Stories of my adventures in Madagascar… for my daughter and son

Posts tagged “beach

Just a Five-Hour Truck Ride

Though not many, there were several non-French expat families living in Madagascar, particularly in Tana.  The kids came from a wide variety of families, backgrounds, countries and schools.  Embassy workers, NGO workers, missionaries, American School teachers, business owners, etc.

Life as an expat kid can be exciting: friends from around the world, experience in a foreign culture, learning new languages.  Life can also be difficult, especially for kids of government workers, who may move every few years, leaving friends behind and forced to make new ones.  It can also be difficult for those that left their home country later in their childhood, leaving a lot of established friends behind.

Of the many great things about growing up in a foreign country, the pure adventure may be the best.  A young couple living in Tana,; one a pastor from South Africa (Hennie), the other an American missionary kid who had grown up in M/car (Shelly); had started an outreach to the kids, organizing monthly hang-outs, trips to the favorite coffee shop, and best of all: the annual youth trip.

Countryside of the central highlands

The year I was there, the trip was to Mahajanga, Shelly’s hometown, where we would (theoretically) spend the majority of our time camping at a waterfall outside of town.  Our trip started by taking a bus (which of course arrived late) from Tana to Mahajanga, about a 10 hour trip.  When the bus arrived to pick us up, we quickly realized that it had spent the previous day hauling loads of fish.  It took several hours of the drive before we no longer noticed the stench.

The 10 hour drive went fairly quick, and I took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery of the central highlands.  We arrived in Mahajanga late Saturday night, and made home at Shelly’s parents house.  Sunday was Easter so we had a short service, then spent the afternoon hanging out at the beach.  Monday morning our real adventure began.

Early in the morning, all 20 or so of us loaded up our gear and ourselves into the back of a large lorry for a five-hour drive to the waterfall where we could camp for the next few days.  Starting out, even early in the morning, it quickly became hot and uncomfortable in the back of the truck.  But for five hours, we could endure anything.

Our home for the next two days.

An hour and a half into the trip, we got stuck for the first time.  All of the back tires were buried up the axles in mud from the rainy season.  The biggest hindrance to getting unstuck was the fact that all the tires on the truck were bald.  Through the course of our trip, several tires on the truck became so worn, that there was little more than threads holding them together.  Truck tires are expensive, maybe $500-$1000 each, in a country where most people make only $300-$400 annually.

The next four hours were spent digging out the back end of the truck.  Through this, I learned the Malagasy method of getting out of the mud: dry sand.  No matter how the truck was stuck, the driver and his helper’s answer was dry sand.  Everyone would dig the tires out of the mud, then promptly bury them in dry sand.  However, dry sand or wet, with bald tires its hard to go anywhere.

In the truck, we had with us four live chickens that would later be our meals.  The stress of baking in the back of the truck during those four hours caused one chicken to start laying eggs, and another chicken to die.  We made a small dish out of  a water bottle and attempted to feed and water the remaining chickens in the hope they would stay alive long enough to become dinner.

Eventually, after a lot of pushing and digging, and at the expense of a chicken, we got out and back on the “road.”  After a couple more hours of driving, we came to a river and took a break.  We all had a snack and jumped in and swam.  A small concrete dam had been built across the river to serve as a bridge, creating a beautiful swimming hole and a welcome break from the back of the truck.

After a half hour of relaxing, we loaded back in the truck to finish our trip to the waterfall.  We drove across the dam and onto the sand on the other side where we immediately became stuck.  Ironically, we were now stuck in dry, beach-like sand.  The driver and his helpers stared at each other confounded.  Their only previous solution to getting un-stuck was dry sand.  Now  stuck in dry sand, they had no way out.  Despite this, one of them still offered up the solution of burying the tires in dry sand.

Stuck again

Luckily, after about an hour of brainstorming, another truck passed by that was able to pull us out.  However, by this time, it was around 5:30 and nearly dark, so we decided the beach would be a good place to spend the night.  It turned out to be really great.  It was warm, the swimming was fantastic, and the sand was soft and comfortable for sleeping.  We all had a good time.

Our campsite the first night

The next morning, we repacked and loaded back into the truck.  We were all still expecting just a few hours left to go.  It wasn’t an hour out of camp before we were stuck again, for a third time.  Perhaps rainy season was not the best time of year for traveling dirt logging roads in the grasslands of Madagascar, but the weather was great for us, and the scenery and greenery amazing.  It just meant getting stuck in the mud.  A lot.

This time we only spent about three hours, gathering rocks and cutting down trees, trying to find anything we could to throw under the tires for traction to get the truck out of the mud hole.


