April 18, 2012

Maroantsetra: Many Spears and Much Rain

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. 

April 16, 2012

CAN CAN CAN (PART ONE of the enthralling adventures of Kerry and Katie)

This story will be narrated by NONE OTHER THAN…. Morgan Freeman! Hooray!
One Friday afternoon, Katie and Kerry were strolling down the street in Maroantsetra, when SUDDENLY….. a thought occurred to the crazier of the two. “GASP”, said Kerry.  “I have an idea. We should bike to Mananara.” Katie, being the agreeable and only slightly less-crazy person that she is…. And knowing that Mananara is a mere 75 miles (120 km) south on the worst national TRAIL in the country… spotted with no fewer than 25 decaying, decrepit excuses for bridges, not to mention countless sand pits, bamboo bio-rafting ferries, and gaping, car-swallowing holes…. Promptly… agreed. 
What? You can't read that? It CLEARLY STATES that it is only 110k to Mananara on Route National 5...
The crack-headed couple agreed to depart at 4 am the following morning. They also agreed that there would be no need to talk until at least 7 am. So the plan was consummated, and IN FACT, the first words were not exchanged until hours in, when contemplating a GIANT, GAPING hole in the road into which a person with good eyes could see the fiery core of the earth. It was here that the “sometimes-integrated-Maroantsetra-bike-gang” encountered its first friend… a nice young man so desperate for a traveling companion that he bridged the language barrier and asked two RANDOM WHITE GIRLS if he could share in the adventure.  YES.
The first of many obstacles

Well, shortly after the GAPING HOLE OF DOOM, and after the first of many harrowing, slightly out of control, downhill descents, the “sometimes-integrated-Maroantsetra-bike-gang” could no longer claim to be such. Its newest member was tragically left behind with his tire flat and his ego deflated. He would not be the last to fall.
Later, in a STUNNING display of confidence and athleticism, Katie took on the first of many disintegrating “bridge-like structures” and while yelling “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t”, plunged painfully into the wooden cracks. Deciding that the fault of the incident lay with a confidence issue, the theme of the trip hence forth became “CAN CAN CAN” and the pair continued courageously on into the great beyond where there were fewer and fewer signs of civilization and a significant increase in mud and peril.
A Particularly Lovely Stretch of Road

A Particularly Sturdy Bridge-Like Structure

Arriving in the small village of Anandrivola, our beloved heroes came upon a crowd of former-raft-captains swimming in the river around a sunken taxi truck and attempting to extricate it by roping a single floatie to its roof (perhaps the least effective place to attach a floatation device considering that the roof of the car was the only part above the water). Meanwhile, a second, not-to-be-discouraged taxi truck was attempting to board the bamboo-stick-raft off of which the first had just fallen.  SOLID PLAN.
 That barrel in the foreground is the aforementioned flotation device...

The not-to-be-discouraged taxi-truck
Katie and Kerry quickly removed themselves from the impending disaster and climbed across yet another perilous bridge requiring serious gymnastical skills. (Imagine Morgan Freeman pronouncing the word gymnastical).  It was at this point in their journey that the road actually became WORSE, if such a thing is conceivable, and began to wind through the mountains. The boulder-field which was formerly a road/trail, blew out both travelers brakes within an hour and left the two screaming down the hills of DOOM in terror. Nevertheless, in a perpetual state of unchecked OPTIMISM, the two were unfazed by the likelihood of their imminent deaths and continued to yell “CAN CAN CAN” ! UNTIL…. With a final yelp, Katie suddenly reached a point where she couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t, and gracefully CRASHED into the bushes in a mangled union of bikes, rocks, and legs. 


