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Trip 17 -- Madagascar

Part 3: Mora mora to Morondava, in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan
21 June 2015

The highlands town of Ambalavao is on Route Nationale 7, exactly halfway between Antananarivo and the highway's terminus in Toliara on the southwest coast. At the entrance to town a post indicates that you are 464 kilometers from the capital and have 465 to go until Toliara, my intended next destination. On the following post, the numbers are switched.

Lala and I had arranged for the daily taxi-brousse from Fianarantsoa to pick me up opposite the Tropik hotel in Ambalavao. I'd bought a ticket on which a representative from the taxi-brousse company had written his phone number. "Call me one day before to confirm!" he'd barked at me, his breath smelling of rum.

When Lala and I finished our excursion to Andringitra, he'd called the number from my phone, but it hadn't gone through. So he'd called another representative and had him talk to me.

"I will pick you up tomorrow morning at ten. But maybe closer to eleven, because, you know, we have no fixed time." Taxi-brousses don't leave until they're full.

I woke up and visited the twice-weekly zebu market, held on a hill just south of Ambalavao. They were a variety of colors and patterns: black, brown, white, solid, spotted. Some sellers had as few as two; some had around twenty. They were marked for ownership with blue paint or yellow tags on their ears. The scene had a kind of Wild West atmosphere, with men in large hats riffing through wads of cash; the zebu stood around expressionlessly, occasionally trying to get away and then being corralled back into the herd at the raising of a whip. On the way back to the Tropik I stopped at the paper factory, where avoha trees' bark is stripped, wet, pounded flat by hand, and imbued with flowers according to a 400-year-old tradition.

I collected my bag from the Tropik and crossed the highway a few minutes before ten. Behind me, two chickens were tied together to a post. They whimpered whenever one of them went around the wrong way and got stuck. I watched a dragonfly examine the trash in the gutter. Every few minutes a vehicle went by, and I looked up hopefully.

But of course the taxi-brousse never came. At 11:20 I called the person I'd talked to the day before: "I'm not the one who made the reservation; I'll have to check with him and call you back." And when I called an hour later: "There was a problem with the taxi-brousse; it's coming at nine tonight."

"Not until nine? It leaves Fianarantsoa at nine or it gets to Ambalavao at nine?"

"It leaves Fianarantsoa at six, maybe later. So it will get you at nine."

"Ridiculous. Why did nobody call me back?" I started huffing it toward Ambalavao's own taxi-brousse station.

"There was a problem, sir. So will you be there tonight at --"

And at that moment, I exhausted my calling credit and we were disconnected.

I arrived at Ambalavao's station, angry. Where was everyone? At every other taxi-brousse station in the country, I'd been mobbed by touts asking me where I was going and trying to get me to ride with them. I approached someone in an office and explained my situation, showing him the ticket with Rum Breath's phone number.

He called the number from his own phone and gave it to me. "I said to call me one day before!" I could smell the rum through the connection.

"Lala tried to, but the number didn't work. We confirmed it with someone else."

"You were supposed to call me one day before."

"Where is the taxi-brousse? Is it coming or --"

And with that, the phone I'd borrowed ran out of credit as well. I crumpled up the ticket and put it in my pocket.

There was, fortunately, a taxi-brousse just about to leave Ambalavao and head south on RN 7. It wouldn't go all the way to Toliara, but it would go as far as Ihosy, where I might be able to pick up another one that evening. I figured I'd try to go as far as I could.

I was put in the front seat, next to an elderly woman in a neatly embroidered white dress. We set off right away and made good progress, but we were delayed in Zazafotsy while a dozen enormous sacks were hauled up onto the roof. It took three and a half hours to get to Ihosy, at the 602-kilometer mark -- just 85 miles from Ambalavao.

It was 5:00 and light was starting to fade. Ihosy seemed a pleasant place, but I was eager to do one more stage if possible. There was some uncertainty whether another vehicle would be going further south to Ilakaka, but it eventually materialized an hour later. I was glad to make the extra progress, even if it meant getting in late at night. Put pessimistically, I'd be a little more than halfway from Ambalavao to Toliara. Put optimistically, I'd be almost two-thirds of the way.

The vehicle was jam-packed. I became the sixth person in a row of four seats, and two people joined the row after me, including the woman in the white dress. We smiled at each other. Later on, she found a seat up front.

We drove into the night. The driver was playing Christian pop music, first in Malagasy, then in English. The only requirement of a taxi-brousse is that the music player must work. It doesn't have to have a functioning speedometer, or side mirrors, or even brakes, and for extra dignity there should be a minimum of one tire change per trip. But the music player always works. And there must always be at least one chicken on board.

