A Man and a Bike Against the Sea
Alternate Means of Transport
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Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Captian
My planned route for the next segment took me through an area that the maps indicated was lacking in any sort of decent road for quite some distance. Nevertheless, since I made it through the first off-road section in one piece, I thought that I could handle this route as well. I would head south from Morondava, passing through the tiny seaside village of Belo Sur Mer, then turn back inland towards the only town in the area, Manja. The map showed only "seasonal roads" as far as Manja, but I these had, so far, been usable for me. From there, there was apparently a reasonable road heading to the southwest that eventually linked with the areas only significant road, which continued south to my next main destination, Toliara. I asked several people in Morondava if they knew about the current conditions of the roads heading south, especially for bicycles. As is often the case, the responses were less than helpful, ranging from basic "yes" to "no" without much in the way of relevant details. In such situations, there is only one thing to do, and so early in the morning, I packed up my gear and set out to find out for myself.
Just past the outskirts of Morondava I found, after a bit of searching, the road that split off to the south towards Belo. This was not much of a road from the start and before long it entered a marshy area, and the quality went down from there. I continued on, however, and eventually came to a large mud-hole that could not be ridden around. This was not your ordinary slippery mud, but the type that allowed a large fellow, like me, to sink in above his knees after the first step. Carrying the loaded bike along only made things worse, and by the time I was across, both the bike and I were completely covered with mud. It took several minutes to knock it all off the bike, but when it was mostly clean, I continued on. Before long, I had come to the fourth such mud-hole, and at that point I finally let myself accept the fact that this route simply was not going to work. The only thing to do was turn around, cross back over the same mud-holes, and return to Morondava. At the edge of town, already nearly worn out, I stopped at a store to get a couple of drinks and figure out my next move. Looking at the maps, there did not appear to be any reasonable option to ride to Manja, but I remembered that right next to Chez Maggie, I had seen a sign offering water transport to the south. So, I went back to check into this option. "Who knows, it could be fun," I thought.
Arriving at the place I was looking for, I spoke to the man there, and told him that I would like to get a boat to Belo or Morombe. The latter was the only large town between Morondava and Toliara, and the start of the main road around the southern end of the island. By sea, Belo was about 65 kilometers away, and Morombe was an additional 160 kilometers. My first choice would be to travel to Belo by sea, where, hopefully, the road conditions would allow me to continue on by bike to Manja. However, I was prepared to sail all the way to Morombe, if necessary. The agent left for a few minutes to check into things, and when he returned he said that I was in luck, and one of his friends was about to leave for Belo on a six meter motorized launch. However, I would have to be ready to go right away, as they were leaving any minute. No problem for me, as my bike was already packed up and I was anxious to going as soon as possible anyway. The fare would be $47.00 with eight of that paid in advance to the agent for the booking. I agreed right away, and he led me down to the landing, which was not far away. There was not much time to deal with my gear, as the captain wanted to get under way. My bags and other loose gear were stuffed into one of the cargo boxes, and the bike was simply laid down across the bow section of the open boat. If there had been a little more time, I would have stowed it more carefully, but seconds later I was seated on one of the bench seats, and we pushed off.
It must have been around 10:30 AM, and the sun was bright and warm as we headed out of the small harbor towards the waters of the Mozambique Channel. At the mouth of the harbor we had to cross a series of rather intense breakers. The little boat managed fairly well, but it was thrown up and down so violently that I noticed that the bike became airborne on several occasions, I was worried that it could be damaged as is crashed back down against the deck, or even worse, be flung overboard. Fortunately, at some point the saddle hooked itself under the openhatch of the bow cargo compartment, and that held the bike fairly steady from then on. Once we cleared the breakwaters, we turned south and the seas calmed down a little. There were still 2-3 meter swells to contend with, but the boat handled them without much trouble. It was a good thing that I am not susceptible to seasickness, though.
The bike sits precariously as we head for the ocean.
Counting myself, there were five people on the boat, including the captain, Ramaro, his wife, Hanta, and the first mate, Demi. The other passenger was a thin Malagasy fellow with wavy hair who wore a pink dress shirt and mirrored sunglasses. I only knew him as "Monsieur President" because he said to me along the way: "I am the President of all the local people!" Now that we were under way, I sat back and enjoyed the ride. It had been a long time since I had been on a boat like this one, and the combination of the ocean, Sun and coastal scenery was quite pleasing. We never strayed very far from the shoreline and the view was always interesting. In fact, I had been fixing my attention on the tropical scenery passing by on the port side for quite a while when I glanced to the starboard and saw a rather disconcerting sight.
What appeared, lurking to the west seemingly arising out of nowhere, was one of the most ominous looking storm clouds I have ever seen. This was no light sprinkle, as black as night, this squall meant business! With my often-poor ability to judge open distances, I was hoping that we could slip part to the south before it hit. But when I looked back and saw Ramaro scanning the coastline, I knew that we’d be in for a little delay. I could not see any sort of feature that could provide us protection on the long stretch of beach nearby. Nevertheless, in a few minutes Ramaro swung the boat hard to port, aiming directly for shore, and skillfully using the surf to guide the boat, directed us though a tiny inlet and into a protected lagoon. The mouth of the inlet cut through white sandy dunes that effectively obscured its presence. How he ever saw this, I can only imagine. Experience pays off, I suppose.
The boat was grounded on the beach and we all jumped out, not a moment too soon. For just then, the clouds opened up and the wind blew in such a fierce way that I was extremely glad that we were still not on the water. The rain was falling horizontally, and impacting with such a velocity that it was quite painful. Hanta said that there was a village nearby and we should head for cover there. She, Monsieur President, and I took off in that direction, while Ramaro and Demi secured the boat. It was not more than fifty meters, but the wind and rain made moving forward very difficult. Finally, we reached the village and gathered beneath the thatched eaves of a small building. The others arrived a few minutes later and we waited out the end of the storm. Later, I learned that this village was named Andika, and my visit here was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.
At first, however, things did not appear to be so interesting. I peered through the open window of the building where I was standing and the inside was empty and appeared as if it had not been used in some time. As far as I could tell, the entire village was abandoned, or perhaps was only occupied on a seasonal basis. There were perhaps thirty small structures, made from wood and palm thatch, but no sign of their occupants. In a few minutes, when the rain had stopped, I slowly eased out into the village yard to look around. In so doing I realized that I had been mistaken in my assessment, when a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, appeared near one of the smaller buildings. As soon as he saw me, he bounded away and slipped into one of the other huts.
