Toamasina to Antananarivo is typically a seven or eight hour drive of roughly 350 km (215 miles) on Route Nationale 2 (RN 2). That’s right. Eight hours to go 215 miles. And that’s only if road conditions and traffic are good.
So, as we make our way to the central region of the country, out of the tropical heat of the East Coast and to the cool climes of Madagascar’s Highlands, our first stop will be Andasibe and the Andasibe-Mantidia National Park. This cuts the drive for the day from eight to four hours.
But our first, first stop is the other direction in town at the bookstore. We buy a Malagasy-English dictionary and a couple “learn English” books for Malagasy speakers. We’ve been taking a Malagasy language class but our vocabulary is still pretty limited. A dictionary will be a lot quicker for looking up words compared to flipping through our class notebooks. Especially with a shopkeeper or waitress staring at us while we try to get the words out. In the tourist areas, many Malagasy speak a bit of English. But making an effort in the local language goes a long way – shows respect, creates goodwill, and gets a lot of surprised looks and smiles when a vazaha, foreigner, is speaking Malagasy instead of French or English.
A bit of disclosure. We are not driving ourselves. Driving one’s self brings up issues of proper driving licenses, knowing the rules of the road, knowing how to navigate the roads, towns, and traffic including trucks, cars, pouse-pouse, and pedestrian. Not an easy task in this country. One could fly to Tana and hire a car and driver there, which would be quite expensive. Another option would be to rent a car and hire a driver in Toamasina, which also wold be very expensive. Another would be to travel like the locals and take the taxi-brousse, which would be inexpensive and quite the authentic experience. I’ve read there may be a train between Toamasina and Tana but have no idea where to catch it, how long it takes, or how much it costs.
Fortunately for us, expatriate families at Ambotovy are assigned a driver and a car by the company. We arrange for Misa, our driver, to take us on our trip with our company car, a Renault Duster. We just have to cover Misa’s per diem and pay for gas.
RN 2 winds and climbs and curves and drops and climbs some more south then west. There are a lot of commercial trucks on the road. They go slow around the curves, up the hills, and down the hills. Often they are broken down and parked in the middle of the lane. I catch on to a horn communication code between the passenger cars and trucks.
Car: “Beep!” I want to pass.
Truck: “Beep!” (Often with a hand wave). It’s clear.
Car: “Beep, Beep!” (As the pass is completed). Thanks.
Truck: “Beep! Beep!” You’re welcome.
There’s also horn code to pedestrians.
Car: “Beep!” or “Beep! Beep!” Get out of the way.
Pedestrians: Run, jump, or quickly move out of the way.
There is little to no shoulder and hardly any sidewalks so people walk on the road but to the side. Pedestrians don’t appear to have right of way in this country. They get out of the way. And generally don’t look angry or bothered (and I haven’t yet seen a rude gesture) about the honking and moving off the road. I tend to stare down cars and go where I want. Definitely an American habit.
Just past Brickaville, which is about 100km south of Toamasina, we stop in a village for lunch at a hotely. It’s explained to me that Malagasy don’t call them restaurants because restaurant implies a fancy and maybe snobbish place to eat. A hotely is a place to get a simple meal and a hotel is a place to get a room.
We order some Poulet Sauce and Poulet Frits, which roughly translates as chicken sauce and chicken fried. They use the French for poulet for chicken on the menu board instead of the Malagasy akoho. We are served a large bowl of rice and a small plate of chicken each. The Poulet Frits contains roasted or fried chicken and comes with a bowl of romozava (soup broth with greens). Poulet Sauce is pieces of chicken cooked and served in a broth. One spoons some of the sauce or romazova over the rice and add bits of meat now and then. Simple flavors and a filling lunch.
We entertain ourselves by giving table scraps to the pile of cats lurking about the hotely. There’s a dozen or more. That’s what cats do. They lurk about. Right? Misa tells us Malagasy eat cats but they are not offered on the menu in this hotely. We’re not sure whether to believe him. Eventually he lets on, “Sangisangy”, just joking. When we get up to pay, it appears the cats’ job is to clear the table. At least for as long as the meat scraps last.
As we climb the windy, curvy, queasiness-inducing road, vistas of rolling hills spread out below. Rolling, steep, deforested hills. I’ve read that Madagascar has lost 90% of its eastern, coastal forests.
We arrive at Vokuna Lodge after about four hours of driving. I roll my window down after we turn off RN 2. I’d guess it’s about 70F. Lori and Misa think it’s cold. I revel in the cooler temps. I suggest that the dog and I move up here.
We take a stroll around the grounds before it gets dark. And then enjoy a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant. The restaurant is fancy, but we hope we’re not snobby.
We bring the brochures from our room and talk about what we might do the next day. That’s often how we plan. Read a little about a place beforehand and have some ideas of what we might do. Then get there, ask what the locals recommend, get some more details, and choose where to go the next day.