Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Back To Tana

Saturday morning around 10 am we were gassed up (@ $5 a gallon) and heading north again. Most tourists fly back to Tana. But I was paying for Hasina's time and his gas already, and anyway I always prefer to see the scenery go by.

Go by it did. Slowly upward past the decrepit little shacks and settlements until we reached the haut plateau. Then through the sapphire towns and back to the Isalo National Park, where we had lunch at the only decent restaurant for anywhere in every direction. As night was falling we were still about an hour away from our destination of Ambalao, the scene of the zebu market three days earlier. Then the oil light came on.

Let's just say that when I know more about cars than some other guy, it's a pretty pathetic situation. But Hasina had already demonstrated a lack of automotive knowledge that was very disturbing for someone with a car in a third world country. In the gathering gloam he pulled out the dipstick. Nothing on it. When he undid the oil cap the level of gunkly sludge that he exposed made me almost gasp in astonishment. How did the engine get us even this far?

The tropics don't do twilight. Within a few minutes it was pitch dark. Some locals who had ambled over told Hasina that there was a small town about 10 km further along. I convinced him that if the light had just come on he probably had enough oil left to go 10 km. Besides, what were his other options. Off we went.

When we got to the remnants of a town he talked to a lady at a little food stall, who called her husband on his cell phone, who came over and assured Hasina that he had some oil. It took him about 20 minutes to produce it, and then about 10 more to pour it into the car.

In the meantime Maureen and I were able to gaze at the night sky. Finally, no moon. So that even with the occasional cloud passing over, it was the clearest so far on the trip. As a very occasional astronomy geek, I had been aware that the southern hemisphere had all the brightest stars. Now I could experience that. It also has by far the brightest part of the Milky Way backing up those brightest stars. Way cool. Especially because the Southern Cross was smack dab in the middle of it all.

When we finally made it to Ambalao we were glad that the hotel still had plenty of rooms. We were also glad that we had hit upon the idea of ordering some grated cheese to put upon the otherwise tasteless spaghetti and/or noodles which is served everywhere. It was also so cool outside that for once Maureen didn't have to hyperventilate over mosquitos.

Sunday morning was Easter. So when we got to Fiana, Hasina's home town, I had him take us to the 10 am Mass. Reflecting the national character, all the hymns were happy. People held hands. I reflected upon the fact that the main reason most people go to church every Sunday was for a small chance at personal and communal purity. Why are people who are so against organized religion so offended by the hope of purity?

Business in Madagascar shuts up pretty tight on Sundays. We were lucky to find a little pastry shop right before it closed. Then we were up the road for a couple of hours, where we stopped for a small picnic of bread and little triangles of processed cheese. Around 4 we made it to Ambasatavo, the woodworking town where we had stopped on Monday night. This time the nice hotel in town had one room available for us.

The reason that space was tight was that tomorrow was the day of the big zebu fights. Hasina had noticed that they were being held here on the way down south, and he was eager to have us see them. He was also eager to see them himself.

He had told us to be ready at 9 am for a chance at some good seats. But when we got to the arena entrance, it turned out that they didn't open until after 10. When we came back and entered at 10:20 there were still many, many seats in the amphitheater. Just not that many in the small sliver of shaded area. We went over and snagged some pretty good seats.

In front of us was a circular paddock about 30 feet in diameter. After about 30 minutes they opened a gate and two very confused zebu came out and stood in the hot sun. And that was about it for the longest time as the stands filled.

To the right of us a band went through endless sound checks on a stage. Hasina explained that they were the 4th best band in Madagascar. When pressed on the specificity, he said that there was a complicated point system based on crowd popularity, airplay, etc., etc. Last year they had been the 2nd best band. His band, by the way, of which he is the manager, was #2 this year. But had been #1 last year.

At 12:20, after much impatient whistling from the crowd, the master of ceremonies came out and introduced all of this year's zebu fighters. There were about 25 of them, each in a numbered sackcloth tunic. Then they all trooped off the stage and over to the paddock, where they climbed to the highest rung and waited.

Now the band started up. Pretty tight, actually. Good harmonies from the three singers, good drumming and a very loud, throbbing bass. Malagasy acoustic music is very plinky and Appalachian sounding. But their 'rock' is very Latin/African. And repetitive. Finally, as the pulse got really pulsing, out came the trio of Lemur Gold Dancers, who frugged away with energetic African step dancing.

The zebu were now extremely confused.

