Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Cool Stuff in 2014

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:42 pm, December 31st, 2014

Mostly because it’s fun for me to put these lists together, for the final post of 2014 here’s a look back at some news events that I got excited about:

  • SpaceX Reusable Rockets – The important caveat is that SpaceX hasn’t yet landed and re-used a rocket, but this year they figured out how to take a first stage that was plummeting back towards earth at multiple times the speed of sound, slow it down, and fire its rockets so that it could “land” vertically on a pre-determined spot in the ocean. That’s a really big deal, and their next launch is going to attempt to vertically land a rocket on a floating platform. It is an awesome time to be a fan of spaceships.
  • Transbay Center – The “Grand Central Station of the West Coast” finally began poking its head above ground this year, with the first structural steel being put into place during the past few months. When completed, this massive development will be the home for California High Speed Rail, Caltrain, Muni, buses, and will be the heart of a new San Francisco neighborhood.
  • Los Angeles subwayGround was actually broken for a subway to the Westside in Los Angeles, and the residents of Hell all donned jackets. If ever there was a city in need of vastly improved mass transit it is LA, and slowly but surely the situation is improving.
  • Tesla Gigafactory – Tesla announced that it will be building a battery factory outside of Reno that will produce more lithium-ion cells in a single facility than are produced by all other manufacturers in the world combined, with the goal of dropping prices on their battery packs by one-third and giving them the ability to quickly innovate on a core component. This move has huge ramifications for US manufacturing (Reno?!?! What other commodity technology isn’t built in Asia?), energy storage (see JB’s talk to understand how energy storage is going to massively change the world), and Tesla’s future automobiles.
  • Solar technology – Related to the previous item, solar panel prices have gotten dramatically cheaper over the past few years, to the point where solar power is now cost-competitive with grid electricity in many places. There is no reason to believe that trend shouldn’t continue for the immediate future, which will mean that many homeowners may soon be choosing between solar panels and a local battery storage unit versus paying more for power from the electric company. Suddenly power that produces no CO2 emissions looks like it could become a dominant force in the world market, and the environmental outlook begins looking a bit less grim.
  • National parks – Somehow in a deeply polarized Congress, the Defense Bill included an amendment that initiated the largest expansion of the US national parks since 1978, adding 120,000 acres to the national park system. Combined with an earlier executive action that created the largest marine protected area in the world, it is not all doom and gloom on the environmental front.

I’m sure I’ve probably missed some obvious stuff (Europe landed a probe on a comet!), but that’s a decent sample of things that excited me during the year. Hopefully 2015 will continue the trend – we live in exciting times.

SpaceX vertical rocket landing test, showing off the grid fins used for steering the rocket during its supersonic descent. Also, there are some cows that get freaked out at the two-and-a-half minute mark.

Catching Up, Part 4

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:06 pm, December 29th, 2014

Here’s an attempted wrap-up of the events that have occurred in the two months since knee surgery:

  • Two days after knee-surgery I returned to work for Bodybuilding.com. After seeing the amazingly tough working conditions faced by people in Africa, and seeing them face those conditions without the slightest complaint, it doesn’t seem bad at all to be back to the grind in front of a laptop at a table in my comfy kitchen each morning.
  • Thanksgiving was again spent in the Bay Area with the family. Audrey and I drove up north a few days early, and I worked from a hotel room in Redwood City while she got to spend a couple of days with her best friend. Aaron and I also had a night to visit not-Ramen Dojo and the old man band bar in San Mateo. For Thanksgiving, Ma Holliday did her magic and prepared an amazing dinner, after which Audrey walked away with the Balderdash crown, much to my dad’s dismay.
  • Audrey had many singing gigs during the holidays, including a performance with the De Angelis Vocal Ensemble that took place at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in downtown LA. Following that performance we asked the always-interesting Brett and Susie about any fun spots nearby to grab a drink, and since they know every cool bar in LA we were soon at a German-Korean pub eating shortrib nachos, bratwurst, edamame, and massive steins of beer. Making things even more interesting was the girl at the next table, dressed in a full elf costume, and handing out some very impressive balloon animals (“I just finished working a party” she said. “And she’s really, really bored now” noted her tablemate).
  • After a glorious night spent sleeping in the back of the Subaru in a truck stop parking lot, I made the annual pre-dawn visit to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, then it was on to Ma & Pa’s house for the Christmas festivities. Aaron arrived with Superman and Batman costumes in hand, and a bewildered Ma wondered how she ended up with two boys who, in their late thirties, were still wandering around the house in superhero outfits. Pa then came home, games were played, and on Christmas day we unveiled a new receiver and soundbar for the folks. A surprisingly lengthy amount of setup time later, and Casa Holliday now has a fairly solid home entertainment system.

And now, after four entries spread out over a full month, the journal is again current and ready to ring in 2015. More than twelve years since the first entry, what was originally just a way to avoid writing emails has turned into a record of nearly one-third of my life, and I’m grateful to the twos of readers who continue to check in regularly to share it.

