Most people don’t know much about Madagascar. In fact, I’ve only met a handful that could point it out on a map. For those who don’t know, it’s a small island off the southeast coast of Africa, across from Mozambique. It’s also the place I called home while serving in the Peace Corps. While I haven’t quite gotten around to writing about my Malagasy travels yet, since it’s Christmas, I thought this one was worth sharing now.
In the Peace Corps, you get 2 days off a month for travel. Since we had started our service in June and were busy with training and settling into our sites, Christmas was the first long period we had without classes where we could go anywhere we wanted. People had split up into different groups, some going north, others going south, but I had my heart set on Tamatave and Sainte Marie. Since I lived in the center of the country on the plateau which is freezing cold (seriously, it’s could get down to 30 degrees and we didn’t have heat), I really wanted to go to the beach and enjoy some warm weather. In my natural travel style, I informed people where I was going and told them they could come if they wanted and if not, that I would go solo. After many discussions, only 1 person decided to go with, my friend Phil, who I also banked with on a monthly basis.
We got off to a bit of a bumpy start. Phil was sick the week before our trip, so he didn’t know if he’d feel up to going. Travel from Tana to Tamatave takes at least 7 hours in a taxi-brousse, which is basically a large mini-van that they fit up to 30 people in. Malagasy people are very small, but it’s still a tight fit, especially when you add in chickens. Needless to say, it’s not very comfortable. The morning of, Phil decided to give it a go as he didn’t want to delay our trip. We got to the station early. There are no set departure times in Madagascar, the brousse leaves when it’s full, so you could be there for 30 minutes or 3 hours just depending on how many other people are traveling to your destination on any given day.
While waiting at the station, Phil got a phone call from his girlfriend back in the States, which is when I found out that he still hadn’t told her that we were traveling just the two of us. Apparently, she was quite upset that he was traveling with another girl, although there was nothing romantic between us. In fact, we found out later that some people in our Peace Corps group started asking Lorna, our other banking buddy, if we were dating and she told us she couldn’t help but laugh in their faces. Nothing again Phil, he’s a great guy, but we had a mutual un-attraction to each other.
After about 20 minutes in the brousse wondering if Phil was still on board for the trip, he finally got off the call and stated the obvious, “That was uncomfortable.” (Uh, yea, for you and me both.) He insisted that he was still on for the trip, so a few minutes later when the brousse was full, we headed off for the holiday.
We spent Christmas Eve and day in Tamatave. They were having quite a few specials in town. We decided to do fondue on the beach for Christmas Eve, which would have been nicer if we weren’t surrounded by kids begging for food. It made the meal rather heart-wrenching, up until we had a small frog jump on our table. Phil said, “I bet I can catch him.”
“Don’t,” I cautioned, “he’ll jump on me.” But, of course, he didn’t listen. He reached for the frog, which promptly jumped right on my head. As I gave Phil an ‘I told you so’ look, I also had to smile as he was laughing hysterically. I couldn’t be too upset. It was better than the time a few months earlier that a black widow landed on my head as I walked out of the bathroom.
On Christmas morning we sat outside our hotel and had a nice breakfast. We ordered hot water and I mixed in some instant cocoa and Bailey’s. My mom had asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her ‘good alcohol!’ The Malagasy make their own rum, but it’s not great and since I lived in the colder region, I occasionally liked to have a little toddy before bed. It was Phil’s first Christmas away from home and when I thought of my time in Switzerland and how important it was to make it special, I wanted to make sure he enjoyed this holiday as well. He told me later that he’d been a little homesick and that he really appreciated me making it memorable.
While in Tamatave, we walked around the markets and I bought some beautiful baskets that I’d had my eye on ever since I saw fellow volunteers that served in the region traveling with them. We also spent some time on the beach drinking coconuts. It was very relaxing.
After a few days in Tamatave, we headed over to the island of Sainte Marie. It always confuses people when I tell them this. “But I thought Madagascar was an island.” It is, but there are also a handful of other smaller islands off Madagascar and that’s where we headed. There was a Peace Corps volunteer, Jessica, who was stationed on the island. Since she was traveling for the holidays as well, she let us stay at her place so we didn’t have to pay for a hotel.
There are so many amazing things about Sainte Marie! It’s beautiful, there’s great shopping and best of all, amazing seafood. We ate so well (and so much!) when we were there. It’s a small island, only 57 km long, so you can walk most of it pretty easily, which is what we did for the first couple days. I thought it was so funny that the lemurs here are so used to people that you can walk right up to them. The top photo with Phil is one of my favorite pics I’ve ever taken, as it reminds me of Michelangelo.
We heard that Sainte Marie hosts the world’s only known Pirate Cemetery and it quickly became a must see. The French first tried to settle on Sainte Marie in the 1600’s, but found that the living conditions were too horrible and many died of disease. During the early 1700’s the island became a hideout for pirates who flourished despite the difficult tropical environment. At its height there were around 1,000 pirates living on the small island.
Visiting the Pirate Cemetery isn’t for the faint of heart as the journey there is long and daunting. Malagasy kids hang around the area looking for visitors to offer ‘tours’ to. Their primary language is Malagasy and most speak more French than English, which can be quite limited. Phil and I spoke Malagasy so we didn’t have a language barrier, but for those that do, it’s still a good idea to hire one of the kids to show you the way. Due to the rickety crossings it’s easy to think you’ve taken a wrong turn without a local to convince you that this is, in fact, the correct path.
Once you complete the journey the destination is well worth it. One of the most famous pirates to have lived on Sainte Marie was Captain William Kidd, whom locals claim was buried here after his execution in London. Our young guide was a little spotty on his history and tried to convince Phil and me that it was actually Billy the Kid who was the famous pirate that was buried there…haha.
Phil and I were the only ones there that day, so we were able to enjoy the 30 remaining headstones in the cemetery in solitude. Most of them have deteriorated over the years due to cyclones and the climate. However, some engravings, such as a skull and crossbones, can still be seen on the headstones.
Our last day we did a bit of shopping. There were some incredible items like this sarong and hanging baskets that I couldn’t buy in my part of Madagascar, so I snatched them up while I had the chance.
It was a great holiday and I was so happy that I went to Tamatave and Sainte Marie. The only downside was that once it was over I had to go back to the cold of my town.