The first pink in the sky touched the low clouds at four am. I was already up, gazing out the front of my tent, over the sandy mat. As the sky slowly lightened, I could see the longboats (carved out of a single eucalyptus tree trunk) bobbing on the far waters, beyond the pounding surf. The fishermen had been out there for at least an hour. It takes a long time to get over the waves that crash in here and the best fishing is at dawn. Besides, by 6 am it’s already so hot nobody wants to be out on the water on a full-sun day.
This isolated beach (a three hour horse ride from Brickaville, Madagascar) has little going for it, if you’re into night life, parties and anything that requires, say, electriticy and running water.
It does have a lot to offer if you want a total reset.
As I stretched out in the early morning breezes, the fattening moon disappearing into the pinking sky, a few local dogs lifted their heads and gazed hopefully in my direction. Tan Boy and Sweetie, the two that I had adopted (well, sort of, they adopt you if you’re kind enough to feed them scraps) were lazing nearby. Most dogs here have no names, nobody owns them, and they spend their lives searching for food, and on occasion, kindness. It doesn’t take long before they figure out where their bread is buttered. Sweetie, a gentle tricolor, was a complete love. She moved in swiftly, once she knew she could get tons of affection along with her morning eggs.
I padded in the cool morning sand, dogs on my heels, to the concrete building that was our home base for the week. Inside on the north end was our shower.
HAH. No running water, everything broken. We’d had to hike in water in large containers from the warm and not very clean fresh water channel. You learn to cope. You just do.
I washed down and then geared up for our morning ride. We’d be riding from 5:30 to 9:30 to spare the horses. The staff LOVED it. Usually, their clients want to sleep in. That means a very hot ride and very hot horses. Hell no. I love the early mornings, when you can ride through the forests with the canopy dripping sweet dew on your shoulders, a cooling rain for the first few hours of the day.
Cici, the cook, who spoke no English but was mean with the crudites, was up about twenty minutes after me. His domain was the tiny room on the south end of the building, where he whipped up superb dishes out of nearly nothing. My morning omelettes, the cut fruit, whatever we could find at the local markets (and they were sparse, believe me). He was a miracle worker, tireless and perpetually happy. It took me a few days to convince him to give our scraps to the dogs rather than to toss them in the trash, but he complied, especially after he saw me with Sweetie.
By 10 am, our ride over, I would dump all my soaking wet gear into a bucket in the bathroom, wash it as best I could, and set the clothing in the intense sun. Didn’t take long for even thick socks to dry out in that heat. The day’s adventure over, I could put my mattress against the concrete wall of our building, face the ocean, and do nothing for the entire rest of the day.
Well, sort of.
Let’s define nothing.
Next to our campground was an enormous tree. The third morning I was there, I found a nice collection of blossoms (see above) which had fallen. They had such a dense, lanquid, gorgeous tropical fragrance that I threw a few in my tent (bugs were extra, they liked the fragrance too) and some on our table. It only happened that one day, but the gift of this beauty and the smell of these flowers was unbelievable.
Anyone who has ever traveled to the tropics- and I mean really gone there, without walling yourself off inside expensive, sterile hotels- understands the daily gifts these parts of the world can provide. There are treasures hiding in plain sight absolutely everywhere. That’s the whole point. You are reminded how to see. Hard to do that in a big hotel, with thousands of folks jamming the beaches.
I walked the beach often. Very few shells here, but the pounding of the surf is an attraction that draws nearly all of us. The sweet quiet of the mornings and evenings, these fascinating boats, the incessant rhythm of the waves create a song that speaks to us all. The sand would cool down about 5 pm and the fading sun would paint the sky in readiness for the moon that waxed full during my brief stay. Many would come to the beach to simply stand there and watch. I was the only white person. That drew a lot, just to come and stare at me as well. You get over it. They just want you to be friendly. How hard is that?
As a Florida native from the early Sixties, I grew up without air conditioning. My father built our house of concrete blocks, which do a superb job of insulating. Like our house, this little structure provided shade, a cool place to be during the heat of the day, and shelter from the swelter. Once the sun rose above the edge of the overhang, it cooled off considerably. There were shelves to put our stuff, plenty of space to sit quietly, and Cici kept us supplied with food and water. What you learn after a day or two is that you just don’t need much.
Not much at all.
We had no electricity. No devices, but for what a small photovoltaic cell could produce for their phones and my Kindle.
I had just climbed Mt.Kenya, and to say the least, my legs were scorched. The morning rides were perfect exercise, and the rest of the day I could sit quietly and watch the hours quietly move by. We don’t do that well in the West. We have to be entertained, as though the quality of our own private thoughts isn’t good enough.
I beg to differ.
You learn to deal. When you isolate yourself enough you find out what you really do think. What you really do feel. You get the chance to isolate your feelings from the cacophony of blather that we force into our brain pans. The quiet of the morning breezes, the easy presence of a couple of sweet strays, the pleasure of a tropical banana (before we ran out of them).
John, the horse outfit’s owner, was the only one who spoke English. Everyone else, Malagasy and French. My French sucks, but I can make myself understood for the most part. That’s even better- you’re forced to learn to communicate with out the familiarity of a shared language. I often look to laughter and to make fun of myself to get a point across and it nearly always works.
Equus Journeys had designed this trip for me at my request, as I prefer to ride without a group. Iris Lapprand (https://www.equus-journeys.com/) organized this unique experience, set up so that I could have long days and endless hours and explore the local culture, but without a group of riders whose skills or habits or values didn’t match my own. For this you pay extra, but the results are priceless. It’s hard to put a value on a private sunrise. On days full of rest, relaxation, and a few sweet-natured dogs who are terribly grateful for a full tummy. Perhaps the first time either of them ever had one, in fact.
We are universally drawn to the beach. I grew up barely an hour from the Florida coastline, and I will forever feel a deep connection to the ocean. What worked for me on this trip was the complete and utter lack of fancy hotels, loud music, traffic, noisy tourists, screaming kids. The kids in our village laughed and played endlessly, pounded open coconuts, waved at me from their mothers’ arms. These are incredibly poor people by our standards, but my experience of them is that they are rich in every way that we are not. We grasp and strive and bitch and whine about what we don’t have or what we’re entitled to. These folks have next to nothing. That’s immensely freeing. For far too many Americans for whom constant grasping for the Next Best Thing, the next Holy Grail is a way of being, this kind of trip is transformational.
Most could never do it. Most couldn’t imagine sleeping in a tent in the sand, on a remote beach, with few food options and almost nobody who speaks English. Most couldn’t imagine having no way to get around except by foot or horse, interacting with Brown or Black folks, and being surrounded by curious faces because after all, you’re the minority here. What a nice change of pace.
While I am glad to be home, I note that Thanksgiving came and went without notice. The blare and blasting of holiday BUY ME NOW messages that I blissfully missed for three weeks are back in full. I wish with all my heart that I could have brought Sweetie home, for I know damned good and well she was back looking for me every day for a week. That breaks my heart.
The last night I was there, Sweetie placed herself at my head. Settling onto the mat where she could bark at potential intruders in what was now HER place, HER campground, HER human, she curled up her tiny body and went quietly to sleep. As the moon rose for the last time, I would reach overhead and pet her, knowing that in the morning, after her last meal of eggs and rice, I would be leaving her. That was hard.
On an isolated beach in the middle of nowhere, you can learn a lot about what’s important. Friendly people. The love of a dog that desperately wants to love a human and do her job. The pleasure of earning the trust of animals accustomed to abuse, and watching their willingness to give you belly and greet you with joy and a furiously wagging tail. Watching the spring-busy birds craft a nest in the tall palm tree out front. Feeling the onshore breezes as you curl a sweet natured dog onto your lap, and watch as she quietly, softly settles into your arms.
A reset about what’s genuinely important in life. Love. Gratitude. Simplicity.
You learn to deal with food shortages, water shortages, gear fails. You learn to deal with what life shows you. In the West, where people will dump $5000 for a baby carriage that motors itself down the sidewalk (god help me that someone might actually PUSH something) we have little concept of lack. Lack is a lousy wi-fi signal. A slow checkout lane. When you can’t get the right truffles for your guests.
OMG THE ANNOYANCE OF IT ALL.
It’s good to be inconvenienced. It’s amazing what you find on an isolated beach. That’s my kind of paradise.