The boy’s reaction was not surprising. There are many places in Madagascar where guides offer to take tourists on a visit to an "authentic" rural Malagasy village (and in so doing make the villagers accustomed to meeting outsides, thereby reducing the authenticity of the experience.) Andika was not one of those places. The only way in or out of the village was by foot or by boat, and I got the distinct impression that very few visitors ever arrived by either of these methods. So, it was quite possible that he had seen few outsiders and even fewer vhazahs, like me. Gradually, as the winds died down, the people of Andika, who had simply been smart enough to stay in out of the rain, emerged one by one and greeted their new visitors.
The peacefull seaside village of Andika.
As the Andikans began to move about, Hanta explained our situation to some of the older folks. Everyone was speaking Malagasy very quickly back and forth and, of course, I had no idea what was being said and felt, quite literally, out of the loop. Meanwhile, Monsieur President suggested that I join him inside one of the village buildings. Within we found a few young men sitting around a small fire on the dirt floor. We could join them for a while to dry off and warm up. Monsieur President seemed to like breathing in the smoke from the fire, but it made me choke. The heat did feel rather nice, though. As we sat the Andikan boys in our company pointed with smiles at my cheeks, which were starting to show a couple days growth of beard, as sight to which they were apparently unaccustomed.
After a few minutes of this, I joined Ramaro and Demi outside. I tried to chat with them a bit, but my language skills were still not up to the task. Before too long, Monsieur President joined us and announced that he would meet us tomorrow in Belo. We had only traveled a little over a third of the way when we stopped, and so there was probably 40 kilometers left to go to Belo. Nevertheless, our eccentric companion insisted on finding his own way there, armed only with his trusty flask of rum. Ramaro obviously thought he was being foolish, but made no attempt to stop him. I suggested that maybe he should try flying, and wondered just what was burning on that fire, the emanations of which he so deeply inhaled. Not deterred by our teasing, he said veloma and slipped off into the bush. That was the last I saw of Monsieur President.
I then took a advantage of a seemingly quiet time to get a better look at Andika and its inhabitants. The village buildings were scattered about on a flat, sandy patch of ground on the inland side of the small lagoon that we had entered. On the other side lay a long neck of sand that separated the lagoon from the surf of the Mozambique Channel. Pulled up onto the crest of this barrier were several of the village’s priogues, waiting to be paddled out to sea. To the east of the dwellings, a flat scrub-covered plain stretched inland. From time to time I thought I heard the sounds of a few zebu roaming about back there, just out of sight. In the village yard were several coconut palms, and one or two large trees that were surrounded by low wooden fences. I saw this type of fence around many trees on the island, but never did learn of its significance. Of course, in this isolated location there was no electricity, running water, communications with the rest of the world, or any civic institutions that would be familiar to those of us from other parts. I imagined that this village existed, on that day, as it had for decades or centuries.
Wood planks drying in the village yard.
The Andikans themselves were as calm and relaxed as you would expect people who had spent their entire lives in such an idyllic location to be. Though they were also, perhaps, a little shy. The only one who tried to initiate a conversation with me was the eldest man of the village, and the best he could come up with was to repeatedly shake my hand and say "Ha Ha, Vhazah!". Later, in an apparent reference to a policy they have of changing a man’s hairstyle to reflect his position in life, he pointed at my hair and asked "Papa?" I could only shrug and reply that, no, I was not a papa right now. One curious situation that caught my eye was the age distribution of the residents. I would guess that the village held about 50-75 people at the time of our visit. There were many children ranging from infants to teenagers. I also noticed several adult women, though they mainly kept to themselves, and a few elderly men and women. Noticeably absent were adult men similar in age to myself. I can only think of two possible causes for this. Either the men of the village were out on an extended fishing, or trading trip, or they had all moved away to live in a city like Tana. Many Malagasy people have moved to the city from the countryside in recent years, but I hoped for the village’s sake that they were instead out fishing, and would soon return to be with their families.
There was one group of Andikans that was not shy and reserved. This group of about 8 boys aged, perhaps, 6 to 10, I referred to as the Rat Pack. These kids each possessed the energy of a cyclone and their reason for being seemed to be just to have fun and tease the visiting vhazah. If they could get me to chase them around the village, well, that was just the most fun imaginable. One boy, in particular, kept making a gesture that looked like he was playing "air guitar", perhaps due to a bit of cultural contamination by some earlier vhazah’s visit. When I repeated the gesture back, he and his friends just went berserk. They were good kids, though they wore me out after a while. I’m not sure whether I had quite as much fun when I was their age.
The Andikan Rat Pack tease the strange vhazaha.
Before long, Hanta called me over and informed me that we were about to be served lunch. I don’t know if the others compensated the village for the food, but I hope so, since it didn’t look like they had a lot to spare. We were each given a big bowl of rice and four boiled fish served in dented-up old metal pans, which were among the few modern artifacts that I observed in the village. We all sat in the open village yard on straw mats to enjoy the food. I found the rice to be tasty and the fish, which to my limited knowledge of piscine cuisine seemed to be a type of herring, though not my favorite, was much appreciated. As we sat, I tried to get the others to help me learn some Malagasy words and phrases, but the often multi-syllabic words so tied my tongue that I didn’t have much success at that. After the meal, Ramaro and the others got up and set off down a path leading out of the village accompanied by one of the Andikan women. They motioned for me to come along, and since I was just a silent bystander in this whole journey, I followed the others.
At this point I was working on the assumption that we were only stopping for a short break and would soon be back on our way to Belo. In fact, I was not completely sure whether we had merely stopped to escape the storm, or if this visit was part of our original plan. Lingering in the back of my mind was still the unrealistic idea that I should be trying to stick to my original tour schedule, so moving on would have been fine with me. As such, I thought that we were now on our way back to the boat to resume our trip. Instead, we wandered though the local bush, occasionally crossing clear, cool, ankle-deep channels of brackish water, for around fifteen minutes, until we arrived at one of the neighboring villages. This one was slightly larger than Andika, and had a very small shop, which was the reason that we had traveled there. The others spoke to the shopkeeper, and purchased a few items, while I did what I always did in such a situation, and entertained the young ones. Ramaro said that I could buy something if I wanted to, but I still wasn’t sure what our plans were, and whether I would be helping or hurting the village by buying all the good stuff off of their shelves, so I chose not to. After a few minutes we said veloma, and walked back to Andika. This time Hanta was carrying a couple of chickens dangling by their feet.
By now the Sun had been out for some time, and the day wad warmed up and dried out considerably. However, back at our home base, Ramaro now informed me that The sea would be too rough to continue and that we would be staying here for the night. To me it appeared that the wind had calmed down enough to go on, but who am I to argue with an experienced captain? He suggested that I relax and enjoy the local sights, which seemed like a great idea to me. I’d just have to let the schedule slip a little.