Back at the paddock one of the zebu fighters stepped into the ring, away from the zebus, and quickly walked across. Then another did in a different direction. It quickly got more and more intense until all 25 of them were in the ring, dancing right in front of the zebus, running in 25 different directions. Said zebus did a few futile lunges. Then at some point one of the fighters grabbed on to one of the zebu's hump and held on for dear life. If the fighter was successful, after about 15 seconds the zebu gave up and stopped trying to buck him off. At this point the other paddock door was opened and the zebu was let out.

Meanwhile the band kept throbbing, the singers kept singing, and the dancers kept swaying and high stepping in unison. After 5 minutes or so another zebu was let in and the whole zebu fighting process was repeated. And so forth and so on. So far as I could tell, no zebus were harmed in the process.

Although most of them were probably eaten shortly thereafter.

After about an hour or so of this Maureen started getting nervous about getting back to Tana that night. Especially since now we knew that Easter Monday was one of the biggest holidays in Madagascar. And since Hasina had told us that, what with everyone going out to the country for the weekend, the traffic tonight would be horrendous.

Before the fights had actually started, we, being honored guests, had been moved to actual front row seats. As in actual chairs. Hasina had scored even better, and was right up at the paddock looking in. With rapt wonder. When we finally got his attention, he expressed bittersweet disappointment, since the fights would go on until 6 pm. But leave we had to.

Several towns that we drove through were jam packed with joyful throngs attending the local events. When we got to the city of Antsirabe there were even carnival rides going on. We hadn't eaten all day, so we had to stop 45 minutes for pizza.

It's usually 3 hours back to Tana. About 40 minutes along we came upon the unusual sight of snow in the tropics. A freak storm had just passed through, and there were significant piles of hail or whatever all around. Still, traffic and weather were relatively normal for about the next hour.

Then the traffic stalled to a dead stop. Then the rain started coming down in cold torrents. Then Hasina's window started to fog up. But if you opened the window you got drenched. Then the traffic started up a little. Then it came to a dead stop again. Brilliant lightning flashes split the sky. And it continued to pour.

Hasina's band was playing in Tana tonight, and we had been hoping to be able to see it. But it took at least three hours to cover the last hour. When we reached the Chalet des Roses Hotel it was 9:40 and still raining profusely. Happily, they had reserved one of their best rooms for us. One with a high tech shower and an actual French bathtub.

We settled up with Hasina and settled in for a very comfortable last night in Madagascar.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Au Bout De Bout De Monde

Tuesday afternoon and we were heading south out of Fiana. I realized that what was so distinctive about the Madagascar green grass and blue skies is that they are somewhat pastelish, but with a tropical intensity. And I had forgotten to mention that the cute little rectangular tall houses was that most of them also had little French type balconies on their second floors.

It was only about an hour or so to Ambalatoa, our stop for the night. The LP said that its houses and balconies were full of character, but that was only in the context of Madagascar's poverty and dirt. Being a stop on the tourist circuit, there was one half decent hotel with its coterie of about a dozen or so tourists.

They were here because Wednesday is market day. So the next morning we were down in the market area, walking in the narrow rows between all the people with their merchandise piled on the ground or in little makeshift stalls. I almost always there on other than market days in third world countries. Nor do I care that much, since all that is for sale is really cheap stuff for really poor people. But it was cute to finally catch one of them.

Then it was off to the other side of town, where it was the weekly zebu market. Here on a dusty hillside were hundreds of men and even more hundreds of zebus milling around. Not that we were in the market to buy one.

On the road again. But only about ten kilometers. Now it was a private lemur reserve, run for and by a small village. Here they didn't feed them bananas, but the little ring tailed guys were so acclimated to people that they would just hang out a few feet away. This species lives in groups of twenty or more, and they all take a nap just after noon. Lucky for us that we were there right then, because all of a sudden the group coagulated all around us, and then took off en masse to the nearby tree which they had decided to nap in. Ridiculously cute little things. Kind of a cross between a cat and a monkey, but not really like either.

We were now entering Madagascar's south. The rice fields were ending, and in their stead were massive rocky outcrops and great grassy horizons. Kind of like a tropical Wyoming. The one and a half lane national highway twisted around some of the mountains and soon we were on the high plateau. Now it was like the western Great Plains before settlement. After 50 kilometers or so of this we saw a sandstone ridge approaching. This was Isalo?

The wonderment and disappointment was because for many, many years I had read about the end of the world geological wonderland that was Isalo National Park. And seeing it had been one of my major goals in coming to Madagascar. But it clearly looked like it was somewhat less amazing than about a hundred different areas within a couple of hundred miles of my home in Albuquerque. Why does the National Geographic pretend that some place is really special when it isn't? It's not like their writers haven't been to New Mexico or Utah.

