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Trip 17 -- Madagascar

Part 2: Too much
12 June 2015

Rasta Robin, the dreadlocked guide, picked me up at 7:56 Tuesday morning; his watch always beeped the hour four minutes early. He was a member of a band and played the djembe and the guitar. When his mobile phone rang, it sounded like a car that wouldn't start.

We had arranged the day before for him to take me into the Zafiraminy villages, home to the descendants of the native highland people and the war-fleeing city folk. He would arrange for a driver and a porter, food, and a place to stay in one of the villages. We had drawn up a contract, which he said was too formal for the Malagasy, but he understood why I preferred to have it.

"The last thing I have to tell you," he had said after we sealed the deal, "is that I cannot read your mind. If you have any questions, please ask."

We left with Jean-Claude, our driver, and made a brief stop in town to pick up zebu meat for dinner. "Feel it," Robin said. "It's still warm. It was freshly killed this morning."

In 20 minutes we reached Ivato, where we turned onto a rough dirt road. Jean-Claude had to slow down and swerve to avoid potholes.

"Not a Coca-Cola road," I said. That was a term my safari guide in Tanzania had used in 2001. "A Coca-Cola road is nice and goes easy. This isn't it."

Robin laughed. We were soon in the countryside, passing brick houses. By tradition, highland houses are all aligned the same way and have their doors on the west, to catch the sun in the afternoon. We saw people painstakingly mining clay by hand, and there were piles of bricks by the road.

"The bricks are handmade," Robin said. "They dig the clay for the bricks, then fill in the land and plant rice."

Always rice. The Malagasy have rice three times a daily, an average of four-fifths of a pound per person per day.

We were on the dirt road for a little over an hour, until we reached Antoetra village, the only one accessible by car. According to Robin, there are 95 Zafiraminy villages comprising 45,000 people; Antoetra has about a thousand of them.

We entered the green administrative building so Robin could register me and pay my visitor's fee. When we left, there were throngs of children and my eyes briefly alighted on a woman breastfeeding.

"What's your name?" one of the children asked me.


"My name's Albert. Remember my name," he said, and then he was gone.

Robin had given me a choice of routes, and I opted for a six-hour scenic hike through three villages. We'd have dinner and spend the night in the third. As we set off, he lit a cigarette.

"Smoking is good for the health," he explained.

We walked for a while along a broad path lined with mimosa and eucalyptus, some of which looked charred. They use slash-and-burn techniques to clear the forest for rice and other crops. Robin has been a guide for 15 years and has seen the forest dwindle down in the past six.

The trail was easy at first, albeit with lots of ascending and descending. We came to a river. While I crossed it barefoot, he cut a stick of mimosa. "Do you know how to use a walking stick?" he asked.

How hard could it be? "No," I said.

He showed me how to put it in front of me going downhill and slightly behind me going uphill, but the latter was moot for our purposes. "You can have it going downhill. But when we go uphill, the stick is mine."

He didn't seem to need it, but the arrangement worked. Going uphill, even steeply, I can be as spry as a mountain goat. I gain momentum and keep climbing, and I can carry on for quite a while as long as I don't stop. But going downhill, even at the same angle, I'm a wimp. I assume I'm going to slip and skid down a hill.

Robin showed me how to plant the walking stick and, when it was very steep, go down sideways. He also taught me how to walk on bare rock. "Walk on the clear section," he said. "Avoid the dark parts and the lichen. They're slippery." He was right: There was always a clear path somewhere on the rock, and I never skidded on it.

The weather alternated between mist and light drizzle throughout the day, but it was never cold. The path narrowed. We passed corn, rice, and bean fields, and there were large quartz deposits in the dirt path. When we climbed steeply up, we saw miners below. Several minerals are mined in the highlands, even gold.

We stopped occasionally for a three-bite banana or an orange or a wonderful semi-sweet dark chocolate. We had lunch by a stream: long baguette sandwiches of zebu meat, tomato, and onion.

