Akaiza Oala?

(Or, Part II of the Adventures of Katie and Kerry in Masoala)


Masoala has got to be one of the most pervasive mistranslations of the Malagasy language. (Admittedly, the competition there is not steep, as general interest on the subject is pretty limited). Every single guide-book and tourist brochure I have read, not to mention a number of more scholarly works, translates the name as “the eye of the forest,” from the respective Malagasy words maso (eye) and ala (forest). But a few months back I began hearing differently, that the root of the word was actually oala, which describes a channel through the reefs, a safe route into a cove and ashore. Apparently, this is highly-localized term, not limited to just the northern Betsimisaraka dialect, but a sub-dialect of coastal people. It is nautical terminology, a fact which explains why even most Malagasy are not familiar with the true meaning and appropriate translation of Masoala. Combined, maso and oala specifies a channel through the reefs which must be espied, is difficult to find.

My, how very interesting and entirely irrelevant to my life, you must be thinking. But I made that mistake once too! Never did I think that finding a safe route through a reef would be an important, dare I say critical, life activity. Not until our fateful return that afternoon.

We left not long after lunch, confident that our return journey to the campsite would be a breeze. The winds we had battled the entire way over would now be at our backs. We joked that we would manimba (fly) right on home. Drugged with dramamine we departed, the four of us crammed into our little wooden canoe. Even with our crazily-rigged sail, it was not long before we were all a little nervous about just how close to flying we were. Huge swells came up behind us, caught our little craft, and propelled us forward at incredible pace before dropping us to wait for the next. Looking forward, this felt like a conveyer belt to our destination, the helpful hands of God, but glancing back as the swells bore down, it felt more like we were bound to be consumed…

So, of course, we determinedly faced forward. And reverted to the philosophy which usually bears us through such situations, which goes something like this: “This man who we have hired to take us in this pathetically small boat, this is his livelihood, he does this everyday, look at him, he isn’t scared, he isn’t phased, I won’t be nervous until he is nervous…”

Then, this man in whom we were busily investing all our hopes and dreams, in whom we were entrusting our physical well-being, suddenly gave us very good reason to be nervous. “This is grave,” he muttered, “we need to go ashore now.” In one tense, jerking motion, all three of our heads (Katie, Kerry, Beonique), turned back to him as if connected by a string. I am sure that each our faces said the exact same thing: SAVE US, WE ARE VERY CLEARLY GOING TO DIE.

Using the paddle to steer, he turned our boat towards shore, the waves now crashing directly in front of us and over the edges of our no-longer-comically-small-craft.  Here, he says, handing me one of the ridiculous shards of plastic used here to bail boats, bail. Now our doom is confirmed: if a Malagasy person assigns a white person a critical task, the greatest depths of desperation have been reached.

To make matters worse, much worse, our steerer begins muttering to himself, under his breath but nonetheless quite audibly, “Akaiza oala? Akaiza oala?” With my insight into the true meaning of oala, I understand that this means: “Where is the channel? Where is the channel?” I want to turn around and yell, well use your EYE to see the OALA, man! As the illogical part of my brain is demanding I scream this, the logical part is busily and fatalistically thinking: he has no idea how to get through the reef…

Then we get caught on the crest of one of those massive waves. Beonique, our guide crammed at the very front, throws his paddle down, grabs the edges of the canoe,  and holding on for dear life, starts screaming. I am busy bailing, desperately and futilely.  As I toss out tea-spoons of water, facing backwards, I am only aware of a huge wall of water behind us and the sensation of being lifted. Water is now pouring over the edges of the boat, but out of sheer terror and attachment to the idea that I am doing something helpful to save our lives, I continue to bail. Everyone is yelling; we are surfing ashore, presumably through the OALA that our steerer finally espied with his EYE. The wave dies down and we are sitting in the ocean. There is no noticeable difference between the water level in and outside the boat. Our packs are floating. Still, I am determinedly using my chip of plastic to toss out tea-spoons of water. Kerry turns around to look at me. Her expression is not conveying the sentiment that my terrific bailing effort has saved our lives. On the contrary, it says: put down that ridiculous piece of plastic, you idiot. 

So, yet another change of plans. We return on foot to our campsite. And the next morning, instead of returning by boat up the coast, we enter back into the rainforest. It is a more manageable undertaking this time, with the knowledge that “three ups, three downs, then out,” actually means eight hours. Nevertheless, we are trying do a three day hike in one. If you will remember, this puts us on pace with Malagasy grandmothers and partial-invalids. At the end of the day, two hours from our destination, it was my turn to sit down in the trail, declare myself an invalid, and refuse to move. Kerry, having paved the way in this department, was tolerant. 

So, a final rewriting of the rules of success. A plan changed so often we could not remember its original form. An [expletive] ferret and an unseen oala. Another adventure in the books…

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