Caucasian men.
Julien decided to go back to Hell-Ville to run some errands that afternoon, but I opted to stay at the hotel since my eye was giving me problems. I had a hot shower and a lie-down, getting up to go to an appt we had with Alefa so they could introduce us to our travelling companions and guide and give us practical info about the trip. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands, but there was no water in the sink. I flipped on the light switch. No electricity. I thought perhaps there was a problem with the sink seeing as how I’d just had a shower. Nope, no luck there either. Hoping I had the shower tap in the off position, I left for the meeting.
G and V, a nice couple from Reunion Island, were already there, leafing through an Alefa photo album. G had a horrible sunburn on his legs, and V’s legs were covered in insect bites. Still they were looking forward to the journey. Julien was running late, as was the other couple we were to travel with. Halfway through the meeting, they all showed up, Julien only a few minutes behind the other couple, O and S. O and S struck me as a bit...mousy, but I chalked it up to embarrassment over being late. Still, as soon as the meeting was over, they hightailed it out of there.
J and I went back to our hotel to find a lake instead of our room’s floor. Obviously "off" was in the other direction. Luckily the camera bag was on a shelf in the closet and the bottom of our travel sack was plasticized. We helped the clerk clean up the mess, and he moved us to another room. As if that wasn’t enough wetness to deal with, we got caught in a tropical downpour on our way to dinner in a gargotte, a restaurant that is very cheap and serves local food. It was run by a man with dreads, and after the other patrons left, he put on some reggae, figuring that, from me, he wasn’t going to get an objection.
I had discovered caïperinas Mada-style (that is: freshly-squeezed limes, rum, sugar, and water) at Chez Senga and quite liked it, so J and I each ordered one while waiting on our seafood platter. Wellllllll, the rastaman’s caïpe, as we came to call them, was sliiiiightly stronger than I’d had before, and when J went next door to buy a long-sleeved tee, I had no one to “anchor” me. Still, I fought valiantly and remained in my seat, with my mouth closed, and did not embarrass myself. I just head-jammed, discreetly, to the music with restaurateur and another dreadlocked brother who had come in to enjoy the tunes and take shelter from the rain. I’ve never been drunk in my life, but I now know the next level up from sangria, which I discovered on my honeymoon, is caïperina.
Back at the hotel, we hung our dripping clothes to dry, plugged the camera batteries into the charger--no electricity at all where we were going--showered, and headed to bed with the alarm set for 5:30...
Coming soon: The Excellent Adventures with Alefa filled with breathtaking scenery, annoying travel mates, tranquil sunrises, attempted holiday wrecking, ferocious rocks, excellent food, mosquitoes, and fine music.
*Named after Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, a French admiral, of the male stripe despite the first name, rather than the hellish state of the city, though I can attest to that, too. The city is supposedly now known as Andoany, though we found no proof of it in place names or everyday speech.
$ Our moneychanger said the rate was 2400 MGA/1€ before we got in the car and pulled out our €20 bills. Then she said that the 2400 to 1 exchange was only good for bills of 50 and 100. 20s were worth 2300 MGA. We should have argued and refused to change if she didn’t give us the better rate (because if you hold firm they’ll give it to you), but we didn’t know that at the time.
$$ A *special* taxi is a normal taxi whose only passengers, at that moment, are vazahas (Europeans and others of Caucasian features). The fare is 30,000 MGA from the airport to Madriokely, and 15K from Madriokely to Hell-Ville (that’s the fee you pay for the car so no one else can climb in with you). The price for a collective taxi, though, from Madriokely to Hell-Ville is 2,000 MGA per person.
$$$ On Tuesday night, Dany distinctly said 50K each. And nodded when I said 100K total. On Wednesday morning, Dany distinctly said yes when we confirmed that the price was 100K. Then, Dany said we owed him 120K once we arrived back in Madriokely. Instead of making a fuss we paid it because nothing was in writing and it wasn’t that much by our standards, but I detest that kind of manipulation.