What amazed me during the whole two day trip, was the fantastic attitude of the kids.  If this had been in America, it would have been nothing but incessant whining.  Though two days in the back of a truck seems extreme, even in hindsight, at the time, it seemed almost normal.  This was just how things go in Madagascar.  Everyone knew it and dealt with it.  It was frustrating at times, but expected, and everyone enjoyed it and had a good time.

After getting unstuck, we continued our journey.  Now deep into the bush, Shelly, our guide, began to realize that a lot of new logging roads had formed since the last time she had been out there, and began to lose her way.  We spent a lot of time testing roads trying to find our way.  Then we got stuck again, for our fourth and final time.


This time was inexcusable.  It was almost as if the driver drove directly into a ditch on the side of the road and dumped the front wheel in it.  Even the driver’s helpers gave up on him and took a nap under some trees.  The driver was either crazy or blind, or both.

While the driver worked on digging out the truck, I took a walk up the road.  While walking I discovered one of the more sinister insects of M/car.  I don’t even know what their called, like horse flies, but nearly impossible kill and relentless.  They began attacking my legs, at least a dozen of them, immediately latching on and digging into my skin.  No amount of swatting could keep them off, so I just ran.  I ran until they were gone, hoping not to see them again.

Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention, Todd was able to dig the truck out.  After a lot of revving, spinning of tires, and pushing, we got the truck out.  Now, it was only a matter of finding our way to the waterfall.  With the truck low on gas and Shelly at her wit’s end, we found the waterfall just before sundown on our second day of travel.

It was beautiful.  We camped on the smooth rock next to a trickling creek, above a magnificent 55-foot waterfall.  There were trees all around us and a huge pool to swim in below the waterfall.  That night we set up camp and swam in a few pools above the falls.

Finally at our campsite

We also had our first real meal in two days.  In addition to riding in the back of a truck, on hot summer days, that we had to dig out four times, we also barely ate.  We had some small sandwiches for lunch and some beans for dinner the first day, and nothing but some slices of banana bread for breakfast the second day.  That night, we ate chicken and beans and rice, and it was maybe the best meal I have ever ate.  The next morning we ate the leftovers for breakfast and it was still amazing.  We were all just so tired and hungry.

Camping in the bush was a special treat, because M/car is a country with few city lights, and being in the bush, were even more removed from any trace of artificial light.  The stars were bright and clear, brighter than anywhere else I’ve ever been.  The added treat was seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere, different enough that it’s noticeable, compared to what I’m used to seeing in the states.

First thing in the morning, we drove a short 30 minutes to the Anjohibe Caves.  This cave is truly in the middle of nowhere and rarely visited.  The first thing you come to before entering is a small patch of concrete and a flagpole.  According to rumors, the caves had been used by French soldiers at some point in time, and possibly also be Malagasy soldiers, though I can’t imagine what they would be fighting or defending out here.   At some point around WWII, the cave had been fitted with electric lights, which is phenomenal, considering you can barely get reliable electricity in the capital.  However, I don’t remember them working at the time, so maybe not so phenomenal.

Which brings up another funny thing about M/car.  Electricity is so fickle anywhere you go, that you spend much of your time inside using candles for light.  During my time there, the electricity would go out 5-6 times a day for anywhere from 15 min to several hours.  Many of the missionary wives would comment that their idea of a romantic dinner was one with all the lights on, as candlelight dinners were so commonplace.

Once inside, the cave, we were amazed.  It may be the most unique cave I have ever been to.  Most of the caves I had been to were in the Pacific northwest are old lave tubes, smooth and without mineral formations.  This cave was completely different.  Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere.  From floor to ceiling in all parts of the cave.  We wandered in and out of all the tunnels, exploring as much of the cave as possible, gazing at the rock formations.  Part of our exploring was also a race to find the entrance to an underground river.

The entrance was little more that a crack at the bottom of an obscure wall.  One at a time we slid down through the crack and into a cavern holding the river (or maybe just a lengthy pool of rain runoff).  We walked out of the caves through the river, which was about 500 yards from where we jumped in to where it came out in the open and completely dark.  The water was mostly waist deep, but there were few places that we needed to swim, helping each other along with the few flashlights we had available.  Sharp rocks littered the bottom of the river and all our legs were pretty cut up.

After hiking back to the main entrance of the cave and grabbing our stuff, we headed back to camp for lunch.  One of the driver’s helpers, we called him Rasta because of his dreads (generally, anyone with dreads goes by Rasta in M/car), tagged along with us all day and had the time of his life.  The whole time we were exploring the cave he was talking non-stop.  When we found the entrance to the river, he was the first to dive through the crack , even before we could get flashlights.  Later that night, he continued to talk non-stop telling anyone who understood Malagasy about his day.  When some of the kids were dancing around the campfire, he was joining right in.

