Disaster In Madagascar

Thunder in Paradise

With a painful snap, another branch broke from the tree plummeting towards the ground. The wrenching crunch as it hit the earth, sent sand flying skywards and Englishmen diving for cover in panic. I peered trepidly through the room windows and looked outside across the beach. Rain viciously pummelled it from above and epic waves pounded it from below. The sight was altogether apocalyptic and utterly terrifying, not quite what I’d envisioned from my once in a lifetime trip to Madagascar. But then again I hadn’t really counted on being caught inside a full blown typhoon had I?

And yet it had all started so promisingly. I landed in a Antananarivo a week earlier on Christmas Eve and after a baffling delay watching passport control execute the strangest entry system known to man, I stepped out to breath my first breath of African air. The cab driver didn’t try to hustle me out of even a penny, the ride through endless green fields was stunning and the when I arrived in the city, the streets were full with families celebrating Christmas in the traditional way; religiously, humbly and with huge smiles. Kids sung on street corners and the pavements thronged with merriment.

However, long before the skies turned black, things were about to get less gentile pretty fast.

Bienvenue!

Madagascar wasn’t exactly my idea. I didn’t know much about the country and never really had any notion of visiting it. Rather, my long-distance girlfriend (who grew up in Madagascar) asked me to be her + 1 for a forthcoming wedding so I agreed to tag along. The timing wasn’t exactly convenient, Christmas and New Year made it a relatively expensive time to visit and I was in the middle of a backpacking trip to India. But, I fancied the adventure and have always wanted to attend an exotic wedding so I therefore, arranged to take a two-week break from India flying in and out of Mumbai; “a holiday from the holiday” I joked to people.

Meeting your lovers entire family and friendship circle for the first time is always pretty intense. The intensity also increases once you realise that you’re not only spending the wedding day with them but several days before and after it, cooped up, eating and hanging together all day every day. To add icing to this sandwich-cake of impossible social pressure, they all speak a different language to me of which I know only about 5 words of; French. Yes, her family are French, a national people notorious for their reluctance to speak English! By this point, the fact that my girlfriend’s ex-boyfiend was amongst the guests hardly seemed to matter, it was just one more sub-plot in my living “Meet The Parents” farce. To say I was apprehensive is an understatement…

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The villages of St Marie.

However, the guests (her family) were actually very friendly and pleasant and did make efforts to include me by speaking in English as best they could (which was very good in most cases). Inevitably though, dinnertime conversations would quickly & naturally switch-over to French and I was not going to bang my fists on the table and insist that a family of French people communicate entirely in English. So I simply ate my meals in silence, surrounded by people and yet alone, occupied solely with my own thoughts. It was quite hard and I fast felt myself withdrawing into myself and my own strange solitude. (*By the way, I am not a complete ignoramus, I presently speak decent Spanish & basic Arabic. I am also learning French but at the time of this trip my grasp of the language was limited to telling people my name and ordering black coffees).

A long way to paradise

The first few days entailed a lot of time travelling on busses with the group. We were headed towards the east coast of Madagascar to catch a passenger ferry to St Marie island, a tiny, tropical beach idyl 100km or so off the mainland. The wedding party consisted of 2 mini busses which were packed tightly with a mixture of French, Malagasy, and one surly Englishmen and crawled along the countries mud roads passing towns and villages. The window view was very impressive and I passed endless kilometers watching the everyday hustle and bustle of the towns outside or the stunning, forested mountainsides. I longed to get off the bus and get involved in the scene, simply to go shop in the market for coconuts or trek over the hills but we had a long way to go.

I’ll spare you the details. A few nights and days passed, driving during daylight and stopping to rest for the night. I’ve posted a few images of the road trip below.

Finally we arrived on St Marie island and at our destination. Its true to say that St Marie is indeed something of a little paradise and a picture perfect wedding destination. The tiny town centre is alive with fresh fish cooking on pans and little scooters buzzing back and forth. The one, long road which stretches along the west side of the island is punctuated with villages made up of motley wood-huts where the simple life continues more or less as it did 100 years ago give or take a few mod cons. The locals I encountered all seemed incredibly happy and friendly although this may have been a side effect of their copious rum consumption rather than any generosity of spirit! A 100 metres or so back from the shore, the sparse development gives way to kilometers of deep and dense tropical rainforest. The hotels on St Marie (outside the centre) are all resort complexes made of charming wooden structures or shacks (varying widely in comfort) built onto coral beaches; you can leave your hut and go straight for a dip. At night, the waves would lap the shore and I would take my little solar-powered lamp to stroll along the coral watching huge crabs scurry for cover.

