Last night we returned from our 10-day trip by bus across Madagascar. Our research center in the rainforest is on the east coast of the country. The island is about the size of Texas, and we drove to the southern and western ends of the country. In the area of just a few hundred miles, we were able to see dry deserts, mountains, canyons, spiny forests, mangroves, and a beautiful beach. I’ll talk about all the places we went and things we saw, and the picture album below will be able to illustrate all the sights.
Right now these pictures are all mixed together with my original pictures. I need to find a better way to host them online. But my internet here goes in and out all the time and I also don’t spend that much time on my computer. To tell if the picture is new you can look at the date added. I’ll try to separate them and update that at some point.
We left on October 13 and headed to Isalo National Park for 2 nights. We took some very long hikes into the gigantic park that spans over 300 square miles. The park is known for its wide variety of terrain, including sandstone formations, deep canyons, and grassland. It was very hot and dry during our stay, and one day we hiked 8 kilometers (5 miles) over an entire morning and afternoon. It was kind of tough but I was feeling good and filled with energy. I like to do the hikes here at a quick pace and usually right behind our guide that is in the front of the group. The guides here are all very knowledgeable about the areas they work in, and I feel like when I follow their exact footsteps on tricky terrain it makes it pretty easy to get through them without needing stops. The hike started by climbing up to the top of a plateau. We did have 3 stops as a group on that 5-mile hike through canyons and awesome rock formations. 1 stop was for lunch and the other 2 were to swim in these incredible natural swimming pools that are present deep inside the park. That was definitely one of the coolest parts of the whole trip (literally)….the water was pretty cold but it felt amazing to jump in after sweating it out for the long walk. We hung out in the pools for hours to take in the surroundings and relax. The water was also crystal clear and very clean; the water was flowing through waterfalls all around. We finished up that hike in time for dinner back at our hotel, which was a pretty nice place. The weather was great at night and some of us found an accessible rooftop to hang out on and view the stars until it was too late to stay awake. I had never seen anything like the stars there. The moon was absent from the sky and I could see so much of the vast universe that exists in every direction around us. The view was so complete that over the course of a couple hours I saw too many shooting stars to remember them all.
The following day we took another hike into Isalo; this time instead of being high up on a plateau we walked on the ground into a gigantic canyon. I had a blast exploring it as deep as I could possibly travel before I would have had to swim to continue further. I climbed some huge rocks and went maybe 2 miles in with a group of a few other people who were feeling adventurous. The walls of the canyon that we were in were so high up that I could barely see the top. As we got further the walls started to get closer together until they were almost touching and casting the area into darkness during the daytime. That was a really fun time and a cool sight to see. After that hike we had one more night at our first hotel before another bus trip on Friday morning.
On Friday we rode out to a city called Tulear in the morning and ate lunch there. The food was really good but we didn’t stay for long. We said goodbye to 2 researchers who had spent the first part of the trip with us in order to get to this city without paying for a ride. After lunch we were back on the bus for another few hours before we arrived at our primary destination…the beach! Our hotel was called Vovotelo, and we stayed in a series of bungalows no more than 50 yards from the warm water of the Mozambique Channel, the body of water that separates Madagascar from mainland Africa. We spent 5 nights there and it was just great. Each day we had a trip around lunchtime to a different place and then had afternoons to chill out and enjoy ourselves at the halfway point of our time in this country. Twice we sailed out from shore for about 45 minutes to a coral reef in some very shallow water, it was a perfect snorkeling spot! We spent a few hours each time there to explore the water and see dozens of species of fish and other animals. One time while we snorkeled some of the Malagasy sailors went out and caught many fish and lobsters and then cooked them up on the beach for an awesome picnic. Our boats carried 3-4 people each plus 2 Malagasy men working the sails. One day it was extremely windy and those guys had to work hard to keep the boats afloat and on course. We were whipping through the waves without a problem though. Those guys really know what they are doing. They were probably all in their twenties, but every boy in this area knows how to sail. We passed many boats of kids as young as 8-10 years old sailing in the rough seas. It is even a common way to travel for them. These are people that are pretty poor and those sailing kids will be the ones taking tourists on the water in a few years. I don’t think they get paid very much. There are also a bunch of people that walk around the beach and try to get vasa (Malagasy word for foreigners/white people…we hear it all the time and now we say it) to buy stuff like woodcarvings and other souvenirs. Those people are pretty annoying; sometimes they won’t leave you alone if you are sitting on the beach. They seem like people that are struggling to get any money at all, I saw some of the same people every day. I realize they are probably trying to support families, and I did buy a few things that I thought were cool.
