We have made some great friends in Tofo and leaving is assuredly bittersweet. On one hand we are off on new adventures in Africa and the world, on the other we are both genuinely going to miss this place and the many wonderful people we met here! We went dancing and to parties and concerts several times, soaked up the relaxed vibe on the beach and in town; but by far the most meaningful experiences here have been the long conversations we've had with people, often around a shared meal. For my birthday James and Jerry cooked up a culinary tempest and we had a great dinner with them and Carlotta and Sabrina. Carr spent a couple of days working on a fantastic drawing for James' house, and we all named it. Carr and I brought an utterly delicious lemon cheescake made by Jenny for my birthday cake and it was a fun and special night. I feel very grateful for being able to connect with (now former) strangers from other parts of the world, people who are refreshingly intelligent, alive, open and cool.
Today we SWAM WITH A WHALE SHARK, literally the biggest fish in the sea. It was huge and beautiful, sharky and spotted and mystical. We also saw loads of humpback whales, some of them jumping further off, some cresting quite up close, also massive and majestic. Many dolphins as well and one sea turtle! We went out on a hard-bottomed zodiac with about 10 other people. We eventually located a whale shark and dove in... it was both wonderful and slightly unnerving to be in the open water with such a giant. The ocean is gorgeous and massive and powerful - you are clearly not in charge out there in its expanse! Unfortunately due to human behaviours it is also in trouble - we've heard several times here that whale shark sightings (of multiple animals sometimes) were practically guaranteed 15-20 years ago, whereas now one is fortunate to see one (as we fortunately did).
We have been in Tofo one week and I like it more and more every day. There is so much life here - the people are alive, the ocean, the music, the sky, the stars... It feels good to be here, though in a soft and subtle way. We've met a bunch of really cool local people with whom we've shared meals and interesting, fun, intelligent conversations. We've gone to some great parties and luxuriated on the beach. It all seems like one awesome blur right now. It is definitely a party town, but there is a refreshing absence of bros or drunken grossness. And in the daytime the vibe is very relaxed. Lots of music, check these out:
We arrived in Maputo, Mozambique in the evening, immediately realized we didn't speak nearly enough Portugese, and after some confusing haggling took a taxi to our guest house near the ocean. It was in a nice neighbourhood with an unsettling amount of security - defensive walls, electric fences, guard dogs and security guards, reinforced steel doors. Next door, two peacocks cavorted and squaked around the pool.
We arranged for someone to drive us to the bus station known as the Junta early the next morning so we could secure a ride to Inhambane. We woke up in the darkness at 4:45 am, piled in the car, and paused at many red lights on the way - she explained she did not want to stop because there were many "bandidosh en la noite" (bandits at night). The bus station was impressively chaotic. All sorts of vehicles everywhere, few intelligible signs, and a huge crowd of Africans with their packages and/or merchandise. Immediately we were accosted by men trying to sell us tickets on their busses or minivans. After some haggling in broken Portugese and English we climbed on a bus and grabbed some seats. Quickly the bus was crammed full of chaos - passengers, vendors selling everything from bread and fruit to toilet paper and electronics, and a bus company officer literally pushing and slapping and yelling at the vendors to get them off the bus while a male/female evangelist duo preached/screamed the virtues of JESUS in Portugese... hilarious, beautiful disorder!
An hour later, we were on the road. The scenery in Mozambique was noticeably greener and less depressing/decimated compared to Madagascar - large tracts of palm tree forests with houses and towns peppering the landscape. The internal temperature of the crowded bus kept climbing as the day went on (an internal thermometer showed it went from 24 to 34 degrees in a few hours), but for some reason no one opened a window... perhaps they were afraid of drafts?
After 8 hours on the road we finally arrived at the town of Mixexi, put on our backpacks and walked a few blocks to the port. For 100 metecals (about $2) we and our bags climbed on the the ferry, an old powerboat crammed with Mozambicans, and chugged across a large bay shrouded in diesel fumes and sea-spray. We arrived in the town of Inhambane and again walked across town to the chapa station (a chapa is like a colectivo - a minivan taxi stuffed with locals) and haggled for a price to Tofo.
