Monday, April 25, 2011

Au Bout De Bout De Monde

Tuesday afternoon and we were heading south out of Fiana. I realized that what was so distinctive about the Madagascar green grass and blue skies is that they are somewhat pastelish, but with a tropical intensity. And I had forgotten to mention that the cute little rectangular tall houses was that most of them also had little French type balconies on their second floors.

It was only about an hour or so to Ambalatoa, our stop for the night. The LP said that its houses and balconies were full of character, but that was only in the context of Madagascar's poverty and dirt. Being a stop on the tourist circuit, there was one half decent hotel with its coterie of about a dozen or so tourists.

They were here because Wednesday is market day. So the next morning we were down in the market area, walking in the narrow rows between all the people with their merchandise piled on the ground or in little makeshift stalls. I almost always there on other than market days in third world countries. Nor do I care that much, since all that is for sale is really cheap stuff for really poor people. But it was cute to finally catch one of them.

Then it was off to the other side of town, where it was the weekly zebu market. Here on a dusty hillside were hundreds of men and even more hundreds of zebus milling around. Not that we were in the market to buy one.

On the road again. But only about ten kilometers. Now it was a private lemur reserve, run for and by a small village. Here they didn't feed them bananas, but the little ring tailed guys were so acclimated to people that they would just hang out a few feet away. This species lives in groups of twenty or more, and they all take a nap just after noon. Lucky for us that we were there right then, because all of a sudden the group coagulated all around us, and then took off en masse to the nearby tree which they had decided to nap in. Ridiculously cute little things. Kind of a cross between a cat and a monkey, but not really like either.

We were now entering Madagascar's south. The rice fields were ending, and in their stead were massive rocky outcrops and great grassy horizons. Kind of like a tropical Wyoming. The one and a half lane national highway twisted around some of the mountains and soon we were on the high plateau. Now it was like the western Great Plains before settlement. After 50 kilometers or so of this we saw a sandstone ridge approaching. This was Isalo?

The wonderment and disappointment was because for many, many years I had read about the end of the world geological wonderland that was Isalo National Park. And seeing it had been one of my major goals in coming to Madagascar. But it clearly looked like it was somewhat less amazing than about a hundred different areas within a couple of hundred miles of my home in Albuquerque. Why does the National Geographic pretend that some place is really special when it isn't? It's not like their writers haven't been to New Mexico or Utah.

The 'town' consisted of two okay hotels and a couple of small markets. But here we were, and next morning we drove a few kilometers on a bad dirt road to a trailhead. Here our guide (you always have to pay for a guide) led us a half a click or so to a campground, and then another half a click up the canyon and up a couple of hundred steps to a small waterfall. It was okay, but, again, there are several hundred canyons in the Southwest which are as good or better. At this point Maureen retreated to the campground, and the guide led me a km up the level creek to a couple of very small waterfall/pools. For this he got $37, which is way more than the average Malagasy makes in a month.

Then back to the campground. And more thoroughly acclimated ringtail lemurs sitting in trees, chewing on leaves, and hoping for food to be left out. Plus 5 or 10 brown woolly lemurs, which are usually nocturnal, but which had learned to adjust due to that possibility of food being left out. We spent about an hour just hanging out with lemurs, lemurs everywhere.

Back to 'town' for lunch and then the four hour drive south to the coast. For about five miles the sandstone ridge was semi-dramatic and interesting. Then we were back to flat endless dirt and brownish grass. And, another five miles on, the first--and major--sapphire town.

About ten years ago somebody discovered sapphires in the dirt around here. Almost immediately a Wild West mining town sprang up, although it was hard to imagine any Malagasy being wild or dangerous. Supposedly the drug gangsters from Israel and Russia and India were. There were rundown store after rundown store of sapphire and ruby dealers and a level of poverty and ramshackle that were finally approaching African levels. Hasina was too nervous to stop.