The 'town' consisted of two okay hotels and a couple of small markets. But here we were, and next morning we drove a few kilometers on a bad dirt road to a trailhead. Here our guide (you always have to pay for a guide) led us a half a click or so to a campground, and then another half a click up the canyon and up a couple of hundred steps to a small waterfall. It was okay, but, again, there are several hundred canyons in the Southwest which are as good or better. At this point Maureen retreated to the campground, and the guide led me a km up the level creek to a couple of very small waterfall/pools. For this he got $37, which is way more than the average Malagasy makes in a month.

Then back to the campground. And more thoroughly acclimated ringtail lemurs sitting in trees, chewing on leaves, and hoping for food to be left out. Plus 5 or 10 brown woolly lemurs, which are usually nocturnal, but which had learned to adjust due to that possibility of food being left out. We spent about an hour just hanging out with lemurs, lemurs everywhere.

Back to 'town' for lunch and then the four hour drive south to the coast. For about five miles the sandstone ridge was semi-dramatic and interesting. Then we were back to flat endless dirt and brownish grass. And, another five miles on, the first--and major--sapphire town.

About ten years ago somebody discovered sapphires in the dirt around here. Almost immediately a Wild West mining town sprang up, although it was hard to imagine any Malagasy being wild or dangerous. Supposedly the drug gangsters from Israel and Russia and India were. There were rundown store after rundown store of sapphire and ruby dealers and a level of poverty and ramshackle that were finally approaching African levels. Hasina was too nervous to stop.

As we continued there were two or three other such much smaller towns about fifteen miles apart. After that the few settlements which appeared were totally African, with sloppily made wooden shacks and the first unhappy looking Malagasy we had seen so far. Hasina made it be known that he didn't like anything about the South: not the heat, not the food, not their attitudes, nothing. It didn't look quite that bad to me.

Soon we were on a long downhill slope, and then there was the line of the ocean on the distant horizon. Not that there were any beaches in our immediate future; I knew that the destination at the end of the road, Tulear, fronted on a mangrove swamp.

When we got to Tulear it wasn't terribly hot and it wasn't terribly humid. But it was terrible, exhibiting the same post Apocalyptic look that so many African burghs do. Still, Hasina knew all the right places to go in these places, and soon we were esconced in a pretty nice hotel room, complete with a/c, for $30 a night. That seems to be the average rate for middle class comfort in Madagascar. Also, as with the other places we stayed, most all the bathroom fixtures were not only semi-modern, but they worked. After about an hour of our first decadent cooling off of the trip, Hasina took us to a pretty decent restaurant, considering how crappy the rest of the town was.

Friday was the day to go to the beach. Ivato, that is. Since his car wouldn't make it up the sandy coastal road, Hasina had hired another guy with his car. For a little more than an hour we jounced along the 27 km. Now we were at what was billed as one of Madagascar's premier beach experiences.

But first we had to walk around the baobob forest. Although Africa, particularly West Africa, is famous for the very weirdly shaped baobob tree, they only have one species. Madagascar, however, is the home of the baobob, which, along with a host of other strangely shaped desert plants, inhabits the very dry areas. (In case you aren't familiar with baobobs, they have a very large, round tubular white base, and then at their very tops a few straggly small branches flailing away.)

Baobobs usually live quite apart from each other, so it was pretty cool to see hundreds in a relatively small area. Although, this being a desert, you wouldn't exactly call it a forest. Still, it was pretty cool.

It was rather hot work, though, tramping through the deep sand, so we were really looking forward to the beach. But when the driver dropped us off at one of the better hotels, said hotel didn't look so good. And when I walked out to the beach it wasn't all that impressive. Worse, I could see little boys standing and playing about 500 yards out.

Nonetheless, we dutifully took our stuff down there, stripped off to our bathing togs, and bravely entered the water. The bottom alternated between mud and rocks. If I put my flip flops on, the mud dragged me down. If I took them off the rocks jabbed at my diabetic feet. After fifteen minutes the water was barely up to my knees. I gave up and turned around.

Once again a victim of dishonest advertising. As I looked up and down the thin strand of beach sand, it was clear that every hotel in the area fronted on the same mess. We went back and sat on our beach chairs to dry out. And now we were surrounded by a bunch of young girl hawkers.

