Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Road to Ambatondrazaka

(This was originally written and sent as an email on 31 January 2005. Given the flurry of Madagascar-related posts that I'm expecting over the next few days, I wanted to put it up on my blog! It's completely unchanged from that original email, which wasn't intended for such wide distribution, so forgive anything negative I say until the end.)

We set out at 6am. Not that this was unusual for us, quite frankly we had gotten used to getting up at the Malagasy dawn in order to do things before the heat REALLY kicked up (although of course, since it didn't go down at night, this was entirely relative). After all, sleeping in is for the weak when you're on a cross-3rd-world-country expedition. We can sleep when we're in London. Luckily for us, our hotel in the capital city of Antananarivo had gotten used to our pre-dawn departures by that point so our Terrible Malagasy Breakfast of faux-croissants (funny how you can't get that type of dough to work in a place which lacks air conditioning) was ready for us to eat before we left.

Our plan was pretty simple: drive from Antananarivo to Moramanga, get stuff for a picnic lunch, drive on to Ambatondrazaka to check into the hotel, go to Zahamena Reserve, and then back to the hotel. The drive to Ambatondrazaka was expected to take a few hours (3-4 at the worst) in the third-hand ex-german 4x4 which our trusty native driver drove us around in, because while that road isn't all that big, it's a commercially important road for the Malagasy people, and so it's relatively well travelled. That gave us a full afternoon to spend at the reserve and enough time to leisurely drive back and do some sightseeing along the way, maybe seeing something else locally before coming back the following day. It all seemed pretty simple to us, so we didn't really complain. After all, surely the in-country people who set this whole thing up must have thought everything through, right? This was the fatal mistake. We thought anyone could have understood Madagascar.

The drive to Moramanga was okay. Todd slept through much of it, but there wasn't any traffic, and we hadn't been on the Eastern side of Tana (the local name for Antananarivo) before, so it was a very interesting drive through green hills and valleys for me. On the Eastern coast, a direct drive from Tana, is Toamasina (also known by the French name Tamatave), which is the only major deep-water port for the whole country. Therefore, it's a very major route in Madagascar, and the status of the road was pretty good, so it was a quick drive. This lulled us into a false sense of security about the rest of the trip. This was the first road, coincidentally, to be blockaded during the political crisis a couple of years ago, and just that one road essentially crippled the whole highlands area.

At Moramanga we stopped for a late second breakfast because it was going to be two hours (or so we thought) to go the last 150km to Lac Alaotra (the largest lake in the country, and the reason Ambatondrazaka exists). We had some coffee (made with the Malagasy traditional condensed milk, for when ordinary sugar and milk won't cause you to go into diabetic shock) and pastries (again that lovely lack of air conditioning led to a textural explosion in my mouth), got a couple of bottles of water, and figured we'd just press on so that we had more time with the reserve. Then we started north on The Road to Ambatondrazaka, RN44.

About 20km after Moramanga, the pavement stopped and the dirt road started. This is not an uncommon occurance in Madagascar, because there are actually some Routes Nationals which are "seasonal", meaning that they're not even maintained: when it rains (about a third of the year), you can't get through. This one, however, was so commercially important (as Lac Alaotra is the heartlands of the rice growing region) that it was maintained, and for the first 20km or so we thought "hey, this isn't so bad, we're still doing about 70kph, it's a little bumpy but not so bad". Then we encountered the people maintaining the road. If you've never seen people maintaining a dirt road, it's quite a sight: dump trucks with dirt and sand, back-hoes to fill in potholes, steamrollers to flatten things out. It almost makes you think that they're building a real road. However, on this you'd be mistaken, because as soon as you manage to swerve your way around the massive vehicles, you realize why it takes so much effort to maintain the road: it's the worst road ever.

