I didn’t know much about Maroantsetra before I came. I knew that the Malagasy people of the region were Betsimisaraka, which translates literally into “The-Many-Inseparables” and lends them a distinct sense of enigma. I heard that there were eight months of rain, that planes coming from the capital often circled and circled, then returned, unable to land in the torrential downpour. People everywhere told me that Maroantsetra was “mijaly lalana,” meaning “suffering for the way,” a reference to the near total isolation of this coastal city.
After I arrived, it seemed that everyone asked, but no one could answer: what does Maroantsetra actually mean? The maro part isn’t difficult; it translates simply to “many” and is one of the most common and unchanging words in the confused Malagasy lexicon. The antsetra appears to have everyone stumped. I was first told that the name means “many on stage,” and refers to the period at the height of cloves season when the population is flush with money and concerts are held every night for months. There is a traditional story too, of the local “inseparables” standing on one riverbank and waving their spears at the French standing on the other, taunting and goading their Colonialist would-be conquerers. Thus, “many spears.” But an alternative, and understandably less popular, explanation is “many shovels:” a probable reference to the forced labor policies of the later Colonial periods. What did I say about this lexicon? Confused and conflicted.
Maroantsetra boasts a single paved road, the goudron, but it is buried beneath so much sand that it took me weeks to notice. All the houses in this city are built on short stilts, as their seems to be more of this shifting sand than solid ground. The water table too is barely contained beneath the earth: an old oil drum suffices as a well and the rope need not be longer than three feet. When it rains, which it does nearly everyday, there is simply nowhere for the water to go: kids swim up to their necks in the puddles. And when the sun comes out, it is instantly blindingly hot. The humidity is like breathing scalding soup. I am always sweating; everything molds, rots, and rusts; I cannot leave the house without my rain-jacket; there is perpetually sand in the cuffs of my jeans.
There is one radio station, and as I bike the puddled streets I am constantly moving towards or away from the same song, echoing from corner shops, bike repair shacks, and houses where dogs sleep under the porch and children play in the sand. Frequent long and unexplained gaps in cell-phone coverage are standard; this is a place where it is possible to be surprised by a tropical storm. All day, everyday a bocce ball game is underway outside my house. The clink of metal and thud in the sand fills the daylight hours and speaks to the rhythms of life here: even sport cannot be hurried.
This is a city utterly isolated from the outside world. A single road heads south, a series of catastrophic mud-holes and sand-traps, clinging to the coast and sometimes sliding off it altogether [see previous post]. Two to five days treacherous travel brings one to Tamatave, and paved connections to the rest of Madagascar. The other escapes are on foot, four days North to Antalaha, through the rainforest, or five West across the mountainous center of the island to Mandritsara. Navigation around Maroantsetra and up inland is almost exclusively by the boats that ply several massive river systems which dump into a delta of interconnected waterways and then the ocean.
Almost everything that arrives in Maroantsetra- people included- does so by boat, and as a result of this reliance, life is expensive and every single soda in the city is flat. When rough seas and cyclone season prevent water traffic, items steadily begin to disappear from the market: vegetables, canned products, all things but rice and fruit. If weeks pass and the boats still don’t come, the market sits empty and the only thing that can be reliably found is beer. When the weekly gas tanker fails to arrive up the coast, the price of fuel quadruples on the black market and suddenly the streets are silent of motorized transport. When the tanker does appear, a mob scene ensues at the city’s only pumping station.
It is fascinating place to live, an isolated, tropical enclave, battered by rains, and sometimes it seems, stuck in time.