Then the real climbing began, and it was slippery at times. Going uphill, Robin let me lead; going downhill, he stayed a step or two ahead, ready to lend a hand if necessary. But I didn't need it as much as I thought I would. "This walking stick really works!" I said.

We went up and up. There was a steep drop-off on one side, but the path was wide enough not to make me nervous. "We're almost to the first village," Robin said. "About twenty minutes to go. Let's just rest for a moment."

He gestured at what was just ahead: a small wooden ladder leading to a bare, narrow rock. There were cliffs on both sides. The rock looked slippery -- there was barely a tiny clear path in the middle -- and rife with the possibility of a misstep sending me a few hundred feet down the mountain. I couldn't tell how long the ridge was.

Robin left the walking stick behind and proceeded. I summoned the courage to follow him to the ladder. He went first; then I climbed it and sprawled myself over the rock like a starfish. The lower my center of gravity, the more secure I felt. I prepared to crawl the length of the ridge.

But that would have taken forever, and it wasn't really any safer. "Stand up and take my hand," Robin said. "Put your faith in God. I am the angel of God."

I trusted him and stood up. He took my hand and we inched along sideways. My feet stayed firmly on the rock even though the path was thin. It was all over in a minute and we began our brief descent to the village.

Behind us, a Malagasy woman carrying a shovel, and with a sack of produce on her head, walked nimbly over the ridge, barefoot.

"That's it!" Robin said. "You have done the hardest part." Later he told me that two Malagasy had died on the ridge a while back. But it had been nighttime, and they had been drunk.

We arrived at the village. "Welcome to Faliarivo," Robin said. We had been walking for eight miles and about four hours.

The Zafiraminy are expert wood carvers. Their wooden houses have geometric patterns engraved into the walls, which Robin said were family emblems. The houses were traditionally built with no nails, but that has been changing in recent years.

The houses were connected by muddy lanes, stairways, and rocks, much like the trail that had led us to the village. "Be careful; there is poop," Robin said as we clambered up the pathways. Chickens and pigs roamed the lanes.

We took a rest in one of the houses while it rained harder. To my surprise, we didn't remove our shoes. When the rain let up, we prepared to leave.

"Ah, but first we must have sweet potatoes!" Robin said. We were guests, and the woman whose house we were in was showing hospitality by boiling us a snack. It would be rude not to accept. There were four kinds of sweet potatoes, two pink and two white. The dark pink ones were the sweetest.

As we left Faliarivo, Robin had a child cut us a new bamboo walking stick, taller than the first. "The other one was too short for you," he apologized.

The 30-minute descent to the second village, Tetezandrotra, was steep but not as treacherous as the scrambling we had already done. There were stairs built into the path, though some were crumbling away.

Tetezandrotra seemed more prosperous than Faliarivo, with more two-story houses and two wide buildings, one a church and one a school. There used to be a road here until a bridge collapsed some years ago. The village sees a fair number of visitors, and the villagers offer their wood carvings for sale. I bought a small palisander bird that can function as a spice or sugar bowl. You can argue that it's bad to support the chopping of the forest this way, but it provides the villagers with needed income.

As we left Tetezandrotra, we saw another guide with two French tourists. They were the first tourists I had seen in Madagascar.

A little over an hour later we reached Sakaivo Nord, where we would spend the night. Robin showed me the Y-shaped totem that marked the center of the village and the large square, filled with sand, used for village meetings. Children sang joyously in surprisingly good tune. We went down the hill to a place with running water, rinsed off from the hike, and climbed back up the other side, to the house where we would sleep.

It was a two-story house with blue trim and electric lights inside, powered by solar energy. My room had two broken clocks on the wall, pictures of the president, and a few other magazine articles. The comfortable bed had a bright blue sheet and equally blue pillows with birds embroidered into them. There was a thick blanket; it would be chilly at night.

"Where is the toilet?" I asked.