Now that I was sure we weren’t going anywhere I set out on my own to explore the surroundings. The Andikans were also getting started on their daily activities, though the pace and extent of their chores seemed more like a relaxing day off rather than a typical workday. I noticed two young women set off, each with a large straw basket in had, heading down the beach to the south. In a few minutes they had disappeared completely. Perhaps they went out to gather food from the bush, or maybe they were off to trade with another village. In either case, I wondered if they noticed, as they walked along, that their task required them to pass through one of the most attractive places on Earth, or if the beauty of their surroundings had become so commonplace to them that they never gave it a second thought.
If they did not notice the area’s amazing beauty, I surely did. Now, I was feeling very relaxed and strolled away from the village (if for no other reason than I needed a break from the Rat Pack.) The first place I explored was the mangrove thickets just to the south. I have seen mangroves before, but never up close. I walked into the thick bush at the edge of the grove and broke through into the area of land than had originally been created by the growth of the mangrove plants themselves. Here there was an abundance of interesting bird life flying through the bushes. The most interesting sight, however, was back at the very edge of the grove. Here there were clear channels of water, about two meters across, that formed a boundary between the grove and the adjacent mudflats. Resting out on the mud were many little fish called mudskippers. These amazing fish can crawl out of the water and breathe air, staying out indefinitely as far as I could tell. However, whenever I approached, they always panicked and with a little "chirp!" noise they dashed back to the bushes and the safety of their cover. The amazing thing was that they did not swim back, but instead skipped across the surface of the water. I spent a very long time observing these unique fish, and causing them to demonstrate their impressive abilities.
A Mudskipper vertures out on to the mudflat.
Moving on, I left the mangroves and headed south for an immensely pleasurable stroll along the beach. This ribbon of sand instantly moved near the top of my list of all-time favorite beaches. Broad and seemingly deserted, the surface was littered with beautiful seashells, the way most beaches used to be before being picked clean by visitors. The walking was easy and I continued south for quite a distance until I reached a spot where a pretty lake lay just inshore of the coast, turning the beach into a narrow isthmus of sand. I felt that I could have kept going virtually forever, but turned back so as not to put too great a distance between myself and my travelling companions.
My last task for the afternoon was to take my first official swim in the Indian Ocean. Technically, the waters offshore were the Mozambique Channel, but I thought that was close enough. When I returned to the vicinity of Andika, I saw Ramaro at the shoreline, and I could tell that he thought it was silly to want to go swimming in such rough surf. I loved it, however, and the experience brought back many memories of my childhood swims in the mid-Atlantic waters of the U.S. east coast. It was, perhaps, even more enjoyable because the water was blissfully warm. I splashed in the surf for quite some time, and would have stayed in longer, but I thought that it was probably time to check with the others to see what our plans were for the evening.
The beach at Andika seems to stretch on forever.
My timing was fortunate, because we were just about to be served dinner. Our meal was the same as it had been at noontime, a bowl of rice and four boiled fish. Though, this time someone from the village let the four of us dine inside their dwelling. The room was typical for the village, perhaps 12 square meters enclosed by thatched walls and a central pole that helped support the roof. We sat around a few glowing embers in the fire pit, on straw mats spread over the sandy floor. In one corner a wooden bed frame, which was constructed in a fairly modern style, though it only rose about 20 centimeters above the floor, surrounded a makeshift mattress formed from soft-looking plant materials.
I was not particularly hungry, since I had not really exerted myself at all that day. However, I allowed my western ideal of etiquette to lead me into a disappointing blunder. As I had always been taught, I assumed that might offend my hosts by not eating all that I was served. So, even though I had already had my fill, I made an effort to finish my plate. If I had been more knowledgeable about the local customs, I would have known that in Anidka, and I assume in many other rural Malagasy villages, the adults are served first at mealtime. What they do not finish is then taken away and given to the children. So, in an attempt to be polite, I deprived a nice kid of some food that he or she probably could have used more than me.
After dinner, we all milled about at the waterfront, watching the amazing display the Sun created as it sank below the horizon. Several Andikans joined us, and I suspected that they enjoyed similar shows practically every evening. As darkness descended on the village, we set up our accommodations for the night. I put up my tent just inland of the beach where the hard soil began, feeling a little guilty that my solo tent was not large enough to share with the others. The Andikans loaned Hanta and Ramaro a kind of makeshift teepee, which was really just a tarp slung over a pole that was driven into the beach sand. Demi was delegated to sleeping on the deck of the boat. Listening to the sound of village kids laughing and crying well into the night, I eventually drifted off to sleep. Though I think that I was the only one of our little group to sleep soundly that night. Thus ended one of the truly unique days of my bike touring experiences, though there would be more of the same to come.
A pirogue rests on the beach under the setting Sun.
Bound for Belo
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At Least I Gave It the Ol' College Try
At dawn, I awoke to another beautiful sunrise, as did all the others. I quickly packed up the tent and the rest of my gear and carried it over to the lagoon where the boat had been left the night before. As it turned out, we needed to wait for a couple of hours for the tide to rise enough to lift the boat off the beach and provide enough depth for us to get back out into the channel. I was still determined to continue the ride in the afternoon, so I wanted to get started as early as possible. However, the tide does not take such trivial human concerns into consideration, so I just took it easy for a while. As the others were attending to various matters, I saw something that nearly threw my perception of the prior day’s experiences into doubt. One of the teenaged Andikan boys emerged from one of the village dwellings carrying a large object. Much to my surprise, as he drew closer I could see that it was a rather large television set. Could I have possibly been mistaken about the nature of this seemingly isolated village? Were the Andikans up late watching The Beverly Hillbillies while I was trying to get to sleep last night? The boy placed the TV on the boat with the assistance of Demi, and then I realized that it was part of our cargo all along, but had been covered with blankets during the trip and taken under cover to keep it dry during the night.
When the boat was floating again, the four of us, and the two chickens that Hanta had purchased the day before, climbed aboard. Waving goodbye and shouting "Veloma!" to the Andikans, I thought, as the boat made its way to the mouth of the lagoon, that this minimal delay was certainly worth it to add such an interesting and unique experience to my tour. Back in the Channel, we turned to the south and were on our way to Belo once again. The sea was a little calmer than the day before, but still provided a bumpy ride. This time, however, there were no sudden squalls to halt our progress, and a couple of hours later we sped into the little sandy harbor at Belo Sur Mer.
