“Thank Christ,” says Dieter when I finally wake up. “I thought you were dead.”
At Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg I’m waiting to board a flight to Madagascar, known for its unique wildlife, when I am approached by a lanky guy with spiked blond hair who asks if I’m a botanist. No, I say. I tell him that I am travelling alone and hope that he catches in my tone that I would like to keep it that way. He brandishes a map of our destination that he has pulled from his backpack and with great enthusiasm shows me his planned route. He says his name is Dieter and he’s from Austria. On the plane I am relieved to find we are seated well apart.
Outside arrivals at Ivato International I’m swarmed by tour guides and taxi drivers shouting in French and German, neither of which I know with any proficiency. Dieter appears at my side and, in French, negotiates our safe and fairly priced transport into Antananarivo. We pass miles of rice paddies before we reach the city and the Hôtel Lambert, near the top of the Analakely Steps, where street children pick lice out of each other’s matted hair and beg for food.
I accept that I have an unexpected travel partner and we spend the day exploring Antananarivo. We go to the zoo, where a self-appointed guide leads us around the grounds. He offers to lean into the crocodile compound and hit one of the large crocs with a stick in order to give us more exciting pictures. We decline and ask him to put the stick down. We tour the Palais de la Reine and try to avoid the large orb spiders and their webs that coat every surface. Over dinner we decide to strike out for Rahohira, about 680 kilometres away, and hike into Isalo National Park. We drive for two days in a dodgy Peugeot that repeatedly breaks down, and finally arrive at a scattering of tumble-down buildings on an arid stretch of dirt road. My Lonely Planet guide suggests the pleasant and homely Hôtel Les Joyeux Lémuriens: “There is no electricity or running water but the friendly owners will do everything in their power to keep one comfortable. Toilets are primitive but spotless; bucket baths are available on request… The only demerit is for the dejected captive ring-tailed lemur tethered on a very short lead near the toilets.”
The proprietor is excited to see us and hurries us into the shade of the reception area, where Dieter barters for our accommodations. We are guided to an airy room with two beds dressed in bleached linens. I toss my backpack on a bed and pull out clothes that have hardened with a combination of sweat and red Malagasy earth. On the verandah we drink orange Fanta and I sort through a stack of magazines, most of them in French and more than twenty years old. I flip through them anyway, desperate for anything to read other than my Lonely Planet. After a blazing red sunset fades into night we turn in for the evening.
We head out early the next morning across the still sleepy town to a trailhead marked by a post with a wooden board nailed to it. The trail takes us across farmers’ fields and past a stream with lush mango trees growing along its banks. Dieter shakes a tree and mangoes plummet into the water, disturbing the still surface. We take a few mangoes for the journey. By late morning we are wading through rice paddies. I try to balance on the thin ridges of earth that have been built above the waterline, but they crumble under my weight and I slide into the water. All I can think about is parasites. I’m relieved when we hit dry ground.
We arrive at a rock face, the entrance to the Canyon des Singes. Our packs rub against the rock walls as we make our way through the narrow passageway. The path eventually widens and we come to a place with a pool of water and a few trees. We set out a picnic and eat crackers with cheese and mango. There are voices up ahead and soon we are joined by a German man and two tall blonde women wearing short shorts. Behind them are two Malagasy guides loaded down with backpacks. The German man greets us with a loud hello and slips into a boisterous conversation with Dieter. The women continue on, their laughter bouncing off the canyon walls. Dieter tells me they camped overnight in the park and that the end of the trail is not far away. When we walk out of the canyon, the view opens up over the Kelihorombe Plateau. We take pictures of each other on the rock ledge and beside giant aloe like mighty explorers. After examining colourful patches of lichen on the rocks we decide to head back.
Thirsty and tired, we arrive back in Ranohira and go straight to the verandah of a café and order Coca-Cola, which we guzzle without taking a breath. Two children, a boy and a girl, call out madame, madame, and poke yellow and white frangipani flowers through the wood latticework for us. The scent is delicious. I take the flowers and order them each a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, and they slurp it through white straws. Dieter and the proprietor of the café start to argue in French. When she walks away I ask him what was going on. He tells me that she is angry I gave the children the bottles, because they will steal them and she will not get the deposit back. We leave an ample tip.
The German and his female friends are also staying at the Hôtel Les Joyeux Lémuriens. They invite Dieter and me to join them at their table for dinner. They drink Three Horses beer and feast on prawns. Exhausted from the day and not feeling well, I excuse myself and go to my room. From bed I can hear the barking laughter of the German. I am glad I cannot understand the language and fall asleep.
In the morning, I buy a bucket of cold water and head out across the yard. Everything in my vision turns bright like an overexposed photograph and I stop until my surroundings come back into focus. I set the bucket down where wood-slat dividers have been arranged for privacy. My knees buckle and I reach out for something to hold onto. When I regain consciousness I’m in bed, wrapped in sheets and surrounded by people. Commands are being called out in French and Malagasy. An elderly woman wipes my face with a cool, wet cloth. Another woman with a long braid of black hair gets everyone to step aside. She holds up a syringe. No needles, I try to say but my tongue and lips won’t obey. My arms are useless. Dieter jumps in and there is an argument with the woman and then everything goes black again. I dream I am a child at home and my mom brings me cubes of watermelon. I wake alone and in complete darkness, my mouth dry. All I want is watermelon. I try to move but it’s too exhausting and I slip back into sleep. At times I open my eyes and people are in the room. Other times I am by myself. I wake again and the room is filled with daylight. A dish of cubed watermelon sits on the bedside table. I am so happy I want to cry. I try to sit up and Dieter walks in.
“Thank Christ,” he says. “I thought you were dead.”
He tells me the owner has been tending to me and that I have been unconscious for two days. I ask if they gave me needles and Dieter tells me that the village nurse came to give me a shot but he refused to let her.
“I’m allergic to penicillin,” I tell him.
He sits on the edge of the bed, picks up the dish of watermelon, stabs a cube with the fork and holds it up for me to eat. I take a few small bites and then rest.
A few days later Dieter and I part ways. He’s going back to Antananarivo to catch a flight for the Seychelles Islands. I am continuing south. He tells me he will send me some of the photographs he has been taking, but I never hear from him again.
Rhonda Waterfall is the author of The Only Thing I Have, a collection of short stories published by Arsenal Pulp Press. She lives in Vancouver.