Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Just Another Day

We are often struck dumb when friends or family ask us how things went on our trips.  The reality for us, in part, is that each trip, even each day, is often indescribable.  For this blog posting, we are going to try to describe a typical day or two from our most recent Madagascar journey.  In the end, they were… just another day like so many others.

We began the day in darkness, not only because of the early hour, but also because of the power outage that hit our hotel.  Being seasoned to such, our headlamps are always by our bedside.  We slipped them on, packing our bags for the last few hundred kilometers of a 1500 kilometer journey across Madagascar to see a giant jumping rat.  Madagascar has some strange wildlife and one of the strangest is this creature found only in the west.  Of course, the rat is not all we expected or hoped to see, but we often smile at which sights drive us forward along the road.  As the lights came back on, so did the internet.  We now had 30 minutes to do a wire transfer, make a skype call, answer emails from a few of our students and friends, pay a few bills, gulp down the daily Madagascar breakfast of dry bread, butter and jam, and hit the road.  We headed out, behind trucks and taxi-buses bellowing poisonous black clouds of exhaust.  Before long we were bumping along a highway, dodging the many people, carts, zebu, dogs, chickens, and children filling the streets as well as numerous potholes the size of small canyons.   It is a holiday weekend, Easter and Independence Day together, and the crowds are epic.  At every river, the narrow, one lane highway bridges are blocked by thousands massing for their traditional family picnics, food and games. Our vehicle inches through, literally an inch at a time as the crowds squeeze in around us, some revelers expressing their displeasure by thumping on the car.  Alcohol is flowing and there is a palatable sense that the roads are no longer owned by those who drive. 

We move through landscapes of deep red and verdant green once populated by forest, but long denuded of trees by the French decades ago.  The erosion is stunning, and we are not surprised an hour into our journey to find it at an abrupt end.  The road has been swept downstream, and people are on each side of the chasm, staring across a makeshift bridge more than 100 feet long that the military is building.  Some have been stuck here for more than 24 hours.  We wander about, looking at the women and families below in the newly cut stream channel as they pan for gold in the freshly uncovered land flushed with turbid, murky water.  Kids, as they always do here, begin to gather and follow us.  This time it is primarily a group of boys, wanting us to take their picture as they play by the bridge, its steel girders placed on wooden blocks not yet secured.  We eye the structure wondering how and when they will secure it when the army soldier beckons us forward…to cross it.  Our driver carefully aligns us along two planks as we hold our breath, wondering if the the 30 foot drop into the new river channel would be better experienced with or without seatbelts.  Then we are over and on the other side, the driver and guide clearly as relieved as we are. 

