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Trip 17 -- Madagascar

Part 4: Where one must tiptoe
3 July 2015

The 32-hour nonstop pirogue ride brought me to the southern tip of Morondava's little peninsula at 1:30 in the afternoon. I instantly liked the town; from the landing I followed one long street lined with promising-looking hotel bungalows and seafood restaurants. On the western side of the buildings was a wide beach with children playing soccer. At the northern end of the long street, the town proper began, with streets veering off to the right. There were two colorful mosques, the usual market cluster, and a single bank.

I spent the afternoon arranging a trip north to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a reserve containing must-see limestone pinnacles that have been sculpted through erosion into curvy pinwheel shapes. One can arrive from the east by a few days' sailing; Morondava is the only road gateway, from the south, and it's eight hours away in a four-by-four along a horrible road. It would be an expensive journey, but having come all this way, how could I skip it?

The San Franciscan owner of the Chez Maggie hotel helped me find a car and driver, and with that planned, I enjoyed a seafood dinner at Le Corail. It was really quite a deal: $7 for a giant plate including stuffed crab, two kinds of fish steaks, two kinds of giant prawns, and half a spiny lobster. The restaurant had a resident friendly brown lemur who waited eagerly to be fed; I resisted, but the lemur perched itself on multiple shoulders and took bananas from other patrons as I dined.

Nary the driver picked me up at 7 a.m. in his shiny Hyundai Galloper with leather seats. Finally, a vehicle with working parts! Power windows, a complete set of mirrors, a robust gearshift -- I hadn't been in a vehicle this sturdy anywhere in Madagascar. We zipped out of Morondava and headed north on the bumpy road for the 125-mile trip, stopping briefly an hour into the trip to gaze at the famous "Baobab Alley" and the Baobabs Amoureux, an impressive, if sadly graffiti-marked, pair of baobabs with one wrapped around the other. To me it seemed they were dancing and the taller tree was dipping the shorter.

The Galloper's battery died in a village an hour later.

While I watched goats eat trash in the middle of the road, Nary scurried to a friend to borrow a battery. Then we flagged down passing vehicles to get a jump-start. The road sees little traffic and most drivers wouldn't stop to help out fellow travelers. It was two hours before we were on our way again.

"Actually, it wasn't the battery," Nary said. "It was the alternator. The generator."

I don't know much about cars; he may as well have said it was "the terminator" or "the procrastinator."

"We must arrive before dark," he said. "To save the battery, we shouldn't use the lights."

Nary had a heavy foot even on a cratered road, and we made up time. After one ferry crossing, we stopped in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina ("big odor on the Tsiribihina") for an overpriced lunch at a place that I'm convinced doubles its prices for tourists and gives free meals to drivers as an incentive. The food was beautiful and the portions minuscule.

After a second ferry crossing, we arrived in Bekopaka, the town nearest the park. It was just before sunset. I'd booked three nights at the Olympe du Bemaraha, which turned out to be a gorgeous property with dingy basic rooms. The juxtaposition was staggering. I walked up a well-lit pathway flanked by near-life-size wooden sentinels and arrived at the restaurant and swimming pool, from which, in daylight, I could see for miles. I met a lovely couple from Vancouver at dinner and dined on smoked-fish pizza and ginger rum. Then I descended to my room and, thinking I might get cold, pulled the blanket out of the closet. With it came a mouse. Shortly thereafter the power was cut. I wrapped the mosquito netting around my bed and wrapped it even tighter around the other bed, on which I'd placed my backpack. Throughout the night, I woke up periodically to the sound of gnawing and the touch of mouse droppings, which in the morning I discovered were sprinkled on top of the mosquito netting.

I began my birthday having slept little and preparing to face my fear of heights. But first I stopped at the hotel office, summoned a bleary-eyed receptionist, and said, "The room is not good. There are mice, there are droppings all over the mosquito netting, it is dim, and the toilet doesn't work." She promised to move me that afternoon; I hoped I'd be upgraded to a bungalow up near the restaurant, since I was apparently one of only five hotel guests that first night.

