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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back to Civilization!

I won't lie, the rest of the trip was amazing (despite its ups and downs), but Yann and I were ready to get back to Tana and move on. We had one night before leaving for Cape Town and we spent it at the same hotel where we'd stayed before leaving for the river trip. We knew it had stable internet and an excellent, hot shower! Lo and behold, we got upgraded to a nicer room and even got a king-sized bed--sweet!

We did very little aside from catch up on the online world and watch CNN. Oh, and shower. We each took two steamy hot showers in about eighteen hours. We didn't even go out that night--just ate dinner at the hotel.

Mamy fetched us around noon to take us to the airport the next day. Cape Town, here we come!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

To the East Coast

Our hotel in Mahambo, La Pirogue, was incredibly lovely. Of course, Yann and I got the only room without hot water and I had the embarrassment of politely asking about it three times before finally not so politely asking to change rooms at 10:30 PM. Man, I hate to be unreasonable shrew, but this whole trip was so full of cold showers and we'd been hiking that morning...I just couldn't deal. We were starting to feel like it was time to move on from Madagascar.

Over dinner, we managed to convince Mamy to come to Ile Sainte Marie with us rather than waiting on the mainland. We also managed to teach him some very impolite language over dinner and a few (too many) beers. Ah, making our mark on the world!

The next morning, we got up really early to catch our ferry. Good thing we were on time because the ferry was only two hours late. A driver met us and took us to the end of the island. We were actually staying on Ile aux Nattes, a smaller island directly to the south to which there was no bridge, so guess what was awaiting us after we got out of the car? That's right, another canoe--our favorite! We piled in and the piroguer paddled us about twenty minutes away to a very lovely group of bungalows. The white sand beach was wide, deserted, and absolutely gorgeous.

We settled in and had one of our favorite meals so far: calamari stuffed with local fish in a tomato sauce--delicious! The rest of the day was beach stuff, walking, swimming, reading, napping... Upon showering for dinner, we discovered that there was no hot water, again. However, here, they'd bring you a bucket of scalding water, so you could mix your own standing bucket bath. It was actually really awesome!

That night, we bade Steve farewell over one last zebu steak--he had to leave around 5:00 the next morning. Between our multiple THBs, the discovery of some French wine (the owner was French), and a lot of cursing of Rija, it was a fun time. I suspect the blog-inappropriate stories of the past two weeks will be around (and embellished) for years to come!

Yann and I spent a quiet day and half on Ile aux Nattes before flying back to Tana. The next morning, we walked the entire circumference of the island and it was every bit as remote and beautiful as we'd thought originally. And that's where we decided that the best and worst parts of Madagascar are exactly the same. It's expensive and difficult to get to, which makes it unspoiled, deserted, and amazingly gorgeous. And since there are so few tourists, it isn't very expensive once you get there, but it's also a little rugged, even in nicer accommodations.

Anyway, if you have the time and the money for the plane ticket, I think we all highly endorse Madagascar. It was definitely Yann's and my favorite country so far!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

They Have Monkeys That Look Like Cats and They Call Them Lemurs

[That was an actual quote overheard at our super-swanky beach hotel in Ifaty. I don't know if it was a joke or if the guy's girlfriend really was that dumb.]

Waking up in Morondava on Saturday was super-awesome (minus my wicked hangover from the million THBs and glasses of wine from the previous night). We were about to ditch Rija once and for all. After flying back to Tana, Mamy would pick us up at the airport. Yann and Steve wanted to stop by the craft markets to find some malagasy instruments and then we'd be on our way to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, our last park of the trip.

Rija picked us up with a different driver--I guess he'd realized Yann was serious about not wanting to break down for the *ninth* (or more!) time on the way to the airport. Rather than just dropping us off, Rija came in with us to get us checked in--y'know, because we'd never gotten on an airplane before. Considering his lack of interaction to this point, I'm not sure why he chose this point of the trip to pick up his service skills. Perhaps it was damage control against my posting *scathing* reviews on or! (I'm not actually going to post scathing reviews. But if I get around to it, I will post something as honest and diplomatic as possible. I know I appreciate it when other people do!)

