Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Behemoth-Part Two

Leg Two Point Five: Mananara Town.

Shoreline of Nosy Rangonsty

Shoreline of Nosy Rangonsty

Our first order of business was finding a hotel where we could sleep, wash and eat; Chez Roger was that place. We spent $12.50 total or $6.25 each on a small bungalow out behind a restaurant with two twin beds and a bathroom. After cleaning up and a nap, we set off in search of the Madagascar National Parks Headquarters for Mananara. It took directions from six people and finally a kind lady escorting us the final ½ kilometer to find it, but we made it! When we arrived, we learned that the park director, the only person with whom we had been communicating for arranging all the research plans (and who knew exactly when we were arriving) was in Tana and wouldn’t be back for another six days. Additionally, the guy we had been told would be our advisor was adamant that the park director wanted to be our advisor himself. Sooooo, we chatted with him anyway, trying to get his advice on anything really, like, how I was actually going to get out to the island and what I would do for food etc. while there. Most of the answers were extremely vague and along the lines of “oh, you know, you’ll just figure it out” or “talk to so and so”. Which, surprisingly were not all that helpful, but Marley and I were extremely persistent and direct and eventually I figured out that I really just needed to talk with another guy Justin to figure out my island details because he is the director of that region of the park while Marley needed to find a guide and arrange all the details with them. Also, minor detail, our “advisor” was leaving for Tamatave the next morning and wouldn’t be back until the 20th of April.

Eastern side of Rangonsty

Eastern side of Rangonsty

On our walk back to Chez Roger, Marley and I decided that we basically were totally on our own for this project and shouldn’t expect anything to happen unless we really pushed for it, which was fine since we both wanted a good adventure. To keep this blog post from being miles long, I’ll briefly summarize the next couple days: we went back to MNP each day and tried to hammer out more logistical details, and when we finally had purchased our tickets in the next taxi-brusse to Sahasoa (this time in the bed of the pickup), we ran into Justin (who was already supposed to be in Sahasoa) and he casually dropped the information that he wouldn’t be getting to Sahasoa until Monday but that I couldn’t go out to the island until probably Wednesday anyways because there was a cyclone coming in…it was Thursday. I was looking at almost a full week of no research, which didn’t seem as enticing as it sounds. But I already had my ticket for the next day, so I figured I would just kick it on the beach there until I was allowed to go out to Nosy Antafana.

Leg Three: Mananara Town to Sahasoa.

Victorious selfie on my birthday

Victorious selfie on my birthday

I finally understand how my clothes feel when I put them in the washing machine. That is, perhaps, the most accurate way to describe the trip in the bed of a taxi-brousse on the worst roads imaginable. Twelve people crammed into the back of the pickup truck, which has one bench on each side of the bed. Marley and I really thought that the best seats would be the very ends with our legs able to hang out over the end since normal legroom doesn’t exist since all the luggage gets laid down on the floor along with the spare tire. The bench itself was a sturdy piece of wood with perhaps a millimeter of cushioning long worn down by repeated people slamming into it. The smooth black plastic covering it was just the right texture to give plastic burn on your butt. I quickly discovered that I wouldn’t be able to stick my legs out of the back because there were more people standing on the bumper, so my feet were squished between the spare tire and the bench underneath two separate people. My knees were pulled up to my chest and I was sitting on a very small section of the bench near the truck gate. It rapidly became transparently clear that there is no ‘managing’ on a taxi-brousse in the bed of the truck; you just do your best not to fling yourself off and take your chances walking. Every bump in the road, and don’t worry, 97% of them in the country are concentrated between Mananara and Sahasoa, feels like you are dropping dead-weight-fall-style on your butt on hard wood. Why? Because that is exactly what you are doing: every bump flung everybody up into the air and crashing back down into the seats. Since all the roads are either uphill or downhill, everybody gets thrown towards the back or front end of the truck, respectively.

