Sunday, October 19, 2014

Madagascar’s Hauts Plateaux: South on Foot

After stumbling into our hotel (thankfully located quite close to the train station) at 5 am, we collapsed into bed.  We were scheduled to spend the next three days camping and trekking south from Fianarantsoa toward the next town, Ambalavao.  However, we weren’t eager to trade the hard-won comfortable bed, easily accessible (real) toilet, and hot shower, for the cold hard ground after just two hours of sleep on the FCE.  The prospect of hiking up a mountain for six to seven hours was equally unappealing.  Rubbing sleep from our eyes, we briefly explained this to our local guide, who was happy to revise our hiking route and pick us up the following morning instead.

Tuesday morning, we set off from our hotel in a much-improved state of mind -- more than ready to trek through the hauts plateaux.  Lala deposited us at a brick church alongside the N7 with our guide, Mamy, and the three of us set off south down a path through the red fields and green rice paddies.   Although very few trees could be found dotting the rolling hills (most are victims to slash and burn farming or demand for firewood), our hike passed through a series of incredible vistas as we crossed through Betsileo villages and climbed the hills and boulders.  Mamy explained that our trek would first take us over a large hill, followed by a brief stop in the village below and a more serious climb up and over Somaina Mountain. 

In the village, Mamy paused for a detailed explanation of the mechanics of rice cultivation in the region (much more interesting and complicated than it sounds).  Several men were also busy fashioning red bricks out of a mixture of mud and zebu dung, starting the process of building a new house.  In addition to the standard zebu grazing in the fields, several gobbling turkeys were busy roaming through the village.

Throughout the entire stop, we were trailed by a troupe of wide-eyed children.  Beginning our climb up Somaina Mountain, we were joined by two local “guides” from the village.  At first we weren’t quite sure why we needed another guide, but then our clear path abruptly ended and the rest of the ascent crisscrossed boulder fields and actual fields.  We never would have found the way on our own, even with Mamy.          

At the top, we were rewarded with views of the valleys and villages spread out below.  The guides also showed us some of the local tombs, which were created out of caves or dug into the hillside.  After saying farewell to our local guides, we wound our way down the southern face of the mountain, stopping for a relaxing lunch en route.  After an easy descent of the mountain and traverse of several more rice paddies, we arrived at an incredibly organized campsite.  Camp Oliha should take note!

We settled in alongside the village rice paddies to enjoy the view and read for a while on our iPads before the sun set (even Giorgio has replaced watching TV with reading).  Out of the blue, we were mobbed by a group of girls eager to turn the pages of Giorgio’s book.  After flipping through a few pages, they ran off laughing, only to return with the rest of the village children 30 minutes later.  Everyone crowded around Giorgio to turn the pages of his book, which was entertaining, but not as entertaining as looking at the photos of Madagascar in the guidebook on Stephanie’s iPad or having their photos taken repeatedly.  Unlike the children trailing after us in Lesotho, our new band of followers wasn’t asking for money or candy, they were simply curious about the vazaha and their strange electronics.

We were not treated to a freshly slaughtered chicken for dinner, but instead got to sample a local rum punch (after pouring some out in honor of our ancestors) accompanied by a three-course dinner ending with pineapple flambé.  This was clearly a classy camping trip.  Even better, we got to spend hours chatting with Mamy and learning all sorts of things about Madagascar.  Since Giorgio is continuing his quest to become a fluent Malagasy speaker, Mamy helped him add new slang to his vocabulary.  More importantly, the chance to speak with someone around our own age about everything from politics, to music, to local traditions was incredibly refreshing.

In the morning, we awoke to the sound of the villagers making their way to the adjacent rice paddies.  We were clearly lazy sleeping in past 6:30 am.  Mamy lead us through a new series of villages on our way southeast back to the N7, where we would rejoin Lala.  It was a busy morning since it was market day in Ambalavao, our destination.  Carrying bags of rice and other goods to sell, everyone was making their way to the main road.  Most importantly, Wednesday was the day for the weekly zebu market, and men were either herding the animals to Ambalavao for sale or en route to town to buy a new zebu. 

After our hike, Mamy had promised that we would make a stop at one of the vineyards in the area.  We have been skeptical about Malagasy wine, but figured we should at least give it a try, particularly since it isn’t typically exported.  How bad could it be?  It turns out that Malagasy wine is limited to local consumption for a reason.  We aren’t quite sure what grapes are being grown, just that they are cultivated from a hybrid of French and local vines.  Since we are clearly wine-making experts, we have determined that the issue with Malagasy wine is the lack of oak barrels.  Oak barrels are either unavailable, too expensive, or both.  What’s the next best option?  Plastic barrels.  We’ll leave you to imagine what the wines taste like, accompanied by hints of plastic.  Fortified wines and aperitifs, as well as Malagasy grappa, are a lot more forgiving.

Buoyed by the local spirits, we made our way onward to the Ambalavao zebu market, the largest in the country.  Stephanie had imagined that a zebu market might be a bit like the state fair or a rodeo, but that’s not quite it.  Groups of zebu were milling around the dusty open-air market, surrounded by their herders, each of whom carried the perfect stick to keep the animals in line.  The zebu were oddly subdued, although occasionally one would let out a frustrated "moo" or escape from a herder to dash across the market.  With a zebu on a run, the scene briefly transformed into Pamplona, as people made sure to avoid the temporarily stampeding cattle.  Mamy told us that amidst this seeming chaos there was an underlying order, as the herders negotiated for the best prices and verified the paperwork for prospective purchases.  Zebus also have yellow tags, or passports, on their ears, indicating that they can be transported throughout the country.  The cattle are incredibly important for the local economy, particularly since many families measure wealth in zebu – Giorgio has determined that the zebu market is Madagascar’s nascent financial market, with vast amounts of cash changing hands every market day and zebu brokers and traders making a living this way.

Next, Mamy guided us through the non-zebu market, another scene of organized chaos.  Although vendors were selling anything and everything, they did so in a specific order.  First we encountered electronics, then clothes, then fruit, then vegetables, and so on.  On our own, we would have become hopelessly turned around as we made our way down the crowded aisles, but Mamy easily directed us past the diverse vendors.  As we exited the market, he spotted several pousse pousse idling nearby.  Had we been in one of these Malagasy rickshaws elsewhere?  When we told him we had missed out on this experience, he quickly negotiated with the drivers and off we went.  Mamy was even lucky enough to pick up a pretty pousse pousse hitchhiker for the second half of his trip.  It is a bit disconcerting to be pulled through the city streets and even along the national highway by a barefoot “driver.”  At least it isn’t an activity just for vazaha, though, as we have seen the locals transported in the same fashion in several towns. 

We are now back on the highway driving south -- stay tuned for more updates from the mountain ranges and forests of Madagascar's national parks! 


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