Leg Two Point Five: Mananara Town.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!