My birthday celebration

My birthday celebration

Thus, it required constant vigilance and a death grip on the wooden beams above our heads. We all grabbed on wherever possible and winced silently in pain and the luggage strapped to the roof of the camion-style top slammed into our fingers. But the pain of crushed fingers and bruised knuckles was much better than everyone sliding too far down and either Marley or me going shooting off the back end. Since the violent shaking/bouncing up and down and left and right never let up (due to those pesky road conditions), we were forced to be in a constant semi-pull-up position to prevent our heads from bashing into the ceiling or from missing the narrow bench on the return fall and getting wedged between everyone’s feet and the three individuals sitting on the luggage on the floor. Of course, to really complete the experience, the bench was just far enough below the ceiling that my shoulders protruded from their sockets a wee bit, adding yet another stress to my body. I can honestly say that the list of injuries was so great that it was hard to isolate one location that hurt the most. But I loved it for what it was: a learning experience and an opportunity to gain a huge amount of appreciation for all other forms of transportation-also in retrospect a pretty funny story.

 

There is always a prise at the end of the rainbow. This time it was Sahasoa.

There is always a prise at the end of the rainbow. This time it was Sahasoa.

At one point, the truck got so stuck, but at an extreme angle, that I had to prop myself up to keep from falling on Marley who was sitting on the opposite bench. Even the faces of the hardened taxi-broussers were full of terror and when the silly vazaha (that would be me), semi-suspended from the ceiling, started motioning in panic for everybody on the low-side of the truck to get out to prevent the truck from flipping over, they quickly responded by rapidly exiting. Thankfully, with our quick reactions we didn’t actually tip over and we even managed to get unstuck with little wasted time, but it was a close (and really exciting) call. We stopped midway on the trip for lunch at a hotely and I guzzled water like I had been furiously working out, because, surprise surprise, I had been.

The main way to describe this five-hour leg of the journey (to go a mere 36km) is an intense mind-game. I was playing chicken with my body: which would give out first, my body or my will power to stay put in the truck. Side note: it was this jaunty that convinced Marley and I to NEVER again ride in the back of the taxi-brousses, which therefore meant that we would be hiking the return journey over the mountains through the rainforest with all our gear.

Leg Three Point Five: Sahasoa.

Little lizard friend who lived in my tent with me

Little lizard friend who lived in my tent with me

Once at Sahasoa, we stayed in the community center bungalow for the steep price of 10,000 Ar ($5.00). Marley was going to be doing her study in the town and then in a second town 8 km down the road and I needed to stay somewhere until I could venture out to my island. The town was beautifully situated right on the ocean and the divided equally on both sides of the road with little tiny stores marking the town center. The amenities were quite simple and I loved it! We had a bucket shower (home sweet home now) and filtered water from a community well to drink. We ate all our meals at the little hotely in town, where a small kitten adopted us and enjoyed snacking on our leftover fish bones.

When we entered the hotely for the first time, we sat at a wobbly wooden table on simple wooden stools and noticed the decoration on the back wall: a drawing of a fish, chicken and large black dragon. Marley and I immediately commented to each other on how strange it was to see a mythical creature depicted, as we hadn’t before seen one in Madagascar. However, we didn’t think much of it as the owner quickly approached and inquired whether we would like the “akoho” (chicken) or “brouchette” (zebu brochette). Since I had been eating only chicken and rice for the last several meals, I thought I would switch it up and try the brouchette. Out came the steaming plates of rice, followed quickly by the small bowls with meat. My bowl contained a strange black, leathery looking thing and then a chunk of brown meat on an odd bone. I was a little unsettled and I asked Marley’s guide what the meat was, just for, you know, clarification.

Sunrise the last day on my island

Sunrise the last day on my island

He replied that it was a “wild bird” and quite good. So I tried a small bite of the brown meat, but, finding it a little strange and still not 100% convinced about what I was eating, I stuck to the rice. The next morning, when we returned for breaky, the only option was the brouchette, so we all three watched as bowls were placed before us, and this time I noticed that the black leathery thing distinctly looked like a large wing. Marley and I almost simultaneously turned to Darese her guide and inquired as to the EXACT nature of the meat. He said ‘oh you know, wild animals, to which Marley said ‘like tenrecs” (which are little hedgehog like things). But he slowly shook his head, a little confused and said “chauve-souri, bat”. Marley and I blanched a bit, then reexamined our plates, and suddenly it all became clear: the dragon decoration on the wall wasn’t just a painting – it was the MENU. And it wasn’t a bat, it was a giant, fuzzy, adorable endangered species: flying fox. So. There I was, sitting at breakfast with a dead endangered species on my plate during the independent study period of my biodiversity and natural resource management program. Great. Ironic? Perhaps.