After lunch we went down to the pool below the falls to swim.  To get to the pool, we had to climb down roots of trees sticking out from the side of the cliff.  Once down, we all jumped in.  The pool was pretty deep, but littered with large boulders just below the surface.

Swimming below the falls

After swimming for awhile, a small group started walking downstream, crawling up and over the huge rocks blocking the river’s path.  We scrambled down until coming to another small pool where we swam for awhile until it got too cold.  While there, a family of lemurs came and perched in the trees just above us.  They didn’t seem bothered by our presence and hung out for awhile watching.  With lemurs becoming scarce, it’s rare to see them truly in the wild, away from any nature preserves or national parks.

After getting cold, we scrambled back up to the main pool and swam more until climbing back up to camp for dinner.  After dinner we broke into small groups and had an opportunity for the kids to talk about life as a missionary and relationships with their parents.  While being an ex-pat can be exciting and adventurous at times, it can also be hard on the kids.  The kids talked about never living normal lives; they have few if any close friends, they generally move around the world against their will, their parents are always focused on work of the mission and often don’t have time for them.  It was a good opportunity for the kids to share their feelings and how they work through them, and to let each other know that they were not alone.

Walking behind the falls

Afterwards, everyone gathered around the campfire and sang and danced until late into the night.

The next morning we quickly packed up and got back on the road.  The drive back to Mahajanga was quicker than the drive out, it took only a full day, but not without hiccups.  We drove to the river where we had made our first camp without incident and stopped for snacks and a little swimming to cool off.

Shortly after starting out again, our troubles began.  First, the truck ran out of gas.  We had another car with us, that Hennie and Wilfred (Shelly’s brother-in-law) took off in to find gas, however, they were nearly out of gas also.  Luckily, they found another broken down truck that they siphoned gas from and were back in 45 minutes.  The battery on the truck was also dead, so it took us nearly forever, and all our remaining energy, to push start the truck and get it gong again.

The falls

Shortly after starting again, the clutch went out and the truck could barely shift.  We now barely had any gas, with a dead battery, no clutch and threadbare tires.  Then it started raining.  The tarp over the back of the truck was tied up on top, and we couldn’t stop for fear of not being able to start again.  The rain just poured down on all of us, but by then, no one really cared.  Everyone just sat quietly and took it (needless to say, but I ended up throwing away most of the clothes I wore on this trip).  When we got to the top of a small hill where the driver wasn’t so worried about getting stuck, we stopped and pulled the tarp down.  But, this also had the side effect of making the back of the truck into a greenhouse.

It was then that the driver decided that he wanted to wait until after the rain stopped and the road dried before starting again.  Everyone immediately objected, and luckily, Wilfred was able to convince him to keep going.  The next stretch of road was crazy, it was probably good that the tarp was down and we couldn’t see.  The truck was sliding, and fish-tailing, brushing up against trees, spinning, and barely avoiding getting stuck.  But, the rain eventually stopped, we dried out and made it to the main highway before running out of gas again.

The famous thousands-some-odd-year old baobab tree in downtown Mahajanga

After Hennie and Wilfred got more gas, we made it back into town and back to Shelly’s parents.  We all crashed hard that night.  The next day we spent walking around town, shopping for souvenirs, and hanging out at the beach.  The following morning we all packed up early and got ready to take our bus home.  However, keeping in line with the transportation theme of our trip, the bus we had hired broke down that morning and they were scrounging to find two vans left in town that could take us home.

We left a few hours later than we wanted but still got out of town, and most everyone spent the ride sleeping.  Twelve hours later I was back home in the compound, where I could finally crash (however, I got up early the next morning to meet some friends to go to a concert and ended up staying up all the next night… oh to be young again).  It was a great trip, everyone enjoyed it, the kids had great attitudes.

Though the three days on the truck were obnoxious, it really made the trip.  Sometimes the journey is the adventure.



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.

Places I visited in Madagascar

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.

Different tribes and people groups wore different hairstyles, this is an example from Besakoa

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.

Our not-so-roadworthy taxi-brousse

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.

Return to Nosy Be

One of the guys we played basketball with in Nosy Be was Birkoff.  His actual name is Frederic, and goes by Freddy, but for the white people that come visit, he tells them to call him “Birkoff.”  He got the name from a French TV series/movie, “La Femme Nikita.”  In the TV series there is a computer geek named Seymour Birkhoff.  Freddy wanted to be a computer programmer, therefore, Birkoff (with a different spelling).