Belo was also a very interesting place. In its harbor were several large, Malagasy-style sailing vessels and Ramaro exchanged information with their crews as we passed by. The town, itself was quite small, consisting of maybe two or three dozen structures that were scattered widely around the harbor’s shoreline. A few of these were of masonry construction, but most were made from local materials in the traditional way. Belo had, as far as I could tell, two reasons for being. One was the main activity for many of the local residents, boat building. Many boats, of various sizes, were under construction along the length of the harbor beach. The other activity that kept the town going was providing a place to stay for tourists who were seeking an off-the-beaten-path eco-vacation. Access to Belo was most easily achieved by sea, just as we had done, but at some times during the year, the road to Manja was accessible to rugged vehicles. In any case, this town was not a part of the normal tourist circuit There was only one place to stay here, and as it turned out I did not have trouble finding it, as the bungalows were know only as Chez Ramaro.
As we unloaded the boat, Hanta had some of her young assistants carry my gear off and left at the bungalows. I am not used to letting the bike and my gear out of my sight, and I was a little uneasy about it disappearing like that. I was still intending to have a meal here, pick up whatever supplies were available, and head out towards Manja as soon as possible, as I expected the travelling to be slow in that direction. When I reached the bungalows, I found my thing sitting neatly on a porch. Since the others were still busy unloading their own belongings and I had no idea where to look for food, I decided to walk down to the shore and have a look at the boats that were being fabricated there.
It was a short walk back to the waterfront, where the collection of partially constructed boats rested along the shore. In all, there were twenty to thirty vessels in various stages of completion, and all were being made entirely by hand in the traditional manner. A few were simple pirogues that were being hollowed out from individual logs. More interesting to me were the larger ships, which would eventually become oceangoing sailboats, each with at least two large masts. The skeletons of these ships were made from u-shaped beams formed by joining two or more smaller pieces together. These were then attached to a central keel beam and covered by 4-centimeter thick hull planks that had been warped by slowly bending a wet board, with the aid of a small fire, in order to achieve their proper curvature. Later, Ramaro informed me that it could take up to three years to complete such a project. Indeed, a few of these boats would likely take longer than that, as it appeared that years ago their owner's had abandoned their construction midway through the process, apparently running low on resources. I was so impressed to see that this time-honored craft, which had once been practiced worldwide for many centuries, was still alive and well in the tiny hamlet of Belo.
Pirogues and a large boat being built on the beach in Belo.
A wood plank is bent using the heat from a small fire.
A craftsman works inside his creation.
Back at Chez Ramaro, I had a quick meal of vary with chicken, and then loaded up the gear on to the bike, in order to depart for Manja shortly thereafter. It was around one o'clock and I wanted to cover as many of the 115 kilometers to Manja as possible before dark. Clearly, Hanta thought that this was a terrible idea. Though I couldn't really understand what she was saying, I gathered that everyone thought that it would be better for me to spend the night in Belo, and then continue on to Morombe by sea. But I was in Madagascar for bicycling, and I wanted to make effort to do so whenever possible. Additionally, there was the usual uncertainty about whether I was receiving information relevant for a touring cyclist, or the usual "Well, I could never do such a ride!" concerns.
So, despite her continued protests, Hanta arranged for one of the local girls to show me the way through the town to the road that lead to Manja. The path through Belo consisted of deep sand and it was very tortuous to push the loaded bike along. At the edge of town, I thanked the girl for showing me the way and continued walking along the still-sandy road. It was a struggle to continue, but I expected that "any minute, now," the road would become hard dirt and I could begin to ride. Well, after another 45 minutes of struggle, I turned a corner and was dismayed to see a continuous trail of sand stretching on as far as I could see. At that point, I gave in to reality, and headed back to Belo.
When I eventually slogged back into town, Ramaro, Hanta, the other visitors in the bungalows, and I engaged in some friendly laughter at the expense of the vhazaha who didn't know good advice when he heard it. Now ready to relax again, I booked a bungalow for the night. The room rate was $8.00 a day for a basic bungalow containing a small, but comfortable, cot, and access to a primitive shared bathroom. Actually, compared to the total lack of washrooms of any sort on most days, this was a real treat. Later on, I visited with Ramaro at his house, which was the only one of any significant size in Belo (they even had a satellite dish, to which the TV that was brought with us from Morondava would undoubtedly be connected,) to make arrangements to continue on. He informed me that in two days a "research vessel" (at least that's what I thought he said,) would arrive in two days and they could take me to Morombe. Alternatively, I could go by pirogue, which could take one or two days, depending on the weather, to reach Morombe. However, he could not make arrangements for that until morning. I was intrigued about going on the research boat, but decided that I wasn't willing to wait that long. A far as expediency was concerned, this may have been another ill-conceived decision on my part. In any case, I told Ramaro that I'd prefer to leave in the morning. So, after a nice dinner of vary with steamed crab, I turned in early, to get a decent night's sleep. My misguided attempts to stick to my original schedule were still affecting my travel planning. That would finally change, once and for all, before long.
Another Day on the High Seas
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Don't Worry, the Vhazaha Will Fix It
When morning arrived, the people of Belo were up and about before I was, just after sunrise. There was no one around that I thought could give me any information on the upcoming segment of the trip, so I took the opportunity to give the bike a quick inspection. It had been exposed to rain, sun, and sea spray, but seemed to be in good shape. After a while, Hanta appeared and told me that Ramaro had found a pirogue crew that was willing to take me, and the bike, to Morombe. The trip would cost $47.00, and, if the weather was good should take one day, longer if it was not. As I did not have many options available, I happily agreed. After settling my bill for the room, food, and a deposit for the pirogue, we walked down to the beach to meet the boat. I had just enough time on the way to stop at the nearly-empty Tiko store, where I bought a cola, a couple of bananas, and two packages of cookies. At the beach I found the pirogue and its owners waiting for me, as well as Ramaro, who was about to head out again in his motorboat.
A Malagasy pirogue is a classically designed outrigger canoe, similar to those that have been used throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans for centuries. The main body, which is carved from a single log, is commonly four to five meters long, with its bow and stern decoratively hooked upward. At the builder's discretion, the canoe body may frequently be painted with several bright colors. The body is fitted with a single outrigger, extending outward for a couple of meters, that is made from a few long, thin poles cut from appropriately-sized saplings. Two similar poles make up the mast and boom, which are loosely held in place by a wooden slot at the base of the canoe and secured using two well-worn nylon ropes to the bow and stern. A broad, gray canvas sail is lashed to the mast poles, being folded in various ways to match the requirements of the wind. When I appeared, the piroguemen studied my bike and gear, and eventually tied the bike perpendicularly across the boat, supported by one of the outrigger struts. Naturally, I was a little concerned for its well being out on the rough sea, but after rechecking its fasteners, I realized that it was more likely that I would fall overboard, as opposed to the bike. The rest of my bags were simply stored on the floor of the pirogue. After thanking Hanta and Ramaro for all of their help, I took my seat in the midsection of the pirogue and said farewell to Belo.
