2. Cross-country in the Middle Earth

Some said that a long time ago, one of them
had taken an elf wife. Nonsense, of course...
J. R. R. Tolkien. The Hobbit,
or There and Back Again.

Regular buses from Toliara only go as far as Ifaty. Further north the only transportation is by covered trucks, rare and unpredictable. I find myself in a sleepy village of straw huts. Dark-skinned kids paddle along the shore in double-outriggered digout boats. Further out you can see dhows - traditional Arab boats with Latin sails. On the beaches you can find tiny pieces of Aepyornis eggshells. These elephant-size birds, related to ostriches, were very common on the island before human arrival. The last ones were eaten less than a century before the "discovery" of Madagascar by the Portuguese in 1500 AD. The eggs were the size of a watermelon.

The coast is lined with hotels. The cheapest ones are simple straw cabins with no doors or glass windows, the luxury places have showers and generators. All are filled with French sex tourists, most of them 40-60 years old. Madagascar is for them what Thailand is for English speakers. But here it is all much less commercialized.

I am educated about local customs by a very tanned Frenchman, one of very few of them who can speak English.

"You are not expected to pay," he says, sipping beer and caressing a waitress sitting in his lap. "Local girls think it's cool to go out with a wazahi (a white person). All you have to do is ask her how old she is. The legal age is sixteen. If she says she's fifteen, that means she doesn't want you. Any number from sixteen up means she does. Her real age is irrelevant. Do you want this one?" he turns the waitress' face towards me.

"No, thanks. But some girls are very cute around here. May be I'll try. Is it OK if I'm leaving tomorrow?"

"No, it's not OK. You have to go out with her at least for a week, or she would be considered a slut."

Some village girls are really beautful, and watching them walk around with fat bald wazahi is nauseating. Or may be I'm just jealous. But I don't want to stop here for a week. Just in case, I ask the Frenchman how to say "how old are you?" in French, write it down, swim in the ocean a bit, and walk to a thorn forest just outside Ifaty.

Thorn forests of southwestern Madagascar are some of the world's weirdest. There are almost no "normal" trees there, but lots of candelabra Euphorbias, giant aloe, octopus-like shrubs and huge Pachypodiums that look like 3 m-tall carrots. In small clearings you can find red and black baobabs. They are not very tall, but have unbelievably "fat" bottle-like trunks. I think baobabs have first evolved on Madagascar: there are seven species here, but only one in Africa and one in Australia. Hollows in their trunks are inhabited by colonial ladybugs, semi-transparent ground geckos and large hissing cockroaches. It is dry season, so their branches have few leaves, but lots of bird nests. Yellow social veawers, bright-red fodis, glossy sunbirds and long-tailed paradise-flycatchers all like them.

Until recently, these forests were inhabited by millions of tortoises. Madagascar species are the most beautiful in the world, so they are very popular as pets. Habitat destruction and commercial pet trade drove them almost to extinction. Now it's illegal to catch or export them, but every year hundreds are confiscated by the customs and many more are smuggled to Europe, North America and Japan. Some species now number less than ten thousand in the wild. There are a few breeding centers, but they can't compensate for the iillegal trade.

Ifaty area is also famous for interesting forest birds, but most of them inhabit dense undergrowth and are difficult to find. The best way to locate them is to follow their tracks on dry sand, but you have to know which tracks to look for.

Next morning I walk out of the forest, and hitch a ride on a truck converted into a bus. There are about forty people in the trunk. I'm very lucky: it's the only one this week. The road is very bad. It's been only a week or two since the end of the wet season, so there's a lot of mud puddles, deep ruts and small pools. Every now and then we have to get out and push the truck, or walk across shallow rivers, or help the crew change a tire.

There are almost no more villages around, just dry grass and gallery forests along streams. To the east, slopes of Haut Plateaux rise above the haze. To the west is the ocean, but it's too far to see. This is a good area to see rare grassland birds: buttonquails, black partridges, plovers, sandgrouse, harriers, pratincoles, as well as more common green lovebirds and huge black vasa parrots.

We manage to cover forty kilometers in one day, and then sleep in the grass, ten kilometers short of the next town.

Next morning I make another twenty, then the car turns towards some coastal town, and I keep walking. I get a ride with another truck, then with a tractor, then with an oxcart. By nightfall I get to a tiny town near a slow river. The only source of electricity here is an engine from an old quatrelle. It is used for charging cell phones (everybody has them), and on rare special occasions - for powering a light bulb above the sign of the local hotel/store/restaurat/repair shop/club.

Prices here are insanely low. The new ariary bills haven't really made it here yet. Rumors are, old franks will be declared void in a few months (which is not true). So if you have ariary bills, as I do, you can have a good dinner for about ten US cents.

In the morning I learn that the road north hasn't dried out yet. The hotel owner shows me which jeep track to follow. It's seventy kilometers to Mamik, from where a taxi especial goes to the next city once a week or so. I don't ask what a "taxi especial" is. He also gives me a precious gift - an 8-pack of Lariam pills. In coastal areas of Madagascar, up to a third of population is carrying malaria. That's not nearly as bad as in some parts of Africa, besides, it's dry season, but I decide to start taking prophylactics. It's only one pill a week.