The next 130km until the paved road started again was the worst road I've ever been on. Our average pace was about 20kph, the road was so bumpy that you couldn't even read on it, we had to swerve all around the road to escape the bumps that could easily have snapped an axle on the 4x4. Along the way you pass quite a few small towns without electricity, water, sewage, or anything but wooden shacks that are in the process of falling down, along with a whole host of people whose day seemed to be quite enlivened by the sight of what must have been the first white people they'd seen in a month. With such surroundings, you don't take any chances with the vehicle, because you realize that if you break down, there's nothing that you can do: there's no electricity or normal phones here, much less any type of cellular phone access. If you snap an axle, you're not going anywhere. At this point, it's the height of the heat of the day, so the sun is shining directly on the 4x4, it's about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, the air is completely still, and of course the 4x4 doesn't have air conditioning.

Todd and I proceed to get more and more angry in the heat, humidity, bumpiness that precludes any activity other than getting stared at by natives, and the realization that this reserve to which we're going doesn't actually exist. It's not on any map that we or our driver has, it's not in any guide book that we've brought (or our driver has brought), and he assumed that we knew where we were going, which of course we didn't. Given that we'd already realized that the profit margins on our trip for the tour operator must have been about 100%, we thought, apparently niavely, that he might at least have given some information to our poor driver about where we're actually going or how long it would take, or might have at least thought of those things. This appears to be a silly concept for Madagascar.

8 hours after we set off, we get to about a 15km bit of paved road leading from one mud-hut-ville to Ambatondrazaka, prompting everybody in the car to think aloud, "why did they bother paving this bit? It doesn't lead anywhere!" This thinking is made even more acute when we realize that Ambatondrazaka, the biggest city in the area, doesn't even have paved roads in the town. Or maybe they were paved once, but except for the main street through town, they're not anymore.

This is when I have the brilliant thought that we should maybe try to fly back. After all, Ambatondrazaka appeared to have an airport on the other side of town according to the guide book, we can go there and buy a ticket home the following day and never do the 8 hour drive again. What a splendid plan! So we set to it, off to the airport.

100m north of the city limits, you're once again at the worst road ever. Average speed: 10kph, swerving around potholes, people balancing water buckets on their heads, people herding Zebu, and beggars asking for money (who can usually keep up with the 4x4). We get to the airport. By this time we've experienced some pretty bad airports in Madagascar, but this takes the cake. It's one room. One very small room. There's nobody there. At all. At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. But after our laughing in the "parking area", an old guy and his grandchild come out of the shack and ask our driver something in Malagasy that must have amounted to "what the heck are you doing bringing crazy white people to my airport?" After some exchanges, we find out that:

  1. This IS the airport for Ambatondrazaka;
  2. He lives there when there aren't flights (two per week: one there and one away) to take care of it and keep Zebu off the runway;
  3. By some sheer luck, the flight back to Tana is the next day AND it's non-stop;
  4. No, of course you can't buy a ticket at the airport. You have to go back into town to the ticket office.
We set to it, our resolve hardened to never get back into the 4x4 on the Road to Ambatondrazaka, and go back the way we came to the ticket office. Or, rather, we get to the ticket office to find it completely closed and locked. Because apparently nobody would want to buy a ticket the day before the only flight of the week, and of course they're not open the next day, that's Sunday! However, the nice people in the Pirate Video Rental Shop next door know where the woman who runs the ticket shop lives, and he'll run down and find out what she's doing. 15 minutes later, we find out that she's taking a nap and won't be disturbed, but if she gets a chance she might come by later to sell us some tickets on the only flight of the week.

While waiting for the ticket lady, word travels around this town that there are crazy white people who have found themselves in this sordid little burg and wish to leave it quickly (which doesn't seem to surprise anyone). So along comes a truck driver who apparently also works for the ticket office sometimes. He says that there's no way that ticket lady will come by, she doesn't actually sell any tickets anymore. This confuses us, but since we're only hearing the broken english translation from our half-english-speaking driver, we're more just starting to laugh through the tears. However, he wants to help out the crazy white people, so he gets on his phone to the Air Madagascar regional office in Toamasina to find out what he can do. This is just about the only way to do this, because we find out in the meantime that we can't just call a hotline, buy a ticket and show up to the airport: not only is there no national hotline that you can call, the headquarters/ticket office in the capital is closed (buy a ticket on Saturday? Are you kidding?), and even if it weren't, it wouldn't matter, because without the hand-written ticket slip nobody will let us on the 10-seater plane home (E-ticket? Are you crazy?). Since the Road to Toamasina requires getting onto the Road to Ambatondrazaka back to Moramanga, that's a nonstarter without the Ticket Lady helping us out.