The bike is loaded on to an oceangoing pirogue for the trip south.
Two sturdy piroguemen would guide my journey to Morombe. Neither one spoke much French, and, of course, English was out of the question. The captain was a small, wiry man with a round face and a big smile that never disappeared. He sat perched precariously on the sharply pointed stern, where he occasionally helped steer with his paddle. From time to time he would sing a little tune to pass the hours. The other fellow was taller, looked strong and lean, and had features that appeared more African than Malagasy. He spent the entire trip standing, perfectly balanced, on the front outrigger strut and counterbalanced his friend's smiling with his own stern expression. I never did learn the names of my two new companions
Not long after we launched, we paddled through the mouth of the harbor, through the surf, and out into the channel. Moments later, our sail was raised and we caught the wind, heading south. It did not take me long to realize that my two new mates were fantastic sailors. They managed the sail adroitly, quickly adjusting its shape when needed without the aid of the special equipment found on modern sailboats. In so doing, they frequently had to move around the boat, making their way around me, and the bike, by balancing on the narrowest of hull walls.
This only hints at an impressive ability shown by many Malagasy people, namely, a willingness to sit or stand for hours on end on the hardest, most uncomfortable object imaginable. My new friends were quite able to do this, however I was not. My seat was a 15-centimeter wide board placed across the hull but I was much more comfortable sitting on the floor. My guides did not like it when I sat there, through I could never really understand why, as my weight was only shifted slightly downward. Whenever they weren't looking, I slid back down there.
One of the piroguemen stood for several hours balanced on the outrigger.
The wind was brisk and we seemed to be making rapid progress down the coast. Similar to recent days, two to three meter swells constantly rose up in our path, but the little pirogue slid up and down them with no difficulty. This did, however, cause quite a bit of salt water to splash over the bike. Since there was nothing I could do about this, I chose not to worry about it for the time being.
Several hours went by and I passed the time by watching the shoreline, which was never very far away, drift by off our port side. At some point, a small tear began to open up in our sail, but this didn't seem like a big deal to me. The baking afternoon sun was a big deal, however, and I was quite thrilled when it hid behind some puffy clouds. Along the way, my companions tried to engage me in a conversation. They seemed to be trying to talk about our sail and me in the same sentence. I just shrugged in a sort of "Whatever you say" fashion. As the evening approached, I could sense that our course had changed and we were heading towards shore.
As we drew closer, I could make out a number of buildings, one of which was of masonry construction. There were also many boats anchored nearby, or grounded on the beach. I was sure that this was Morombe, and was excited that I would soon be continuing the trip under my own power once again. Not far from shore the small tear in our sail decided to enlarge itself, nearly separating the sheet into two pieces. This did not particularly bother me, since we were within minutes of arriving at our destination.
While we were walking up on to the beach I thanked my friends for their help, though their somewhat perplexed expressions indicated that I was not aware of the true situation. In fact, this was not Morombe, but a much smaller town well to the north, called Andranopasy. I soon realized that we would not reach Morombe today after all, but would spend the night here. Additionally, I discovered what my guides had been trying to tell me out on the water. It would fall on the shoulders of the wealthy vhazaha traveler to purchase the fabric needed to repair our sail. To someone raised in the West like me, this seemed to be someone else's responsibility. But, as I essentially had no other way out of town, I acquiesced, and followed my guides through the sandy spaces between the numerous traditional buildings of the town, arriving at a ordinary wooden structure after a few minutes. I was shown inside where, a little surprisingly, I observed numerous bolts of brightly-colored fabrics piled up on broad shelves. The shopkeeper pulled down an appropriate bolt of canvas and sheared off a couple of meters. All eyes then turned to me as the funding source for this transaction. The charge ended up being only $2.50, a small price to pay to be on our way once again. After all, I really was a wealthy foreigner, relative to all of the local folks at least. As we made our way back to the boat, we stopped at a tiny bar where I drank a much-appreciated soda. Back at the beach, a local friend of my guides, began slowly stitching up the sail using a shredded nylon rice sack for thread. My two friends then asked me for half of the agreed price of the trip at that time. Neither one of them had brought anything along except a few spare ropes and the clothes on their backs.
Kids watch as a man repairs our sail in Andranopasy.
Since I had some time to kill, I took the opportunity to look around Andranopasy. The town was quite a bit larger than Andika, and was connected to Manja via a rough road. It was situated around a small cove and its buildings were widely dispersed around the sandy shoreline. A slow moving river formed the inland boundary of the town, and I could tell by the distinctive odor that it was also used as the local waste disposal system. At that time, I really needed to dispose of some waste, and followed the edict; "When in Rome....". After a few minutes, I made my way back to the beach to gather my gear and set up for the night. I had intended to walk outside of the town a set up the tent somewhere that was quiet enough to allow a decent night's sleep. When I reached the boat, the bike and my other bags were gone. I wasn't especially concerned, but it took me a little while to track everything down. Apparently, my guides had already decided that I should spend the night adjacent to a small hut in the center of town, and had moved everything there. As I was setting the tent up, they returned and told me that we would probably not leave until noon the next day when the sail would be ready. I think they could tell that I was a little disappointed, but at this point everything was out of my control, so I simply nodded and said goodnight.
As the sun went down, I crawled into the tent and enjoyed my dinner for the evening, one of the packets of cookies that I had bought in the morning. The sounds of crying babies and bleating goats filled the air, keeping me from relaxing completely. Before too long my two companions returned and informed me that we could leave at 8:00 a.m. after all. Apparently, they were able to borrow another sail for the day. The first bit of good luck I'd had in a while. They also invited me to come eat fish with them, but since I was already stretched out, and wasn't feeling especially hungry, I passed. Again, this was probably not the smartest of decisions.
Once More Into the Breach
- or -
My Kingdom For a Swift Breeze
At the agreed upon hour I made my way to the beach where I met my piroguemen preparing to depart. We loaded up my gear and retied the bike in its proper position. In a few minutes we set out, the calm air forcing us to paddle out of the harbor. At a sufficient distance from shore, we picked up a slight breeze and after raising the recently borrowed sail, turned south. This time the sea was nearly calm, and I could tell that our progress would be slower than on the previous day. We only had about 1/3 of the total distance to Morombe left to cover, but I was beginning to wonder just how soon we would arrive. A few hours past and we were still slowly progressing down the coast.
etween Andranopasy and Morombe lies a small cape formed by the mangrove delta of the Mangoky River. Once we passed the cape we would need to turn slightly to the southeast for the final stretch to Morombe. Approaching this point, I was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and felt that I would be riding again soon. However, my hopes were soon dashed, as upon rounding the cape, we were met with a slight headwind. I could tell that my guides were modifying the plan, but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying. As time moved on, it was apparent that we were heading in the wrong direction, and despite my occasionally terse attempts to learn where we were going, I was still in the dark.
