Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Great Red Island

Peter and I left Dar and flew to Madagascar almost three weeks ago for a vacation on the Great Red Island. He had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro while I stayed to close out business in Dar es Salaam. I took the 8 hr bus to Arusha to meet him when he came down. His frostbitten, blue toes and ruddy, rugged red face had survived hail, rain and snow. We found a relaxing bungalow hotel to warm him up called the Oasis where we spent the night before leaving for Nairobi (only one flight weekly to the capital city of Madagascar, Antananarivo, on Wednesdays) by bus. On the 6 hr bus ride to Nairobi w met Alice Faw, a Maasai woman living currently in White Lake, Michigan, not far from where I grew up! We three became friends during the ride then had Ethiopian dinner with her and a friend of hers that night. The short flight brought us to Tana in the mid-afternoon. I immediately fell in love with the street food, and must offer you readers a short treatise on its value. Since Madagascar's first settlers came from Malaysia, people here -- and their food--are of Asian and African origins. You can find egg rolls, chinese noodles and/or soup here. We started with a 'hotely' (informal restaurant) not far from the Hotel Radama, where we dined superbly on 3 dollar veggie soup with fried beignet or salty veggie donuts. The next day we got a great massage at Bioaroma, and found Desiré, our guide for our 7-day trip down the Tsiribihina River and to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. We left on Sunday with four others: two Canadians from Montréal, Maurice and émilie, and two French women, from Montpellier and Toulouse respectively, Clémence and Lydia. We were incredibly excited about the adventure ahead of us-- me especially enthusiastic about the opportunity to speak French. Peter, a débutant in the language, was a little anxious about the complete immersion experience .... it was his vacation after all, and he was still spouting out Kiswahili words. But he persevered and we loved traveling with our 'compagnons de voyage.' We floated down the river, two tourists to a dug-out canoe, accompanied by one guide and one piroguier, or canoe oarsman. In the first tozn, Miandrivazo, I found a beautiful red and green Rafia hat typical of Madagascar women to protect my face from the sun, and laid back doing some limited yoga in the canoe (we spent 7 hours /day, and I tried to row at least 2 or 3 hours). Peter read a novel he picked up in South Africa- James Michner's The Covenant and I read some Madagascar stories. Along the way our guides showed us 2 types of Lemurs or sifaka, one of which is mainly white with a black masked face. It dances when it jumps from tree to tree, and only eats mainly fruits from the Tamarind tree.

The landscape was beautiful and even dramatic at points with some high sandstone cliffs and slowly eroding river banks. Villages dotted the red soil as we passed. We mounted tents at night and dined on hot peanuts, local rum, mi-tsao (veggie favorite here of noodles, chives, green beans, carrots), sauteed potatoes and pineapple or bananas for dessert. Pretty extravagant. And though central Madagascar nights are damn cold, we slept pretty well under the stars, often spotting the Southern Cross. After 4 days on the river, we disembarked and took a 4x4 then a ferry to Bemaraha, where we slept for 2 days while visiting the national Park. What can I say? This riverside campsite was less desirable (athough we women ended up dancing one night with village kids--and probably led to my ill health for a few days-- constant headaches and nausea exacerbated by the bumpy 4x4 ride on roads whose contours change with every rainy season. But we continued to enjoy our time with our 4 fellow travellers until Tulear, where we parted ways (more info to come, its time to head for the artisanal market before going to the airport to catch our flight for tomorrow).

La Cigale en voyage

La Cigale en voyage
In Tanzania