Some people sang along. The Malagasy are enthusiastic singers. The children love to sing; the church services are full of singing; even the pirogue trip in Manakara featured a crew of singers who had us joining in on what sounded like call-and-response sailors' songs. So here we were, around sixty of us in a vehicle designed for half that many, passengers in an apparent spiritual and choral unity.

The woman in white got off at Ranohira, and she kissed me on both cheeks, as if sending me off into the world for the first time. The other passengers and the driver weren't so nice. The woman to my left was visibly upset that my backpack was mostly on her lap -- but what could I do? I had a man on mine.

We screeched into Ilakaka at ten. The driver turned down a side street and stopped the vehicle. Everyone got out.

"That's it?" I asked in French. "The end?"

"The end," he said. "Bye-bye." He was happy to get rid of the foreigner.

"Is there a hotel?" I'd seen three mentioned in my guidebook.

"On the left."

I went back to the main road. There seemed to be a party in a bar on the left, but there was no sign of a hotel there. The streets were dark and all but deserted.

I started walking toward some promising-looking bright lights at the far end of town, but they were all gem stores. Ilakaka sprang up a couple of decades ago to support a sapphire rush. During the height of its bustle it had a dangerous saloons-and-shootouts kind of atmosphere. It's calmed down, but the stores remain.

"Stop," a voice said. "Where are you going?"

It was the gendarmes finishing up their night.

"Just looking for a hotel," I said. I picked the name of the one I remembered from my guidebook. "Friends?"

"Friends won't be open," he said.

"May I try?" I didn't even know if I'd been walking toward it.

"Proceed," he said, gesturing forward. "It's up there."

The gate was closed but two young people, a man and a woman, emerged from a van in the parking lot. The man had an icy crinkle at the sides of his mouth that made me distrust him. "Do you have a room?"

Friends consisted of semidetached bungalows in several buildings. First he said all the rooms were occupied, but then he knocked on the door to number 11; I don't know why. "No, no..." I said. I didn't want to bother anyone.

He led me to a room at the front, near the reception, and offered it to me. It was clearly in use. The bed was unmade and a pair of women's underwear hung on the wall.

"No, thank you," I said. "I'll keep looking."

The man went back to the van but the woman followed me out. She had a ponytail and wore jeans, a red sleeveless shirt covered by a black shawl, and flip flops. She was probably in her early twenties.

"If the gendarmes ask you something," she whispered, "say you're my friend."

But they didn't bother us; they were on their way home, or maybe to the bar.

She led me to a building I'd never have recognized as a hotel, but it was also full. We went back into the street.

A car came by and deposited a man next to the bar. She talked with the remaining two men: the tall driver and his passenger.

"Get in," she said. I did.

The car started speeding out of town, and I had visions of being stripped of my belongings and dumped into a sapphire mine. "No, no..." I started to say. But then the driver turned right at a sign marked Val Bungalows.

The driver roused the young man in charge, who looked just slightly less seedy than the one at Friends. An elderly man was sleeping in the back part of the reception area. He woke up briefly and I was reassured by his presence.

The young man led us to a ramshackle wooden hut with a dim light and a hard bed. To the side was a shower area with no fixtures, just a sloping drain. The man went away and came back with three buckets of water and the obligatory impossible-to-open tiny bar of plastic-wrapped soap that comes with every hotel room in Madagascar.

"Where is the toilet?"

In a separate building next door.

"How much is the room?"

"Fifteen thousand."

A little over five dollars. "Fine." He went away.

"Please pay the taxi," said the woman who had brought me there. I gave the driver too much money. The two men from the car departed.

The woman didn't. She sat on the bed, thinking she was spending the night with me.

I walked to the reception area; she followed.

"Is there a problem with the room?"

"No. But I would like to sleep alone."

"Oh, no. She can stay with you."

"I'm sorry. I need to have my own room. I will pay for another room for her."

"All the other rooms are taken." The woman folded her arms, shivering. The temperature difference between day and night is astounding in parts of Madagascar; it had been hot during the day.

"Then we must call back the taxi." Someone did. We waited awkwardly.

"I'm sorry," I said to the woman. "I appreciate your help. But I like to sleep alone."

"No cadeau?" she asked. I had planned on giving her some money for the help anyway. I handed her ten thousand ariary, about $3.50.

"Make it one more, please." I resisted. Ten thousand is a generous sum here.

She walked away. I could have gone back to my depressing room, but I stood at a distance to make sure she got the ride she was promised. The men appeared a few minutes later on a motorcycle. I paid them again, and they took her away.

I went back to my bungalow. I hadn't eaten all day apart from a piping-hot doughnut at the zebu market, a piece of chocolate and a few fragments of cheese and crackers I'd bought as snacks for Andringitra, and two coffee-flavored hard candies that a storekeeper had given me when she didn't have change. But I wasn't hungry; I wanted to plop into bed and get the night over with.

