A Call in the Dark

29 Oct

Having safely arrived at camp, I wanted to check in and let my parents and the outside world know that I was back at my Malagasy home of Beza. Due to the ten-hour time difference between Madagascar and California, calls are rarely convenient for both sides. Not knowing my exact schedule, I had prearranged for my parents to call me at 8pm, figuring that I would be free to talk after dinner.


For those of you who remember what is involved in making phone calls, you’ll recall that there is no cellphone reception in the Beza Mahafaly campsite. Instead, I need to journey for 20-30 minutes across the river, through a village, along a dirt road, through some crop fields, across a sandy expanse, and finally up a small hill to stand on a pile of stones and get a couple of bars of cellphone signal.


Having finished dinner around 7:30pm, I grabbed my waist-pack containing a bottle of water, a warm shirt, and my cellphone, and began my journey to the phone hill. Taking the back road out of Beza, following the white tunnel of light provided by my headlamp, I walked in those footsteps I had treaded so many times before to contact the world outside of Beza.


I crossed the river, following the faint wheel ruts from zebu-driven cherettes, angling across the dry, sandy riverbed to the road on the other side. I cut straight through a village to find the road on its far side that would take me through the next section of my route.


It was incredibly dark out and my single, narrow beam of light suddenly seemed insufficient as I squinted all around me, trying to remain on the proper path and looking for any visual landmarks that I could both remember and spot in the thick darkness. More than once, I lost the trail I had remembered, only to stumble upon it once again. This was beginning to feel like a bad idea. I nearly turned back to camp, but my continued success in rediscovering the path spurred me onward. Eventually, I was close enough to the hill that I gave up on trying to find the path I had used in the past and instead wove my own way through the tall leafless stalks of manioc.


Looking at my watch and realizing that I only had a few minutes until my scheduled incoming call, I started to double time it. Crossing the sandy expanse, I edged right, along the far bank, until the undergrowth broke and the rocky path appeared. Climbing the hill and finding my pile of stones, I had just enough time to put on my second shirt before my phone magically rang.


Ten minutes later and it was time to find my way back to camp. While I was on the phone, I had noticed that the wind had picked up quite a bit and I was hoping that this wouldn’t impede my progress home.


I trekked down the hill, across the sand, and into the field of lanky manioc stems. Edging along one patch of plants, I passed through a gap in another patch, as I had remembered doing on the way there, but when I emerged, I lost all signs of the path.


I stopped and looked all around for a memorable tree or some other landmark, but found none. Instead, I was viewing a wide, flat expanse in front of me that could only be an empty crop field. One hundred yards in the distance I could make out a row of trees that marked the far border to this field. Behind me, the manioc stalks rocked in the wind and urged me onwards.


I decided to check out the field and see if I could find a path somewhere ahead of me. I tried along the left and then to the right, but neither seemed like the right way. Ultimately, I decided to cut straight across the middle of the field, hoping there might be a path hidden in those trees in the distance. The ground was like Martian soil, with large firm rubble strewn all about the place. You couldn’t have designed a better place to break an ankle if you tried, especially when I was wandering around in the dark. Formerly full of those waving manioc stalks, this field had been torn asunder when the stalks were ripped from the ground to yield their fat-fingered roots. Here and there, I would see large white rectangles on the ground, glowing in the light from my headlamp and beckoning me like some sort of Odyssean siren. These white patches always revealed themselves to be nothing more than swathes of manioc roots, laid out to dry in the sun.


Having reached the line of trees, I was no closer to finding a path home. I took a deep breath, a large drink of water, and suddenly had a ‘eureka’ moment. I quickly dug through the outer pocket of my bag and pulled out my salvation, a compass. At least now I could wander consistently in the same direction. As I recalled, the journey to the phone hill took me roughly east and south of Beza. So if I walked north and west, I should be heading in the right direction. At the very least, I should come upon the river to the west and that could take me back to camp.


On a bearing of northwest, I resumed my hike with renewed confidence. After a short while, I came upon a road. Things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, first with the compass, and now with the discovery of a road that would at least take me somewhere with promise. The problem was that the road ran from southwest to northeast and I wanted to be heading northwest. After some deliberation, I chose to prioritize north and turned right down the road.


All along my journey I occasionally saw pairs of glowing eyes reflected back at me. Mostly these were cats and dogs and they scampered off before I got too close. This time, however, as I walked down the road, I saw two pairs of large eyes coming straight for me. I made a sound to try and scare off these mysterious beasts, but then happily realized what was coming my way. This was a cherette driven by two zebu. This meant people and I could ask for directions.


I greeted the small posse and tried not to blind them with my headlamp as I asked the way to Beza Mahafaly. They pointed south, the way they were heading and I happily took up step behind them. We walked together for about ten minutes before they asked if I was going to Betioky. I restated that I wanted to go to Beza Mahafaly and they insisted I go the other way on this road, the way I had originally chosen for myself.


So I was alone again, but still with a road to follow. This road finally took me to a village. Everything was quiet among the huts, save for three very loud dogs not pleased with my arrival. Not wanting to go any further into the town and face a canine wrath, but wanting to talk to someone in the town to ask directions, I stood at the road and hoped the noise of the dogs would bring someone over. Eventually this strategy worked and a few men shooed off the dogs and pointed me straight through their village to get to Beza Mahafaly. On the other side of this village, there were a few people leaning against a house. I asked again for Beza Mahafaly and they said the magic word: Munja.


Munja (pronounced Munza) works for Madagascar National Parks at Beza and is a good friend from my last visit. Apparently I had stumbled upon Munja’s town, so someone ran to wake him up and tell him there was a vazaha (foreigner) here to see him. I’m certain he was quite baffled until he saw my face, then the recognition and understanding quickly swept across his face.


Munja insisted that he escort me back to camp and I was not about to let my hubris get in the way of a prompt end to this hellish detour. As we left his village and headed down the bluff and across the Sakamena, I realized how well I had done for myself. I was nearly back to Beza, and all I had to get me there was a cool head and a pocket compass.


Munja and I talked and caught up as we walked the final stretch of road. As we got back to camp, I thanked Munja profusely and knew that my nocturnal adventure lost in the fields would be the talk of camp the next day.


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