Back in Tana, we collected our bags and met Mamy without incident. Yann and Steve reminded him about the trip to find instruments and we settled into the car. "So," asked Mamy, "how was the river?" The three of us immediately burst out laughing. I believe Steve was the one to respond with some colorful language. Mamy laughed and laughed and laughed as we told him the story over the next few hours. Apparently, we weren't the first ones to have had similar experiences.

At the market, Yann and Steve shopped hard--there was all kinds of cool stuff: drums, bamboo harps, bamboo and zebu horn maraca thing-ies, guitars, and on and on. In the end, Steve wound up with a guitar shaped like a zebu which was really awesome--*way* cooler than the one shaped like a lemur. Unfortunately, I think their excitement came through and the merchants wanted crazy amounts for everything else.

After that, we were on our way to Andasibe. Since we were getting a late start, Mamy proposed that we delay our long hike until tomorrow morning, but that there was a nature reserve where we could stop along the way. It wouldn't be expensive and we would see some reptiles, including crocodiles. We agreed quickly and didn't think anything more of it.

A few hours later, we pulled up to Mad Exotic Reserve Peyrieras. We paid our entrance fees, hired a guide (Philippe), and were off. Our guide quickly pointed up to another group of people--oh cool, they were looking at lemurs! It was amazing how close you could get to these guys; they were the tamest ones yet. Our guide pulled out a banana, broke off a piece and tried to hand it to me. Huh? Oh, *that's* why they were so tame--they got fed by the visitors! I'm not a big fan of being too close to wild animals (and then there's also the fact that feeding them is just wrong), so I passed on the whole experience. Yann and Steve, however, let temptation get the better of them and, despite the political incorrectness of the whole thing, they said it was pretty awesome. They'd hold out the banana in their palm and the lemur would grab their hand, pull it to its mouth, and eat the banana. Yann's first comment was, "Oh, they have soft little hands!"

Then we moved on to the reptiles. It looked like these guys had trapped all the local lizards, snakes, etc. and put them in cages. Everything was available for poking, prodding, petting, feeding, and man-handling: geckos, boa constrictors, chameleons, frogs, bats (the poor bat looked so scared), and various insects. Yann and Steve were stone-cold sober and giggling like little kids. At one point, they remarked that the reserve should be called "The Guilty Pleasures Park". We all knew it was wrong that we were there, but there was just no way to pass up the opportunity. (although I'm a little surprised no one was bitten) The only limit was with the crocodiles--you weren't allowed in their pen.

On our way to Andasibe, we told Mamy we'd skip the night hike. We felt like we'd seen enough mouse lemurs, chameleons, frogs, and snakes on our other walks and maybe we'd engaged in enough inappropriate interactions with animals for the day.

Once we arrived, we got settled into our bungalows where Steve realized that Rija had screwed up his return ticket for the end of the trip--he'd only have 25 minutes to make an international connection. WTF?! And this guy is a travel agent?! Steve figured there was nothing to be done at this point, so he'd have Mamy talk to Rija while we went on our hike in the morning.

The hike the next morning was pretty awesome: we saw a ton of brown lemurs, some small nocturnal lemurs that were sleeping, plenty of birds, and the indri--the largest lemur. Indri are only found in this particular region of Madagascar, so we felt really lucky to see them, especially so close. They are also really loud and use their cries to stake out their territory. When we stumbled on them and they all started making noise, it seriously sounded like some sort of emergency siren!

When we got back to the car, Mamy had bad news for Steve. Our plan had been to drive to Mahambo tonight, get the ferry to Ile Sainte Marie tomorrow, spend two days on the water, and fly back to Tana. Since the flight the day earlier was full, Steve would have to take the ferry back to the mainland and drive back to Tana with Mamy. Basically, he'd get to Ile Sainte Marie, spend eighteen hours, and turn back around to catch the ferry and then drive for twelve hours. Ugh!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

They call it adventure for a reason

Our visit to Tsingy was like stumbling upon the fountain of youth, or maybe mana from heaven, well you get the point. It's amazing what a great guide, a warm shower, decent meal, and a bottle of South African wine can do for the soul.

The loyal steed arrived on time after our hike and the truck seemed to be running pretty well--it actually cranked with the key. We loaded our things in the truck and took refuge under the trees while we waited for the ferry to carry us back across the river.