Catching Up, Part 3

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:31 pm, December 27th, 2014

It took me long enough to get to “Part 3” of the “Catching Up” series that there will likely need to be a “Part 4”, and possibly even a “Part 5”, in order to get back up-to-date. Timely journal entries are apparently not my thing. The last entry covered Scare the Children 2014, and this one gets us through the beginning of November when I went into the hospital for my first-ever surgery.

First, some history: back in 2011 I was running a lot and getting back into good shape, then in August of that year I felt a crunch in my knee while on the treadmill and wasn’t able to run again without my knee swelling up to impressive size. I went in to Kaiser, my insurance provider at the time, and told them I had probably torn something in my knee. I gave them my running history, let them know that I had experienced several minor injuries over the years and knew the difference between soreness and something more serious, and then waited to see if an X-ray would be sufficient of if they would need to schedule an MRI. Apparently neither was in the cards: despite my protestations that something was very wrong I was sent home with instructions to ice the knee and take aspirin. Combined with previous bad experiences, that was the last time I ever went to Kaiser.

Unfortunately, as a self-employed person, I was in a position where I could not switch insurance providers without facing the dreaded “pre-existing condition” denial of coverage. While Obamacare is obviously hated by some, the law’s ban on using pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny coverage was a godsend for me, so I waited until it went into full effect on January 1, 2014, and after fighting with the Covered California website and with the overwhelmed Anthem Blue Cross, I finally switched to insurance that allowed me to see a sports medicine doctor. I visited UCLA, was quickly scheduled for an MRI, and was diagnosed with a torn meniscus. Apparently the normal protocol is to try to resolve such things via physical therapy, but despite a few months of twice-weekly visits and lots of exercises I was never able to run more than two miles without having knee pain the following day.

By the time it was clear that physical therapy wasn’t going to resolve things it was too close to the 2014 World Tour to schedule surgery, but shortly after returning home from Africa I met with one of the best knee surgeons on the West Coast and made an appointment to get sliced up. At 6:30AM on November 4 Audrey took me into the hospital, and an hour later an anesthesiologist told me “c’mon, take a deeper breath than that”. An hour after that my eyes opened, and then they wheeled me out of the hospital. Two days later I was walking, and as of last week I’ve been given clearance to try running again on a limited basis. Christmas day Aaron and I went for a short run around the neighborhood, and so far the knee has remained its normal size. Since pounding concrete sidewalks hurt my knees even before the meniscus tear I’m waiting for our treadmill to be repaired before trying to run again, but for the first time in over three years I’m cautiously optimistic that I may yet be able to resume the only sport I was ever good at.

Catching Up, Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:32 pm, November 30th, 2014

One of Audrey’s stipulations when we were planning the 2014 World Tour was that we had to be back in time for Halloween and Scare the Children – the annual yard haunt is a big deal for her. This was my fourth child-scaring extravaganza (see also: 2005, 2012, 2013) and the best one yet. Some highlights of this year’s event:

  • I once again was tapped to play the invisible man, but a change in lighting meant that it wasn’t dark enough for me to hide in the entryway without being seen. As a result I took up candy-dispensing duties, sitting completely motionless in the entryway until someone reached into the bucket to take a piece of candy. There were more than a few “is he real” comments, followed by more than a few yells when the answer was determined.
  • Our newest addition this year was Brett, fully mic’d with sound processors, up in a tree. He managed the right mix of funny and creepy to keep things lively. We got everything from “Beware of the man in the clown suit! Or is it a clown in a man suit, with an even smaller man buried deep inside?” to “Go to the door and get some candy – there’s nothing to be afraid of… except for all of the things along the way that you should be afraid of.”
  • The stars of the show were again the most frightened kids. A significant number of trick-or-treaters made it past the garage, but when faced with the prospect of walking up the darkened entryway to a black figure in a chair, paused, repeatedly said “I don’t want to do it!”, and then moved on to the next house.
  • Audrey’s friend Jocelyn joined the party this year and was given “girl in the coffin” duty, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that it’s tough to act creepy when you’re doubled over in laughter because the guy with the microphone in the tree is such a fun weirdo.

See the Scare the Children Facebook page for more photos. We’ll be back at it again for Halloween 2015.

Scare the Children 2014

The coffin-lady, the scary (yet understanding) clown, a yard walker, and, far in the background, a soon-to-be-scared child. It was another good year.

Catching Up, Part I

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:01 am, November 29th, 2014

A lot has happened since the return from overseas, so this will be the first of probably three entries about the past six weeks…

Shortly after returning from Madagascar I had to fly to Pittsburgh for a funeral – my last grandparent died while I was in South Africa, and a memorial service was held on October 28, although it wasn’t a sad occasion since she was an awesome lady, and lived a great life that lasted into her 90s. During the service I saw two cousins who I haven’t seen in 20 years, an aunt I haven’t seen since I was a teenager, and other folks that had faded to just memories but were suddenly transformed back into flesh-and-blood. Following the service Aaron decided that when in Western Pennsylvania one should shoot guns, and our cousin obliged and met us at our aunt’s farm with a selection of firearms, after which many targets and clay pigeons were missed completely.