Birkoff is a pretty smart guy and spoke English perfectly, and now works off and on as a dive assistant in Nosy Be so he’s one of the guys that we got to know well on our first summer in Nosy Be.  He’s very crazy.  When I arrived at my first church service at the local church in Tana, behold, there was Birkoff.  I was amazed to see him there, as was he to see me.  Apparently he had since moved to Tana to try to go to school and live with his father.  He had spent some time trying to find the Nazarene church and this was the first Sunday that he had found it, an amazing coincidence, or providence.

It was nice to have a friend there for my first couple of months.  We hung out a lot around the church, managed to fix the basketball hoop, and played a lot of basketball.  We hung out quite a bit during the year, during the off and on times that he was in Tana.  He had a troubled relationship with his father so he ended up back in Nosy Be for much of the year.

Fortunately, at the beginning of November, I got the opportunity to go up to Nosy Be at a time that Pastor Dave would also be going.  I got to visit Birkoff and his family, and visit the others I had met there the year before.

November is quite possibly the warmest month in Nosy Be.  It’s getting to be summer by then, and is before the rainy season starts.  So it is just pure heat with no rain for relief.  Flying into Nosy Be was so beautiful, it was right about sunset, the sky and water reflecting a palette of colors.  We also circled the island before landing, giving a great reintroduction.

Birkoff and his mother were waiting for me at the airport.  I stayed with Birkoff at his modest two room house with his mother and sister.  They treated me so well, preparing great local food for dinner, giving me a bed to sleep on, it was wonderful.  His house, of course, did not have plumbing, so I took bucket showers with water from the well, and took care of other duties at a hole, covered by a thatch hut.  On a couple of occasions we showered at this half-built abandon building, that somehow, had warm running water.  I didn’t ask any questions about the nature or ownership of the building.

Being in Madagascar, was often a practice of being opportunistic.  If an opportunity came up to do something, I usually went ahead with it.  That’s how I ended up on a swimming club, hiking through barren grasslands, spending 20 hours on a bus, or two days on a lorry.  Most often, it was best to only partially know what was going on, and enjoy the journey; as long as I didn’t get in trouble.

On Sunday morning after arriving I went to the church.  I surprised everyone by showing up.  I saw Patricia, Patrick, Claude, and Faed.  It was great to see everyone.  I walked home with Patrick and Patricia and talked with them for awhile before having lunch.

Patricia and Patrick are great people.  Patricia lives pretty well, but her husband works a fishing boat and is gone for long periods of time.  Patricia speaks English so she is easy to visit with.  How she came to know English is amazing.  At one time Pastor Dave had never heard her speak English and neither had her husband, until he came home from a trip to find her able to speak English.  Amazed, he asked, how did you learn?  Jesus taught me, she replied.  That’s the story she’s stuck with and nobody has any evidence to the contrary.  She asked Jesus, and she received.

Patrick was another very smart kid, did well in school for what he had.  Unfortunately for the previous year he had often been sick with malaria, and had gotten a whole year behind in school.  Graduating from high school is surprisingly tough there.  He is also one of few Christians in Nosy Be, and I don’t think he had any friends who are Christian.  It always seemed to me like he may have been a little lonely.

After visiting with them, Birkoff and I took a taxi to the beach at Ambatoloaka that I was dying to visit.  Taxi’s were always a fun experience, especially in Nosy Be.  The taxi’s are typically ancient Renault 4L‘s or Citroen‘s that are cast-offs from other countries.  They run primarily on modified sheet metal, ingenuity, faith, and a water bottle of diesel held by the driver’s feet.  In Tana, they are always out of gas and the first part of any taxi ride is a trip to the gas station (oddly, this particular characteristic of taxi’s in Tana was featured on The Amazing Race).

In Tana, there are more regulations on taxis (including they all be painted beige), particularly on the number of riders in the taxi.   On our first trip to Nosy Be, we became accustomed to packing the whole of our 7 person team in one taxi.  When we arrived in Tana, we found that this didn’t fly, and would have to split up in two taxis.

On this particular trip in Nosy Be, I rode a packed taxi of 11 people (7 adults, 4 kids), my personal best. We made it to the beach, luckily making it through the police check points (police check point = location for bribe payment/creative negotiating).  We hung out on the beach, saw where Birkoff’s mom worked, then went home to bed.

Monday morning I went back to Ambonara to visit the neighborhood that we had stayed in.  It was great, all the kids were still there and I had a lot of fun hanging out with them again and talking with them.  Many were now learning French and English in school so I could talk with them a little bit.  Madame, Babo, Yasmine, Vola, Emilio, they were all there.  I felt so happy to be back.  I went back again and played with them on Saturday.

