In January and February 2014, we cycled some 2000 km across South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town. South Africa proved a fascinating country from a number of perspectives, and I would strongly recommend it to cycle tourists. Instead of a detailed account of our trip – which would quickly bore readers with our recounting the innumerable tiny towns we passed through that all had the same shops – I shall offer here some more general impressions to guide others planning such a trip. Continue reading
On the day we were supposed to fly out of Madagascar, we said goodbye to the Academy of Free Travel house and cycled back to Antananarivo’s airport the way we came over a month ago. Piled onto the back racks of our bikes were a few giant-sized Chinese shopping bags, rolls of foam and some twine that we had bought in a Tana market. Bike boxes do not exist in Madagascar, and the ones we came with were already beaten up after the long journey from Europe, so these materials were all we could work with.
We spent a couple of hours dismantling the bikes and carefully wrapping them, then checked into our Air Madagascar flight to Johannesburg and went through security. When we got to the gate, we were surprised how few passengers there were from the Boeing 737 parked on the tarmac outside. Boarding did not proceed on time, and a few minutes later the gate agent announced that the flight had been canceled.
Probably because there aren’t enough passengers to make it worthwhile, said a Russian businessman with long experience with this airline.
After initial panic among the several dozen passengers, a somewhat orderly queue formed to find out what to do. A policeman canceled the exit stamps in our passports, we were sent into the baggage claim area to retrieve the luggage we had checked (one of the “bike bags” is already torn and in need of further reinforcement), and then we visited the airport’s Air Madagascar office where we were told of the possibility, but not guaranteed, that the flight would leave the next day.
Though we rue bitterly that we were denied the departure we had been looking forward to, at least the airline sorted for us a hotel room, a shuttle to the hotel and back to the airport, and meals. We had hoped to be lodged in one of the nice 4- or 5-star hotels near the airport (which apparently do much of their business from Chinese businessmen), but instead the shuttle took us and a number of other would-be passengers some kilometres back towards Tana, then down a very dodgy side street to a 2-star establishment known as the Les Flots Bleu.
We couldn’t complain so much: the hotel had wi-fi and the restaurant served (and gratis) the best food we’ve had in our entire trip here. Plus, we were a motley crew, and it was fun to speak to a Botswana-born hotel owner from the idyllic Île Sainte-Marie (
Visitor numbers are down, but you don’t live there for the money, you live there for the lifestyle.), a South African economist spending a lot of time in booming Nigeria, and a group of twenty or so Korean tourists.
The next day we had a breakfast and lunch at the hotel and then were shuttled to the airport. Check-in for the flight began late, but most people made it to the gate before the expected departure time. Again, just before boarding was due to begin, it was announced that the flight was canceled.
The Air Madagascar staff claimed that the flight was canceled
for weather reasons in Johannesburg. This was immediately exposed as a lie when some South Africans among us telephoned the Johannesburg airport, who said the weather was fine. By claiming it was an unavoidable weather problem, they wanted to avoid compensating us again with hotels and meals. This time the group had to hold their ground for several hours at the airport’s Air Madagascar office, essentially preventing the employees from closing up and going up before we could get our lodging/meals/transportation vouchers. Eventually they again sent us to the same hotel, telling us that the earliest possible opportunity to get out of here would be on Tuesday, in two days.
So, we were back at Les Flots Bleu, though this time the mood was more boisterous as many wanted to drink to forget, and one Dutch girl had to celebrate her birthday under these abysmal circumstances. The next morning, I slept late, only to discover upon waking that all the South Africans had left, probably just giving up and buying a ticket on the competing South African Airlines Airlink flight Antananarivo–Johannesburg that flies daily and has actually left every day that we’ve been stranded.
We spent our Monday lazily in the hotel, but towards midnight got a taxi to the airport instead of waiting for the free shuttle at 0300, so that we could beat the large Korean tour group to the front of the check-in queue. Antananarivo’s airport is open all night long, the lights are shut off completely for a couple of hours. Cleaning staff and security made their rounds, so it never felt entirely deserted as we set up our position at the check-in desks.