Leg Four: Sahasoa to Nosy Antafana.

Due to the cyclone, the waves were enormous and I wasn’t able to get out to my island until Monday morning, but I was just really stoked that it was before Wednesday. At 6:30 am I put my large hiking backpack into the front end of a hollowed out tree and sat myself down in the back end, looking with a little anticipation at the vast expanse of water between paradise and myself.  Since the motorboat owned by the park was broken, I had hired a two-man traditional canoe or pirogue to paddle me out to the island. The coolest part was that unlike the two pirogues I had previously ridden in, this one was unbalanced, i.e. it didn’t have the extra log as a stabilizer. It was exactly the kind of canoe that our program director had advised us to be wary of, since they tend to be a little unbalanced (shocker that one). But it wasn’t until we were quite a ways off shore and bobbing over the large, 15-foot swells that I realized if the canoe flipped, all my stuff would be gonezo and I would probably spend a good hour or two swimming into shore. Luckily, the worst thing that happened was the sky opened up and spat down rain for 15 minutes. Despite the slight apprehension I was harboring regarding my safety, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the beautiful shoreline slowly pull away and the deep teal ocean get larger and larger. Eventually, as we drew near the three islands, the water started to get shallower and suddenly we were passing over huge coral massifs and the water was a crisp, clear light teal. At that moment, if all my things suddenly fell into the water I wouldn’t have blinked an eye but remained transfixed staring at the ocean floor.

Leg Four Point Five: Nosy Antafana.

Part of my home-made belt

Part of my home-made belt

I spent a spectacular eight days on my island in paradise. There were many frustrations on the research front, but at this point, I had fully adjusted to nothing working out as planned and was willing to change accordingly. My first real obstacle was the broken motorboat. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be able to snorkel on the deep reefs without using the boat, so I had to wait for that to get fixed, but they didn’t have a time estimate on when that would be. The only place I was allowed to go to myself was the second largest island, Nosy Rangonsty, and the sandbar between the islands. So, I set about being productive. I created a system for taking tallies underwater by cutting off the sleeves of my tee shirts and tying them with rope into small sacks, then stringing them onto a longer strand of rope that I wore like a belt. For each category of urchin I placed a small piece of dead coral (collected from the beach and stored in another pouch) into the respective pouch and at the end of each transect I counted out the number and wrote it down in my field journal. Simple and elegant (or so I would like to think).

Living on the island with me were three men, one, Rolond, was an awesome middle-aged man who cooked with me and spoke French, the other two were younger but did not speak any French, so our conversations were extremely limited. The three of them, plus Patrick who ran the boat but wasn’t yet on the island, are the island guardians and monitor the waters to make sure people aren’t fishing on the coral and are abiding the park regulations.  The island itself was stunning with white sandy beaches fully wrapping all sides and the center was a dense, lush rainforest home to thousands of fly fox bats. There was also a large population of rats, but they were the small, cute, mousey-looking ones. I set up my tent under a little overhang next to the only building on the island, which houses the guardians. Every night it poured and was so windy that I honestly thought my tent might blow away if I hadn’t been inside it; several times my tent-fly went on a little jaunty by itself and I had to go retrieve it from the large tree behind my setup. I had brought my own food to the island, but I only found rice and white beans in the little stores of Sahasoa so I ate rice and beans for every single meal and they were always rewarding after a day of work. I had brought a few spices form home in anticipation of meat, however, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t use Rotisserie Chicken Seasoning or Joe’s Stuff on beans, because you can, and they taste delicious.