Later in the day I walked down to the basketball court.  When I got there many of the same guys from the summer before were there playing.  They were also surprised to see me.  I had a good time hanging out with them.  They still played the same crazy basketball, missing most of their shots.  But, when they did make a shot, there was a lot of trash talk and posturing.  Patrick also showed up at the court so I got more time to talk with him.

Each night we had dinner at about 9:30.  After getting up around 6:00, and walking around in the heat all day, I could not stay up til 9:30.  I always ended up falling asleep, then waking up when it was time for dinner.  Something to know about living near the equator, the sun sets between 5:30 and 7:00 year round.  With very little to do once it gets dark, besides read or write next to a candle (the power was always going out), it was hard to stay up too late.  M/car is an 11 hour time difference from the Pacific Time Zone, so when my body adjusted, it adjusted to waking up without an alarm at 6.

Tuesday I just hung around with Birkoff most of the day hanging out with his girlfriend, or at his uncle’s house.  In the evening we went back to the basketball court and played basketball with the guys again.  It was fun to play and hang out with the guys that we had made such good relationships with the year before.

I went to the beach again Wednesday and Thursday, one of my most favorite places to be, and again on Saturday.  I felt good to hang out at the beach, walk around, and enjoy the warm water.  I explored different areas around the beach, just walking and hanging out.  Thursday night was the youth meeting at the church, so I went to that.  I saw a lot of the same youth from the year before, and all the kids from Ambonara showed up as well.  Everyone shared how things had been going, and David shared and preached.

Friday I stayed in town, and played some basketball in the afternoon.  The guys that showed up at the court this day were much different from the guys that we had played with before.  These guys were really good, and it was much harder work to keep up with them.

Sunday was my last full day in Nosy Be.  I went to church again, helped lead the children, and watched as David led the annual meeting.  With the kids, we played Boom-chicka-boom and Little Malagasy, some of the games we had taught them.  During the church service, Patrick was made a full member and leader along with Patricia and Mama.  I got to talk with Patrick several times during the week and really enjoyed it, I hope he is doing well.

While there in Nosy Be, I acquired some kind of sickness.  I had a stomach ache most of day Wednesday and felt just drained the whole day.  Sitting in the water on the beach felt nice, but it was just so hard to escape the heat, it may have just been some heat stroke.  Later in the week, starting Saturday night, I got a terrible, pounding headache.  All day Sunday I was just miserable, and could hardly function.  I got some aspirin, but it barely helped.  I ended up being exhausted for the next week until I got over it.  I’ve never been sure what it was, but after getting malaria later on, perhaps it was that, or maybe a stomach issue from some bad water.

Overall, I loved my trip back to Nosy Be, it’s one of my most favorite places on earth.  I loved the opportunity to talk with Patrick and Patricia, to hang out with the kids again, to visit the beautiful beach, and to get the opportunity to live with a Malagasy family for a week.  It was great, Nosy Be will always hold a special place in my heart.


On Wednesday of each week we had a “day off.”  On a few of these days off we got to go on excursions around the island.  We were led by our guide and member of the church, Don.

Don was a character all to himself.  Despite having terrible eyesight, he was able to spot chameleons in every tree as we drove past.  He was always more than happy to stop the van, get out and hold the chameleon for us to take pictures.  On one excursion we found a boa in a tree and we all took turns taking pictures of ourselves with the boa.  Don wanted in on the fun so he held the boa and requested we all take pictures of him while he struck poses for us.  We obliged, pretending to take pictures of him as he posed.

Our guide, Don

Don had a couple of other quirks.  He was unable to say “Madagascar” without also adding the phrase, “the fourth largest island in the world.”  All along our tours, every time we talked to him, it was always “Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world.”  It became a joke for us so that every time we would say Madagascar, we would also include the obligatory phrase.

A second favorite item of Don’s tour script was the Traveller’s Palm.  The Traveller’s Palm is a beautiful plant, found only in Madagascar, and is the national tree and symbol of Madagascar.  You’ll even see it as the logo of Air Madagascar.  Each time we came to a Traveller’s Palm, Don would ask, “Do you know why they call it a Traveller’s Palm?”  By the second or third palm, we all knew why, and despite us calling out the reason he would proceed to tell us anyway, with a smile (not wanting to go off script), “It is called the Traveller’s Palm because the base of the plant can hold water that can be used by weary travelers.”

Island Tour

Our first excursion was an island tour.  It was shortly after arriving, so it was good to get our orientation and a feel for where we would be staying.

To start, we first went east from the city (Hell-Ville, or Andoany) where we could look out over the water back to the mainland and where there was an oceanographic museum.  Besides the nice views, they had a room filled with fish specimens in jars.  It was facinating to see all these preserved types of fish.  I don’t know how much work was performed by the oceanographic society or what actually occurred at the museum.  They also had pictures of a coelacanth that was caught off the coast of Madagascar.  It’s a little bit of an urban legend, but true.  Its a prehistoric fish that was thought to be extinct for millions of years until this one was caught.