I don't think I have ever been in a more hilariously crowded vehicle, which fortunately moved slowly. We fortunately found two (very hard) seats, but many of the passengers were standing and hunched over and nearly falling on each other. Seconds after leaving the station we were pulled over by two cops on a dirt bike who immediately took count of the 21 people on board and noted our driver did not have a licence! The driver walked off with then and came back a few seconds later, smiling and having obviously bribed the cops to let us pass. Just when we thought it could not get more insane, further down the dirt road we stuffed 2 more people into our Mozambican clown car! At this point a loud and colorful argument brokenout between some passengers and the driver, who had evidently gone too far even by Mozambican standards. "You need to show your passengers respect!", the passengers accused. "How do I not show respect?!", the driver retorted. And so it went on until we arrived in Tofo and unpacked the sardine can.
Arriving at Tofo was a huge relief, a literal breath of fresh air. Stepping off the chapa I immediately smelled the sea air and felt the soothing breeze... aaaahhhhh. We found the house where we were renting a room and met James, our very easygoing and cool, dreadlocked host who took us on a little tour around town. Tofo has a really nice vibe, chill and happy. Palm trees and clean sand, gorgeous surf and all kinds of laid-back establishments. We had a great and inexpensive dinner at one of the local holes-in-the-wall... mouth-watering barracuda and piri-piri chicken with drinks.
The next day we explored town and took in the beautiful scenery and oceanside vibe. Except for the occasional child-salesmen who insistently try to sell you stuff, the town is very relaxed. The ocean feels good for your soul. That evening we had a quiet dinner with more drinks and had another of our awesome conversations... I like talking with Carr, about anything. There was not much apparently going on in town so we started walking home, whereupon we passed by a restaurant which although closed was bumpin' with some pretty groovy live music. There were some kids outside dancing so I took Carr by the arm and we started dancing together in the street. Before long a voice boomed out in English "hey you know what it's a private party but you're invited, come in!". Cool people, mostly Mozambicans and other Africans but also an American woman and a couple of kids. The owner got us some drinks, the music went on playing, and soon food arrived and it was insisted we eat with them. Later on we all went back to the owner's house a few blocks away and the party grew. It was fun, lots of laughter and interesting conversations.
Yesterday we chilled at home for much of the day, the weather having suddenly gone cool and cloudy. We were invited to have lunch with James and Jerry, who apparently also lives here. We talked for several hours about all kinds of subjects. It was cool. Really chill, intelligent, alive people who feel like they are engaged with life. It's been fun and relaxing and we're both enjoying being here. Last night it rained and the weather is again cloudy and cool... we're again going to take it easy and look into what we want to do if we head to India after Africa.
We passed through the famous Avenue of the Baobabs on our return trip to Morondava. It consists of at least a dozen gigantic and truly majestic Baobab trees (called Ranalas by the locals, who hold them sacred in a land where nature is unfortunately not generally revered) along a dirt road, flanked my dozens more Baobabs of varying sizes and shapes. I like Baobabs. I like their weird otherworldly shapes, their funky energy and their strange leafing and flowering habits. I like that they were here long before humans came to fetishize them and cut down the surrounding forests, leaving them to tower over the landscapes. And to see so many clustered together like a tall and bulbous family in one place was very cool. The dirt avenue is a road for wandering locals, Malagasy sightseers, and poor kids wanting you to pay money to take a picture of them and/or their chamaleon prisoners. Nearby is the famous "Baobab Amoureux", a couple of trees intertwined like cosmic arboreal lovers.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, having broken off from the mainland about 90 million years ago. This allowed for a special evolutionary niche to appear - apparently, 80-90% of its flora and fauna are endemic and appear nowhere else on earth! The Tsingy, as it is called, is an amazing and unique place in the world. It was worth the unforgettably crazy drive to get here!
Check out a video HERE of Carr crossing one if the chasms.