Prior to the memorial service I had flown into Cleveland, and shockingly had an amazing day roaming around in the Mistake by the Lake. In the morning I met my former prom date for breakfast; having not seen her since 1994, it was like one of those movies where you get to see what someone will be like twenty years in the future, except for the fact that twenty years into the future is now. From there it was off to my high school track to relive the glory days, and from there off to a few of my favorite teenage hangouts amidst some impressive Fall color. Afterwards I made a visit to my college campus, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History – as I was looking at the exotic animal collections, rock collections, and human history exhibits it was clear that this museum was at least part of the inspiration for many of the crazy trips I’ve done in my life.

Following the cultural events I decided it was time to go lowbrow, so I jumped on the NFL ticket exchange, and ten minutes later had procured a ticket in the seventh row behind the Browns bench for $75. As if going to a Browns game for the first time since the 1980s and being spitting distance from my favorite team while wearing a Bernie Kosar jersey wasn’t enough, they actually shocked everyone and won a game, something that has been a most improbable occurrence in recent history.

The next day involved a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and two days later Aaron and I made the trek up to Holliday Rd to visit our candy-making uncle and aunt before heading down to Amish country to see our parent’s alma mater and do some imbibing at the Fractured Grape.

On the departure from both Los Angeles and Pittsburgh I was given a thorough check by security – apparently it will be a while before my name is taken off of the terrorist watch list – with the security guy providing play-by-play on everything he was doing (“I am now going to run my hand up your inner thigh until I encounter resistance”). All in all an eventful trip down memory lane and through the land where I spent most of my formative years.

Shooting guns in Western Pennsylvania

Only one of the people pictured knew what he was doing with a gun, and it wasn’t either of the ones named “Holliday”. Also, I was a deadly man-weapon while firing the Cricket.

The World Tour Revisited

Posted from Redwood City, California at 5:56 pm, November 24th, 2014

Nearly six weeks after returning home, here’s one last post about the world tour via four photos that didn’t originally make it into the journal but are good enough that my brain smiles when I see them.

Zebra in the Masai Mara Reserve

The zebra either ran away (rare) or ignored us (common). Getting two of them to both stay close to the vehicle and also look at us was an unusual occurrence.

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve. I miss hanging out with elephants.

Sacred Ibis in Montagu

Sacred ibis in Montagu. If you thought this photo was taken from the sidewalk next to a four-way intersection, you would be correct.

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar. Audrey wins the prize for best landscape photographer of the trip, and actually got a nicer photo of this scene than I did, but I get to claim credit for asking the driver to stop the car as the sun was going down so that we could hop out and take a photo.

Debriefing

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:41 am, October 31st, 2014

After three months of daily journal entries, it’s been nice to take a short break, but there are a few final details from the trip that are worth recording. Our ride home was back-to-back twelve hour flights on Airbus A380s, which are the largest passenger planes on the planet. Audrey noted afterwards “we should always fly on that one”.

Prior to the flight from London back to Los Angeles I handed my ticket to the guy at the gate, after which a red light started flashing on the ticket machine. I was taken aside for what I assumed was a random security screening, but the guy doing the screening said he was from the US embassy and spent five minutes asking some oddly-specific questions about my trip before having all of my bags thoroughly searched. Apparently with the craziness going on in Iraq and Syria right now, the fact that I had purchased a one-way ticket to Istanbul and then shown up randomly in London three months later raised red flags in whatever computer system monitors such things. I assumed the ordeal was done once the embassy guy had verified I wasn’t up to anything bad, but once back in LA the immigration guy had a red light show up on his screen, and I was taken to the little room on the side of the immigration hall to tell my story again. During the past week I had to fly to the Midwest, and the red lights reappeared while going through security on both my outgoing and return domestic flights. As a result, I was given a very thorough and intimate pat-down during which the TSA guy informed me he would run his hand up my thigh “until I encounter resistance” – I had the option to have this done in a private room, but figured I might as well provide an entertaining show for everyone waiting in the security line. Simultaneous to the genitalia examination my carry-ons were disassembled and put through the machine that sniffs out bomb juice, so it looks like flying may be extra fun until I can figure out how to clear my name.

Aside from erotic pat-downs, there hasn’t been a lot of excitement since returning home, and the return to “normal” life hasn’t been the shock that might have been expected. Since Antananarivo wasn’t as beautiful as the rest of Madagascar (*cough* sewage in the streets *cough*), having it as our final destination made it easier to leave, and coming home to a familiar bed while no longer having to live out of a backpack are both pretty nice things. There have been a few other developments worth noting since our return, but since journal entries are harder to write when the days aren’t filled with lemurs and elephants I’ll save those to recap in a future entry.

