Ringed Tails: It was time to start heading north and on the way see one of most charasmatic and memorable animals on the Island

It was up early going to Fianarantsoa. A truck could take me halfway there to Ihosy, good enough.  When I started looking for a truck to Fianarantsoa, the driver became very angry with me, really over the top angry, because he was going to Fianarantsoa but didn’t tell me that earlier.  It’s one of those times that you wonder if you crossed some cultural line but come to the conclusion the other guy was a jerk.  He quoted me a ridiculous price and just kept ranting and ranting.  I grabbed my backpack and went to the ticket window.  They directed me back to the same guy.  I didn’t want to go with him but they said he was the only one going.  He didn’t want to take me. He was still ranting but the guy at the ticket stand told him he would take me and that was that.  It only set the guy off more that the ticket only cost me a third of what he wanted.  Heh-heh.

The roads were pretty good but I was turning green with the amount diesel exhaust sucked up into the passenger bed. There were seventeen people in that truck and it was as crowded a ride as I’ve ever had.  Anyone taking this transport everyday must be losing brain cells with every ride; it’s not good.  However, the scenery was spectacular.  The road went through vast rolling grasslands that impressed with the sense of open space followed by steep hills covered in green.  The only exception to the green was where rocky outcrops became too step for the trees.  After that the landscape gave way to vast, rocky massifs.  The scenery was every bit as good as Isalo Park.

Found a nice hotel, the Raza-Otel, in Fianarantsoa with a big garden and pleasant rooms; took a shower, the first nice, hot shower since arriving.  It’s a nice town surrounded by hills with a slight air of pleasant decay.  The buildings have the style of days gone by, look lived in and it’s a good town to walk the streets.  I spent a few days there fighting off the ever-present kids selling postcards.  I was spending the evening sitting alone by a lake and was approached by one.  He showed me how to make a whistle out of a flower pod and taught me Malagash and French words and I taught him English and Italian words.  When he gently broached the subject, I bought some postcards from him.  However, I’m not a shirt-off-my-back type-- he wanted to trade cards for my insulated shirt.  Generous, sometimes, but when my shirt is all I have to stay warm, I’m going to keep it. 

I went up to Hauteville (Upper Town) and had a look around.  It had a very European feel and like much of the town, a sense of having seen better days but it still had charm and life abounding.  The postcard sellers were mobbing me anytime I sat still so I had to keep moving.  Had a good dinner and returned back to my hotel.  I had thought about taking off but in the morning but didn’t feel like it…so I didn’t.  Spent some time at the lake and in Hauteville and wandered here and there.  I don’t know what I did those days but I passed the time and have pleasant memories of doing so.

After a few days, I headed south to Ambalavao where I met two Danish women, Sanni and Trine and spent some time with them.  They were lots of fun and being with them seemed natural and comfortable.  They told me about a park to the south of town and the only transport options were silly expensive so I started to walk out of town to see what I could figure out.  On the way there were several trucks being repaired…right in the middle of the street.  The Malagash are generally very handy and can fix lots of things that back home would have given up the ghost.  Sometimes I think this country is held together by duct tape and fencing wire but then you realize they don’t need duct tape.  A guy was following me on the way south.  I’d walk, he’d follow.  I’d stop, he’d stop.  I eventually ditched him and caught a cheap bus.  Once in the village near the park, I attracted a lot of attention.  I don’t think a lot of tourists stop there and the guy who was following me was waiting for me, possibly wanting to guide me.  I guess I didn’t ditch him after all.  I really wanted to be alone and eventually got rid of him.

I walked into the park and climbed a hill several hundred meters tall and the view from the top was filled with the massifs so typical of the central highlands.  At the top it was pleasantly warm, the skies were blue, and you could see forever.  I sat at the top of the rocky hill and enjoyed the solitude and quiet for some hours.  It was as nice a place as anywhere in Madagascar.

