Venturing into my Mind while In The Blue
Excerpts from my Madagascar journals
I’m scared stiff on my flight to Tana. My luggage weighed a freakin ton and Amsterdam was super dodgy at 5am. In the few minutes that I had to wait for a bus, three drunk dudes were already chatting me up and telling me that I’m a “nice girl”, and “wow, you’re strong to carry all that luggage” and “how long have you been in Amsterdam and when are you coming back?”. I really missed my warm sleepy bedsheets. Seriously considered not going through with it. I mean, Amsterdam in the summer is so much fun and I have everything I need there, right? But the flight is decent and I only have one other girl in my row, a 20 year old named June who is doing the same kind of expedition as I but with a company called Frontiers. Sounds a heck of a lot cheaper and much more basic. In an attempt to have a friend with me, even a brand new one, I chat her up. I applaud her for her bravery and feel like a fraud as I clutch my Air France blanket. To keep from losing my mind I watch Nebraska, an ultra depressing film about middle America and boredom and substance abuse, which does nothing to raise my spirits. Once I land I’m pleasantly surprised to find all of my luggage on the carousel and a cheaper Visa price than I had expected. I meet a sweetheart local lady who has just returned from Paris and she helps me to navigate the airport, which is super disorganized and maddening. The security guards take my passport and promise to return it in a mere moment. I stand there for a good 35 minutes wondering what the hell I would do if said passport was not ever returned. But it is, and once I’m out of the cattle pen I buy a SIM card and exchange a bit of money just to feel the rate out. There’s a smiley older man from the Ibis hotel shuttle waiting for me which is fantastic and in hindsight very necessary, since driving around Antananarivo was not at all what I would have expected. Wish I had suitable photos to convey the atmosphere at night, but it was much more dark and bare than I could have imagined. Sharing the shuttle with me are a Dutch guy and a bunch of researchers attending a TB conference. Need to find them later, especially the female physician from McGill, whom I instantly adore. We arrive at the hotel and I sleep like a dead person.
I was a bit concerned about accessing money via my Maestro card, so I stalked out the Dutch guy who had been on my airport shuttle, named Martijn. I got his hotel room number from the front desk clerk and when he opened the door in his briefs, 8-pack abdominals on full display, I applauded myself for my resourcefulness. I knew that he wanted to go back to the airport and figured it would be smart to share cab costs when I went to catch my Toliara flight. Plus it never hurts to have a giant man around when you’re withdrawing large amounts of cash in a third-world country. we became insta-best friends, chatting about life-in-general over monstrous bottles of THB. He spent all day at the airport, since his luggage never arrived from Paris, and hanging out with him sure beat waiting for my eternally delayed Toliara flight amidst nervous French and Polish folk. In apology, I received a free dinner voucher for the airport resto and scammed one for Martijn, who was getting increasingly worried about his luggage and malaria pill situation. His friend was joining him tomorrow so I felt that he was in good hands. I gave him one of my granola bars just in case and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye as I was ushered into the boarding area as I asked about the status of my flight shortly after dinner.
Side note: Malagasy beer is apparently, in order of good to shit, THB, Castel, and something else that is too crap to even name.
I had arrived at the Mahayana hotel in Toliara at 3am. Pickup by 4×4 to travel to the research site was at 7am. Normally, I would be a total piece of crap on so little sleep, but I’m surprisingly bouncy this morning. I instantly like my driver, a beautiful man with a warm smile and a calm nature. Plus it’s a really nice ride. Getting out of Toliara is a little nutty, but once we pass the city the views change drastically. Everything, as far as I can see, is in some way or another partly funded by branches of the UN, or WWF, or some other charitable organization. Wooden signs in Malagasy and French adorn everything, and there’s the smell of dust and sun and animals and food. I had a good zen vibe with the driver – we didn’t talk at all but seemed to enjoy each others company. The engine overheated a couple of times, but that’ll happen when you’re knee deep in sand. He had used his own drinking water to cool down the engine and smiled appreciatively when I offered up mine as he returned, sweaty and tired, to the car. We passed lots of little villages, where locals proudly displayed seafood, cassava, fruits and handicrafts. My driver watched my reaction to these sights with a certain amusement and brought me some Boca Boca for breakfast and a piece of cassava. We arrived at the research site at around 5 pm and before I knew it, the only friend I had in Madagascar shook my hand good bye and disappeared into a cloud of dust.