While we waited it was proposed that I take a picture with the sweet "baby" zebu tied near one of the trees. I figured why not and moseyed on over to have my pic made with the noble beast. Not five feet from the creature it took off in a full charge ready to plow my vazaha rear-end to the ground. I escaped shaken as Rija ran over (still playing with his new phone) and quickly informed me the adolescent zebu were dangerous and to stay away. As this idiocracy unfolded I couldn't help but notice small children running all around the Zebu and smacking them with sticks. C'est la vie.

As luck would have it our car only broke down one time on our way back to Belo. Some bad clutch work resulted in another stall and we once again hopped out to successfully push the truck to jump-start (Mental note: 7th breakdown, 3 days). We made it to Belo at a reasonable hour only to find that the showers were still cold and it still required using the bucket. At that point our expectations were so low we didn't really care. We were more focused on the one benefit this place had to offer--zebu filet!

The following morning we walked around the village market while we waited on Rija and our driver to finalize travel plans. The market buzzed and was full of fun things that, although not new, continued to trap our westernized eyes.

Back in the truck and after additional overnight repairs we were happily off to our final destination with this crew. Just one more night and we would be back in Tana with Mamy and a solid working truck! We worked our way through unmarked sandy back roads leading out of Belo and finally arrived back at the river where a large dual-pontoon ferry awaited. Steve and I watched in amazement as the boat "skippers?" hand-cranked two engines and then with bare hands fed on the propeller drive belt to the running engine. That's right, no transmission on this thing, just forward! A half hour later we arrived at the other side of the river and found our jaws dropping even further as our large (vehicle carrying barge) tied up next to another floating barge where men slapped down sewn logs to bridge the gaps and prepared for the truck to make its way to land--WOW! Somehow our vehicle did not become another statistic and managed to climb its way over the two pontoon boats and up the dirt cliff.

Next stop, Baobab Avenue! One of the must-see sights for Baobab lovers this small stretch of road is lined by trees over a 1000 years old and regal looking by anyone's standards. In addition to the avenue we also saw the "lovers" baobab which was a truly magnificent specimen. Unfortunately it appeared that our friend Guy had made his mark there earlier. Pretty sorry, Guy, pretty sorry.

Thank goodness Steve suggested we take the THB vendor up on a couple of cold bottles before we left Baobab Avenue because you won't believe what happened next. A mere 13km outside of Morondava our truck ground to an awful mechanical hault. It didn't take long for us to figure out our driver had managed to run out of fuel--YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING! We sat on the side of the road, drank our THB's and constructed a plan. "Driver" should be the last part of any title this guy holds and it was time to take matters into our own hands. We marched back to the truck while Rija was off looking for fuel. Grabbing essential items, we donned 3 small backpacks and started hiking down the road towards Morondava. Worst case, we would be there in two hours by foot. We couldn't help but notice the smirks we got while walking down the road--it's probably not everyday these folks had three random vazahas strutting down the dirt path with such determined looks. After about an hour of walking we found a small shack serving cold beer just outside of Morondava. Steve promptly delivered three cold bottles and we waited for Rija. It wasn't long before they came bumping down the road and shamefully scooped us back up for the few short kilometers to the city.

Morondava seemed teeming with life and a cool beach town. We were excited to have a night on the town and late flight before Rija killed that excitement with one brief statment--"your plane will know leave at 9:40am, we will pick you up at 7:00am." There was nothing we complain about with regard to the flight change; however, I made a very strong point to Rija--make sure you bring a different car!

We enjoyed our afternoon on the beach, walked around a bit, were appalled by sea-turtle shells selling for $10, and caught a fabulous sunset before getting ready to head out to dinner. After stuffing ourselves we made our way to Rasta Jean's bar where we closed out the evening with a crowd of South African sailors who were welcome company after the past week.

Bright and early we were up--no more Rija, no more whacked out driver. Here we come Mamy!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Well, as Yann mentioned, the first cool part about being at Tsingy was the sheer awesomeness of accommodation. I'm sorry if we sound like divas, but maybe we all do have a little bit of princess in us! They even agreed to wash some of our river-repulsive clothing overnight. Anyhow, shortly thereafter, we went to the park to meet our guide, Philippe, and hike the shorter trail (Petits Tsingys) that was in the section of park closest to the village.