The Air Madagascar flight managed to leave on Tuesday morning around 0600 as scheduled, but it was nonetheless a stressful experience. Check-in did not open until an hour and a half before the scheduled departure, and boarding was delayed long past the time printed on our boarding passes. Every time an announcement was made, we quaked in fear that the flight would again be canceled. Only once a team of stewardesses arrived and a fuel truck began to fill the plane could I start to regain my optimism.
Bottom line: if you want to fly between South Africa and Madagascar, avoid Air Madagascar at all costs and take the South African Airways Airlink flight instead.
Tomorrow we fly from Madagascar to Johannesburg and begin several weeks of cycling across South Africa. While it was nice to see Madagascar for myself, I am appalled by the environmental destruction here, which reduces the country’s appeal as a tourist destination because the interesting nature is all forest-based, and the forest is nearly gone. The environmental destruction goes hand in hand with a stagnant political situation, where both opposing blocs are corrupt and focused mainly on the wealthy centre of the island while the impoverished remainder of the country gets ignored. It can be depressing.
From my experience, I offer the following list of things you should take with you to ease your trip, especially if you plan to cycle as we did:
- A mosquito net. Only more expensive places (30,000 ariary/night and higher) tend to have mosquito nets. There were some cheap rooms on the coast that had nets, but these were filthy, dusty and torn. We regularly put up the inner layer of our MSR HubbaHubba 2 tent in hotels for protection from mosquitos and other insects (there are lots of roaches here).
- Suncream. Imported suncream (Nivea) is available in Shoprite supermarkets in Antananarivo, but at such high prices that you should bring it from home. The locally-made sun-protection cream is not reliable and will not stop your exposed face and hands from burning.
- Earplugs. You might imagine that cycling in Madagascar will bring you through remote, tranquil wilderness. In fact, people live everywhere on this island, and chances are that anywhere you sleep will be noisy.
- Peanut butter. You need something you can spread on a baguette to provide a break from (and more energy than) the rice you’ll be eating at least once a day. You don’t need to bring any from home, just pick some up at a Shoprite supermarket in Antananarivo before setting off. A big jar of imported South African peanut butter (country of origin: India) can be bought for 10,000 ariary (around 3€).
It is frustrating when one is alerted by catalogues to books on language that were never actually published.
Routledge’s Language Family Surveys series now covers most of the major language groups of the world. However, the announced volume on the Manchu-Tungusic languages, said to be edited by Alexander Vovin, never appeared even though it worked its way into the Helsinki University Library catalogue (
on order) and Amazon. I hear that Vovin is still working on this, but it will appear from a different publisher.
Another phantom publication is Teach Yourself Yiddish, a book that was meant to appear in 2009 and compete with the new edition of rival Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish, a book which very much exists. Supposedly authored by Chaim Nelsen and Barry Davis, Teach Yourself Yiddish never did appear, in spite of also being announced at Amazon complete with ISBN.
Preparing to study Mongolian from Krueger’s An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 3rd edition 1993), I’ve been re-reading the Routledge Language Family Surveys volume The Mongolic Languages ed. Juha Janhunen. Below are some musings on and follow-ups to trivia within.
Examples of some crucial [Khalka] consonant contrasts: ad [at] ‘demon’ vs. at [aʰt] ‘castrated camel’; dal [taɮ] ‘seventy’ vs. tal [tʰaɮ] ‘steppe’.
So modern Mongolian is one of those languages that, instead of a voiced–unvoiced distinction in dentals that I could actually pronounce, has an aspirated–unaspirated distinction that I’ll never get down. That’s a damn shame.
[Turkic borrowings in Mongolic] often show a specialized meaning, whereas the native [Mongolic] words have a more general semantic profile, cf. e.g. Mongolic *xüsün ‘hair’ vs. *kilga.su/n ‘hair of a horse’ ← Bulgharic kïlka = Common Turkic *kïl (qïl) ‘hair’.
The ordinary Chuvash word for ‘hair’ today is ҫӳҫ. However, for Russian конский волос ‘horsehair’, the Skvortsovs’ dictionary gives лаша хӗлӗхӗ. For Cv. хӗлӗх, Fedotov’s Этимологический словарь чувашского языка gives a wide array of Turkic cognates, but they are all glossed as ‘horsehair’, so it’s unclear to me on what grounds Claus Schönig in the passage I’ve quoted believes it ever meant ‘hair’ in general.
In the Common Turkic branch, rhotacism, lambdacism is generally absent, but it is occasionally observed in preconsonantal position, which makes the dating of certain loanwords problematic, cf. e.g. Mongolic *buxas ‘pregnant’ (from Common Turkic *bugaz id.) vs. buxar.la‑ ‘to cut the throat’ (from either Bulgharic or Common Turkic, cf. Common Turkic *bogaz ‘throat’).
That Bulgar Turkic had a cognate word for ‘throat’ showing rhotacism is attested by Chuvash пыр id.
Mongolic ulus ← Common Turkic uluš (later replaced in most Turkic languages by a reborrowing from Mongolic).
There is an informative entry on Common Turkic *uluš/ulus on page 152 of Clauson’s A Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish, which notes that the original Turkic form uluš seems to survive only in Karaim.
Mongolic *kerbish ‘brick’ ← Common Turkic *kärpič
The Common Turkic is the source of Russian кирпич. It must say something of the material poverty and fondess for wooden buildings of the Russians of old, that they had to take the word for ‘brick’ from a population generally associated with yurts.
The early Kipchak source Codex Cumanicus exhibits [Mongolic] borrowings like abaɣa ‘uncle’, čïray ‘face’, ebäk ~ elpäk ‘very much’, yada‑ ‘to get tired’, qurulta ‘assembly, council’, manglay ‘forehead’, nögär ‘follower’, and qaburqa ‘rib’.
For what it’s worth, several of these are commonplace in Tatar as well, namely абый, чырай, бик, маңгай and кабырга.
Mongolic *köper > *köxer ‘proud’ > ‘happy’ vs. Turkic *küpez (> *kübez) ‘proud’, Mongolic *köperge > *köxerge ‘bridge’ vs. Turkic *köprüg (*köbrüg).
Of the first set of words here, I’m tempted to claim some connection to Tatar чибәр ‘beautiful’, with cognates in languages of the Volga region meaning ‘happy’. Could the k‑ of the Mongolic or Bulgar word cited above have shifted to an affricate before a front vowel in some other language that was the source of the Tatar? However, I don’t seem to own any etymological reference that describes this possibility. Äxmat’janov’s Татар теленең кыскача тарихи-этимологик сүзлеге suggests only that the Tatar is borrowed from a Mongolic cegeber ‘white, clean’.
For the second set of words, I’ve long suspected a connection to Greek γέφῡρα, but the entry in Clauson on page 690 mentions no connection between the Turkic and other language families (except the loan in Mongolic), mentioning only
morphologically Dev. N. fr. köpür‑ [‘to froth, to foam’] but with no obvious semantic connection. On Greek γέφῡρα, Beekes on page 269 of his Etymological Dictionary of Greek suggests the Greek is borrowed from Hattic hammuruwa ‘beam’, with all instances of the words in Homeric Greek representing ‘beam’ and the meaning ‘bridge’ is attested only later. However, if a meaning ‘bridge’ is attested for this word by the mid 1st millennium BC, would that not give plenty of time for it to be borrowed into an unknown Iranian language of Central Asia and then picked up by Turkic?
From Fianarantsoa we returned quickly to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse to meet up with other participants of the Academy of Free Travel base for a New Year’s excursion. At 0645 on a Monday we arrived at Fianarantsoa’s taxi-brousse station, where a tout immediately appeared in the crowd to show us the way to the ticket office. A single ticket to Antananarivo cost 18,000 ariary. We were then pointed to one taxi-brousse out of many in the parking lot, and baggage handlers lifted our bikes and panniers up to the roof, where they were expertly strapped down. Because there were many other vehicles parked in front of ours, and we were still the only passengers for this particular taxi-brousse, we thought we were in for a long wait. Traffic in front of us moved quickly, however, and a large family appeared to complete the obligatory number of passengers, so we were on the road within an hour.
The taxi-brousse journey was considerably less uncomfortable than I had been led to expect. Passengers were seated three across, leaving enough room to not feel cramped. One could read or even sleep. Due to the twists and turns in the RN7 road, and the consequent slow speeds, it took us all day to cover the 300-some kilometres to Antananarivo. We finally arrived at 1730, though we spent the last half hour stuck in the kind of traffic jam typical of the capital. Arriving at Tana’s taxi-brousse station was extremely unpleasant, with a large crowd of impoverished men trying to get work as porters, who would grab our panniers and try to carry them off for us in spite of our refusals. Luckily, we had just enough time to cycle up to the Academy of Free Travel’s base in the north of the city before it got dark – being outside at night in Antananarivo is not advised.
There was a brief reunion with those acquaintances of ours who were in Antananarivo at the time. The next morning, we set off for the point decided on for the New Year’s gathering, near the village of Andasibe. We left the house at the unusually late hour of 0700, leisurely walked across town to the eastbound taxi-brousse station, and paid 5,000 ariary each for the three-hour journey to Moramanga. There, we switched to a local bus (paying another 2,000 ariary) and after another hour of travel were dropped off in front of Andasibe’s train station.
Some of the gang had already been here and knew of a nearby place along the railway where we could all pitch our tents and make a campfire. The railway divided us from the Andasibe National Park. While some of the Academy of Free Travel members had been hitchhiking around the island, others had learned that trains were an interesting way to get around, including for free: the freight trains here typically attract some locals, who are tolerated by the rail company as long as they are discreet, so no reason some of us couldn’t try it as well. Indeed, we were waiting for another group to join us that evening off a westbound train.
We had a dinner of pineapple, lychees and bananas with buckwheat porridge cooked on a campfire. Having become accustomed to being early to bed and early to rise in the Tropics, most of us fell asleep before midnight. At dawn the next morning we were awoken by a local police officer, who asked us to pack up and leave, repeating that we were on propriété privée (in fact, it was a worthless piece of scrubland between a river and the railroad track, but travelers report that such phrasing is typically used to drive camping foreigners to hotels). As the Academy of Free Travel has well over a decade of politely ignoring annoying police officers in a variety of Third World countries, we held our ground and the gendarme eventually got bored with us and left. We got up and took the tents down, but remained for an hour or two to drink tea and listen to the whooping of lemurs from the national park.
We all returned to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse on January 1, a day when the capital seemed abandoned and almost all businesses (even petrol station shops and hotel restaurants) were closed. The Russians are now choosing their next destinations around Madagascar, but I feel like I have seen enough and would rather stay in Antananarivo for a few days to concentrate on my reading, though we will cycle to a place or two in the vicinity before our flight out.
The Fianarantsoa–Coté Est Railway is often ranked one of the highlights of a trip to Madagascar, so one would expect it to be fun, full of tourists and the tickets easy to purchase. In fact, it is not any of these.
The ticket booth at the train station in Manakara no longer opens for business, and the station’s hall is locked more often than not (this is the case with most Madagascar train stations). Intending to take the train on a Friday, we went to the station on the preceding Tuesday morning to get tickets. As the front entrance was locked, we walked around to the back and found the dispatcher’s office. After waiting for him to finish his conversation over a radio, we explained our need, but he told us to come back in the afternoon.
When we returned, the dispatcher told us that the station manager was still not present. However, an unemployed youth who hangs around the station was sent to fetch him from his home (and later asked un cadeau for the service, for which we gave him 1,000 ariary). Nonetheless, when he arrived, the station master told us we could not buy the tickets and reserve a seat until the day before the journey. What’s the point of making a seat reservation if it cannot be done well in advance?
On Thursday afternoon, we went to the station yet again. The station master was waiting for us this time, oddly enough wearing a freely distributed presidential candidate’s t-shirt (typically worn only by the poorest of society here who cannot afford new clothes – is a Malagasy station master’s salary so small?). We went into his office and were asked to choose the seats we wanted from a diagram of a first-class carriage. The diagram was blank when it was handed to us, so we were the first to make a reservation, but we knew that in a developing country, the car would never be empty when you ultimately got to it. The price for a ticket and seat reservation for the entire route from Manakara to Fianarantsoa was 40,000 ariary, rather expensive by Madagascar standards, but there is a dual pricing system by which Malagasy pay very little and foreigners five times as much. We were asked to be at the station at 0600 Friday morning for a 0645 departure.
When we got to the station the next morning, there was already a large crowd around the station. The station workers saw that we had bikes and waved us through the queue. Though we wrangled with the attendants, we were not allowed to take our bikes into the first-class carriage. Instead were obligated to put them in a freight car and charged 7,000 ariary for it. Also waiting for the train were some Americans who had been volunteering in Madagascar for the Peace Corps for a couple of years already, and they were loading their mountain bikes into the freight car, which put our minds at ease. The bikes have to be attached to the wall very high up, and travellers are obligated to bring their own rope (as it is not sold at the train station nor anywhere around). We managed to use our bike locks for this. When we entered the first-class carriage we found
place reservée tags on our seats and only our seats, as everyone else had simply waited until the morning of departure to buy tickets.
I wish I could say that this was a fun journey, but it dashed my expectations of some kind of former colonial elegance like the first-class carriage in the train from Colombo to Kandy in Sri Lanka. Except for us, the three Peace Corps volunteers and a German tourist, the first-class carriage was full of Malagasy, and not even the upper class but common locals. The result was a lack of respect of privacy (the female American volunteers got especially ogled) and tranquility (youths listened to loud music on their mobile phones) and more comparable to a third-class carriage in the developing world.
The train goes at a snail’s pace and makes very long stops in villages to load and unload cargo, or in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. We left Manakara at 0645 and did not arrive in Fiananaratsoa until 2200, an absurd duration for a journey of little more than 100 km. The train is often too bumpy to read a book and pass the time that way. One has to buy food whenever it is sold at platforms, because several hours may then pass when nothing substantial is on offer during stops. (Drinks are continually available from a cooler in the first-class carriage for 2500 ariary, however.) The best scenery is on the northwestern half of the route, but by the time we got there, it was already getting very dark, so the views can only be appreciated if one goes in the opposite direction from Fiananaratsoa to Manakara.
I won’t entirely dissuade travelers in Madagascar from taking this train. However, it is best left to those looking for an adventure in developing-world discomfort (just like when I went around India in third-class carriages), in spite of the expensive ticket that suggests the journey will be in relative luxury.
Manakara can be said to have turned its back on the Indian Ocean, with no view of the sea (or even the smell of salt) from the city centre. Continue reading
When walking around Manakara, I was surprised to see a sign pointing the way to an Orthodox parish here. I passed an Orthodox church in Antananarivo, but assumed it was just for expatriates resident in the capital. When I entered Manakara’s Orthodox church, I found that it was attended entirely by Malagasy and the priest was a local too. Indeed, the priest said that we were only the second group of foreigners to stop by since the parish’s founding in 2007.
The Orthodox Church in Madagascar is, like in all African countries, under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. The music used and the language on the icons in the church make the Greek origin of the diocese readily clear. However, the liturgy has been fully translated into Malagasy, and in spite of the Byzantine chant brought over, the exuberance (and deafening volume) with which the locals sing is something out of the Orthodox ordinary.
During vespers yesterday and at the liturgy of the Nativity this morning, I saw around ten adults and a much larger amount of children (whose parents had sent them when they themselves could not be present). The parishioners seem drawn mainly from the city’s middle class. Everyone seems very well catechized, they make the very same gestures as in Eastern Europe, and the children who served as choir seem to have fully committed to memory what they were to sing.
In a religion already infamous for lax standards of punctuality, the Madagascar take things even further: vespers was scheduled for 1700, but in spite of repeated bell-ringing, no one came until an hour later.
Wow, life in Madagascar really does proceed mora-mora [slowly, slowly], doesn’t it? I remarked to the priest while we waited for others to come and begin the service. Nevertheless, once people got to services, everyone stayed to the end. They were also more interested in remaining after everything was over and chatting with their fellow parishioners. It is an interesting scene and I hope to have the opportunity to see one or two more Orthodox parishes during my time in Madagascar.
Before his death in April 2012, Gábor Bereczki had long been working on an etymological dictionary of Mari. Klára Agyagási and Eberhard Winkler inherited the manuscript and completed work on it last year. Harrassowitz has finally published this Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Tscheremissischen in its series Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica, ISBN 9783447100540. My proverbial cheque is in the post, though I worry that every one of the Mari words that have most puzzled me in terms of etymology (e.g. шнуй ‘holy’) will be present.