Photo included


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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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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Friday, Nov. 28
Ankarana Special Reserve, Madagascar

I didn’t really want to stay at the hotel of bungalows next to the park office.

It wasn’t in my guidebook, and the guide at the office was pushing it hard, which I found suspicious; hotel touts are paid by hotels, which usually means the accomodation is badly in need of customers. And if it’s badly in need of customers, there’s probably a reason.

But it was raining — hard — and this was the closest place. The price, too, just five bucks, was probably the best I’d find.

So I agreed. The place was, as expected, bare-bones, with only a few guests, but perhaps more because the tourist season had ended than because of its mediocre quality. But when I sat down to dinner, the only client, I was glad I had come.

The meal was one of the best I’d had in Madagascar, possibly one of the best in my life.

It started with a tasty noodle and veggie soup, which surprised me since I had ordered crab. (There were only two choices: crab and fish.) I should have known by the price of the meal — it cost the same as my room — that it would consist of three courses.

Then the crab. Oh, the crab. I’ve only had crab a few times before, but I don’t remember it ever being that succulent and meat-filled. Of course, I’d never before eaten it after spending a night in the bus station and the entire day on a bush taxi, either. But wow, such beautiful, white meat.

I so enjoyed the crab that it wasn’t until I was halfway through eating it that I realized what was helping to make it so tasty: the shellfish was covered in a thick tomato sauce. I scooped some out of the dish and mixed it with a bit of the heaping pile of rice that had come alongside the crab, grateful, for once, that every single meal here — and I mean every one — is served with rice.

Tom holding a milipede!

Tom holding a milipede!

The third course was pineapple, a common desert here. By the time it arrived, I had given what remained of my crab to a group of four guests who had turned up at the hotel while I was chowing down. They had asked for what I was having, but the cook had no crab left.

I joined the group, two Peace Corps volunteers with two of their family members, for a hike in the park the next day, where we spotted several giant milipedes, many crowned lemurs and a scene of tsingy, sharp limestone formations that are a must-see in Madagascar. No leeches this time, but I was happy to exit the park mid-afternoon to escape the red flies that buzzed our heads incessantly.

The group offered me a ride north that afternoon, since we were all going in the same direction. But I had other plans. I would stay one more night at the hotel next to the park and depart in the morning, I had decided.

Why? I had already put in an order for dinner that night: another meal of crab.

Thursday, Nov. 27
Ambilobe, Madagascar

My main objective this week, as I traveled to Madagascar’s most northern town, was to avoid spending a night in a bush taxi. I failed.

The first three days after I left the capital were full of sight-seeing and no delays, since I traveled in a private vehicle (yes, it cost a pretty penny) with a Malagasy woman, Ony, and a young English girl, Charlie. I had met Ony nearly a month earlier when I visited the children’s home where she works, and the timing worked out perfectly for me to join her and Charlie, a volunteer at the center, for part of their trip to Mahajanga, a city on Madagascar’s northeast coast.

We visited a park (my third one) where, during a night walk, we saw loads of cameleons, a large boa snake (!!) and many nocturnal lemurs. Between that stroll and our hike the next day, we spotted a total of six lemur species, and I was surprised at how different each looked, from the variety of sizes — we saw a mouse lemur — to the appearance of their faces. My favorite was the Sifaka, which has a face like a teddy bear:

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they arent cute!

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they aren't cute!

We also drove to an amazing rock formation, I believe it was sandstone, where I took this photo. Check out the clouds in several tones:

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

After three days with the group, it was time to move on. As much as I enjoy finding travel companions, it usually feels good to get out by myself again, when I tend to be more pensive, live cheaper and fall into more adventure.

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Friday, Nov. 21
“Tana,” Madagascar

I doubt that when I first met Anna and Alex, the day we shared a meal at a tiny road-side restaurant during a break from a bush-taxi ride, they had any clue they would spend much of their 15-day vacation with me.

The two French women, having just arrived in the country that morning, were on their way to Antsirabe, the same city where I was headed. The three of us, having bonded over rice, explored the town together, then shared dinner, and finally, a hotel room. They planned to continue south after a second day in Antsirabe. But I had hoped to travel west, so I rose early the next morning, packed my bag and said a quick goodbye.