"Just up there," Robin said. More climbing! A muddy staircase led to an outhouse. At least there was a handrail. "But after dark, you can just go behind the house."

My socks were soaked from the rain. I replaced them with dry ones and rested a bit while Robin and our host family cooked dinner two houses away. After a while, Robin came to get me. We walked to a building with a kitchen at one end and a smaller connected dining room at the other end. There was a bed in the dining room. "In case you drink too much," Robin said.

He had brought homemade sugarcane rum, infused with honey, orange, and pineapple. We started the meal with a traditional toast to the spirits and ancestors in the northeast corner of the house. The rum was piercing and pulpy. Then we had an appetizer of French fries, followed by a long pause.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" Robin asked.

"Smoking is good for the health," I said.

"Who said that? It must have been another guide."

The smoke from his cigarette didn't bother me, but the smoke from the kitchen was hurting my eyes. Our host opened a door in the ceiling for some ventilation.

"His wife wants a mobile phone," Robin said.

"You can get a signal here?"

"No. But if you walk forty minutes, you can make a call."

Dinner came out an hour later: a stew of zebu, beans, tomatoes, and a kind of round peanut that had to be cooked. On the side was a spinach-like vegetable, and of course the ubiquitous rice. After dinner, we drank water boiled in the rice pan, a kind of sake-like nonalcoholic digestif that usually completes a meal.

We retired to the kitchen. A variety of dishes and utensils was on the floor, spread out traditionally along the eastern wall. Hundreds of ears of corn hung from the ceiling. The fire was still going, but not so strong as to bother me. In the traditional southwest corner of the kitchen was a chicken coop, and someone let the chickens out: nineteen chicks belonging to three hens. Rice was sprinkled on the floor, and they ate happily. The chickens spend their nights in the coop, but they roam the village by day.

I slept soundly, the soft rain continuing throughout the night. We had a simple breakfast of toasted baguette and honey, and then we climbed out of the village.

Robin had warned me, but I had no idea what I was in for. "We just climb up, steep, until we get to the top, one hour. Then it's a Coca-Cola road down for two hours," he said, using his new favorite expression.

It was still raining lightly. We climbed up a long, narrow staircase, some of the stairs sloping or missing entirely. Sometimes the staircase would go away and we'd be scrambling up mud or bare rock. The rock was stable, but the mud was slippery.

There was a steep gorge on one side. We were in the clouds. We climbed for an eternity, and I couldn't tell whether we had a thousand steps to go or a million. We seemed to be ascending an open scaffold or a giant beanstalk.

"It's too much!" I cried. I was out of breath and wet.

"Remember, put your faith in God. I am the angel of God."

For a while he took my hand going up the slippery slope. It was an endless ascent to nowhere.

"See the woman there making a phone call? Remember, I told you last night. This is the place."

It did seem incongruous with the rest of the scene: barefoot villagers in bright dress with sacks and machetes. It was market day in Antoetra.

Finally, after one last steep stretch of bare rock, we were at the top. There was a concrete Protestant cross and a wooden Catholic cross. As if by magic, the rain stopped.

"The storm is over; I can see the sunshine..." Robin sang, quoting Robert Kelly. I laughed.

"This is the car park," he said, joking -- or so I thought.

"What is that?" I asked, pointing to some numbers carved into the rock.

"That is the number of a car which came to this spot on that date."

I was stunned. "There's really a road?"

Robin laughed. "I told you. See the tire marks? There was a car here yesterday."

A Coca-Cola road it was: wide and not too steep. We walked down the promised two hours into Antoetra.

The market was in full swing. Just above the main market was the "indulgences" section: dried tobacco on one side and large yellow jugs of rum on the other, which I could smell long before I saw them. Next came a pen of playful pigs. And in the main area, crowded alleys of clothing, meat, batteries, snacks, matches, fruit, and tools, all organized according to a vague scheme. I was lost in a gaze, pondering all the colors in front of me, when I heard a familiar voice.

