The Long and Winding Road

29 Oct

There have been so many obstacles in the way of leaving for my field site, from lost passports and slow visa processing to assistant delays, that I shouldn’t have been surprised to encounter one more setback. Joachim, my assistant, was due to arrive from London around noon on Tuesday. I was at the airport waiting to warmly welcome him when his plane failed to arrive. It’s not that he missed his flight as he feared, but rather that the entire plane was absent. I asked at the information kiosk and learned that the flight was rescheduled to arrive six hours later that night; this was already a bad omen.


Claude drove me back to the airport hours later only to find out that the flight was further delayed another two hours. This time we stayed at the airport and waited with baited breath to see if the plane would truly arrive this time.


As 8:30pm rolled around, the passengers started flowing through customs, heavily laden with their luggage. Joachim appeared and the relief of finally arriving showed on his face as we shook hands and met face-to-face for the first time. His smile quickly faded as he regretfully informed me that only one of his two bags had arrived with him. I was so close and yet so far away.


Joach (pronounced Josh) told me the story of how his half-a-day delay was due to an in-flight mechanical warning, partway from Nairobi to Tana. This caused them to turn back to Nairobi and diagnose and fix the problem. After hours waiting in the airport lounge, they finally loaded the passengers and their luggage onto a new plane to take them to Madagascar.


Joach’s second bag must have been misplaced in the switch. Unfortunately for us, the next flight from Nairobi wasn’t for two days, so we would have to wait. By now I have become very good at waiting for things.


On the plus side, this gave me some time to show Joach around Tana and have him pick up a local cellphone and some other basic supplies.




I had my team assemble at the MICET offices Thursday morning and we loaded all of our gear into a rugged, navy blue Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s actually more accurate to say we loaded our gear ON the truck, as most of the bags were handed up and strapped to the roof rack, tucked under a bright blue tarp in case we encountered any inclement weather. All loaded up, the MICET office staff wished us a good trip and a successful research season, and Claude took Joach, Vola, and me onto the road to begin our long journey.


Before we could actually leave Tana and head south, we had one last stop to make. Pulling into the parking lot at Ivato Airport, we all had our fingers crossed that Joach’s second bag would arrive as expected and that this flight wouldn’t be delayed like his was two days earlier. Joach strode back to the truck with the bag slung over his shoulder and I gave the thumb’s up that we were all set to get going. Better late than never.


It would be a three-day drive from Tana to Beza. The first day’s path was painfully familiar to me, having just traversed that stretch of road twice in the past week, on my excursion to Ranomafana. The scenery was hilly with rice patties terraced up and down the slopes. Lots of villages straddled the road, taking advantage of the traffic and access it provided to sell crafts and produce to passersby, or to transport their goods to the city and its expansive market.


The motorized traffic was light, but the pedestrians flowed up and down the road like a living torrent. Some walked empty-handed, but most were relocating goods, either precariously stacked and bundled on top of their heads or on push carts. Often these overburdened carts carried heavy loads of bricks made in the nearby rice patties or long logs cut from any remaining trees of the decimated forests. Getting these heavy loads up and down the steep hills was no easy feat and required a team effort. One or two people would pull and steer from the yoke in front while many more pushed and strained from the rear of the cart. More than once the pushers were young children, doing their part to help their older siblings transport their burdens.


There were police and military checkpoints at nearly every village, their tire spikes stretching halfway across the road to help encourage people to stop as requested. Typically manned by two to three soldiers, sometimes with AK-47s strapped to their backs or dangling within easy reach of their bored fingers, these stops were there to keep track of the kind of traffic going through their town and to make certain that everyone’s papers (think license and registration) were in order. Luckily, we were rarely stopped, but typically waved through with a smile or a salute. The few times we were stopped, the soldier took a quick look inside the vehicle, asked where we were headed, and sent us on our way with no further delay.


Late in the afternoon, as the sun was falling across the western sky, the road turned into a stomach-churning series of tight switchbacks. We stopped for a bathroom break along the side of the road before the worst of it began, as there would be no safe place to stop for the next few hours of road. In addition to the serpentine bends in the road and the ever-deepening darkness, there were huge potholes, as wide as cows, scattered all along the road, waiting to disable any drivers who became momentarily distracted. As a precaution to avoid a collision, we flashed our lights as we screamed around tight corners, warn pedestrians and oncoming traffic alike that they were not alone on the road.


After ten hours of driving, we finally reached our stopping point for the day at Fianarantsou (Fianar). I chose a nice-sounding hotel from my guide book and was pleasantly surprised upon entry to realize that this was the same Chinese-decorated hotel I stayed at with Teague over two years ago on my first journey along this beautiful transect of the eighth continent.


After a glorious night of sleep in a well-padded bed and a refreshing hot shower (yes, I’m savoring every day remaining where I get to enjoy these luxuries), my team took their positions in the truck and we were off to an early start on our continuing journey south.




