Christmas is a fun time of year in Madagascar. Decorations begin to show up in the markets, people are in a lighter mood, the weather, being opposite to the U.S., is warm, and most uniquely, photo booths show up all over the downtown area. Surprisingly, I actually found a video of this and the rest of downtown around Christmas:
When I refer to the “downtown” area I’m thinking about Analakely. Analakely is the area of town through which the double sided Independence Avenue runs. Independence Ave is actually kinda beautiful in its own way. There’s parking and gardens down the middle and stores and restaurants along both sides. It was capped off with a beautiful old train station, Gare Soarano on the northwest end of the street. However, it was dirty, run-down, and the associated train didn’t actually run. In fact, at that time only one short train line still ran in the country, from Fianar to Manankara, and I never got the chance to ride it, but I hear it’s beautiful.
I spent a lot of time hanging out in Analakely with friends and walking around. It was also the place to find the best ice cream. Either at Hotel du France, or my favorite, Honey. It was all hand made ice cream in several delicious flavors. Such a nice treat.
For the Christmas holidays, I had a long vacation from teaching. Earlier in the year, I had met Nate, another young American my age, and Scott, an American taking a break from Air Force Academy. They were planning on taking a trip south, so I would be joining them on their adventure. The plan was to bus down to Ilakaka, visit some missionaries in nearby Besakoa, then vacation in Ifaty and Isalo.
A few days before the trip I went down to the bus station to buy tickets for the trip. One thing about living in M/car, is that everything took much longer than it should. Getting bus tickets that day took about 3 hours, traveling on the city bus across town, walking to the bus station, getting the tickets, then taking the bus home. Never could you just “run an errand.” Everything took a long time. When talking to Lauralee, she brought up a good point, that a majority of a missionary life seemed to be spent on just existing. However, the existence was pretty nice, and the adventures in between: remarkable.
The good side effect of this was simplifying your life. I went to Madagascar with one suitcase and a small box. I always felt like I had a lot of time for reading, writing and relaxing. Upon returning home, it took awhile to get used to the multitude of choices available in the stores.
A couple days before Chirstmas, we left for our trip. The three of us met down at the bus station, along with the son of some missionaries that would be making the trip down with us. Catching a bus at the bus station meant showing up about the time that the bus was to leave, then wait 2-4 hours until the bus actually left. Our bus left about 3 hours late, then headed south toward Antsirabe and Fianarantsoa. We drove all night and well into the next day. Once past Fianar, the landscape changed dramatically from the highlands. Wide flat grasslands were everywhere. There was little sign of life or agriculture in this area. Not only much less populated than the areas around Tana, but because of the flat land, the area was without the towering rice terraces common to most areas I had seen.
After a dinner stop, a flat tire, and 16 1/2 hours, we arrived at Ilakaka in southwestern M/car. Ilakaka is the center of the gemstone industry in Madagascar. M/car is rich in minable minerals. If you can find it in the ground, you can find it in M/car. Unfortunately, the people of government have found little way to profit off the minerals for the benefit of their country and their people. Therefore, the profits of was does get mined/drilled generally leaves the country.
The most precious stones found in M/car are dark blue sapphires. They are everywhere around Ilakaka along with emeralds, rubies, and other stones. Because of the money that can be made from the stones, people have come from all around in hopes of finding gemstones for themselves. Instead of farming or working any other trade, everyone in the area now digs for gemstones. There seemed to be little formalized mining operation, but rather people freely dug wells all over the countryside, at great risk to themselves. Small villages of hastily constructed shacks dotted the landscape.
After getting dropped off in Ilakaka and while waiting to meet the missionaries we stopped in one of the many gemstone shops. They showed us large raw rubies and emeralds that unfortunately, we did not have the money or knowledge to buy.
When the missionaries arrived, the four of us packed into their car and we drove out to the village of Besakoa. In addition to the older missionary couple, two single girls and one young couple were also living in the area. They lived in the same houses as the locals and generally lived life like the locals.
We stayed in an empty house in the village where the two girls, Sonya and Tomasina, lived. That day we walked across a shallow river to the village where the couple lived. While Sonya and Tomasina seemed to be struggling with the idea of living in a village for two years, the couple was taking advantage of the opportunity. They had been taken in by the village chief as his own, the husband was working in the fields with the other men, and the other villagers walked into their house just like any other house. We hung out talking with them a while, visited the village chief, then walked back across the river in the moonlight.
