Madagascar Week 1
Tuesday June 13, 2006 – Antanarivo is the capital of Madagascar and the locals call in Tana for short. Actually, they call everything short in that they leave off the last vowel from every word. Makes a difference when you’re trying to ask about…anything. That and the fact that I don’t speak French or Malagasy – and they don’t speak English overall. This was the first time I had ever been in a country where I couldn’t communicate with anyone.
So I left my hotel and started wandering. Tana is very uphill and downhill. At this point I knew several people climbing Mt Kiliminjaro in Tanzania, and I have to say I felt like we were on par. Tana has huge set of stairs that go on forever – over 150 steps sometimes. And I lived up one set and the stuff I needed to get to often was up the other set. Of course. But it was good exercise. So I just wandered around and put away my map since no streets were labeled anyway. I eventually found a bank and got some money and then went to the grocery store and bought some cheap lunch. The most comforting thing about Tana was the Shop-rite, the same grocery store I knew from South Africa all the way through to Kenya. It was like coming home. Had a baguette and some cheese on the park bench, where I was constantly harrassed to buy something. I could really appreciate traveling in a country where I’m not obviously a foreigner. There was a lady, then two, then three, following me around trying to get me to buy postcards to feed their babiesand a guy selling weird instruments.
I looked all over Tana for a good map and couldn’t find one. Then I went into a nearby hotel to ask then for a map but they didn’t have one. One of the guys who worked there spoke Spanish but not English, so we talked in Spanish and he said he would bring me to the info office as it was on his way. He brought me somewhere then said it was thew wrong office, then we went on his errand, then he tried to bring me somewhere else and I finally managed to shake him. He wanted me to meet him at the hotel later – as if. Do I actually have “sucker” tattoed on my head? I must.
The city itself is relatively large is a sprawling third world kind of way. Lots of broken sidewalks and hard to walk places, trash on the streets, people everywhere. Just tried to get a feel for the place all around. Also looked into flights around the island as I quickly realized three weeks would never be enough time to see the htings I wanted to see, even with flights.
Went back to the hotel at dusk and met my new French roommate – but not until after I went for some Chinese food at a restaurant very near the hotel. Chatted for a bit and then called it a night.
Wednesday – Today was some more walking around the city. Met up with Sean on a park bench outside Shop-Rite – he works in the Peace Corps in Madagascar and invited me to have some pizza with some of the others. I had some terrible Madagscar pizza but some good conversation (in English!). I even made plans to get a taxi-brusse (public transport) with one of the couples the next morning as they were heading in the same direction. Walked around some more and found myself booking two flights in a travel agency after some careful deliberation. Went to purchase the tickets and their credit card machine was broken. Couldn’t buy them until the flight at the airport (heard that before) so went on my way with reservations in hand. Tried to go back to the Chinese place, as I could almost read the French menu, but it was closed. Walked into a nearby bar where I was looking for food but instead met Marina, an English girl who was also just starting her three week travels in Madagscar. Sat and chatted with her and a French stewardess about life and love and it turned out we were all staying in the same dorm that night. I went back with them and ate a beautiful fruit tarte I had bought earlier (it was Stephen’s birthday from the gorilla trip so I thought I would honor that with a cake). Then we met Kuba, a Polish economics professor traveling for the first time outside of Europe. Picked Madagascar because it is a mix of Asian and African cultures. Indeed it is. He and Marina were heading off the next day in the same direction and invited me to join, but it was the opposite direction I was going and had already booked my flights. I told them I’d consider it. Then Kuba got out of bed to turn the lights off, in his little grey underwear. 😊
Thursday – Woke up and made the decision to scrap my plans and travel with Marina. What the heck, that’s the point of travel right? So off we went to the taxi-brusse station. We had to get a taxi there, and before the taxi even came to a complete stop, we were bombarded by several men trying to sell us there ride. Marina and Kuba both speak French, and they handled the transaction. We finally agreed on a price and were on our way. Essentially a taxi-brusse is a minivan, the main form of public transport between cities in Madagascar. There are no big bus services, or buses, for that matter. Let’s see – how to describe a taxi-brusse experience? Picture a new cushy minvan sparsely filled with a few close friends. Now make that van 20 years old, turn your friends into strangers with several children, and pack them in like sardines so that you have four adults to a row, and about 5 rows, with some kids packed in for fun. Now I understand how 45 people die in one car accident in other countries – there were only two vehicles involved, they are just cram packed in there. Oh – and all the luggage goes on the roof and this essentially doubles the height of the vehicle. It’s amazing. And these taxi-brusses leave when full, not at a particular time. And they pick up and drop people off anywhere along the way – there are no “bus stops”. It makes for an interesting ride. And it’s a bit like being in a video game – as most driving I’ve experienced abroad has been – in that there are no obvious rules, you just drive like a maniac, honk your horn, and assume that doing this will keep you from hitting someone around all the blind corners when you’re passing a slower vehicle. You don’t even get scared because it all seems a little otherworldly and no real.