When I got down I headed back to Ambalavao by hitching.  An ancient Land Rover picked me up; you know the kind of Land Rover with slab sides you see in the old movies, that kind.  They drove a while and the Rover died.  They opened the hood and fiddled with the carburetor.  There seemed to be a procedure they followed.  A procedure they knew very well and were quite practiced at.  We push started the truck and were off…sort of.  This time, we got about half as far as before and it died again.  They went through the same drill and we pushed started it once more and we were off…sort of.   It died again at a shorter interval.  It died half a dozen times and they got out their toolbox and rebuilt the carburetor on the side of the road.  A few weeks later, I met a woman who said that most people had some mechanical skills as even middle class people didn’t have a lot of money and it’s easy to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.  Well, after the rebuild, we made it into town and these guys didn’t even need fencing wire.  Cool!

Once back in Fiana a certain ugly characteristic of the people showed itself.  People would laugh at me.  I would be walking down the street, minding my own business, dressed modestly and people would laugh.  Not laughing at something they genuinely found funny but laughter that they made very apparent and wanted me to notice.  Laughter of “I AM A GIGANTIC DICK WHO CAN’T MIND MY OWN BUSINESS.”  It didn’t happen everywhere and everyday, but it happened in a several places.  I don’t know what it is about but it isn’t becoming of them.  I don’t think that everywhere you go, you have to like everything about it and in a number of places and situations, and I didn’t like the people.

Aside from the giant dicks, it was a nice evening and I met up with Sanni and Trine again and went out for dinner.  There was an excessively flirtatious waitress at the restaurant.  I’m not sure if she was serious about her actions but if she was, I could have gotten married that evening.

The next morning, it was back to Fianarantsoa where I would spend a few more pleasant days including going to a park outside of town, this time to see lemurs.  Not just any lemur, but ring tail lemurs.  To me, these are the iconic lemurs.  The guide took us out and before long starting finding chameleons.  They were right in front of us yet I could have walked by them twenty times and not seen them.  There is a reason why “chameleon” has taken on a meaning beyond the animal.  It wasn’t long before he found a pack of about two dozen lemurs.  When you see a ring-tailed lemur, there is absolutely no doubt what animal it is.  It’s modest sized with a tail about a meter long with black and white rings.  No confusion at all.  We could watch them in the trees a few meters above and they seemed to feel safe there and for the most part ignored us.  If there is a signature animal of Madagascar, this is it.  We watched them for about twenty minutes until they walked off tree-to-tree.  It was one of the highlights of the time there for sure.  They’re very playful, social and a pleasure to watch.

Later in the day there was a pickup truck with 22 people in it to Fiana and yes, it was just as crowded as it sounds.  Upon arrival in Fiana, it was back to the Raza-Otel for a night as I was going to Mankara via train.  I arrived at the station at 6 a.m. and bought a first class ticket.  First class on this train was quite modest being less than third class in Thailand, but no matter.  It would be better than a taxi-brousse. 

The train was pretty rough, swaying side to side and before long leaves were littering the interiors of the cars as the overgrown vegetation was cut off as the train would pass by.  The scenery was pretty and green.  Periodically the train would stop in a muddy village and we’d be swarmed by people selling all sorts of things.  Fruits, crackers, nuts, you name it.  I bought some nuts of an unknown kind from some kids and were they tasty, mmmmhhhhh.  We’d stop in a village for a while and sometimes start up quickly, other times we’d sit for unknown reasons.  Once we stopped and I heard the diesel engine turn off.  This didn’t sound good.

The engineers took out their toolboxes, opened the engine compartment, and started to fix the engine.  Before long they were up to their elbows in grease.  I have to say I was impressed.  I can’t imagine a train driver back home being able to fix a large diesel engine.  What I did find funny was that all the guys gathered around to watch and supervise.  Some say that people are different all around the world but from what I saw of these guys, they were behaving in a Universal Male way.  I hear it was a fuel pump problem but whatever it was, they fixed it and we were on our way again.

Sometimes the train would stop in a village, start off, stop and reverse and then sit for a while.  Sometimes they would do this four times.  I never understood why but there must have been a good reason.  Once they couldn’t get going forward so they took out their tools and inspected things.  Later I heard some pounding and then we moved forward.  However, they couldn’t get up a hill.  They would back up and start rolling but were unable to make it up the hill.  A guy took a coke bottle of sand and deposited the contents on the track.  I noticed the track was very irregular.  There were gaps between the rails and they didn’t align well either but somehow they kept the train rolling.  After the sand, we made it up the hill and kept rolling towards Manakara.