My first full day in Andavadoaka was nothing to write home about. Apparently with me also came the bad weather, so all of the fabulous things that I had planned went out the proverbial window. No 400m swim test, no SCUBA fittings, no pirogue adventures. I did meet my new Lord of the Flies posse, however.
From left: Jules, Ed, Eva, Rumeysa, Monica, Jordan, Alex, Me, Will C, Tom, Chris, Rachel, Ingrid, Keir and Richard.
Not pictured: Will K, Kaz, Louisa, JD, Emily, Dorothy, staff members Madison, Lisa and Sam and Coco Beach staff Aimee and Rigo.
Side note: Papozy is the little girl that sells samosas and boca bocas and homemade peanut butter on the stone steps between the village and our huts. She’s got the loveliest smile in the world and is smart as a whip.
So the weather bucked up a bit and Ill Will (as he came to be known) and I did our swim test with Tom the Dive Instructor, which was pretty hilarious. The tide had abandoned us and so really we were just being ridiculous and giggling and Will kept stepping on urchins and stuff that’ll kill him. It was so shallow that at some point I think we were “swimming” with our bellies comfortably resting on sand, but Tom couldn’t see that from 500m away, so he just kept giving us a giant thumbs up as Will and I laughed and choked on sea water. Once complete and cleared for SCUBA, I had a 1-on-1 with Lecturer Lisa and Scientist Sam on dangerous sea creatures and dive basics and camp rules and became convinced that if I don’t die in Madagascar, I will be an anomaly.
The No. 1 thing they teach you in Advanced Open Water is that you have to do a buoyancy check any time anything changes – your environment, your equipment, your body, your philosophies, etc., which was why it was particularly funny that my first orientation dive was a total bust and I was too buoyant. I will probably forget a lot of things in my old age, but the funniest scene in the world that will likely be replayed in my head until I die was having Major Madison, the Expedition Coordinator, literally jumping on me in the water, trying to get me to sink. It was like the scene from the Princess Bride where Westley tries to subdue Andre the Giant. In the evening we took an overnight homestay trip to Tompolove and pirogued across the jovially-named Bay of Assassins, though the boats were motorized so we got totally soaked. The scene was cozy as we ate octopus, visited sea cucumber and seaweed farms at midnight and played Charades by the light of torches and campfire. I decide that day that I’m in love with Will C.’s giggle and want it as my ringtone.
I scored on the Tompolove homestay and got a bedroom all to myself, complete with mosquito net, sink, table, and shuttered windows. I slept like a baby, and awoke to the sounds of chickens and goats and pots banging. We ate a hasty breakfast and arrived back at camp after playing lots of beach Bananagrams (Scrabble is my addiction). The pirogue ride was much drier on the return journey, and we giggled and reminisced over dinner and a bonfire.
Rest day. Decided that sleeping was boring so I went whale watching with Keir and Kaz along the Mozambique Channel, where we saw some whales and dolphins and snorkeled and swam. Went into town for the first time since my arrival with Rachel (from Toronto!) afterwards to peruse the local offerings and bought a hammock that Chris and Ed promptly mounted. There’s a lovely local woman that makes some extra money laundering our non-intimates, and walked around all the huts singing out the only English word she knows (“Wash? Wash?”), so I gratefully offer up my salty clothes from the Bay of Assassins shenanigans. We have been excitedly keeping abreast of the football match highlights via friends and family back home and are ecstatic to hear that we have been invited to watch the World Cup final at the President’s house in the village. Although we try to not be disruptive and go unnoticed by the villagers by watching quietly from the sidelines, we are quickly spied and excitedly ushered to the front of the screen like some kind of diplomats, where an elderly Vezu man has set up a private bench for our viewing pleasure. At bonfire that evening, Scientist Sam produces, from the depths of his fleece garments, the GOOD rum and we sing like crazies and wonder how we got to be so lucky.