I must say that the Malagasy are very polite, even when they are begging. Tell them no, and they go away almost apologetically. These girls were slightly more persistent, especially once they found out that Maureen was interested in the cheap beach scarves they were selling. I helped negotiate a price for four of them. Now the girls started bringing out small wooden lemurs and the like. When one pulled out a couple of stunning seashells for fifty cents each, I went 'wha?' Now each of them produced shell after shell of amazing quality. We ended up buying 10 for $5

At 1:30 we were jouncing back towards Tulear, wondering if we were ever going to be able to leave Madagascar. Because last night Hasina had informed us that for safety reasons the continent of Europe had banned Air Madagascar from ever landing there again. And that hundreds of people were not camped out at the main airport. When we had made it over to the only internet place in town the story had been confirmed. But there was also a note that for at least the next week or so Air Italy, the charter company that had ended up flying us down, would also be flying people back. Whew. Sort of.

When we got back to Tulear Hasina said that he had gone out to the Tulear airport and confirmed for us that our flight was actually leaving on Tuesday night. Whew. Sort of. Now all we had to do for the rest of the day was hang out in our a/c hotel room, walk around town, and have another meal at that really good restaurant.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Meandering Through Madagascar

By Saturday morning we were more than ready to leave our not-so-hot bungalow accommodations. We loaded up Hasina's car and headed back up the highway towards Tana.

We hadn't been able to see much coming down in the dark on Thursday, so this was our first chance to really peruse the Madagascar countryside. Somewhat reddish soil, small rice paddies everywhere anyone could put them, light to dark green grass otherwise. Madagascar is famously deforested, and there was all sorts of charcoal making activity in evidence, but they mostly use fast growing eucalyptus trees for that. And the country actually looks pretty darn verdant.

And then there are the Malagasy living quarters. In most poor, backward countries the people live in shacks or badly constructed cinder block shanties. Here there are all the various slight variations of tall, thin, rectangular red or brown brick/clay houses. That's right, houses. Substantial looking rectangular ones. Well, maybe not so substantial. But real houses, like you might see in eastern Europe. And, set amongst the verdancy, quite striking in giving Madagascar its Madagascariness.

By 12:30 we were back in Tana, and Hasina dropped us off at our previous hotel/restaurant, while he went to try and fix whatever it was that had stalled the car out earlier. Good food and a touch of wifi as we waited for him. By 3 we were heading out of town again, this time pretty much due south.

But first we stopped at a shopping center on the outskirts of the city. Most African countries are way too poor to have such a thing, so it was kind of comforting to see that there was enough of a middle class to support a modern supermarket and a large batch of small other stores. There are also a surprising number of French expats living here, either working or retired. Turns out that $20,000 will buy you a decent modern house here. Suck on that, House Hunters International. Now if I could only do something about that 36 hour plane ride to and fro...

Then we were out of town. This was the heartland of the Merina tribe, Madagascar's largest and most dominant one. Pleusieur de rice paddies, distinctive red brick houses, red soil, green moderate hill/mountains. I certainly don't want to give the impression that the economics of the country are wealthy, or even passable. But there was no overt air of desperation. So far we had not met a Malagasy who expressed a discouraging word or gesture. Even the beggars begged in a modest, unassuming way.

As with other tropical countries, when the sun went down: boom, it was dark. There was still over an hour to get to our destination, Antsirabe. The road was smooth, the traffic was not all that intense. There weren't any potholes. Except, craack!, that one. To be fair to Hasina, who was a very careful driver, it was a trick one. Nonetheless, it had blown out his tire.

Pull over. Wait for him to put on the spare. Except that the lug nuts were impossible to budge, even with me jumping up and down on the lug wrench. I told him that he was going to have to drive into town on it; he didn't want to. Instead he found someone to drive us all the 10 km into Antsirabe, where he dropped us off at a half decent hotel. Nearby there was a half decent pizza place.

The next morning he showed up at around 9:30, having slept in his car all night, and having been unable to loosen a single lug nut. Time for a Plan B again. But he told us to wait while he went back to the car and rolled it into town. Several hours passed while we waited in the hotel lobby, then walked a bit around town. Antsirabe is the pousse-pousse capital of the country, if not the world. Motor rickshaws are ubiquitous in India and Thailand. Bicycle rickshaws can also be found there. Madagascar still relies primarily on human rickshaws. Most of whom are trotting around barefoot. Just begging for business from extra large white people. We didn't bite.

Finally Hasina came back with the old tire off and the spare on. Then he took off to ditch the ruined one. No spare for a few days. We now drove off for 7 km to see a famous lake outside of town.

The lake itself wasn't that special. But it was Palm Sunday, and beaucoup de locals were walking to and from church. We returned to town where there was a big gathering for the ersatz Palm Sunday motorcycle races in the main square. Then back to that pizza restaurant for lunch. Then on the road again.

