So… I had two-weeks off over Christmas and New Years. It took me a long time to decide what to do, and there was the little problem of not having my credit and debit cards, which meant that I’d have to travel on what meager savings I’d accumulated over only three months in my Madagascar bank account.
What’s that you say? You don’t give a shit?
You just want to see lemurs?
Then click here right now.
On Christmas Day I still didn’t have a plan. I went to check my mailbox. No packages, no Christmas cards; just a hollow rectangular prism looking infinitely deep and empty.
At the house where I get my mail, there is a “free shelf” – a small bookshelf like the “free box” at a garage sale, loaded with junk that people want to shed but don’t want to throw away.
The free shelf presented me with an Olympus foam float strap. It’s just the thing for someone heading to the ocean to go snorkeling or scuba diving with a waterproof camera.
An Olympus foam strap? And which of Olympus’ gods do we praise and honor in December and January? Obviously Poseidon was inviting me to go visit the ocean, nay commanding me.
But where to go?
At home the answer came from some eco porn on my living room couch – a “Special Issue” of Newsweek that I bought at a Walgreen’s in Flagstaff, way back in September.
It lists Mahajamba Bay, in northwest Madagascar as one of “100 Places to Explore Before They Disappear” – i.e. because of climate change.
Absolutely! I’m going!
Looking at the map of Madagascar, it wasn’t evident how exactly I would get to Mahajamba Bay. But if I would just put on my pith helmet and go as far as the map would take me, I reckoned that I could improvise from there.
As far as the map would take me turned out to be Mahajanga, a tourist town.
If these exotic names are little confusing, look for the last three letters.
Mahaja-NGA is the town. Just think, Not Going Anywhere,
Mahaja-MBA is my eco-touristic destination. So think, MayBe Another time.
(That there was a fancy literary device known as foreshadowing.)
So I took a taxi brousse (bush taxi) from Tana to Mahajanga. Google Maps said it would be seven hours. The travel guide book said it would be ten hours. Reality said it was 14 hours. Not a bad trip, really. Not at all like the sardine express trips I’ve had in the past.
The only thing I kept thinking was that I had no lodging reservation in Mahajanga. I had tried to make reservations by phone and by text, but never received an affirmative response. Still, I had a lot of faith in my ability to wing it once I arrived.
And it was about 11:30 p.m. when I arrived. I collected my suitcase, and a taxi driver was standing by eagerly waiting for me to decide what I would do. I called the hotel I’d been trying to reach, and was told they were full. They recommended a place called Les Roches Rouges (which means “The Red Rocks,” not “The Red Roaches).”
When I arrived, I thought, Oh shit. This is a nice hotel, the kind of hotel for someone with a credit card. The price was 139,000 MGA per night – $53 US. A bargain by American standards. But I couldn’t afford American standards.
I stayed two nights, just to give myself some breathing room while I found a cheaper place. What I found was Chez Nono, for 20,000 MGA per night – $7.58 US per night. Now we’re talking! On the beach even. Take that, Les Roches Rouges!
Except… It was kind of seedy. The kind of dingy place you’d see in a movie where the protagonist is alone, slumped forward on the edge of the bed with a gun in his mouth, or a needle in his arm.
If I wanted to make my money last, this was going to be the place. Besides, I intended to get out to Mahajamba Bay, and Poseidon only knows how much that would cost.
The doormat at the foot of the bed is kind of brilliant. Why sweep and mop the floors when your hotel guests can just wipe their feet before they climb into bed?
I’m not kidding about the complimentary condoms. But things like soap, shampoo, and toilet paper? You had to buy that from the bar, or bring your own.
I did mention that it was $7.58 US per night.
With my lodging taken care of, I started asking around about how to get to Mahajamba Bay. What I discovered is that there are no tours there. To get there, I would have to charter a boat. Newsweek didn’t mention that.
My trusty M.O. of getting there and then winging it was utterly failing. I ended up at a tour company pleading for options.
“Do you have any of those tours where you hit Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve on the way back to Antananarivo?”
“No, but we have tours to Anjohibe with caves, and waterfalls, and the smallest known species of lemur.”
“Great! I’ll do that!”
“We don’t have anyone else going on that tour.”
“Okay. What if I went by myself?”
He punched at a calculator. “Just you would be 1,100,000 Ariary.”
I punched at the calculator on my phone. “That’s $450 US. Eeesh. How about free Wi-Fi? Can you help me with that?”
This was late afternoon on New Years Eve. Apparently the worst time of the year to leverage economies of scale in eco-tourism.
I went back to Chez Nono and slumped forward on the edge of the bed. Instead of a gun in my mouth, I flipped through the travel guide book.
There’s a nightclub called Shakira. Sounds like the kind of place I hate. That’s where I went for New Years Eve.
But it wasn’t that bad. I danced. I kissed a real, live, human, consenting, Malagasy woman at midnight. I had fun.
I explained my predicament to said woman who recommended some low-cost ways of salvaging my trip – having fun the way the locals do.
On New Years Day I went swimming at Petite Plage (Little Beach) and took some underwater photos that all came out like crap. (See the photo at the top.)
And on January 2, I went to Mangatsa, a little nature reserve just 30 minutes north of Mahajanga.
Which is a long way of saying…