Here to tell you about my last Christmas is Madagascar, and my trip to the fabulous north of Madagascar. As always, when traveling in Madagascar, there were some definitely mountains and valleys, as well as actual mountains, valleys, and even rivers running across the road.
First off, I spent the night in Tana in preparation of heading north, since the taxi-brousse from Tana to Ambanja is at least 18 hours, so it leaves at 1 pm (allegedly). Got into Tana in the afternoon, and decided to treat myself to a pedicure at the spa near the PC transit house. My friend, Arian, came with me to get a massage as well. Took the lady an hour to make my feet human again (I spend a lot of time in crappy plastic shoes, walking around in the rain and mud).
After all of that, my two friends and I started to head back to the hotel where we were saying. On a good day, it is about a 10-15 minute cab or bus ride from the spa to our hotel. Getting out onto the rainy street, however, it was quickly obvious that we were going to have to walk. Rush hour, two days before the election and a week before Christmas, there was not a bus you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail to get onto, and not a cab that would even glance our way. So the vacation wasn’t off to the best start, but my pedicure and me made it back to our hotel intact. Took a bit to wash up and catch up, and then headed out on the town. Hung out with some of my friends that I was broussing with the next day, as well as a bunch of the most recent group of volunteers, fresh out of their in-service training after the first 5 months in country.
We were sluggish to get up the next day, but thought we had plenty of time until we had to be at the brousse station at 12:30. What we didn’t take into account, however, was the sheer madness of the capital around the holidays, met with the insanity of the election two days away. I headed out with another girl to hit the bank, to make sure I had enough money to start my vacation. Every single bank we went to, regardless of whether it was my bank in Madagascar (I gave up and decided I could use my American card), had hundreds of people waiting in line. We walked around town for an hour (so probably should have just gotten in one of the lines) and still came back empty handed. So feeling a little harassed (and broke), we headed back to grab lunch with the rest of the group.
Well, after a quick lunch, we headed out of the hotel to try and find a cab, which was going to prove to be a herculean task. Most of the cabs that stopped just kept right on going when they found out where we wanted to go (not even that far, but had to cross the most congested parts of town) and one finally agreed at an exorbitant amount, and would only take 4 of the 5 of us. So we took the luggage of the 5th (he lives in Tana, and knows the best routes on his own) and piled in the cab. The cabbies fears we warranted, as we ended up bailing on the cab as soon as we thought we were close enough to walk. The guy that left our group walked most of the way and beat us there. Luckily, we arrived at 1 pm, which is when the brousse was scheduled to leave. Members of our nine-person group came from all over town, and had the same problems we did. The rest of the brousse had the same problem, and we didn’t leave (of course) until after 3.
Fairly smooth sailing after that…until 2 am. At that point, we came to a dead stop. For four hours. When asking the driver what the problem was, he simply replied, “water.” After a little more investigation, we realized that every brousse going that way had stopped because there was a river across the road, due to the heavy rainstorm we had passed through. The brousses waited until after dawn to try and ford it, and our brousse waited until large trucks had moved some of the water off the road so we could actually drive the car through, rather than pushing it. So, rather than 18 hours, it took us 22 to get from Tana to Ambanja.
But, it was all worth it to get to my new favorite part of the country. I stayed with one of the nine I broussed with, Kara, and met up with two girls that live near Ambanja, Dani and Gabby. The rest of the crowd that broussed with us headed straight to Nosy Be, the touristy island off the northwest coast. Dani, Kara, Gabby, and I had already planned to go to Gabby’s site, where she works with cacao farmers. However, because of the inaccessibility and limited time, we decided to hit the beach in the port town of Ankify instead. So we spent a day and a half lounging on the quiet, isolated beach and watching project runway all stars. Also, playing with adorable dogs that actually like people.
The next step: Ankarana, the national park halfway between Ambanja and Diego, the northernmost town in Madgascar. Ankarana is a large national reserve with great wildlife and tsingy, the notable limestone formations from Mada. We spent a full day hiking around the tsingy and checking out the awesome bat cave. After spending two nights there, we caught a brousse and headed the rest of the way to Diego. Unfortunately, the road between Ambanja and Diego is impressively bad, especially considering the tourist traffic between Diego and Nosy Be. So it took us awhile, and we were squished 5 across in a van that should have sat 3, but we finally made it around 9 am on Christmas Eve.
