Sainte Marie or Nosy Bohara is an island off the coast of Madagascar. Legend tells of a certain Abraham landing on the island and being attacked by a band of women. The island is locally called Nosy Mbavy “the women’s island”. After escaping his captors he met an old woman on a small island. She took in the exhausted, shipwrecked man, hid him and gave him with food and water. Full of gratitude, Abraham blessed the old woman so she and her descendants would never go without water. Suddenly, a spring gushed forth near the old woman’s house. Thus, historians suggest the first settlers here were Jews.
The first Europeans arrived at the end of the 16th century. The English pirate Thomas White married a princess from the east coast of Madagascar and their son united the coastal tribes. The island became the center of piracy in the Indian Ocean. “The island provided the buccaneers with provided the buccaneers with secure shelters, from there they could plunder approaching galleons filled with spices and treasures from India and carry out repair works upon their vessels. According to some historians, the number of pirates that found shelter on Madagascar’s east coast reached about 1,000. Several authentic pirate vessels still lie within a few meters of the surface in the Baie des Forbans. Two of these have been tentatively identified as the remains of Captain Kidd's Adventure Galley and Captain Condent's Fiery Dragon” (www.travelmadagascar.org).
It is a quick and comfortable 45 minute flight from the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo to Sainte Marie. Michael meets me at the airport. He takes me to a yellow tuk-tuk and stuffs my luggage in the back and off we ramble down a sandy road to the point. It is a five minute drive but necessary in the sand with a seven day supply of snacks and beachwear. Young boys stand next to wooden dhows and offer rides to Ile aux Nattes, the only place you could be going if you are standing here. You can see it from the point and could easily swim it. But, the luggage. We balance in the dhow and row gently to the small island, sailing across a surreal clear sea. The bungalow hotel is on the south of the island. It is nestled just off the white sand shore, shaded by banana and coconut trees.
Vincent meets me outside my thatched roof bungalow. A skinny, sandy blonde South African dressed in an oversized tank top, baggy cargo shorts, shell necklace and bare feet. He gives me the schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner and invites me on a scooter excursion the following day on Sainte Marie. He is an intense story teller and the epitome of “chill”. His word, not mine. Everything is “chill.” Breakfast, lunch and dinner are chill. Payment is chill. No rules. Just chill. He is instantly relational and kind. The tour includes the bar. It is a long curved wooden bar, thatched roof. A row of house infused rums are perched on one shelf -cinnamon, vanilla, coffee, banana, and pineapple - a small collection of unrecognizable Madagascar gins, vodkas and tequilas on another. He shares a little about his life, tells some stories. He shares about trying to go back to Johannesburg after island life, his reentry experience. It is not unlike my own.
I change into a swimsuit and hit the beach. I soak up sun, cool off with dips in the ocean and then migrate to a lounge chair on the porch of the bungalow. Then repeat. It is chill and not pretentious and no one seems to notice my legs have not seen the sun in years. Lunch is fresh fish cakes with fries and served to me at a little umbrella covered table outside my bungalow. At dinner I meet the rest of the lodge inhabitants; a retired couple, Jim and Trudy from California, a very tan boyfriend/girlfriend couple from Israel, Vincent’s very pale Russian girlfriend and her 8 year old daughter, and a Swiss boy named Kevin, who is a cross between Clark Kent and Mr. Bean. We delve into their stories. Kevin lives in Antananarivo serving as a volunteer IT guy for an aviation mission as a way to serve Swiss military duty. This is a second marriage for Jim and Trudy, they’ve traveled the world. He was in the Peace Corps in the 70’s. Trudy had been attacked by the sand fleas the day before and brought her Equate brand anti-itch cream to the table. The real story I want to know, about the Russian girlfriend and how she got here never comes out. Dinner is served every night at 7:30. Last night we had Tiger prawns, the best I have ever had. The night before that was caught-that-afternoon sea crab curry with coconut rice. Meals are 24,000 Ariary or $7 USD. Ridiculously cheap fresh, succulent seafood. And the juicy conversation with strangers from around the world is free.
I get up at 6:30 every morning and go for a jog. There are trails leading to the village, a primary school, more lodges, bamboo restaurants with chalk board menus. The paths are shaded by huge palms and coconut trees. The life here has not changed in decades. Women lean over small fires and simmering pots. Chickens strut and peck in the yard. Barefooted children giggle in the dust.
