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.

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!

Sunday, Dec. 21
Leaving Tana, Madagascar

Today I begin the trip home!

That’s right; I’ve caught up on the blog, so you’re reading this in real time. Today, Sunday, marks the beginning of my two-day journey back to the States.

I inched my way to Madagascar, but I’m heading home in one swoop, which makes me realize just how far away the country really is from America.

My first flight is to Johannesburg, where I’ll have an overnight layover. It’s not until Monday afternoon that I’ll board a red-eye that will take me to Washington, D.C., by way of Dakar — a 19-hour flight.

Tuesday morning I’ll arrive in D.C., hopefully just in time to catch my last flight, a short one, to Albany.

How do I feel? Excited! Very excited to see my family and friends, to spend Christmas at home, to begin the next leg of life. But I’m sad, too, that this trip has come to an end.

The last time I returned home from Africa, after a college semester in Cameroon, the luxury of life in the States hit me like a slap in the face. I was happy to return to that luxury, of course, particularly American food in all its variety, but other aspects made me feel uncomfortable.

One of my first tasks that spring was to buy a new pair of running shoes, since I had left my previous pair in Cameroon. But when I stood before the zillions of pairs that were available in just one store, I became totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the choice — in Africa, you take what you can get — but I found it difficult to imagine spending $80 on a pair of sneakers when that much money could have helped clothe, feed and send to school children in my village family.

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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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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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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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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.