Just before Ilakaka's power was cut at midnight, I noticed on the table the room's other amenity: a three-pack of condoms.

At the first sign of light I was out of the room. I looked back and noticed it was inferior. The other bungalows were made of cement, whereas mine was wooden -- and there were gaps in the wood. But at least the night was finished.

At the station, there was a taxi-brousse bound for Toliara; the bad news was that it was empty. People boarded over the next two hours, but not enough to fill it. The driver circled around town to try to find more passengers...

...Only to collect Camille, Chloe, Angel, and Susana, the couples from the train I had hung out with in Manakara. They had visited Isalo National Park and were also Toliara-bound. They were transferring from another taxi-brousse.

"What town is this?" asked Camille.


"Ah. The cowboy town."

The world's slowest driver took us to Toliara, including the obligatory tire change, after which he was able to crank the speedometer all the way to 60 kilometers an hour. The speedometer dial was marked with orange stripes from 40 to 60, so perhaps he had initially been afraid to exceed that critical 25-mile-an-hour danger point.

Toliara is the main city on the southwest coast, but most people go north or south to a beach. Susana and Angel were headed south, while Chloe, Camille, and I were headed north to Mangily, a small town with beachfront hotels, forest hiking, and a popular Saturday-night seafood buffet. We all took a picture and went our ways.

Taxi-brousses go to Mangily, but they're very slow and leave from a different part of Toliara from where we had arrived. So Camille, Chloe, and I split a $21 taxi for the hour's trip.

The taxi was a little red Renault that I would have paid to examine in a museum. It was clearly a prototype from before cars included such frills as locks and door handles. The driver wore jeans with a broken zipper, so his fly was always open. He started the car by connecting two wires next to the steering wheel. The gas was siphoned out of a yellow jug near my feet.

"Maybe he shouldn't be smoking," Camille said.

The car had only the most rudimentary controls. It had two defroster switches for decoration. It had other buttons that didn't seem to do anything. The gearshift was a like a saw; it had to be firmly grasped and moved in and out with great precision and effort. There wasn't even a music player.

I sat in the front; Camille and Chloe sat in the back with another man, who was needed to help fix the car on its journey to Mangily.

The driver removed the "Taxi" sign from the top of the car; he wasn't supposed to operate beyond the Toliara city limits. When we passed gendarmerie stations, he had to bribe the patrols.

We were soon on the bone-jarring sandy coastal road that leads north from Toliara. Once or twice per kilometer we had to detour for a few seconds onto a dirt bypass that was invariably in better condition than the actual road. We broke down twice, once for the brakes and once for a tire change.

Trees were rooted in the water, and spiny plants flanked the road. Sometimes they were painted white from the sand and dust.

I had booked a room for two nights at the recently renovated Princesse du Lagon, to see if it lived up to the "Zen atmosphere" indicated in my guidebook. It came pretty close, with white cabanas, an infinity pool, and an attractive outdoor restaurant and bar. Its staff were particularly helpful, especially when it came to figuring out how to send me north.

I started my full day in Mangily by walking out to Reniala Forest for a guided hike among some unusual flora. Most notable, and iconic of Madagascar, were the baobabs, with giant round, reddish trunks supporting thinner branches in welcoming shapes. The trees grow very slowly, only a millimeter a month, and the trunks contain water.

They are strong; a baobab with a fifteen-foot-high trunk has an equal length of roots anchoring it into the ground. "No problem with the cyclone," my guide said. And they're tremendously resilient: People often carve footholds to climb up and pick the spherical or oblong deep-red fruits, which have a slightly lemon-like taste and can be eaten or used to infuse rum. If a so-carved tree is left unattended, the trunk heals and the footholds disappear.

Baobabs are also very beautiful. They often resemble giant milk bottles, but, especially when regenerating after being cut, can take on interesting shapes. Two trunks can sprout from one base, becoming V-shaped or intertwining. Reniala's biggest baobab is 1200 years old and looks like a coffee pot. Its newest is about three weeks old and looks like a piece of grass; it was in a planter near the reception area but will be planted in the wild when it's old enough.

Another endemic tree is Didierea madagascariensis, sometimes called the octopus tree or compass tree. It has cylindrical spiny branches that point south to catch the humidity. It's often used to build canoes. The strong but extremely light balsa tree is also used for boats. And the hollow "flame tree" is used to make djembes and mandolins. A tree called the famata exudes a white milk that is dangerous to the eyes, but the fun-to-say hatratra -- conveniently across the path at Reniala -- provides an antidote.

