Published: December 8th 2009September 27th 2009
Gite de la Tsiribihina
I briefly meet four of the other members of my group before we leave (we'll pick up the other two at the end of the boat trip) and am somewhat discomfited to find that they're not my age, as I'd been told, but the youngest is about 20 and the oldest maybe 30. Three girls and one guy, they're all French and initially seem as uneasy about the fact that I don't speak their language as I am. The girls are all on holiday together and the guy is doing an internship in Antsirabe, where they have a mutual friend. I feel like a gooseberry both on account of the fact that they know each other and the fact that they're French speakers.
Bizarrely, two of them live on Mayotte, a tiny island off the northwest coast of Madagascar (and part of the Comoros) that is still an administrative division of France. I hadn't even heard of the place until a week ago, when a guy at my Joburg hostel said he was going there, yet now I'm meeting people that know it well. You can't beat this travel lark.
We first stop at the guide's house so some
Gite de la Tsiribihina
final items can be loaded onto the minibus. The house is minuscule yet seems to contain about ten people. One man decides to try to make me feel at home in this francophone situation by talking to me in English, but embarrassingly I can't understand a word he's saying. The rest of the group are no doubt wondering whether I actually speak any languages at all.
Shortly before we leave, the trainee guide who was supposed to be accompanying me on the trip as a translator tells me that he has to meet some other clients in Tana so he won't be coming with us. So at a stroke I lose my translator. No apology, no replacement, nothing. This is a harbinger of what's to come.
Maybe an hour after we leave Antsirabe, we pick up what appears to be a 12 year old girl. However it turns out to be the guide's girlfriend. Having only just met his wife and children, I find this a little insensitive. She will spend the week fawning over him but otherwise doing nothing but taking up space.
The first meal of the trip is taken in a flyblown, stifling roadside
cafe where the three chunks of meat in watery gravy that are served with my rice give me the worst kind of sinking feeling. What am I doing here, in temperatures already way too high for me (and we're nowhere near the hottest part yet), eating food I'd rather not have, and surrounded by people who have better things to do on their holidays than speak in a language they rarely use? Still, only six days to go ...
The landscape is rice paddies and terraces, and watching it passes the time as I sit alone at the back of the minibus. The radio blares an intriguing mix of Malagasy and French music, plus the odd burst of ABBA and Elton John.
Our destination, Miandrivazo, is tropically hot and humid and does nothing to improve my mood. The town is dead, our accommodation the only vaguely upmarket establishment I can see (and ~$6 per night). Fortunately it cools a little as the sun sets, and when we head to a riverside bar for a drink before dinner there's a slight, but still welcome, breeze.
The drink reveals that the others all speak decent English to the point where a proper conversation is possible, which is a load off my mind (and perhaps theirs' too). I get a good reminder of how sexy a Frenchwoman's English accent can be. It also turns out that there is something going on between the guy and one of the girls, and they start to mildly make out. In true English fashion, I pretend nothing's happening and carry on talking.
At dinner back at the hotel there are a couple of other groups containing foreigners. One consists of two Spaniards who speak even less French than I do. It turns out that they had spoken to the same chap at Chez Billy that I'd dealt with, but had shied away from using his services because they didn't get a good vibe. I mention the last-minute withdrawal of the English-speaking trainee guide, and congratulate them on their prescience. It won't be the last time.
The ceiling fan in my room is curiously positioned so that most of its effect is on the desk adjacent to the bed rather than the bed itself, so I sweat my way through a very uncomfortable night. This promises to be one swelterer of a journey. Dull but possibly useful info
i. It took 4.75 hours to get from Antsirabe to Miandrivazo, including a 30 minute lunch break.
ii. We stayed at Gite de la Tsiribihina, a basic but decent hotel with large rooms, mossie nets, towels, and shared bathrooms (cold water only but it's so hot here you won't care). The owner speaks some English and the food is fine.
iii. Don't be tempted to drink "Bonbon Anglais" (here or anywhere else), even if it's the only cold drink available - it's disgustingly sweet.