Madagascar isn't mind blowingly different. But it is at least pleasantly exotic, what with the red soil and the rice paddies and those strange tiny tall houses. The capital, Tana, had felt like a small provincial city. Out here it was like a quiet Sunday in the back of beyond. Except that it was the main national highway.

We made it to the next main city/town, Ambositra, before dark. The nice hotel in town was fully booked with tour groups (!) So we found a halfway decent one out by the rice paddies and had a beautiful sunset. Then it was back to the nice place, where we were serenaded by Malagasy folk instruments.

Monday morning it was back on the back road that was the main highway. Everything was green, with many, many small brown people carrying on their daily business. Beautiful blue sky with varying combinations of white fluffy clouds. Kind of timeless and poor. But nobody seemed scared or too desperate.

We turned off the main road and were climbing up into the forest. Actual mountain rainforest, with all the attendant underbrush and small settlements. We were heading for Ramanofana National Park for more lemurmania.

The only decent hotel was relatively expensive, but more than decent. As we settled in the humidity got higher and higher. Dark clouds were accumulating. Around 5:30 the torrents of rain started. Well, what else would you expect in a rainforest? But so much for our scheduled night lemur walk. Which we had blown off in Perinet since we figured we would do it here. Oh well. They're only tiny mouse lemurs anyway.

Tuesday morning we were ready for our daylight lemur walk. Maureen had been complaining, since the forest would be wet and slippery. And hadn't we already seen lemurs? Really good ones? Nonetheless she was a good sport as we went down and down and then up and up and up some more. Which wouldn't have been that bad if my knees and my back weren't killing me. And if we had seen any actual lemurs at the end of it all. But all I had done was pay some hefty entrance and guide fees. Not even spiders or frogs. Just a dumb forest with a couple of lemurs 30 feet up that just sat there. Sloth watching is more exciting.

Of course, I should have been suspicious with anything labeled 'rainforest'. I know it's not PC to say this, but there is nothing absolutely magical or mystical about a rainforest per se. It is just a forest where it rains a lot. The forest a few miles from your house is usually just as interesting. Sorry, but it is.

Back to the car, back to the semi-luxury hotel for a quick shower and meal. Then back up and over through the rainforest to the national highway, where we were again with the rice paddies and the strange, cute houses and the many, many people. On to Fiana, Hasina's hometown and the second or third or fourth largest city in the country.

Just a poor little dump, though. Hasina dropped us off at a very slow internet place while he went around town trying to find a new tire.

But one of the reasons I travel is in the hopes that I'll come up with new ideas. And I'm pleased to say that I have. A new business to start, in fact. The advertising jingle I've come up with says it all:

Five kinds of lemur from Lemur Land
Make Folz Lemur Sauce taste grand!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Leaping Lemurs