A large Malagasy sailboat passes us by.
Eventually, our destination became obvious as I could see the now-familiar sights of Andranopasy approaching. With a little difficulty, my guides suggested that I could find overland transport to Manja (which would undoubtedly have been a zebu cart.) I was not anxious to do that and would rather have been dropped of somewhere along the coast to the south. I was able to understand one thing the sailors were asking, that being their enquiry as to whether I intended to pay them the remainder of their fee. True, they did not deliver me to Morombe as promised, but they did work hard for two full days, so I didn't see any reason to haggle about it and offered the full amount. This brought forth the only smile I saw on the face of the taller, stern pirogueman.
My spirits were now quite a bit lower, after a fully wasted day, with no clear plan in sight. I was not sure at all just when I would be back on the bike again. As we approached the shore, I studied my maps trying to find any possible way to quickly get myself and the bike back to the main road.
Now back on the ground in Andranopasy, my two companions tried to help me find a solution to my dilema. Our first stop was to one of their friend's house where we were given some corn fritters and tea. From there we went out into the village yard where we were introduced to two local piroguemen. Over the last hour I had managed to formulate a new plan. I would try to book passage to a town called Antongo. This particular town lied slightly inland at the center of the mangrove delta. It had the big advantage of being connected to the main road south by a permanent road, at least according to my map. Somehow, despite an almost comical language barrier, I was able to communicate my idea to the new piroguemen, and they agreed to take me there the next day. We sealed the deal with a visit to the town bar where I purchased two large colas, one of which the five of us shared on the spot and one that I would save until the next day.
With the initial arrangements made, I bid farewell to my first guides who departed, attempting to make it back to Belo. I went back to my camping spot to set up for the night, and my new guides William and Maurice said they would meet me there shortly. On the way, I made an attempt to scare up some sort of food for the night and the next day. The only source I could find was the nearly bare produce market. The choices were indeed slim, mostly dried corn and beans. I did see one thing that looked appealing, a rather large, oblong melon with cracked green and yellow skin. I could not identify it, but it smelled a little like a cantaloupe, so I bought it, planning to eat half that evening and the rest in the morning.
Back at the tent, William arrived and said we had one item of business to attend to before we left. William spoke a good deal of French, so we were able to communicate, a little more easily that I had done with the last crew. He said that I should follow him to register our trip with the village president. We were allowed in to the compound that housed the leaders, which was at the center of town, but separated by a high fence. The quality of the group of three or four buildings within was also superior to the rest of the town, at least in their outward appearances. Apparently, all transport arrangements made by the townspeople needed to be registered at the office, for the equivalent of tax purposes, I assumed. William and I were given a straw mat to sit on outside the main building on the grass. Momentarily, a plump, friendly lady came out to take our registration. I can't say whether she was the president, a member of the family, or of the staff. In any case, the paperwork was brief, only requiring me to provide, my name, nationality, destination, and the rate I was being charged. The latter was a fairly typical $40.00 for the journey to Antongo.
Having completed all the formalities, William said goodnight, and told me to be ready to leave at 4:00 A.M. the next morning. I was a little surprised, as that was a full 90 minutes before sunrise, and I had no idea how we planned to navigate in the dark. I wasn't complaining, however, as an early start meant a chance to get back on the bike sooner rather than later.
My last chore for the day was to try and take in some calories. So, back in the tent I split open my melon, and took a bite. It was somewhat less than appealing. I don't quite know how to describe it, but the words bitter and flavorless come mind. I forced myself to eat as much as I could stand, but soon gave up and tossed it into the bushes. Another lesson learned; stay away from unfamiliar fruit in the countryside. I still had one package of cookies and the second bottle of cola, but I was counting on having those available for the next day. I ate a few of the cookies, but saved the rest. In addition to being ready to get back on the bike, I was now really looking forward to finding a filling meal after the last few days of near fasting.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
- or -
Please, Just Get Me to a Road, Any Road
The typically light sleep that I usually receive in noisy places like Andranopasy made it fairly easy for me to rise slightly before the appointed hour of 4 A.M., still surrounded by pre-dawn blackness. Certainly, I could have used a filling meal of tasty melon, but that was not to be. As I suspected, William, my guide for the day, really meant 5:00 A.M. instead of four when he scheduled our departure, so I had a little time to sit quietly and watch the stars slowly dim, washed out by the earliest rays of dawn. I was unsure of the route that we would take to reach Antongo, which was located well within the labyrinthine delta to our south. The two possibilities, as far as I could tell, were a return to the sea, followed by a turn to the east up the Mangoky River, or a winding course through the mangroves, staying completely inland. I would, of course, leave the decision to William and Maurice, but it seemed to me that either course would benefit from sufficient daylight to see where we were going.
William strolled up to were I was waiting right at five o'clock and helped me carry my gear to the beach where Maurice was readying the pirogue. The bike was strapped on as before, and I had a chance to wonder again if it was still in good condition after all the rough treatment it had recently received. Moments later, with all the gear stowed, we lifted the vessel down the beach and into the calm waters of the little cove that formed the village's shoreline. The sky was still showing only the faintest hints of the approaching sun and the only sounds that disturbed the complete silence around us were the splashes made by our paddles. To pass the time, and to help me wake up, I grabbed an extra paddle and helped out. It did not take very long to discern that we were heading out to sea for the first section of the journey. I trusted in my guide’s abilities to find an appropriate course through the surf at this dim hour.
The cool air and moderate seas made this part of the trip quite pleasant, and before long the wind had picked up enough that we could raise the sail, which only made things more fun. By now the sun was up, and the clear skies revealed the pretty coastline that was sliding by off our port side. William and Maurice were watching this as well, and chatting back and forth with each other, obviously looking for the landmarks that would tell them when to turn inland.
Before much longer, the proper entrance to the delta became visible and using his paddle as a rudder, William turned us to the east, guiding us through the surf, and straight into the center of the river channel. To my surprise, the wind allowed us to continue to use our sail as we gracefully slid up the quiet river. Now I was beginning to feel excited, as I assumed we would soon arrive in Antongo and I'd be on the bike again.
