Stranded in Sambava: Visiting the Minister and an Emergency Evacuation
When we were planning our grand adventure across the Northeast coast of Madagascar we pictured pristine beaches, jungle hiking, and cozy camping… But reality did not quite meet our expectations…
Instead of beaches, jungles and cozy
cuddling camping we got typhoid fever, hospital visits and an emergency evacuation.
We had arrived back in Sambava late at night after our attempted Marojejy hike. Joost practically crawled out of the cab mid feverish hallucination and I managed to lead him into a bungalow and get him safety into bed. He was scarily sick and sweaty and I was hungry (but also pretty scared).
As I dined alone I started to do the necessary research about escaping Sambava so we could access proper medical care in Antananarivo. But my googling was in vain. Escaping Sambava seemed close to impossible.
First things first, we had to visit the local hospital and get some quick checks done so Joost could stock up on pills in case we were dealing with Malaria, which was definitely still a strong possibility at that point. The hospital was basic and overcrowded and they were unable to do the proper testing needed to clear Joost of anything super-nasty. We had to get back to Antananarivo.
Now you’re thinking:
“But Kat, you obviously managed to get there in the first place so there must be a simple way to turn back right?
WRONG. You are so wrong.
Obviously you are not a keen reader of my blog because I wrong an extensive
horror story recount of our journey to Sambava and it wasn’t much fun the first time so I doubt it would be any more fun when one of us was suffering from typhoid and randomly getting every and hallucinatory…
So driving back North was out of the question.
“But Kat, Sambava is the capital of Eastern Madagascar, obviously you could fly. Duh!”
Now this is a fair assumption and you are absolutely correct, Air Madagascar do a wonderful ‘reliable’ service from Sambava to Antananarivo (occasionally stopping at
other cities wherever they feel like along the way). But Air Madagascar is not your typical airline. It works just like most other things in Madagascar…. Not very well. On this particular occasion the website was down and the phone line didn’t seem to be functioning. It’s a good thing Air Madagascar had an office in Sambava…
Now official offices in Madagascar are never fun. Never ever. EVER.
First of all, the Malagasy took a couple of bad habits from the French while they were hanging around, one of the main habits being a RIDICULOUSLY LONG LUNCH BREAK.
Now I love the theory of the long French lunch break, the two hour time of the day where the country can forget it’s cares and drink some wine and eat some bread, but when my travelling partner has typhoid (and I am on the verge of a mental breakdown) waiting two hours for wine and bread time to end kind of gets on my nerves.
We waited in line with the other early arrivals during lunch period and eventually, 10 minutes later than signed, the staff returned – well-fed and not keen to actually help us at all.
We had been a bit clever and I had managed to sweet talk the doctor into writing us something to explain that Joost needed to get back to Antananarivo for medical tests. She willingly had pulled out a template for an ‘Evacuation Letter’ which I assumed would be our golden ticket for front row seats on the next flight to Antananarivo. I was so, SO wrong.
The lovely Air Madagascar lady informed us that the plane was ‘very full’ and the only chance we had to get a seat would be to arrive early at the airport and get our names on the waiting list. Yes, Joost was practically dying and they wouldn’t help us. (Well maybe I’m being a bit overdramatic but he could have been dying for all she knew!)
With no other option we did as we were told. We arrived early at the airport. We showed the check-in counter the evacuation letter and were told we had to see another doctor to get a SECOND evacuation letter.
We quickly hopped in a car, went to the hospital, managed to see a nurse, managed to get into the doctor, paid for the second evacuation letter (which I’m sure is a very normal procedure for those in desperation in such a bribable country) and made it back to the airport.
With our approved evacuation letter we were put at the top of the waiting list, we waited, the plane boarded and the plane took off…
I could have cried.
We sat in the empty airport hopelessly defeated. (Joost still could have been dying!!!)
Eventually we became suspicious and someone decided to ask what we were doing loitering around the airport. We explained our situation and suggested we visit the office of the Airport Director…
We walked to the back of the airport to the few pokey looking offices filled with piles of dusty paperwork and someone getting a haircut. Just next to the temporary barber was the office was just the man we were looking for. I was too emotionally unstable to bargain with someone else about escaping Sambava so I left poor typhoid-suffering Joost to attempt a plan B while I grumpily sat in the waiting room.
Eventually we had a result. There were no private planes that could take us back but there was the ministers plane. The Minister of the District happened to be returning to Tana the following day and the airport director had a suspicion that there was a jump seat and a little room at the back that we could squeeze into… He told us to go ask the Minister and find out.
Yep we were two tourists who just wanted a seat back to Antananarivo (for medical purposes of course) and we were making our way to the office of Director of the Minister of North East Madagascar to ask if we could hitch a ride in his private jet…
We arrived at the building where his office was and patiently waited outside, in the span of 1t5 minutes we were sitting in leather chairs across a nice mahogany table face-to-face with the minister. (Who was wearing a strange shiny crinkled suit in tropical heat).
In broken french we explained our situation and I was completely shocked that he was taking us so seriously…. DIDN’T HE HAVE A DISTRICT TO BE MINISTERING!?
Soon enough there were about 10 men dressed in inappropriately warm suits surrounding us, trying to help us sort out the situation. The bottom line was that the plane was completely full and there was no chance of us getting on it but we seemed to be a great excuse for the entire building to get out of doing any real work.
Eventually we realised that nothing productive was happened so we defeatedly made our way to Hotel Mimi to dine on the same food for the 5th time that week.
Life in Sambava was getting tedious. Joost’s health had definitely improved but with too much time on our hands we had gotten sick of reading, eating and occasionally having long sessions of playing lame computer games (yes, I had revived my 10-year old addiction of Rollercoaster Tycoon, judge me all you like, my imaginary theme park is the joy of many pretend tiny peoples lives).
We finally decided to return to my favourite office in town. Air Madagascar weren’t helping to get us out so I decided we may as well grace them with our very present selves until they got so sick of us that they starting throwing plane tickets our way…
“It’s not possible, every plane is full for two weeks”
“But he has TYPHOID, we need to be EVACUATED”
“The planes are all very full.”
“By ‘very full’ I assume you mean overbooked?”
“Yes, It is not possible.”
“WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO!?”
“OK, I can get you tickets for tomorrow.”
Somehow, a week after we had originally arrived in Sambava we had two plane tickets out. We had handed over a huge wad of cash but it seemed far too good to be true… (I wondered what poor sod had been kicked off the flight for us)
Safe to say we arrived at the airport early the next day in case they changed their mind and sold our seats to someone else. The plane had been delayed by about 6 hours because the ministers staff on the Air Madagascar flight didn’t want to leave at the scheduled early time.
Eventually the plane was loaded (including our very own luggage), the flight was called, and we almost ran on board… Many seats were still empty which obviously meant that more people were to come because this flight was supposed to be ‘very full’ (I also kept in mind a story that a regular visitor to the country had told me about once being seated next to a casket…)
We took off.
The half empty flight took off and I could have almost screamed in frustration and happiness simultaneously. We were finally being emergency evacuated from Sambava.
As we climbed over the Vanilla Coast I had to remind myself that everything in Madagascar is done with ‘mora mora’ (slowly, slowly) in mind. So let’s not hope too many tourists need immediate medical care, because I don’t think a heart attack will wait for ‘mora mora’ attention. And I kind of felt like I was beginning to going ‘mora mora’ insane from everything being so ‘mora mora’.