"Mister Seth, do you remember my name?"

Ah, yes, the child from the day before. I knew it was something-Bert, but I didn't come up with it in time.

"Albert!" he exclaimed cheerfully.

Robin treated me to a couple of rice cakes. Near the exit was a snack vendor with some familiar offerings plus one I hadn't seen before: cakes of dried zebu blood. Robin and I shared one of those, too.

Jean-Claude drive us back to Ambositra, with a stop for a picnic lunch under a mountain of grazing zebu. Robin put me in a taxi-brousse for Fianarantsoa, a city I would come to use as a jumping-off point for three excursions.

The taxi-brousse arrived after dark, owing to the state of the RN7 (Malagasy for "highway of a million potholes"). I checked in at Le Cantonnais, one of a string of Chinese hotels on a parallel side road, and headed across the street to L'Ancre d'Or for a meal of zebu brains. The only other patrons were a group of French speakers who made a point of averting their eyes every time I glanced in their direction.

I spent the next two days in Ranomafana National Park, a preserve of lush rainforest. A guide, Jeanchry, latched onto me as I got off the taxi-brousse and assumed control of me for the duration. I was initially skeptical, but he turned out to be fine. He knew the species of every animal, the Latin name of every plant.

"You are lucky!" he said. "Today it is sunny. Before this, four days of rain."

We agreed on two hikes: four hours the first day, ending down the highway in Ranomafana village proper, and seven hours the second day, a slow walk deep into the primary forest. We'd also do a night walk to see the little critters that come out after dark.

Madagascar's star attractions are probably the 105 kinds of lemurs, and with 12 types, Ranomafana didn't disappoint. We saw a family of golden bamboo lemurs, with long, orange tails and big, inquisitive eyes. One was just born in November. We also found Ranomafana's two remaining greater bamboo lemurs, one a father and one his daughter. Bamboo lemurs can live 25 to 30 years and are named for their ability to eat bamboo, which other lemurs (and humans) can't, because of the cyanide inside. They ate the little bamboo sticks horizontally, typewriter-style, the way some people eat corn.

And on both days we caught sight of families of Milne-Edwards' sifaka, a large kind of lemur that's white and dark brown and can live 70 years. It amazed me how tame all these animals were, letting groups of passersby peer and snap photos. They didn't leap away from tree to tree or seek higher shelter as I thought they might. Only one lemur turned its back on me to munch a stick of bamboo, as if to say, "Don't watch me while I'm eating."

"Sorry," I said.

There was plenty of other beautiful wildlife, apart from the lemurs. How about the golden web spider, with its orange and black legs, which according to Jeanchry can be ground into an asthma-fighting powder, and the female of which eats the male after mating? Ranomafana has 350 species of spider, and their webs are in the most seemingly impossible places, such as strung up from the midpoint of the bridge over the Namorona River to the shore. They climb up and hurl their threads to a hitching point, and then they go about creating their hypnotizingly geometric webs. Some of the Zafiraminy carvings had featured spider-web patterns: simple and efficient, Robin had said.

And how about the 150 kinds of frog, 91 types of butterfly, and 14 species of chameleon? And countless birds, such as the magpie robin we found, the male of which is black and white, like a skunk. And a black parrot. And a hawk -- a lemur's predator. A male paradise flycatcher, with a white, stringy scallion-like tail. Swift vangas. A spectacled greenbul. Blue and red-fronted couas. A cuckoo roller, which according to tradition makes it stop raining. And --

"Wow!" Jeanchry said, stopping suddenly on our way down a trail. "A very, very rare bird. Do you know what this is? A short-legged ground roller." The handsome bird had a white beard and a white and brown zebra pattern on its belly. It was just sitting in a tree, watching us pass. "If you tell a bird watcher you saw this, they may not believe you!"