Philippe gave us a brief lecture about fady (taboos) in the park--keep it fairly quiet and don't point at the spiky limestone formations (the tsingys) or anything else since we would be surrounded by sacred things. Since the river had been such a letdown for viewing wildlife, we had no trouble agreeing to keep quiet.

Philippe led us in and around the tsingys and it was just really gorgeous. We didn't see a ton of wildlife aside from one small lemur, but we did get a nice hike in and with some amazing views. He also pointed out some tombs and ceremonial areas used by the local Sakalava tribe.

As we headed back, Philippe asked if we were interested in a night hike. Yann and I had done one in Ranomafana and, while I don't think it's the coolest thing ever (and it can't be that nice for the animals to have blinding lights shined on them), it's definitely worth doing and Steve definitely needed to see a mouse lemur (and chameleons, frogs, and snakes). The only trouble was that Rija was supposed to cook us dinner that night. His cooking thus far had not warranted ever changing plans, but it was still kind of a delicate subject to broach. Finally, we told him that we would pay for our own dinner (we actually didn't even realize that this meal was randomly included in our tour) at the hotel and catch up with him in the morning.

About an hour later, after grabbing flashlights and insect repellent, we headed back out. We saw everything that Philippe promised: mouse lemurs, frogs, a snake, and about a million chameleons. Steve proved to be quite the naturalist and pointed out the most visible mouse lemurs. Man those things are cute! Yann also found some sleeping flies. How he found them, I have no idea!

We told Philippe we'd meet him bright and early for the next day's hike at Grands Tsingys, about an hour away. Back at the hotel, we'd pre-ordered dinner: zebu meatloaf for all three of us and paired it with some South African wine--delicious!

This is going to shock you guys...the next morning, we broke down on our way to Grands Tsingys. I'm not sure whether it's hilarious or ridiculous. The best part was that the reason he stalled out to begin with was just plain crummy driving in too high of a gear going up a series of bumps in the road. Philippe laughed his head off about the car, the driver, and us. Okay, maybe it was a little over the top even for a developing country if Philippe thought it was that crazy.

Finally, we made it and set off on our hike. Philippe had brought us each a climbing harness--cool, we didn't know this hike would be so hardcore! Well it turned out not to be *that* could clip into various lines along the way, but it was absolutely unnecessary. However, it was an extremely gorgeous hike--even more impressive than the previous day. The coolest part was that we decided to exercise our obnoxious American genes and insist on passing a few slower and much noisier groups ahead of us as we were leaving the tsingys and entering the forest. About twenty minutes afterward, we saw *two* groups of six white lemurs each (and each with a baby). Definitely worth my cringes!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Take me to the river

The Mule arrived and it was like Christmas. Not only was he bringing all kinds of goodies from back home but more importantly he brought a friendly face, sense of humor, and a thirst for adventure. Steve had endured his two days of flying quite well and quickly adapted to the local time zone which left us with a solid day to explore Tana together and drink like long lost friends. Our hotel was nice, food was great, and we all felt rested and raring to go on our long planned adventure through Madagascar.

We knew our first day would be a long drive and had all mentally prepared ourselves to spend a quality 8 hours together in the back seat of Mamy's 4X4. Our spirits were high and we had a great time playing blaring our music from the iPod and taking in the countryside. It was almost 7pm when we piled out of the truck at Miandrivazo with numb butts and stiff joints. Our tour operator and guide for the next 5 days, Rija, gave us an anticlimactic story about the village's history and then lead us to our rooms making sure to point out that these was the nicest accommodations in town. Catherine and I pushed through the screen door leading to our "bunagalow" and were quickly taken back by the toilet whose seat lay on the floor near by and the rusty bug filled shower that was where we would wash ourselves--nicest place in town, really? While Steve had a toilet seat he did not have a working fan and was also blessed with significant population of mouse droppings in his bathroom. After a few deep breaths and a couple wise-crack remarks we accepted that our trip was intended to be an adventure and set out towards the building where we would take dinner. THB's (Madagascar's finest barley soda)arrived in short order and we were starting to feel good. Rija dropped by our table and told us the place had one chicken dish and fish available for dinner and we would need to order immediately--ok then, we'll take the one chicken and two fishes please. Dinner was anything but stellar; however, we had an early morning ahead of us and decided to call it quits relatively early.