I brought some decorations to spruce up the Diego transit house, which is officially my favorite. The open floor plan, cleanliness, and capacity of 8 vs 22 makes the Diego house definitely preferable to the one in Tana. Plus, I am in love with Diego. The French colonial architecture, laidback beach atmosphere, and care for aesthetic makes the town truly wonderful. Not to mention the amazing food! Fresh seafood, lots of Italian, French, and Spanish influence, and coconut rice. My three travel buddies and I met up with a few more volunteers from around the Diego area and had a fabulous Christmas Eve dinner on the water at a fancy restaurant. I had BBQ pork ribs, which is the first time I have seen that in Mada.
Christmas morning, I woke up at 6 am to watch A Christmas Story with my family watching it in Arkansas at 9 pm. Then, the rest of the people at the transit house and I spent a lazy Christmas Day watching every Christmas special on my hard drive and making an excellent fiesta dinner. Kara and I decided we weren’t wearing clothes, so we donned lambahoanys, traditional wraps, and had “naked Christmas” haha. I got to skype with my whole family in Arkansas. The video wasn’t great, but it was great to see them, however fuzzy.
We spent the next few days hitting all of the hotspots in Diego—Ramena Beach, Bodega Restaurant, the pool at the Suarez hotel, and finally, the Emerald Sea. You have to reserve a private boat to get there, but it is the most beautiful place I have ever been. The pristine white sand below the water makes the water an impossible aquamarine color. There were women there who painted our faces with traditional tree bark masks. Women use this mask all over the country for sunscreen and cosmetic reasons, but the north is the only place I have seen the women paint designs in them, like flowers. We had an amazing lunch with fish, crab, and coconut rice, and spent the whole afternoon swimming. The snorkeling wasn’t great because the whole thing is just white sand, but it was truly amazing. And the whole thing cost each of us about 15 dollars, including lunch :) . Even the rain held off; it had stormed all day in Diego, but didn’t hit us until our taxi ride the 18 km back to town.
That night, my last in Diego, we hung out with all of the groups coming from their Christmas vacations in other places to Diego for New Years. There was probably at least 20 of us, so it certainly made for an epic party. We went dancing, which was an interesting experience. There were more prostitutes at the club than real people, but they weren’t aggressive, so it was actually kind of a nice place to dance; there weren’t creepy men trying to hit on all the girls, and the prostitutes weren’t bothering the men. I left the club early, around one, so I could get a little bit of sleep before my 3 am brousse back to Ambanja to head to Nosy Be for the rest of my vacation.
Nosy Be, while definitely touristy, was also really fun. However, we actually spent most of the week on Nosy Komba, a smaller island just south of Nosy Be. We rented a house that was mostly just a veranda overlooking the ocean with a truly incredible view. We dragged the bed out of the bedroom to actually sleep outside, listening to the ocean. This also meant we had to drag the mosquito net out, they were so bad! We had a kitchen, so we got to cook a lot during the week. We also hit the town for some amazing seafood and to buy some beautiful souvenirs. New Years was spent drinking French champagne and eating a ton of chocolate and Roman Parmesan. Quiet but still so nice.
From Nosy Komba, we took an excursion to Nosy Tanikely, a very small marine reserve island about an hour’s boat ride away. The day was stormy, so the colors of the coral were somewhat diminished, but it was some of the best snorkeling I have ever done. I saw a sea turtle! And millions of fish, coral, anemones, and urchins. The island also had lemurs and a lighthouse with an incredible view. We had lunch there, and then headed back to Nosy Komba. As a Christmas present to myself, I purchased a plane ticket home from Nosy Be. Incredible decision. Would have taken an hour boat ride, hour cab ride, and minimum 18 hours brousse to get back to Tana. On a plane, it took one hour. Merry Christmas :)
I hope you all had an amazing holiday, and I look forward to spending the next one in America!