Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Day 89: Memories of Madagascar

For our last day in Madagascar, we were right back where we started. Sitting in our same Tana-Jacaranda Hotel room, eating zebu a la vanille and listening to another Sunday afternoon rock concert was the perfect book-end to our time here. The only difference was that the small jacaranda buds outside our window had now exploded into full bloom.

With Craig still not feeling great we didn't end up making it around town to see the sites, but we did have a delicious meal at the fancy CafĂ© de la Gare where the beautiful outdoor setting and fantastic French food made us feel we had been transported to Paris! Perhaps this will help prepare us for our next destination - the French island Reunion.

We have enjoyed Madagascar so much, and were just as excited about being here on our last day as we had been on our first. We sat down to write our summary post feeling like we had so many wonderful things to share, but we've been here for five weeks, and if you've been reading along with our posts, then you probably feel like you know it pretty well, too! It would surely be worth a trip back for us - we still need to visit Nosy Be, Ile Ste-Marie, Baobab Alley, the East Coast, and if things settle down politically, we could perhaps explore the southern tip. The federal election is three days after we leave, and we hope that the results help stabilize Madagascar and set it on a path towards realizing the amazing potential of its people and their land.

With that, we'll leave you with a few more photos to show case the diversity of this wondrous place (in chronological order).

Days 88: No Work Days but No Sick Days Either

We rounded out our time on the west coast by taking the refreshing hour-long boat transfer back to Tulear at 8 am. Our flight to Tana wasn't until 8 pm so we had the whole day to kill. We decided to get the cheapest room our Tulear hotel had to offer so we could rest, power up our devices, and use their free Internet. We were able to leave our bags and go shopping around town for sapphires.

We found a great little family-run jewellery store with friendly and helpful owners. Their selection wasn't huge, but was better than in Ilaka. Erin had previously mentioned off-handily that she might like a heart-shaped stone and lo and behold they had a couple. We liked one ring in particular with  two round sapphires in what he called a 'toi-et-moi' setting. It looked great, except that they were yellow and pink. They didn't have any others like it, but after much humming and hawing, we decided on two heart-shaped cut sapphires, one blue, one white, that will need to be set. It will be so special to have stones we picked ourselves from a mine we'd witnessed being worked, from a country we found so special (for reasons more than just that we got engaged in it).

Feeling successful, we headed back to our room and were thankful that wet got it. Craig, who hadn't been feeling great, suddenly took a turn for the worse and spent the afternoon in bed quite ill. By an insurmountable feat, he managed to make it through the plane ride, though the flight attendants got quite nervous when they realized we had started taxiing up the runway and he was still puking in the bathroom.

Another thing of note was the laughable security we've experienced at Malagasy airports. When we checked in in Tulear, the desk attendant noticed our water bottle and reminded us we'd need to drink it before going through security. After checking in, we sat outside the front doors of the airport waiting for the plane. When it finally arrived, we walked through the security doors with no word from the security guard about our water. She asked to see one of our passports (didn't open it-just saw that Craig had one), then let us pass through (no bag check). Once through security, we could hang outside the windows with the other passengers watching, and taking photographs, of the plane landing.

Day 86 & 87: Never-Neverland

We woke up and headed off to the port to once again try to make our way south along the coast to Anako. Following a lengthy wait in the heat, watching the tide roll out until the sea was half a kilometer away, we hopped into the back of a zebu cart with our bags. It was a bumpy, depressing ride as the zebu were poorly treated and on a school day, it was children that were driving the carts. The speed boat journey was far more pleasant.

With the tide still out, we got dropped off in knee high water as there was not a safe place to approach the beach. Thus we were weaving or way through seaweed, rocks and probably sea urchins with our bags and passports/electronics/things ruinable by water. The owner of our hotel "Peter Pan", Dario came out to meet us with a staff member to help with the bags. Dario, it seems had modelled himself after the namesake of his establishment. His hair resembled that of a young Pan or Rufio's minus the stripes, he often wore a very short sleeved, v necked shirt that was just the right green, and had a habit of placing his fists on his hips. He had also thrown in a few of his own touches such as eye liner, and long pointed blue fingernails on his right hand.

