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.

Thursday, Nov. 6
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Madagascar’s capital city, “Tana,” is marked by a beautiful lake surrounded by purple-flowered trees. This time of year, the trees’ flowers are in full bloom, and the vibrant petals are just starting to fall, scattering across the sidewalk as though a flower girl claimed it as her wedding aisle.

Unfortunately, the place smells like a public toilet.

“The putrid lake,” an Australian who lives in the city called it. An American study abroad student told me the city’s sewage is pumped into the water — an assertion I never bothered to verify with locals.

But I knew nothing of that when I walked around the lake for the first — and last — time, drawn in from afar by its deceiving beauty. When I realized the smell wasn’t isolated to one section of the perimeter, I figured it was due to all the squatters on the property, those who sent their children toward me to beg as I strolled by.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The odor was so strong that I couldn’t help but imagine that what dripped on me now and then, presumably from the trees since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, was urine. And so, my walk ruined by such stupid thoughts, I turned away from the lake as soon as I came upon a street I recognized.

My guidebook, a Bradt this time, warned I might not like Tana once I got a closer look. That proved true for the lake. But the rest of the city, aside from the hoards of street beggers, suits me.

The culture here feels partly African, partly Asian. Sure, Madagascar is in Africa; the island, about the size of Texas (shout out!), is off the southeastern coast of the continent. But it was originally settled by immigrants from Indonesia — Africans arrived later from the mainland — so the country has a distinct Asian flavor.

View outside my hotel.

View outside my hotel.

The hostel where I’m staying, which hosts nearly as many prostitutes as clients, is in the middle of a never-ending staircase that descends into the city’s main drag. The stairs are always crowded with locals going up and down and vendors lined up along the sides, so entering the busy world of Madagascar’s capital is easy: I just step outside the hotel lobby.

The first time I ventured out, I couldn’t put my finger on what made the place so different from western and central Africa. Of course, lots of things were different — the people, the food, the weather. But something was odd, and it wasn’t until hours later that it hit me: I could hear myself think!

Had I been in a place this crowded in west Africa, the noise would have been nearly unbearable, with eight stereos blasting upbeat African music, a religious tout making announcements through a bullhorn, groups of people having animated conversations at the tops of their lungs.

Here, perhaps because of the Asian influence, locals walk quietly in the streets and talk at normal decibels; even the come-ons from men are more like a whisper in my ear rather than a blunt, loud invitation to bed. It’s a lovely change, one I imagine will help me voyage here without the migraines I suffered elsewhere in Africa.

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I give up.

After banging my head against the keyboard just to get up this simple post, I reluctantly bring you this announcement: the blog is on temporary hiatus. I can’t find a quality Internet connection in the cities and towns south of Madagascar’s capital to support it.

In a week or so, around Nov. 20, I expect to pass back through the capital, and I promise you then plenty of photo-filled posts about life in this brilliant country.

For now, I leave you with these thoughts, straight out of my notebook:

Why did I bother suffering through dirty, hassle-filled, expensive West Africa when there exists such a place as Madagascar? Everything here is magnificant in comparison: the scenery is like none I’ve ever seen before, with rice patties of all shades of green stretching as far as the eye can see; the travel easier on the body, less cramped; the people friendlier despite an invasion of tourists; the souvenirs cleanier and worth buying; and the food, I’ve been eating like a king! And it’s all costing me around 25 bucks a day.

Wednesday, Nov. 5
“Tana,” Madagascar

I had hoped to have a good story to tell about local reaction to the American election.

But unlike the parts of western and central Africa I visited, who had all eyes on Obama, very few people here in Madagascar seem to care about the outcome.

In Tana, Madagascar’s capital, we’re a full eight hours ahead of America’s east coast, so it was in our wee hours of the morning that election results began coming in. I had asked around for a bar or restaurant where folks might be watching election news, but to no avail. Even the U.S. embassy said they weren’t aware of any American hangouts with televisions; they had organized only a private party.

So when I woke up this morning at 6 a.m., excited as a child waiting for Santa, I hailed a ca to the Carlton hotel, the most upscale accommodation in town. Surely they would have a television with international channels.

Inside the lobby, I posed as a guest and waited for the bar to open at 7 a.m.; I could see through the glass windows a beautiful television waiting for me.

The waitress and I flipped through channels looking for election news in English. None. So I settled on a French channel and hoisted myself up onto a bar stool — just in time to see them call the election! Obama had won! The anchors jabbered away in French — it took some concentration for me to understand when they spoke that fast — and I watched my fellow Americans celebrate in the streets. Their chanting was muted, but I could read the lips of the crowds who yelled, “Yes, we can!”

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Tuesday, Nov. 4
Antananarivo, Madagascar

I stayed in my hostel bed on my first morning in Madagascar long after I woke up, partly because my stomach was rumbling in the sorry way that usually foreshadows sickness. But I also had another reason to keep my eyes closed: someone was showering in my room.

It was a dorm room, with four beds, and a shower and sink just feet from the bunks, so it wasn’t unusual that I had a roommate. But I hadn’t met the traveler, since the person was already asleep in the top bunk when I climbed into my bed the night before. I only realized it was a man when I heard him clearing his throat that morning in the shower, and so I kept my position, facing the wall, to offer some privacy.

When I figured he had had enough time to dress himself, I turned, thinking I might meet a new friend, perhaps another 20-something backpacker who would explore the island with me. It’s in these hostel dorm rooms that I often meet other frugal travelers.

Instead, I was shocked to see a skinny old man, wearing only shorts, his wrinkled chest bare, rinsing his hands at the sink.

I smiled to myself, and asked where he was from.

“Born in Italy, but now living in Malaysia,” he responded. “You?”

“United States,” I said.

“Oh, well we can switch to English then,” he said, transitioning out of French.

The man, who had lived most of his life in various east African countries, had just returned to the capital after six weeks of traveling the country. Since that was similar to my time frame here, I inquired about his route. Looking at my guidebook earlier, I hadn’t noticed an obvious one, and I still wasn’t sure how I would go about seeing the island.

“They say you can’t do a loop around the country,” he said, “but I managed to do just that.”

We paged through my guidebook to find a map, and indeed, it looked impossible to loop around Madagascar. Most of the main roads start in the center of the country, in Antananarivo, the capital that goes by “Tana” for obvious reasons. The roads radiate outward, kind of like a subway station that has one center point and lots of lines that never connect.

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