I passed a few blissful days on St Marie catching up with my girlfriend, hiking the villages and rainforests all the while developing my “British tan” (sunburn to you). 

Nice Day for a White Wedding

New Year’s Eve was the day of the wedding. I’ve never been to a French wedding before so was absolutely horrified to learn that there was going to be TWO ceremonies (one legal and one religious rather than just doing them both together…I loathe inefficiency!) and that the first of two ceremonies (the legal one) was scheduled to commence at 8am! 8am! This meant I had to be up at 7am to get ready; not what one wants to do when on holiday!!  The second ceremony would be later in the afternoon beside the sea. Around 7.45am we made our way across the beach to the site of the ceremony. It was a blissful morning, the sun was ascending and calm waves gently soothed the thirsty shore. I grabbed myself a coffee, made some small talk with other guests and then something happened…

…My girlfriend came over to me looking very concerned. “You’re gonna hate me but you have to go home and change”. Apparently the shirt I had chosen to wear wasn’t “proper” for such an occasion. Let me explain. Considering that prior to the wedding I had been backpacking in India and living out of a 70l bag, I didn’t have a tuxedo and tie available. What I had therefore done before leaving India, was make my absolute best endeavors to pick up some clothes befitting a wedding. I invested two painful days buying fabric and haggling with tailors to get myself a suit made which I was now wearing and in my opinion, wearing magnificently! Underneath my jacket, however, I was wearing a shirt from Goa which was now apparently offending the occasions social conservatism. It wasn’t a formal, button-up shirt but rather an “ethnic” inspired piece that I felt fit the occasion of an exotic beachside wedding as well as reflected my bohemian personality. You can take a look for yourself at the picture below. Handsome right?!

Me and my stunning girlfriend. She only appears taller than me because of hair and heels!

I was upset. Here I was, a 33-year-old man been told to go home and change… I didn’t want to ruin somebodies “big day” but there was just no way I was been told how to dress. Besides that, as I looked around I noticed that I was the only guy even wearing a jacket so if anything, I felt a bit over-dressed! My response was that if I was going back to my room then it would not be to change my shirt, but rather to stay for the day. The incident left me feeling shaken. Shortly afterwards, the legal wedding commenced. It was conducted by the islands Mayor in (apparently broken) French so I have no idea what was said but I’m sure it was legally binding.

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Lemurs roaming the grounds of my hotel in St Marie

Bon Ane!

The shirt incident was a mere storm in a tea-cup. By lunchtime, the real storm was coming. It was evident from the greying skies and rolling waves that bad weather was coming. By the time of the religious ceremony (also in broken French but I gather that they mentioned something about Jesus), it had started to rain. The rain got heavier as the evening progressed and it didn’t relent all night. So New Year began with torrential downpours whilst the Dirty Dancing soundtrack shook the speakers.  Another quirk of French culture is that when midnights arrives, rather than just communally saying “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” loudly, you have to greet every single person individually and say “Bon ane” and kiss them on both cheeks. It did take me a while and I did begin to feel like that I’d still be this by the time the next new year came around.

By the next morning, the night’s deluge had dilapidated into a mere dour drizzle. However, it mattered not to me nor many of the other guests as we spent the day nursing sore heads as well as recovering from the previous days ungodly & harrowing 7am start (editors note for the hard of humour – this is a running joke. Actually I’m quite fond of early starts).

The following day, the sky was overcast but the rains had ceased at least for the time being so I and my girlfriend rented a scooter and explored the island. We did some urban exploration (tress-passing) in abandoned chalets, ran away from a huge snake (who was more scared than we were) and visited some sacred stones to which the locals make offerings (animism and Christianity make fine bedfellows in many developing countries). As we toured the islands shanty towns, we saw that the New Year celebrations continued with as much vigor as they had 2 nights prior and it was not uncommon to find locals sipping rum even at 10 am. When we arrived in town for lunch, we noticed that the ferry ship was docked and there was a huge queue for it. The boat was not actually scheduled so we casually wondered what was going on, joked that it resembled an evacuation but thought no more of it. 

But it was an evacuation. It turns out that December is rainy season in Madagascar and tropical storms are common-place. A Typhoon warning had been issued and the unscheduled ferry crossing was to be the last one for a number of days. These were decidedly inconvenient as we were due to return to the mainland within those few days.