Once at the bus station, I learned I’d have to take an long, overnight bus trip to arrive at my western destination, which didn’t sound at all appealing. So I picked a new destination on a whim — oh, the glories of traveling solo — based mainly on which bus would leave first. Instead of a long trip west, I would journey just a few hours south to the next town.

Two evenings later, as I peacefully read a book by the window of my hotel restaurant, I noticed two familiar faces on the other side of the glass. Anna and Alex!

We caught up over dinner, the girls chain-smoking like nearly every Frenchie I’ve met, then traveled separately the next morning. But since we were all headed to the same town, we again met up there and shared a room. And so it went for much of the rest of our two weeks in southern Madagascar; sometimes the three of us traveled together, sometimes separately, but Alex, Anna and I almost always met up at the same hotel, sharing drinks and laughs.

Me, Alex and Anna on the streets of Fiana.

Me, Alex and Anna on the streets of Fiana.

Our last few days together — or so we thought — were on the beach in Ifaty, a small village that hosts many tourists, one I blogged about a few days ago. We lounged on the beach, hung out with two other lovely French girls and sipped flavored rum. We said goodbye when I left to return north with another French traveler, Pierre; I had more country to see, but Anna and Alex would fly home from the capital in a few short days.

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Thursday, Nov. 21
“Tana,” Madagascar

Pierre had never before seen a leech. So when our park guide advised us to tuck our pants into our socks to keep the crawlers from sucking on our ankles, the French traveler said he’d like to see one; what did they look like?

Pierre stops to look for leeches under his socks.

Pierre stops to look for leeches under his socks.

A half hour later, walking through the rainforest of Ranomafana park in eastern Madagascar, we were all-too familiar with the blood-suckers. Every few minutes, our group of four — Pierre, a French couple and our obligatory guide — would stop for a quick inspection, pulling the one- or two-inch worm-like creatures from our skin.

You can’t feel them latch on because they inject an anesthetic, but I quickly learned to respond to any wiggling sensation, since the leeches often climbed up me a bit before digging in. I felt that wiggling at one point under my shirt, and lifted it to see two suckers having breakfast near my belly button, another closer to my back. How did they manage to get under my shirt? I wondered as I worked to pluck them off.

While I found the leeches to be the park’s main attraction — although one encounter with them was plenty — we actually were on the hunt for lemurs, the monkey slash cat-like primate that exists only in Madagascar. Our guide spotted two varieties in the trees above our heads. He also pointed out a fist-sized snail and several birds, including one he called “rare.” To me, though, one bird looks the same as the next from afar, so what we stared at might as well have been a pigeon.

Later, as we left the park, we noticed huge spiders — the size of my head! — hanging from electricity lines. Our group watched them in awe, and in turn, locals watched us watching the spiders.

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Monday, Nov. 17
Ifaty, Madagascar

Add these to the list of transport I’ve taken during the last five months: camion and pirogue.

Camion to Ifaty.

Camion to Ifaty.

Even though Ifaty, a beach town on the southeastern coast of Madagascar, is crawling with tourists, I was the only white face that climbed into the camion two afternoons ago. I’m not entirely sure what “camion” translates into in English, but at any rate it was a large truck, clearly not created to haul people, though it had been transformed to do so. The heavy, slow vehicle was the only transport other than tourists’ 4x4s that could arrive in Ifaty without getting stuck in the thick sand.

I had trouble communicating with my fellow passengers because most spoke no French, only Malagasy, so I debarked when I thought I had arrived. Turns out I was nearly a mile from the hotel strip, and a local offered — well, urged me to buy — a pirogue ride to my hotel.

Continuing to Ifaty via pirogue.

Continuing to Ifaty via pirogue.

I generally avoid boat transport — I figure if my bush taxi breaks down, I’m stuck on the side of the road, but if my boat breaks down, well, you know — but I needed someone to show me the way. Plus, the price he suggested, less than three bucks, was so good I didn’t bother negotiating.

The Indian ocean was perfectly blue, clear enough to see to the bottom in shallow parts. My backpack was tucked in securely, so I leaned back on the wooden structure, the full sail behind me, and watched Ifaty come into view. My arrival at the hotel, via the sea, would have been a grand entrance had anyone I knew witnessed it.