 

Our attempt at a funny photo

Our attempt at a funny photo

On my birthday I woke up early enough to watch the sun rise over Nosy Rangonsty, which was stunning and such a simple beauty to experience. As I sat on the sandy little peninsula that I made my home for the week, I reflected on just how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to come so far both literally and mentally on this trip. Even for the Malagasy, getting to Mananara is a feat and most never make it; the number of visitors to the park last year was 89, including the Malagasy tourists. After a satisfying breaky of rice and white beans with a hint of Rotisserie Chicken, I gathered my lamba and camera then headed across the lagoon to Nosy Rangonsty. Of the three islands, Rangonsty is by far my favorite: the west side is protected from waves and is home to a healthy mangrove forest; the island itself is covered in a dense rainforest complete with a small tomb and bubbling stream; and the east side is rocky shoreline, rather like the Maine coastline, but instead of the cold dark Atlantic ocean it is the deep blue teal of the Indian ocean crashing over the huge rocks. The rocks even have healthy populations of large crabs that go scuttling every which way as you walk by. I spent a couple hours sitting on the largest of the rocks just watching the Indian Ocean crash spectacularly over the rocks and fringing reef while the sun slowly moved across the cloudless blue sky. I spent the afternoon swimming in the water between the two larger islands counting the number of Diadema setosum or needle spined urchins. As dusk was falling, I went around the shoreline and collected 21 dead sea urchin hulls and lined them up on the beach then, as my island version of blowing out candles, I jumped on them and squished them into small fragments of their former glory. That evening I was journaling on the beach while the sun slowly sank behind the mainland leaving a peaceful darkness over the island. Dinner was once again rice and beans, this time with a hint of rosemary and thyme. After dinner though, things got crazy. Hahaha not really. I asked the guardians if they drank, as I had brought three small bottles of rum and a liter of Coke to reign in my 21st birthday. Of course, in traditional Malagasy style, they drank like champions and I really didn’t have a chance of keeping up. We shared the beverages and enjoyed a funny three-way conversation in which I spoke to Rolond and then he translated to the other two guardians and vice versa. After killing the three bottles of rum, I brought out one package of Le Petit Beurre crackers and we each ate 3.66 crackers, which were better than any birthday cake, probably because they were the first food that wasn’t rice for over a week. At this point, Rolond busted out his cellphone and blared really loud traditional Malagasy music and the two other guardians started to dance. I quickly turned my headlamp to the strobe setting and Rolond followed suit with his. We had a great little dance party there in the tiny room with rats scurrying by and candlelight flickering amid the flashing of two LED lights. Just before calling it quits for the night, I brought out my camera and we took a couple pictures using the timer on my camera. I tried to explain the concept of making a funny face in a photo, but somehow they didn’t quite ever manage to pull it off, so the photos are actually quite funny.

The rest of my time on the island passed quickly but so excellently. Eventually Patrick showed up with a fixed boat and I was able to snorkel on the reefs, which were so stunning and beautiful. I even saw a sea turtle and octopus. By the time I had to head back into shore, I was both really sad to say goodbye to my slice of heaven, but also excited to see Marley and have a really long conversation full of head-thrown-back laughter.

Leg Five: Nosy Antafana to Sahasoa.

Since the engine was working on the boat, we took it into shore, which still took a solid half an hour, but it was incredibly fun to feel the wind in my hair and splash of the ocean putting by (since the motor was only 20hp). When we landed on shore, I carried my stuff down the beach and surprised Marley who was reading on the beach. After a happy reunion, we played cards on the beach and made the final arrangements for our journey back the following day.

Leg Six: Sahasoa to Mananara Town.

On April 24 we woke up at 4:30 am, finalized our backpacks, strapped on our headlamps and opened the door to a pitch-black rainy morning. My bag was 57 pounds (we actually weighed it), Marley’s was 40 pounds and her guide’s was approximately 20 pounds. The first two hours were along the road to a small town where we stopped for a breaky of rice and fish. The only disgruntling part about the breaky wasn’t the food, but the fact that the small child of the restaurant owner was terrified of foreigners (vazahas), mainly because they have horror stories to tell small children, but rather than boogey men, they use vazahas as the monsters (this is not a joke). And the friends of the owner liked to play the game where they hold the child up in the air and see how close they can get to the vazaha before the child starts screaming in terror. So that was a great start to the morning. “Congrats, you terrify children because your skin is not the exact same shade as his.” In all honesty, it grows tiresome to have children in the small villages either cry when you walk by or if they are slightly older say “Bonjour Vazaha” on repeat. There is absolutely no blending in-everybody stares at you constantly, no matter what you’re doing, even if that is trying to use the bathroom in privet. It just doesn’t matter; vazahas are a great source of entertainment, which normally doesn’t bother me, but on this particular morning I recall being quite frustrated.

