Back to Antananarivo for an Academy of Free Travel New Year’s

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.Some Russian travellers among Malagasy in a cramped taxi-brousse 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 engine of a train standing on railroad tracks 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. A group of people gathered around a small campfireWe 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.

By train from Manakara to Fianarantsoa

The FianarantsoaCoté 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.A view out the window of preceding cars bending as they go around a curve

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.Seats and passengers in the first-class carriage

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. A crowd of Malagasy standing around the train next to a station building 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.

Christmas among the Orthodox of Madagascar

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.A Malagasy priest swings a censer in front of an iconostasis 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.A photo of an open liturgy book in the Malagasy language

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.Worshipers standing in the nave of Manakara’s Orthodox church

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.

Mari etymological dictionary finally out

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.

Ranomafana to Manakara

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.A hilly and forested landscape

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.Clothing stalls set out on both sides of the asphalt road and customers strolling around

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 FianarantsoaCoté 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. A mural (signed by the Peace Corps) encouraging anti-malaria measuresThere 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.

Down to Ranomafana

A map showing our GPS track when cycling between Ambohimahasoa and RanomafanaA 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.The dirt surface of the RN25 after it splits from the RN7 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.Burnt tree trunks left among new rice paddies in a deforested area 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 RN25 road entering a wooded area

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.

On to Ambohimahasoa

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.

A chart showing the elevation in metres for kilometres travelled

Today’s ridiculous elevation profile

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 tough climb to Ambositra and what awaited us there

The road south from Antsirabe to the next city, Ambositra, was a challenge.Map with a GPS track from Antsirabe to Ambositra 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.

an elevation chart showing height above sea level for kilometres travelled between Antsirabe and Ambositra

This elevation chart cannot represent the pain of the actual journey

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.

A break in Antsirabe

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.