I go on two dives today, at 9 and 11, and still struggle a little with motion sickness. It’s the rocking of the boat during the few minutes that the motor is off and we are gearing up that kills me. I come back happy but spent to learn that poor, brave Jordan has badly burst her ear drum and won’t be going in the water for the remainder of the expedition. Our mess-hall gets Mars bars and we freak out like one would expect when one is devoid of sugary treats for a few days.
Since I’m clearly on a roll, I go on two dives again today. Ill Will, having been grounded for cutting his feet on urchins and rocks at camp, gets clearance finally from the hospital to dive and dances excitedly all over camp. During classes that afternoon, we watched some videos on Vezu tradition which involved 35 ways to dispose of foreskin following a circumcision. I knew this would be a learning experience but never would I have expected this.
This morning there was some discussion on whether or not diving would be possible with the windy conditions. We decided to give it a whirl at 11, and the viz was so ridiculously bad that there was nothing to do but abort. Did, however, play a wickedly fun round of charades underwater with Keir and quickly decided that he was the most awesome person I have ever met in my entire life. After we took part in a comical Vezo dancing lesson, Alex busted up her toe running around camp. The dangers are real, folks! Before sundown, adorable little Monica came to my hut with a baobab fruit and made my week, since it was delicious and exotic and fascinating and new.
Today was academic accomplishment day, and I passed my advanced underwater navigation test and my benthic computer test after my one dive at 11.
We left the sleepy warmth of our cabins (and in my case, of David Lee’s amazing sleeping bag, thank you again!) at the crack of dawn (not even, actually. it was a good hour before the sun got up!) for the neighboring village of Belavelouke for Open Day, a promotional BV thing with booths, talent shows, football match and hilarious sing-songy camion ride. Night snorkel upon return. Kind of amazing with phosphorescence/bio-luminescence and torches lighting up the water and that crazy, crazy starry sky. I have never seen a sky in my life like the sky in Madagascar. It’s the stuff of novels and soliloquies.
Another warm and sunny day, and the whole group of us, various personalities and temperaments and interests and what-have-you tanned ourselves taupe and made friends with the volunteer Italian doctors whom we had met at the Epi Bar and the clinic. In the afternoon Emily, Rachel and I went sailing with Goff and almost peed ourselves laughing when Rachel broke the outrigger and we almost capsized. All’s well that ends well. Bonfire jokes at night.
Sunday, free day. Nothing at all. Bought a papaya and some weird berries in town and mused and philosophized.
To obtain AOWD certification, one must do a big ol’ scary deep dive, which I was amping myself up for today. But it’s super windy so all dives have been cancelled. Instead took a trip to the baobab forest with Jacks, our local biologist guide, and then took part in fish lectures and chores in the afternoon. Did I mention that you have to filter your own water and sweep and check the equipment and whatnot? We also learned that visitors from the UN and several journalists are coming for a few days to assess sustainability efforts and the funding situation for the next few years. Ill Will got us involved in a game of Assassins for that evenings’ “Tantara“, which had everyone messing with each others’ heads and distrusting everyone.
Finally, with the bad weather subsiding, I completed my deep dive at 6am. I won’t lie, this will be something that will take me a few tries to enjoy. It’s intimidating the first time around, the water and visibility drastically changes at such a depth, and you really can’t tell which way is up. I can see nervous personalities having a freak out and abandoning diving forever at such a depth. But what you can learn is astonishing. We came across a forest of gorgonian leaves the size of yacht sails and were absolutely enchanted. Major Madison said that in all her 2876 dives, this made her Top 5. Coming back to my cabin, physically exhausted but spiritually sound, I thought it only fitting to watch Out of Africa on Rachel’s tablet as the sun went down in the background.