Ending with Purring Cheetahs

Posted from London Heathrow International Airport, United Kingdom at 7:55 pm, October 9th, 2014

We were struggling to find a decent activity to fill our last half day in Johannesburg, and finally settled on the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, which wouldn’t have made the cut had there been other options, but given the activities available seemed like the best way to pass a few hours before our flight. Adding to the list of borderlinequestionable animal activities that we’ve participated in while visiting South Africa, we ponied up a few extra rand and got five minutes of petting time with two lion cubs (useful advice given by the park staff regarding the lion cubs: “that one is gentle, and this one might bite you”) and an adult cheetah, in the process discovering that cheetahs purr when you pet them. The girl was happy, the cheetah sounded very happy, and based on everything I read the place is actually doing some good in the world so I was happy that we weren’t violating any wildlife ethical standards by passing the time there. In addition to hands-on time with cats, the park contains thousands of acres of open space with animals roaming about happily, and our drive through that area was quite nice.

Now we’re waiting in London Heathrow airport, with one eleven hour flight done and another to go before we get back to Los Angeles. With the trip at its end this will be the last journal entry about our world travels, so here are some statistics on the trip, since I’m an engineer and engineers like statistics:

  • Total trip duration: 87 days.
  • Five countries visited (Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar). Four continents visited (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa).
  • Twenty-two flights.
  • Days spent in countries that drive on the right side of the road: 41. Days spent in countries that drive on the wrong side of the road: 44.
  • Ostriches ridden: 1
  • Number of trip photos currently on my laptop: 3,324.
  • Number of times I barfed while in foreign countries: zero (unprecedented).

It will feel odd to be home again after such a lengthy adventure, although it will also be nice not to be living out of a backpack for the first time since July. Thanks to everyone who read along as Audrey and I roamed the earth – hopefully there will be more adventures to share in the future.

Update: video of Audrey and the purring cheetah. Make sure your volume is up.

Veloma, Madagascar

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:58 pm, October 7th, 2014

Air Mad flew on time today, so after a 3AM wakeup our plane was off the ground at 6AM, and, for the first time in a month, I was brushing my teeth with tap water and eating a salad only a few hours later. We visited a mall with more ATMs in it than exist in the entire country of Madagascar, saw a traffic light for the first time in four weeks, and generally marveled at the efficiency with which the first-world operates. Madagascar will be missed, but there are many things that are nice to again experience as we make the long journey home.

In Transit

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 9:39 pm, October 6th, 2014

Our Air Madagascar flight yesterday was delayed from 4:20 until 7:40 PM, so after returning by boat from our island we lounged at a restaurant for several hours before heading to the airport. Once at the airport we boarded the plane, but thirty minutes later were told to disembark (no reason was given). An hour after that we noticed the Malagasy passengers queuing in front of the ticket counter, and when we went in to find out what was going on discovered that our flight was cancelled and that we would be given hotel vouchers. Another hour passed waiting for our voucher, and minutes after we got it we were told not to leave the airport because a new plane was enroute, and that we would actually be flying out just after midnight. When all was said and done we ended up departing at 1:30 AM, nine hours later than originally scheduled, and arrived at our hotel in Tana after 3:00 AM. We apologized profusely to the driver who was waiting for us (luckily he had been informed of the schedule changes and hadn’t been waiting all day), but he merely shrugged and said “Air Mad” – apparently everyone expects a little chaos from the national airline.

This morning we rolled out of bed at the ungodly-late hour of 8:30, and then ate breakfast with several of the other guests at this B&B. The Tripadvisor reviews had noted that this place is popular with NGOs and researchers, so unsurprisingly our meal companions were a girl doing anthropology research from Colby College and a guy working for an NGO to protect a very rare duck. Their experience of Madagascar has been much different from ours, and the stories were good ones. We did mention the “lemur on your shoulder” experiences that we’ve had, and the duck zoologist weighed in by noting that when he and his colleagues have talked about such experiences, the general consensus was that “having a brown lemur perched atop your head is, no matter how you look at it, a very, very cool thing”. Also of note was that his girlfriend weighed in on the Malagasy diet, stating that she had nothing against rice at lunch and dinner, but remained “quite offended” at seeing it for breakfast. In her words: “serving it with a sausage does not make it breakfast food”. Needless to say, the company was appreciated.

Tana is a bit of a rough town – the air is filled with auto exhaust, the streets aren’t clean, and everything seems a bit jumbled together – so while we did take some time to walk around today, this is probably the best way to end our visit to Madagascar, since it will be hugely sad to leave this amazing country, but far less sad to leave its capital. The alarm is set for a 2:50 AM wake-up, with a car set to zip us off to the airport at 3:00 AM in preparation for what will hopefully be a 6:00 AM flight departure, barring further shenanigans from Air Mad.

The Beginning of the End

Posted from Nosy Be, Madagascar at 5:41 pm, October 5th, 2014

This entry is being written from inside of the Nosy Be airport as we await our flight back to Antananarivo. Earlier today we caught the boat from Nosy Tsarabanjina back to Nosy Be, thus starting the long trip home. We scheduled a full day in the capital, just in case Air Madagascar decided to try anything funny with the flight schedules, so we’ll be in Tana all day tomorrow, and we then depart for Johannesburg at 6AM the following day. We’ve got about thirty-six hours in South Africa (again, just in case Air Madagascar does anything funny), after which it’s two back-to-back eleven hour flights, with a four hour stop in between in London. At some point four days from now we should be walking through the door of our home back in Los Angeles.