We awoke to what would be the first of many cold and unsatisfying showers for the next 12 days and grabbed a basic breakfast of coffee, tea, and local rice flour bread. Rija met us with three of the local villagers who had come to load up a cart and take our belongings down to the boat for our river trip. It was kinda cool looking over our pile of supplies and found it especially authentic when we noticed the three live chickens squawking in our boxes of food--that's right, no refrigeration on the river!

In the village Catherine and I bought straw hats for the ride, we stopped by the police station to register our trip, and made the very important beer stop before getting on the boat. Without divulging our beer quantity calculations, I will only point out that Rija negotiated us down from our original request; however, we were able to procure a survivalist amount of THB to make it three days down the river.

At the riverside we found our pirogue (hand carved wooden canoe) readily being provisioned by our boatman and what appeared to be half of the village. To our shock and amazement this 20’ canoe actually appeared to hold all of our personal belongings, a ton of provisions, Rija, and our two boatmen. For those of you keeping count that is six people in this canoe carved from a single tree. We mingled with the children whom were all intent on procuring some “bon bons” or a “stylo” from the vazahas and Steve and Catherine laughed at my new tourist look which had been highlighted by the straw hat and camera slung over my shoulder. At this point I should define a few terms for the majority of our audience:
Bon bons: French word for candy
Stylo: French word for pen
Vazaha: Malagasy word for white person, also used as an adjective meaning strange. The term is not derogative in their culture but for the more sensitive westerner it might take a little time getting used to being called a honky on a regular basis.
We waited at the rivers edge for nearly 15 minutes as Rija passed out cash to at least two dozen villagers who crowded around him about 20 meters down the road from where we stood. When Rija came back to meet us at the pirogue he explained that is was a tradition to give money to the villagers that had “helped” him prepare for our trip. This seemed a little strange to us considering many of the villagers were younger women who gave Rija a big flirty grin when they received their handful of bills—whatever, not our culture.

The boatmen could best be described as skeletons covered in solid muscle, eyes intense as the most hard-weathered sea captain, and as if they were a separate species of human devote in the ways of the river. Almost without a single word they piled Steve, Catherine, Rija, and I into our respective positions on the boat, gave a push, and we drifted slowly into the river. Villagers waved and we returned the intent with open palms flapping side to side and smiles splayed across our faces—let the adventure begin! The light current carried us to the southern end of Miandrivazo where the shore was lined with groups of children, men and women bathing and doing laundry at the waters edge. It didn’t take long and Steve hailed us from his aft most seat proclaiming “we are officially in the middle of NOWHERE!”

There was no briefing about what we should expect, when we would arrive, and other details most people would consider important before agreeing to climb into a hand-carved boat for three days. But we were going with the flow and joking about how we might be able to increase our beer stash given our current predicament. It wasn’t long before out canoe ran aground in the shallows of the river (not surprising given the 1200lbs of people and gear we calculated our vessel carried). We hopped out of the canoe and helped our two boatmen push the boat through the shallowest areas and walked alongside in areas where we had a bit more water. Other boats had run into the same predicament and we were encourage to see that one of them held a case of THB and began strategizing a polite yet effective procurement strategy. We tried verbally complimenting the man’s stash, asking in broken French if he would sell any, and ultimately waving cold hard cash in the air like the proud and desperate vazahas we were to no avail.

Unlike most of the places Catherine and I had seen the previous week there was basically nothing to look at on the river. Ok, there were some birds, but honestly the most enjoyable activity was waving and shouting to the small groups of children who would scream at the top of their lungs when they saw us coming down the river—VA-ZAHA!!!!!! BON BONS VAZAHA!!! STYLO VAZAHA!!!! I can’t lie, we all loved it. These kids were ecstatic when they saw us and it was the most glamorous and enthusiastic greeting I thinking any of us had ever received. Unlike a lot of the children we’ve run across in other developing countries these kids were having FUN asking us for stuff and it was more of a game than a pity party.