It was only shortly thereafter, in the heat of the afternoon, that their perpetual state of OPTIMISM started to falter briefly and the pair decided that they HATED rocks of all types and varieties. And also hills. And also small children who scream “SALUT VAZAHA” (which means “I HATE YOU, SAY HELLO TO ME!” in Malagasy). 
JUST THEN, by the grace of GOD… or whoever… the weary couple stumbled upon a slice of heaven…. A tiny little rice shack in a dusty little town full of warm coke and chicken sauce. Then followed a period know as the “GOOD TIMES” when their stomachs were full and Mananara seemed too close to be true… a mere 60 km left! 
BUT… just when everything seemed to be going swimmingly, the travelers reached the dreaded BRIDGE TROLLS of “insert name of small unknown village” where a group of swaggering, underemployed teenagers promptly demanded all of their money in exchange for passage across their rickety, shameful excuse for a bridge. By the time the couple reached the next ferry crossing, and a helpful stranger informed them that “there was no possibility of reaching Mananara that evening”, the two rapidly entered a period known as the “DARK TIMES”. 
The sweaty, mud-splattered, brake-less, companions reached the point of the day called “DUSK” and launched themselves down yet another hill which unfortunately ended in one of those wooden bridge-like things. Kerry began in the traditional way by confidently screaming “CAN CAN CAN” until the point at which her bike wavered and she adopted the CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T frame of mind. Moments before crashing VIOLENTLY into the wooden planks, she yelled “I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD” and shoes, bikes, and limbs all found their own paths to destruction. BUT, the UNDAUNTED travelers sent a drunken man into the river to get the lost accessories and continued valiantly on their way. 
The co-travelers now forged on in the darkness, intermittently and frustratingly falling into pockets of quick sand and wondering if the existence of Mananara had been a LIE all along. JUST THEN, our story’s beloved heroes stumbled upon a man who announced that Mananara was no more than ONE kilometer away. Katie restrained Kerry from attempting to kiss the man and the two picked up a perky, re-energized pace.  FINALLY, 16 hours from the birth of the trip, after 120 kilometers, 260,000 SALUT VAZAHA’s, 1000 decrepit bridges, at least that many falls, the bloody, weary, smelly, muddy mess of human beings reached the final river, where they WERE NOT ripped off by the last ferry man and happily climbed over the last little rise into Narnia (aka MANANARA). 

LEPTY, LEPTY, LEPTY (PART TWO of the enthralling adventures of Katie and Kerry)

In the regrettable absence of Morgan Freeman, this latter portion will be narrated by none other than…duh duh duh…David Attenborough! Hooray again!
The problem with biking all the way to Mananara is that upon arrival and survival, one must then turn around and go back, with full knowledge of the obstacles and dangers which impede the lengthy course. And with an astounding feeling of exhaustion.  And sun-induced delirium.  This is the state in which we found our beloved heroes on a day of semi-crippled rest in Mananara.

Mananara: Our Weary Travelers' Destination

Attempting to get out of bed the following morning was a process of many false starts and failed attempts. Kerry, in a concerning state of delirium, announced that she was no longer going to tell stories, but instead would only tell the point of the story itself. She then, by way of example, declared that she “LOVED THE WALL.” Katie, who could not help but notice that the wall was dirty and altogether unremarkable, was more intrigued than ever about what sort of story leads to such a point as that. 
Kerry then resigned herself to the serious task of planning the day’s events, which would culminate, and were in fact designed only to enhance, an afternoon NAP OF EPIC REVITALIZATION. Our weary and delirious travelers then accomplished a feat previously thought impossible: a sustained walking pace slower than that of the average and aimless Malagasy stroller, a pace which is rumored to be roughly equivalent to that of continental drift. 
One very important task needed attending to, though: fixing the tangled mess of metal their bikes had become. Brakes were worn down to utter uselessness; back tires wobbled drunkenly; chains coated in mud caught stubbornly in their sprockets. The bike repairman attended to these obviously insane foreigners with cautious distance. Who knows of what they could be capable!!