Jeanchry brought Ranomafana's flora to life as well. There were five kinds of bamboo, some of which grow up to two inches a day, then flower and die after four years. There were 255 species of orchids, but it wasn't flowering season. Lots of guava trees, introduced from China and becoming invasive. Plants that grow harmlessly on other plants, such as the bird's-nest fern. A kind of sticklike cactus. A plant whose leaves were good for healing teeth but gave off a foul odor; Jeanchry and his classmates used to use it to ward off their teacher. Plants good for curing headaches, upset stomachs, or other ailments.

And my favorite plant was the traveler's tree, a giant palmlike tree (though not actually a palm) with wild fronds that seemed to be cheerleading in the wind. It's a welcome sight for weary travelers, because it can be opened up and water extracted from the bottom of its leaves.

The first day's walk took us by a wonderful three-tiered waterfall. Water from the top would go down one level, then turn left and go down another, then turn again and split into three "arms," then turn again and split into five "arms" at the bottom, like a quintopus, or whatever you'd call an octopus with five legs.

After the waterfall we passed countless fruit trees, including trees full of bananas hanging upside down, their single purple flower underneath. And we saw a boy carving out a small niche in a tree and trying to insert a rock. I assumed it was some kind of Malagasy ritual. "What's he doing?" I asked Jeanchry.

"Just playing."

The path spewed us into Ranomafana village, where I enjoyed an hour in the thermal pool that gives the place its name -- Ranomafana means "hot water." I then found Jeanchry in the main square, where two white dogs tried to bite the tires of passing cars.

During the night walk, just along the highway, we saw a blue-legged chameleon, a short-nose chameleon, and a green glowing chameleon with tiny black spots. They were curled up, sleeping, hanging from leaves, indifferent to the camera flashes of curious spectators. We found a white-bellied frog, one of thousands that form a nightly percussive-sounding chorus. And two brown mouse lemurs, still and wide-eyed.

My only complaint about Ranomafana was the leeches. I'd read about them and prepared for giant ones like in that horrific scene in "Stand by Me," but these were much smaller, inchworm-sized. I'd find them on my socks periodically and pull them off; sometimes they needed to be squeezed and pinched before I could flick them off my fingers. But at least there were no ticks and, to my amazement, no mosquitoes. Ugly as they are, I'd probably rather deal with leeches. Before we started on our second day, Jeanchry smeared my shoes with a mixture of salt and water. The leeches don't like salt, he explained. It worked pretty well -- I had removed 30 or 40 the first day, and I found only about five the second day.

I squeezed into a taxi-brousse back to Fianarantsoa, the driver breezing ahead while I was still clambering back to a seat. I checked into the Soratel, a hotel with red Chinese lanterns at the entrance, a large vase in the reception area, and, oddly, a furniture shop on the ground floor. I liked the hotel for its quirks and for the fact that it had satellite TV; it was nice to be able to listen to something in English again.

There was barely an hour of daylight left. I walked up the steep road to Fianarantsoa's upper town. No cars are allowed beyond a certain point. Above that is an attractive collection of churches, one dating from 1859, and a street market. And lots of children. The first one, with curly hair and green shorts, introduced himself as John.

Others followed as we walked up to a viewpoint where people gather for the sunset. They all wanted me to buy the little postcards they'd made with designs out of leaves. I didn't like attracting a crowd.

"Don't worry, we are only three," one said as I started to walk faster. But shortly after, it was "Don't worry, we are only five." And then there were seven.

One pointed at a girl. "See her? She will visit you in your room later," he said jokingly.

"Not funny," I said. There are signs all over the hotels here trying to stop child prostitution. It's not something to take lightly. The girl chased him away.

John had been most polite through the onslaught of kids. When most of the others had gone, I took him aside privately and bought one of his postcards. Then I had a Chinese dinner of beef soup and shrimp with noodles, a nice change from rice.