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Some images of St Marie island

Trapped in Paradise

Nights & then days passed in wind and rain. The night-time Gails would batter and bruise the forests, uprooting feeble foliage and slamming our cabin door open. Days were confined to sitting in the cabin counting the raindrops hit the roof. My clothes, which had gotten wet (rain does that) could not dry and I began to smell of perpetual damp. During the lull’s in the deluge, we would dash out to dine at whichever cafe dared to remain open (most had closed) eating whatever was on the menu (food was running scarce) in candlelit cafes (the power was out). 

As the days went on and we remained stranded, people began to worry about catching their flights back to Europe and in my case to Mumbai. We were still on St Marie island and even if we did manage to cross the shore it was a long way back across Madagascar’s’ mud roads to reach Antananarivo airport. A solution was tantalisingly dangled in front of us when, after the worst of the storm had passed, we learned that Air Madagascar was offering private charter jets and amongst the wedding party, we could afford to get one at about $200 per head. This was far more than the $20 for the ferry but was better than missing flights home. Unfortunately, the jet was booked (and departed) before I and my girlfriend even had a chance to consider it. The situation was looking dire.

By the end of the week, the town’s water supply had gone off which felt kind of ironic considering we were drowning in the stuff. We passed the rainy days watching films, reading, and of course connecting like lovers do. We also sank a decent bottle of French wine one afternoon which felt decidedly decadent.

We got to know every bar and cafe in St Marie town pretty well (there aren’t too many of them) and soon came to recognise the other stranded foreigners pottering around forlornly, desperately trying to kill the time. One sight we did get all too sadly accustomed to was the posse of ageing, fat, French sex tourists walking around in ill-suiting young men’s clothes leaching over young Malagasy girls. I would learn that the former African French colonies are to French divorces what Thailand is to seedy British divorcees.

Tree climbing and urban exploration on St Marie.

Even though the storm had now long passed and the sun was shining, there was still no ferry. The day of our flights’ out of Madagascar was fast approaching and we had no way of getting back to the capital to catch them. Fortunately, another flight was scheduled which would get us to Antananarivo on the day of our journeys’ with just hours to spare. It was going to cost nearly $200 but fuck it, we now had no choice. We resigned ourselves to getting the flight, took a scooter and spent another day exploring the rest of the island finding remote, untouched beaches.

That evening over dinner my phone rang. A private boat leaving for the mainland the next day and there was space on it. For $30 we could get across, catch a bus and then drive through the night back to be Antananarivo. It would leave us a full day to explore the capital and save us a ton of money. We hadn’t paid for the flights yet so we took it.

Seaworthy

Madagascar Cyclone
Packing up the boat.

Whilst we had come in on a large, commercial ferry we were leaning on what looked a speedboat more suited for pleasure jaunts around tranquil lakes. “Is this even seaworthy?” I asked. The captain laughed. He had been doing this crossing all of his life. We loaded up the bags, packed with 10 passengers and off we went. The ride was very choppy and I foolishly sat at the front of the boat meaning I was absolutely blasted by waves and rendered sopping wet by the time we reached the shore.

We plowed into a minibus and headed on. Through the window, I surveyed the havoc the storm had wrought. The impact had clearly been far worse on the mainland and I now felt guilty for complaining so much on St Marie. The road was littered with big ass fallen trees and in some villages, wooden huts had collapsed. Remarkably though, the villagers had set about the repairs beaming with smiles on their faces; it was very inspiring and humbling.

Madagascar Cyclone, wedding madagascar
Shaken but seldom stirred. Market stalls survived the storm.

We arrived into Antananarivo in the early hours of the morning and scrambled to find a hotel. If you want some insight into Madagascar’s capital then check out this helpful guide by to Antananarivo by Continents Condiments.

So, all considered, my once in a lifetime trip didn’t exactly pan out as imagined! Yes, of course, there were moments of bliss and I got to spend time with my girlfriend which ultimately is what it was all about. It’s just that when people inevitably ask me “How was Madagascar?” (there eyes beaming with excitement & expectation) I don’t really have all that much to tell them other than that it can be very rainy!

Whats the moral of this story then? I don’t really know. Maybe that sometimes your travel plans can go tits up. Or maybe that you should always be sure to learn some French before mingling with French people! But for me, the one lesson that is pretty certain is that if you book a tropical wedding during storm season, bring a raincoat!

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