Nary brought me to the park office and introduced me to an English-speaking guide, Richard. We committed to two days in the park. The first day we'd drive an hour to the Grands Tsingy and do the "Broadway tour," a six-hour climbing route that would include two sets of tsingy and a squeeze through a cave that opens up like a theatre once you enter. The second day we'd stay near Bekopaka and take a pirogue along the Manambolo River to the starting point of a four-hour hike through the Petits Tsingy and back into town.

The Broadway route required us to don climbing harnesses with two carabiners to be attached to a cable along the steepest sections. The walk started innocently enough with a trail through a forest, and we caught sight of some of the park's eleven species of lemur: a fruit-eating red-fronted brown lemur, a nocturnal sportive lemur hiding in a tree hollow, and a family of strikingly beautiful leaf-eating Decken's sifaka, with white bodies and black faces. Richard and I got to know each other.

"You are from...?"

"United States."

"America! The capital is Washington, yes?"

"That's right."

"Obama is in the White House."

"Yes."

"Who will be next?"

"I don't know. Maybe Hillary Clinton."

"Ah, yes! She is the wife of...George Bush?"

We started to see fragments of toppled limestone; they looked like pieces of Corinthian columns or dinosaur bones. A lampshade-shaped ficus tree was wrapped around a short limestone column. But the forest canopy continued and for a while there was no sign of the field of pinnacles.

We turned and the trail suddenly went from horizontal to vertical. We clamped on our carabiners and climbed three ladders, then continued the ascent. It was only a few minutes before we were on top of the tsingy, making our way across and up to a viewpoint. Finally on stable ground, we stopped and Richard gave me a history lesson.

Several hundred million years ago, as we've all heard, the earth was one continent. The Americas, Africa, and India split off from Eurasia and drifted toward their current positions. Around 88 million years ago, Madagascar broke away from India. The area now occupied by the tsingy was originally flat and low-lying, but the annual advance of the water in what is now the Mozambique Channel carried with it piles of organic matter. Through the years, the piles formed giant limestone cliffs.

Eventually the water stopped advancing, and the cliffs remained. Little by little, rainwater began to erode the tops of the cliffs. Over millions of years the runoff formed tiny channels in the cliffs as it streaked down. The result was the strong pillars with their fantasy-like pinwheel tops.

Around 400 years ago, the inhabitants of the Tana region, who were of Indonesian descent, began to spar with the newly arrived immigrants from mainland Africa. Some people began to leave, and they headed west. In those days they did not wear shoes. They arrived at the massive pillars and could not walk normally because of the sharp surface. They called the pillars "tsingy," which was simply the word for "tiptoe."

This viewpoint was worth every lurch on the camion-brousse, every minute of backbreaking discomfort on the pirogue, and every crater on the road to Bekopaka. The setting was unlike any I'd ever seen: a field of giant limestone pencils with swirly pointed tips. Some contained fossils. They looked fragile, but even at the sharpest points the rock was quite secure.

Actually, the entire climbing route made me feel safe. There were plenty of steps nailed into the rock and niches carved out of it (I taught Richard the word "foothold"), and I felt secure in my harness, strapped to the cable. The rocks were very sharp and when sections of the climb required me to grasp them with my hands, I sometimes wore a pair of Kenya Airways slippers as mittens for protection. Even the two wobbly suspension bridges didn't bring on as much acrophobia as I'd expected. Richard went ahead, walking backwards a few feet in front of me, beckoning me.

"You are now seventy meters above --"

"Please don't tell me anything like that right now," I said. I felt safe but I wasn't prepared to look down or know how high up we were.

We descended, crawled through the cave for a half-hour or so, then went up and down the other side. By early afternoon we arrived at the meeting place, where Nary was treating the other drivers to hip-hop music from the car speakers. If he ran it like that all the time with the car switched off, no wonder the battery gave him trouble.

The hotel had switched my room for a similar one at the base of the hill; it wasn't a bungalow. I pulled the blanket out quickly and no accompanying wildlife shrieked. I checked the mosquito netting and it was clean. I'd learn later that instead of a mouse I had a lizard and three frogs that liked to hang out in and around the toilet, but they did not bother me. However, I never had any hot water.