Madagascar has one regular passenger-train service, and calling even that one regular is pushing it. The train I really wanted to ride was the Micheline, a 73-year-old weird white train with wicker seats and rubber tires that travels on rails. It's the only one in the world that still runs, in theory. Before I even bought an airline ticket for this trip, I e-mailed MadaRail and asked, in what I hoped was coherent French, what dates it would be running this year. I was prepared to plan the whole trip around it. But alas, the response was that it had been taken out of service for restoration once again.

And so I was left with the barely-regular train from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, 101 miles away on the east coast. It's scheduled to run in each direction twice weekly but had also been canceled for half a month or so. But when I checked at the monotone-yellow station in Fianarantsoa (with a strange selection of leather couches for sale outside), I was assured it would run on Saturday.

They wouldn't sell me a ticket the day before, however. All I could do was write my name in the reservation book for a first-class ticket (about $13) and purchase a little pamphlet that explained all the unique attributes of each of the 18 stations and the history and benefits of the line. Some stations have no road access, so the train is vital for the transportation of people and goods.

It's supposed to leave Fianarantsoa at 7 a.m., and that's as much of a schedule as exists. There's no timetable for stations further down the line, and there's no estimated arrival time in Manakara. I had read reports of it taking anywhere from eight to 35 hours and sometimes not even making it all the way. My guidebook simply said that it "takes all day" and that "long delays and breakdowns are common."

I had also heard that no food was available until several hours into the ride, so I had stocked up at a supermarket run by a friendly owner. I may have missed the Ambositra cheese, but here I was able to buy cheese made in a Fianarantsoa convent, as well as some made in Antsirabe. I also bought a baguette, a tin of sardines, some deer terrine and local foie gras, a bottle of local red wine, and a corkscrew. This all came to around $12. The morning of departure, I added a bunch of two-bite bananas and some spinach samosas from the outdoor market near the train station.

"Good morning, Mister Seth! Do you remember my name?" I looked down and saw the curly hair and green shorts.

"Hello, John!" His hands were full of postcards to sell to the other vazaha (foreigners) on the train. The other kids were there, too. I was glad I had already bought one, as they knew not to pester me.

Around seven-thirty, the train pulled into the station, and a little before eight, they finally started issuing tickets. I guess they wanted to make sure there was actually a train before they made a formal commitment to the passengers. When the gate opened for boarding, people pressed into line and tried to shove their way through the gate and onto the train, while others hoisted packages and children to them from the outer areas of the waiting room.

I found my seat, number 63 -- a window seat on the left at the far end of the car. The first-class car was the last one, then second class ahead of that, and then a couple of cars of cargo.

"Ah -- but there is no locomotive," said the nearest vazaha to me. She was a French woman who had worked for years in western Africa and Madagascar but hadn't gotten to travel around much. She was with her husband.

I walked out to the front of the train to watch the red locomotive clank backward into place, a couple of hours later. We left at 10:28.

It was certainly the sweetest-smelling train ride I'd taken. We were soon in the countryside, crawling along a mountain ridge. All the windows and doors were open, and the scent of the lush tropical landscape filled the air.

There was, in fact, food to be had at every station. I consulted my pamphlet and saw that at the fourth stop, Ranomena, the villagers earned a living partly from wild crayfish. I bought one from a vendor on the platform and prepared for a mess, but its shell was soft enough that it could be eaten whole.

The train was often hemmed in on both sides by vegetation. I frequently stood in order to stick my head out the window, which was safe as long as I ducked inside to avoid being hit by branches. We climbed gently and wiggled our way along the ridge, going through tunnels and crossing over a waterfall.

At Madiorano, I walked to the front of the train and bribed the engineer to let me ride outside in the front of the locomotive; I'd heard it was possible and seen Anthony Bourdain do it in his recent Madagascar program. I climbed up the ladder and joined a half-dozen or so Malagasy. Behind me, a few crew members were in the cab with the driver, playing cards.

This was the way to ride, with a wide-open view of our descent of the mountain. I waved at kids shouting "Vazaha!" and breathed in the fresh air; forward of the smokestack was the place to be, especially going through the unventilated tunnels.

