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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.