On the other hand, I also met a good amount of locals at the beach that were extremely happy and satisfied with their way of life there, even though none of them have very much wealth. There was a restaurant and bar on the beach next to our hotel that was run by a woman from North Carolina. It was a really cool spot and unlike our hotel it sometimes got crowded at night. That was at least partly because they had some amazing live music going on. Most of the music acts we’ve seen in this country has been traditional and organized, with people wearing costumes and dancing along to 1 or 2 guys strumming a guitar that looks like it’s made out of a canoe paddle. The band that frequented this place was so much better; they played a reggae style with mostly Malagasy songs and plenty that they wrote. The coolest part was that the woman running the bar would never actually book anyone in advance. The guys from the band would just be hanging out there and elsewhere on the beach, and when enough of them were there they would jam out for hours. There was no stage, just a plenty of outdoor seating and couches for a lot of people to sit on. The band could speak English and they invited our group to hang out and enjoy the music. We watched them late into the night on multiple occasions. I played along to a couple songs on the bongos and it was great to be a part of. It was a group of maybe 10 people in the band total that was usually split into 2 groups every night, one at this bar and one at another on the beach. They had 2 guitarists and a bunch of drummers and singers. I think someone has a recording of at least one song that I will try to find. They were so good that anyone that stayed to watch them gave them tips at the end of the night even though they never asked. In talking to these guys I think they were some of the happiest people I’ve met in Madagascar, and really as happy as anybody I’ve ever met anywhere. In addition to playing music nightly, they spend their days finding ways to make money with their sailboats. They take people out for sailing, snorkeling, surfing, and anything else they can do. They expressed that they wouldn’t want to try to move or do anything else than what they do every day at the beach. But they are by no means wealthy. Often they take their sailboats out and go spearfishing for their lunch or dinner. It seemed like a really awesome existence from day to day. I wonder if any of them use the internet or if they ever have at all. I know I didn’t use it at all during the trip.
While I did feel a little disconnected from family, friends, and the start of hockey season, I really had no desire to connect to the web. While other people were suffering from technology withdrawals and walking all over the beach to find somewhere to check their Facebook, I was feeling no sense of this. I realized I hadn’t been on the internet in a week or more and nothing bad had happened to me. On our bus ride back from the beach we stopped at a restaurant that had WiFi. We had ordered in advance so our food was ready when we arrived. I was pretty hungry so I ate my chicken and fries in a few minutes and I was ready to get back on the road. When I looked up from my plate, the table was silent and not one other person had even noticed that the food (and other people) were right in front of them. Every last person was tapping away on their smartphones at the first chance they had in about a week to do so. I looked across the dining room and observed a similar scene. A vasa woman came into the restaurant with her teenage daughter and they were seated at a table. One took out a computer and the other a smartphone. I watched them for 15 minutes and they did not speak to one another whatsoever from the time I finished eating until the time we left. It struck me as bizarre that these 2 people had traveled thousands of miles together to get here and then had no sense of connection to one another or their physical surroundings. Meanwhile I have been enjoying the company of the other 15 students on the trip greatly. Everyone gets along well and it makes the experiences better to share them with my friends. Now we start to look forward to our 1 remaining month. We will have a couple weeks to do independent projects, and then return to the capital city before flying back home through South Africa. That will be less than a week before Thanksgiving. I don’t know what the plan is for that day, but I hope to see plenty of my readers there if not sooner so that I can point things out in pictures and try to make everyone feel like they came on the trip too. See you all in 1 month!