The place was beautiful but overrun by tourists, mostly old French ones, the men with young Malagasy women on their arms. I expected the resort to be separated a bit from the town, but the locals lived in the sand amongst the hotels, most in houses made of sticks and thatch, making their living braiding  “vazaha” (white person) hair, pawning souvenirs and, as I eluded to earlier, selling themselves. Sex tourism seems to bring a lot of money to Madagascar.

Ifaty beach at sunset.

Ifaty beach at sunset.

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Thursday, Nov. 13
Ranohira, Madagascar

Madagascar has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long — it’s the oldest island on earth — that thousands of the country’s species of plants, insects, frogs, birds and at least 200 mammals exist no where else on earth. (Citation: Bradt travel guide.)

It’s paradise for serious biologists and researchers, plus amateur birders and other wildlife lovers. Many tourists visit Madagascar primarily to experience its nature, hopscotching amongst the country’s many parks.

But me? As much as I love being outdoors and taking in beautiful scenery, I’m not really one for identifying rare flowers or reptiles. As I explained in an earlier post about my visit to Ghana’s Mole National Park, I’m far more interested in learning about how people live. So it wasn’t until I had been in Madagascar for a week and a half, having already explored a handful of towns and villages, that I experienced my first park: Isalo, located in the south.

The visit was worthwhile before I even set foot in the park thanks to the view from my hotel, just a few kilometers from the park entrance. The group of bungalows that made up Chez Alice seemed on the edge of the world, looking out over dry earth and browned grass toward the rock formations, mountains really, that made up the nature reserve.

Just minutes after I settled in my very own bungalow, I watched the sun set behind those mountains, then turned to see the sky pink, with the moon full over the bungalow behind me:

Sunset at Chez Alice outside Isalo Park

Sunset at Chez Alice outside Isalo Park

The next morning, I hired an obligatory guide to accompany me inside the park. We hiked in the hot sun — so bright that I had a headache a day later despite my sunglasses — the tall rocks jutting out of the earth all around us. This part of the country is dry and desert-like, with bizarre spiny plants sprouting from the dry ground. But once we descended into a small canyon, water fed lush greenery and formed several natural — and warm! — swimming pools. (more…)

Wednesday, Nov. 12
Fianarantsoa, Madagascar

It took the luggage handlers about an hour to pack the top of the bush taxi, first lifting a large wooden desk onto the roof, then a dozen bags, then covering it all with a plastic sheath in case of rain. They wrapped rope around the entire thing, making sure to hit all the corners.

Then someone decided the desk shouldn’t go to Ranohira, where the vehicle was headed. So the guys took everything off the roof and started from scratch.

As the passengers waited to depart — there were 28 of us, I later counted, who would cram into the 15-passenger vehicle — the five children waiting in the front row with their parents smiled and waved at me, calling out “Vazaha!” whenever I strayed too far from the van. The word, which sounds more like “vaza,” means “white person” in Malagasy — I’m happy to add it to the countless number of local slangs I’ve been called during the last five months.

Eventually, I approached the kids. “My name isn’t Vaza,” I said, in a friendly tone. “It’s Alexi.”

My bush taxi friend.

My bush taxi friend.

The three-year-old girl who seemed to be the leader of the bunch changed her chant immediately. “Alexi!” she said, trying to get my attention even though she already had it. Once we had boarded the vehicle, myself crammed into the back seat, the little girl near the front, dressed in a blue-and-white checkered dress, she continued to call to me every half an hour or so: “Alexi!”

The ride was not my most comfortable, since a rice sack consumed the leg space I thought I had paid for, forcing me to sit with my legs up near my chest. But I had a window seat, and an interesting one at that: the passenger who sits in the very back left-hand corner of the vehicle usually gets in and out via the window, since she’s the farthest from the door. And so when the bus stopped for lunch, I slid open the pane and climbed out, and later entered the same way.

Driving in Madagascar, I’ve learned during my last few road trips, is about more than getting from place to place. The scenery is absolutely stunning, from rice patties in every shade of green, sculpted into hills like giant staircases, to mountains of rock rising high into the sky. The people add more color to the scenes: groups of women transversing the plains with baskets on their heads, men guiding zebu through the wet rice fields, children in green uniforms walking miles to school. It is, no doubt, some of the most striking scenery I’ve ever seen. Have a look for yourself:

Scene from the road in southern Madagascar.

Scene from the road in southern Madagascar.

Rice patties like this line the roads for miles in central Madagascar.

Rice patties like this line the roads for miles in central Madagascar.

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