Oceanographic Museum

From the museum we went to a local ylang ylang factory.  Ylang ylang is a flower that grows a on tree that is used to make perfumes and other aromatherpy products.  It is the main crop that Nosy Be is known for and has led to Nosy Be being called the “Perfume Island”.  When we first arrived in Nosy Be we were all given (by Don) leis made of ylang ylang flowers that we kept fragrancing our room for the rest of the trip.  We toured through the orchard, went into the factory to view the distillery, and had a picnic in the yard.

After lunch, we made our way back west and around to the north side of the island.  We stopped in a small village, Djamandjary, where there was an old sugar cane factory and some other sites to see that escape my memory now.  Don shared again about the Traveller’s palm and more about some of the other plants and flowers in the area.

Old steam engine

We continued on to Andilana, the most beautiful beach in all of Nosy Be.  It was incredible.  I could not believe I was there.  It was like something you see only in books or calendars, or computer desktop backgrounds.  The beach is about a mile long of pure white sand, the warmest water, and coconut trees leaning over the beach.  It was unbelievable.  Julie and I walked and picked up tiger cowrie shells because I couldn’t swim still at that time.

The most beautiful beach in Madagascar

After enjoying the beach for the afternoon, we drove up to the highest point on the island, Mount Passot.  There, we were able to view the tranquil, crocodile inhabited lakes of the center of the island, and look out over the Mozambique channel and watch a beautiful sunset.

It was just an amazing, beautiful, relaxing way to get introduced to Madagascar and all the beauty that the country holds.

Sunset over the Mozambique Channel

Loko Be Nature Reserve

Our second excursion was to the Lokobe Nature Reserve.  Lokobe is probably the last untouched piece of jungle on Nosy Be.  Deforestation is a problem in all of Madagascar and Nosy Be is no different.  It’s a shame because there is so much amazing flora and fauna that is only living in M/car.  We took a boat around to the village that served as an entrance to the forest.  We then hiked into the forest.

In the forest there were tons of Black lemurs.  There were also nocturnal lemurs but they were just huddled in the trees trying to sleep.  It was amazing to watch the lemurs jump between the trees, and glide so easily through the branches.  We fed them bananas and they would come down to our shoulders and eat right out of our hand (which is actually a bad thing, meaning they are now habituated to humans).  They would also sit in a tree, reaching out to lick your hand while you pet them.

We also found a boa when we were walking through the forest.  Our guide took it out of the tree and we got to put it over our shoulders and took pictures.  The nature walk through the jungle turned out to be really cool.

The picture of me holding the boa is lost to history

After the hike, we went back to the beach and had a delicious lunch and lounged in the water.  At the time, I was short 1 science credit for graduation.  Since there were no 1 credit science classes, it meant that I would need to take an entire semester class.  Since I had previously taken a couple ornithology (bird science) classes, I worked it out to do a 1 credit self-study by watching and documenting the birds in M/car.  This trip to Loko Be gave me plenty of opportunities to see birds, the most spectacular probably being the large frigate birds that soared high overhead.  While we were at the beach, I spent a lot of time walking around the mud flats identifying birds.

We took a boat there and back which was a beautiful ride, going between Nosy Be and nearby Nosy Komba.  On the way back, we stopped out in the water and jumped in and swam around for awhile.  The water felt so good, and so much fun to swim in.


The clear water of Tanikely

For our third excursion, we visited the small island of  Tanikely.  In the morning, the weather was rough, and the ocean between Nosy Be and Tanikely was choppy, so we bounced along in our boat the whole way there.  “Bounced” may be too soft of a term, the waves were so rough that the seat Pastor David and I were sitting on actually broke in half.  For the rest of the ride I had to sit on the bow of the boat, feeling the full effect of the waves.

Once getting to the island, however, the weather cleared and it became another sunny Madagascan day.  The island was beautiful and there was a great view of Nosy Be.  There were tons of tropic birds and also a large group of bats on the island.


The snorkeling was awesome; there was tons of coral growth everywhere and thousands of neon colored fish.  It was my first time snorkeling in a tropical place and took awhile to get used to the breathing, but once I did it was great and comfortable.  There were a few sea turtles there so we were able to swim after them and touch them.  There was one that was a little smaller that I tried to dive after but it was quick and went into evasive maneuvers so I couldn’t get it.  The bigger ones were more docile and easier to touch.  There was also one huge school of smaller white fish that was just hanging out against the rocks.  It was fun to dive down into them and watch them part as I swam through.  It was equally cool to watch someone else go through and see the fish part around them.

