Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nosy Be, Madagascar

On Tuesday morning we caught a flight with South African Airlines to Johannesburg, where we collected our luggage and then headed to the Air Madagascar ticket counter to check in for our flight to Nosy Be that departed in the afternoon. We whiled away a few hours at the airport before finally boarding the flight. The flight was only about half full, and after we were all on board one of the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles spraying insectiside into the air. We never found out what this was for, but I would guess that it was to reduce the likelihood of bringing invasive species of insects to Madagascar.

The flight took about 4 hours and it was dark by the time the plane lurched to a stop on the Nosy Be air strip. As we stepped out of the plane into the humid tropical air, we were greeted by the sight of a very primitive airport which seemed to consist only of one room. After crossing the tarmac of the single runway we were usered into the customs holding area. We were a little unsure of the visa process since we had thought about arranging a visa ahead of time but never got around to it, but it turned out to be fine and after speaking to a few officials in broken french (ours was broken, not theirs) we were through customs. We were relieved that we didn't have to pay for the visa, as we didn't have any Madagascan currency on us (the Ariary) and the airport definitely didn't have any ATMs (it didn't have any amenities).

Nosy Be is an island on the north west coast of Madagascar, with its airport located on the south east corner of the island. We were staying in the village of Andilana on the north end of the island, and there is only one paved road on the island that travels clockwise around the perimeter of the island from the airport to Andilana. We had asked the proprieters of the guesthouse we were staying at in Andilana (called "Au Belvedere") to arrange transportation for us from the airport, but upon collecting our luggage we didn't see anyone waiting for us in particular so we picked a taxi driver at random and we were off.

The drive took about 45 minutes, with a stop in the aptly named Hell Ville (the biggest town on the island, in the south west corner) to retrieve some local currency from one of the three ATMs on the island (all located in Hell Ville). When we finally pulled up to Au Belvedere it was about 8:30pm and there wasn't much sign of life, with nobody staffing the open air reception desk. We waited by the car while our taxi driver conducted a search for some staff, and after about 20 minutes he returned with a woman who seemed to be in charge. We were given the keys to our room and after climbing into the mosquito net over our bed we settled in for a good night's sleep.

We awoke the next morning to sunny blue skies, and after breakfast on the porch outside our room we headed out to explore the beach. The Au Belvedere is a small establishment with about 8 rooms, and is just up from the beach. The beach is not very developed, and until a few years ago the Au Belvedere and another small guesthouse were the only accommodation options on the beach. A few years ago an Italian resort was built next to Au Belvedere, but the majoriy of the beach remains relatively undeveloped. Here is a shot of the row of rooms at the Au Belvedere:

As we headed out to explore we encountered some interesting flora, with this bright flowering tree being one of the more attractive examples:

We soon found our way down to the beach which had a long stretch of fine white sand bordered on one side by the warm, turquoise waters of the Mozambique Channel and by stands of palm trees on the other side:

The water was really warm, in the shallower parts it felt almost like stepping into a lukewarm bathtub. After wading in, the first order of business was a handstand competition, for which Roanne was declared the victor after much debate by the judges:

After our swim I was feeling a little thirsty so I decided to test my tropical island survival skills by climbing a palm tree to get a coconut and then cracking it open to drink the milk (delicious):

Roanne then read for a while and I went snorkeling using some fins and a mask that had been procured for us by young fellow who approached us on the beach to try and rope us into a lobster lunch. We declined the lunch, and asked for fins and a mask instead, which he happily returned with about 20 minutes later. The snorkeling was amazing, with lots of coral and myriad forms of brightly coloured aquatic life. The only other warm water tropical snorkeling that I had done before was in Thailand, and this was much better as I don't think my Thai snorkeling site was in one of the hotspots, with the main items of interest being sand and rocks.

As the afternoon progressed, we decided to face some cold, hard facts:

1. Almost nobody (including our guesthouse, the Au Belvedere) in Madagascar accepts credit cards, they deal only in cash.
2. We didn't have enough cash on us to pay our hotel bill upon checking out the next day.
3. The nearest ATM was 25km away in Hell Ville.