Fascinating and ultra-cool looking limestone rock formations (jagged pinnacles, deadly sharp spires, caves), fossils, rope bridges over dizzying drops and relatively protected wildlife (we saw several species of lemur jumping happily and grunting in groups) are among its many wild wonders. A number of trails are possible, but you must hire a guide due to the dangerousness of the trail (for example, some sections require climbing with a harness and many of the caves and cliffs require you to be relatively limber and fit) and to locate and protect the wildlife. We enjoyed it thoroughly and it was definitely the highlight of Madagascar for us. We spent a couple of nights at an overpriced and forgettable lodge named L'Olympe, and then hit the road back to Morondava.
Arranging travel in Madagascar is not unlike juggling 6 drunken lemurs while tightrope-walking over a vortex of chaos. After much haggling, calling, comparing and semi-successful attempts at communicating we were able to arrange for a 4X4 to take us to Tsingy National Park north of Morondava. What a ride! It took 8 hours to get there, over some of the craziest, roughest roads I've ever been on and a couple of most entertaining river crossings. We met many locals along the way, most of whom were very friendly and fun to interact with. Still, it was somewhat depressing to see the impact of great poverty and illiteracy/ignorance on both the people and their environment. Large portions of the land have been decimated by people whose situation makes their only concern immediate day-to-day survival rather than foresight and environmental sustainability. Many scientists have forecast that at the current rate of destruction most of the country's ecosystems and many endemic species (for example the awesome lemurs) will be gone in 20-30 years. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the world at large. We humans have the potential to be so beautiful and good, yet more often than not overall we are a plague on the earth.
We had heard the winding 700km road from Tana to Morondava could take anywhere from 11-24 hours to drive due to a number of factors- and it ended up being quite an adventure! To summarize... we hired a driver who spoke very rough French and left in his van on Friday morning. The road got progressively worse the further away we got from the capital. At some point near sunset we stopped at yet another army checkpoint at yet another village. There we were told it was considered too dangerous to continue on our own as there had been several violent bandit attacks in the next region recently! The guard told us we could however wait until 3 am when a caravan of taxi-brousse was leaving under army escort. We first made sure there was no cost and it was legit (not a scam), then had a meal of pommes-frites with our driver in a local restaurant before heading back to the van to sleep for a few hours (most uncomfortably)! Mind over matter. At 3 am we got up and began the furious and harrowing drive at breakneck speeds... We had an army guard with an AK-47 sitting right behind us. The road was really rough and at some point one of the other vans broke down, so we all stopped to help with the repairs. It was a tense 15 minutes, but people defused that by joking around as the guards looked about. We drove for hours til dawn broke and we reached another checkpoint at a crossroads, then left the caravan and continued to Morondava!
The area around Morondava is much more beautiful and undisturbed than the farmland further east. We found a place to stay, some cabins called Chez Maggie with a nice view of the ocean. We are going to chill out a few days and arrange to go visit Tsingy Forest as well as the Avenue des Baobabs, which are a few hours' drive from here.
After a brief stop in Paris for a nice visit with Carr's family, we took a 12 hour flight to Antananarivo (aka Tana), capital city of Madagascar. Overall I found Tana to be a pretty gross, depressing and stifling place. The overcrowded streets exude a sense of moribund poverty and pollution. Everything feels grimy, it stinks, and the choking smell of exhaust/diesel fumes is ubiquitous. Those people who were not begging or trying to sell us something were however generally pleasant. We knew ahead of time that we would not want to stay long, but unfortunately travel in Madagascar (like many other third world countries) can be difficult to arrange and we ended up staying two rather long days before finally escaping. One of those days we took a few taxi-brousse ("bush taxi", like a colectivo - a big cheap van completely stuffed full of locals and occasionally a chicken or two!) to visit a lemur sanctuary in the countryside. We also strongly suspect the rather oily hotel agent was lying to us about all the problems he was encountering with arranging our exodus, in an attempt to sell us more expensive travel options. What a slimy jerk. It was quite a ride when we did leave (see next blog entry)!