Just after noon the pirogue pulled onto a sandy bank near a large mango tree on the shore. Rija told us we would have lunch here and pointed for us to take refuge from the sun underneath the large mango tree. Halfway up the river bank Rija called up, “hey, look at this!” We all turned eyes widening to the size of saucers as we followed Rija’s finger tip in the direction of a case of THB hidden underneath the boatmen’s supplies. Bewildered, we ask if we could buy them and Rija informed us that would be between us and the boatman. A price was quickly negotiated and we decided to enjoy beers with our lunch that day. Life was good, we had a picnic blanket squarely placed in the shade of the mango tree, lunch was being prepared, and there was beer (albeit very warm beer). Turns out that our lunch spot was in close proximity to one of the river villages and before long we were joined by a half a dozen people with whom we had no way to communicate. Eventually the eldest of the women in the group pointed to our beer and made a drinking gesture. Steve quickly picked up on the request and handed her his half full beer (65cl). Communication improved dramatically after that and we had our first real connection with the villagers over a couple of beers, showing them photographs of themselves on the digital camera, and explaining the map we had on our handheld GPS. There were a lot of smiles and our lunch made us feel like perhaps we were real travelers—finally.

That afternoon was completely uneventful minus our discovery that the umbrellas tucked neatly by our sides were not for rain but rather protection from the sun. Stuck between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn the solar rays were roasting and our vazaha skin was not genetically up to muster. The sun set as we squirmed in our small wooden seats wondering what the process of setting up camp would be like. Well after the sun had set we arrived at a sandbar at the mouth of the smaller river leading from Miandrivazo and unloaded the contents of our pirogue. It was a frustrating 30 minutes of trying to figure out tent parts and set up shelter, but we overcame this by joking at the very un-Eagle Scout like decision to camp on a sandbar that was usually covered by water. Back on our picnic blanket we all gladly helped ourselves to THB constantly recalculating the availability of tonic available to us over the next two days.

Morning came and went and we were back on our boat. We didn’t really sleep well and were still adjusting to using the restroom outdoors on the middle of a sandbar. Honestly, the morning was a complete bore. We drained my iPhone listening to some music over its micro speakers and then listened to a collection of Kylie’s songs before batteries were in dire straights and we decided it was best to focus on our promised shower in the waterfall. The sun was brutal and we looked like three dead fish slopped atop a wooden boat floating down the river.

The promised waterfall/shower came just after 1:00pm. It was a 15 minute hike/rock-scramble from the river bank which wasn’t overly exciting when we had to hike back an additional round-trip to the boat for soap and a change of clothes. In a moment of sheer brilliance, I recommended we take refuge on the right side of the waterfall which was protected by rocks and looked a lot cooler in my opinion. We had showered in the waterfall an it felt pretty magnificent even with the warnings about swimming in fresh water from Johns Hopkins travel clinic ringing in the foreground of our thoughts. Events took a sharp turn south when I stumbled carrying two glass bottle of THB (reasonably trying to be cooled in the waterfall pool) and tripped. Bottle glass erupted like a grenade with the shards managing to slice the feet , ankles, and hands of Steve and Catherine. So much for a relaxing shower—I felt like a complete jerk.

We were tired of being on the river, hot, and now 2/3 cut and bleeding. Miraculously, humor prevailed and we made the best of our afternoon boat ride. At sundown, we arrived on yet another sandbar and settled onto our picnic blanket purchasing the remaining beers our boatman had to sell. Three of our former feather baring crew became dinner and we fell asleep for another evening of not-so-restful sandy sleep.

I wish there were a ton of interesting things to say about the rest of our trip but unfortunately one item hit the notable radar. Early in the afternoon of our third day out boatman pointed to something on the bank and called to Rija. The pirogue was turned around and suddenly we were all astonished to be looking at an 8’ wild African crocodile sunning on the bank with his jaws slightly opened and clenched in a terrifying still hold. Ok, this was cool! I had just barely snapped the picture you see before the animal jumped faster than light off of his perch scaring 2/3 of us half to death and disappearing into the brown murky river water.

