Ile Sainte-Marie: I was exhausted and thought I'd got to an island for some time to take it easy.  Well, it didn't neccesarily end up that way.

Got a taxi-brousse from Toamasina to the ferry port for Isle Sainte-Marie.  I sat with a guy who spoke English well and he was telling me the corruption was getting worse and worse.  He pointed out bridges with signs that indicated they were donated by foreign donors yet they collected tolls for them with the money going to the president.  He sounded very frustrated at the entire situation but powerless to do anything.  Whenever the subject of the government came up anywhere in the country, this seemed to be the prevailing opinion as well as feeling of being able to do nothing about it.  When we got to the port, the ferry was not there; and there were a bunch of smaller boats waiting.  They only looked to be safe if not overcrowded and the weather was good, not that either of those conditions would stop them.  Turns out the main ferry was on the bottom of the ocean with bodies still on board. Well, let’s hope the good weather holds.

I met a group of South African mountain bikers, including one who raced (like me), and they had their bikes with them.  I took their bikes for a ride and it was so nice to ride a quality bike after so long.  It had been twenty one months since I had ridden a nice bike and for me, that’s an eternity.  There were a few things I missed about home.  I missed being able to cook food for myself (not that I’m a good cook by any means), I missed my mom and being able to work on my various projects, but I really, really missed riding my bikes.

Needing a break from things, I chose Isle Sainte-Marie, a good sized island about twenty km. off the northeast coast.  I was tired of taxi-brousses and general hassles and really wanted time away from people on an hour-to-hour basis.   Often times, when I want to be alone, I go to the forests but in Madagascar, I wasn’t sure how to make that work in terms of staying off private land or requiring a guide in a park, so ISM it was and spending most of my time by myself.

I found a hut on the beach and the majority of my days consisted of sleeping late, loafing around, reading, going to the small town to eat, then more reading and loafing.  It would often rain and if I was out walking, I’d sometimes keep walking; other times hide under a tree, or walk with a giant banana leaf as an umbrella given to me by kindly people who wanted me to stay dry.  Sounds like a good plan for the next week.

I did spend some more time with the cyclists and would go out to eat with them as it’s always nice to spend time with your brethren.  I also met a writer for a well known travel guide who was very familiar with the country.  He told me a lot of things that would have been good to know before I came.  He had been coming for over ten years and said things were getting worse and worse for the people, both in terms of corruption and how things were getting harder day-to-day for the average person.  He mentioned the group Doctors Without Borders and how the government tried to put a 20% tax on their medical supplies during a cholera outbreak.  The group threatened to withdraw from the country and the government finally backed down.  Sometimes he felt that other countries should stop giving aid as most of it was stolen and that if things got bad enough, maybe people would stand up and revolt.  Pretty strong words but they may well have an element of truth. 

I spent some time with people, both locals and travelers, but for the most part, I was relaxing.  I probably spent most time with a dog that took a liking to me and would spend large parts of his days sitting next to me while I read.  There were a few frustrations here and there but nothing I couldn’t handle.  I did buy a plane ticket to Toamasina as the ferry had lost its appeal.  I was also planning to head to the far north after returning to the mainland.

Things were staying on a pretty even keel when I took an early morning walk along the beach.  I usually took my money belt with me but this day I didn’t.  When I returned, a window in my hut had been forced open and my money belt was gone.  Money (Malagash, US, and Egyptian), tickets, credit/ATM cards, and plane tickets were gone.  I was *&$(*&$#@’ed.  A sense of panic set in, this was not going to be good.

I had about $5, so what to do?  I tried to make a phone call but had trouble with it but how to arrange things with so little money and an expensive phone system?  I stopped by a business run by an Italian couple (speaking to them in Italian no less).  They spoke English well which I was happy to use given the circumstances.  There were enough problems at the moment without speaking in another language.  They allowed me to use their shop to make and receive phone calls and emails.  They were lifesavers for sure.