With a feeling of accomplishment from the day's hike, I headed up to the pool. The Vancouver couple was there; they had been right behind me on the hike. We lingered a while, then freshened up and reconvened for dinner. At the end of the meal, the staff brought out a chocolate flan with a burning candle and set it in front of me. In chocolate frosting they had written "HAPPY BFTHPI."

Richard and I began the next day with an hour-long pirogue ride through the Manambolo River gorge, with stops at two caves and glimpses of old tombs set midway up the cliffs. Richard said there were crayfish and eels in the river; he had eaten eels for dinner the night before. I made him promise to show me where I could get them for lunch.

The Petits Tsingy weren't steep enough for us to need harnesses, but they still required careful climbing and meticulous footwork. At the top we were really picking our way across the pointy pinnacles, some of which were separated by deep crevasses. Richard took my hand to get me across the larger gaps. It was sometimes hard to figure out where my feet should go; there weren't many flat pieces of rock wide enough for a shoe, and the pointed rock tips were low enough that I was halfway to crawling as I held onto them for support. The view was every bit as beautiful as the preceding day, but I was relieved to get back down to stabler ground.

After a lunch of the promised eels, I could finally truly relax at the hotel. The difficult part of my time in Madagascar -- the final hike, the last precipitous climb -- was over. I spent the afternoon in the pool and enjoyed the restaurant's cinnamon-vanilla rum along with dinner. The Canadian couple had left; the only guests were I and a stranded tour group trying to figure out what to do since Air Madagascar had gone on strike.

The Olympe du Bemaraha officially accepts credit cards, with a five-percent surcharge; Nary had asked for a prepayment of gas money before we left, so I hadn't enough cash and the card route was what I had planned. The hotel was dubious that the system would actually put the charge through, but they tried. It worked.

"You should play the lottery today, because this is your lucky day," the owner said as I settled the bill.

"I'm glad it worked," I said. The machine started to spit out the receipt but ran out of paper; they inserted the card again. This time it was successful. (You can tell where this is going. I was double-charged and, more than a week later, they still haven't fixed it despite acknowledging the double-charge a few days ago.)

I put ten thousand ariary in the box for staff tips; the people in the restaurant had been friendly and helpful.

"Maybe you can put something on TripAdvisor," the owner said.

"Just a minute," I said, raising a finger. "The property is beautiful. The downstairs rooms could be improved. The first day I had a mouse..."

"Well, you see, we are in the jungle, it's hard --"

"I understand. But there were mouse droppings all over the mosquito net. The room was dim. The first toilet didn't work. And I never had any hot water."

"Really?"

"Yes."

I started to leave.

"Maybe you can put something on TripAdvisor," he said again.

Nary whizzed me back to Morondava, with a brief stop in the middle of the road to swap batteries again with his friend, who was driving three Israelis up to Bekopaka. I had lunch by the beach, at a bar occupied by a few other people including a man from South Africa who ran a fishing boat in Morondava. It came up that this was my last hotel night in the country; I was to fly out on a 3:30 a.m. departure the following night.

"How are you going?" he asked.

"Kenya Airways." I knew Air Madagascar was still on strike.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "Nothing's going in or out."

"I thought it was just Air Madagascar that wasn't running."

"Who do you think runs the airports? The baggage service? You aren't going anywhere." He seemed to delight in my apparent stranded state.

As I made my way through six giant grilled cigalas -- prawn-like shellfish with large fan tails and a firmness closer to lobster -- I tried to check the veracity of his statement on my phone, but he wouldn't shut up.

"How long you been in Madagascar?"

"Three and a half weeks."

"How do you like that Malagasy pussy?"

I was startled by the brazen inquiry by a stranger in the tourism industry. "I don't know."

"You haven't checked that out?"

"No."

"You don't find the Malagasy good-looking?"

"I do, but that's not why I came here."

"I can't believe you've been here three weeks and haven't checked that out."

