Roads and Rivers, Time and Space
On my travel "Top 10" list, Madagascar sat at number two. The African island country is remote, is filled with endemic species, lacks major infrastructure in most areas, and offers a great deal of culture, interesting topography, and curiosities to be explored. Less interested to discover these things by myself, I was grateful when Trekkup Dubai offered a week-long group trip to Madagascar.
When I signed up for the trip, I saw a picture of the baobab trees and immediately put my name on the list, paid my fee, and added the dates to my calendar - it wasn't until I arrived that I realized I hadn't truly read the itinerary very well. I wasn't the only one. None of us seemed particularly concerned with what was on the agenda or how we got there; rather, we were enticed by the less-travelled geography and prospect to meet new people and make some memories.
The first 36 hours started quite rough: Our group of 20, exceptionally seasoned travellers, flew over our Eid holiday week from Dubai to Addis Ababa to Antananarivo. We changed some money, and hopped into a mini bus with less legroom than our economy seats on the flight down. Six hours into what we were told was a three hour journey, we finally stopped in Antsirabe where a late dinner and a short night at a hotel awaited. The next morning, by 5am we were up and quickly on the road through some spectacular scenery in our little bus that fit our group like a too-tight pair of skinny jeans. Similarly to peeling those jeans off, by the time we were free of the bus at lunch, we were trying to rub the life back into our legs and hips while breathing in full gulps of fresh air as we inhaled our meal with a view over an expansive river valley.
Only a short ride by smaller vehicles brought us to the banks of the Mania River. Here we were meant to catch a riverboat, but the water was too low at our point of entry, so we gathered up our belongings and walked nearly a kilometre along the water's edge, next to a field, and through some streams to the side of the river where our boats were moored. It was quite a scene - all 20 of us foreigners snapping photos of the riverside village, along with two Malagasy guides making sure we were all accounted for, the boats' crews loading up belongings, and the village people including children asking for "bon bon?" (sweets) while waving us off on our floating adventure.
In the Malagasy language, "mora mora" has a meaning along the lines of "go with the flow." I found it similar to the feeling of Hawaiian Shaka or "hang loose" - letting things be on their own time. I certainly hadn't realized we would meander down a river for more than two days. What could have been a lethargic slow slog down the muddy waters turned out to be an incredible restart to our trip. If the first stretch had been managing to stay calm and pleasant throughout the long plane and bus travel, then we were all extremely happy to be free, living the "mora mora" life in the fresh air with extra space to move around on our two river boats.
For part of the trip, our boats were banded together and at narrower passages and shallower waters, we separated. We were out of roaming service nearly the entire way, so other than having our mobile phones and cameras ready to snap a photo of the forest, canyons, and people we saw along the way, we were forced to talk to each other. Stories were told, smiles were shared, naps were taken, along with a lot of time collectively staring at the land and people we passed.
We took a short walk to take a swim in a cool turquoise waterfall pool, visited a small town to stock up on beer and rum, and greet the loads of children who came out to see the visitors. We even saw our first friendly lemur clinging to the shoulder of a townswoman.
Encountering our first chameleon, we captured many photos of the little critter while he floated down river with us aboard our boat. There were bats and birds, fish, crocodiles, praying mantis, spiders, and butterflies for those of us who observed the environment. We also watched as an entire town gathered on the riverbank to lay to rest one of their valuable zebu. The animal is so revered, that everyone attends a ceremony to kill the beast.
Our two camps on the Mania riverbank put us to sleep in tents atop sand and beneath a glittering sheet of stars - so bright that they revealed our galaxy. We woke up to a cloud veil reflecting the sun's light before we saw her brilliance and felt her heat.
We shared meals aboard one of the boats where our impressive crew managed to put beautiful dishes and flavours in front of us. I'm still not sure how they provided these feasts in the small kitchen onboard our riverboats, but we were grateful for the delicious food. After our dinners, a fire appeared along with singing, and Malagasy dancing before we each carried off to our tents.
When you're on a holiday it's much easier to make time to notice things we take for granted when we are busy at home or work. Spending time enjoying the setting and rising of the sun over the River was a highlight of our cruise. I think everyone looked up several times while we set up camp in the evening or when we dragged our bags out of our tents in the morning to admire the beautiful colors and bask in the sun's glow on the horizon.
There is so much life happening in this world. Even in the seemingly untouched corners of the earth, where the only transportation is by foot or by boat, there are people going on with their daily chores and business each day. Most of the Malagasy villagers we passed on the river wore bright colors to add vibrance to the scene - and they often eagerly waved and smiled until we had floated by. Now home, surrounded by so much stuff, this trip is a wonderful reminder about how simple our life really is. And, I love remembering that even though we humans exist on this planet quite differently, we still appreciate the same thing in a smile or wave of the hand.
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