You can see here the UTTER DESTRUCTION of the brake pads
The return journey, while undertaken on the very same road, was yet adventure anew.  The trip seemed somehow longer, though also more beautiful, as the road hugged the coast (sometimes collapsing into the ocean without warning). The endless stream of screaming children tested our heroes’ patience and led them to the desperate plea that all towns be EMPTY EMPTY EMPTY. At one river crossing, a particularly drunken paddler caught snippets of the English-language plea, and joined in the chorus, shouting: LEPTY LEPTY LEPTY!! It didn’t work, but the support was appreciated.

Narrow bridges and sandbagged ways...

 Rampaging cattle on unstable surfaces...

It is a different road every kilometer...
The highlight of the return trip was an extended stop at a vinany, the convergence zone of river and ocean, where the travelers found themselves in a NATURAL INFINITY POOL OF TOTAL AWESOMENESS. Separated from the sea by a thin sandbar, only the most ambitious of the ocean waves crested the sand, the warm salt water sinking rapidly below the cold, fresh water of the stream. Katie BELLY FLOPPED into the glory. Kerry laughed at her because she had obviously intended something more graceful. Malagasy people stared from the trees and wondered what was up with these two weird foreigners. Everyone was happy.

Overstaying their welcome, they were encroached on by their perennial enemy, DUSK. After a particularly catastrophic fall, our brave travelers were forced to walk their bikes another ten kilometers to the next village, through an AVATAR TUNNEL OF FIREFLIES and also, general astonishment. Due to extremely limited housing options, THE TWO were forced to spend the night not just within disturbing proximity to a RAGING ALL NIGHT DISCO PARTY, but actually more or less inside of it. America, while superior in many forms of technology, has not yet produced a speaker capable of competing with the Malagasy SUBWOOFERS found at even a standard sort of party. And this was no standard sort of party our heroes were sleeping through…um…in.
Accordingly, the weary travelers awoke feeling as though they had slept in a disco and forged onward with considerably less enthusiasm for the trip as a whole. In fact, Katie had some difficulty speaking to Kerry for a few hours, as she had WOKEN HER UP AT SOME ABSURD AND ENTIRELY RIDICULOUS HOUR THAT WAS BASICALLY STILL NIGHT. Katie is not, and never has been, a morning person.

This is a good example of an hour that could basically still be considered night...
65 kilometers, forty miles, stood between our beloved heroes and their beloved home of Maroantsetra. This was a task of MONUMENTAL CHALLENGE, a distance SEEMINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE. Only a complete lack of other travel options and a stubborn pride and insistence not to look like a punk allowed Katie and Kerry to summon the strength and complete their journey. The last hour, in the relentlessly beating sun, called into question every life decision that had led to the obviously deranged life decision which had led them to this. 
But then our heroes were cresting the final hill, were crossing the final bridge into town, shouting CAN CAN CAN with the frantic enthusiasm of wanderers rescued from the desert. They shouted PIZZA PIZZA PIZZA and suddenly all that had seemed insane five kilometers back now seemed like a wildly intelligent decision to not sit at home on a three day weekend, but rather go out FOR A LITTLE JAUNT and see what there is to see. 
Of course, if you asked crazy Kerry and slightly-less-crazy Katie if they would do it again, our heroes would shout, as you know, CAN CAN CAN. But really, they mean NEVER NEVER NEVER!!

April 02, 2012

It's A World of Water [Photos]


Buttress Roots, Nosy Mangabe

Wednesday Afternoon

From Andranofotsy

Approaching Farankaraina

Departing Maroantsetra

Betsimisaraka Tombs, Nosy Mangabe

Rainforest in a Cloud

Looking South from Maroantsetra

Tree Hugging (or, What happens when Tarzan loses the vine...)

Morning Fishing in the Bay

Crossing the River Delta by Canoe

Inscriptions of 18th Century Dutch Travelers, Nosy Mangabe

Inspecting the Day's Catch, Farankaraina

Backyard Sunset, Maroantsetra