The ride was about twelve hours to cover less than 200 km, not much different than some of the taxi-brousse, but more comfortable.  Manakara is a small town on the Indian Ocean and I spent a little time there before taking a train back to Fianarantsoa.  The ride back was less eventful but sunnier and just as pretty although it took fifteen hours, arriving back late at night and it was back to the old standby Raza-Otel.  It was so quiet there, the silence only disturbed by the occasional mooing of a cow.

I picked up a taxi-brousse to Ranomafana to see the national park.  The ticket guy said the truck was leaving soon but upon arrival, it was almost empty.  That might sound like a good thing but what it means is they have to fill up before leaving and “soon” meant three hours.  If you want to get anywhere quickly, public transport in Madagascar isn’t for you and patience is truly a virtue.  The ride wasn’t that bad…sort of.  While there were the normal discomforts of taxi-brousse, this one played music at high volume and worse was that it was the insufferable whining of Mariah Carey.  Ear plugs can’t make it better and hours of listening to that will make even a strong man cry for mercy.

The town was nothing special but I met a French family who were going to Tana and offered me a ride.  Oh yeah, no taxi-brousse for me!  I headed to the national park and hiked it on my own as this park didn’t require a guide.  It was nice to walk by myself in total solitude.  It started to rain and I took refuge under a tiny roof and waited out the rain, but still got wet in the blowing wind.  After the rain stopped, I commenced walking again and went around a grove of trees and realized I was about twenty meters away from a large picnic area covered by a large roof…D’oh!  A highlight of the day was seeing a ring tailed mongoose, an animal (like most there) only found in Madagascar.  When you see one of these animals, with the ringed-tail, there is no mistaking what you are seeing. This park was different from the others seen so far.  The forest was thicker and the greens deeper.  It didn’t have the spectacular vistas of some of the other places but the rain and overcast sky presented the forests in a beautiful way and coupled with the solitude…it was a good day.

Stayed at a dump of a hotel and was planning on meeting the French family in the morning.  Upon checking out, I couldn’t find the key for the room.  I told the hotel it was in the room and skeedaddled out quickly.  I met the family and they drove by the hotel I had stayed at.  I covered my face as we drove by hoping the hotel staff outside didn’t notice me.  It’s not something to be proud of but it’s one of those things that happen sometimes.

The ride was comfortable and pretty and the driver pointed out a spindly looking bridge that was rated for fifteen tons but the trucks crossing it weighed forty tons.  We asked if that was a problem and he said, “Not yet.”  We stopped in Antsirabe, which is the third largest city, for a few hours.  I really liked this town.  The day was sunny and pleasantly cool and the town itself is attractive.  I hired a pousse-pousse (hand rickshaw) for an hour.  He asked where to go and I said I didn’t know so he started to pull me around town and I’d say, “Left!” or “Right!”  It was a highlight of the day and to make it nicer, the driver charged me a fair price and didn’t try to push for any extra money so naturally I gave him a big tip for such a pleasant experience.  I really enjoyed my time with the family. They gave me their address in France to visit when I’m passing through Europe on my way home in a few months.  They drop me off in Tana and we said goodbye.

It was late and I got a hotel and something to eat.  I was very clear about what I wanted and didn’t want yet when the food came it was all wrong.  I pushed it away and walked up to the counter and paid.  The staff, concerned, asked if there was a problem and I said, “No, everything is perfect.”  There was something about that meal that set me off and it wasn’t them but me.  The next day I woke up and decided it was best not to do much that day as I was so tired and not in a “not enough sleep” sort of way.  I’m not certain if I was tired of Madagascar or of traveling in general but I realized that this was something that couldn’t be ignored.  The fatigue had been growing over time and the best thing to do is take some books, a pen and paper and find a place to be alone.

The following day I caught a minivan to Toamasina, the main port of the country and spent the night there before leaving for Isle Sainte-Marie.