Sometime after dinner our last night on the isle, the hotel staff informed us we would need to be ready in the reception area for our ride to the ferry at 3:30 a.m.! What!?*&%!!? “Oui, c’est necessaire, le bateau départ à 4:45.”
OK, we don’t want to miss the boat, so we showed up as ordered. The concierge handed us vouchers to a restaurant at the dock where we could get breakfast, and turned us over to our driver, who appeared to be 16 years old and spoke no English.
We drove in silence in his pickup truck through the dark for less than half an hour. Our driver then turned off the ignition and got out of the truck without a word or a hand signal. So, we got out and stood around, sleepily wondering what was happening. After a while, the young man returned and motioned us to get in. He then drove us across the street—I mean, literally, across the street, all of 4 meters—parked, and announced, “OK.” We tumbled groggily out of the cab. Just then, an 8-watt, bluish LED light flicked on, revealing a tiny wooden purser’s booth. Ah. After some confusion, the purser and his assistant found our reservation, our bags were wrangled into stowage, and we were allowed onto the aft deck of the hydrofoil. A few other vazahas joined us in the queue.
After half an hour or so, a crewman opened the cabin and let us in to find seats. Of course, we all thought we’d be leaving any minute, but after sitting there in the dark for nearly an hour, another crewman told us we all needed to get off the boat. By this time, there was a glimmer of light, so I ventured back onto land to find the reputed breakfast shop. It was closed for the day. There was a street vendor selling mofo gasy, the Madagascar version of fry-bread—not exactly a wholesome meal, but better than nothing.
When I returned to the boat, the crew had just decided to let the few of us waiting back into the passenger deck. Karel sat in one of the rows, while I stretched out on a bench at the front.
Sometime around 7:30 they turned the engines on; an encouraging development. But the ferry remained motionless.
Suddenly, at 7:45 a.m. the aft doors were flung wide and some 40 or 50 locals poured through them and into the rows of seats. Clearly, they all knew something we didn’t. The doors slammed shut and we were off.
At first it was smooth sailing, but as we entered the channel the swells got bigger and bigger. The weather wasn’t bad, but a storm was coming in off the Indian Ocean, and it was driving giant waves ahead of it. A crewman came through with barf bags, which were quickly put to use by most of the passengers. I was grateful now for my light breakfast.
The misery went on for an hour and a half, until at last we pulled into a relatively calm bay on the northeast shore of the main island. And now, an interesting debarkation procedure ensued. The passengers, about ten at a time, climbed aboard a little scow and were shuttled to the “dock,” which was a portable wooden staircase, manhandled into position at the end of the dinghy. Both the dock and the boat were being tossed around by the surf, so it was up to the passengers to time the leap and try not to get wet.
Meanwhile, a temporary village had materialized on the shore. I found a few samosa-style food items, but we were still feeling queasy and didn’t want to eat much. Karel had instructions that we were to take the taxi to Toamasina. We followed our fellow ferry travelers up the bank and milled around a growing mountain of luggage.
After a while, four “taxis” appeared. These turned out to be the typical vans, called taxi brousse, we’d seen all over the country. I tried to figure out if they were all going to Toamasina. Meanwhile, all the luggage, and many coolers of fish, were being tossed, willy nilly, onto the roofs. Our bags ended up on two different vans, including one that was already cram-full of passengers. We squeezed into the last van. I ended up sitting more or less in the lap of an ex-pat who was doing ministry work in the country, with my knees next to my ears. Karel was squished somewhere in the back. It was hot and uncomfortable and everyone was still feeling a little seasick. The road, as usual, was like a test circuit for Humvees. And then the storm that had chased us across the channel finally caught up to us.
My seatmate turned out to be a chatty fellow. He told me all about his work trying to keep local girls off the streets and out of the sex trade. I was grateful for the distraction. We slid and slogged our way through the mud and pelting rain to Toamasina.
We arrived at the bus depot at last. What a shitshow! And I don’t use that term lightly. The sidewalk was mobbed with drivers, porters, vendors, and hucksters, all yelling at the top of their lungs. By some miracle we had arrived right beside the other van that had the rest of our bags (the other two buses, meanwhile, were nowhere to be seen), and men were standing on the roof, flinging them down to the pavement. I tried to collect everything into one, defensible little heap as half a dozen men pulled at my arms and screamed at me. “Taxi, Madame.” “Hotel, tres jolie.” “Tuk tuk. Very fast. Very cheap!”
According to Karel’s vague instructions, our hotel, the Palmarium, was sending a driver to meet us. There was also a suggestion, reading between the lines, that this might be a two-stage journey involving a boat. With just that little bit to go on, I waved off the aggressive taxi hawkers and scanned the mob for a placard saying “Zuiderveld,” or anyone wearing a baseball cap or t-shirt or embroidery-patched jacket emblazoned with the name of the hotel.
Gradually the bedlam subsided. “Madame,” said someone behind me. “Taxi? Closed car. Stay dry.” I’d seen no sign of our official driver, so this offer was starting to sound good, but I was worried about throwing a wrench into what might be complicated arrangements.
“Our hotel is supposed to be sending a driver to meet us,” I explained, now that it was possible to speak.