And with that rush of questions and reactions I determined that anything he said could be summarily ignored, that he hadn't a clue about the status of Kenya Airways' flights, airport operations, or the purpose of most tourists' visits to Madagascar. (Sex tourism is a problem in certain areas, particularly beach towns in the north. But it shouldn't be assumed that's why most people travel to the country.)

After lunch I swam in the clear, warm, shallow waters of the Mozambique Channel, watching the pirogues go by. At night I tried baobab-flavored rum -- it reminded me of pineapple -- and dined to the music of an upbeat band at Oasis, figuratively as close to Jamaica as one can get in Morondava. And I spent my last night in Madagascar at Chez Maggie, in a giant room that I shared with a small uncaged bird. At least it wasn't a mouse, and there was hot water.

The next day I rode the bus back to the capital -- one of the few services in Madagascar with fixed-time departures. We sped along and it seemed hard to believe it would take twelve hours as planned, but there we were, arriving in the frenzy of Tana's lower town just as it got dark and dangerous. We were let off near a traffic circle amidst a madness of taxis, vendors, and commuters. I hurried toward the relatively serene Lake Anosy, where I tried to find the road that led upward around a hill to the well-lit Isoraka area. The lake was an oasis of surprising calm, and parts of it were adorned with strings of hanging lights. Having walked around almost the whole lake, I asked a young couple to point me in the right direction. It wasn't far, and I was soon climbing the unlit Rue de Russie.

If I'd had another day coming back to the capital, I might have stopped for a meal an hour south of Tana in Behenjy, the center of a foie gras-producing industry. There's a well-known restaurant there, Au Coin du Foie Gras. It has an outpost in Tana on the Rue de Russie, so I paused there for an appetizer. There was one other party; the windows were open and there were lots of mosquitoes flying around, which was kind of convenient as I had one application's worth of high-concentration DEET left and this way I didn't have to bring the bottle back home. I tried the plain and the pepper-flavored foie gras, both delightfully rich-textured, sweet, and buttery, but I'd forgotten how heavy the delicacy is.

I still had about five hours before it made any sense to go to the airport, and it was past the time when a tourist should be walking around alone. Isoraka was all right, but when I got to the Buffet du Jardin -- where I'd had my first meal in Madagascar and might have whiled away the time if they'd had music playing -- I paused at the entrance to the park leading to the long staircase. A guard from the Buffet du Jardin saw me and offered to escort me down the stairs to Glacier, where I'd had my first lunch and which would almost certainly have music. I thanked him and tipped him for the service.

Besides music, drinks, food, rooms, and a casino, Glacier is known for its prostitutes. I stepped in and caught the gaze of short-skirted women with dollar signs in their eyes. Then I heard a voice: "Hello, Seth! How was your birthday? How was Manakara?"

It wasn't a prostitute. It was the bartender who had plied me with rum at Pourquoi Pas! -- the French restaurant where I'd met the Canadian trucker and his buddy. She was enjoying a night off and having a drink with her friend. We caught up a bit and I looked at a menu, but I discovered the proper dinners were upstairs, so I said good-bye and we parted.

When I got back down, the band was on and the place had become a nightclub. I'd saved just enough money for a taxi to the airport and, I hoped, one drink, but there was now a cover charge and the drinks were pricier than upstairs. Still, I entered, stayed sober, and enjoyed the music -- and vigorous dancing by a few costumed performers -- while explaining to the prostitutes why I wouldn't be spending the night. No hotel, flying out tonight. No problem, said one, flashing me a key to her room upstairs.

At midnight I stepped out and was accosted by taxi drivers and beggar children. I followed one of the former to his vehicle. He turned left onto the main road, which eventually merged with the highway out of town. We made only one more turn to reach the airport.

The Kenya Airways flight not only left as planned; it left forty minutes early, and we had to circle around until 6 a.m., when the Nairobi airport officially opened. We landed at seconds before six, and I had plenty of time to catch my moved-earlier-than-expected connecting flight to Amsterdam, where I'd booked a 23-hour layover. It was a bright, clear day, and as we entered Mediterranean airspace I watched the Egyptian Sahara fade away with a kind of wistful assuredness. This was one of my more difficult trips, and I was happy to be returning to a place where I could be understood and walk around safely at night, yet sad to be leaving Africa behind. I'd seen many once-in-a-lifetime sights in Madagascar and experienced events, both good and bad, that had made the country special. With so many places to visit, who knows whether I'll ever return?

The Vita Nova boatel was a short walk from Amsterdam Centraal station. Signs at the entrance warned of slippery steps on the pier and fake cocaine in the city. The lively proprietor checked me in and diagrammed a bunch of things on a street map, like a football coach mapping a play-by-play.

"You are here." He drew a circle. "Here is the new market" -- a vigorous circle near the old town. "Red light, red light, red light, red light, red light" -- he drew east-west lines through most of the old city to indicate the famous district. "Nightlife, nightlife." Two more circles. "This market is for locals..." (a rectangle around the Dappermarket) "...this market is for tourists" (a rectangle around the Albert Cuyp Market).

I thanked him and handed him my credit card to pay. The USA is slowly catching up to the rest of the world with chip-enabled cards, but almost all of them still require a signature rather than PIN verification. He inserted my card and the charge went through before the machine spat out the signature receipt, just like at the Olympe du Bemaraha.

"I like this card!" he said. "No code required."

I laughed. "One other question. What time is the sunset?" It was two days after the summer solstice.

"Ten-thirty. Maybe eleven."

After weeks of five-o'clock sunsets in Madagascar, that was the best news I'd heard the whole trip.

I explored the narrow streets of central Amsterdam. I was most struck by how quiet the city was. There were cars on the streets, but most of them were parked. People walked, rode bicycles, took trams, and rowed through the canals. Drawbridges in various forms swung up to let overheight boats through. The white "skinny bridge" crossed the Amstel River in an area with the city's characteristic narrow townhouses, two or three windows wide and four or five stories high, with decorative gables. As I overheard from the guide of a passing bike tour, a townhouse in that area could go for 2 million to 5 million euros, or you could live on a houseboat for 200,000 to 500,000.

I most wanted to see the Anne Frank house, but the line was around the block, so I did a cheese tasting nearby and then stepped into a bar for a beer and some ossenworst, raw sausage served with mustard. I then checked out several promising restaurants for dinner and settled on a beetroot-orange soup and rack of deer at de Luwte. I ordered and found out later they were out of the deer, which was the only main I wanted, so I had the soup, sipped my gin and tonic, and paid. As I left, they turned the lights up full and an ambulance arrived to collect a sick patron. It was a strange night for de Luwte.

I was no longer hungry for a full meal anyway, so I spent a couple of hours strolling the canals and then headed for one of the circled nightlife areas on my map. I watched a band sing Mexican songs and snacked on bitterballen, and then I made my way back to the boatel via the red-light district. Bikini-clad women beckoned to me from nearly identical doorways. Bars teemed with people of both sexes spilling into the street. The scene was good-natured and fun rather than seedy. There's a museum of prostitution that would be interesting to check out on my next visit, but I'm not sure I could do it on the same day as my visit to the Anne Frank house.

I had the morning to walk around. I went to both the locals' and the tourists' markets and found both disappointing; there was too much clothing and not enough food. I'd expected rows and rows of produce like at French city markets. I did stop for an obligatory herring sandwich, though.

On the way back to the USA, I wrote an encore verse to my patter song:

When you fly back into Newark
(There's no time left to eschew work),
You snap off your seat belt, grab your bag,
And hobble off the plane.
Then the passport queue's a cent'ry,
But you've got your Global Entry,
So you breeze on past, and through the door,
Without excessive pain.
'Tis then that you recall, for your predicament demands it:
You'll wait eons for the MTA and for New Jersey Transit.
And you have the realization
That your city's transportation
Is as slow as Madagascar's --
"Mora mora" e'er shall reign.
"Mora mora" e'er shall reign!

But, I'm surprised to to say, none of that happened. I barely made the New Jersey Transit bus back into Manhattan (even though they had moved the stop, and only because it was seven minutes late), and since I've gotten back I've waited a total of only about five minutes for four subway trains. Let's see if my fair metropolis can keep up the good work.