“Why Madagascar?” I ask Lisa when she suggests I visit during her four-month anchorage off the coast of this Indian Ocean island. I’m thinking I might wait until one of her next few stops, in South Africa or maybe Namibia, to parachute into her floating world for a brief stay. But baobabs, the thick, upside-down African trees I’ve seen once before, are one quirky draw, and I am eager to interact in the wild with lemurs, the tiny primates that live only in Madagascar. Beyond the unique flora and fauna, however, I know little about this poor island nation and am unconvinced I should spend thousands of dollars and many days of my time to get to it for a week or so this summer.
I let the idea languish until I try to explain to my sister one day why I can’t get the idea out of my head. By then, I’ve found flights both ways using miles, devoured all the links Lisa has sent on the country, and read her enthusiastic reviews of Nosy Be, the biggest island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. I hang up feeling I have convinced my sister I should go … and then wonder why on earth I haven’t booked it yet! I lock it down that afternoon.
A few months later, I land in Hell-ville, the only real city on Nosy Be, meet Lisa and The Captain for the first time (a story in itself), and am whisked to their sailboat for the next week. I tried hard to include parts of the main island in my visit, but even though I am a pretty brave solo female traveler, everything I read says it is a very bad idea to try getting around there on my own. Once on the boat, listening to The Captain relate his own aborted attempt to travel there with a friend, I am glad I elected to simply stay on the water and see the smaller islands in the Mozambique Channel.
I throw myself wholeheartedly into the life aquatic. I pop up jetlag-free after night one in my rocking boat-cradle, stuff myself into a wetsuit, strap on a mask and a snorkel, and topple over the side of the dinghy for my first Indian Ocean swim, this time with sea turtles off the coast of Nosy Sakatia.
My underwater camera does not do justice to these majestic creatures, who munch a while on the bottom plant growth, then breast-stroke to the surface in graceful slow-motion, all within inches of us humans.
I’ve been here less than a day, and I’m already in another world, lulled by the sea, by the creatures and coral below, by a patch of jumping fish flashing in the sun above. I feel extravagantly far from home.
A diurnal rhythm emerges in the following days – up with the sun and usually out with the local fleet in the morning and, later, drinks on deck as the same orb sets, igniting the sea and coastline. The local boats are things of great beauty and ingenuity. Often simple, wooden canoe-like vessels with home-made sails, the boats and their dexterous sailors skim the ocean in search of fish, as a means of transportation among islands, and even as small floating purveyors of goods like fruits and vegetables.
Day’s end comes earlier here, not too far south of the equator, and by 6 pm, we have front row seats for the sunset show in various anchorages. Whether it is illuminating the water, a nearby landmass, another boat, or just the shiny metal parts of ours, the sun is our nightly source of art and entertainment, a tangerine-pink glow that deepens in front of our eyes before our watery world plunges into darkness.
In between wake-up and a climb back into my cozy berth below-deck, there is a new kind of magic every day: the bestowing of gifts upon the mpanjaka (island queen) on still-primitive Nosy Mamoko. A hike almost the whole way around that rocky island with friendly local Thom, the epitome of patience as we scramble for hours over slippery rocks and I somehow snap the sole off my shoe halfway through.
More snorkeling, this time off Tanikely, where we spy vast schools of flat, round fish and a huge red snapper. On the more developed Komba, I play a one-on-one soccer match with a six-year-old while Lisa is busy taking and printing photos of the islanders, and there I also meet an enigmatic Italian man who has singlehandedly transformed life on one end of the island over the last twenty-five years. We hike along the beach and up into the hills, and miraculously find a crusty baguette (we are both bread fiends) at the end of the day on the dusty main street.
I seek out the lemurs, the bright-eyed prosimian primates that live only on Madagascar. I’ve been lucky to see lemurs in a research facility before, so I know the little imps will be friendly. I am not, however, wholly expecting to become their jungle gym. I should know that the little bits of banana I carry to attract them will mean lemurs on my arms, my shoulders, and my legs, with the capper being a lemur fight on my head, my hair snarled beyond redemption.
The country is achingly poor, among the top ten neediest nations in the world, and the markets in Hell-ville are busy but ramshackle, a shocking amount of litter covers the main city shores, and local officials have no qualms about asking visitors for “little gifts” at the docks or the airport.
At the same time, the town feels comfortable and open to outsiders, and the true treasures both here and on the smaller islands are the people. We are met with shy smiles and sincere attempts to communicate everywhere we go. They are a beautiful and reserved bunch in general, sometimes even wary, but we feel absolutely welcome everywhere.
It’s a surprisingly rich cultural experience for such a short time in the country; we even luck into a brass band parade on Nosy Komba one morning and just miss getting to attend a festival on Mamoko the day before.
By the time I leave, baobabs are but a backdrop to this beguiling series of islands that broke off from the African continent millions of years ago. Much of an African nature remains, but Hell-ville and some of the more established islets also feel distinctively Polynesian, vaguely Arab, certainly French, with a healthy dash of other Southeast Asian flavors thrown in. It’s a mysterious and heady mix, and our small but unhurried explorations make for one of the most absorbing trips I’ve ever taken.