The place had a Lost Boys feel to it as well, our beautiful hut had a second floor loft with a couch and a bed looking out on the sand below and the sea beyond. The shutters operated by a pulley system, so by pulling on a rope the bottom of the shutter would be lifted up/outward to the roof, and then one would have to tie the rope around a support beam.

Anakao itself is a bustling fishing village along a long stretch of beautiful beach sheltered by the barrier reef and islands offshore. We found it to lack a few of the charms of Ramena, as it was busier, more aggressive in offerings and demands, more touristy while lacking in restaurants etc, and children that were not in school crowded the beach. *It is possible that they did attend school, as we learned that for many schools the primary students go for a half day and the secondary for the opposite half.

We had a relaxing two days in the sun, sipping drinks at another restaurant down the beach that let us use their umbrellas and chairs in the sand. Erin badly smashed her left foot on the lip heading into the tiled bathroom, so our walks down the beach were impeded. Craig upped his killed cockroach count, and despite the eccentric ambience, Dario's restaurant boasted an authentic Italian menu which we thoroughly enjoyed! we also treated ourselves to our first 'real' bottle of wine - an Argentinian white that was even chilled!

One of the big highlights was watching the sun set straight into the ocean, watching intently for the 'green flash,' then turning around to watch the full moon rise amidst beautiful pink clouds.

Trip Count Lists

Read Along With Us!

We've tried to find books to read that are set in the countries we're in to supplement our bookshelf and expand our perspectives. Join our literary world tour!

Everywhere!The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Ethiopia - Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
DRC - Heart of Darkness by  Joseph Conrad (don't worry, we didn't go to the DRC, but the borders of Uganda and Rwanda offer the same geographical feel)
Rwanda - Bone Woman by Clea Koff
Madagascar - Hot Ice by Nora Roberts
Madagascar - The Life Adventures and Piracies of Captain Singleton by Daniel Defoe
Pakistan/Nepal - Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen & David Oliver Relin
Nepal - Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
India - Behind the Beautiful Forever by Katherine Boo
India - Life of Pi by Yann Mantel
India (and Bali, which felt a bit like Borneo) - Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Borneo - Shooting the Boh by Tracy Johnston
France - Secrets of Paris by Luanne Rice
France - The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
Argentina - Perla by Carolina de Robertis
Chile - Chile Death by Susan Wittig Albert (This book's description had too many references about chiles and chilis and chillis and I got confused...it sadly does not take place in Chile. But we did eat chili when we were chilly in Chile with too many chiles, so it kind of fit...)
Chile - Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes
Nicaragua - The Riverbones by Andrew Westoll (This actually takes place in Suriname; I chose it for the 'jungle feel' and realized that I knew nothing about Suriname and there's some terrible stuff going on there that we should be doing something about)

Modes of Transportation
- plane
- taxi
- foot
- city bus (matatu/taxi-brousse)
- intercity bus/coach
- tuk-tuk
- Akmat/French army truck
- dugout canoe
- motorboat
- ferry
- dhow
- 4x4
- pousse-pousse
- moto-taxi (tuk-tuk meets troop transport)
- pirogue
- speedboat
- pedal-pousse (bicycle-powered rickshaw)
- zebu cart
- bed of pick-up truck
- elephant
- camel
- subway

Monday, October 21, 2013

Day 85: Back to Brouss-in' It!

We bid goodbye to Heather and John who were staying a few extra days to hike, and with them, our luxurious private transportation options! Fortunately, it was the best brousse ride we'd had thanks to the one great road Madagascar has to offer, and the limited stops. Within four hours we'd pulled into Tulear and were jovially discussing prices with taxi drivers. Erin enjoyed immensely the experience this time because they were good-natured and less aggressive about the whole thing. We still were inundated when we first got off the brousse, and they must have heard us say something to each other in English (or maybe they just guessed by our Canadian-good looks!) but one driver adamantly explained to us how we should go with him because we'd be able to communicate with him and the others wouldn't know what we were asking. When finally pausing to take a breath, Erin gave him a great big smile and replied in French, "Or, we could just speak in French with everyone!" He laughed heartily and refused to get caught in a bidding war, instead just told us we were going to go with the other driver.