I want to see the island of Sainte Marie so opt in for the scooter excursion. Kevin and the Israeli couple come too. But the couple decide to turn back once on Sainte Marie. Dodgy tummy. Kevin and I share a tuk-tuk into the city center, passing a large hotel and dozens of bamboo shops and restaurants. The restaurants offer similar menus to the ones on Ile aux Nattes, fish and chicken with rice in sauce. The shops have a small stock of bottled water, little piles of bananas or tomatoes, Cokes and phone credit. We meet Vincent in a three story building, white with blue trim. The lights are dim and the shelves are stocked with soap, shampoo, cereal, booze, an incredibly random assortment of overpriced goods. We rent scooters from a guy across the street. It begins to rain. We pay 45,000 Ariary for the day, petrol not included. We fill them up for 12,000 Ariary ($4) and off we go. Ten minutes into the soaking wet drive we are stopped by police. Life in Mozambique has made me all too familiar with this drill. He points at me, wants my passport. I tell him the truth, it is at the hotel. He points at the three of us with no ID and writes us all tickets with a 10,000AR fine. It is a lot of pointing and arguing and raining. We finally set off again. The drive is remarkable, the rain makes the bright green trees and ferns glow. Obsidian-likeblack rock walls on my right. Waterfalls. The road winds along the sea. We drive through small villages. It seems invasive honestly, the tourist and her white thighs on her loud, smelly scooter zipping through the front yard. I don’t like it. I dodge chickens and children. Then Vincent’s scooter breaks down. Familiar with African police, intimate with broken down scooters. We make a plan in the hot sun on the side of the road.
Mr. Bean and I journey ahead and are told there are natural pools ahead. We drive for 30 minutes or so until the paved road turns to sand per Vincent’s instructions. Men greet us there to guard our scooters for a small price. Two boys stand ready to advertise their restaurants with laminated one page menus complete with photos of entrees. A large guy in a blue polo with a lazy eye wins me over with the promise of grilled lobster for $6. Apparently this beach is protected and sacred and there are rules, including no shoes. It is taboo. It’s protection is not ecological, it is spiritual. Everything is spiritual. This is Africa. I am told to remove my jewelry. I don’t. To quote Gertie from E.T., “I may be little but I’m not stupid.” Apparently a local sorcerer performs frequent re-sacralization ceremonies and something gets killed. We walk down to the natural pools and I swim alongside two large French ladies in tight swimsuits. Their husbands stand on the shore in Speedos and talk. We are told to be back in 45 minutes. Good thing Mr. Bean is a rule follower too. We sit on rickety chairs in Blue Shirt’s bamboo restaurant. A mangy blue-eyed puppy with a shell collar whines under our table. Blue Shirt tries to catch the puppy but the puppy outsmarts him and runs in one door and out the other as Blue Shirt chases him in an endless circle around the hut. But sadly Blue Shirt eventually catches the puppy and drop kicks him across the yard, making me no longer want my lunch and to scoop up the puppy’s sister who has found her way to the table waiting patiently. I figure she will easily fit in my bag but I know how thieves are beaten once caught and I am only hours outside of an outstanding ticket from the police and I am not so sure the Gordon Law Firm can help me this time, so I leave her to her demise, and a bite of sweet lobster and a fry.
The island is seven days of perfection. On my last night I stay up late and chat with Vincent about the infrastructure on Ile aux Nattes. I have loads of questions about schools and healthcare. I want to know more about the artisans and where they get their wood and export possibilities. He tells me there is no clinic and the school offers a very basic education. The hotel owners are doing well and tourism is growing. They all want to share the wealth and give back. They are in need of trained staff and want to help their employees and their families. But they are busy running businesses and don’t have the time to manage a project that vast. The poverty is real. He invites me to come back. The project would be big. But it is doable. The island is small. The school needs help. They need a medical clinic, if just a few times a year. The artisans need help selling their goods and designing something tourists want to buy. I don’t speak French or Malagasy. I pass out at the site of blood. I don’t feel I am to drop life and go live on an island off an island off an island, but I listening. I am listening to needs and ideas for solutions. I am aware of a need I have now seen first hand and how a little island could thrive with just a little help. I am listening and looking. I have seen their talents and they have seen my white thighs. I leave the island with love in my heart and an unpaid ticket for lack of proper identification while operating a motorized vehicle.