The area has some thought-provoking animals as well. My guide and I caught sight of a spotted kestrel and a black crested drongo, and I watched whimsical-looking white squid-like beetles scuttle along a stick. Near the entrance to Reniala was a cluster of giant rainbow-colored crickets, all in the same tree. When they flew, they opened up bright red wings. And next to Reniala was a sanctuary for confiscated spider tortoises and radiated tortoises, which are collected for the beautiful yellow patterns on their shells -- those of the giant radiated tortoises, ironically, more resembled spider webs than the others, I thought.

I spent the afternoon at the beach, in the pool, reading in a cabana, and enjoying a small pitcher of white wine at sunset. For dinner I was truly in my element: a seafood buffet at the amusingly named Chez Freddy Village. Our party was large: Camille and Chloe, two school friends of Camille's, a man whom we'd meet the night before, and Melanie, a Swiss woman from my hotel who had translated the receptionist's response to my query about heading north.

The evening started with a quartet of female Malagasy singer-dancers accompanied by a quartet of male guitar players. The guitars had a rough steel sound and were wild-looking: Two were rectangular with knobs jutting out, so they resembled train cars, and the other two were fish-shaped, one with a duck at the tuning-peg end. The music was largely call-and-response, mostly in unison and very energetic.

The appetizers included raw oysters, large round clams, sea urchins scooped straight out of their shells, and a couple of seafood salads. Then it was on to skewers of fish, squid, shrimp, and sausages, with side dishes, but the grilling was a little slow. Dessert was a small selection of honey crepes and other sweets; there was enough food for all, barely. After dessert, the music and dancing resumed briefly.

Melanie and I decided to check out a nightclub; Mangily has several all on the same corner, and the action seems to rotate. It was calm when we entered, but things got lively, then quiet and finally lively again. A drunk Malagasy man in a stained white shirt came to talk to us, and for a few minutes we didn't mind his presence. But then he started staggering, speaking in broken French that even Melanie couldn't make out, and resting his arms on our legs as we sat on the bar stools.

"Is he your friend?" asked the manager, a confident man in a sombrero-like hat.

I flapped my pinky and thumb a few times to indicate "not so much."

The manager slapped the man on the face, dragged him out of the bar, and threw him down on the ground. I felt sorry for him.

A few minutes later, a staff member from our hotel entered the bar, so, feeling in better company, we had occasion to stay and share one more beer with him. Then we walked the dark, sandy path back to the hotel.

By then, every staff member at the hotel knew I was trying to get to Morombe on the daily camion-brousse, a shared truck rather than a shared taxi. There aren't many ways to leave the Toliara area. The easiest is just to return on RN 7, but I didn't want to backtrack. You can fly, but flights are expensive and Air Madagascar is unreliable -- indeed, this week it's been all but grounded due to a strike. Some people go to the far south on one horrible road. I hoped to go north and eventually reach Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, which I knew would take several days.

I had asked around in town and at the hotel, and from the answers all I could deduce was that the camion-brousse left Toliara in the morning when it filled up and would pass through Mangily sometime between 8 a.m. and noon, and that it ran with a frequency somewhere between twice a day and not every day.

Now, it doesn't take a logician to determine that if a vehicle doesn't leave its origin until it's full, then there will be no room to board it some time later. But one must not think too logically in Madagascar. For there is always room for a Malagasy vehicle to squeeze in one more passenger, be it human, chicken, or pig.

Pedro from the hotel offered to wait with me, to flag down the vehicle and facilitate my boarding. We went out just after eight, stationing ourselves first at the main intersection, where the nightclubs are. Then he had the idea to wait at the gendarmerie station just up the road, since the truck would have to stop there anyway. But the gendarmes wouldn't allow it, so we retreated.

We were lucky. The camion-brousse came by just after nine. The driver barely came to a stop, and as it pulled away I climbed the steep metal ladder to its rear entrance. There were eleven rows of seats, all taken, but a boy in the penultimate row was exiled to make room for me. Someone demanded 40,000 ariary (about $14) for the fare; it seemed expensive. As we took on more passengers, the aisle filled up.

The road was in horrible condition, a combination of cratered dirt and sand. The vehicle was designed more for cattle than humans. It had a roof but was open to the air on the sides; there were no windows. For the first time ever, I was glad to be in an aisle seat, as the people by the windows (or where there would have been windows) frequently had to duck inside to dodge snapping branches.

The vehicle lurched from side to side as the driver swerved to avoid craters and zebu carts. I had no concept of how fast we were going; from my position I could see no signage. I clutched the dirty metal rim of the seat in front of me to stay stable. My knees were digging into the bottom of that seat. My backpack was wedged between the seat and my belly and functioned as kind of a seat belt.

The floor consisted of wooden planks, and through a small gap between them, I could see the road going by underneath. In the aisle next to me, a chicken was being held upside down. It whimpered and thrashed about, trying to break free.

It's not a truck, it's a bus, I tried to tell myself optimistically.

