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

Songs in the Forest

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:48 pm, February 29th, 2016

After two postings about heavy metal bands and Donald Trump, the journal is overdue for some nature. The video below is all about the whale-like song of the lemurs, so turn on the volume before playing it and ignore the picture – it’s just Audrey, our guide and me walking through the forest. The sound of the indri lemurs is unlike anything else and still gives me chills when I listen to it, remembering what it was like to be roaming the forest with families of lemurs calling out all around us. Recorded September 2014 in Andasibe National Park

The indri lemur’s song carries for several miles through the treetops. Supposedly if you record them singing on an iPhone and then replay it later they will sing back to you, but I wouldn’t know anything about that…

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.

Bakuba

Posted from Toliara, Madagascar at 8:56 pm, September 23rd, 2014

During the trip planning I tried to find a variety of lodging, and one option that looked particularly unique was the Bakuba Hotel, which is an African-themed hotel run by a Belgian couple. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but imagined something like a B&B on a quiet alley. Instead, the hotel is way outside of town on a dirt road, a short walk from the ocean, and it offers wide open spaces decorated with extreme attention to detail and a ton of inventiveness. The downside of such an artsy place is that a few items were apparently overlooked for purely aesthetic reasons – there isn’t much separation between the bedroom and the bathroom, so when nature calls you either have to share the special moment or ask the other person to leave the room for a bit (we’re opting for the latter). Similarly, the shower has a window that looks out onto an open patio with no window covering, so if anyone happens to walk by they get a show from the waist up. However, the pros far outweigh the cons, and we’re very much enjoying our weird lodging for the night.

Prior to our arrival here we again made the bumpy ride from Ifaty to Toliara, and then stopped for a couple of hours to enjoy the mean plants and pretty birds at the d’Antsokay Arboretum. Once at Bakuba we took a long walk along the ocean and past all of the Malagasy fishing canoes that were hauled up onto the shore, returned to enjoy drinks and the view, then had a massive and delicious dinner on the upper deck under the stars. Tomorrow we’re off on an early flight to Fort Dauphin, which sadly means we’ll be saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome guide for eleven of the past fourteen days.

Starry Night

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 10:21 pm, September 22nd, 2014

Audrey wanted occasional downtime on this trip, and with scuba and snorkeling options limited by choppy, shallow seas today seemed as good as any day for some lounging. We still managed a visit to the Reniala Forest private reserve early in the day to see some of the spiny forest, and that was followed by a visit to the neighboring tortoise reserve to see the obvious. While visiting the tortoises two of the caretaker’s young kids tagged along behind us, and when I showed them their faces using the “front view” camera on my iPhone I made two instant friends – they quite literally hung on my arms for the remainder of our visit. Upon exiting the reserve we were waylaid by some less-friendly youngsters who used every trick in the book to get something from us – I tried to keep them occupied in an effort to protect Audrey, but after engaging them for several minutes while also making it clear that we weren’t handing out candy, two of them rewarded us with a one-fingered salute that is apparently more universal than I previously realized. Final score for my child entertainment efforts was thus one set of kids entertained and happy, one set clearly less so.

The afternoon saw much napping and lounging, as well as a very lovely coconut with a straw in it, a piece of cake, and some zebu skewers. The evening was yet another chance to practice night photography in the dark skies of Madagascar, and tonight I not only didn’t raise alarms with the hotel staff while lurking in the bushes in the dark with my camera, but I might have actually gotten a couple of decent shots. Tomorrow we’re back to Toliara for the evening before sadly saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome driver, and flying off to visit the famous lemurs of Berenty.

Baobab in the Reniala Forest in Ifaty

This 1200 year old baobab in the Reniala Forest reserve is one bigass piece of wood.

Starry night in Ifaty

Credit to Susan Portnoy for providing instructions on how to photograph the Milky Way, and credit to Audrey for putting up with me for a couple of weeks while I repeatedly dragged her out into the darkness trying to get a Milky Way photo that actually had some stars in it.

The Road to Ifaty

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 9:47 pm, September 21st, 2014

We reached the ocean today after a four hour drive from Isalo, at which point we turned right and traveled at fifteen miles per hour up a bumpy “road” to the seaside town of Ifaty. The route today was past all manner of villages and people, and was done with Desiree playing Celine Dion as our soundtrack for much of the way. The ever-present taxi brousse (van taxis) were out as always, each with room for about ten people, while actually containing around twenty-five, plus everything from furniture to produce to farm animals piled on the roof. Zebu carts yielded to us as we passed, lumbering overloaded trucks did not, while people pushing carts filled with water containers, bags of charcoal, firewood, or anything else needing transport labored up hills in the heat. Ancient bicycles were in use, some carrying three people, some loaded down with lumber, some merely carrying a single passenger who had somewhere to get to.

The scenery showed the effects of generations of slash-and-burn, with grassy fields stretching to the horizon, except in one area that was maintained as a national park and thus still forested. Baobab trees started appearing as we neared the coast, although hopefully tomorrow we’ll see some of the older, larger members of the species. Sapphire miners were bringing their gems into the many shops that appeared during a brief stretch of road, and the rivers in that area were filled with people filtering gravel looking for the tiny blue stones. Villages varied from mud huts with thatched roofs to stick huts to the occasional modern building, although once we reached the coastal town of Toliara the construction was mostly all modern.