While the truck driver/ticket office guy is on the phone, we discover that there's a bit of a complication: it turns out that even if Ticket Lady shows up (which she seems to have no intention of doing), and she writes out a ticket, Air Madagascar won't honor it, because it appears that she's been pocketing the money that she gets from selling tickets and not giving it to Air Madagascar. Air Madagascar won't deal with us until they've dealt with Ticket Lady's indiscretions, which apparently she is aware of, which is why she's staying away. So essentially what we've found out at this point is that Ticket Lady can't even be bothered to come and steal our money. That's how dedicated she is to customer service.

At this point we largely give up: we've been stymied in our attempts to leave this place, so we're just going to give up, check into the hotel, and figure out what we're going to do. So we set out to check into our hotel, the Hotel Max-Irene. This is, according to Big Ripoff Tour Company Guy, the best hotel (of the two listed in our guidebook) in Ambatondrazaka. We are also in the best room in this hotel. This is when I lose it.

The room has a concrete floor, four items of furniture in it (a bed [covered with a foam mattress which is larger than the bed], a table, a wardrobe, and a smaller table with the TV which can't be plugged into anything since there's no electrical outlet anywhere near it, even if there was TV access there, which we're quite sure there wasn't), and a bathroom. The bathroom doesn't have a door, but at least it exists: the hotel only has 5 rooms with en suite bathrooms in it. At this point, I realize that in order for me to not completely lose my sanity in the country, I have to make the best of it and say "if I'm going to be staying in Little Kinshasa, I better enjoy it for what it is". We take a look at our guide book for an alternative destination to the Reserve Which Doesn't Exist, and head out.

Now we continue to go north on what has to be the second worst road in the world (second only to the road which goes South out of Ambatondrazaka) to find a small town which our guide book has indicated is a "must see" when visiting Lac Alaotra, because the local villagers have created their own reserve to help manage the elusive Bamboo Lemur which is endemic to the area. Finding this town proves to be a small challenge, because most towns lack signs indicating their existence in Madagascar, and most roads lack names much less street signs. However, we manage to find it about an hour north of Ambatondrazaka.

Once we're there, the fact that this 4x4 full of Crazy White People is not only driving through the town, but is actually stopping and getting out of car causes quite a stir in the village. We find someone that looks like he might have some type of authority by virtue of the fact that he works in one of the few buildings with electricity (which airs Rented Pirate Videos on a TV for a few cents a seat, a common way to make money in Madagascar we've found), and ask him whether we can get into the natural reserve that they've created. This causes quite a bit of hemming and hawing, because as it turns out they haven't actually done anything of the sort, but if we'd like to see the lemurs he can arrange it. We say we'd like to, which was apparently not something that he expected, because now we had to wait for the Chief of the village to return from Ambatondrazaka in order to deal with our outlandish request. He also seems stumped when we ask him how much this will cost us, and so he proceeds to start naming figures for things completely off the top of his head (well, it's going to be 5,000 francs for the boat, and, well, I suppose, another, hmmm, how about 20,000 francs per person? How does that sound?). I suppose those numbers seemed completely outlandish to him, but since the total bill amounted to about $4, we weren't about to complain.

Once the chief returned (probably the chief by virtue of the fact that she had a clean and relatively new blue dress on), she explained that sure, 45,000 francs sounded about right. She also apologized for the delay, but she had been in the city in order to attend a presentation because one of the most senior politicians in the country was relaying the fact that the government had just announced that day that the road was to be paved in the summer after the rainy season was over (since radio and TV don't get there much), and wasn't that great news? However, they really weren't sure about the price being fair, since nobody had been there in over a month (there to see some birds and not the lemurs), and the last person before that was a couple of months before that. But here, have some Longan fruits, and wait for the guy with the boat.