I talked to my parents and asked them to cancel my credit cards and get new ones.  Only problem was getting them in Madagascar.  There are no delivery services outside the post office and if the cards don’t show up for a month, well that is my problem so my Mom arranged to have them sent to Cairo via FedEx.  I then talked to the embassy in Tana and a worker named Sarah was extremely helpful.  She assured me a new passport was no problem.  She worked with my Mom back home and myself on ISM and couldn’t have been more helpful.  “What else do you need?” she asked.  My Mom had problems getting through to me on the island so Sarah set up a conference call with the three of us which settled a lot of issues. Wow!

Air Madagascar was very helpful getting me plane tickets from Tana to Nairobi but the ticket back to Toamasina was a hassle.  I had to buy another ticket and then wait one whole year to get a refund on the existing ticket.  The woman there told I’d never see the money, so that was that.  My mom talked with the travel agency in Cairo to get tickets from Nairobi->Dubai->Cairo reissued and they would be waiting for me in Nairobi.  All of this took a few days but there were two remaining problems: getting money wired and the police.

The police wanted to see me a few days later.  They were asking if I had any money to pay for my hut as it’s likely the owner went and talked to them but I suspected this was more of a shakedown for a bribe, which was quickly confirmed.  They said they wanted a gift in return for a police report.  I went back to Air Madagascar to ask the woman how to deal with the police and she told me to tell them “No.”  I wasn’t sure how aggressive police were and I didn’t have any money for a bribe.  She also said that she wasn’t surprised I had been burglarized.  “It not common but it does happen.  I’m more surprised you didn’t get your things back minus the cash.  The credit cards and passports are of no use to the thieves.  The police know who the thieves are and if things are not returned in day or two they generally put out notice to have the non-cash items returned and they are dropped off on the police station porch in the middle of the night.”  Well, thieves with honor, or something.

When I went to talk to the police for a theft report, they all gathered around for their “gift.”  I tried to feel out how smart they were and quickly determined:  Not Very.  I told them my family owned a department store and they all got excited.  I said that I could send them a refrigerator and boy, did that send them over the top!  I got my report and waltzed out the door.  Idiots!

The last order of business was getting money wired.  The bank manager said that he could disburse the funds in U.S. dollars and I had a substantial amount of money wired over.  He handed me a stack of Malagash money, which was non-convertible to foreign currencies.  He said not to worry; I could just stand by the port and look for people who wanted to exchange money. Great!  I’m supposed to set up a black market operation.  Then he suggested I spend all the money on the island.  Then he suggested…I told him to forget it before I even found out what.  I called my Mom and had the money transfer cancelled.  She made a smaller transfer and there was another problem with the bank manager.  I don’t recall what it was, but everyone except the manager said that the transfer was good.  Finally the wire company made arrangements for the money to be sent elsewhere and in a matter of hours, it was taken care of.  In the meantime, several days had been wasted.  The woman at Air Madagascar laughed and said, “Oh, the bank manager!?  He’s the most incompetent person on the island.”  Sigh…..

There were some good times there in the last few days.  Between phone calls, I enjoyed the island and met a few nice people.  I ate at a restaurant run by Albert, the nicest guy in Madagascar.  He always wanted to keep his patrons happy but even outside of that, he was an all-around pleasant person.  He asked me how to promote his business as he didn’t have any huts like most people who ran restaurants.  I told him that he was the best selling point he had going for his place.

By the time this whole burglary affair was settled, I was ready to leave.  I really appreciate the kindness of the Italian couple, Sarah, Albert, and the airlines woman, but I wanted to get out as soon as possible.  I had thought about heading up to the far north but needed to get back to Tana and get a new passport.  Besides, I was too worn out to head north and the thought of miserable taxi-brousse rides was too much.

I had gotten a new hut after the burglary and spent my last day there minding my own business, doing my best to avoid people, and just passing the time until I could get the ferry and leave.  Another dog joined me there too and sat with me all day.

The next morning I got up early and walked to the port.  The dog accompanied me the entire way.  I got on the boat which was supposed to be fastest and headed for the mainland.  I was SO ready to leave.

The water was smooth and a few hundred meters away, humpback whales were breaching.  Approaching the mainland the boat ran aground several times…The perfect end to my Isle Sainte-Marie trip.