Manambolo River Trip, Madagascar – Getting to the River – Part II

This post is part of a 10 day trip with Remote River Expeditions.

Here we sit in the low-ceilinged bedroom of a gracious villager who is thrilled to have 2 stranded foreigners hanging out at her house.

The room is ample despite the very low ceiling.  A double bed with a lilac satin cover sits in one corner. A table covered with a blue cloth, a radio and a large storage box painted black, orange and salmon pink complete the furniture. On the other side of the room, random pieces of clothing are draped over a cord – a makeshift wardrobe that is most likely the belongings of the entire family. A sheet of thin plastic linoleum looking material with faded yellow roses on it covers the floor. Hanging on the wall is a colorful posters and a photo from their wedding day.

This is one of the more upscale houses in the village of Beambiaty which has no electricity or running water. The public outhouse is a squat toilet in a fly infested shack with a ceiling so low you can’t stand upright to pull up your pants.

From a distance Beambiaty looks more prosperous. Painted houses surrounded by orchards of orange trees. Alex says a wealthy owner makes 8,000,000 ariary off this land. That’s about $24,000 USD.

We’ve now made two attempts to make it up the hill just beyond the village with no luck and once again find ourselves accepting the hospitality of this kind Malagasy family.

Leaving Belobaka

Our morning began at 6:30AM in Belobaka with a simple breakfast of white bread, butter, jam, Laughing Cow cheese, strong coffee and real milk.

We drove the 40 to 50 kilometers to Beambiaty on a rough road similar to that of the day before without difficulties.

First Attempt up the Hill

After a short visit in town we make the first attempt to reach Akavandra, where the canoe part of the journey begins. Even before the impossible hill there are other difficulties.

A deep muddy section stymies us causing us to backtrack through town and cross a section of road where villagers have laid their rice out to dry between the houses. No one in the village owns a car so no one cares if it is passible or not.

Next is a dam built across the road diverting the running water to the orange orchard just across from where the villagers bathe.

Finally, we need to get up the slick dust powdered hill, an exercise made more difficult by the vehicle’s bald tires. The clutch falters and after several attempts we head back down to town.

Waiting for Repairs

Once back we stop in the middle of the village and the driver, Johan, and the assistant Vonje, borrow some tools from a guy who owns a truck and they start the long process of trying to fix the clutch.

Don and I take a walk around town. The sun is getting high in the sky and the village children gather in groups to watch us.

I take out my camera and they scatter laughing as they run away, only to sneak back, still giggling, and pose for me, delighted to see their image on the back of the camera.

We sit in an open area in the shade. Village people great us. We have no language in common other than a few French words and the 3 Malagasy words Alex has taught us.

The children again gather to watch us. The brave ones venture towards us with the others creeping up close behind, like the birds of Bodega Bay. It would be spooky except for their smiling faces and curious gaze.

Don leaves to check on the vehicle and the kids become braver, closing in on me by the time he gets back. Still laughing it’s all a big game.

Back at the vehicle a small crowd had gathered there as well. The fixing of the vehicle is also big entertainment on a sleepy Wednesday morning.

We sit on the porch of our “host” family. Their clothes are cleaner than the average villager’s. The wife, Sydonie, is smartly dressed, sporting a colorful hat that matches her outfit. With Alex’s help we make small talk, but communication is very difficult. Smiles say the most.

Around 11:30 Alex says that Sydonie has made lunch for us and takes us into the bedroom where we are now sitting. The small blue table is presented with dishes of rice, zebu tripe and pickled green beans. She is very proud and delighted to be serving us. The food is nourishing. The green beans have a nice vinegar flavor but the tripe is so rubbery I nearly have to swallow it whole.

After lunch an exchange of pleasantries ends with a photo with our hostess. She is thrilled to have her picture taken with us and I promise to send a copy to Alex to give to her.

We wait a while longer while they work on the car. They pull out a part and beat it on a piece of wood before deciding they need a new o-ring which they magically find on the lorry, the only other vehicle in town.

The truck finally put back together, they take it for a test drive. Feels like they will never come back but after nearly a half an hour they arrive pleased with the results.

Second Attempt up the Hill

We say our good byes and head off, back over the muddy roads that gave us so much trouble just this morning. This time the vehicle has an even harder time getting through the steep muddy waters and a crowd soon forms, some get in with their spades and smooth out the track while others help direct the action.

Children stand at the side of the vehicle trying to get a glimpse of us, quickly hiding behind a bush or each other when I smile at them. I take out the camera for a photo and they duck for cover giggling.

Finally we’re across the rough patch. It goes pretty well until we reach the hill that turned us back earlier in the day. The driver tries serval times to make it up the loose powder, a little further than before but no go. The tires are shot and the driver finally gives up.

An angry bull at the top of the hill heads down the road towards us. His yokemate has broken free and he is left stuck in the one side of it, dragging the full yoke. Unhappily he jerks it around then rests and continues to make his way down the hill. When he gets close Vunje chases him down the hill away from the vehicle.

Alex and Vunje spend the next half hour making phone calls trying to find another vehicle. They find a taxi brousse that can come that night and we will leave early the next morning. I have my doubts but we head back into town where we will spend the night at this same house where we had lunch.

Back in Town

Back in town the locals are happy to see us, the usual crowd gathers. Through Alex we find out that the family wants a photo with us that they can see on the computer of the wealthy store owner in town.

After the photo session a crowd heads to the house with the solar powered computer where the photos are downloaded successfully. Everyone crowds around the screen to get a better look. The good chairs, upholstered dining room chairs, are brought out for Don and me.

Soon babies are brought out to have their photos taken with the foreigners. I feel like Santa with children posing in my lap.

When everyone is satisfied, Don and I slip away and stroll around town in the evening light. So many people out. The streets filled with children. The zebu are herded back to town.

Spending the Night

Back at our homestay there is a discussion about where we should sleep. The couple wants to give us their bedroom and bed. Don and I, not wanting to put out our hosts, prefer just a corner where we can set out our Thermarest mattress. It’s the blowup kind which I’m sure is more comfortable than anything here. We tell Alex we don’t want to offend the family but we prefer to sleep on our own mattress. It is decided that we will sleep on a Malagasy mattress. Only they put it in our hosts’ bedroom. So we end up monopolizing 2 beds, completely defeating what we were trying to do which was lessen our impact on this family.

In the evening while waiting for dinner Don and I sit on the porch. I try to write, Don reads but the family wants to chat or least they try with broken words in English and French, small painful conversation –How many brothers, children etc. After a while I realize that this not just poor language skills but also some alcohol induced slurring. Everyone is overly nice, smiling and shaking hands.

Finally Alex tells us dinner is ready we eat alone at the same table in the bedroom where we ate lunch – a ramen noodle and veg combination – as good as instant ramen can be.

Afterwards we ask where we can pee before heading to bed. They lead Don first to the balcony at the side of the house and tell him to pee off the railing. I am supposed to use a discrete hole in the floorboard of the same balcony.

Things quiet down and Don and I are left to sleep. The mattress is very hard. I wake up at 11:30, my back screaming tight, and I can’t get comfortable. Don gets out one of the air mattresses while I try to stretch and take some ibuprofen.

It works and I sleep until near morning when the taxi brousse arrives shortly after 4AM.

September 22, 2016

For links to all the posts in this series see the Madagascar page.