Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Madagasikara - Day 01


The fun began at 10:05 pm on Sunday night, the 13th of August, when I called Meru to find out why I hadn't received the details of our cab even though it was only 10 mins before the ride was supposed to begin. The kind support agent very sweetly informed me that there was no cab available, even though I had booked it a day in advance!

After frantically trying Uber and Wings, we finally got a positive response from Ola. In the meantime, I made a spur-of-the-moment backup plan with my man-baby cousins to drive down in our car, which they would then drive back. Thankfully, it didn't come to that.

We started from home at 10:45 pm, picked up cash from the ATM on the way, stopped for the cab to a refuel before we got on to the expressway, and thence reached the Mumbai airport within 3 hours, making one ugly, last-minute detour because the driver didn't slow down as instructed before the exit to the airport. Still, we arrived at the planned time, and it was a relief for us as well as my parents back home who are always anxious about catching buses/trains/flights on time.

It was our first time at the international terminus and I loved the peacock feather motif that was woven all through airport. We got our checking bags plastic wrapped at 300 bucks a pop, just because we wanted to see how it worked and it helped because we also did not have secure locks for the zippers.

It was our first time at the international terminus and I loved the peacock feather motif that was woven all through airport. We got our checking bags plastic wrapped at 300 bucks a pop, just because we wanted to see how it worked and it helped because we also did not have secure locks for the zippers.

It being a silent terminal, we weren't bothered by the typical announcements at an airport. The queue-mates were either all very calm or the late hour made sure they were all subdued. The officials moved at a steady paced and we were in the boarding bay soon enough. We were on our feet for the most part of 3 hours before we could board the flight, but somehow I wasn't tired at all--maybe it was the excitement of our first trip abroad together, which we meticulously and smartly researched and planned.

The Etihad Airways flight, which partners with Air Seychelles, took off at 5:20 am and reached Mahé, the capital of Seychelles, at 8:15 am local time, an almost 4.5-hour flight. The first few sunrays bounced off the inner walls (I'm sure there's a name for that, but I'm not going to bother finding out right now) of the plane and got me all excited again instead of being tired. Pawan and I took different seats and spread ourselves comfortably, because quite a few seats were empty. We watched our own kinds of things on the in-flight screens and then shared our excitement at what we each found; mine was a documentary, Neurobiology/Psychology of Sports or some such and another one on Serena Williams--yeah, when I play no sport at all.

The Mahé airport was cute a button, almost literally--it might just be the smallest proper airport in the world. The runway was right on the seashore! I am tempted to make an exclusive trip to that place again, never mind the heat--I'll plan to go in the local winter season, of course. We didn't have to bear any of the heat on this trip, because our connecting flight was in less than a couple of hours, and we had to freshen up and grab a bite in the meanwhile. From here we got on to a proper Air Seychelles flight to Antananarivo (Tana) at 10:05 am, which lasted almost 2.25 hours.

Since the flight was only half-full, we got ourselves into different seats and stretched out. A proper hot breakfast was served, but I somehow ended up with a chicken patty of some sort. I happily ignored it an munched on the potato wedges and the other stuff. For was of no concern to me at the moment--I was high on excitement.
Antananarivo, or Tana, as the locals refer to it--thankfully, because that's a tongue twister of a name--has the airport next to a water body too. We reached at the scheduled time of arrival--11:50 am, and it took us only than an hour to get our immigration check and our on-arrival visas in hand.

The first thing I did after that was to buy a Telma (some combination of Téléphone+Madagasikara?) connection: A SIM card with a calling package worth 52000 Malagasy Ariary (MGA) per hour and a 1 GB internet pack worth MGA 25000 MGA, which was less than INR 1300. We took turns looking after the luggage while the other scouted the area for our tour guide and checked out the various counters to find out what other things we'd need. We did come across some officials who wanted to extract a bribe, or to set us up with a specific set of porters, or both, but we managed to evade them by pretending to not understand what they were saying. The phone connection was activated right away, and it helped us get in touch with the tour guide who came to our rescue. Next, we got some of our INR exchanged for MGA at one of the many government-operated exchange offices (nooks, more like) within the airport premises.

Our travel agent/manager, whose company is simply named Madagascar Tour Guide, was Andry, a guy about our age who I had spoken to a few times over the phone before we finished planned the whole trip earlier in July. He suggested that we exchange the bulk of our money with his friend, who would give us a better exchange rate than the national service provider/bank. We did the transaction right outside his bank, and parted with about half of the cash, which was his fees for the tour anyway. It was tad unsettling, because we were handling millions and I had to be extra careful not to drop a bundle here or there, the ace klutz that I am.
At the same spot, Andry introduced us to our driver, Johnny, and guide and savior for the trip, his cousin Rina. All of these, are, of course, shortened or taken names, their Malagasy names being longer and a tad difficult to pronounce. They also loaded sets of utensils and containers that we'd be taking along on our river safari. Then, it was time to begin the 4-hour long road trip to Antsirabe, a town about 130 kms south of Tana. Immediately outside Tana, we stopped for fuel, had a couple of excellent cappuccinos to keep us fresh, and were greeted by a lovely rainbow out of the blue (it was winter there)--almost like Madagaikara was welcoming us. Thrilling!

It was beautiful drive, and despite the lack of sleep, I didn't feel too tired. Pawan and I kept chattering away with Rina and each other, immensely enjoying the view. The roads were narrow but smooth, and we saw hills and rivers and plains and farmland and houses on either side all through our journey. There was patches of empty land or hills between the villages we crossed and they were all so calm and blissful despite the winter dryness.

Our first night was at the Chambre du Voyageur, a rustic-yet-modern, clean, ADORABLE little resort. We freshened up and went for dinner in their CUTE little restaurant. Miriam (I hope remember her name correctly), the hostess, even though she could manage very little English, was so courteous and kind and motherly and sweet. They didn't have many vegetarian options, so she made us a really simple but heavenly salad out of avocado, tomato, cheese, garnished with a little spring onion--I was so full of gratitude at the sight of it. She then served us a strawberry mousse, which was tiny but super yummy.
Back at the hotel room, we counted the money, sorted and stacked it into recognizable piles and assigned safekeeping+counting roles. Pawan is quite sane and dependable in these matters, bless him! I spent considerable time admiring the neatness of the room, and then we had a little walk around the premises in the moonlight before finally hitting the bed.

We'd been awake for 48 hours and traveling for 24 of those. It was every bit worth it!

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