There have been a few random observations that didn’t make it into past journal entries, so the end of the trip seems as good of a time as any to record them:

  • Nearly everything in Madagascar is handmade, since people don’t have spare money and thus just make things themselves. One exception are the shirts – almost without fail, everyone wears a t-shirt that appears to have shown up in a donation bin from America. Most of the French and Malagasy-speaking locals seem to have no idea what the writing on these shirts says, so we’ve run into everything from an old woman with a local high school JV softball sweatshirt to a very old man on a bike with “It ain’t bragging if you back it up” written across his chest.
  • Everyone who has anything to do with tourism wants to learn as many languages as possible, and never misses a chance to practice. Until you figure out what’s going on it’s very confusing as to why every driver is so very interested in your thoughts on the weather, if you’ve seen lemurs yet, and whether or not you like mangoes.
  • The fishing boats are always handmade wooden structures, and usually tiny. Only one has had a name painted on the side – in Nosy Komba we saw three young kids in the smallest boat we had yet encountered, which seemed to be taking on water as fast as they could bail it out. The sail was the size of a beach towel and dragged in the water, but the kids clearly loved their boat. As they pulled it up onto the shore the name written on the side finally became readable: “Titanic”.
  • Zebu herders come in all sizes, from old men down to tiny kids. Just like bar patrons back home, the smaller the herder the meaner they are – a three year old with a stick is a zebu’s worst nightmare. In the south we actually saw one youngster beating on a zebu’s back while holding the poor beast’s tail and riding along behind like a waterskier.

Diving at Night

Posted from Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar at 3:45 pm, October 4th, 2014

I did my first-ever night dive last night – the clown fish from the daylight dives were replaced by lobsters and a basketball-sized crab walking around with a sponge on his back (apparently wearing sponges is a thing), but for the most part it was much like a daytime dive except with different animals and less light. The divemaster was a bit of an unusual case – sort of a control freak, which to a small extent is a good thing in a divemaster, but this perhaps carried too far: he insisted on having our BCDs buckled for us, was explicit that we not put on equipment until he gave the OK for each item, required I wear a dive computer in case we got separated from the group despite the fact that our dive was only to a depth of eight meters, etc. Perhaps had we already done one hundred dives things might have been different, but with credit only for thirty dives we earned the kindergarten treatment.

Today we did two more dives, this time at two of the four “Brothers”, which are pinnacles that rise out of the sea about fifteen minutes from Nosy Tsarabanjina. The ride out to them was beautiful, with crystal blue water and birds flying through the sky. On the first dive I was using a different wet suit from the night dive, thus changing my buoyancy, and when the divemaster told everyone to descend I deflated my BCD… and nothing happened. I tried everything that had been taught during certification – pressing my BCD to force out any remaining air, exhaling, rolling in the water to remove any air pockets on my back – but nothing worked. The divemaster was disappearing into the depths, so I started swimming towards the boat to get more weight, at which point the divemaster finally noticed me and angrily gestured for me to descend. Not knowing the hand signal for “not enough weight”, and not wanting to use the hand signal that jumped immediately to mind, I held up my dump valve to indicate that I was empty on air, at which point he surfaced and yelled at me for swimming in the wrong direction. He called the boat and more weight was procured, after which he again scolded me, told me to kick to the wall, and I finally descended short of breath and using up too much of my precious tank of air. I pride myself on being able to keep a fairly even temper, but had a cartoonist drawn the moment there likely would have been a tiny storm cloud over my head and wavy black lines next to my temples. The end result was that the first dive seemed nice, but the voices muttering in the brain prevented enjoying the experience properly.

After finishing the dive, returning to our island for a surface interval and new tanks, and then departing again for the second dive I spotted a small whale just offshore and only a short distance from our boat, and any bad feelings somehow instantly departed – seeing an animal that big in the water at a reasonably short distance is a wonderful way to cure cartoon storm clouds. The second dive was tremendous – we swam through schools of thousands of small yellow fish, a sea turtle wandered up to me to exchange pleasantries, birds were nesting on the cliff walls, colorful sponges and corals filled the seascape, and all was again well with the world.

Tomorrow we have to depart Fantasy Island late in the morning, and sadly from that point onwards we’ll mostly be in transit. It’s tough to believe that a three month odyssey spanning five countries could ever come to an end, but all good things have their conclusion, and the beginning of the end is (unbelievably) approaching.

“Helllloooo!” says that sea turtle.

Fantasy Island Revisited

Posted from Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar at 9:00 pm, October 2nd, 2014

We booked two fancy resorts on this trip. The first one we booked for its wildlife, and Audrey dubbed it Fantasy Island. The second one we booked for the scuba diving opportunities, and this one is actually on a private island and is just as deserving of the “Fantasy Island” moniker. Nosy Tsarabanjina is a tiny little island 40 kilometers from Nosy Be with white sand beaches and jagged volcanic/coral coastlines. I walked around the entire island in about two hours, but it’s small enough that had the path been easier, and had I not been stopping at every tide pool to gawk at mudskippers, the trek probably would have taken less than thirty minutes.

