"Ou est Theogene?" (where is Theogene?), I ask Theophile in my best broken French. His laconic reply remains etched in my mind: "Un peu de double-vay-say." "A little W.C." Theogene, if I may be euphemistic, is busy in the bushes. How he communicated his intention to do so to Theophile without my knowing, I have no idea.
Since I asked, Theophile seems to realize that perhaps we shouldn't get too far ahead while Theogene is otherwise occupied. So we flop down on the trail for a breather, pulling off our backpacks gratefully. That's when Theophile turns thoughtfully to me and says: "You could hardly be further from your family, from those you love, than here and now."
I think about it. "Here" is a steep hillside, surrounded by enormous trees, a valley yawning verdantly to our right. "Now" is two-and-a-half days into our 5 day, 150 km hike across the Masoala Peninsula on Madagascar's northeast coast. Masoala has no roads, just a few trails like the one we are on, linking several tiny villages. Maroantsetra, the town we are heading for, is two days in front of us. Antananarivo, or Tana, the capital, another four days travel by bus, boat and train from there. My family? At least an ocean away.
Phones, you ask? Masoala has none of those marvels either. Not that one would have helped, because Madagascar is going through a widespread uprising against dictator Didier Ratsiraka. To help cripple his Government, phone lines have been cut. And I do mean cut: all over the country, I have seen toppled telephone poles with wires dangling from them. Tana is the only spot where the phones work. In an entire country.
Theophile is certainly right. Days later, I realize again just how right, when I call home from Tana. At possibly the very time Theophile and I were sitting on the trail waiting for Theogene, my sister got married.
Theogene comes bounding up, a distinctly relieved look on his face, whistling an Elton John tune ("Sacrifice"). As he reaches us, he leaps onto a tree next to the trail without missing a step. Before I can say anything, he is high in its branches, cutting down an enormous jackfruit. Now I dislike jackfruit pretty intensely. Today, though, my hunger and exhaustion turns that around. Nothing could taste better than this sweet, sticky yellow flesh. I gorge myself silly.
I don't know it now, but this stuff will fuel me through the twenty-plus km of forest, field, trail and narrow log bridges over streams that lie ahead. Twenty-plus km that we will stumble, trudge, climb and stagger through before sundown, to reach Ampokafo. This is the hardest day of one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I'm punch-drunk on jackfruit.
A magical place, Madagascar. Thought about it today while following news from the US Open; a young tennis player from that country with the no-more-than-usually-mellifluous name (for Madagascar) of Lofo Jean Ramiaramanana is working his way through the boys' tournament. (Here's a charming account of his journey).
A woman called Dally Randriantefy is the only other Madagascar sportsperson I've ever heard of -- she played on the women's tour for some years but vanished after a blowout loss to Maria Sharapova in the 2005 US Open. So go Lofo! Maybe I'll get you some jackfruit.