We took this car for a few hours to Ambositra, the town where they make most of the wood carvings in Madagascar. This was originally to be my last last before leaving so I could buy things and not carry them around with me. I ended up shopping but not buying anything for this exact reason. I figured I could just get the same stuff in Tana at the end of my trip. Kuba got a little tour guide to show him some carvers but Marina and I just wandered a bit around the town. We stayed in a room for three, but Marina and I shared a bed. We had a sink in the room that just started flowing in the night – Kuba got up and fixed it. Had some zebu for dinner – it’s their cattle and a very important animal for most of the people who live in the country. We have a dwarf zebu at the zoo – so now I know how Gibson tastes. 😊
Friday – We left in the morning and decided to stop at a private reserve called Inlalatsora that is not yet in the guide books, but that Marina had heard about. We got in a taxi brusse and headed out to this place, which ended up being a relaxing little getaway. Would have been better if I hadn’t gotten sick that day. So many belly problems. Marina and I shared a little bungalow and Kuba got the one next door. Did some laundry and hung it up to dry outside. The woman prepared a lovely dinner that I was unable to eat – so I just had rice. After dinner we went for a little night walk to see mouse lemurs – the smallest primates in the world. She baited them with banana, which seems a bit contrived and not particularly ecologically sound, but they were great to see and totally tiny, like little mice. Unfortunately I flet really sick during the viewing and had to sit down for a while. We decided to call it a night and headed back for the evening. I took a “bucket” shower – they were kind enough to heat up some water for the “shower” and no one else was interested (it was freezing out – a Madagascar theme), so out of guilt I took one. I literally had to bucket the water over myself, making it difficult to actually get the soap off. As a two person shower, it could be a really romantic and effective way to get clean. There were even candles to light the bathroom. Alone, not so much. Spent some more time being sick and wondering “Where are all the toilet seats in this country?” before getting some sleep.
Saturday – Had some bread for breakfast and then we went on a tour of the reserve for my first real lemur spotting. The reserve is owned by a married couple, a French woman and Malagasy man. The man took us out into the reserve and with his help we were able to scramble up and down the countryside in our search, through land that had been burned, deforested, reforested, and even some original forest. Deforestation is a huge problem in Madagscar – about 86% of their forest has been destroyed already. This is why I chose now to go to Madagascar – I want to see it before it is gone, and the lemurs have all died out. Not a very optimistic conservationist view, but more realistic perhaps. We were lucky in our quest – we saw two species of lemur – red-bellied brown lemurs and another species that didn’t quite translate properly, but I think white backed lemur might be right. It was great because the trees were relatively short, so we were able to see the lemurs quite well. It’s amazing to watch them move from tree to tree – they go so quickly, and before you know it they are somewhere else completely different.
After the hike, which was about three hours in the end, we went back and packed up to get on our way. Next stop, my first national park. Kuba took off before us, even though we were going to the same place. We were too slow and I think the chemistry between Kuba and Marina was off a bit. When we got down to the road he was already gone and we waited 1.5 hours before getting a taxi-brusse to pick us up. We got to the next town, Fianatorosa (Fiana for short) around 5pm and decided to spent the night there instead of trying to make it further to the next destination in the same day. Went to a small hotel where the people didn’t seem to speak French either – we had some trouble getting any information from them. But we took the room, ordered some dinner, and they made a fire in a cosy little room where we warmed up a bit. Who would have thought it was so cold in Madagascar?