Maybe it was the deep dive. Maybe it was too much sun. Maybe it was iffy Zebu meat or too many Mars bars. Maybe it was my physical reaction to Meryl Streep’s Danish accent from the night before. Whatever the reason, I woke up feeling queasy, passed on diving, and slept for 24 hours.
Today didn’t fare any better. I thanked the drugstore gods for the anti-diarrhea and rehydration salt tablets in my bag and closed my eyes within 2 minutes of opening them. Cutest roomies in the world brought me plain white rice and bananas to keep hunger at bay and let me rest undisturbed. This solidifies a woman-bond that began in earnest when we picked our reef-inspired 007 names – Sandy Silver Sweetlips, Kaz Pale Damselfish, and Rachel Halfmoon Triggerfish.
With my tummy still icky but somewhat better, I push myself to fake-it-till-I-make-it and rejoin the adventure. I notice that at this point in the game, no one is judging anyone on eating habits, bowel movements, musical tastes or instrumental talents. We’re divers, travelers, and explorers, and all we care about are each others’ safety and [relative] sanity. Though the idea of shoving forkfuls of rice, beans, fish and beef down my throat makes me queasy, I am also well-aware of how fortunate I am to eat so heartily in this remote and rugged part of the world (or anywhere in the world, to be honest), so I cannot bring myself to decline an offer to eat dinner with a family in the village of Andava. Adorable little Monica joins me as I sit down with a family of 6. We quickly realize that no one can communicate verbally, in English or French or Vezo or Malagasy, so we bond through the universal language of Disney. I knew having all those jingle lyrics down cold would come in handy one day, if not on the glittering stages of Broadway, then on the dusty floorboards of Andava.
Disney cures all woes, clearly, and I awake feeling right as rain. I go on a good dive with great viz, clearly a reward for my “just keep swimming” attitude the day before. Scientist Sam shows us some mangroves, the subject of his Masters thesis, and we go to Andava to learn how to make Boca Boca’s with Jacks. Not as good as Papozy’s, so she won’t be getting a run for her money any time soon.
Today was quite possibly the highlight of the whole trip. Travel brochures and glossy magazines aside, we all know that even in the most incredible locations, you cannot have gorgeousness all the time as weather and factors beyond anyone’s control will wreak havoc on your plans every now and then. But today was filled with the most incredible snorkeling and fresh zebu milk vanilla yogurt that Papozy’s cousin made and wild, fresh coconut that Ed got down from a tree, and jumping silver sardine-like fish and all kinds of awesomeness. Saw octopus and lobsters and so many amazing fish. To top it all off in fun fashion, we trekked to the Epi bar with Monica and Richard in the evening, where I was summoned to a Malagasy dance off with “Frosty Tips”, a recurring character in my dancing adventures. Think, Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing but about a foot shorter, with bleached blond hair that’s grown out some and feet that can’t quit, won’t quit the shuffle. I won.
I dove, I watched shooting stars. Yes, you can spend all day doing that.
Again, the weather was kind of meh (welcome to winter, yo) so there was no diving, but I did use my boundless energy to create a mangrove presentation with Ingrid and Kaz and make samosas with Jacks’ wife. I am bewildered at how anyone can make samosas more than once. It takes all day!!
Today was nice again, so I dove twice. Afterwards, we took a trip to Andava with Jacks where we put our brainstorming powers to use to try to think up ways of ridding the town of the endless plastic water bottles that were washing up ashore. Burning them was not really an option, and neither was burying them. They were mostly broken in some way or another so making those fancy lights wasn’t really an option either since they couldn’t reliably hold water. So once JD decided that he could stitch together the bulk of the bottle body by slicing it open to create a plastic sheet, I decided that I could make plastic mats out of the leftover mouthpieces, and even create fancy visuals with the colourful bits that remained of the plastic seals. In the evening, encouraged by my earlier genius and fully convinced that I was brilliant, I decided to put together a scavenger hunt for my new friends. It all worked well until Will found the cookies early….