Hasina didn't show up until after 4:30. Then within two blocks his car stalled. Some locals standing by push started him. Not an auspicious start. It was a three and a half hour drive the mountain, most of it in the pitch dark. Road surface was decent, traffic not too scary for the fourth world. We pulled into the best non-luxury hotel by the national park. Once again, the LP had raved about it, but in reality it was a large bunch of crappy bungalows, way overpriced at $27. No competition. After eating that night and the next morning, Hasina drove us over to the park entrance. In the sort of early morning daylight, now that the mist had lifted, we were surrounded by a dense, but hardly threatening, forest. Humid, but not really hot and sweaty. Everyone had to purchase a guide, and shortly Abraham was leading us along the 3 hour trail. Flat, then up a smallish hill. Then Abraham told us to wait while he searched for lemurs. Soon we were stumbling through a patch of forest and there, hanging from a tree about ten feet up, were two orange/yellow sifakas. Besides saying that they were brightly colored and unbelievably cute, you'll have to look up lemur pictures to see what it is we were seeing. Worth the price of admission right there. Then Abraham went and away and soon led us through denser forest to where we saw our first indri. Although Madagascar has 47 species of lemur up and down its length, this was the only place were the indri, the largest lemurs, live. They're about three feet long, except when they're stretched out, when they're at least twice that. They're also brilliantly white and black, and they make weird hooting noises. It's hard to take pictures of them, though, since they're almost always hunched up holding on to a tree about 20 feet up. Except when they jump from tree to tree. All lemurs seem to freeze in mid air and levitate from tree to tree, never reaching out to grab anything, but just jumping the exact amount of distance to get there. The indri can go about 30 feet between jumps, and all of them can complete 5 jumps in around 3 seconds. After we were amazed seeing 3 indri about 30 feet up, a few minutes later we came upon a larger group of them in various adjacent trees less than 10 feet above us. Apparently we were very fortunate to see so many so close up. Sometimes they hold on to each other; sometimes they hop off to hold on to a tree by themselves. We saw a few of the common brown lemurs, and a nocturnal woolly lemur, who was sleeping about 30 feet up and was totally indistinguishable. Then we finished our hike and were driven back to our bungalow. For the afternoon we were taken to the grounds of the luxury hotel, which didn't strike me as all that luxurious. They had a little zoo area with a crocodile farm and a few foussa, who are smallish elongated cats and Madagascar's largest carnivores. But the main draw was lemur island, a fifteen foot canoe ride from the 'mainland'. When we walked into the forest 100 yards from the landing, hanging on to a tree almost at eye level, calmly gazing at us, was one of those adorable yellow/orange and white sifakas. Pretty damn cute. But less than a minute later, knowing that humans meant bananas, a troop of at least ten brown lemurs came hopping and bounding through the trees and forest floor at us. Maureen almost freaked as they immediately jumped on our shoulders and sat on our heads. Their paws were clawless and their attitude was really gentle. Each of them was happy with just the smallest bite of banana. They were also content to sit on your shoulders for minutes at a time, although they might just as soon bound off to a branch 10 feet away. They were about the size of a large squirrel, although of course they are primates (and precursors to monkeys). Besides the orange sifakas, there were some black and white ones (which were not indri, since indri can not be kept in captivity.) Both were about midsize between the brown ones and the indri. Each species has its own personality. The brown ringtails will jump all over you, but don't like to be touched. You can actually pet the orange ones. All of them will eat out of your hands. Then there was a fourth species, the bamboo lemurs. These were small and brown, and way more appealing than koalas. Gentle eyes and a gentle round nose, they were timid and humble. Like the others, though (and like the rest of us primates), they really liked those bananas. One of my best animal experiences ever. Not quite up there with the gorillas in the mist, but getting close. Even Maureen was glad that she hadn't followed her first instincts and run screaming back to the canoe when first 'attached' by the bounding ringtail extroverts.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day One

We woke up and looked out our window at the street around us. The guidebooks had consistently said that Antananrivo (Tana for short) was congested, smoggy and dirty. It looked not a bit like that. The books also said that the houses and buildings were colorful and unique. They weren't that, either. Finally, the city was supposed to be crazily hilly. I've been in far steeper places.

Once we were able to switch our room to one a little less toxic, we went out for a late morning walk. I immediately noticed that the city was also a lot smaller than advertised. Places that were made to seem on the other side of town were actually a couple of blocks apart.

And where were the beggars and touts who were supposed to be constantly hectoring us? A few showed up, but they were also way too polite and gave up way too easily. The first impression was that almost all the Malagasy were really shy and friendly people. Not great for economic development a la New York City, but way pleasanter to be around.

We always need to compare things. The closest I could come right off the bat was that Madagascar was sort of like a really laid back Indonesia. In case you don't know, the Malagasy did not come from Africa, as you might expect, but from, indeed, Indonesia.

My Tajikistan friend Eric's parents were Indian, but were born in Madagascar. So when we found the Shalimar restaurant we were expecting real Indian food. But only about 10% of the menu was even quasi-Indian. Half decent, nonetheless.

Then we took a taxi to the highest point in town, the Rova, which was the home of all the 19th Century queens who ran central Madagascar. (They were kind of nuts, though, so the French marched in around 1885 and took over the place.) The grounds were closed and the building, not all that amazing to begin with, was just a husk of its former self, since it had burned down in 1995. Being on the top of everything, we did get some good views over the city and the close-in countryside. The geography was not quite like anywhere else: Rice paddies, reddish brown houses, light green rolling hills, reddish brown soil. At least today the sky had a clear luminescent, almost mystical quality like some of the skies in South Africa.

We walked back downhill into Haut-Ville, the older, higher part of Tana. Then down some stairs to Basse-Ville, the newer, crappier area of town. We cruised the open air market, where tiny stalls sold tiny bras, tiny shoes, avocados and tomatoes, and seemingly drugged chickens and ducks calmly waiting to be purchased and eaten.

Then along the wide Avenue de l'Independence. I was kind of expecting to find some modern buildings and economic activity here, but uh uh. Viantianne, Laos, had always been at the top of my list of sleepy, nothing happening capitals. But at least they have a phony Arc de Triumphe there. Here in Tana all there was was a presidential palace at the end of a very long block. And as I've already intimated, nobody is quite sure who the president is these days, so it's better for everyone to stay away from there.