This ride was going to last well into the night.

Twenty minutes after I boarded, the driver stopped for a bathroom break. Some people climbed through the side openings; others exited through the back. As is common in Madagascar, people shamelessly relieved themselves on the side of the road, making no attempts to hide behind a tree or a thicket of tall grass.

Ten minutes after we got going again, there was a loud bang. We had blown our first tire. Everyone got out and watched a crew of mechanics laboriously unscrew the offending tire and replace it. Forty-five minutes later, we were on our way.

When we blew our second tire, four hours into the trip, someone talked to me in English.

"The driver says if you want to pay him five thousand ariary, you can sit up front with him."

I've never been eagerer to spend $1.74. I retrieved my bag and climbed into the cab. I was happy, but it got me thinking. Why was I treated so specially? Shouldn't the driver have offered that option to everyone? Why not auction off the seat? Or maybe the other passengers were just as eager to have me out of their way.

In the cab, there was no less lurching, but at least it was quiet, I had space, and I could see where we were going. I still couldn't tell how much progress we were making, as the road had no kilometer posts, and none of the dials on the dashboard worked. The gearshift flopped around like a wet sardine. To sound the horn, the driver touched a wire to the top of the dashboard, creating a white spark. We took a surprisingly brief lunch break and then, late in the afternoon, stopped once more so they could change a tire.

I do not know where all these new tires came from. I noticed they all had different treads. I did see them hoisting one down from the roof, but they can't possibly have had a complete set up there. I have a hunch they just kept rotating them.

That was the last tire change, but progress was still slow. We stopped in nearly every village, and if it happened to be on my map, then I'd have some idea of where we were. The information was always discouraging.

We drove into the night, with the monotonous savanna-like plain on both sides, and only the occasional baobab, stalwart and indifferent, creating a hint of a diversion. By 10 p.m., the road kept sloping up and down, and the truck assumed the motions of a cruise ship fighting a series of ocean swells.

It was a road to nowhere; nothing existed but the undulating road and the grass immediately on either side. I gazed ahead, hypnotized by the tranquil eternity. I listened to music. I composed in my head a wordless patter song inspired by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

The tranquil eternity became a frustrating one. The stops were frequent and long. The driver sounded the horn at the entrance to every village, announcing to people that they could board or collect those disembarking. And the camion-brousse was also a de facto courier service; in the cab were packages that the driver hand-delivered at various points along the route.

We pulled into Morombe a little after midnight. The town looked relatively prosperous, with well-constructed, clean buildings. The driver was kind and took me to the door of my chosen hotel, rapping on the gate until someone appeared: a no-nonsense Frenchman about fifty years old.

"Do you have a room?"

"Sixty-two thousand. We'll deal with the rest in the morning." He opened the gate.

I tipped the driver another $1.74.

I awoke around seven to a commotion on the tin roof. I opened the door just in time to see the departure of an unkindness of ravens (I am assured that is the proper term of venery). The sun had just risen, and I walked outside to the back of the hotel property, which opened up onto the beach. A football field's worth of mud separated the sand from the water. In the distance, fishing pirogues slid along slowly with their scrunched-up nets.

There were two hammocks in the yard fronting the beach. I tried one and sank to the ground. I tried the other one and was pleasantly in the air. The ravens were gone and I enjoyed the tranquility for a few minutes.

A Malagasy woman came out and we said hello. I told her I wanted to try to take a pirogue to my next stop north, Morondava, the gateway (if you can call it that -- it's still eight hours away) to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. She came back a few minutes later and said the Frenchman was on his way to arrange it. In the background was a much smaller version of herself, who I assumed was her daughter. Soon after, I heard simple familiar melodies being played on an electric piano.

I waited in the hammock and exchanged e-mail with Melanie, who had been relaying messages from Pedro at the hotel back in Mangily. He'd said I was very brave to come to Madagascar as a non-French-speaking white man. He'd also said I should have paid only 30,000 ariary on the camion-brousse, not 40,000, but I assured her that overall, I had gotten a good deal.

"Enjoy the day and mora mora," she'd signed off.

"Mora mora," pronounced more like "mura mura," is literally the Malagasy for "slowly, slowly," but its meaning runs deeper. It has a connotation of "It'll happen in time; just be patient." When the tire gets changed for the fourth time in as many hours, "mora mora" is the only response. Nothing you can do; you'll get there eventually. It gets said a lot.

The Frenchman returned with two piroguiers, a father-and-son team. The Frenchman was friendly but always businesslike, matter-of-fact, and direct. "The price will be three hundred thousand ariary," he said in French, drawing the numbers in the sand to make sure I understood.

"How long will the trip take?"

"Two days." Well, that was good news. I'd thought it might take three or four. "You'll leave tomorrow. The wind is not good today. It will be better tomorrow."