I should have known that more patience would be required, however, and before much longer the winding course of the river and the lack of wind in the shelter of the mangroves required us to stow the sail and break out the paddles once again. That did not diminish my enjoyment of the trip, as I now had a chance to relax and observe the mangroves from a different perspective. One of the highlights of the morning's journey was the great amount and variety of bird life that fluttered about in the trees, unconcerned with our presence. All types were easily seen, from bright scarlet finches to tall, gray herons, and their numbers increased as we made our way inland. This was also a good place to watch local Malagasy residents going about their daily affairs. Many were also out on the river, either using it for transport or in the process of tending their fishing nets.
William, the pirogue captain, guides us through the mangroves.
The channel became increasingly narrow and shallow as we progressed and on several occasions we needed to jump out and walk the pirogue over a muddy bar. I took this as a sign that Antongo was close by but, once again, I was a little premature. In fact, at about 9 o'clock, William told me that we were about to stop for breakfast, which was good news for me, as I had eaten very little over the past few days. We grounded the pirogue on a tiny beach and walked inland along a wide, open, and grassy pathway that was obviously a former river channel that had long been silted over. After a hundred meters, or so, we came upon a tiny hut that was used as a sort of waystation for passersby. It was a simple lashed stick structure with a few old pots and pans lying around the nearby fire pit. There was a woman with a two-year old child already there, but as we approached they wandered off. I looked around the area while the others stoked the fire and boiled a big pot of water to cook some rice. The water for cooking was scooped out of a hole that was dug into the sand, in which filtered water collected. I imagined that this was fairly clean, but it did give a bit of a fishy taste to our dish. William and Maurice each had a couple of fish and a bowl of rice, and they fixed a big bowl of rice for me as well. It was a little watery and fishy, but I at it all down to satisfy my giant appetite. As we were eating a thin, gray-haired Malagasy man, dressed only in a loincloth, appeared and began skinning a 2-meter long eel. My appetite was not so great to cause me to ask to share his dish, however.
After we finished our meal and returned to the pirogue, we were on our way once again. The depth of the channel continued to require us to walk around several shallow sections until we eventually broke out into a wider, deeper part of the river that appeared to be its main course. I thought that we must be close to our destination, but from here we paddled on for quite some time. It was now well into the afternoon and Maurice, who had been at the front paddling strongly all day, showed no sign of slowing down. He was a truly dependable engine for our craft and I was beginning to wonder how much longer he could hold out. I offered him drinks from my water bottle several times, but he always refused to take any.
Maurice, the super-human paddler lead us in.
Slowly the channel began to narrow again and I began to notice a gradual change in the vegetation from coastal forms to types found in drier inland areas. There was also an increasing number of tiny settlements, and their fields of maize, which could be seen along the riverside. Eventually, we approached a cluster of dwellings at a point where the river became too shallow to proceed. I was sure that this must be Antongo, but as we walked ashore William informed me that this was the village of Ambalabe. We could not paddle the rest of the way, and would have to go overland. William and Maurice would show me the way, but first they told me to wait with the bike while they spoke with the residents of the village. I assumed that they were asking for directions, and permission to leave the pirogue on the beach and pass through the village. While they were gone, I loaded the gear onto the bike, the first time that it had been properly packed up since I left Morondava five days earlier. In a few minutes they returned, grabbed their small packs, and we set off. It was hard to tell on the map, just how far we had to go, but I guessed that it was around six to eight kilometers.
The maize crop drying in the Sun in the tiny village of Ambalabe.
The area was essentially flat and was covered with dry scrubland, with an increasing number of thorny plants. We walked along narrow cart paths and singletrack, only needing to stop once or twice to get our bearings while finding our way through the maze of trails. At first I walked the bike behind my guides, but after a while I decided that it would be easier to ride at walking speed. It felt great to be up on the saddle again after such a long time, though I did wonder if my level of fitness had suffered from the long break. Without exception, the people we passed by along the way showed expressions of shock and laughter at the sight of a vhazaha on a bike following two Malagasy men past their homes.
After perhaps two hours, I began to hear the sounds of people working and playing, and saw a telltale trail of smoke heading skyward, that told me we were finally nearing Antongo. The town was not large, but somewhat more so than anyplace I had seen since Morondava. It did posses one important facility, a small Tiko store, which was the first place I planned to visit. There I bought a bottle of orange soda for myself, two more for my guides, another packet of cookies, and filled my water bottle at the well behind the store. As we sat and cooled off with our drinks, I paid William and Maurice, increasing the agreed amount somewhat to thank them for all of their hard work. It was now about 3:30 P.M., and I was surprised to learn that they planned to return home the same day, though I couldn't imagine that they would be able to make it all the way. Meanwhile, about twenty residents of Antongo had gathered around to see me and find out what I was doing.
The map showed a passable road of about thirty kilometers leading to the main road at the town of Ambahikily. Since there was about two hours of daylight left, my plan was to get as close to that town as possible before dark, and camp in the bush. Then a rather comical discussion between the crowd of onlookers and myself began. When I told them where I wanted to go, they said that there was no road to get to Ambahikily at this time of the year. Instead, a fellow, who seemed to be able to understand me better than the others, tried to draw on the map a route that they used at this time of the year. It followed an unmarked path along the river, crossing it twice, and passed several tiny villages that that barely warranted a dot on the map. He suggested that I hire a zebu cart to take me to Ambahikily,
but I insisted that I wanted to ride my bike again, and requested that they instead simply point me to the nice road that appeared on my map. "No, no, you must go along the river..." was the reply. That really didn't seem like a good idea to me, and we went back and forth with this exchange several times over the next few minutes, and didn't seem to be making much progress.
After several minutes of fruitless banter, three men in military uniforms walked up to join the fun. The senior member of these "Gendarms" spoke fluent French and some broken English, and from then on, things went more smoothly. He eventually learned from me that my next destination was Toliara, still about 250 kilometers away. Then he asked, with a suspicious look on his face, if I planned to go all that way by bicycle. When I responded that I did, the crowd erupted in uproarious laughter. I'm still not sure whether this was because I gave someone in authority a straight answer, or because the people simply thought I was crazy for traveling that way. Nevertheless, now that the locals understood that I actually wanted to travel by bike, our conversation began to move along more rapidly.
The original man that had been trying to help me said that I still had to go along the river, but that there was a young man from the town that was planning to ride his bike to Ambahikily, and that I could follow him. He insisted that I could not find my way alone and needed a guide, and though I would have rather gone by myself, I gladly accepted this arrangement.
As I watched my new guide ready his bike, I said farewell to William and Maurice, who had been waiting to make sure that I was taken care of, and waved goodbye as they slipped off into the bush. The fellow that would be leading me was about nineteen years old and rode an old, but serviceable, mountain bike. He did, however, have a slow leak in his rear tire and, though I repeatedly offered to help him fix it, he insisted that the problem was the valve, but that he would be all right if he could borrow my pump. That seemed to be an equitable trade to me.