Leaving Fianar behind us, the scenery rapidly changed as we descended from the eastern mountain range and steered west across the central plains of Madagascar. The landscape changed every hour or two. The road took us through the prairies, our wide path curving around rocky mountains with huge rounded tops like fleshy zebu humps. Then large earthen mounds gave way to rolling hills covered in pale grass and pockmarked with the acne of loose boulders.


Further west, the hills flattened, but the yellow-white grass remained over top of rust-red soil stretching far into the distance, broken only by wide black bands where fire had scorched the earth. Plumes of light brown smoke on the horizon in several directions proved that the burning was still ongoing.


Above was nothing but limitless blue skies painted with puffy white clouds. Below the car passed an unforgiving land, dry and hot with no shade from the fiery sun save the occasional wisp of a tree. We zoomed through Isalo National Park, reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, with its gnarled rock formations and lonely squat palm trees trying to suck nonexistent moisture from the sandy soil.


The loneliness of the scenery was finally broken with a dusty, sapphire mining town. All of the buildings were arranged down the main drag, like a gold mining town in the early days of the American west. After this town came a second, smaller gem town, newer than the first and with a thin trickle of a muddy stream running along its edge.


Later on, we crossed a river, both banks thick with reeds ten and fifteen feet tall. Once out of the reach of the gently flowing waters, the landscape abruptly returned to dry scrub and spiny cacti.


As we approached the village of Sakahara, just a couple of hours from Tulear, the soldiers at the local checkpoint waved us to pull over. Rather than just ask where we were headed, they asked to see our passports.


Those coveted visas that Joachim and I had so struggled to obtain from Malagasy embassies in Europe and the U.S. were only good for one month in the country. The special thing about these visas (and what made them so valuable) is that they are extendable. The only way for me to legally stay in Madagascar longer than three months is to get this extendable visa and then apply for an extension every six months that I am in country. MICET takes care of arranging for the visa extension with the local authorities, but this takes at least five working days. So the general model is to leave your passport with MICET while in the field and to pick it up with your visa extension stamped inside upon returning to Tana, before departing the country. While you are traveling without your passport, MICET gives you a photocopy of your passport and visa and a letter accompanying them explaining this whole situation and why I am not carrying my original passport.


So when we handed the soldiers at the checkpoint packets of paper instead of official passport books, you can imagine the surprise on their faces. The two soldiers took a minute to look through what we had handed over and talked amongst themselves. After a few minutes of their discussion with my precious passport papers in their steely grip, I began to get worried. If everything was copacetic, they should have handed our papers back and sent us on our way with a smile. There was a great deal of talking between the lead soldier, a black nylon shoulder holster displaying his shiny pistol, and our driver, Claude. In fact, the soldier was doing most of the talking and quite rapidly at that. Their conversation was entirely in Malagasy, so as I looked on from the front seat, I could only read their body language. The soldier was getting more and more worked up. He kept slapping the papers and I could eventually make out a few words I recognized, “… ministry… etranger… certification…” After why felt like an hour of this, but was probably closer to 15 minutes, Vula and Claude explained the situation to Joach and I, sitting there confused and increasingly worried.


The crux of the issue was that our passport photocopies and cover letters were not notorized by the Madagascar Ministry of Foreign Affairs seventeen hours behind us in Tana. Realizing the full weight of the situation I took a deep breath to calm myself down. So we were missing a stamp, that’s all. How typical in a country where every shred of paper must be stamped and signed by five different people before it can even be used as toilet paper!


Sitting in the truck at the side of the road, only a few hours from another warm bed in Tulear, we had very few options. These soldiers couldn’t provide me with the stamp they requested and nor could anyone on the road before me. To get the stamp I needed and certify that my passport copy was a valid copy, or rather a copy of a valid passport, some authority would need to see both the photocopy and the original passport to compare them. My passport was hundreds of miles away in Tana and now that I was finally on my way to my field site after a grueling series of setbacks, I wasn’t turning back for anything short of a life-or-death emergency. So I had a few options of what to do next…


• Option #1: certify my passport photocopy with the proper stamp, was off of the table.

• Option #2: run for it, seemed like a horrible idea with that shiny pistol in view and my papers still in the aggravated soldier’s hands.

• Option #3: find a way to convince them to let us pass without the stamp they so desperately insisted we must have.


Several thousand Ariary later and we got the smile and cheery “bon voyage” that I had hoped for an hour before when we pulled the truck to a halt at the checkpoint. As we drove away, Vula leaned forward from the back seat and said with a smirk, “This is Madagascar.” We all gave a little chuckle and made haste to put as much road behind us as quickly as possible.


A short while later and the ocean breeze welcomed us to the city of Tulear. We pulled up to the hotel, checked into our rooms, and took some quick showers to wash off the road grime from a long day of driving through the heat.


My friend and colleague, Jacky, came over to the hotel and drove me to his house to pick up some gear that collaborators had left for me (thanks Ny and Marni). We dropped off the gear at my hotel and then my team and Jacky and his family all went out for a lovely dinner together.