The next four hours were on a narrow trail that was slick with mud from the past 24 hours of rain. We climbed up and over several rainforested mountains and through valleys with vivid green rice patties, at times hiking for a kilometer or two through mud up to our knees. My Chacos frequently had small rocks and sticks stuck between the sole and my foot, but remained comfortable and brilliant the whole way (although they aren’t quite the same color as before…). We spent the first five hours of the hike unable to really appreciate the views that we presumed would be stunning because of the rain and cloud cover, however, what we could see was just so beautiful that I mainly forgot about my extremely heavy bag. Our next break after breakfast was three hours later and consisted of five minutes of splashing the mud off our legs in a refreshingly cold little stream, then we hauled on our bags and set off once more. Five hours into the hike it stopped raining and the sun came out, showing us everything we hadn’t been able to see previously, like the stunning coastline far in the distance partially hidden behind the deep green mountains we had just traversed. A couple of hours later we stopped for five more minutes, then trudged off again, much more aware of our bags’ weights than previously. By the 8th hour of solid hiking, I was getting tired and my shoulders were not pleased with my decision to carry my semester’s worth of possessions. Marley was a champion and broke out a small protein bar she’d brought from the States and we split it (we offered the guide some but he politely refused). Holy zebu was that delicious. It wasn’t rice or beans and it had a light peanut buttery flavor…YUM.

Hiking home

Hiking home

Also just what I needed at that point, when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to lift my bag to put it on my shoulders. I did. And the next hour was the hardest hour of hiking I have ever endured and then for the final, tenth hour of hiking Marley and I swapped bags so that she could have a different shoulder strap but also because I was in struggle city with my heavy bag. When we finally rolled into town, 23 miles after our start in Sahasoa, both Marley and I acknowledged that we had definitely reached the outer limits of our endurance and were ready to crash. Unfortunately, when we showed up at Chez Roger, really stoked to have made it and be done, they didn’t have any more rooms. It was the only hotel in town, so we were at a loss of what to do. I was game to just set up my tent in the middle of the dirt road and camp, but for obvious reasons that wouldn’t work. Just when we were getting to a point of despair, Marley’s guide said that there was another hotel in town, which turned out to be a room in his friend’s house, but we didn’t know and didn’t really care. All we wanted was to wash, eat and then sleep. The next kilometers walk, half on the beach, to his house was really, really difficult. When we finally stepped onto the porch, we dropped the bags then dropped ourselves to the floor, refusing to move for at least fifteen minutes.

Leg Seven: The rest of it.

At this point, my fingers are going to fall off and I can’t type any more, so I’m going to quickly summarize the rest. We finally met with our ‘advisor’ for an hour before leaving Mananara by taxi-brousse, and I purchased fresh, high quality vanilla straight from the source. Our taxi-brousse from Mananara to Tamatave on the return journey had it’s own unique aspects, but the most fun one was the three hour break down on the side of the road during which Marley and I managed to find a little hotely with fresh calamari cooked to perfection. When we finally arrived back in Tana at 3:30 am, 36 hours of travel after leaving Mananara, we slept like hibernating black bears. We kicked it in Tana for three days, starting our paper write-ups and generally becoming clean, normal human beings again. Then on May 1st we flew back to Fort Dauphin and I have been here since, continuing my data analysis and paper.

I wouldn’t change a single moment of my last month and I really did enjoy everything so much. My greatest desire for ISP had been to rough it and challenge myself, and I think I successfully managed that. I believe the coolest thing about all the insane voyaging I did was the end result: no travel seems too hard for me to tackle in the future. Even my return trip to the states looks like a really quick, fun jaunty. I find it quite humorous that my trip from my house all the way to Madagascar was the exact same length as my trip to Nosy Antafana from Tana, but was SO much cushier and luxurious. Get at me life!

