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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!

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