“Yes, yes. I,” he patted his chest. Yeah, sure, I thought. Say the magic words. I asked him who sent him. What hotel? “You hotel!” Who were you sent to pick up? “You!” Tell me a name. “You!”
He called over two fellow drivers—some of the very ones who had been yanking my arms and yelling at me moments before—who spoke better English. It quickly became clear that my would-be driver didn’t have our name, and wasn’t going to commit as far as what hotel he would deliver us to. “How do I know this guy is really my driver?” I asked the English-speaking drivers. “You don’t know. But we know. He’s your guy.” They even tried calling someone on a cell phone. They put it to my ear. “Go with the driver. He’ll take you to the hotel.” “Which hotel?” “The one you’re going to.” “And who are you?” “Henri.” “No, but who are you with?” “I am with no one.” “So, how do I know you’re telling me the truth? How do I know the hotel sent this man?” “You don’t.” Exactly.
So, this is just the kind of situation in which vulnerable travelers get into serious trouble. We were in a place known for crime and corruption. We didn’t have a clear understanding of where or how far we were supposed to be going. Our next rendezvous with Michel wasn’t for two days. If I’d been traveling alone, I would have started yelling for the gendarmes. Karel—where the heck was Karel all this time?—materialized within calling range. We decided to go with the driver.
He led us to an unmarked, slightly battered sedan. OK, not unheard of for a taxi in this country, with these rough roads, but not inspiring confidence, either. When we and our luggage were snugly inside, I discovered that the door handles were missing. Great. I asked Karel for the transfer voucher, our one and only bit of leverage. “Le Palmarium will pay you. Yes?” “Yes,” he said, taking the paper.
After a short drive to the outskirts of town, we pulled up to a barricade in front of an industrial-looking building surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Great. A group of men with dark expressions approached the car. They were not wearing uniforms. At least one had a gun. Great. After a few words with the driver, they opened the gate and waved us through.
Our driver swung the car around the building, then left the parking area by driving right across a stretch of tall grass. Great. We crested a small rise, and suddenly we were facing a river, a small dock, and two sight-seeing canal boats waiting patiently. Le Palmarium was painted in script on the side of one. Great! Our driver freed us and we clambered gratefully aboard the boat.
Meanwhile, the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking through the clouds. We got underway and putted slowly through narrow channels that were clogged with rafts of cut bamboo logs and other obstacles, simply enjoying, at last, the panoply of life on the river banks.
The rain returned and the temperature dropped. Our boat picked up speed as we cleared the town and entered the 600 km chain of lagoons that form the Pangalanes channel. Karel and I pulled on sweaters and rain gear and wrapped ourselves in tarps, but the wet wind was relentless. The sun set, taking away the last warmth and plunging us into murky gloom. Our boat had no lights, but the driver forged on at high speed, relying on his spotter, huddled at the bow, to warn him of obstacles.
This went on for over three hours. In other circumstances—a little food in our tummies, a blanket wrapped around us—this would have been an exhilarating thrill ride. But we’d been up since 3 a.m. We’d had almost no food all day. We’d endured rough water and seasickness, being stuffed into a public bus, pandemonium at the depot, and now, we were shivering with cold as we hurtled endlessly through the darkness.
At last, we spotted the welcoming glow of our lodge. It took a few moments, but they put drinks in our hands and then a steward showed us to our cabin. But when he opened the door, he raised a hand to stop us. “One moment.” He looked inside, then withdrew and pulled the door shut. “I’m so sorry, there appears to be a mistake. This room is occupied.” Back to reception. Waited some more. No problem, they found another space. We were led through the rain and darkness, down steep pathways, to a large cabin. It had four rooms, but only one lightbulb. I just wanted to pull something warm and dry on and get back to the main lodge before the kitchen closed. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I started to notice the many, many spider webs that were everywhere, a film of grit over everything, a lack of towels, and a few other signs that the cabin hadn’t been used for a while. No problem. We’d just ask our supposedly 4-star hotel to send housekeeping over with a feather duster and a few lightbulbs while we ate dinner. We were in a jungle wilderness, after all. Spiders live here. The staff weren’t expecting to use this cabin; it simply wasn’t ready for us.
We climbed wearily back up the hill and informed management of the minor issues. Then we staggered to the dining room and ordered food. By this time, I was shaking with exhaustion and hunger. Just then, the hot cocoa arrived. I let the warm liquid chase away the chill in my bones. The ordeal was over. I could relax and eat and in 60 minutes or so, sleep. The adrenaline that had been keeping me going fled my bloodstream. I was crashing, big-time.
I wasn’t prepared, then, when the concierge appeared at our table with brusque instructions that we needed to move to yet another cabin. I burst into tears. I had already partly unpacked my bags, so now I’d have to repack, haul them back up the mountainside to God knew where in the dark and the rain, then unpack it all again because it was now damp and would be getting moldy within 24 hours—it all seemed impossible to deal with, and the sleep I needed so desperately was retreating further and further into the blackness of the future.
Somehow, I made it through the next couple of hours, although I remember very little. I think my system shutdown was unstoppable at that point, and I simply turned everything over to the hotel staff and just did whatever they told me to do. I woke up the next morning and everything was fine. The sun was shining, I was rested, and there were lemurs everywhere!This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa