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.
It was always overcast and often raining during our days in Ranomafana, and when we set off southeast, we were mainly going through drizzle. That was not so much of a problem, for at least the rain kept things cool and we could cycle all day without having to stop at mid-day when the sun would be at its most oppressive.
The road, which remains fully paved all the way to the coast, initially proceeds through a much greener part of the country than we had seen so far. Although deforestation is visible here and there, the jungle landscape of Ranomafana extends for a long time after the national park itself.
The houses in the lowlands here are very different from the stately red earthen homes in the highlands, as they are very small, built out of bamboo and palms and set on stilts a hand’s breadth above the ground. The people have changed too as we have entered the home of another ethnic group: women had elaborate braids and both sexes occasionally wear hats that look like the tubeteika of Central Asia.
We passed a big market in the village of Kianjavato, spread out along the RN45 and bringing traffic to a crawl. Many Malagasy we have passed are dressed in old clothes that are falling apart, but the market offered mainly new clothes from China.
We stopped for the night in Irondro, the bustling series of eateries and small shops that has grown around the intersection where the road splits into the RN25 east towards Mananjary and (our route) the RN12 southeast towards Manakara. The owner of the hotely where we had a late lunch/early dinner had the affable air that distinguishes restaurant proprietors who have clearly dealt with many tourists before. Indeed, we saw a couple of backpackers walking around outside, and two European (CoE and not EU, I think) election observers came in to have lunch too.
As there was no formal guesthouse in the village, we asked at the hotely for une chambre. The proprietor led us now the street to a series of wooden huts, one room of which was let to us for the night. It had evidently once belonged to a teenage male, as the walls were adorned with posters of such Western pop stars as Britney Spears, Toni Braxton and Avril Lavigne in lurid poses. The mattress and mosquito net were considerably more dodgy than usual, in spite of a woman putting on fresh sheets, so we cleared the chairs and table out of the way and put up our tent on the floor to act as a mosquito net. We slept much more comfortably on the hard floor than on the excessively soft and filthy mattress, and the room was well worth the 8,000 ariary (approximately 2.67€) that we were asked to pay.
The next day, mostly clear and utterly without rain, initially felt like a return to the highlands. The road south from Irondro went for over 50 kilometres through rolling hills (with difficult uphills) with evidence of massive deforestation around us. This must have all been rainforest at some point, but now only palm and banana trees are left. Unlike in the highlands, the terrain hasn’t been turned into rice paddies, so presumably the trees were cut down to make charcoal or to sell abroad. It was sad. A lack of trees also meant a lack of shade, so it got very hot. Happily, the second half of the day brought us into a more verdant strip of road. 30 km or so from Manakara, the RN12 road starts to run alongside the Fianarantsoa–Coté Est railway, which we hope to use to get back up to the highlands after we leave here.
Manakara seems a prosperous town, though not quite at the level of Antsirabe. I expected to see a few Westerners here, and indeed there are many, but they are almost all old French men. The owner of the hotel we are staying in (Les Flamboyants) appears to be the French honorary consul here, and he was joined today at the restaurant by a few of his hoary compatriots, the whole ensemble looking like something from an era of their country long past (cigarettes in hand, too, something of a shock after we have almost never seen people smoking in this country).
For the first time since we arrived in Madagascar, it feels like we are in the tropics for real. It is not appreciably hotter near sea level than in the highlands (if anything, it is cooler in the places with a lot of trees), but the humidity is much higher. There is a mural here in Manakara encouraging people not to leave stagnant water outside their homes so mosquitos won’t breed, and to go to the doctor if one feels symptoms of malaria.
A few kilometres south of Ambohimahasoa, we left the smooth asphalt of the RN7 for what is probably a much more typical Malagasy road, a wide dirt track heading east towards the Ranomafana National Park. While Ranomafana is one of the most touristed places in Madagascar, presumably few foreigners take this particular road to get there. Children noticed us from hundreds of metres away across the rice paddies and came running towards us with shouts of
vazaha!. When we stopped for a drink and a snack in one village, we were quickly surrounded by all of the children and a great many adults, who looked at us in amazement.
A few kilometres further, signs of human habitation started to end as we reached thick forest. There were a few deforested areas at the start, where trees had been cut down and the trunks burned to make room for rice growing. After that, there is thick forest growth and, for the first time in all our Madagascar cycling, there wasn’t at least one or two people (rice planters, zebu herders) along the road at any given moment. The effect of this solitude, the forest cover and the dirt road was refreshing, as the lack of shade, the hot asphalt, and the constant presence of local people in the highlands had been wearying. Now it was fairly cool, breezy and quiet.
The left side of the road started to skirt the southern border of the national park, denoted by “PN” painted on rocks or red paint on tree trunks. We entered a dusty roadside village at a junction with the asphalt road coming from the southwest, but after that our route returned to thick forest with many strange butterflies and exotic birds visible along the road. There were a number of small waterfalls coming down out of the park, and I filtered as many litres of water as we could carry with our MSR Miniworks filter – this was the first time since we got here that we’ve been able to take clean, good-tasting water without having to buy it in shops. The road then descends sharply for a while and one follows a mighty river on the right with waterfalls and rapids.
We do not intend on visiting the national park (expensive and there is an obligation to hire a guide), but the small town of Ranomafana has been a nice place to stay for a couple of days. There are a lot of comfortable guesthouses from more prosperous times, now almost all standing empty. We are not the only visitors, however, and this is the first time that we have seen foreigners who were really other tourists like us, while the French people glimpsed in Tana were probably expats.
While only about 90 km, cycling from Ambositra to Ambohimahasoa was a hard slog. We were on the bikes by 0530, knowing that in spite of a few downhills, the first half of the day would be mostly uphill, and so it went.The bottom bracket on my bike may also be in need of replacement, and with every knock I felt while pedaling, I desperately hoped that it can wait until we move on to South Africa where there are real bike shops.
The villages we passed through were noticeably poorer than we had seen so far, with the children dressed in rags and a large amount of adults sitting around with nothing to do. Proficiency in French also seems to be dropping off the farther south we go from Antananarivo, so instead of the usual
Salut/Bonjour vazaha! Ça va? we started to get various greetings in Malagasy from the people we passed.
The maximum elevation of the day was a little over 1700 m. This point is easy to notice because there are a huge amount of people selling plums by the bucketful. Plums presumably do not grow at any lower elevation. Some time after this we passed a huge team of campaigners for one of the presidential candidates (elections will be held on December 20). They got into a van that blared from massive speakers a song about the candidate’s virtues across the countryside. The van made stops in the villages along the RN7 to make its pitch, and consequently it passed us several times with the same deafening tune.
The only big roadside strip of eateries we passed today was in the curiously named village of Camp Robin. The road for several kilometres on either side of Camp Robin is also in bad shape, potholed to the point that we saw trucks try to drive on the grassy shoulder. Here and there one can see children sweeping broken asphalt off the road to try to earn some money from passing motorists. The RN7 quickly returned to its usual standard of fine, if narrow asphalt, but we had a vision of what roads might await us once we turn from this one.
Only 20 km from Ambohimahasoa we had run out of water and were feeling very bad from the heat, so we stopped under some shade in the next village and bought Cokes. African travelogues are full of praise for the refreshing effects of Coca-Cola in the tropical heat, even if it is unrefrigerated, and after about half an hour we were ready to press on into the town.
Ambohimahasoa is a small and poor town. Along the RN7 there are some simple places to eat. Some touts (or simply beggars hoping to get a few ariary of commission for bringing in a couple of foreigners) tried to usher us into a hotely (as the Malagasy call simple restaurants), and when we said we were rather looking for une chambre, they insisted we follow them down a dubious-looking path next to the town’s Bank of Africa branch. I thought there might be something more established for tourists, so we walked around for about an hour trying to find another place to stay. Nonetheless, we kept hearing from locals that the sole accommodation available in the Ambohimahasoa is
between the Shell petrol station and the Bank of Africa branch.
So, we went back to where the touts were originally leading us and found a few shabby bungalows at 18,000 ariary a night with a broken shared toilet and a “shower” that is only a cold water tap. Evidently so few tourists stop here (pressing on either north to Ambositra or south to Fianarantsoa or Ranomafana) that there’s no demand here for better accommodations. Still, there is electricity, and after a long day of cycling, any roof over our heads is welcome.
The road south from Antsirabe to the next city, Ambositra, was a challenge. We got out on the road at 0600, thinking that the approximately 95 km would be easy. While the first half or so went by quickly, and there was often a nice breeze, I remember the second half as constant uphills, and by this point in the journey the sun was already scorching. We finally rolled in to Ambositra at 1300, hot, sunburnt and famished.
Disappointingly after Antsirabe, Ambositra is a hole. One can see that this city used to be doing well from the tourist trade and stores selling carved wood, the city’s specialty, are still omnipresent. However, the collapse of tourism in the country seems to have hit this city very hard. The first three hotels from the Bradt guide that we searched for were shuttered and seem to have closed down years ago. We came across two restaurants that serve as reminders of a past tourism boom. One was very fancy, gaily painted and adorned with collections of sculptures, and stickers on the door announcing all kinds of international but it was completely empty at both mealtimes. There was only a waitress sitting there sullenly in a way that suggested this is how it was night after night. It looked like the saddest thing in the world. The other restaurant must have attracted quite a crowd once, judging from the owner’s fluent English and occidental sense of humour, but besides us the only other foreigners dining there were a couple of Mormon missionaries.
While we were cycling past the completely undeservedly named Grand Hotel, the several touts that the management hires to stand out front tried desperately to get our custom, explaining that nearly everywhere else had gone out of business (an honest claim from a tout for once). I asked to see the two types of rooms they had (with bath 25,000 ariary, without bath 18,000 ariary), but I was appalled by one of the worst and most decrepit hotels I’ve seen on any continent; even the inside bathroom in the more expensive room was filthy and decaying. Terrible memories of Delhi’s Paharganj district here.
In the end, we ended up cycling further and chose to stay in the Hotel Jonathan (29,000 ariary with inside bath and hot water), which isn’t the best value and caters mostly to Malagasy businessmen, but at least it is fairly clean and provided us a dry place to stay literally seconds before the afternoon downpour began.
Our original plan to spend two nights here, exploring a silkmaking workshop and a convent that produces cheese, has been revised in favour of getting out of here as early as possible. After the affluence of Antsirabe, it may be that from now on, the nicest places we’ll see will be in the countryside, while the towns will be dirty, chaotic and worth stopping in just for a big meal.
Antsirabe is probably the nicest city I’ll see in Madagascar. It is well developed, with billboards for broadband internet, a number of clean, modern restaurants, and a well-stocked supermarket. The Malagasy walking around in the centre seem on the up and up, shopping and eating normally in places where we balked at the prices. Even the armies of rickshaw drivers, who must be poor folk from elsewhere, are well-kempt and enthusiastic (if rather persistent). While the outskirts of the town are less elegant, there’s nothing like the scary slums of Tana here.
We based ourselves for three days at a hotel called Green Park (bungalow with mosquito net, wi-fi and hot water 33,000 ariary), which is well worth staying in because the bungalows are spread throughout a botanical garden. All kinds of beautiful flowers grow here, labeled with signs. There are a couple of ponds with fish, and one can see different kinds of chameleons and geckos. They have a large number of mountain bikes to rent, which would have been tempting had we not brought our own.
While I don’t feel that six weeks are enough time to learn Malagasy to any reasonable standard, especially as I am unlikely to visit this remote place again, I’ve been interested enough in the language to pick up a few phrases here and there. I had expected pronunciation to be straightforward, since at least those Austronesian languages that are most well know do not have large phoneme inventories. However, I very quickly discovered that Malagasy has a perverse orthography.
- The letter 〈o〉 is actually /u/. For the vowel /o/, the letters 〈oa〉, originally representing a diphthong, are used instead.
- All final vowels are silent. I first heard this in practice as the plane was descending into Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo and the pilot repeatedly said [antananariv]. Also note the French spelling of the city’s name during the colonial era: Tananarive.
- The loss of final vowels nonetheless has ramifications for the preceding consonants that are now final. The phrase tsy misy ‘I have nothing’ (used for troublesome beggars), is at least in some dialects [tsi miʃ], a palatalization that is not surprising. More suprising is what seems to be velarization before a lost /u/: I hear rano ‘water’ as [raŋ].
- Defeating the simple CV(C) syllable structure that I naïvely expected from an Austronesian language, there are daunting consonant clusters caused by the loss of final and word-internal vowels at the same time. As the honorific particle tompoko, added to the end of any sentence where one wants to show respect to the listener, ends in the enclitic ending -ko, stress is cast to the original antepenult. This means that not only is the final vowel lost as always, but the vowel of the penult is lost by syncope, resulting in [tumpk] with a three-consonant final cluster.
- The consonant /h/ cannot stand word-finally, so the loss of the final vowel preceded by /h/ results in the loss of the /h/ as well: akoho ‘chicken’ is prononced [ako].
Malagasy is covered in Routledge’s relatively new entry in the Language Family Surveys series, The Austronesian Languages of Madagascar and Asia and I wish I could have managed to read that before coming to Madagascar. Once I get back to my university library, I want to read more on the diachrony of this language and the motivations of those who created the first Latin-alphabet writing system for it.
Ambatolampy was a nice place to stay for a couple of nights, a fairly large town that is very clean, quiet and unhurried, with no air pollution and thus fine views of the local countryside. Thursday was the market day. I had to buy a cheap baseball cap (a Ralph Lauren knockoff, and probably second hand, but a good buy at 2,000 ariary or 0.60€), as my Buff alone was not shielding me enough from the sun. Combining the brimmed hat with the Buff worn as a sahariane proved effective.
Leaving Ambatolampy, we aimed for a 0400 start, but were lazy and finally made it out the door at 0530. Nonetheless, we easily made it the 98 km to Antsaribe in a single day. The road is mainly flat, with few challenging uphills. Though we stopped for a siesta at 1030 when the heat was becoming oppressive, by 1200 the sky was overcast, light rain was falling and temperatures had dropped, so we got on the bikes again and made it the rest of the way to Antsaribe by about 1500. Continue reading
Though it was fun to spend a week with our Russian friends, Antananarivo was setting me up to hate Madagascar. I just assumed that if there was so much filth and misery in the capital, it must be like this everywhere. Once we started cycling south out of Tana, things immediately became idyllic after only about 10 km or so. Continue reading
After two nights in an Antananarivo hotel, it was time to move to the base that the Moscow-based hitchhiking club Academy of Free Travel was setting up here for the winter. The Academy of Free Travel organizes twice or three times a year houses in various cities around the world where any traveller can stay for free (making a donation of his choice) and slowly explore the surrounding country. When I stayed at the Academy’s house in Cairo five years ago, the club’s founder and hitchhiking guru Anton Krotov had just announced his plan to set up a house in Madagascar. I thought that if I didn’t take advantage of this project, I’d probably never visit the island nation, and now here I am. Continue reading