We started our wander down to the lake, taking care to avoid the giggling children alternatively running away from my camera or making sure that they were in every single picture that I took, dodging both herds of Zebu making their way on the same road and their droppings at the same time, until we get to the lake and find our chariot for seeing the lemurs. During this some more information comes out: they're all subsistence fishermen around there, unlike the rice growers who live all along Lac Alaotra, and this is just something that they do on the side, guiding people to see the wildlife living on the lake. They're not sure how long this will take, but since we're paying, we're not leaving until we're satisfied.

With cameras strapped to every part of my body, and each of us holding a stool, we got to the shore to find that the boats are actually primitive canoes carved out of an entire tree trunk, and since they're flat bottomed, the stools are there for us to sit on. This is not a very stable platform, as you can imagine, and turning around when instructed that we're going to switch direction is a bit of a chaotic process to make sure that we don't get tipped over in the canoe (which happened to me the last time I got into a canoe, so the first 15 minutes were sheer panic for me).

On the lake we were in a bit of a hunt through the papyrus reeds growing in clumps in the water. For, while they're called Bamboo Lemurs, these ones actually feed on Papyrus reeds growing in/along the lake, and this is the only place in the world to see them. Our guides did everything they could to get us as close as possible to the reeds, until we realized that they were going to be propelling us with their hands into the middle of the clusters (which are dense enough that they look like islands from the shore). And then we saw them: a whole family of 5 bamboo lemurs feeding and jumping between clumps. We stayed there for about 20 minutes getting slowly closer and closer until we got the pictures that we wanted, and since we'd been on the river for about 90 minutes at that point, we decided to call it a night.

When we got back to Ambatondrazaka, we went out in search of food (remember, we hadn't had lunch yet), but by the time we got to one of only two restaurants in the city it was 8:45pm, and we couldn't be served because the staff were leaving too quickly to be able to serve us; the only other restaurant was down the block and they had the same problem. Having seen the meat sellers in the town waving fans to wipe away the flies from the unrefrigerated meat and no sign of a safe water supply anywhere, we decided to pass on any type of food. So we retired to the room with very hungry stomachs from a long day of travel. Our driver, however, didn't retire to the room: as he needed to sleep in the 4x4 to make sure that it didn't disappear in the night. Given how rowdy the street was until at least midnight (when even the shouting, singing, and dancing couldn't keep us awake any more), I can't blame him. Luckily, in the morning, the 4x4 was still there. Our breakfast, however, wasn't, and again we got onto The Road From Ambatondrazaka, even hungrier than the night before.

Our early dinner in Moramanga (the first restaurant you get to once you head onto RN44) was the best food I had all trip.

When on the 7 hour ride back to Moramanga (with an additional 5km of fresh dirt road to cut the time), I got to thinking that this was essentially the experience that defined Madagascar for me, and I can't think of a reason why I wouldn't have done it.

Where else would I be able to meet people who were so excited to see new people? Where else would I be able to be paddled through the middle of papyrus clusters in a lake in a tree trunk to see nearly extinct-in-the-wild primates? Where else would children scream with glee at a simple camera flash in the night? Where else would I learn of the ticket agent who couldn't be bothered to steal our money? Where else would I be able to get two men to ferry us around in a canoe on a lake for two hours at sunset for $4? Where else would I learn how to get all the people sitting on stools in a canoe to turn around? Where else would I learn how difficult it is to minimize blurry pictures when taking pictures standing up in a canoe with a massive zoom lens? How else could I directly impact conservation efforts by helping people realize that they can make more money protecting their wildlife than by destroying it?

But this was tinged with some sadness: that very road that made it virtually impossible to see the Bamboo Lemurs was also the only thing saving them. The lemurs originally lived in the papyrus fields which lined the lake, and only slightly in the reeds in the middle of the lake. However, the beds around the lake had been almost eliminated for rice patties, and the lake was getting smaller and smaller as more rainfall was being diverted to irrigate the rice patties. Once The Road to Ambatondrazaka is paved, there will be nothing to stop the expansion of the area in terms of population (increasing water use overall) or in terms of agricultural production, and the lemurs will probably not last much longer. If I hadn't done this now, on this trip, regardless of all the insanity it involved, I never would have been able to do it.

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