We headed off to find our boat transfer to Anakao, a fishing community on the southern shore of Tulear, but apparently the boats only go back and forth in the morning. (That might have been a nice tidbit of information for our hotel in Anakao to share with us when we reserved!). Another tour operator caught wind of our situation and came running up trying to help (and then get his cut of the share). He convinced us to go buy tickets for the local transportation ferry, assuring us that it was leaving right away, and would take the same amount of time as a speedboat (you're reading this at home thinking 'how gullible are they?' but it felt more adventurous at the time!). When they wanted us to leave our bags behind in the office and get in a truck to take us out to the end of the kilometer-long pier, we decided to cut our loses, find a hotel for the night, and take the official Anakao transfer in the morning. They shook their heads at us for walking away from our purchased tickets, but we found a great little hotel on the water with a surprisingly huge balcony, wi-fi, and a decent restaurant. We watched the sun set into the Mozambique Channel for the first time, and went to bed happy with our decision.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Day 84: Are You Sick of Lemurs Yet?

Thanks to Kevin for the inspiration for this post's name! And if the answer is yes, still read on...these guys were freakin' amazing!!!

We tried to pick an easy hike in Isalo National Park because our muscles were still aching from our big trek. Surprised by the price of park fees, guides, and mandatory car transfers to the trailhead, we were glad we were only staying for one day of hiking.

Our guide, Jacquelin, was nice, and had worked in the park for 25 years. He had recommended the Cascades de Nymphes trail which took us along a trickling river, past, up, and over big boulders to two natural swimming pools each fed by a lovely waterfall. Craig took full advantage and went for a dip!

We saw the same female chameleon that we'd seen in a few parks, but this time got a treat when we saw the gigantic male next to her - up in a tree! (He's in the bottom right of this photo).

Along the way we were delighted with a private viewing of two beautiful Verreaux's sifaka. They gave us quite the show bouncing from tree to tree, and even along the trail in front of us. We sadly didn't have our videocamera, so a series of pictures will have to do!


Erin's stomach wasn't feeling great so she opted to rest on the trail while Craig hiked up to see the waterfall. We joked about finally having a few moments apart on the trip to do our own thing!

In the afternoon we met back up with Heather and John and took a taxi to the nearby town Illaka, which is known for sitting on the world's largest supply of sapphires. The timing of this seemed especially fortunate because of Craig's recent proposal and our previous discussions about a sapphire engagement ring! In the end, we were pleased to see that the working conditions were not as horrific as we had made them out to be in our heads, so we can buy one reasonably guilt-free if we find one we like.

Mining for sapphires is an interesting endeavor. They first dig down in search of smooth river rocks to indicate an underground stream. If any are found in the initial test pile, they continue expanding the open pit mine, digging down to the bedrock. Workers carry bags of sand up to the surface to later sift through, while they pump out the water that's deep in the hole. Sapphires, rubies, and emeralds are all apparently the same type of precious stone, just in different colours, so technically sapphires come in a whole range. The traditional deep blue ones are the rarest, thus the most expensive, and the most exported. So in their tiny store they only had a few (none in any settings that we liked). But we'll keep our eyes open for the rest of the time we're in Madagascar!

Day 83: Isalo

We were still giddy the next morning for our drive out of the Tsarnoro Valley. Heather and John made the trip more affordable, but it was still a pricey transfer. We arrived in Isalo for lunch and were intrigued to see the rooms Lonely Planet had described so eccentrically. It appeared that we were staying in a castle with rock walls and an arched doorway. The bathroom had hooks made of zebu horns and we had a mural that lit up behind the headboard. The grounds were a tangle of plants and flowers and penned geese acted as an alarm system, honking anytime someone walked by.

We met Berny, the hotel's namesake, and he offered us a shot of his homemade rum as a digestive-ginger for Craig, pepper for John, and chocolate for the ladies - Berny's choices. In the afternoon we headed over to one of the star hotels outside of town, le Relais de la Reine to use their internet and have dinner. We managed to Skype with everyone in our immediate families to tell them the great news!

Leaving the hotel we had some trouble because it appeared that our taxi driver had stranded us. In the midst of us trying to arrange for a transfer back to town he reappeared, frantically telling us that it wasn't his fault; he was helping out with the fire. As we drove towards the village we could see he was telling the truth. A red glow filled the sky from nearly a kilometer away. Flames ripped across the dry grass threatening to wipe out the entire park, and with it the livelihood of the south-central Malagasy, not to mention the animals. Villagers bat at the flames with branches or poured stream water from buckets. For the most-visited park in Madagascar they had little tools or preparation for such a disaster. Our driver ranted about arson, and it certainly looked that was from the ring of fire.