After another restful night and a simple breakfast at the hotel, Jacky picked me up once more and took me to a local produce stand, well off the beaten path. As opposed to similar stands in the main market, this one was less busy and wasn’t crowded with beggars and pickpockets. The seller was a round woman with a big grin. She and Jacky are friends and in return for him bringing many researchers there to buy many months worth of food, she charges those researchers the Malagasy price instead of the vastly inflated vazaha (foreigner) price.


Volumes at the market aren’t measured in liters or cups, but in cupokes. Take an empty 10 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, fill it with rice until the cup is full, then overflow the cup until the rice forms a cone on top of the can and no more rice can be added without it falling off, and now you have a cupoke.


I purchased 100 cupokes of rice (about half of a 50 kilo sac), 70 cupokes of assorted beans and lentils, and multiple kilos of potatoes, carrots, garlic, onions, green beans, and green squash. Lastly I purchased an unripe pineapple for a sweet treat in the coming week.


We brought the food back to the truck and repacked all of our luggage and gear in and on the truck for the final day of driving. While we were loading up, Vola ran to the nearby market and purchased a soccerball to help entertain us during those lonely times at Beza.


After a quick lunch, we turned the truck back onto road RN7, taking us the way we came from Tana. Mercifully, we turned off of the main road before reaching that harassing checkpoint that had so rudely delayed us the day before.


From here it was slow going. The pavement faded away and was replaced by a river of tan, gray, and red soils. The deep tire tracks split and converged organically around trees and obstacles. Claude laboriously poked his way through this woven landscape, choosing the path with the fewest large rocks and avoiding most of the sharp dips.


We passed dense thickets of dust-covered cacti, tightly fencing in the road on both sides with their broad, spiky, red and green leaves. The dirt road subtly shifted to a golden hue and then to a ghostly pearl-white giving the landscape a completely pale, lifeless appearance if not offset by the cloudless light blue sky and the faded shades of green spotting the terrain with succulents and the occasional massive fruit tree.


We followed the tire tracks of trucks long gone as they snaked up and down, over endless humps and ridges in the road. We came to a split in the road with a painted white sign with the word ‘Capricorn’ faintly scrawled in block letters indicating that we were at the tropic of Capricorn. We took the right fork and passed below 30 degrees south and officially out of the tropics.


As the truck descended a small hill, bouncing all the way, the scrub and thorny bushes gave way to lush green grasses and wide stands of full trees. This floral shift could only mean one thing; there was an abundant water source nearby. As I looked out of the window for the river beyond the trees, I felt a change in the car’s vibrations from the side-to-side jerk of rocks and dips to the more uniform, gentle up-and-down jostling of cobblestones. We passed through the biggest town I had seen in hours and then as we reached the far edge of town, the cobblestone road dumped us back into the dirt for the rest of the trip.


Finally reaching the town of Betioky, we had one quick errand to run before finishing our trip to Beza. I needed a signature from the local official for the Direction Regionale de l’Environment et des Forets (DREF).  We drove to his house/office and were surprised to only find his adult son there. His son told us that he was at a wedding across town, but that he could take us there to see his father. We arrived just in time to watch all of the wedding guests finish their trip from the church to the event hall where the party was to begin. As the official came by, his son explained our situation and he told me that he only needed a copy of my research permit for his records and I was good to go. I picked up a case of THB beer on the way out of Betioky and we continued along our long and winding road.


Leaving Betioky, we began the final and most challenging leg of the journey, with unmarked double-rut paths splitting every hundred yards and rarely converging back together. In this labyrinth of choices, it seems impossible not to get lost. It was the memory of getting lost in this signless expanse in the pitch-black night two and a half years ago that caused me to specifically request a MICET driver who knew the way to Beza Mahafaly. I was assured that Claude had made the journey many times and this was in fact true. Unfortunately, his last crossing had been at night and his visual landmarks were a bit fuzzy.


We made a few too many lefts at splits in the road and when we asked a local farmer the way to Beza he pointed us far to the south of our current trajectory. On the way to this better path, we ran into a wall of cacti that barred our path. Again, we asked for directions and a kind woman from the village walked with us until we got back on the road to Beza.


Finally back on the right path, which we double- and triple-checked with every person we encountered, the road split dramatically less often and we were able to cruise smoothly through the terrain littered with squat termite mounds.


Getting closer to our destination, we passed through the spiny forest of a non-adjacent patch of Beza Mahafaly, with its baby baobab trees sprouting clusters of pert white flowers from their late-branching crowns. At some splits in the road we would find small stone markers with ring-tailed lemurs painted on them in red, indicating which path leads to Beza Mahafaly. Where were these signs earlier, when we really needed them?


Finally, after one more right turn we approached the front entrance to the Beza Mahafaly campsite and a signpost with a lemur painted on it wished us “tonga soa,” welcome.


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