Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September 28, 2009 - Hellville, Nosy Be, Madagascar

We had hoped to be able to do our inwards clearance from Sakatia; but, over the weekend some old Madagascar hands advised us to take the boat around to Hellville, just in case the officials ask to see it (which turned out to be good advice as an immigration official in Hellville did ask me to point out my boat to him). Our friends on s/v Freya also wanted to make a trip into town, so we all got up early Monday morning and motored around to Hellville.

Hellville is named for Admiral de Hell, who was at one time the governor of Reunion. Although we found Hellville to nothing more than a sleepy port town, crowded with architecture representative of the best of the crumbling colonial vernacular and undeserving of its devilish moniker, among yachties it has a bad reputation. The port is simply not set up for yachts, and there is no money or space to make it more accessible. As there is no dinghy dock, one either has to trust your dinghy to a boat boy (some of whom are so infamous that we were warned about them in Chagos) or find another yachty to ferry you to and from the dock. Although buddy boating is really not our style, in this instance, it seemed to make sense.

Just after dropping anchor in Hellville, we ran into a friend from Chagos, Marc on s/v Zorba, who greeted Sten with a "Hey, I remember you, you saved my life!" and a warning not to leave our dinghy unattended. So Sten spent the morning on Mata'irea, working on the windlass and keeping his eye on her and Freya, while Janica, Jouke and I went ashore. As we approached the rusting steel pontoon, a swarm of boat boys, taxi drivers and porters came down to offer their services. I'd already arranged to have John's English-speaking driver Anatole assist me with the check-in process (as I have no French to speak of and English is not that common here), so it was just a matter of finding him among the crowd. No worries, he found me. As it turns out, there just aren't that many blondes in Hell.

Our first stop was the police container at the port, where an immigration official spent a full 30 minutes examining Sten's and my passports before determining whether he would permit us to be stamped into the country. As we had cleared out of the Seychelles a full 16 days before clearing in at Hellville, I had anticipated a bit of trouble. But in the end it wasn't our delay in checking in that was troubling him, it was the visa extension that we had gotten in the Seychelles that was causing his consternation. How that was in his purview, I never figured out; but, eventually he decided to let us stay. He passed off the passports to another official who would issue our visas, a process that would take a few hours. From the police container, Anatole and I made our way next door to customs, up the hill to a copy shop, back to the customs office in the port, up the hill to another customs office where I handed over 20,000 Ari Ari (about $10), back down to the police container where I ran into some more friends from Chagos while waiting for our passports and handed over another 20,000 Ari Ari, over to the unmanned Port Captain's office, up into town to do some shopping, and eventually back to the Port Captain's office.

Shampion Super Marche gets props from us for their creative use of shipping container doors

Between official stops, Anatole drove me all over town to do my shopping. I stocked up on South African wine and Madagascar beer and rum at Achem Oliver, fresh herbs and citrus at the market, and cheese, pate, sausage, baguettes and croissants at Shampion Super Marche. Among first people to settle Nosy Be in the 15th century were Indian traders. Their descendants seem to still managing most of the businesses here. All over town I saw Indian women wrapped in saris running their stores, making change with hands covered in intricate henna designs and wrists stacked with gold bangles. Out in the street, Malagasy women, wrapped in sarongs, faces coated in yellow clay masks, toted huge loads on their heads as they made their way to and from the market. While we were driving back down to the port, a totally apropos song came on the radio. Anatole and I were humming along with Toto's "Africa" as we arrived back at the Port Captain's office, just in time to complete my paperwork and hand over 53,000 Ari Ari before all the official offices shut down at 11:30 for their midday break. Between paying officials and Anatole, it cost us approximately $70 to clear in to Madagascar at Nosy Be. Friends who purchased 3 month visas in Mauritius and Reunion, or here in Nosy Be, spent much more. The trick is to ask for a free 1 month visa on arrival, and if you wish to stay longer, do a visa run to the nearby French island of Mayotte.

For cruisers passing through Nosy Be, it used to be the thing to do to bring in one's jerry cans to the Chinese shop and fill them with rum for about $2 a liter, then stuff a few vanilla beans in to smooth out harsher edges. We had been planning to do just that until we met a guy who had gone temporarily blind from alcohol poisoning, only to learn that the rum he thought that he had been drinking was actually methanol. It seems that ever since the local rum distillery shut down, the quality of the local rum has become very questionable. That doesn't seem to be stopping the locals, but it was enough to dissuade us.

At the Chinese shop this morning I wove my way through the crowd of locals filling all sorts of random containers from huge vats full of rum, and made my way to the shelves containing the bottled stuff. At between $3 and $4 a 70 cl bottle, I didn't think it would break the bank to go for something that was actually made from sugar cane. I brought home a bottle each of Saint Claude, Mangoustan's, and Dzama Cuvee Noire. Since everything closes in Hellville between 11:30 to 3pm, we figured that after lunch was a fine time to have a rum tasting. I liked the Dzama, with its smooth coffee aroma. Sten preferred the slight pistachio nose of the Saint Claude. And we agreed to find someone we didn't like very much to give the Mangoustan to at the earliest opportunity.

While we waited for town to reopen, I mixed up a few bottles of rhum arrange. We've really come to enjoy an occasional short glass of homemade flavored rum at the end of an evening, a tradition we first encountered in the French islands of the Caribbean. Served in a large, thin lipped, stemless Riedel wine glass and allowed to warm in your hands, it is almost like having a brandy. So this afternoon I made three kinds of rhum arrange: coffee/vanilla, citronelle/cinnamon/orange/vanilla, and star anise/allspice/cinnamon/clove/vanilla. Sten is lobbying for a gingered rum, and as soon as I get my hands on some dried banana, I'm planning to do a cinnamon/vanilla/banana version, unless of course I come across some litchi before the dried banana. At $5 a liter for Madagascar rum, experimenting with rhum arrange recipes is an affordable hobby.

In the afternoon, it was Freya's turn to run the dinghy ferry service. Shortly after 2pm, Janica dropped Jouke and us at the pier. The three of us wandered up the hill into a still shuttered town. We left Jouke at the bank, where he would discover that it would be another day before the ATM would be reloaded with cash (we were all set as we had exchanged Euros with a local Indian merchant who needed foreign currency for her overseas transactions). On our way into town we admired a street sign on the side of the catholic church, proclaiming that we were on the "Cours de Hell." Although our French is shaky, it appeared that the town had put a sign on the church stating that it was the road to hell. Now here are some officials with a sense of humor.

Since it was diabolically hot, we stopped for an ice cream at a street side cafe. From there, I guided Sten to the market so that he could admire the clouds of flies swarming around the piles of raw meat. While at the market we picked up a large bundle of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla for approximately $5, a single pod of which would cost several dollars back home.

On our way back to the port, we stopped at the supermarket so that Sten could admire the deli counter. There were a variety of cuts of zebu (the local longhorn cattle) steak on offer (sans flies), but no filet. We asked if there was any available and a woman promptly produced gorgeous 2.5 lb tenderloin from the freezer. Still recovering from the prices in the Seychelles, we assumed it would be too expensive for us. So we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves paying $11 for the lot.

From the supermarket we made our way back to the Port Captain's office, which had finally reopened. While a women with intricate braids wound around her head typed up our cruising permit on an ancient typewriter, we sat down to wait in the beautiful garden outside her office. Hers was definitely the nicest waiting room in which we've ever cooled our heels.

This evening, as we were sitting in the cockpit with Freya, discussing our days in Hell over mojitos, the sun set over the harbor. To our west, the piles of containers and decrepit buildings were backlit with an orange glow that made Hellville look like it had been engulfed in an inferno. The trees on the hills to our east were lit with the glow of the setting sun, gilding them like Vermont maples during leaf peeping season. As we looked back at the town, the sky shifted to a magnificent magenta. At that moment, the passengers on an arriving ferry burst into a song that was at once joyous and mournful. It was one of those magical moments that just can't be captured on a camera. We just sat back and soaked it in.

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