Day 13: the weekend at last

Evening all! I think I need to start blogging more often, it’s been at least a week since my last update and too much has happened to put in one post. So I may break this one into a few instalments.

I’ll start off with last weekend. After a hard week’s work (environmental modelling can be painful work!), we ventured further south than the Sarodrano day-trip of the previous weekend, to a town called Sainte Augustine. It is the furthest south the coastal road goes before it is met by a monster of a river estuary:

Approaching an “end of the world”

Sainte Augustine, Madagascar

The trip over was immense fun. Zo and I rode at the back of the jeep for much of the way, to the backdrop of the ocean to our right and the open desert and hills to our left. Cliffs would appear out of nowhere, not great for vertigo sufferers such as myself but a hell of a ride! Climbing to the hilltop from where the above photo was taken, we passed a boy riding up on his bicycle. Anyone who can do that every day can surely tackle the Tour de France. Zo and I clambered back to the seats and along came the boy with his bike at the back. Great being a Good Samaritan!

We approached the town of Sainte Augustine, Zo once again proving his worth by occasionally leaping off the jeep in search of much-needed directions. We were after a very specific hotel (not that there were any in sight anyway). Lonely Planet provides an exclusive list of just nine hotels in Madagascar they refer to as the ends of the world:

Isolation, natural beauty, the sea, and a distant horizon, forming a distant place where the world appears to stop, and the spirit deepens.

Longamamy is one of them. Perched along the banks of the Onilahy River estuary, we were given a pair of bungalows for 18,000Ar (a fiver) each. Complete with candles, a rock to “lock” the front door and of course mosquito coils. And the French owner (he’s been here for 28 years now) was overjoyed at seeing his hotel feature as a highlight in Lonely Planet!

At his Lonely Planet shout out: “Oui oui, this is errrrrrrrrrr very nice to see!”

The sign says “no pooing on the beach”. So they poo’d on the sign!

A quick beach walk by sunset turned into a bit of a team show for the camera, but it wasn’t long before the label end of the world really gained meaning. To the south of us was nothing but the Antarctic, and around us no one but a lone fisherman cleaning his pirogue for tomorrow’s open ocean outing.

Moves for the camera

An End of the World…

Lonely Planet also recommends the fish supper here. Fresh from the day’s catch, the menu was crab, shrimp, or prawns, with rice and beans. Oddly enough, when the Malagasy serve beans on rice, it literally comes as a plate of baked beans on rice. And it tastes really really good! (maybe it’s just a tasty reminder of home?). The seafood was equally appetising, and made going to straight to sleep (it was only 8.30pm) easy, despite the crickets in acapella mode.

Day 15 to come…

Blog word-count: 2,500
Disso word-count: 0 (one month until deadline!)

Day 10: Settling into life in the Wild Wild Southwest…

It’s 8pm and I’m sitting here in complete darkness. It gets dark here before 6pm, and despite the very welcome sunshine and heat (28 degrees!) it’s a reminder that it is actually winter here. This evening a power cut has plunged the town into further darkness – power cuts here are by no means infrequent, and everything stops to a standstill.

First, I should dispel any myths that I’ve come to Madagascar to save the lemurs, or chain myself to baobab trees! Since arriving from Tana (a week ago), I’ve pretty much spent all day everyday cooped up in the Blue Ventures office. Downloading satellite data from NASA (waiting for it to download), processing data, building utterly gorgeous (!) maps, and so on. It’s all in aid of saving the mangroves (no Nims, not groves of mangoes, or indeed men!). The monotonous routine is partly why I haven’t bothered to blog for a week – very little has actually happened. Here are the few things I have to report…

My flight down from Tana (yes, on the blacklisted planes) was ultimately like any other flight I’ve been on – no surprises really. The plane did however look like it had been bought second-hand from American Airlines decades ago. It looked like the set of those brilliant Leslie Nielsen Airplane! movies from the 80s… old metal seats, faded interior etc. Nonetheless we landed safely. To an airport that is frankly not much bigger than my house (that’s not to say I live in a mansion back home!). I made sure not to make the same tipping mistake this time, much to the disgruntled moans of those who needlessly went out of their way to assist me.

Meet Zo (pronounced Zu). He’s both my flatmate and colleague. He’s been a bit of a hero in showing me around town and generally making sure I settle in ok. Any time I leave the office, he’s there with me. Also means I don’t get charged foreigner prices, as I’ll prove below…

One of the first stories he told me about was a road accident. Three weeks ago he was taking the same taxi-brousse bus journey I had initially planned from Tana to Toliara. It was approaching midnight, Zo had fallen asleep. The bus driver, also, had fallen asleep at the wheel. The next thing Zo knew, he along with the other crammed passengers were being thrown about the inside of the bus as it tumbled over. Zo tells of the shock that he survived, without any serious injuries too. Unfortunately, one child did die during the accident – the child’s whole family had been travelling. The accident has clearly affected Zo, unsurprisingly he seems tense as he tells the story. It certainly fills me with relief to have flown down instead.

On a more positive note, we did embark on a day trip South of Toliara on Sunday (our one day off), to a village called Sarodrano. Here lies a beautiful natural pool (Grotte de Sarodrano) which we had completely to ourselves for the day – me, Zo, my boss Trevor and his girlfriend Merika.