"What time will we leave?"

"Four o'clock in the morning."

He started speaking to the piroguiers rapidly in French, about how much I'd pay as a deposit. I nodded to indicate that I was comprehending.

He scolded me. "Just a minute." He didn't want my nodding to commit myself to anything while he was negotiating on my behalf.

The piroguiers went away. "They'll be back in ten minutes, and then we'll make a contract," the Frenchman said.

He had ordered them to fetch their national identification cards so that he was sure whom he was dealing with. When they returned, he wrote out the contract in duplicate, adding the pertinent information to a preprinted template in French; apparently he makes these sort of deals with some regularity.

In went their names and the numbers of their identification cards, along with the validity dates. Morombe, le 15 06 2015. The undersigned, independent piroguiers, take Monsieur Weinstein Seth, for transport from Morombe to Morondava, for a total of ariary 300000 (un million cinq cent mille FMg). Why two different numbers? The ariary has been in use for only a little over ten years. It replaced the Malagasy franc at a rate of one ariary to five francs. But outside major cities, some people still speak in Malagasy francs. So it was important for the contract to spell out that I would pay the ariary equivalent of 1,500,000 francs.

"The price is the price," the Frenchman emphasized to the piroguiers. "It cannot be changed. If you are delayed and it takes another day, it is still the same price."

He had each of them sign one copy of the contract. He did not have me sign it, which I thought was a little unfair. The piroguiers left.

He led me into his office and made a copy of the contracts on the first photocopier I'd seen in Madagascar. He gave me the original, keeping the copy for himself.

"With this paper, there will be no problems," he said.

"We will stop for the night somewhere?" I had romantic notions of slinking into a little fishing village at sunset and feasting on fish I selected right out of the net.

"Yes. A room is not expensive. Maybe fifteen thousand."

"Very good."

"You should buy a plastic covering for your bag. And now you can go buy bread for your trip." I looked forward to stocking up, as I do for a train ride, and having nothing to do but snack all day and watch the shore as we drifted along.

"And for the piroguiers?"

"No!" he said. "Very important!" He pointed his finger at me. "What you buy is for you only. For example, you share your water, then you are delayed. Then you have no water."

I thanked him and went out to explore Morombe. It was mainly two streets running parallel to the water; the one farther inland was the main road. It even had a paved section. It even had streetlights! There were a couple of stores and an open food market that sprawled out under a trio of cell-phone towers. Grade-school students walked along in blue uniforms. Goats examined debris in the street.

I found the office of the camion-brousse company, whose sign had colorful pictures of their vehicles in various orientations, as if to say, "Ride our trucks! Tout confort! All amenities!" It was as if I'd happened upon a tourism brochure that read, "Visit Guantanamo Bay! Finest accommodation in Cuba!" The camion-brousse was parked on the street, with someone tinkering under it. The crew sat in the shade on the curb. We acknowledged each other.

I was ready for lunch and it was getting close to noon. My guidebook recommended a place called A Sea Food for "tremendous fruits de mer."

"May I see a menu?" I asked a woman upon entering.

"There is no menu. We have chicken, zebu, and French fries."

"That's all?"


"No shrimp? Fish? Lobster?" The day before, with the long camion-brousse ride, had been another no-proper-meal day, and I'd relished the thought of something from the water in this seaside town.

"No. Just chicken, zebu, and French fries."

I thanked her and left. Another restaurant, on the parallel road, served only chicken. But its staff pointed me to Eclipse a few doors down, where I was able to get a plate of shrimp and noodles. Then I prepared for the boat ride: I bought a meter of green tarp, a bunch of bananas and various citrus fruits, two baguettes, a jar of Nutella-like spread, a tin of sardines, three large bottles of water, a liter of apple juice, and a few sweets including a wonderful kind of peanut brittle that they sell on the side of the road. I'd seen it only in western Madagascar.

The tide had come in, covering the football field of mud. I had a swim and lounged in the hammock until sunset, then took one more walk into town. The main square in front of the market had come to life. The street was closed to traffic. A master of ceremonies was making announcements and playing music, and all the children in Morombe were dancing to it. Much of it was choreographed; for several songs the children were doing the same steps together. Around the square were food stalls and, for the adults, two roulette games.

One passenger from the camion-brousse recognized me. He was from Toliara; his aunt in Morombe had just died, so he and other family members had made the trip to pay their respects.

"Is it like this every night?" I asked, referring to the merriment in the square.

"Usually. But especially this time of year, leading up to Independence Day" (June 26), he said.

I went back to my hotel. The woman whom I'd initially spoken to about the pirogue trip approached me and asked me to pay the bill for the two nights, since I'd be leaving so early in the morning. She looked to be about forty years old, maybe a bit less. I followed her to another building.