The plan had been to do some scuba diving while here, but while catching the boat to the island we met the (apparently only) divemaster returning to Nosy Be, so tomorrow we might get a night dive if he’s back, but we should hopefully get two dives in the following day. In the interim, snorkeling, birdwatching, and generally lounging around a tropical island will have to be sufficient – our lives continue to not be bad in any way.

Madagascar fish eagle in Nosy Tsarabanjina

The Madagascar fish eagle is the rarest bird of prey in Africa, with around two hundred breeding pairs left in the wild.

Two Entries in One

Posted from Nosy Be, Madagascar at 4:57 pm, October 1st, 2014

This entry will have to cover two days – I was built for cold, not sun, and way too much of the latter during our multiple hours of snorkeling at Nosy Tenikely led to me stumbling into bed last night around six o’clock. All systems have not yet returned to full operational mode, but on a positive note I should be shedding several unneeded layers of skin soon.

Yesterday’s big adventure was a visit to the lemur-jumping-on-you village on Nosy Komba. The villagers who guide the trip feed the lemurs bananas, so it’s a bit wrong in the “don’t feed the wildlife” sense of things, but at the same time the territory for these lemurs would be adjacent to the village anyhow, so it felt more like feeding the ducks back home than feeding completely wild animals. The end result was a lack of guilt when the guide yelled “maki maki maki” and a troop of the hairy beasts came scurrying down from the trees, jumped on Audrey and me, and began chowing down on the bananas we had on offer. Right or wrong, it’s a very, very cool experience when a lemur wraps its long fingers around your hand and has lunch inches from your head.

Following the lemur extravaganza, the effects of the previous day’s sun exposure were beginning to become evident, so we headed back to our lodge, I rallied for another brief snorkel trip, and was then mostly operating from another planet while we packed up our things, handed a brick of 10,000 Ariary notes to our hosts (10,000 Ariary = $4, and the lodge was cash only), then took the boat back to the strangely-named harbor town of Hell-ville before hopping in a taxi to the Vanilla resort on the northwest coast of Nosy Be. If anything else happened during that time I don’t recall – the next thing I remember is waking up at 2AM and thinking that I should have set an alarm.

Today we got our first scuba trip in the Indian Ocean. The guide had warned us that visibility was poor, but apparently “poor” visibility here means “normal” visibility anywhere else in the world, so both dives were good ones. The variety of corals here is ridiculous, the fish didn’t seem to be very afraid of GoPros, and the depth was shallow enough that being completely out of practice for diving still allowed for two dives that were each longer than an hour. Following our morning dive I apparently slept for another two hours, although I’ve decided that today is the last day allowed for sun lethargy, and that tomorrow all systems will be fully operational no matter what.

Black lemur in Nosy Komba

It’s still a wild lemur, even if it does race down from the trees when the villagers (and accompanying tourists) show up with bananas.

Audrey and black lemur in Nosy Komba

Both the girl and the lemur had much happiness.

Life is Good

Posted from Nosy Komba, Madagascar at 7:00 am, September 30th, 2014

Imagine swimming in a gigantic fish tank owned by an eccentric billionaire whose sole passion in life was tropical fish and coral. In such a scenario there would be every type of fish imaginable, a huge variety of corals, and a weird little sea cucumber, urchin, or other oddity under every rock. Now, instead of a giant fish tank, imagine that setting can be found in the actual ocean, and you can get a sense of what our day was like yesterday. The waters around Nosy Tanikely feel more like something that is too perfect to be natural, with warm temperatures, sea turtles, somewhere around ten gazillion fish, and all sorts of other stuff that keeps you in the water long enough to turn a bright shade of red, despite multiple coats of sunscreen. Judged by any metric other than UV exposure, yesterday was a very, very good day.

In addition to its amazing waters, the land portion of Nosy Tanikely is home to a small group of introduced brown lemurs that came running down from the trees when the guide called them and held out some fruit. There are giant fruit bats, white sandy beaches, and just about everything that one would include if creating the perfect tropical island. We even got a gourmet lunch on the sand at noon – the locals apparently sail out and cook up kabobs and fish and rice and salad each day, and then build makeshift tables in the sand where lunch is served to sunburned tourists. It was a far cry from the mud and rough terrain of Mantadia National Park, and showed yet another side of this incredible country.

This morning we’re off to get Audrey her last chance for lemur hugging in the morning, and after that we sadly have to move on from this incredible lodge to our next stop on the main island of Nosy Be. Nosy Komba will be missed.

Snorkeling with sea turtles is yet another activity that will never, ever get old.

Swiss Family Robinson, but French

Posted from Nosy Komba, Madagascar at 8:58 pm, September 28th, 2014

Holy mother of pearl did we score with tonight’s lodging. Nosy Be is an island off of the northwest coast of Madagascar that is famous for its beaches and marine life, and there are a number of tiny islands surrounding it that contain smaller lodges. We’re staying on Nosy Komba in the Nosy Komba Lodge, which has just three cottages, is empty of visitors at the moment aside from Audrey and me, and is run by the most lovely French family imaginable. They bought the place a year ago, we’re their first American guests, and we sat with Nathalie, her husband Marc, and their fourteen year old daughter Lea sipping drinks on a patio overlooking the ocean, talking about everything from growing up on Reunion Island to Lea’s daily boat trip to school to shark diving in Cape Town, and generally having one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve had in years. I don’t think the visit would have been any different had we been out of town guests rather than paying customers – these folks truly know how to run a lodge.