As we continued there were two or three other such much smaller towns about fifteen miles apart. After that the few settlements which appeared were totally African, with sloppily made wooden shacks and the first unhappy looking Malagasy we had seen so far. Hasina made it be known that he didn't like anything about the South: not the heat, not the food, not their attitudes, nothing. It didn't look quite that bad to me.

Soon we were on a long downhill slope, and then there was the line of the ocean on the distant horizon. Not that there were any beaches in our immediate future; I knew that the destination at the end of the road, Tulear, fronted on a mangrove swamp.

When we got to Tulear it wasn't terribly hot and it wasn't terribly humid. But it was terrible, exhibiting the same post Apocalyptic look that so many African burghs do. Still, Hasina knew all the right places to go in these places, and soon we were esconced in a pretty nice hotel room, complete with a/c, for $30 a night. That seems to be the average rate for middle class comfort in Madagascar. Also, as with the other places we stayed, most all the bathroom fixtures were not only semi-modern, but they worked. After about an hour of our first decadent cooling off of the trip, Hasina took us to a pretty decent restaurant, considering how crappy the rest of the town was.

Friday was the day to go to the beach. Ivato, that is. Since his car wouldn't make it up the sandy coastal road, Hasina had hired another guy with his car. For a little more than an hour we jounced along the 27 km. Now we were at what was billed as one of Madagascar's premier beach experiences.

But first we had to walk around the baobob forest. Although Africa, particularly West Africa, is famous for the very weirdly shaped baobob tree, they only have one species. Madagascar, however, is the home of the baobob, which, along with a host of other strangely shaped desert plants, inhabits the very dry areas. (In case you aren't familiar with baobobs, they have a very large, round tubular white base, and then at their very tops a few straggly small branches flailing away.)

Baobobs usually live quite apart from each other, so it was pretty cool to see hundreds in a relatively small area. Although, this being a desert, you wouldn't exactly call it a forest. Still, it was pretty cool.

It was rather hot work, though, tramping through the deep sand, so we were really looking forward to the beach. But when the driver dropped us off at one of the better hotels, said hotel didn't look so good. And when I walked out to the beach it wasn't all that impressive. Worse, I could see little boys standing and playing about 500 yards out.

Nonetheless, we dutifully took our stuff down there, stripped off to our bathing togs, and bravely entered the water. The bottom alternated between mud and rocks. If I put my flip flops on, the mud dragged me down. If I took them off the rocks jabbed at my diabetic feet. After fifteen minutes the water was barely up to my knees. I gave up and turned around.

Once again a victim of dishonest advertising. As I looked up and down the thin strand of beach sand, it was clear that every hotel in the area fronted on the same mess. We went back and sat on our beach chairs to dry out. And now we were surrounded by a bunch of young girl hawkers.

I must say that the Malagasy are very polite, even when they are begging. Tell them no, and they go away almost apologetically. These girls were slightly more persistent, especially once they found out that Maureen was interested in the cheap beach scarves they were selling. I helped negotiate a price for four of them. Now the girls started bringing out small wooden lemurs and the like. When one pulled out a couple of stunning seashells for fifty cents each, I went 'wha?' Now each of them produced shell after shell of amazing quality. We ended up buying 10 for $5

At 1:30 we were jouncing back towards Tulear, wondering if we were ever going to be able to leave Madagascar. Because last night Hasina had informed us that for safety reasons the continent of Europe had banned Air Madagascar from ever landing there again. And that hundreds of people were not camped out at the main airport. When we had made it over to the only internet place in town the story had been confirmed. But there was also a note that for at least the next week or so Air Italy, the charter company that had ended up flying us down, would also be flying people back. Whew. Sort of.

When we got back to Tulear Hasina said that he had gone out to the Tulear airport and confirmed for us that our flight was actually leaving on Tuesday night. Whew. Sort of. Now all we had to do for the rest of the day was hang out in our a/c hotel room, walk around town, and have another meal at that really good restaurant.


Post a Comment

<< Home