"I heard someone playing music. Is that your daughter?"

"Yes. Just a little electric piano."

"Very nice. I play the piano, too. And are you married to him?" I asked, referring to the Frenchman.


"Is he from France?"

"Yes, from Lyon. And I am from Tana."

"I see. Very nice to meet you."

I retired around nine. I woke up with ample time and opened the door just before four o'clock. As I was preparing to leave, I was startled by a knock.

It was the owner's wife. "I couldn't sleep," she said.

I thought it nice of her to see me off. "Good morning," I said.

I left the light on and we went into the yard. "They are not here yet," she said.

We approached the beach and scrutinized the water. It was a new moon, so we had only starlight as our aid. A pirogue went by, but it didn't stop.

She shivered. "It's cold," she said.

We went back to the middle of the yard. She came closer to me for warmth. Then she put her hand on my crotch -- or did I imagine it?

I pulled away. We stood there for a moment, then paced some more.

She shivered again. "Such cold. Let's go to the room."

We returned to the room and she turned the light off. She tried to touch me again.

"No," I said firmly.

"You don't like Malagasy?"

"I do. But."

"No problem....My married is old," she said ruefully.

She meandered back to her living quarters and I never saw her again, even when the piroguiers arrived at five.

I stepped into the wooden canoe that would be my home for the next two days. It was just wide enough for me to sit with my arms resting on the sides; my backpack went behind me and the bags of food in front. Behind my bag were those of the piroguiers. Sticking out the sides, a framework supported a sail and a stabilizer rested on the water on the starboard side. Kira sat at the bow and his father at the stern.

They began to paddle. I was glad I'd donned pants and two sweaters. I kept my hands between my legs and shriveled up my body to keep warm. Within a half-hour, the sail had caught the breeze and they stopped paddling, and we glided along swiftly.

Darkness enlarges shapes. When the sun rose at seven, I could tell that the sail, which had seemed in the predawn hours to stretch halfway to Sagittarius, was really only about thirteen or fourteen feet tall. Its bottom half was a blank collage of patched canvas; its upper half had two Homer Simpson-like yellow characters in red outfits and pitchforks with the caption "He Devil" and two large cartoon dialogue bubbles that said "Chut..." and "Dodo!"

The water was choppy, but not dangerously so, in the hours just after the sunrise, and I put the green covering over my bag. I was splashed occasionally as the stabilizer bounced along the water.

But after nine, the water calmed down and the temperature rose sharply. I changed into shorts and removed everything on top, and we sailed along gracefully, making good time. We cruised north all day, keeping the land in view about a quarter mile to our right. Kira usually stayed in front while his father steered from behind, but sometimes they switched or took turns sleeping. The water was a beautiful blue-green and rather warm.

At ten I started feeling either overheated or dehydrated or both. I put on sunscreen and gulped water, then closed my eyes. When I woke up an hour later, I felt better.

All they had to eat was plain baguettes, and they drank water out of a large yellow jug. For a while I kept my food to myself, as I'd been told, but I offered the hazelnut spread and the sweets, and eventually some of the fruit. They were grateful.

I don't think I'd ever spent a full day simply watching the sun pan across the sky from morning to dusk. I figured we'd dock for the night just after dusk, but as the afternoon wore thin, Kira's father asked me something.

"Do you want to keep on going? We can be in Belo sur Mer by midnight. Then we can arrive in Morondava at one in the afternoon."

I was delighted. Belo sur Mer (which I later learned means "big foul-smelling place on the sea") was about two-thirds of the way to Morondava. I'd counted on a nighttime arrival the following day.

"Yes, please!" Despite its name, Belo was also supposed to be a pretty fishing village. It would be interesting to spend the night there, even if I wouldn't see it in the daylight.

We pressed on. The sun was replaced by a zillion stars and the Milky Way in a cloudless, moonless sky, as clear as in a planetarium. I half expected a red laser light to point out the Big Dipper. Three bright stars were aligned vertically to the west, and I watched them disappear one by one as the sky rotated. It got cold again and I put back on my pants and two sweaters.

At eleven we saw a light: the first light of Belo sur Mer. Then the second, third, and fourth. I closed up my bag and prepared to disembark.

The boat went just past the lights, then turned a bit toward shore and slowed down, barely drifting. We went on this way for a half-hour or so.

And then we kept going. The lights disappeared.

"Is that Belo?" I asked, pointing at a dark spot toward which we might have been heading.

"Belo!" said Kira's father. "Belo, back there." He gestured toward the lights that had now all but faded behind us.

I was stunned. I'd been so excited to get off the boat and settle into a room for the night, or at least for a few hours. But I'd misunderstood them. When they'd said Belo by midnight, they had just been using it as a reference. They hadn't planned on stopping at all!