Back in town, people seemed unaware or simply unalarmed. We warned Heather and John, made sure our bags were packed, and headed to bed, because there wasn't much else to do. Surprisingly, we woke in the morning to most people not even knowing it had happened, and those who had, reassured us breezily that everything was fine. So by 7:30 am we were on our way out hiking.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Day 82: An Engaging Day

The next day we hobbled about Camp Catta, cursing the number of stairs to get up to the restaurant. We learned that they had a pool, so we loaded up on water and pop (realizing that we were still incredibly dehydrated), and spent the next few hours lounging in the shade. Their pool was lovely - like being in a natural swimming hole, complete with the occasional water beetle, but void of any algae or plant life. The views of our mountain pass were plentiful.

In the afternoon, Craig lounged while Erin napped and we met up again just before dinner to watch a family of ring-tailed lemurs mosey through the site. There were more babies, like in Anja,  and they were all so cute to watch.

We realized it was Thanksgiving Day, and had a moment of nostalgia, missing home. We attempted to send text messages to our families, knowing they might be anxious to hear from us since it'd been a week since we'd had internet or phone service.

We were still revelling in the glow of our accomplishment from the day before, and Craig was likely still recovering from his bought of heatstroke, so we warmly acknowledged our thankfulness of having met each other, and having the opportunity to explore the world together. Then we sat quietly sipping our drinks and taking in the beautiful scene.

We had successfully completed one of the most physically challenging things either of us had ever done, and managed to do it without bickering or really any negativity at all. Craig felt that this, plus the amazing scene before us couldn't be more perfect, so he surprised Erin with a spontaneous proposal! She said yes, and we giddily ate dinner and hoped that the next day we might finally be able to find internet to tell our families our great news!

Day 81: Trekking to the Top Part Deux

It was a mere few hours before we "awoke" to leave for 4am, and were pleased to see that the sky was still completely clear. With flashlights searching for the path in front of us, we headed out, quickly coming to a point where we needed to cross a small creek that was now swollen to the point that the stones which were to act as our path were submerged. Getting only mildly wet we continued up the mountain along an impressive cliff and watched the sun rise over the plateau below.

John and Heather were accompanying us on the hike, and it was after 1.5 hours that John checked his GPS, we were only 150 metres below the summit; we felt we had to be close. We then of course descended hundreds of metres as we crested and then descend through a pass. Now we could finally see Pic Boby in front of us. It was a quick steep climb to the summit. Just before reaching it our guide informed us of the traditional cheer given at the top to 'open the heavens'.

At the peak we got a view back to our starting point the day before and our first view of the Tsarnoro Valley, our destination. We celebrated quietly, each finding our own spot to sit and reflect across the surrounding peaks. We browsed the notes left in the box under the cairn and Craig added his band-aid wrapper as he would not have made it without the bandage protecting a blister. We probably could've spent much more time soaking in the views, but the thought of what still lay before us loomed. We made excellent time on our way down, and found a different kind of carnivorous plant along the way.

We made the decision to combine the last day into the second that morning following our sleepless night in cold, leaky, miniscule tents on the unforgiving ground. This meant that after a challenging 7km hike in the morning we still had 17 km in front of us. Thus upon reaching camp we quickly set about packing and eating our breakfast of two bananas and a hard boiled egg each.

The beginning was easy as it once again followed the mountains along the plateau. Our trail was flat, interspersed with streams, beautiful plants with blooming wildflowers, and spectacular views of the mountains that seemed to grow straight out of the ground beside us. We started to gain elevation again as we hiked through an impressive landscape dominated by huge boulders balancing on ridges. We summoned what felt like our last remaining strength and crested the pass, being rewarded with a view of Camp Catta, our hotel for that night should we make it. Eleven km still to go.

We were warned that if there was rain, the descent from the pass could take twice as long as the steep rock becomes dangerous when wet. Thankfully we stayed dry, but lost our cloud cover. At the bottom of the rock descent we arrived at the camp that it had been recommended we stay at. We paused 10 minutes in the shade to refuel, and get a brief reprieve from the blazing sun (mid-thirties?). We eyed our shortening water supply, but knew to keep drinking what we did have. As we continued on, we had officially left the park boundaries, and were committing to doing the hike with only one overnight.