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The Behemoth-Part One

Mananara Marine Reserve

Mananara Marine Reserve

The past month has, without a doubt, been the most challenging and rewarding month spent in Madagascar. Four weeks ago I set out on my Independent Study Project (ISP), which we had been preparing for since practically day one. I won’t get too detailed on the process leading up to my departure, however, it should be stated that before dispersing across the country, everyone had completed their final ISP proposals which contained detailed information regarding the location of their study, their methodologies, their advisors’ identity and contact information, and their travel and check in dates. For a plethora of reasons, I chose to do my project in the marine reserve of the Mananara National Park in the northeast of Madagascar. Primarily, I wanted to visit a national park that we would not be passing through as a group, but I also really wanted to do a project near/in the water because of the extreme temperatures and I’ve always been interested in marine studies. Additionally, Barry and Jim had assured me that there is no place more beautiful in Madagascar than Mananara. Therefore, I carefully planned out a research project involving a survey of the Echinoderms on the coral reefs in the marine reserve. Side note: the marine reserve consists of three small islands, the largest of which is only 1 km2, surrounded by fringing coral reefs and in the center a shallow lagoon, i.e. beautiful.

 

Sahasoa beach

Sahasoa beach

One other student on my program was also going to Mananara, although she would be doing her project on the mainland researching access to medical infrastructure and the effect of the park on the villages, so I was going to have a travel buddy, for which I was extremely grateful. Why? because Mananara is the least accessible of all 48 national parks. The trip involves four parts: (1) Tana to Tamatave by taxi-brusse; (2) Tamatave to Mananara Town by taxi-brusse or the Melissa, a small boat; (3) Mananara Town to Sahasoa by taxi-brusse or hiking; and (4) Sahasoa to Nosy Antafana by pirogue or motorboat. Additionally, the ‘roads’ past Tamatave are in literally (real definition of this word) the worst condition of all the roads in Madagascar. So, Marley and I planned ahead and called the office of the Melissa and confirmed the boat was leaving Monday morning and would take 8 hours to get to Mananara, which was excellent, because we would be taking the overnight taxi-brusse from Tana to Tamatave on Sunday night with our prof Barry (we were pretty stoked that he would help us find the boat launch once we got there). However, on Sunday evening while waiting for the first taxi-brusse to leave, Barry called the Melissa for us to double-check the time. Halfway through his phone call he broke into this funny smile, thanked them and hung up. Then burst into what can only be described as maniacal laughter, which wasn’t very reassuring. He then turned to us and with an altogether too large smile told us that the Melissa had left an hour previously and we would have to take the a taxi-brusse, which not doubled, but quadrupled the length of that leg of the journey. Hallelujah. Now, for the most descriptive writing I have since kindergarten.

Leg One: Tana to Tamatave.

Marley and I had purchased three seats between the two of us in the taxi-brusse, which was a minibus-type vehicle, for this journey on the recommendation of Barry. The three seats turned out to be two small connected seats, an isle, then a third seat, which meant that we couldn’t quite spread out as planned, but all things considering, they were next to each other. We agreed to swap out halfway in the double seat, which was really good, given that our legs (Marley is a few inches taller than me) literally (also the real use of this word) could not be straight forward due to the minor detail that they did not fit in the allotted space. So, we rocked the sideways sitting position and alternated whose legs were basically in the other person’s lap. All things considered, it wasn’t too bad, I managed to sleep for the first four hours or so until the dinner stop. All taxi-brusses stop whenever the driver gets hungry and everyone piles out to eat at the picked restaurant, which are usually one room little wooden hotelys on the side of the road that serve one traditional Malagasy dish: rice with either chicken, fish or zebu depending on the day. However, this particular dinner stop was at a larger establishment and the servers were running around with blank looks plastered on their faces. The young boy (child labor is very popular here) asked what we wanted, nodded and then did never brought it out. However, we managed to get another server to bring out three beers, two of which smelled like rotten meat and therefore remained virtually untouched. Just before we were getting ready to head back to the taxi-brusse, Barry’s 4-year-old daughter woke up and vomited all down her shirt, so Marley and I sorted out the payment with the register while Barry attempted to clean her up. Once back in the taxi-brusse, this time I had the single seat, I valiantly attempted to fall asleep, however, I couldn’t manage to get comfortable and spent the following five hours slipping in and out of active thought. We reached Tamatave around 3 am, but were allowed to stay in the taxi-brusse “sleeping” until 6 am at which point we opened the door to a grey and rainy morning. Barry walked us over to the taxi-brusse station that would take us to Mananara and quickly informed us that we couldn’t buy tickets until the driver arrived, so he told us he’d watch our things while we searched for breaky. We found it on the other side of the road at a little hotely and it consisted of dense bread that tasted like the burnt pan it had been cooked in, but given our previous night’s meal it tasted like a light, fluffy pastry from France (at least that’s what we told ourselves). When we returned to our bags, Barry was once again sporting his little half-smile, which filled us with a sudden sense of unease. And for good reason.

