Saturday, March 2, 2019

Madagascar Part I

There are lots of places I've wanted to visit for many years, and I've been lucky to get to many of them. One place that had escaped me was Madagascar. I was very fond of geography as a young kid, and I always wanted to see the world, but Madagascar was a place that fascinated me endlessly, for no real reason. I've spent a little time learning about it here and there, but it never completely captured my attention in part because it seemed so far away, and so difficult to get there. But as I said, I've been able to see many of the destinations I dreamed of, and as I was getting older, it was starting to surprise me that I never made more of an effort to see it. Though, preliminary research shows it's a bit daunting as a vacation spot. It's one of the places where they sometimes still have outbreaks of the plague. Infrastructure is not good, and I'd learn after visiting, some Malagasy people think it's in decline. It's not easy to get there - though more airlines are starting to serve the place. And it's pretty much impossible to drive there as a foreigner. 

Regardless of all that, I knew it was time to see Madagascar. I did a lot more research and decided we would not be doing this on our own - I'd use a tour company. Even though we are typically very independent travelers (having only used tour companies to hike in Peru, and buy advance train tickets in Asia) in the end, I was very glad to have made this decision, though it meant that our guide was with us almost all the time. That said, I thought the trip length was good; we had about ten days to first do a three-day journey on the Tsiribihina River. Next, we'd see baobabs, including the famous Baobab Alley, and then make our way by land back to the capital. Then we'd do a short tour of the eastern part of the very large country.

First, we had to be shuttled from the airport to the start of our river tour, with a night's rest in between. It was a good introduction to the country - an incredibly spare room at a run-down hotel with electricity that cut out periodically. 
The next day, we went to a large market where we met our minibus. It was just a chaotic lot full of people, market stalls, and vehicles. The roads in Madagascar were torn up with potholes and are more or less destroyed. It was a very rough ride, to say the least. Everyone stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant. I wasn't interested in food, but I was happy to see this little dog.
This was what the view from the road looked like in the countryside of Madagascar. The place has undergone a lot of deforestation as people have tried to cultivate land, cook food, and build stuff.

It's an agrarian society. We saw lots of small family farms, and various livestock, though of course, nothing like a feedlot. Many cows were used to carry plows, for example, and were not meant for food in every instance. We also saw lots of people growing rice, and drying it on the side of the road. It would get run over as trucks and vehicles passed. Madagascar was unlike any other place I've been.

There are of course still towns here with modern amenities. We finally arrive at the town where we'd stay overnight before heading to the riverbank.

This was the sunset from our little cabin. It was a simple little place; a wooden cabin with a porch and inside, just a bed with a mosquito net and thr most basic but clean bathroom.

The stars at night were incredible, and more than made up for our lack of stuff like internet. I was a tad disconcerted though. Our guide, a nice dude named Manda, told us that there was a very small chance that we'd encounter bandits on the river. He had arranged for a guard to join us, but hadn't been able to get in touch with him. He assured us all would be well. But now I would worry a bit.

The next morning we got up while it was still dark out and set off. We drove a very bumpy few miles and went to the local neighborhood of shacks where we'd pick up the boatman, a cook, and the guard, who was now in touch, thankfully. We strode down a sandy riverbank and walked about a mile along the shore as the sun rose. It was incredible. I was a million miles from the world I knew.

It was finally time to get in the boat and set off down the river. What a strange and exhilarating sensation. They set our luggage and supplies into the boat. Then we got in to what was a hollowed-out tree, fitted with many patches. A few were repaired as we got settled. We were about to go on an incredible journey, one where we'd see quite a lot of birds and happily, have no bad experiences.

A few from the inside of the boat, below. The cook made us three meals a day - and two were prepared in the boat! The first day I was stunned to be handed a salad, toast, and fried egg for breakfast.. and it was delicious! The food also stayed great the whole time.

In some ways, the landscapes of the river were more or less the same. But I was in awe. 

We didn't see lots of other people. Of course, there were locals on the riverbanks occasionally, and when we were on the river, we ran into friends of the crew - it was great they traded us some rice for fish, maybe the other way around. And we encountered this group, in the photo below, on another boat. This rude group of French tourists was with another company. I liked their guides just fine, but they shadowed us, our guide said, for their own protection.

It was time to take a break. In this case, it would be to see a waterfall. It was lovely. We played around in the water a bit. My husband got in; the water was clear and beautiful and whle the day was hot on the river, the water but a bit too cool for me.

After a relaxing break, it was time to get back in the boat and get downriver where we'd spend the night. It was a very small town where people lived without electricity or plumbing in mud or thatch huts. The people were friendly though, and their kids were really curious about us. I was very tired from a long day and fell asleep early in a tent pitched on the ground.

The next part of our journey is chronicled here: Madagascar Part II.

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