So we set out for Ambahikily along the narrow dirt path heading east. At the edge of town I met the gendarme again and he gave some written route instructions on a small scrap of paper in case I got lost. In spite of the circumstances, it felt wonderful to be up on the bike again at last, and I finally felt that my tour was back on track.
We rode along a winding trail that passed around, or through, rice paddies, marshes, farm land, and tiny villages, and which was laced with various riding hazards. One type, in particular, stood out, in an area that I lovingly referred to as the "mine field". This was where the path passed directly through a long string of crop fields. I could not identify the particular crop that was being grown there, but it was a leafy plant that was sown at the bottom of 30-centimeter holes that were maybe 50 centimeters deep. These were scattered about every two meters, or so, and it was a little difficult to navigate through this maze. In some places the previous year's field posed an even greater challenge, as many of the old holes were covered with dried grass. A few of these booby traps took me down with a thud, though I was more embarrassed than harmed by this.
My guide, who obviously knew where he was going, and not encumbered by heavy baggage, as I was, rode quickly and nimbly. I had a little difficulty keeping up, but his frequent stops to borrow my pump evened things out. Eventually, though, I had to use the pump myself, as after passing through a particularly thorny section of the trail, I had my first flat of the trip. Actually, I considered it to be quite an accomplishment to have made it this far without needing to break out my patch kit. As usual, as soon as I had stopped, a crowd of local kids gathered around to see what I was doing. I was too tired to try to entertain them, so I just spoke aloud in English, describing what I was doing, which seemed to keep them mostly satisfied. Even better, I created great interest when I opened my quick release lever to remove my wheel. My bike always attracted a lot of attention and though many thought some of the modern parts were silly, the quick releases were always a big hit. Shortly thereafter, a young woman walked up with a pan full of water for me to use to locate the leak. However, using my best leak-finding abilities, I had already applied the patch by the time she had arrived. With the wheel back on, I gave the pump to my guide to fill his up, and offered him a drink from my water bottle as well. With that, we were on our way again, slowly progressing towards Ambahikily.
Before too long we reached the first of two crossings of the Mangoky River. The river was broad deep at this point, and the two ferries were a little larger this time, consisting of a wooden platform fastened to two pirogues. The first took me, my guide, and two others across, and the second brought over a family and their zebu cart. Once across, there was a few more kilometers of the same type of dirt paths to follow before we reached the second crossing. It would be getting dark soon, I was feeling extremely tired and hungry, and so as we waited to go across, I informed my guide that I would ride a few more kilometers and then bed down for the night in the bush.
The ferryman pushes his heavy load across the Mangoky River.
This announcement did not go over very well at all. As we rode on, and I began to look for a spot, my companion said that I should not sleep out alone, citing the usual concerns for "security". Whether he was concerned for my security or everyone else’s remained a little vague. Of course, being the experienced free camper that I am, I assured him that everything would be all right, though I could tell that he wasn't convinced. I knew one thing, after spending a few restless nights in noisy villages recently, I desperately wanted to have a quiet slumber in the bush that night. When I spotted a perfect location, which looked comfortable with good cover, I stopped, thanked my friend profusely for all his help, and started to walk off the trail. I was met with stubborn protests and I got the distinct impression that if I stopped here, my guide would sit there as well to watch over me. He insisted that Ambahikily was not much farther and that I should continue there. Though it was against my better judgment, I reluctantly agreed. As it turned, out Ambahikily was not just around the next bend, and this battle repeated itself several more times.
Now it was well after dark, I could barely see where I was going, the road was getting wet and slippery, and I was feeling exhausted and famished. I was ready to stop and stop now. My guide, who was beginning to get on my nerves, would have none of it. I would have thought that the use of my pump and a good fraction of my water would have earned me a little leeway, but apparently not. To make matters worse, we came across some of his friends who seemed to get a get a bunch of big laughs from mocking the ragged vhazaha who obviously was not tough enough to go just a few more kilometers. There was no real way that I could explained to them that the lack of food, water and sleep that I'd experienced over the past few days was really taking its toll.
I had to stop to rest frequently, and whenever I did these fellows tried to help by grabbing my bike in an attempt to lighten my load. Now, I think that I am an extremely mild-mannered person, but one thing that never fails to get me steamed is when someone messes with my bike without my permission. This was the case of the only angry person on this trip that I mentioned before, and it was, in fact, me. A tired bicycle tourist is not to be trifled with, and it was a good thing that no one around me could speak English, as a stream of profanity was being constantly grumbled as I inched my way along.
Somehow, after walking across ever-deteriorating conditions in the dark, my little group and I finally made it to Ambahikily at around 8:30 pm, over three hours after sunset. The scene there was worse than I had imagined. Ambahikily was a bustling crossroads town on the main road to Toliara with most of its residents crowded into its streets for the evening, and all eyes seemed to be turned towards me. My guide, obviously feeling proud that he had brought me here, sent someone to arrange a room for me. He clearly did not realize that another sleepless night listening to the sounds of partying townspeople was absolutely the last thing on my mind.
As I stood there, the focus of gazes and whispers, waiting to be sent off to a room that I didn’t want, I seized the only other option apparent to me, though it seemed extremely rude. But, I was not a happy camper, so to speak. I asked the young man which way I would go to get to Toliara in the morning, and when he pointed the way, I jumped on the bike and sped down the road without saying a word. Nobody followed me this time, and after ten or fifteen minutes, I was far enough from town to bed down at a crude, but passable, spot. The ground was wet, sloped to one side, and was too close to someone's crop field, but I set the tent up anyway and finally stretched out to rest. My dinner for the night was the my last half packet of cookies, and the 1-liter bottle of cola I had bought back in Andranopasy. It was meager, but refreshing enough, and though the ground was very uncomfortable, the area was fairly quiet and I fell asleep right away.
Thus ended one of the most unusual sections of my personal bicycle touring history, with almost none of it actually spent on a bike. Though the ending was a little frazzled, I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience these events, see all the places, and meet all the people that I did. I will remember those days on the seas and in the villages for the rest of my life. However, the boat trip that I thought would take two days actually took five. As such, my original schedule was looking impossible now. In reality, this was just another benefit of this little detour. Now, I had finally accepted what I really had known all along. Namely, that the plan for the rest of this trip would be made up day by day as I traveled along. With many more tough days yet to come, changing plans would be the standard procedure more often than not.
Antongo to Ambahikily
Distance: ~30 km
Weather: Sunny, Maximum Temp: 32 C
Terrain: Flat, marshy
Roads Traveled: unmarked footpath
Next: Back On Solid Ground, Sort Of...