The next morning we drove about 3 hours with Sonya and Tomasina the rest of the way into Toliara. We got some supplies then found the bus (10-ton truck) heading north to Ifaty, where we planned to spend Christmas. We may have found the worst taxi-brousse in M/car. We first had to haggle with ticket sellers to get fair priced tickets at 15,000 franc (which, it turns out is only about $1.50).
The truck was already loaded with oil barrels and cement bags. When we got on the back of the truck it was already packed with people. We waited about an hour before leaving, stuffing on 20-30 more people. The truck had to be packed to at least twice capacity. When we started driving, the rear tires on one side of the bus kept getting loose, so we would have to stop and tighten down the lugs. After a couple stops, Scott and I got off the truck and just walked down the road, thinking we would wait for them to get done fixing the truck then hop back on as it passed by, once it got restarted (as it had been doing). With such a packed truck, it felt good to stretch our legs.
We had walked for about an hour before realizing the bus should’ve restarted by now. It turns out that the last time it stopped, the driver had decided it was too broken, and they would have to send for parts to fix it. So everyone on the truck was stranded until spare parts arrived. Not yet knowing this, Scott and I stopped and waited under a tree. About the time we stopped, Nate and the others passed by in the back of a pickup that they had hitched a ride on. The pickup didn’t stop but they managed to yell that they had our bags and would meet us in Ifaty.
So Scott and I kept walking. We tried a couple time to waive down a ride, but to no avail. We walked maybe another 2 hours, and it was hot. The sand there was bright white and we could feel the reflecting heat as well as the heat coming up through our shoes. A couple months earlier, Scott and I had been on a camping trip to Ampefy with Nate and some others. I had worn Chaco sandals that weekend and Scott thought it was cool that I could wear them walking through the water or on the land. Therefore, for this trip, he had decided to bring only sandals. During our several hour walk in the sun on the burning hot road, Scott’s fee got badly sunburned, which turned out to be an issue later when we went hiking in Isalo.
Eventually we were able to waive down a jeep, driven by an old Frenchy and his Malagasy girlfriend, exactly the type of couple we always joked about. But thankfully, they were nice and drove us the rest of the way to Ifaty. We wandered around and checked out a few of the hotels before running into Nate and eventually renting a couple small bungalows on the beach. We slept hard that night, despite the Christmas Eve party going on at the hotel bar.
Christmas morning we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel and, while we were eating breakfast, found a guy to take us snorkeling. When we got done with breakfast, we met back up with him and pulled a small outrigger sail boat down to the water. We all piled in and pushed off. It was great. I had really wanted to ride on one of the local sailboats and this was a great opportunity. We had a good wind so we made good progress out to the reef. It was such a beautiful day in a beautiful location. I could’t believe that I was doing this on Christmas morning.
The reef here seemed quite dead and bleached. The two other places I snorkeled in M/car were much different and much more colorful. Despite that, we still had a good time snorkeling and seeing the colorful fish and animals that were there. On the way back, we had a stronger wind, and I had to hike out on the outrigger to keep our small canoe in balance.
For the rest of that day and the next, we just hung out on the beach. It was so nice. We would just rotate between sitting on the beach, swimming, sitting in the shade, taking naps, talking to the people there or some vacationing Peace Corps workers, and eating. It was so relaxing. The water was bright turquoise and the sand incredibly white. We took one small break to visit a baobab arboretum nearby, but mostly just sat on the beach.
We only ate at the restaurant our hotel, as it didn’t seem like there were many choices for restaurants and the food was pretty good. However, the service was terrible. It would routinely take 2+ hours to get our food after ordering. The staff were also a bit inconsitent. We figured this out the first night, so for our meals we would show up and order, then either sit and play cards, or go back to the beach and return in a couple hours to eat.
After two and half days of relaxing in such a beautiful location, the first part of our trip came to an end. We arranged an expensive ride back to Toliara with a man and his son driving there in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser. We had intended to stay the night in Toliara, then catch a taxi brousse the next day to Isalo National Park, where we hoped to hike for a few days. We found a room for the night in Toliara, then went to the bus station to get tickets for the next day, thus beginning the second part of our adventure.