I spend the day walking along the overgrown track. The grass is inhabited by giant, unnaturally bright-colored physchedelic grasshoppers. When the trail dips into forest-filled ravines to cross a river, I have to break through three meter-wide webs made by pickle-size Nefila spiders. In drier places, the plains are dotted with thousands of red termite mounds, some twice as tall as I am. Once I find a beautiful comet moth, with "tails" at least a foot long.

Every hour or two I walk through small villages. As soon as people notice me, they run away in panic. They've never seen a white man, and think I'm a ghost. Nobody speaks French here. This is probably the most remote part of the island. If you try telling about such places to people in Tana or other large cities, they don't believe you. Christianity is not known here. The Malagasy have somewhat relaxed attitude towards nudity: it's not unusual to see people of both sexes bathing naked on the outskirts of villages. But this is the only area where many people never wear clothes: they have smooth tan all over.

Afternoons get a bit hot. My backpack weighs about 10 kg, and I also have my camera bag. I swim in every river I cross, but I still have to take rest under shady trees from time to time.

Then I wade across a particularly large river, chin-deep in the middle, and find myself in somewhat more civilized land. Everybody is dressed, oxcarts have motorcycle wheels instead of wooden ones, nobody runs away from me, and children greet me with excited "bonjour!"

I get to a village with a store of sorts. Loud squeaks tell me there's a mastiff bat colony under the store roof. I ask the owner to let me have a look.

"Vous parlez l'anglais?" he asks. "S'il vous plait attendre une minute."

He turns inside the house, shouts something, and I hear a girl's voice:

"Do you speak English?"

And I forget about the dusty road ahead, the backpack on my hurting shoulders, even about the bats (which for me is very unusual). I stay there, just looking at her. Then I ask:

"What is your name?"

"Mary." She gives me her Christian name.

"And your Malagasy name?


"Where did you learn English?"

"A missionaire from America lived in another village here. He taught me English. To read and write, too. Are you hungry?"

Apparently, the store is also a restaurant. All I had to eat today was a pack of crackers. But I keep forgetting about food. We just sit there and smile. If Mary can't find or understand a word, we draw pictures on the back of my map. But we both don't care much about the conversation, until I notice that she refers to the owner as "mister".

"Aren't you his daughter?" I ask.

"No," she laughs. "My parents gave me to him and mistress when I was small. Long time ago."

In remote areas of Madagascar, slavery still exists, although not officially. If a family can't afford to raise a child, it is sold to another family. Boys are used as shepherds, girls - for household chores and carrying water from wells. After a few years, it is decided that the child has paid the debt, and it is released. Normally it happens around the age of fourteen. But Mary is at least sixteen or even eighteen, although she doesn't know for sure.

After asking her a lot of questions I understand what happened. She was sold together with her two elder brothers. Then the boys ran away, probably to the coast to work on fishing boats. Now she has to serve longer to pay for them, too.

"How much do you still owe them?" I ask.

Thanks to local ariary deficiency, it comes down to about thirty bucks. Mary tells me that her owners aren't bad at all. They even used to let her run to the next village to go to school until the American had left and there was no school. They promised to let her go in about two years.

We sit on the porch. Full moon shines over the savanna, bats fly in and out, tiny sandflies buzz around our heads. On the island, girls are not expected to be too shy. Mary answers any questions openly. No, there are no other teenagers in the village - only two girls in the next village ten kilometers away. Yes, she knows what to do after she earns her freedom. She'll try to find a job in the city. She can't stay in the village: she has no land and no cattle. But it's easy to get a job in the city if you speak English. She's already been there twice.

She fells silent. Suddenly, I see tears on her cheeks.

"Why are you crying?"

"I can't stay here. Only children and old people. Nobody to talk. Before, the mister went to town sometimes. I always waited: may be he will take me there. But now the road is very bad, and taxi-brousse never come. I am afraid I will forget English, and French. What will I do if I cannot find a job? I look at this road all the time. I think if you walk long enough, you can get to any place in the world. Just walk and walk, to a new place every day, like you. But I never go anywhere. I have to stay here, in this house."

Approximately every third girl I ever meet tells me the same thing: that she wants to live as I do, travelling around the world. Very few of them really want it, and even those usually get tired after a short while. But this time I can't help thinking that Mary really has had enough of this place, that any change would be for the better. Maybe I just want to believe it.

Next morning I buy her for US$25. Bargaining is over in just a few hours. All three of them weep a little when it's time for us to leave. But the moment we make a turn and the villagers can't see us anymore, the girl starts skipping down the road, looking very happy.

I tell her that I hire her as an interpreter and an assistant (to carry my camera bag), and will set her free when I leave Madagascar in two weeks. We walk all day, and I like her more and more. She is about to be thrown into an alien world she knows very little about. Deep inside, she must be scared to death. But she still looks very upbeat and charming.