The next station, Tolongoina, was known for its banana varieties, my pamphlet said. Some sported autumnal colors. I bought a red-orange one that was particularly sweet and rejoined the first-class passengers at the back of the train.

"We were worried about you!" said the French woman. "We thought you'd been left behind!"

We continued down for 15 minutes or so and went through a short tunnel. We emerged on the other side, and the train stopped. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up, we were still there.

Many of the other passengers had gone outside. I joined them to see what was going on. "Low batt," said someone who seemed to be in the know. A few people left the train and walked back toward Tolongoina. It was unclear whether they would need to send another locomotive from Fianarantsoa or try to fix the battery with supplies from Tolongoina.

The delay gave me a chance to meet the other vazaha. There were three French women who worked at a travel agency in Fianarantsoa. There was a younger French couple (from Brittany, they were proud to say) and a Spanish-speaking couple; Susana was from the Canary Islands and Angel was from Madrid. They had just gotten married. No one was a native English speaker but we all had English as a common language.

One of the three from the travel agency had a ukulele, and we passed the afternoon singing "La Bamba," "Hotel California," "Mad World," and Edith Piaf. Dusk started to settle in, and we heard the comforting sound of another vehicle approaching the tunnel.

It stopped there, and some mad tinkering went on. They got the power started, but instead of proceeding forward, we went back to Tolongoina.

And waited some more. "Dios mío," said Susana. "It's too much."

We finally went ahead, four and a half hours after we had originally departed Tolongoina. Everyone was relieved when we passed the place where we had originally broken down.

But the lights went out again at 10:30, and everyone knew we wouldn't make Manakara that night. I was able to sleep, despite the uncomfortable seats and the people playing cards next to me. And we still had to make all the stops, including some particularly long ones toward the end of the line. A variety of fruits are grown on that region, and with the train the only connection to the rest of the country, each stop involved a lot of loading and offloading of produce -- probably oranges and mandarins this time of year, my pamphlet said.

Better to be very delayed and arrive after dawn, I figured. I woke up around 6:30 in the morning and we still had two hours to go. Some people hadn't slept at all. We crossed the runway at Manakara's airport and pulled into the final station a few minutes later. It had taken 21 hours and 50 minutes to go 101 miles. A fit hiker could have beaten us.

I joined the younger French couple, Camille and Chloe, at a hotel in the center of town and then took a pirogue trip with them through the canal around Manakara, along with Susana and Angel. The canal runs for about 400 miles along Madagascar's east coast and used to be a major shipping route. Two rowers paddled us in for about half an hour, until we stopped for a little lesson on the region's essential oils, such as citronella, and a lunch of recently caught sole and tilapia. In the evening, I enjoyed a grilled lobster with Camille and Chloe in the hotel and we all shared my wine, which I hadn't gotten around to drinking on the train.

I took a taxi-brousse back to Fianarantsoa in the morning; the three French women from the travel agency happened to be on it. They helped me secure a car to my next stop, the town of Ambalavao, which I'd use as a jumping-off point to Andringitra National Park. However, while I was waiting for the car to materialize, sometime called a guide, Lala, and we arranged a tour on the spot.

So I had one more night at the Soratel, but for some reason the only English channel I could tune offered thoughts on God and help with gambling addiction. I walked down to Chez Dom for dinner; Lala had said he'd be going there, as it's a popular guides' hangout. We enjoyed rum and I told them about the train ride.

"Too much!" Lala said.

At Chez Dom I also met two college-age Mormon missionaries dressed in jackets and ties, one from Utah and one from Scotland, who had happened to be stationed in Fianarantsoa for a couple of years. They gave me the rundown of their weekly schedule: scripture study, Malagasy-language study, English teaching, and, of course, the business of going door to door and trying to recruit new participants in the faith. If it's hard in the USA, it must be even more so for missionaries in a place without fluent command of the local language. Most people already have a faith, and when it gets dark at 6 p.m., they said, people close up for the night and aren't interested in talking to anyone.