We tried diving at 9, but Monica’s ear wouldn’t equalize, and since I decided on baobab-fruit-introduction day that I adored her and couldn’t leave her alone to die an uncomfortable death, we aborted. Instead of feeling glum, we remembered our Andava homestay concerto, and sang on the boat on the surface. Anything, basically, that was familiar. Proud Mary. You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Grease. Probably some Beiber, I won’t lie. Dragged our tired vocal chords to the Epi bar before dinner and danced with the Italian doctors. Ingrid summoned me to a chess match in the evening, where our dusty skills got a bit brushed up, and the sun went down on chats on our porch with the crew about everything ranging from Geocaching and NYC’s Dead Drop to The Anarchists Handbook and Bear Grylls and how awesome he is and we want to be his friend.
Well folks, my last dive at 11. Three dolphins came to say goodbye and wish me well on my travels!! We just sat there in total shock and silence, absolutely transfixed and unable to move. They followed us for a while even while we roared the boat towards camp. Sam played a little harmonica after dinner. Epi bar with the whole gang in the evening.
Spider Tortoise Monitoring trip in Lomboara. Good wade on foot across Bay of Assassins, and nice quiet dry pirogue ride. I like the camion too. Evening sunset at the bar was epic with Ill Will and Kaz and zebu skewers and cold beer.
Sunday. I want to visit the town church before I leave Andava, since I can see that it’s a vital meeting place in the community, and I have been judged quite harshly by the Canadian staff for having any interest in it whatsoever. I recall encountering this same judgement when I lived in Canada, and I avoid a lengthy and heated discussion about the pros and cons of religion and simply explain that the boy that I have been teaching English to, Voafidy, would like to show it to me. I am surprised that Monica, Ingrid, Ed, Rumeysa, and Eva all eagerly join me. I am astounded by what I see. The villagers that we see daily, usually quite disheveled and animated, have turned up to mass in their most prized garments, all washed and pressed, with their hair done up in various ways, some wearing elaborate hats of all different colours, and jewelry that would make Hollywood divas envious. They walk quietly and respectfully to their seats, chat amongst themselves and greet their neighbours, their friends and their families. And they sing! I have never heard people sing as beautifully as I heard the villagers sing that day. I got ferklempt.
That evening we sail to a three course lunch at Laguna Blu resort, fresh from their renovation following total destruction in the cyclone of 2013, and it’s Richards birthday so we have cake.
I’m out. I hate saying goodbye so I casually hug the few people who have joined me for breakfast at 7:30, but miss saying anything to many of the others. It’s the digital age, for Pete’s sake, and where there’s love, there’s a way to connect. Plus I don’t want to get emotional, I need all my wits about me since I’m now alone again. But I spot my friend waiting for me, the driver from my ride up to Andava, and my spirits rise. We immediately settle into our comfortable silence and tears stream soundlessly down my cheeks as he drives away from Andava, Enya playing on the radio, a small finch flying right beside my passenger side window as we race on. I watch him in awe as he flaps feverishly, keeping up with the pace of the giant truck. We get to town fairly early, at 3. I relax at the Mahayana, check email, take a dip in the freezing pool, grab a burger and beer in town at La Bernique. I feel much more exposed now, more people are aware of me and it’s harder to walk around undisturbed. I take a pousse-pousse back to the hotel after dark. Tried to read but fell asleep pretty much right away.
woke up and took a stroll through town. Got pastries and coffee at a nice resto called Le Boeuf. Found out that those little berries are jujubes, or zizibe as one local woman called them, from the Latin ziziphus jujuba. Walked around the market, saw a nice church, see that people do use the taxi-brousse (bus) quite a bit. Ranovola is rice water. Went to the airport, greeted the check-in clerk in Malagasy and added “Vao Vao?” which made him smile and may or may not have been responsible for him turning a blind eye to my 10 kilo baggage overage. Met an Italian couple in queue who traveled around but complained of a lot of beggars and rain around northeast coast. Sounds like I win. Flight delayed one hour. Unassigned seating, there’s a first.
Flight to Paris is uneventful, except that it’s been a month since I’ve properly showered and the Hermes-clad woman beside me keeps glancing my way anxiously. I’m ignoring her. C’est la vie.