Like my last post, this too comes to you a bit late.
Back in July/August I spent a month just outside of Andringitra National Park, helping another PCV , Liz, teach English to the park guides during the off-season for farming, but when the chance came to revisit the park after Thanksgiving in Fianaratsoa, I leapt on it. Even though I had accomplished the difficult, three-day trek to the top of Pic Boby, the tallest accessible peak in Madagascar, I still had yet to scale the rock faces that dominate the valley’s landscape.
Even before we entered the park, I felt as though I was following a trail of memories. In Ambalavao, the town where travelers stock up on food and supplies before catching the final bus to the edge of the valley, one of the guides, his wife, and two year old son waved me down while I was walking to market. The two-year-old didn’t remember me but talking to the guide and his wife, both of whom had been enthusiastic and cheerful students, I suddenly got an impression of what this trip would be: warm, welcoming, and an unexpected return to familiar faces and surroundings. At the bus station, the trail of familiar faces continued. The driver recognized me, asked me how school was going, how my friend Liz was doing. When we passed through a toll that tourists have to pay at the edge of the village where the bus stops, Vohitsoaka, he defended me and insisted that I was not a tourist and shouldn’t pay the toll.
From Vohitsoaka to the three camp sites in the valley, it’s about a two and a half hour walk on a wide, dirt road through rice fields, mountains, and the occasional compound of huts almost too small to be called a village. On that day, we had arrived on the cusp of a thunderstorm, giving the valley an almost sinister feel. One of my friends joked that we were headed towards Mordor. As we hiked over hills, we watched the clouds roll in, anxiously pondered a wall of rain in the distance, blocking mountains I knew we would have been able to see had it been clear. Whenever we have a large storm, I am constantly worried about the seamless guttering on the back side of our house. Some storms are powerful enough to tear it out of the side of the house, and it would be expensive to repair it. The shift in weather suddenly made it difficult to believe it was just four in the afternoon when we finally put down our heavy packs in the dining room at Tsara Camp, the cheapest of the three-camp site cluster at the foot of the rocks we had set out to climb.
That night, we headed to Camp Catta, the nicest of the three camps and also a popular hang out spot for ring-tailed lemurs known as maki, to drink beers from their terrace while watching the maki jump from roof to boulder to tree. I entered awkwardly, but was happy to be recognized by the staff who almost immediately asked me how my fictional tour-guide-in-India husband was doing, then offered my friends and I some non-menu rice and beans for dinner instead of the pricey vahazah wood-fired pizzas (delicious as they are).
When we finally got our shit together and set out to climb the next morning, it was another one of the many people I had met and talked with in my previous stay who ended up guiding us to the base of a vertical multi-pitch route and helping us through our first ever multi-pitch attempt. With someone I had known from months before, the stiff client-guide relationship easily dissolved into an amicable friendship. “It’s so great being able to climb and speak Malagasy with you guys,” he said at one point, making me believe it wasn’t just a one-sided sentiment.
At the end of the day, tired and more than happy to pay too much for a cold Coke, I slipped away from my two friends to where our climbing guide and several of the bartenders were chatting. Our climbing guide asked me if I was dating the boy in our trio. “Nope, I’ve got that husband in India, remember?” Of course, he said, and then asked about the girl. “Sorry, she’s got a fiancé. But, that boy out there… he’s single,” I retorted, sending the staff into uproarious laughter and satisfyingly embarrassing the (married) climbing guide.
Photos: (1) A cow herder and his livestock (2) A local porter and his slingshot at the top of “the Chameleon” (3) The rock face from afar (4) Barefoot, vine-climbing while waiting for a belay (5) The first pitch (6) Camp Catta lemurs