Lala showed up almost half an hour late, which worried me. We drove to Ambalavao and bought zebu and vegetables for meals, plus a bag of crickets -- a traditional snack with rum that we could have at that night's campsite. Then I joined him and the driver for a breakfast of rice and cold pork. I added a spoonful of sakay (hot sauce). "Too much!" Lala said. But I loved it.

The road to Andringitra breaks off from the main road in Ambalavao; it's about 25 miles of driving along loose bricks, rocks, sand, dirt -- pretty much everything but asphalt. One bridge was barely even there. It consisted of five parallel wooden beams along the length of the roadway, with wide gaps in between. Seven wood planks were at our disposal to lay perpendicular to the beams and create a sort of temporary road. At least that's what the car in front of us did, driving forward the width of a couple of planks at a time and then painstakingly moving them to cover the next few inches of gap.

Our driver was more ambitious. He had some of the planks laid directly on top of the beams, using the others as a crisscross reinforcement. This left no room for error as he drive the tires straight across the beams; it would have been easy to fall into a gap! Lala and I crossed the bridge on foot and let him take the risk.

At the park entrance we picked up a local guide and porter. The guide, Justin, and I walked slowly up toward Andringitra massif, leaving the lovely Namoly Valley on Andringitra's east side. It was a perfect day for hiking: cloudy but not raining, cool but not cold. We ascended a long path of stone steps; they were wide, secure, and much easier to handle than in the Zafiraminy villages. It helped that they were dry.

Andringitra is there for the views, not the wildlife. Midway up we had a wide-open view of the valley and the two sacred waterfalls, the "queen" and "king" -- two thin 800-foot drops that provide a focal point for this side of the massif. Above us was the towering ridge, granite rock stained with eons of rainwater that has created crevasses and strips of green and brown that change color with the sunlight. They looked like tilted mille-feuille cakes.

The best scenery was the "moonscape" plateau that we crossed over at the top: round boulders and towering monoliths with streaks of green, brown, yellow, and orange. The ground was splotched with green lichen and white fungus, sometimes in floral patterns. We turned and faced what looked like a giant pile of zebu brains, or a pyramid of noses.

We descended and arrived at the campsite with the sun's last rays of the day. Lala and the porter had gone ahead and set up a tent for me. Dinner was a hearty noodle soup in a chicken broth, followed by a simple stew of zebu, potatoes, and carrots. And ginger-honey rum. We never got around to frying the crickets.

In the morning we descended on the west side, to the Tsaranoro Valley. Across the valley, tall, commanding monoliths sparkled with gold and turquoise in the early light. Beneath them, resting on a dip in the green hills, was a single cloud that had overslept the sunrise. As we climbed down, it sluggishly slithered into flight.

Down, down we went, toward the rice terraces and mango trees, until we could hear the moaning of zebu, the calling of roosters, and the laughing of children in the village below. Justin and the porter left, and Lala and I continued on a long walk through the valley to Vohitsaoka village, where we'd be able to find a taxi-brousse back to Ambalavao. We stopped for lunch at Camp Catta, named for the ring-tailed lemurs that enjoy its trees. They were black and white and raccoon-faced. I watched one tenderly massage another while Lala prepared our meal.

Back in Ambalavao, I spent the night at the Tropik hotel, which was frustratingly far from the center of town, had an indifferent staff, and delivered on few of the amenities promised by my guidebook and its own signage. I walked into town around 6:30 and had a beer at a karaoke bar and a dinner of chicken in coconut sauce. When I walked back to my hotel at eight, everyone was inside, the street was dark, and the night belonged to Ambalavao's stray dogs. I curled up at the Tropik and looked forward to heading to the west coast in the morning, for sun and sand.

Go on to part 3: Mora mora to Morondava, in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan