August 1, 2009

Voluble tonight

Blaid stops at a great big heap of sand. "La-dedans", he says, which is French for "in there." "C'est vrai?" I ask in my best broken French, meaning to say, "really?" I want confirmation not just because "there" looks like an unlikely place to enter. Thing is, that one hyphenated word Blaid says is about three more than Blaid manages in a typical day. This sudden volubility has left me stunned.

Nevertheless, "there" is a dark opening that yawns behind the sand. And "there" is where, unerringly, we enter.

Blaid is my guide, and he and I are in search of underground streams that flow in these northern reaches of Madagascar. He thinks there is one in this cave. I want to believe him. For it is my lifelong, if inexplicable, ambition to swim in one such stream. But more than that, the days we have spent hiking through the forest have left me grimy, even though Blaid never looks anything but clean and debonair. Me, I need a bath badly, and what can possibly beat bathing deep underground?

So yes, we go in.

The mound slopes steeply. We slither down for what seems like forever, the evening sunlight getting steadily dimmer until there is none and we're slithering on our behinds by the beam of my torch and I'm acutely conscious that the beam is fading -- damn, should have picked up batteries in that last hamlet we trudged through -- and I'm wondering if we will, like Jules Verne, journey to the Centre of the Earth. And still we go, deeper and lower and lower and deeper. No sign of a stream, just this endless sandy downward slope.

About when I'm starting to think Blaid has led me into some Madagascar hellhole that I'll never escape, or at least into the wrong cave, I hear a sound. A soft gurgling at first, like Smetana's lyrical The Moldau it gushes and chirrups and trills louder, almost musically louder. Suddenly we're there, next to this flowing band of water that I can't even see, but that I can hear in a delicious delight of anticipation.

I strip. Tumble gratefully into the icy water.

Blaid too.

At least, I think that's him splashing around near me. The doubt arises on our way out about an hour later. Stomping endlessly up the mudbank in complete darkness -- my torch has now given up the ghost, and this effort restores all the grime I've so excitedly washed off -- Blaid informs me of a little detail he had neglected to mention before our swim.

These caves, he says, are home to crocodiles.

Harmless crocodiles, says Blaid. Blind crocodiles, says Blaid.

He is voluble tonight, Mr Blaid. C'est vrai.

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