A tiny island in the Indian Ocean, beaches of powdery white sand, turquoise water, swaying palm trees: Christmas in paradise.
Hold that thought.
We had left eastern Africa behind us, with aching hearts. The lush green shores of the Nile, the impenetrable forests with the mountain gorillas in Uganda, the vast skies and grassland of the Masai Mara and Serengeti, baobab trees and red earth in Tanzania, and the fishermen and women of the beautiful coast line of Mozambique. No more children running alongside our jeep calling: “Muzungu! Muzungu!” On the flip side, no more dust clouds, potholes and seemingly endless corrugated roads. More popped tires than we had cared to count, a broken axle, stuck in the mud so many times. We had been on the go for three months now. I, for one, longed for a pause, a bed, a pillow, a shower that did not dribble, and four walls.
Antananarivo, Madagascar: the capital, in December. Narrow, angled rooftops of stone houses, cobblestoned streets and alleys. Early in the mornings, large baskets of fresh-baked baguettes on every corner, small stores baking hot croissants and chocolate crepes. I bought a small Christmas tree – one foot tall with tiny neon lights, the kind you can fold up and stuff into a backpack. When I got to the hostel we unfolded this crooked little tree and plugged it in. Abruptly and with the pitch of mosquitoes, the tune of “Silent Night, Holy Night” kicked in, too fast at first, before slowing down like a drunken sailor, skipping part of the refrain, and unexpectedly returning to the main theme. I turned it off and sat back, offended.
If you’d ever spent Christmas with my family in Bavaria, my dad would be sure to share how “Silent Night” had been composed only miles away in Austria. It was a piece of cultural heritage really. And now this! I shook my head, speechless. My boyfriend Nick was amused by the look of disgust on my face. The second our eyes met we both broke into grins and began laughing. This crooked tree, sitting there, like an abandoned pup, seemed incredibly desperate to please: it really seemed to try so hard! Yet, it was such an incredible offense to the ears. It was absurd, so of course we fell in love with it. It got to come along on our way to paradise.
When exploring third-world countries, it’s commonly known amongst travelers that public transportation can seem—well, questionable. So, we weren’t really surprised, but impressed, when we boarded a boat that carried far more cargo than any rational mind would ever dare to justify. My natural tendency to observe possible risk factors in case of emergency always brought me to the same conclusion. In case of emergency you would be, most certainly, screwed. So more than anything it became a practice in faith and surrendering, if you will.
We did make it safely to Isle Saint Marie, amongst mountains, pineapples, bananas, breadfruit, papayas and the patient smiles of the Malagasy people. In the harbor of Isle Saint Marie we rented a room and a motorcycle to cruise around the island. During the next days, we explored the shores and mangroves by kayak and came across an actual, overgrown pirate graveyard, skulls and crossed bones on corroded gravestones included. Close by, a long wooden dock led to a small rocky island.
With few travelers around, we inhabited the backside of this little island in our birthday suits by day, dove off the rocks into the sea and collected sunrays on our skin. At night we swirled our arms through the black water that ignited the excited glows of bioluminescent plankton and gazed at the millions of stars. Free.
We hadn’t reached our destination yet and were about to leave Isle Saint Marie for an even smaller island named Nosy Nato or Ile aux Nattes. Not only did the islands shrink in size but so did the vessels taking us to them. What we boarded next was a long, extremely slim, hand crafted, wooden canoe, whose upper edges engaged in an intimate conversation with the ocean’s surface. But again we floated across the channel without sinking and landed safely.
It was Christmas Day and we checked into a little straw hut by the water. A bed with a mosquito net in the center, a bathroom with a shower that did not dribble, a breeze caressing the curtains through the open windows: we smiled and exhaled. We set up our funny little tree friend, showered, rested, and began decorating the room with socks. The rest of the afternoon we spent diving off white sandbanks into the warm turquoise water. Our kind hosts had prepared a beautiful meal of fresh-caught fish for Christmas dinner and later we left the main house just as the sun was descending and the air felt sultry and warm.
We sat in the sand, joking and recalling adventures as we watched the glowing ball of fire drop into the ocean. Romance was in the air. Every once in a while we’d smack our arms to brush away an invisible pest, but didn’t pay much attention to it.
As I recall, it was a little after sunset that I moved my hands across my thighs and noticed flat red spots all over, though they did not itch—until much later. Later, when we came out of the shower and the spots suddenly expanded like puff pastry all over our bodies. Later, when we realized they weren’t only everywhere, but, as if somebody had blown a whistle, each bump suddenly emitted an itch that was short of any comparison. An itch so bad, it made you beg for a thousand innocent mosquito bites instead. An itch that made you want to roll through a field of cacti. An itch so insane and desperate that our fingernails just didn’t seem sharp enough.
We frantically dug through our first aid bag, smeared whatever ointments and antibiotic creams we had, hastily across our bodies, but nothing helped. We began covering each other’s bumps with toothpaste: toothpaste that seemed to help just a tad, toothpaste that seemed like a merciful gift from heaven. As long as there was no friction whatsoever, we remained sane.
Romance: it would have been double suicide. We retreated to the opposing edges of our bed, facing each other with glassy eyes and droopy frowns.
About 10 days later it had gotten much better. We boarded yet another cargo boat and couldn’t have been more pleased by its sight. It was loaded with mattresses. The captain allowed us to make camp high on top of two towers of mattresses tied down by ropes. The engine rattled steadily and the sea was smooth. The sun had dropped into the ocean. We lay up there in our sleeping bags, gazing at the emerging stars, glistening in the purple sky, so grateful not to itch any longer.
They say it’s all about the journey not the destination and I whole-heartedly agree. Christmas Day had been pretty darn dreadful, though the journey had most certainly been incredible. For the crisp sense of freedom we inhaled with every breath and the sweet satisfaction we exhaled, our minds felt like koi ponds. Recalling all the times we had found ourselves in apparent hopeless conundrums on the road, with kind strangers appearing out of nowhere to help us get safely back on our way, we fell asleep.
Did we feel connected that night floating on a tower of mattresses across the Indian Ocean? You bet.
Katrin Sofie Berg is a world traveler, early childhood educator, neuromuscular therapist, and aspiring writer. She lives in a tree house in Laguna Beach.