We are hungry as the hours pass by our windows, but there are no hotels or restaurants along this route.  We stop to buy an avocado, finding a simple place for our driver and guide to get rice as we ask for a spoon to share our green treat.  We buy water as it becomes more expensive and hard to come by where we are going.  We are headed for the fabled Tsingy, a geological wonder found only in two places on the planet.  It is now boiling hot, and we hide under hats and wrap-a-rounds to avoid the direct sun in the un-air conditioned car.  Most of the traffic on the road is Zebu cart and foot traffic; few vehicles pass here.  Finally, late in the afternoon, we arrive in a small town and must now transfer to the 4-wheel drive that we will need for the next three days’ journey.  There is one small problem.  Our new vehicle and driver are nowhere to be found.  Day slides into dusk and it gets dark as our guide calls and eventually locates our transport and new driver.  Driving in Madagascar at night is risky and we are not thrilled.  There are bandits and the roads are so broken and challenging that accidents at night are common.  Most vehicles have suffered the effects of the poor infrastructure and are quick to breakdown as well.  We start down the dirt road for the supposedly 40 minute journey, the vehicle slipping in and out of gear, and two hours later find ourselves at a small preserve.  We are happy to get out.  So far, we have eaten only half an avocado each and shared some dry bread, but we are not to eat dinner yet…instead, we start our much delayed night hike in one of the most intriguing forests in the country.  We see much in the next two hours, with one of the many highlights watching a newly discovered lemur species, Madame Berthe’s, the tiniest primate in the world, as it stares back at us with impossibly large eyes.  We get back, famished, and just as we begin to eat our pasta, our guide rushes to us and beckons us into the night… the giant jumping rat is close.  We stalk it, looking for all the world like Elmer Fudd from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, as our guide turns to us, puts his finger across his lips for silence, and tip toes forward.  We surprise one and the chase is on as we follow it to its mate.  Giant jumping rats crossed off the list, we can now rapidly consume our bowls of pasta then head to our cabin for the night.  We turn on the shower water, hopefully, and nothing comes out.  The windows are unscreened holes in the wall, the boards thin, and the entire shack is falling apart, chunks of wood hanging from the roof and sides.  We climb onto thin pallets with thinner frayed foam mattresses under mosquito nets showing real wear.  Just as we begin to drift off, it becomes clear we are only visitors, not the real property owners.  Something in the roof above our heads has awakened and it begins the night with a screeching fight.  All night long, it and a likely mate drag sticks across the bamboo thatching above our heads, raining debris onto the beds.  It is a long, relatively entertaining, but almost completely sleepless, night. 

We head out for another hike in the morning, the lost sleep forgotten as chameleons, waking lemurs, and butterflies greet us. Too soon we are back in the 4x4, which navigates holes in the road large enough to swallow it, slowly making our way north.Several hours later, we stop along with a few other vehicles at a flooded water crossing.  We see village people taking advantage of the new waterway resulting from rains up north by boating their goods downstream.  However, we cannot see the other side.  This will be the first of three crossings, our guide tells us…the next two have vehicle ferries.  The driver and our guide are nervous and talk to local people, one of whom hops into our vehicle to guide us through the hundreds of yards of water filled road and ravines. We tell our driver that we are OK turning around, as we understand that the vehicle is his livelihood.  But he goes forward. It becomes clear to us halfway through that while our driver and guide think our Nissan Pathfinder is a submarine, it is not.  We are not surprised when the engine floods as does the vehicle when the driver opens his door.  We hike up our feet, crawling onto the seats, trying to bag up our luggage and vulnerable electronics.  Out our window, flat bottom canoes and kids floating by on logs stare in at us.  We are in trouble.  Worse yet, we are in schistosomiasis country and prolonged exposure to water allows the parasites access to softened skin.  Wiggling their way through, they will cause blindness if left untreated. 

Eventually, a group of boys gather.  They range in ages from 8 to around 15, none very large, all very curious.  With our guide, they begin to rock our vehicle.  It does not move.  Then it does, but they are trying to push it uphill, through clay and sand and a couple of feet of water toward a dry island a few dozen feet away in what is now a vast lake of muddy brown water with river currents swirling.  For what seems like an eternity they fail.  Then a strap somehow magically appears and some of them pull while others push, one with an old fashioned radio hanging from a belt around his neck to provide tunes and a beat for their efforts.  Remarkably, inch by inch, they succeed.  We are stunned and appreciative but our attempts to thank them with money results in friction in the group that was so seamlessly together for the past hour.  Now on a small patch of dry land, with curious locals watching from the far shore, our driver and the local guide begin to take our engine apart.  Unfortunately, the damage was too great, the challenge too much.  The vehicle is not going anywhere, and….the water is rising.  The boys find a ride for us, a giant ferry without a motor that people pull through the water.  We will have to cross quite a bit of the water to get to the ferry.  We head backwards, the way we came rather than toward the Tsingy.  The next crossings are worse and the news is that the area we have been heading toward for the past four days of driving is now inaccessible.  We will have to go back.  We look at each other, our luggage, our gear, and the rising river, wondering how we are going to navigate this watery world.  The boys come to our rescue again, carrying our bags, one on each side of us grabbing our arms, telling us Mora Mora (slowly, slowly) as they help us get to and up the ramp onto the ferry.  They then get out, wading waste deep, pushing the ferry to the distant shore.  We rent a truck, clambering into the back with our bags, and head to the nearest village.  It represents the abject poverty we have seen all along the road on our journey----no electricity, shacks built out of discarded boards.  A small porch with two stools and a “store,” a 3x3 space to sell soda and a few sundries with a curtain hiding the bar in the back----it is the only place of refuge. Men drink the local rum.  As we had driven toward this place in the past few days, we had seen "rum runners", men with barrels of the distilled sugar cane running across the road, avoiding the frequent police stops.  It is illegal to transport the rum and the police stop every vehicle, in hopes of small infractions or finding bottles of moonshine so they can pocket small bribes. 

