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!


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