Back to our hotel, which was beginning to look like the classiest place in town. Then dinner in their classy little restaurant. Then to sleep in our large, classy bed.

Thursday morning our guide and driver for the rest of the trip, Hasina, showed up, being a little tired from having just driven up the length of the island for the past two days. He showed me his air conditioned Audi, which will be our home for the next two weeks. We finalized the price: $50 a day for him and his car, plus gas, which is about $6 a gallon. We already know from our research that he is the best in the country, and knows everyone and everywhere. His English is much better than advertised, and he seems really friendly.

So at three this afternoon we're heading down to lemurland. Internet may or may not be happening in the rest of the country. Hopefully it is.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That's Why They Call It Mad Air

So now that we were leaving at 9 pm on Sunday, that morning we headed out to the Pere Lachaise graveyard, the place where everyone famous from Moliere to Edith Piaf is buried. Maureen had been upset with me for 11 years because I hadn't taken a picture of her at Jim Morrison's grave back in 2000. So now we had to find it again. For my part, I got my picture taken at Rossini's grave (Chopin would have been too obvious). Walking along through the streets of Paris for our last afternoon, it was hard to imagine that the next day we would be in Madagascar. Around four we moseyed back to the hotel to collect our baggage, with Maureen freaking out that we would be late for the airport. I kept telling that I had done this beaucoup times, and sure enough we were dropped off at Terminal 2A at ten to seven. I strolled in to find the Air Madagascar check in line. Once again CDG proved maddeningly opaque; there were no obvious signs for which line was which. And even when I asked each line what they were waiting for, Air Mad was never one of them. Finally someone directed us to a knot of people standing around. Strange. Then I was found a little Air Mad sign in a concealed office. A befuddled girl who was standing there smiled lamely and said that there was no plane. Oh. Now what? She didn't have a clue. Oh. Another airline that serves Madagascar, Air Austral, was nearby. They didn't have a spare seat for at least the next week. Oh. About 20 minutes later a young Croatian guy named Adrian, who seemed to be a lot more on the ball, came in and started furiously pecking away at a keyboard, trying to figure out what was going in. It turned out that our plane was in Guangzhou, China, for some reason and had blown out a tire. But since Madagascar hasn't had any sort of recognized government for the past two years, Air Madagascar, owned by the state, couldn't just get a new one. So the plane was stuck in China. Oh, and by the way, Europe's two week Spring vacation started tomorrow, which meant that flights and hotels everywhere were fully booked. Never to mind. We would be put up at an airport hotel while they sorted this out. Which couldn't possibly happen before Tuesday. And then maybe not, either. So off we went on the shuttle service to Terminal 3, where an Ibis hotel sat. Ibis is owned by the same company that owns Motel 6, and it was a slight upgrade from that. At $150 a night if we had been paying. Plus we got meal tickets. I have always assumed that the French cannot make bad food, but when we got to the buffet I was proven wrong. Then up to our sterile bed in our sterile room, where we used the free wifi which was only vaguely, barely usable. The next morning, after another great buffet, we ambled back over to Terminal 2A to see if Adrian had come up with anything. He wasn't there, so I left Mo to wait for him whilst I trundled down to Europcar to see if I could rearrange the rental that I had already booked for our return. If Madagascar fell through, Plan B was to drive to Switzerland, then to Portugal, and then back. In the midst of Spring Break. Never to mind. When I got back to Mo, she informed me that Adrian had informed her that Air Mad had chartered a plane from no name Air Italy, and we would be leaving at 10 am tomorrow. Hopefully. Back to the Ibis and more meaningless buffet meals. At dinner I happened upon an acquaintance from the night before, who offhandedly told me that the flight was acually leaving at 9 am. So at 7 am we were back at Terminal 2A, at the long end of a line of passengers. When we got to the front, the girl looked at Maureen's passport, saw that there were fewer than 6 months on it, and said that she had to get approval. A long, anxious wait. Just as I was getting up for the Swiss Alps, they said it was okay. The plane was in the air at 9:40. We had to skirt Libya because of some no fly zone. Then it was south through Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. I must admit that it was pretty cool to look down upon the Sahara, Lake Aswan, the Nile around Khartoum, etc. When we went past Nairobi I was really looking forward to seeing Kilamanjaro from the air, but it turned out that the plane through smack dab right over it, so we never saw anything. Night had fallen when we reached the Tana airport. It was pleasantly chaotic. For some reason they had done away with charging for visas. Maybe they're hoping that this will increase tourism, since nobody ever comes any more due to that pesky lack of government. I had booked a certain hotel ahead of time. One that the LP had raved about. But since Saturday I had sent them three emails without a response. So on Monday night I had gotten on Trip Advisor and found an alternative. They had emailed back immediately saying that they had exactly one room and that they would hold it for me. Great. And now that we had cleared Customs all I needed to do was to change some money and negotiate with one of the ravenous cab drivers. But while I was looking for the bank office in the middle of a field over there, Maureen noticed that there was a guy standing there holding a sign saying, 'Michael Folz'. Damn. I had been waiting for that to happen my whole life, and I had missed it. Turns out that the cab driver the first hotel had contracted for had kept coming out to the airport every time the plane was supposed to arrive. A really nice guy, too. So we had him take us into town, to the first hotel. But when we got there at 10:30 pm, it was a horrible dump. Not that I haven't stayed in worse, but now I had a lady to impress. So I called an audible and had the cab driver take us to the new, second hotel. Sure enough, our room was waiting. Yes, it smelled like crap since they had just varnished it two days ago. But it was clean and modern, with all kinds of cool bathroom fixtures. With Maureen continuing to worry that we would be bitten by a malarial mosquito on the first night, we went to bed.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