Leg Two: Tamatave to Mananara.

The next taxi-brusse, due to wretched road conditions, was a small Toyota Hilux pickup truck (think Toyota Tacoma) with a rolled metal cage on top of the truck-bed and seats in the cab and in the bed. Barry had managed to get the last two seats in the cabin, which by all accounts is MUCH better than the bed of the truck, however, when one thinks about a pickup truck, one assumes there are only five seats total: two in the front and three in the back. If you were to assume that however, you would be wrong. Very wrong indeed. It turns out, there is actually room for nine people in the cabin of a small pickup truck! Three in the front and six in the back. Now, you might think that the reason Barry was smiling at his own little joke was because there were going to be so many people in the truck, but again, you’d be wrong. It was very amusing to Barry that Marley and I lucked out and got the middle two seats in the back row, to put it colloquially, we were going to be riding bitch for over 24 hours.

            We spent the next four hours sitting on the concrete floor of the taxi-brusse station waiting for the truck to be ready for departure. To pass the time, we wrote in our journals and chatted (optimistically) about the upcoming adventure. When the truck driver finally motioned for everybody to load in, 26 people headed towards the truck, which, to show the level of our inexperience, surprised us, since we thought that maybe 10 people would fit in each taxi-brusse for such a long journey. I was the first to slid into the back of the cabin followed quickly by Marley, by which point we noticed that there was already a distinct lack of leg room and bench space. However, the woman who would be sitting to my left for the duration of the journey then shoved two large reed baskets into all that had once been my legroom. At this point, I was still wearing my rain jacket and awkwardly holding my backpack on my lap, but I quickly learned that I would not be moving again until we reached the next break. The lady next to me climbed in and then brought her 10-year-old son into the cab as well, where he occupied 100% of her lap and 15% of mine. By this point, there was no other space on the bench, but we still had to fit two more in! Marley and I exchanged a glance that reassured us both that the other was also just as worried about the next 24 hours. It probably wasn’t helpful that Barry’s departing comment had been “don’t worry, you numb to the pain after the first two hours”. So, we all squished left, cramming together, everybody sitting on one single hip with a single shoulder resting on the seatback so that the woman to Marley’s right could fit into the cabin. She too had a child, however, it was an infant so Marley didn’t have a 10-year-old in her lap, but the woman had a very fresh scent (aka BO) and due to the seating arrangements, Marley’s shoulder was right under this woman’s armpit, which didn’t make Marley the happiest camper alive. As the truck started up and pulled out of town, we realized just how cushy and spacious flying coach really is.

 

My tent on my island

My tent on my island

Two hours later, just as we were numbing to the pain, the truck pulled over to a small hotely for dinner, however, I wasn’t feeling so good at this point so I went in search of the ‘toilet’. After stumbling through a neighborhood center I found the toilet: a small square with three walls that reached the bottom of my rib cage and a 2×4 foot piece of holey blue tarp that had to be held up to close the ‘door’. The ‘toilet’ itself was a pile of rocks, shoes and cut up tires on the ground. I honestly can say that at this point, these bathroom situations don’t faze me the least and it is almost a running joke to compare with the rest of the students to see who had the most interesting toilet setup. After a few bites of rice in the hotely, Marley and I noticed that the friction and heat of the first two hours in the car had combined to literally peel off a layer or two of skin (not just dirt, but the actual skin too) on our arms and legs where we had been touching each other and our neighbors. Yay-who needed that tan anyways?

Flying fox

Flying fox

The next ten hours were a blurred haze of passing in and out of consciousness; the only acutely memorable moments were the ferry crossings and bathroom breaks. There were five ferry crossing total; each ferry is a small slab of floating cement that are supposed to be subsidized by the government, however, each crossing requires one of the taxi-brusse drivers to syphon out some gasoline from the engine using a plastic tube and their mouths. The first crossing was the longest and Marley and I insisted on getting out to stand up and breath fresh air- at some point in the last hour it had started raining so the windows went up and that’s a lot of people in a very small space when there is no breeze. It was while we were riding this particular ferry-both there and back again-that Marley and I discussed how lucky we were to have the opportunity to experience this adventure.

