Madagascar


Tuesday, Jan. 27
Albany, NY

Madagascar’s in political trouble.

I got the details from online news. But I heard first via e-mail from a Malagasy friend.

Ony, who I met during a visit to the children’s home where she works, lives in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, where the riots are taking place. She traveled with me for a few days because she’s trying to familiarize herself with various parts of her country so she can work in the tourism industry, one of the most lucrative job sectors on the poor island.

She wrote that life has been “very hectic” because of tension between the president and the opposition party, which has resulted in strikes, riots and fires in the streets of the city.

“We are very scared with this situation but hope they will find a solution soon,” Ony wrote. “No work until life is back to normal.”

Here’s a story from Reuters that ran this morning:

Madagascar’s opposition promised more anti-government protests on Tuesday and looting shook the capital overnight after the worst day of street violence for years on the Indian Ocean island.

Two people died on Monday when demonstrations against President Marc Ravalomanana’s government turned violent, according to witnesses and security sources. Crowds set fire to a state media building and ransacked shops, with a policeman and teenager killed in the chaos and crushes.

Those scenes revived memories of past political volatility on Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, and will not help the government’s efforts to present the nation as a tourist haven and sound destination for investment in mining and oil.

Political turmoil isn’t unusual in Madagascar. The country nearly suffered a coup in 2002 over an election, and it faced minor unrest around voting time in 2006.

But no one gets used to violence. As Ony wrote, it’s scary — every time.

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Monday, Jan. 12
Back in the States

Now that I’m home with a fast WiFi connection, I’m uploading hundreds of photos and videos I took during my trip. Thought you might want to see a few of my favorites that didn’t make it onto the blog already. Turn on your sound!

A video of the sandstorm my travel companions and I hit in Timbuktu:

Here, my Cameroonian village family celebrates after I delivered more than $1,000, contributed by readers of this blog, to pay school fees. Those moving lights are glow-in-the-dark bracelets worn by people who are dancing. The sounds? Singing and cheering.

This Malagasy man showed me the process of creating silk, which later is used to weave scarves, from silkworms’ coocons. Here, he hangs the coocons out to dry.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Drying coocons is part of the silk-production process.

Kumasi’s open-air market is, I believe, the biggest one in West Africa. I walked around it for hours just watching the scene and the people.

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Monday, Dec. 22
On my way home

I’ve left Madagascar, but since I have a fabulous Internet connection in the Jo-Burg airport, I wanted to share a few last photos from Tana, the capital.

The Christmas season isn’t in your face there like it is at home, but every once in a while I noticed something that reminds me it’s gift and snow time in Albany.

Occasionally one of the cell-phone chain stores would blast Christmas music — the same tunes as chez moi but not in English. And I passed several Christmas-tree sellers in the market:

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Holiday flash.

Holiday flash.

Just for fun, here are two other photos:

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

Tuesday, Dec. 16
Andasibe, Madagascar

The piercing howls woke me from my sleep.

I fumbled for my watch — 1 a.m. — and then let my head fall back onto my pillow to listen.

The high-pitched sounds resembled something between a car alarm and whale calls, several whines overlapping. Nestled in a bed in a chilly bungalow just outside Andasibe National Park (park #5 for me here!), I knew immediately what I had heard: the cries of the Indri lemur.

Mama Indri with baby on her back.

Mama Indri with baby on her back.

The Indri, at around three feet tall, are the largest of the nearly 60 lemur species that still exist in Madagascar, and, well, anywhere on earth, since lemurs don’t live anywhere else.

They’re also, I would argue, the most human. In addition to being the size of a child, they’re the only lemurs with short tails and also the only ones to give birth to just one baby instead of several at once.

While some lemurs resemble squirrels, rats or other rodents, running on all fours across tree branches, Indri jump from an upright position, like monkeys, as far as 10 meters.

The mammals are a must-see in Madagascar, I’d been told by travelers and locals alike. So on my way back to the capital, as I completed the eastern part of my loop around northern Madagascar, with just five days left in country, I detoured to see the Indri.

It didn’t take our guide long to spot them in the forest on account of the low hum the family was producing early this morning. After we stood for a while on the ground beneath them , craning our necks to see the mother carrying a baby on her back, they began marking their territory with those crazy howls. It was so loud I wanted to cover my ears. Instead, I took this video; it’s the audio, not the visual, that’s interesting:

We also glimpsed several other species of lemurs, including the diademed sifaka, which exists not only just in Madagascar, but also only in this one part of the country.

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Friday, Dec. 12
Tamatave, Madagascar

It ain’t easy to leave Maroantsetra.

I arrived there via plane from the north. Since there’s no road, my only other option was to hike in, several days worth of walking from the nearest town.

Most visitors depart the same way, flying out of the tiny airport they flew into. But I decided to take my chances with ground transport, since there was something resembling a road that headed south. I could weather one more bush taxi ride on unpaved road, I told myself.

The trip was about 180 miles. It took two days. Thirty hours! Plus a few hours when we stopped to sleep.