It was damn near 3pm when we arrived at a small village on the banks of the river and were told the river trip had come to an end—thank goodness, we were all relieved. Lunch was served at the one store that supported the small settling and we had fun playing with the kids and celebrating our escape from the evil pirogue with a semi-cold THB. Digital cameras are a rarity in this area and it turned out to be a big hit with the locals to take pictures and then show them images of themselves. Alright, it was cute and fun at first, but then I felt overwhelmed! Everyone wanted there picture made and to see themselves on the back of my camera. I had a blast, but was also in bad need of a shower and to get the hell off that river.

A zebu cart carried our luggage and we hiked for about 90 minutes through the countryside before we found a rural hotel where our driver would pick us up and deliver us 2 hours away to our next hotel (more importantly a theoretical hot shower).

The next part of our journey will go down in my mind as the most ridiculous adventure travel of my life thus far. We were greeted by a 1980’s era Toyota Landcruiser and loaded up anxiously ready to make it to a bit of civilization and more importantly that shower I keep talking about. It wasn’t more than 45 minutes into our trip that we heard bad sounds from the transmission and shortly found ourselves in the middle of a very deserted dirt road truly in the middle of nowhere. Our driver’s response was to go immediately and sit down in the middle of the road with his head in his hands. Steve and I quickly jumped under the hood to do basic triage on the situation and determined quickly it had something to do with the clutches hydraulic system. A half hour later three very frustrated vazahas were loaded back in the truck while it was literally started in second gear—thank you diesel engines!

We made it another hour or so at a speed no greater than 40km/hr until we past another 4X4 on the side of the road at which point Rija and our driver stopped the car and pulled over—seriously? 30 minutes later and no better off, we jumped back in the truck and started the thing in second gear again traveling about 500meters down the road to the village where a ferry would take us over to our hotel at Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. The original plan was to have our vehicle drive onto a boat which would then deliver us across the river and then it was a quick drive to Belo. After a lot of yelling in Malagasy and Rija disappearing for about 20 minutes we finally got the word to unload our stuff off the truck and meet at the river’s edge to catch a boat. It was 8:00pm and it had already been the day from hell—all we wanted was a shower but we accepted our fate and tromped barefoot through the side of the river (aka sewage) onto a boat which promised to deliver us to a hotel with shower. Another 30 minutes passed and we finally grounded the boat on a sandbar near a village with lights. Rija cheerfully exclaimed that it was just a little bit further to where we would meet a car that would take us to the hotel. We all strapped on our backpacks, every possession we owned, and followed Rija over a trail covering not one but three stagnate pools of water thick with Zebu dung that finally landed us near a 4X4. Being at your wits end could hardly describe our mindset, but it seemed encouraging that a car was actually waiting for us at the end of our miserable walk.

When we arrived at the hotel we were filthy. I mean filthy like I can’t remember being since I was a teenager who had been camping for a week without a shower. Our day of hell was quickly punctuated when we finally arrived in our rooms to discover there was no water! Not just hot water, but no water at all! I kind of felt like dying and was probably overly rude towards Rija in my feelings about the situation. Resigned to accept our fate, we met downstairs at the bar and drank beer until a trickle of cold water was restored to our rooms and we went for a shower before dinner.

At this point I hope you (reader) are laughing at our sorry state of affairs thinking how awful—that’s what those suckers get for traveling into the unknown. Don’t worry, it gets better.

The next morning Catherine and I sat at a breakfast of coffee/tea/baguette/jam feeling a lot better that we at least had washed off the river scum with a bucket of cold water and were on our way to a new location (not on the river). As I sipped my coffee, our driver from the previous day pulled up in front of the hotel in what appeared to be a 1990’s era Toyota Landcruiser and waived with a smile on his face. Steve joined us shortly and we all piled into our new ride feeling like things were looking up. Our optimism and hope were smashed to pieces about an hour into our trip when our second Landcruiser broke down in the middle of an awful dirt road. I will not waste words on the remaining events of that day but leave it for you to know we broke down four times (which required us pushing the truck) before we made it to our destination. Again, for those keeping count we are looking at six breakdowns in two days—not too good by anyone’s standards. Finally we made it to Tsingy and were delivered to a hotel that was beyond anything we had seen since Tana—clean sheets, hot water, heaven!

This story is to be continued, but first a brief respite for the goodness we found in Little and Big Tsingy!