The road to Sarodrano is supposedly one of the better roads in Madagascar. In reality it was little more than a dirt-track – certainly not tarmacked. It’s such a rough ride that when you stop the car, it feels like you’re floating with the sudden absence of the relentless pounding you are subjected to. The pool is a weird mix of freshwater at the clear top and saltwater at the murky bottom. This produced some cool wildlife: a lizard, some crabs, fairly large fish and shrimp. Nothing extraordinary yet. Oh and a shrub who’s juice is so poisonous it could kill you if swallowed. And I finally had a chance to swim!

First taste of Mada’s wildlife

Poison

First underwater shot using my new underwater camera. Not great focus but nice shot nonetheless!


I’ve also moved out of my £6pn hostel east of town, a 15min walk from the office. It’s too dangerous for Vazaha (foreigners – a bit like the term Ferengi) to wander the streets much beyond sunset (a couple of French tourists were stabbed to death last month). The Malagasy seem very shy, reserved but genuine people. One theory is that the poverty here drives the desperate ones to crimes like mugging – which unfortunately end up as fatal stabbings as they panic to avoid confrontation. Whether there is any truth in this theory, who knows. Either way, I don’t want to find out – so I’ve moved to the apartment right beside the office – 50p per night! Unbelievable Jeff. I’ve also kitted out my room with a bamboo shelving unit, an absolute bargain at £2 (yes £2) from the local market.

Bamboo furniture – £2

Lastly, I was told during a lunch that farther South of Salondrano is somewhat of a Wild Wild West. Bandits, cattle thieves, witchcraft, zombies – it all happens there. Apparently. A place to be avoided for the average tourist. I’m not your average tourist though…

Skype

Aside

Skype will be the best way to contact me:
srgandhi87

I have a Mada number now as well as my UK one, both will remain active. If you want the Mada number, message me.

Time difference – only 2 hours ahead of you guys in the UK. So comms should be relatively easy

Day 2 – Good morning Madagascar!

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So it’s actually happening. I’ve made it to Madagascar. You guys weren’t the only doubters, three months ago this trip was nothing but a pipedream for me (and yet another £10 bet with Hinesh – pay up lad!)

My journey so far has been relatively painless. I did confuse currency denominations to then tip the airport trolley guy what is probably the equivalent of his family’s weekly wage (I was to realise this when paying FAR less for an entire restaurant supper later in the day).

I’ve taken two flights to get to where I am now, the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo – or Tana for short. One thing you quickly realise about the Malagasy language is the Sri Lankan-esque names that people and towns have adopted. To give you a couple of examples: Ambohimahamasina, or Fianarantsoa.

Fianarantsoa is potentially the next and final stopover en route to reaching my ultimate destination, Toliara in the Southwest of Mada.

Google Maps reckons it would take just under 12 hours to cover just under 1000km. Google Maps clearly hasn’t been to Madagascar. Here’s an excerpt on the taxi-brousse bus journey, from the newly published Lonely Planet Mada guide (which I recommend to anyone planning on coming):

Beware: these amusement park rides are packed beyond capacity. Passengers bounce around and are frequently ill. There are a limited number of breaks, and provisions are sparse along the way. You will need a scarf and pullover for the dust and wind. All things considered, we have never seen a rougher form of public transport.

This is saying something, coming from Lonely Planet! Now, being me, I jumped at this opportunity. It looks like a cracking adventure through Mada’s remote wilderness, for supposedly anything up to 50 hours. And all for £20 rather than £150 for the 1 hour flight! A clear no brainer, right? Hmm. Ultimately common sense has prevailed, with gentle encouragement in the form of two hefty bags (combining to weigh more than me) and a common British cold that just won’t go away. However, there is a downside. All Air Madagascar planes have been blacklisted and barred from European airspace. In other words, I’d somehow be safer on the aforementioned “amusement park ride”. Some excitement at least. So I’m off to the airline office tomorrow morning to book the first flight down, where the work I have so eagerly been anticipating will finally begin.

The experience so far? As expected really. Tana is ok. Dusty, polluted, busy. Lots of comparisons to India. Spinetingling animal screams during the middle of the night etc. Bizarrely the Malagasy people look slightly Indian too – go back far enough and the Malagasys can trace their roots to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Which I suppose physically averages out to India (or not)… And of course there is the heavy French influence due to Madagascar’s French-colonial past. This all reflects in the evolution of Malagasy cuisine, a real international fusion. Tana reminds me of Southern Vietnam and Laos in a sense – French-style patisserie cafes line the streets in places serving very tasty puds. And I’m not even a dessert person.

Anyway, that’s enough for my first post. Three snaps to finish off: 1 and 2) snaps from the plane as we approach Tana. And 3) the delicious pud after a somewhat carniverous dinner at, er, La Carnivore

Looks edited, and it very slightly is – only to make up for the greyness the translucent plane window gave the image. This is really is quite close to what I saw early this morning…

I had to capture the distinct redness of the land peeping through the clouds. For a stunning pic of what widespread deforestation is doing to the environment: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4388

PS – I miraculously didn’t sleepwalk on the flights! Which can only mean no stress whatsoever – this is hardly surprising. Of course there’s always the blacklisted flight on Thursday…