Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ambatolampy, Madagascar

After a two-day pestilence of kids besieging me with out-thrust hands and a "donnez-moi," about the extent of their French, often running alongside me in a pack for several minutes keeping up the refrain, someone for the first time offered me a gift, a banana.  I was sitting by the gated entry to a hotel on the main street through the vibrant city of Ambositra.  I had stopped to take advantage of the sign "WIFI Gratuit" on a pillar outside the hotel, the first such offer I had come across.  And indeed it was up and running, which isn't always the case.  I was the only person taking advantage of it. There were no benches, so I was plopped on the concrete, munching on fritters, the national pastime.  After half an hour, the guard wandered over and presented me with a banana.  It answered a craving I was beginning to have after staring at some for sale across the street.

The streets through Ambostriita were lined with such vendors selling all manner of food and sundries. Though there was a constant flow of traffic, little of it was motorized.  Rickshaws were the dominant vehicle with the puller running at a respectable clip.

I was in no need of water, as I had been led to a spring on the outskirts of a small village by a young man on a bicycle.

I could tell by the ease with which he was carrying the ubiquitous yellow container that it was empty and he was on his way for a fill-up.  I never would have spotted the water source, as it was a little off the road, unless I had noticed the cluster of others with their yellow containers.  Whether in the country or in the city, it is the same story.

Few have running water in their homes and even fewer have electricity or gas fueled stoves.  Two nights ago I stayed at a hotel that had electricity for just two hours powered by its generator.  It was just the second time I couldn't camp, as I was caught by dark in a densely populated valley of small farms.  I stopped at a walled in Catholic Church where four men were playing p├ętanque on its grounds and asked if I could pitch my tent there.  They said no, but that there was a hotel less than a kilometer away.  It was a fairly new, two-story building built in anticipation of travelers on the national highway who never materialized.  It was run-down and no longer served as a motel, just a restaurant and a residence for friends and family.  I was told there were no rooms available.

I asked if I could pitch my tent in the one secluded nook behind the stairs to the second floor.  I couldn't, as that was where the generator resided, which would create a roar when it was turned on.  It was nearly dark and I was desperate.  The nice young man in charge kept telling me it was just 21 kilometers to Antsirabe and lots of hotels.  It would have been impossibly dangerous for me to ride it in the dark, even with my lights.  He agreed and said to wait a moment.  He went up the stairs.  When he returned he invited me up.  Two young women were cleaning out a room that was a mess.  I would have gladly thrown my sleeping bag down on the floor as is.  I was saved.  All were cleaning with flashlights as the electricity hadn't been turned on.

And the next night I was rescued by another kindly soul after I had twice headed out of a town off the main highway on roads that degenerated into dirt tracks. I was taking a secondary road back to Tana rather than sticking to Highway 7 that I had come down on at the recommendation of Juerg.  It would be 75 miles longer, but much quieter and scenic.  But the road wasn't marked through the first bustling town I came to. After my second failure I was prepared to return to 7, fearful the road would be too rough, though it had been paved to this point.   

Just as I found the right road, which wasn't paved, but much smoother than the other two roads I had tried, an older gentleman on a bike asked me if I needed a place to stay. He said it was too dangerous to be heading out of town at this hour.  It was less than an hour to dark, so rather than heading out on the road, not knowing how far I could get, I accepted his offer of a room in his house.  It was a two-story, once stately home. He lived in it alone, as his wife had a good job in Tana, which she would retire from in four years and then move back.  It had electricity and running water, but the three burners in the kitchen were all fueled by charcoal.  He made me an omelet and some toast.  He was a genuinely kindly and sensitive soul.  When he asked me my name and I said, "George," rather than than the usual response of "Bush," he reacted with "Harrison."  That was a first.  Unfortunately, his English wasn't good enough for a genuine conversation. If we'd been able to communicate in more than a smattering of French and English we could have been up all night.

Later in the evening he came to my room with his phone in hand and showed me a weather report of cyclone Enawo bearing down on Madagascar.  It was the fifth of the season, designated by a first letter of "E", and would be the first to hit landfall.  It would not strike my route until later the next day, but it was doubtful if I could reach a town with a hotel by then, as it was nearly one hundred miles away, with the first thirty miles unpaved.  There was a town though at that thirty mile point where I might find a place out of the storm as I had at this town or that had found me.

I went to sleep wondering if I would be woken by winds.  If they made an early appearance I would either stay where I was or return to the main paved highway.  I awoke with the dawn at 5:30, partially thanks to a long barrage of church bells awakening all.  It was calm out but a misty drizzle had begun. That ruled out the dirt road.  It was 42 miles to the next city with hotels.  I would try for that. I began a day for the first time wearing my rain coat.

The mist was intermittent and the road mostly dry.  The roadside vendors mounting their wares i took as a sign that the storm wasn't imminent. 

Whenever a gust of wind materialized I feared the worst, but neither wind nor rain intensified and I made it to Ambatolampy by noon.  It was another 42 miles to the capital and my Warm Showers' hosts, but I wasn't brave enough to push on.  Now I await another authentic Madagascar experience safely ensconced in a hotel.   The typhoon is slowly approaching the island from the northeast at less than three miles per hour but with winds of over 150 miles per hour.  It will be the worst storm to hit the island in thirteen years with predicted rainfalls of twelve to eighteen inches.  Could be massive flooding.  I'm down to my last five days here.  I'm only fifty miles from the airport, so shouldn't miss my flight.


Bob Hogan said...

Hope you stay safe. It's a cat 4 hurricane. And will overwhelm the entire north half of the country

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Damn, George, is that an Arc'teryx?

george christensen said...

TC: Yes, I'm wearing the ultimate rain coat. It is brand new, as they replaced my previous one for just shipping when the zipper went on my original after seven years. It is the best.