The path became more gentle and our resolve was strengthened when it began to rain. We were now headed down into the Tsarnoro Valley, named for the mountain famed for its 800m cliff face that is popular with BASE jumpers. The valley being outside the national park meant that the hillsides were terraced and tiny villages dotted the valley floor. We could see smoke rising from a chimney along the 'road' in the valley and hoped that was Camp Catta, and the smoke was from something different for each of us, (Craig imagined a Domino's Pizza was being prepared for him) but our guide told us that it was in fact further down the road.

When we eventually reached valley floor, our water supply had run out. Erin and Heather trudged ahead, worried that if they stopped and sat down, they wouldn't be able to get back up. John, our guide, then Craig followed by our four porters brought up the rear. At a fork in the road, Voulahlah caught up with the girls, warning them that we needed to stop and continue on together because there were many forks ahead. We reluctantly sat down to rest and eat a tiny snack while we glanced back nervously at the rolling hills we'd just covered concerned by how far back Craig seemed to be. Craig had taken refuge in the shade and been left a kilometer back by the group as he recognized the signs of heatstroke in himself. His slow pace and frequent stops only made this gap grow. Pretty sure he was on the right road he knew he was going the right way when he found the porters waiting for him to make sure he was doing alright. The porters offered to take Craig's bag but as they were already carrying such heavy loads Craig declined and hiked up the waiting group with them.

Thankfully Heather and John had an extra bottle of water in their big pack that the porter was carrying, and they generously shared it with us giving everyone the strength they needed for the last 20 minutes (30 for Craig and Erin, Erin declared herself a porter and took both her and Craig's bag the rest of the way.)

Fourteen hours after we had started that morning, we at last arrived at Camp Catta with a wind storm swirling dust and rooftops around us, and the occasional hail stone thumping on our heads. Our disappointment showed when we realized the showers at Camp Catta are solar heated, so since we got in after sunset and on a generally cloudy day, there was no hot water to sooth our muscles. We were too sweaty to argue, however, and settled for the cold water that there was.

24 km in 14 hours, or 36 km in 34 hours...either way you look at it, it was amazing that the number of arguments in the group equalled zero. We had made it!

Day 80: Trekking to the Top

We set out on what was to be a two night, three day trek covering 36 km, and climbing to the top of the second highest peak in Madagascar. The plan was to depart from the Namoly Valley hiking for 12 km to reach the camp closest to the summit on the first day. On the second, we would summit and then return to camp, pack, eat, and then continue over a mountain pass to another camp, 16km in total. The third day would be a steep descent into the Tsarnoro Valley which would be roughly 8km. 

Leaving from our hotel at 7am we set down a small path leading through small communities and through farmland before reaching the park boundary. The trail bobbed up and down over hills and into small river valleys. The break that the downhills provided was overshadowed by the fact that we had to go to the highest point in Southern Madagascar, thus each step down was one in the wrong direction. Craig made the decision to carry his large bag for the first day as his little bag is not comfortable with a heavy load in it. And seeing as how we needed food, water, and camping supplies for three days, along with everything for our whole trip he knew both would be heavy. Craig lagged behind on the steep climbs but he made it all the same.

After 8 km or so we reached the plateau along the mountainous rock wall. The hike was now easier and the views were constant and amazing. We stopped at a bog/swimming hole where we decided that we were fine being sweaty and warm, thus avoiding a swim, and ate lunch. From there it was a short hike to the camp across level plains, and we spent the afternoon enjoying the amazing setting and hoping that the thunderstorm over the hills was headed in a different direction.

We ate with hail pounding against the roof and slept on the hard ground with rain pounding into the sides of the tent. Sleeping was almost impossible with the sky constantly lighting up as if it was full daylight thanks to the 7 hour thunderstorm, and the wind pushing the tent sides into our already huddled bodies due to the extremely small tent. When Erin finally gave up on sleep at 1:30 am, she got out to see the most spectacular display of stars she had ever seen! She quickly called Craig out and they stood mesmerized watching shooting stars streak above them.