April In Paris

Started out with a small contretemps with Homeland Security at the ABQ airport. Turns out they get mad at you when you tell them that they're stupid and incompetent. Then when you try to explain to them that if they made an effort to become smarter and more competent then no one would need to tell them that they were stupid and incompetent, they just get angrier. But the larger problem had to do with the plane being delayed by two hours. Which meant that under the best of circumstances we would be getting into Dallas 30 minutes before the flight to Paris. No sweat, the airline told us. Nonetheless we were sweating. We got off of the plane with 20 minutes to spare, and made it, panting, to the next one in 10. Then it sat at the gate for another 50 minutes. Apparently not that many people commute between Dallas and Paris, since the plane was half empty. Which meant that we could stretch out, which was good because the only movies available were a couple of children's ones at 3 am over Greenland. Charles de Gaulle airport is almost at a third world level. No ATMs worked, and the only 'bank' available ripped me off for $20 in changing a $100. The dirty train going into town passed endless graffiti filled walls. Then we lugged our luggage through the Metro. When we walked up the stairs into the sunlight we were at the oldest, quaintest bridge that bridges the Seine. And we were surrounded by the wide streets and endless ornate stone 19th century buildings which define Paris. Yes, it was still pretty special, even to my cyncial jetlagged eyes. Occasionally hours and hours and hours of research on the internet pay off. I had found this incredibly quaint hotel at the very pointy tip of Ile de la Cite, basically across the street from the Louvre and a couple of blocks from Notre Dame. 60 Euro a night, which was about one fifth the price of any other hotel within several miles. The only drawback was that I had to carry our incredibly heavy bags up six flights of stairs. On the other hand, once you got up there you had a balcony overlooking an amazingly quaint courtyard/park. Once I had recovered from my sherpa ordeal we set out in earnest on our five days of sightseeing and hanging out in the middle of Paris. I won't bore you with all the minutiae, especially since you probably know a lot more about Paris than I do. Suffice it to say that each and every day our poor, ragged, ancient feet gave out long before the rest of us did. And that all the obvious and semi-obvious places were gone to, even if we had also done it 11 years ago when we were last here. We did not spend the $20 each to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, both because it was unclear whether we could go all the way up, and because there was a 2 hour wait. In fact, by that point late on Friday afternoon Paris was getting a little tedious, since the endless crowds of tourists--at least half of whom seemed to be feckless college students from everywhere--were turning the place into a giant theme park. Just to show you how much tourism has overwhelmed the touristic part of the city: The French now all speak English. We were not able to book our absurdly quaint hotel for Saturday night, which meant that we had to lug all our stuff out to a hotel in an honorably working class district. It's impossible not to notice how stress free and outdoor cafe driven French lives are. It was even the case in our new environs. And whereas in the center of Paris we could only longingly and despairingly look at the way too expensive meals that even regular people can afford there, here we could buy food that was only 50-100% more than in the States. What had made it even worse was that the French are almost perverse in putting meat into every single dish on every single menu in the country. But after chowing down on some veggie Turkish fare, we hopped the Metro back to the Arc de Triumphe and joined the claustrophobic crowds along the Champs Elysee. When we returned to the hotel I checked my email. Air Madagascar had just decided to totally change the flight that we were booked on for Sunday afternoon. So now we had to quickly rejigger our schedule and tell the hotel in Antanarivo not to send the car to pick us up at 3 am, because now we were coming in at 9. Oh, and I had to do this first blog post.