We enjoyed an amazing buffet prepared for us on the beach, enjoying the beauty of the beach and the island.  Fresh grilled tuna, zebu skewers, carrot salad, pineapple so fresh it burned.  I distinctly remember each of these meals that we had.  I particularly like the zebu skewers.  I could eat a dozen of those.  There were typically made from the hump of the zebu, which probably isn’t actually the best meat.

Tanikely Lighthouse

During a break in the snorkeling, we walked up to the top of the island where there is a small lighthouse and from that point we could see back to Nosy Be and also see all the fruit bats flying around.  Later in the day, Loriann and I trekked around the small island, exploring all the little coves, beaches, and mangroves.  Some parts of the island had no beach and we had to swim across, with me holding my camera over my head.  Somewhere along the way around the island, Loriann stepped on a sharp rock and got a huge cut on the bottom of her foot.  She was close to needing stitches, but thankfully not a second round of that, and I carried her the last few hundred yards back to the others.

Walking around the island


On another occasion we went back to Andilana and just hung out at the beach all day.  It was, of course, warm and sunny.  Marie Rose, our cook during the trip, cooked us an awesome meal, likely consisting of more zebu skewers, coconut rice, and other local favorites.


The first time to Andilana, I was unable to swim, so this time I took full advantage, jumping in the water, walking out along sandbars, and exploring the length of the beach.  After playing around in the water till my legs were burnt out, I went back to our picnic area and strung my hammock between two trees.  Earlier in the trip, I had bought a hammock at the market, a pretty well made one actually, for a cheap price.  For the summer I hung it up on the veranda at the house, and would spend a lot of afternoon laying in it and napping.  It was one of my favorite parts of the summer.  At the end of the summer, I gave the hammock to Don as a gift.

The view from my hammock

It was wonderful to be at the beach, swinging in my hammock, underneath palm trees and a bright sun warming my skin and a light breeze cooling me.  I could not think of anything I would rather be doing.  At the time I was feeling the need for a little alone time, so being able to just lay and relax at the beach felt really good.  It made my week, just laying there, not a care in the world, swaying in the breeze.


On our final day off we went back to Ambatoloaka beach.  We slept in, played with the neighborhood kids a little, then drove over to the beach.  It was awesome to relax and swim in the warm water again, lay in the sun, and walk around.  Patrice and I walked again around to the cove with the arch.

Early on our last day in Nosy Be, Scott, Patrice, Mindy, Julie and I went back to Ambatoloaka for one last swim.  It was like living in a fantasy world for the summer, far away from cares and worries, and in such a beautiful place.  I had no idea that the summer would be like this when I signed up.

Cell Churches

We had the opportunity a few times to go out to some small villages and visit the church services that were held there.  The first place that I went to was to Andimakabo with Julie.  Andimakabo was a small village on the beach where they picked and dried coffee beans that grew in the nearby fields.

Church at Andimakabo

The second place that I went, again with Julie, was Andrihibo.  The drive there was nice, with a lot of views of the ocean.  This village was in the center of the island somewhere.  Both of these villages, I have no idea where to find them on a map.  I went to Andrihibo one last time with Loriann, on one of our last days there.

Church at Andrihibo

We also spent four nights showing the Jesus Film, two nights each in two villages.  It was a great opportunity to see how the film is used.  I have since seen the Jesus Film several times, but always in Malagasy, I’ve never seen it in English.

It was an amazing summer, full of small adventures.  Our team is really what made it amazing, we bonded and got along well; we were a strong group.  God’s hand was really upon our summer.


Madagascar has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world: long, pure white sand, insanely warm water, devoid of people.  Being my first trip to a tropical place, I was especially enthralled with the beaches.  Shortly after arriving in Nosy Be, we visited our first beach, Ambatoloaka.  It was beautiful.

Ambatoloaka Beach

Two local guys, Sevy and Patrick, who often helped David at the church and were the most consistent of the youth group, came with us.  While there they decided to lead a few of us; Jeff (a holdover from a Point Loma group that had been in Nosy Be earlier), Loriann, Patrice, and I; down the beach.  We walked down the beach and around a point, and came to a beautiful little bay.  The bay is almost a perfect circle, with an arch at one end of the entrance.  Unfortunately, there is also a shrimp packing plant in the bay, the only thing ruining the beauty.

After hanging out there for a bit, Sevy said he knew an easier way back.  We all thought it would be easiest to just go back the way we came, but Sevy thought it best to keep walking and get back to Ambatoloaka beach a back way.

Ambatoloaka bay

We ended up walking little trails and roads through villages, with Sevy stopping to ask directions every once  in a while, of course.  Although we were completely lost and barefooted, it was pretty cool to explore a little.