We get cokes which allows us a stool on which to sit and a thatched roof over our heads.  It begins to rain.   Children gather, first a few, then more than two dozen.  They cannot help themselves as they keep moving in closer until they can brush against us, touch our strange clothes, giggle and whisper.  They have little clothing of their own and none have shoes or sandals.  They have no toys, playing with nails and round pieces of wood they carve by rubbing on the only concrete in the village, a well installed by an NGO.  Shyly, one asks us for a coke bottle cap, and they pounce on it playing with their new toy.  They take our empty bottles later, briefly arguing among themselves for who might get the prize.  Most are ill, and their coughs rain down on us as they press in, surrounding us for hours.  The flu has been ripping through the country and clearly this village has been struck.  Hungry, we are too embarrassed to bring out our emergency food for us to eat, but purchase some cookies for our guide to give the kids.  They line up, carrying their smaller siblings, eyes round with anticipation.  The company is sending out another vehicle to rescue us and take us back, but the hours pass and once again dusk approaches along with the new truck, our ride to a safer place.  The villagers are friendly at first, but the holiday and drinking causes some to confront us, and we have grown increasingly uncomfortable.  We are grateful to get into the vehicle, even if it means driving at night.  Our headlights expose men carrying weapons, hunting other men, Zebu rustlers, who will be beaten and hung if caught.  Three times carts full of precious and illegally harvested hardwoods are moved aside for our truck to pass, the men driving to oxen carts ducking down so their identities cannot be known.  We are not safe but have no choice but to move forward.

Finally, we reach a port town on the coast, arriving at the hotel where we were to stay four days from now.  The first driver we left behind greets us and along with the ever present hotel guards, helps us get our bags inside locked gates.  We enter our hotel room, and while insufferably hot, it is a safe haven and we don’t even mind that the electricity is off and the air conditioner is long unused and not working.  There is bland food for dinner, a couple of long overdue gin and tonics, and beds without previous occupants.  We are grateful.  Our room comes with a flush toilet and two buckets full of water to provide manual flushing during the power outages that prevent water pumps from working.  We look at each other and grin, adding soap to one bucket.  We have a chance to do some laundry and strip off our river clothes, soaking them in the bucket, rinsing them in the other.  We hang clothes around the room like a family preparing Christmas decorations, every surface covered with a bright color or piece of underwear.  In the 90 plus degree heat, they will dry overnight.  At last, we settle into the stifling hot bed, cover it with the mosquito net and wonder if we will be able to sleep.  We have no idea where we will head the next day, our trip forward is no longer feasible, but we are fine with the unknown destinations before us.  We have eaten good Malagasy food, our laundry is drying, our bodies are cleaner, and the day is done.  Just another day on the road.  While these two days were typical, the next one was kind of challenging.  But that is a different story.

Written in Antananarivo, Madagascar; posted in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Images are of the road washed away and make shift bridge, families panning for gold below; a giant jumping rat, the young men pulling our vehicle to safety and our ferry to shore; kids gathering for a cookie at the village; and a daytime image of illegally harvested hardwood from the preserve.