I'm not so happy. I begin to realise what a responsibility I've just accepted. I can't just leave her in the airport in two weeks! I can give her some money, but how long would it last? What should I do?

This part of the island has very little wildlife. Every time we see a large butterfly, or a lizard, or a bird, Mary asks me its English name. In the evening I am surprised to find that she remembers all those names. I try telling her scientific names as well. She has amazingly good memory.

"Mary," I tell her, "guess what. I'll make you a tourist guide."

"What is it?"

"It's a good job." I explain her what it means. Why not? Her English is good enough. There are only so many species of birds and mammals on the island; she should be able to learn them all. Letters of recommendation from Western scientists are taken seriously here, according to my friend the flower fly expert.

"I will teach you a lot of new things," I tell her.

"What things?"

"Many good things. Do you know how to put up a tent?"

"What is a tent?"

Next morning we keep walking along the jeep track, now completely overgrown with soft tall grass. I don't find the situation so desperate anymore. In all my years of travel and watching TV I've never seen a girl nearly so beautiful. Mary is brave and very smart. Two weeks is a long time. And I can be very creative under pressure.

We get to Mamik. The owner of the store/hotel/restaurant/club here is a nice Pakistani who also owns the only car. His Toyota is the famous taxi especial. We are lucky: he is just about to embark on a trip to the city. He puts a whole bunch of people and bags inside, takes a gun, and drives us across the moonlit plain, trying to follow the remnants of the jeep track.

Mary holds my arm. She's never been in a car before, only in a slow truck. We have to walk almost as much as ride, wading across broad shallow rivers in front of the Toyota. At the water edge we sometimes find snakes. Even male passangers run away from them in panic. The Malagasy are very afraid of snakes. I don't know why: the only poisonous snakes on Madagascar are two uncommon marine species. Mary doesn't scream or run. She calmly waits for me to pick up the snake, take a photo, tell her it's scientific, English, and (if I know it) French name. We get lost once or twice, but by dawn we get to a paved road.

Another hour, and we arrive to Morondava, the main city of central-western Madagascar. It was once the capital of Sakalava tribe, the famous warriors. In the late 18th century the country was united by Merina tribe under king Andrianampoinimerinaandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka and his son Rodama the First. Since that time Morondava doesn't look too impressive. It doesn't even have an Internet cafe yet.

The city is surrounded by wet lowlands, a land of rice fields and numerous lakes with large blue water lilies. Further north is a large area of dry tropical forest.

We hitchhike to a private Nature reserve called Kirindi. The road passes through the famous Baobab Alley, probably the most photographed place on the island. Mary has never seen giant baobabs, and she's never been in a real forest, only in narrow riparian groves. She looks like a child in a toy store when I show her large coua birds, lemurs, families of mongooses, and other wonders. We get to the campground. It has a few huts for visiting researchers, a small cafe and showers. The personnel has all left for the city since there's been no tourists for the last few days, so I can teach Mary how to use a TV and a shower. The shower floor is the only wet place around, and it is inhabited by tiny, very colorful mantella frogs.

As we walk forest trails later that evening, we meet a fossa, the island's largest predatory mammal. It looks like a large, muscular golden-grey cat with very long tail. Local people are a bit afraid of it, accusing it of attacks on humans and cattle. But it mostly feeds on lemurs and rodents, and probably can't kill anything larger than a sheep.

Kirindi nights are full of magic. Whenever you point a flashlight at a tree, you see eyes reflecting the light. Lemurs, small owls with angry faces, geckos. The forest floor is inhabited by tiny shrew tenreks and giant rats. Both look like cartoon characters. Even funnier is striped tenrec, like a hedgehog turned punk. Some trees are blooming, so we can see fruit bats and fork-tailed lemurs as they feed on nectar and pollinate the flowers.

In the last decade, ten new species of lemurs have been described on Madagascar. One of them is tiny mouse lemur, the world's smallest primate, an apricot-sized ball of fur and attitude, with transparent ears and inquisitive eyes. Other mouse lemurs are the size of an orange. They rapidly move through bushes and low trees in search of insects. Kirindi seems to have more of them than any other place.

After relaxing in Kirindi for two days, we get back to the highway and catch a minivan for the capital. The road looks more or less normal, and I have no idea that about a third of it is not paved. So I put the backpack on the roof, expecting us to get to the city by nightfall. Instead, we spend most of the night slowly making our way around countless potholes. As we climb on Haut Plateaux, it gets very cold. Mary and I have to hug each other. She gets warm and falls asleep on my shoulder. I watch the bumpy road and try to plan the next day. It won't be easy for her. I am afraid she might snap from sensory and emotional overload of it all.

A tiny sad-looking silouette appears ahead: a hedgehog tenrek trying to cross the road. I'm about to ask the driver to slow down, but the tenrek turns back and runs away.

Well, there's no point in worrying. We'll make it one way or another. I hope we will.

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