Very large population of flying fox bats

Very large population of flying fox bats

Our enthusiasm was probably in part due to our immense relief to be able to feel all of our limbs for the first time in several hours and the scenery on the riversides was so serene. The next couple ferry rides were too short to get out of the cab, despite the fact that we sat for up to 30 minutes before each ferry location laying on the horn to get the ferry on the correct side of the river. By the fourth ferry crossing it was dark and I really wasn’t feeling well. It was probably a combination of many things, including carsickness and fatigue, but I NEEDED to get out of the truck, and when the lady next to me didn’t move when I politely tried asking for her to, I practically pushed her out of the cabin to escape. Once in the dark, steady drizzle of rain, I meekly hung over the side of the ferry and puked a few times while Marley, such a homie, just stood behind me offering silent support. I was loath to reenter the cabin, especially given that I was now dripping wet, but the journey had to go on.

Part of the reef in the ocean just off my island

Part of the reef in the ocean just off my island

At this point, Marley had busted out her iPod and we were both listening to it while sleeping on each others’ shoulders using my mini pillow to cushion our heads from bashing into the window behind us on every bump, of which there were hundreds. But it worked out quite well given the conditions and I managed to have a vivid dream or two courtesy of Mefloquine. We stopped for dinner at a small hotely and I went in search of the toilet while Marley ordered. After she ate, we went outside to wait for everyone to finish and I was about to curl up on the ground and nod off when drivers came up to us with a reed-sleeping mat and motioned for us to go inside. We followed him to the back room of the hotely and joined the rest of the passengers and drivers on the cold, hard cement floor for a three-hour candle-lit nap. Let me tell you. That was literally (once again used correctly) the best sleep of my life. The mat seemed to become a thick, maybe five-inch, Tempurpedic mattress with a three-inch down-feather pillow topper.

Sunrise over Nosy Rangonsty

Sunrise over Nosy Rangonsty

I almost immediately fell into a deep, undisturbed, vivid-dream-free sleep complete with the natural noise of the ocean in the distance. Upon waking up I felt much, much better and even managed to eat a few crackers and drink water, which was good since I had been starting to worry about dehydration. Two hours later in our drive, the sun came up and we finally got a chance to see the countryside. Holy moly. It was stunning and made every single last one of the potholes and squished minutes in the car worth it. Although I will attempt to describe the scenery and even add a picture or two, keep in mind that nothing can accurately depict the vividness of all the colors and its full effect. It was like driving through every mental image I had of Madagascar before coming to the country; each tree and plant was lush and bright green with small water droplets making everything sparkle just a little bit. The ‘road’ was a deep, coppery mud that set a stark contrast to the green of the surrounding flora, the sky was the palest, light blue with thick, puffy white clouds spreading across its vast expanse, and the ocean, man, the ocean was the most incredible of all. The color was such a rich, clear teal/turquoise that I will never ever be able to describe, but is my new favorite color and it was accented by large, black boulders that thrust up out of the white sand like drops of ink on a page.

Sunrise on my birthday

Sunrise on my birthday

The road twisted and turned every which way, but generally headed north towards Mananara and closely followed the coast, at one point it actually was coast and we were driving along the beach. Image the beauty I just described for the scenery, now imagine the polar opposite for how horrendous the roads were. The three guys not driving the taxi-brusse spent the next six hours running back and forth from side to side of the truck to grab hold of the side and lean as far back as possible to keep the truck from tipping over on the slanted, holey roads.

Mangroves on Nosy Rangonsty

Mangroves on Nosy Rangonsty

A few times, we would be descending a hill that we had just triumphantly mounted and the truck would just forget that it’s supposed to drive forward and it would slid down the far side of the hill sideways so that my side window was suddenly the new windshield. Or the road would be so sunk down and eroded that the grass started growing out of the ground higher at head height and we could see all the plants roots at eye level. Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyways) the drive was really interesting, bumpy, and generally a huge adventure. By the time we pulled up to the taxi-brusse station in Mananara we had spent more than 24 hours in the truck.

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