Our journey here was relatively uneventful. Air Madagascar sent us on a scavenger hunt around the airport trying to figure out how to pay an extra fee for having overweight bags, but once we figured that out (and went through security a few times as a result) our plane left on time and was (shockingly) mostly empty, leaving enough room to stretch out somewhat despite having just four inches of legroom. Once in Nosy Be we were shuttled into an ancient car that somehow still managed to make it across the island to the harbor, where we piled into a boat for the short ride to Nosy Komba. It took four people to unload the boat in the heavy surf at the island, but we arrived dry from the waist up and immediately settled in to enjoy the incredible hospitality. Tomorrow we’re off for some snorkeling at Nosy Tanikely, which is supposedly a world-class snorkeling spot, before returning to again enjoy a quiet evening with our gracious hosts.

Moving Right Along

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 9:37 pm, September 27th, 2014

Travel day. Air Madagascar used to be called Madagascar Air, but since that was generally shortened to the marketing-unfriendly “Mad Air”, a name change was deemed appropriate. Despite the new name the airline remains famous for last-minute schedule changes, cancellations, and overbooking, so for our twenty-eight days here we made sure to build a large buffer of extra time around any flight. The current plane journey is from Fort Dauphin in the far south up to Nosy Bay in the far north, but since we had to fly through the capital, and since the next flight to Nosy Be isn’t until early tomorrow afternoon, we’re spending about twenty hours in Antananarivo. Sadly our hotel for the duration isn’t in a particularly scenic part of town – the view from the street looked to be mostly stalls selling mobile phone cards and auto parts – so it may be a slow few hours until our flight (hopefully) takes us north tomorrow.

According to our guidebook, the north is the home of great scuba diving, so much of today was spent researching dive shops. Madagascar is a country without a hyperbaric chamber for treating decompression sickness, so I’m leaning towards the dive shop that’s run by a British guy – while my French has gotten better, I’m not sure what the translation for “nitrogen narcosis” might be, so putting our lives in the hands of someone who won’t require foreign language skills seems like a winning strategy. In addition, our journey north includes the last chance for lemur hugging, and with luck the lemurs of Nosy Komba will be feeling amorous when Audrey and I arrive tomorrow evening.

Lemurs at Breakfast

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 8:44 pm, September 26th, 2014

At dinner tonight, back in Fort Dauphin, I asked Audrey if it seemed weird not to have lemurs on the roof. After a pause, that was followed up with “isn’t it awesome that we can ask questions like that?”

My day in Berenty started at five o’clock this morning, with Audrey joining an hour later. Lemurs were waking up all around the reserve, with the brown lemurs snorting their hellos to one another, the ringtails meowing, and the sifakas not saying much at all (they like to sleep late, apparently). Following my alone time, Audrey and our guide joined for a second walk, after which we headed to breakfast and discovered that the cafe was overrun with lemurs. A single staff member was walking around with a stick, while a half dozen ringtails ran circles around him checking to see what food might be available. They actually didn’t get much to eat – we only saw one run off with a piece of bread – so it was mostly just entertaining to see them climb up a chair to peer over the edge of the table, or run under a table and between people’s legs. We finished our breakfast by literally pushing one lemur off the table after he stuck his tongue into our leftover jam, and shortly thereafter the entire troop returned to the trees to resume eating their proper meal of leaves.

The remaining walks were much the same, with lemurs aplenty, and the guide explaining his love of action movies (“Arnold! His daughter gets kidnapped, so he goes to get her back…”). Our last walk of the day was in the spiny forest area, where the guy responsible for night security took us on a tour of his assigned area. If I understood correctly, it seemed that his job is pretty slow, giving him time to exhaustively search every tree and bush, and he ran around showing us sleeping nocturnal animals hidden in holes and hollows that no mere mortal would have ever found otherwise.

The road had dried out slightly for our drive home, so it took only three hours to go fifty miles this time, all the while children were yelling for the “vazaha” (white people) to give them money, candy, or presents, while the locals were busy carting bags of charcoal, zebu, firewood, or other goods from point A to B. Berenty rightfully deserves its place as a top tourist destination in Madagascar, and I’m very, very glad that we were able to meet the friendly lemurs who inhabit it.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

I wish I could say that this photo wasn’t taken from my breakfast table, but when the lemurs join you for a meal and start posing it’s tough not to take out the camera.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Lemurs on the trail with their tails fully engaged.

Spiny forest in Berenty

Botanists reading this journal who have been frustrated by three months of animal photos, this picture from the spiny forest is for you.