With this in mind, we strolled back along the beach towards the "town" of Andilana (a small collection of makeshift huts), stopping to observe some hand made outrigger canoes along the way:

Happily, one of the buildings in Andilana organized "quad" (ATV) tours, and they had a scooter that they were willing to rent us so that we could make the trip to Hell Ville. We hopped on the rickety 2-stroke scooter, donned the broken, toy plastic helmets that we were given, and we were off, bouncing along the pot holed road as we made our way towards Hell Ville. The scooter was sort of a manual/automatic hybrid where you had to change gears but there was no clutch, this took a bit of getting used to but after that it wasn't too bad, maxing out at just under 70 km/hour.

Along the way we passed roadside stands selling fruit and cell phone credit, a lot of land that had been denuded of vegetation (in some cases still blackened and smoldering from having been burned) but apparently wasn't being used for anything, and lots of huts.

At about the halfway point we were stopped by two police officers at a checkpoint, and after asking us where we were from (to which we replied "Canada" and they in turn yelled "Celine Dion!"), they asked us for "un petit cadeau". Being forced to pay a bribe to a corrupt official probably isn't much of a pleasure for locals, but in this case I felt that it added to our overall experience (in much the same way that it isn't so bad if it rains while you are visiting Seattle, you would probably be disappointed if it didn't live up to expectations) so I was happy to fork over 5000 Ariary (about $2.50 USD) before continuing on our way.

We made it to Hell Ville without any further hiccups, and quickly found the ATM we had used the night before (the daily limit of 200,000 Ariary had prevented us from withdrawing enough cash the night before). The town of Hell Ville didn't seem like an inviting place to spend much time, so after retrieving our money we hopped back on the scooter and beelined it for Andilana Beach, hoping to arrive in time to catch the sunset (which happens at around 6:30pm).

After taking in the sunset, we headed down to one of the two local restaurants (Chez Loulou) where we enjoyed their delicious fixed menu sitting under some palm trees on the beach before turning in for an early night and drifting off to sleep to the thumping of the Italian disco at the Hotel Andilana Resort next door.

We rose early the next morning since I had one more snorkeling mission to complete, as I wanted to snorkel out to a small island that was just off shore from the headland. This turned out to be a worth while endeavor as I was rewarded with even more fish and coral than I had seen the day prior while exploring a different end of the beach. While I was snorkeling Roanne wandered over towards the Italian resort and engaged in conversation with a friendly hair dresser from Milano. Upon the conclusion of my adventure I reclaimed my beautiful wife from the Italian coiffeur, and we spent the rest of the morning trying to polish our french skills in conversation with a 20 year old local named "To To" who seemed happy to talk to us.

One nice thing about Madagascar (for us, at least) was that almost nobody spoke english, so we were forced to put into practice our rusty french. The two official languages in Madagascar are Malagasy (the local, pre-colonial language) and French (from the 65 years during which Madgascar was a french colony), and we only encountered a handful of people who spoke english, and even in those cases their english was such that it was easier for us to understand them if they spoke french. Roanne and I have long had the goal of becoming reasonably fluent in another language, with french being the leading candidate, so it was nice to get a chance to work on our french without the temptation of switching back to English when the other party speaks English better than we speak French.

At around noon we climbed into an ancient taxi and bounced back along the island road headed for the airport, where we would be catching a flight to our next destination of Diego-Suarez, on the northern trip of Madgascar.

Along the way we passed some interesting-looking trees that seemed to be growing downwards:

We later learned that these were called "ylang ylang", and are cultivated to make perfume with. They are pruned intentionally to grow downwards so that the flowers are easier to harvest, and they are one of Madagascars primary exports (along with vanilla).

Upon arrival at the tiny Nosy Be airport we checked in at the single desk where we were given a handwritten ticket and we then proceeded past the optional metal detector and into the lone waiting area. Here is a shot of the metal detector, apparantly the post-9/11 air travel security paranoia has not yet propagated to the Nosy Be airport:

After a short wait we headed out onto the tarmac to board the plane for the short 30 minute flight that would carry us on to Diego-Suarez. It may seem ridiculous to take such a short flight instead of driving, but the roads are so poorly maintained (or non-existent) that a trip taking 1 hour by plane can take up to 24 hours over land by taxi-brousse (a sort of mini bus/taxi that seems to be the primary means of conveyance in most of Madagascar).

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