When we did finally get back to the beach it was near sunset and we jumped back in the water and swam around some more.  While swimming, my knee hit the bottom, and at the time I thought I just scraped it, and didn’t think about it.  When I got out of the water I realized I had a really deep cut.  Blood began to run down my leg and everyone got really worried.  I used an old towel and held it against my leg to stop the bleeding as we all piled back in the Land Cruiser to drive back to Hell-Ville (no, really), the city where we were staying.

We dropped off everyone except me, Loriann, Scott and David.  We then drove back to Ambatoloaka where there was a French doctor.  We picked up a South African missionary along the way who knew where the doctor lived.  This guy was pretty funny, his more famous quote being, “Nobody likes the Frenchies but the Frenchies.  Jesus loves them, but he doesn’t have to like them.”

Madagascar is formerly a French colony.  Like many French colonies, the French colonized, destroyed much of the local culture and way of life, profited off the land and the people, then left.  The country has since been unstable and unable to gain much progress since it’s independence in 1960.  The French are blamed by the Malagasy people for much of the ills, and often accused of meddling in the political affairs of the country.  There is some evidence that the French may have been involved in the coup d’etat in early 2009.  Additionally, the former 23 year president of Madagascar, Didier Ratsiraka, now resides in France after fleeing the country following a failed civil war attempt to regain his presidency after losing the controversial election in 2002.  To add to their own bad reputation, many French men tour the country and sleep around with the local women (sometimes teenagers).  Therefore, being in Madagascar, it’s easy to take on a negative view of the French.

Ironically, we were on our way to see a French doctor to stitch up my leg.  After first going to the wrong place, we then found the correct house and went up to the door.  We met the doctor and showed him my leg and the pack of fresh sutures we had brought.  He didn’t speak English and none of us spoke French.  The doctor put my leg up on table, cleaned it with some iodine and then he began.  There would be no anesthetic since it was a small cut, and he probably didn’t have any anyway.

Getting stitched up

Not knowing how many stitches it would be or how much it would hurt, I bit on my shirt.  The first stitch was pretty easy and all I felt were a couple of small pricks.  the second stitch was not so easy.  He got the needle into one side easily, but it would not come out the other side.  He kept pushing and pushing but it would not go through.  I finally looked down to see my skin pushing up from the pressure of the needle.  It was not very comfortable to see.  I only got two stitches, cosmetics not being a concern.

He put a bandage on it, gave me some antibiotics and sent me home.  I had to go the next week being careful not to bend my knee, and sacrificing not playing basketball (our primary ministry).  A few days later we stopped by the doctor again to make sure everything looked okay, and after a week, I cut the stitches out.

Neighborhood kids

During that week, I took it easy. The cut was small, but it was deep, and right on the knee where the skin stretches.  Not wanting the healing to take all summer, I did my best keeping my leg straight which meant not doing as much walking around town and not playing basketball for that week.  Hanging around the neighborhood a little more, gave me the opportunity to get to know the neighborhood kids, and some of the other people who stopped by.

We played games with the kids we taught them some games we took from training camp like “Boom-chicka-boom,” and “Little Malagasy.”  I also made balloon animals one day.  It is amazing how an empty street can become filled with dozens of kids in just a few minutes.  Some kids I especially remember are Baba, Madame, Emilio, Vola, and Yasmine.  Through the summer, we threw water balloons, shot “finger-blasters”, and aimlessly ran around.

Baba and Madame with their balloon hats

These kids generally had nothing; you could always tell when it was laundry day because the little kids were running around in their underpants (having only one outfit of clothes).  It gave me an opportunity to really experience what God’s love was like, it was a situation in which there was nothing but the building of relationships; a lesson I still keep with me.

I also taught the “children’s church” on Sunday mornings.  I would take a fun story from the Bible and re-write it in a way that I thought would be easiest to tell through a translator.  David and Lisa also had some Bible pictures that I was able to use as well.  I would tell the story, Patrick would translate, and hopefully the kids understood the lesson at the end.  The last Sunday there I told the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and all the kids raised their hands to accept Jesus afterwards.  I’m not sure if they understood or not, but hopefully it planted a seed that stuck with them.

On our last day there, I gave away a few of shirts, including my two YIM shirts to Baba, Madame, Vola, and Emilio.  They were all beaming.  We then had to say goodbye which was by far the hardest day there, seeing the little kids cry as we were leaving.

While getting stitches seemed like a set back at the time, it ended up being the trigger to getting to know the kids and building a relationship with them.  When I was able to go back to Nosy Be a year and a half later, many of the kids were still there and remembered me.  I would love to know how those kids are doing now.

Emilio and I