Berenty

Posted from Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar at 10:05 pm, September 25th, 2014

One of the places we were told was a “can’t miss” spot for our trip was the Berenty Private Reserve, so we made sure to include it in our itinerary. Despite booking six months in advance we were only able to get one night (it’s apparently a popular stop), but we hoped that one night would be enough to at least get a partial experience of the place. We set off this morning for a fifty mile drive that took nearly four hours – to say the road wasn’t in good shape would be a charitable description of the bumpy path filled with occasional potholes large enough to fit the entire vehicle.

After the long drive we arrived at Berenty, and it took approximately seven seconds to find our first group of the famous lemurs. Unlike most places, you can walk around the reserve unaccompanied by a local guide, so Audrey and I enjoyed our time at close quarters with the lemurs prior to heading to lunch, after which we met our assigned guide for a scheduled walk. If ever you want to have lemurs approach to within a foot, this is the place – if they have personal space boundaries, those boundaries must be measured in inches. A further highlight was seeing a sifaka turf battle – one troop came into the other’s territory, and they all climbed down from the trees and had a dance-off, with one lemur showing off his moves only to be chased off the dance floor by another wild dancer. Extreme happiness was experienced by everyone present. Following the jumping lemur disco show we encountered more lemurs (eating, not dancing), and then made a trip to the fruit bat tree. The fruit bat is also known as the “Madagascar flying fox” given its huge size – their wingspans are up to four feet across. The icing on the cake was when a four foot long boa constrictor slithered past while we were enjoying the bats. Berenty pretty much rules all.

Our last event of the evening was a night walk through the spiny forest, which is a weird and otherworldly landscape of cactus and other mean plants that wanted to hurt me. I continue to greatly enjoy these nocturnal sojourns, and on this one, in addition to a few lemurs and chameleons, we found songbirds sleeping on branches. For reasons I couldn’t understand, the birds simply sit still on the branch at night, perched inches away, without flinching or attempting to fly away – after chasing a Madagascar paradise flycatcher around with a camera repeatedly during daylight hours, tonight I had to back up several feet to get my long lens far enough from the bird to be able to focus.

Tomorrow is more of the same until the early afternoon when we unfortunately have to leave and again face the bad road back to Fort Dauphin. I’m planning a very early wakeup, with the girl to join a bit later for our scheduled 6AM walk.

Update: Audrey has posted a truly wondrous video of the lemur dance-off – enjoy.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Wildlife stalking in Berenty involves walking directly up to the lemurs, setting up the camera two feet away, and then trying to ensure they don’t come closer than that and ruin the focus.

Verreaux's sifaka in Berenty

At the start of our first walk with the guide the sifakas engaged in a dance-off to resolve a territorial dispute. Action on the dance floor was fast and intense.

White-footed sportive lemur in Berenty

The white-footed sportive lemur is a nocturnal lemur, meaning we mostly saw it being adorably sleepy while tucked away in holes in the trees.

Mora Mora

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 9:35 pm, September 24th, 2014

“Mora mora” is an expression in Malagasy that the guide book says has a meaning that is essentially “be patient and understand that things will happen when they happen”. When the road was bad Desiree would frequently say “mora mora”, but for the most part things have gone smoothly. Today was our first real taste of “mora mora”, albeit a small one. We got up before six o’clock to get to the airport to catch our flight, but the baggage handler at the counter told Audrey that her carry-on was too heavy and would need to be checked. She took out her camera and handed it back to him to check in, at which point he re-weighed it and said it was now OK to carry on. We walked away, put the camera back in the bag, and continued through security. From there the plane was supposed to take off at 7:50, but at 10:00 there was still no plane in sight, and no announcements had been made. No one in the waiting area seemed too surprised by this development – the plane was going to arrive eventually, and there was nothing to be done in the mean time. Mora mora.

The plane eventually arrived and took us to Fort Dauphin, where surprisingly the hotel had sent a driver to pick us up – I did a double-take when we walked out of the airport and my name was on a sign, since no one had mentioned that we would have transportation. After arriving at the hotel we set off for the bank, but while trying to withdraw money the ATM froze with my bank card still inside of the machine – not an ideal situation in a country where nearly all transactions are done with cash. The bank had closed for lunch, and after the security guard had tried pressing “cancel” a few times he helpfully suggested that I wait two hours until the bank re-opened, at which point someone might be available who could help to retrieve my card. Meanwhile numerous Malagasy people stopped by to get cash, saw that there was a problem, and walked away in a manner indicating that they had seen this type of thing many times before. Luckily this particular example of “mora mora” was relatively short-lived, as the bank manager returned to work forty-five minutes later and was able to restart the machine and retrieve my card, after which the assembled crowd got a good laugh when I refused to again try a withdrawal – rather than risk another ATM misadventure we came back a few hours later with US dollars to exchange, a process that still ended up taking fifteen minutes due to all of the paperwork that was apparently required. Mora mora.

Our other adventures today included whales cavorting off the coast, an impressive array of tide pools that we unfortunately couldn’t see much of due to the high tide, and a walk around the town that provided a bit of local flavor (stray dogs, roadside stalls, people at work, kids playing, etc, etc). Tomorrow we’re off to the famous Berenty resort to spend some time with the very friendly lemurs that inhabit the area, so hopefully they won’t be camera shy and the current streak of journal entries without accompanying photos will come to an end.