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:


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.


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.


Tuesday, Nov. 25
Mahajanga, Madagascar

I feel different. High. Happy. Content.

After nearly five months of travel, I’ve hit my stride. You know how one week of vacation isn’t enough, how by the time you reach the last day, you’ve just started to relax? I’ve jumped that hurdle, finally able to let my mind go free, float from town to town.

Months ago, I worried about what I’d do when I arrived home, where I’d live, how I’d find a job. Now, with just a month before I return to the States, I still ponder how it will all work out, but without the anxiety, even though my plans are no clearer. Instead of worry, I feel excitement.

I have so much to look forward to. There’s the obvious, seeing my family in time for Christmas. But I’m also psyched about the unknowns, where the next year will take me. Something tells me I’m riding a wave into the prime of my life, that great things are in store. As Joel Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church says — and yes, I’m a pious fan — “The best things in life are out in front of us!”

Until now, I’ve always looked ahead to my next planned task, working for another accomplishment. High school so I could attend a good college. College so I could make something of myself. Journalism school so I could get a job. A job to gain experience and make money to travel. And now I’m at the end of that line, the end of the vision, living the travel dream. And afterwards? A blank slate, for the first time in my life. Freedom! I tell myself the same words I used to repeat to my college roommates, when they fretted over what to do after graduation: I can do anything I want!

It’s true now in my head more than ever before. After seeing how some people in Africa lack opportunity, be it because of a lack of money or knowledge, or a mindset that keeps them from moving ahead, I want even more to take advantage of my education, enjoy my family, live as fully as the cliche.

Of course, I’m not always smiling. Long-term travel, particularly in developing countries, comes with its difficulties, enough lows to rival the highs. My mood is constantly in flux, sometimes dependent solely on how much breathing room I have in a bush taxi. And this trip hasn’t been particularly good to my body: my stomach often sends me running to the bathroom, my knee is constantly swollen and I’ve become a flabby version of my runner self.

But the journey been good to my soul, a part of me that doesn’t always get priority at home. My soul has grown, flourished and now hit equilibrium. Zen.

I imagine that those of you who bothered to read until the end of this rambling bit of optimism fall into two camps, the first of which is filled with the lucky people who can relate to such a spiritual feeling (including my two ever-optimistic, wander-worthy friends who have supported me on this exploration; you know who you are).

The others think I’m on drugs. But nope, I’m just high on travel, high on learning, high on living.

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.


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.


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.


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…)