Even considering all the horrible roads I’ve taken during this trip, one stretch of this route in particular was the worst I’ve ever experienced. It was more like a monster-truck obstacle course, with our four-by-four bush taxi — basically a 4×4 15-passenger van; who knew they existed? — climbing slowly over boulders, piles of rocks, sometimes tilted so far to one side that I worried we would tip over.

Indeed, we passed one vehicle that had done just that, and our driver joined a crowd of people, mostly the truck’s passengers, as they worked to push the vehicle right-side up.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

Much of the path was marked by two deep ditches, tracks from vehicles that had passed before us in the mud. We were lucky: it hadn’t rained for days, so those tracks had hardened, and we rolled slowly over them. Had the road been wet from rain, I doubt we would have been able to pass at all.

Yet the trip, if the roughest I’ve completed, was far from the most uncomfortable. For it’s not only the road that determines one’s comfort level, but also a host of other factors, mainly where you’re sitting and how many people are sitting on top of you.

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Wednesday, Dec. 10
Maroantsetra, Madagascar

“You don’t have to get into this mud if you don’t want to,” Chris told me as he slid off his flip-flops and stepped into the thick sludge.

He knew what I was thinking: which disease would I contract by tromping barefoot through this stuff?

But I very much wanted to harvest rice with the locals. I’d take the risk — I was going home soon anyhow.

The first step was the deepest, up past my calf. But then I got the hang of walking on downed rice stalks, and the mud sloshed only over my feet, slimy between my toes.

I used the sharp tool Chris handed me to cut the rice bits from their stalks, accumulating a handful before stuffing them into the basket over his arm. We were partaking for fun, but those around us were working for cash — the equivalent of 50 cents for each full bag, several hours of work.

We stayed only 20 minutes or so, largely because of the mosquitoes that feasted on our legs. These suckers left a drop of blood where they bit, and my legs quickly became covered with little red spots that I later smudged away.

Until now, I had spent most of my time in Madagascar as a tourist, whiffing bits and pieces of life here. But this week, I got to experience the country as I had hoped, making friends with Malagasy people, joining them in their daily chores, eating as they ate (all rice, all the time).

My pass into the real Madagascar was Chris, a friend of a college friend who is researching how bushmeat — mammals like lemurs that are hunted in the forest — affects nutrition.

Chris and a few members of his Malagasy family, plus the guy who is building his house without a single power tool!

Chris and a few members of his Malagasy family, plus the guy who is building his house without a single power tool!

He has spent so much time in Madagascar over the last handful of years that he considers it a home away from home. He speaks the language and has a family here who has adopted him as one of their own, plus plenty of Malagasy friends. That’s what really impressed me — the friends — because I’ve seen how difficult it can be for foreigners in Africa to cross cultural and economic gaps to forge real friendships.

Working on cloves in the village... Check out the little guys smile in the back.

Working on cloves in the village... Check out the little guy's smile in the back.

I hung out with Chris for several days in Maroantsetra, the small city he uses as a home base, while he prepared to enter the field for his project. It was one of those places I might have overlooked as a tourist, but perfect for observing everyday Malagasy life.

The city smelled strongly of cloves, since it was the time of year when everyone harvests the cash crop, spreading it out on mats on the ground to dry. I helped Chris’ Malagasy family prepare the cloves to be dried, separating the soon-to-be-spices from their green branches, all of us sitting on the ground around a red and yellow pile.

Chris also took me out to taste a bit of Malagasy nightlife; we drank beers — only one brew here, the local THB — with his friends outside a small bar on a street that was lively, but dark, since the power was out. (Electricity cuts are common here.) The scene reminded me of nights out with my friends from home, and I wished I could understand the jokes they poked at one another in Malagasy.

Within a few days, Chris, his two research assistants and I headed to one of his project villages, a three-hour hike from the road. Here’s a shot of us heading into the forest:

Walking to Chris village.

Walking to Chris' village.

Plus a photo of the homes we passed along the way. Those are cloves drying out front:

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Wednesday, Nov. 3
Sambava, Madagascar

I beat my South African comrades to the lobby of our hotel, the place we had planned to meet to share a taxi to the airport.

While I waited, I made small talk with two female hotel employees behind the bar.

“You’re leaving?” one asked.

“Yes,” I said. “To the airport. I have a flight.”

“You’re going to Sambava?”

I thought it was odd they would guess my destination on the first try, since I could have been going anywhere in Madagascar or even home to the States. It wasn’t until later, after I saw the small Diego airport, that I realized Sambava was one of only two flights out each Wednesday.

“Yes, Sambava,” I replied.

“Will you take this with you?” one of the women asked, holding up a thin plastic bag stuffed with what appeared to be fabric.

I didn’t understand right away what she wanted, mostly because I didn’t expect such a request.

“You want me to take the bag to Sambava?” I asked suspiciously.

“Yes,” the woman replied, and her friend was already on the phone, looking at me and talking in Malagasy, I think describing my appearance, my blond hair and maroon t-shirt. While she spoke into her mobile, she slipped 20,000 Ariary — about 10 bucks — into the bag.

“What’s in it?” I asked as she tied it closed.

“Dresses for girls,” she said simply.

“And how will I know who to give it to?”

“He’ll find you,” she said.

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