I was also uncomfortable. I'd been holding it in for almost twenty hours. The other two had peed off the side of the boat; I'd tried to stand and not been able to remain stable enough. But now, we were moving slowly, and one of the sail's ropes was conveniently an arm's length away. I stood and held onto it for leverage, and I let it out.

Then I tried to make myself comfortable on the bare wooden planks. It wasn't easy. They noticed I was cold and lent me a lamba, an all-purpose cloth in Madagascar that can be used as a shawl, blanket, skirt, or towel, among other things. I wrapped it around myself tightly and stretched out dead straight (there was no room to curl) at the bottom of the canoe, using my backpack as a pillow.

I managed to sleep for about five hours, but never more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I kept having to adjust whichever part of my back, legs, or rear end was getting sore.

I woke up a little before six and started rooting for the sunrise, even though it was still over an hour away. Little by little, barely a ray at a time, morning came and wiped the slate of sky clean of stars. The air was still cold. I put my finger in the water: warm. Almost hot. I dragged my right foot through it for a minute; it felt wonderful.

Two hours later, it was finally warm enough for me to return the lamba and start removing clothes.

As uncomfortable as I'd been, I was ecstatic about our progress. The piroguiers were in good spirits, too. And we all laughed when a slender fish jumped straight up out of the water just to the left of our boat.

We cheerfully kept going. I shared more of my food. I sat up and enjoyed the beauty of the glistening sea. And I wrote Gilbert-inspired lyrics -- with nods to Roald Dahl and Francis Scott Key -- to the patter song I'd composed on the truck. Obviously, British spellings and pronunciations are mandatory.

SONG -- (Seth and Fellow Travellers)
"When you're getting on the train"

When you're getting on the train, no doubt
You've little to complain about.
You'll leave Fianar at seven,
And at dusk you're by the bay.
Though there's not a printed schedule
You imagine in your head you'll
Dine on lobster at your leisure
With a spot of Tanqueray.
But plans you make in Madagascar mustn't be too votive,
For you'll be delayed twelve hours due to a faulty locomotive.
And you'll imminently learn to
Have a mantra you can turn to:
"Mora mora" is your maxim;
"Mora mora" 's what you say.

Yes, we'll imminently learn to
Have a mantra we can turn to:
"Mora mora" is our maxim;
"Mora mora" 's what we say.

When you're riding in a taxi-brousse
That clearly has an axle loose,
You're crammed inside with chickens
And a pig is on the roof.
You are clocking each kilometre
And checking the speedometer,
Which doesn't work, and what is more,
The driver seems aloof.
He's texting and he's smoking and he fiddles with the music,
And the madd'ning situation's just a bit Lollapaloozic.
And upon the fourth flat tyre
You are ready to expire.
"Mora mora" is your maxim;
"Mora mora" is the proof.

Yes, upon the fourth flat tyre
We are ready to expire.
"Mora mora" is our maxim;
"Mora mora" is the proof.

When you're squeezed inside a cattle truck
And no one seems to give a...darn,
The aisle is filled with people;
There's a rattling open door.
And the road's composed of sand and rocks
(At common sense it gaily mocks) --
'Tis readily apparent
Through the op'ning in the floor.
You're lurching over craters and your stomach's in a tangle,
And you're wondering why you let yourself endure the whole fandangle.
Yes, it's such a dirty shame that
You surrender and proclaim that
"Mora mora" is your maxim,
"Mora mora," to be sure.

Yes, it's such a dirty shame that
We surrender and proclaim that
"Mora mora" is our maxim,
"Mora mora," to be sure.

[Slowly, ad lib.]
When you hire a pair of oarsmen,
Wave ta-ta to all the shoresmen,
You embark sans trepidation
Long before dawn's early light.
Well, the rowers keep on rowing,
And they're certainly not slowing,
So you stretch out on the wood
For an uncomfortable night.
But when the sun is shining and you're lounging like an otter,
And you sail the day away upon the sparkling turquoise water...

[As fast as possible]
Then you banish all delusion,
For you've come to the conclusion
Mora mora's not so awful;
Mora mora's quite all right.

Yes, we've banished all delusion,
For we've come to the conclusion
Mora mora's not so awful;
Mora mora suits us right!

At one in the afternoon we arrived at Morondava, after 32 hours of nonstop sailing. It took another half-hour to come around to the landing point, the southern tip of the town.

It felt as if we'd crossed into another world. Women gazed at us, their faces masked with sun protection. Boats of various colors and sizes were pulled up on the muddy shore. There were tourists I didn't recognize from the train. What kind of a place was this?

I left most of my uneaten food for the piroguiers, tipped them, and clambered ashore to explore this new land.

Go on to part 4: Where one must tiptoe