"How will we get to the national park and back?"
The Dutch couple I’d met on the minibus to Ranomafana, Madagascar, were deep in negotiations with a would-be guide that had approached them while they were waiting on their luggage. We were in the village that serves as the base for visits to the park, but there are seven kilometres between the two.
"There is always a way. Follow me to the hotel."
That wasn't so reassuring but the hotel was the same compound of hillside bungalows that I’d chosen from my guidebook, so we shrugged and agreed to the guide’s suggestion.
We checked into two bungalows, then at dusk, the Dutch couple and I stood by the side of the road awaiting our guide.
“Maybe he got a better offer.”
“He said he’d be here.”
Just then, a small pick-up truck pulled up, full of young Italian men, a mattress, two Malagasy kids, their mother, and our guide.
"Get in!" Our guide waved to us.
We jumped in – the kids couldn't keep their eyes off Nell, one of the Dutch, because she has blond hair – and the truck roared up the hill.
The Italians were working on a local semester-abroad development project and the mattress was their bed for the night. They were going to a house near the park, and the guide had negotiated to take them along on our night hike in exchange for a lift.
"I wonder how we get back," muttered one of the Dutch. I wondered that too.
Our night hike was similar to the one I’d just taken in Andasibe in that we weren't allowed in the national park at night, so we had to look alongside the road for chameleons, insects, frogs, and the mouse lemur. Today’s guide seemed much less in tune with the habitat we were in than my Andasibe guide had been. I doubted he had Dipsi's astute skills of observation.
But after a short walk, he stopped and said: "The mouse lemur is here."
Where? Startled, we all glanced around. He hadn't even looked for it. How did he know where the mouse lemur was?
"Right there." He pointed with his flashlight.
Click. Flash. We all took photos. But the mouse lemur was shy and didn't want to come out for a good photo.
The guide turned off his light.
"No lights. Wait."
We stood in silence. The guide moved and went towards the branch, then returned. I thought I caught a faint whiff of banana.
Surely I must be wrong...?
He turned his light back on, and there was the mouse lemur, hanging out and nibbling on something on a branch.
The Dutch couple exchanged glances. I snapped some photos so I could take a closer look later. Disgusted by the blatant baiting, the Italians turned and walked away. We did not see them again.
The rest of us looked at a few lizards, then waved down a passing truck full of steel pipes. The Dutch and I climbed over the pipes, and back at our hotel, over dinner and without our guide, we expressed our reservations.
"Did he put banana on the branch? How on earth did he know exactly where the lemur would be?"
We all pulled up our photos and studied them.
Banana paste was all over the branch in my flash photo. There was no way our guide had managed to do that in the few seconds the lights were off. The reason he knew where to find the mouse lemur was simple.
The local guides baited. They all knew where the mouse lemur was because that's where they left its food.
Feeling kind of icky, I wished I could find a way out of going on tomorrow's day hike with the guide. The Dutch had already begged off due to one of them being sick and the guide had turned to me in desperation. I felt conflicted.
"I bet they all do it here," said one of the Dutch. "You're not going to find one who doesn't."
Depressed, I went back to my little hut to consider the ethics of lemur-baiting.
In the morning, the guide met me at the side of the road, just at the bottom of my hotel’s driveway.
He hailed a local share taxi, which is a short pick-up truck with a covered bed and an open back. People spilled out of the back and sides. I wished I hadn't brought my luggage, but the guide said that it would be easy to flag down a taxi brousse in front of Ranomafana National Park when we were done looking at lemurs. I intended to catch one to Fianarantsoa, where I could switch to a taxi brousse bound for Antisirabe. I had plenty of time and I was looking forward to a bungalow at Green Park Hotel tonight.
We hiked into the park after I paid my admission fee.
There were lots of other tourists this time.
But my guide had his ways of finding animals. In addition to trekking far away from other tourists (I hurt for three days after), today's tactics were less nefarious than last night's. He simply made a few mobile phone calls to lemur-spotters, freelancers who roamed the park spotting lemurs.
Using this method, we easily found the golden bamboo lemur.
"Are you sure a taxi brousse will come by here and pick me up?"
The small, winding road in front of Ranomafana National Park was not exactly full of transportation options.
"Yes, we do this all the time," said my guide. I had no reason to doubt him, aside from the complete lack of vehicles.
"Of course, it's a holiday..." His voice trailed off.
In the end, we sat with my backpack by the side of the road for an hour.
Two taxi brousses passed us, their drivers shrugging that they had no seats. All the Fianarantsoa-bound transport was full. Which makes sense, I eventually realised, given that transportation leaves towns “when full” here.
In time, I got kind of cranky.
"I should have left my bag at the hotel and gone back to town from here. There's a better chance of catching a bus from town." Several taxi brousses had passed heading back to Ranomafana centre. They were crowded but could fit me.
To my surprise, my guide completely agreed with me.
"You're right." He hailed the next van that came barrelling along and we piled in for the seven kilometres back to the village.
Back in town, the guide sat me down on a wooden bench by the side of the road. As part of the holiday, people were everywhere and the roads were full. The guide called over the town's transportation coordinator and told him that I wanted to go to Fianarantsoa.
"You will get there eventually," said the coordinator. "But today, because it's a holiday, the only taxis are from the coast, and when they stop here, they are already full. But at around five, lots of them will be here. They travel all night to Tana."
Ugh. Five? That was four-and-a-half hours from now, and I still had to journey six hours once I got on the bus.
"I have to go do some things at home. I'll be back later," said my guide. I laughed at him, and he didn't know why. I laughed because I knew I'd never see him again and that he had no intention of coming back to check on me. Which was fine. I'd had enough of this guide the minute I'd smelled banana at the mouse lemur-spotting.
I sat, bored and keeping an eye out every time a van pulled into town. I bought a few cookies from a nearby kiosk and nibbled them in between staring at the wall and staring at the wall. An hour went by and then another.
A French doctor I'd met in the forest saw me and stopped by for a chat.
"Come to lunch with me."
"I can't... what if a taxi brousse comes by while I'm gone?"
"What are the odds of that?"
"Almost none," I admitted. "I will probably be sitting here for days. But still, I have to wait."
Right then, the transportation coordinator waved to me.
"Come on, come on!"
A van had pulled in. Three-and-a-half hours after I started looking for a ride, I handed my bag up to the roof, and we left Ranomafana.
The van slowly wound along the switchbacks through the mountains, pulling into Fianarantsoa at dusk.
I wasn't getting to Antsirabe today. But there was one more chance of making some progress – a taxi brousse heading to Ambositra. I bought a ticket and after dark, trudged back into the gates of Hotel Jonathan. This wasn't a quaint bungalow I’d been aiming for, but I'd be relieved to hear the oinking pigs in the morning, because it meant I was back on the N7 road, and could easily get back to Tana that day.
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