The people along the way seemed happy for the most part. Children waved, some of them running to the car yelling for “bon bons”. Older folks were busy with the chores of their daily lives, whether working in the fields, chopping firewood, taking something from point A to point B, or running a tiny roadside stand. People in Madagascar have only a fraction of the wealth seen in other nations – our guidebook says that a doctor or university professor might make just $200 a month, while our guide in Andasibe indicated that the fellow who manned the security booth at the hotel probably made 100,000 Ar per month (about $40) – but despite the low wages people seem to get by sufficiently. Obviously when things go wrong for someone here they can go very wrong – a big storm might wipe out crops and mean no food, or an accident could lead to a handicap that would end a person’s ability to support himself – but for the majority of individuals it seems like they do well with the life they’ve been given. Hopefully conditions will continue to improve, but at the same time there is probably a lesson to be learned from the fact that even in the toughest of situations, people can be as happy or happier than those of us who live in comparative luxury.

The Guide was Tired

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 6:52 pm, September 20th, 2014

The alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, and I sprang out of bed ready for a day of hiking in Isalo National Park. It took some coffee to get Audrey equally as charged up, but once caffeinated she was suited up and ready to go. Isalo is a huge, hot and dry park that contains impressively eroded sandstone formations that are home to a number of lemurs, and also has deep canyons that contain lush springs and numerous waterfalls. Our plan today was to hike to the Piscine Naturelle (natural swimming pool) and then across a big open area to a campground that was rumored to be lousy with lemurs. From there Audrey would meet our driver and return to the lodge in order to miss the worst of the afternoon sun, while the guide and I would hike through a canyon to the Piscine Bleu and Piscine Noir (blue & black pools).

Things went according to plan, with ringtail lemurs joining us at the Piscine Naturelle, and numerous raptors, a stick insect, and a scorpion all making appearances on our way to the campground. At that point the needle on the thermometer was moving from “hot” to “frying pan”, so Audrey exercised good sense and said her goodbyes while the guide and I moved on. The campground was as advertised, and I spent much time photographing lemurs until I heard another guide say “there is a sifaka over here” and suddenly the magical moment turned into a zoo as I was surrounded by about thirty other people. I made an immediate exit through the sea of oncomers, and we then continued on through a canyon filled with waterfalls and beautiful pools. The Blue Pool was also as advertised, and the guide took a plunge to cool off while I moved on to the Black Pool. That one was equally pretty, with the beauty only slightly diminished by the sight of four soaking wet Italians in their tighty-whities. I retreated to a corner of the pool away from the underpants party to get some photos before we backtracked to the campground for more lemur photography, after which the mercury in the thermometer was moving from “frying pan” to “surface of the sun” so we made our return to the waiting Desiree for a ride back to the lodge.

Tomorrow it’s a five hour drive to the coastal town of Ifaty for two nights, home to spiny forest and a beach that should be perfect for lounging. The month in Madagascar is going by shockingly fast, but each day has been memorable, and plenty of adventures still remain.

Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo National Park

This guide said that this poor sifaka didn’t have any of his own species in the area, so instead he spent his days with a group of ringtail lemurs who mostly kept their distance from this much larger party crasher.

The Rock Lodge

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 8:45 pm, September 19th, 2014

Audrey got more craft workshops today, and was in tremendous spirits. I’ll admit to thinking they were interesting, but manliness prevents me from doing more.

Our day started before six, and after breakfast we were checked out and on the road by 6:45. Two hours later we were in a silk factory, which was essentially a house with a shop next to it that employed several women in sweatshop conditions to process silk cocoons and weave the silk fabric. Despite the less-than-ideal working conditions it was a neat thing to watch, involving cooking the wild cocoons into a gooey mixture, unwinding the farmed cocoons by hand, and a labor-intensive process on a hand loom to weave fabric. The end process wasn’t what I expected – it felt far more coarse than the silk we find at home – but it was nevertheless impressive.

The next workshop offered the opportunity to see paper being made, and at this one my French was pressed into service so we might have missed out on some important details. The gist of it seemed to be smooshing trees, pouring the resulting goop onto a frame, and then pressing decorative flowers into it before letting it dry. It was again impressive to see the whole process being done entirely by hand, including the smooshing of the trees, which was done with two steel mallets after the pulp had been cooked into a weird soup over a period of three hours.

Craft workshop touring complete, our third stop was at the Anja Private Reserve, which was a village initiative created fifteen years ago in which six local villages got together to preserve thirty hectares of forest that is home to 300 ringtail lemurs. To date they’ve had 14,000 tourists stop to visit them, so it has been a clear success. In a country that is losing most of its forest to slash and burn agriculture this initiative was one worth supporting, and as an added bonus the lemur spotting took only five minutes from the point at which the trail started. Throw in the best chameleon sightings we’ve had during daylight hours, and yet another chance for me to practice my horrible French, and it was an extremely worthwhile visit. If you’re ever in Madagascar, go to there and help demonstrate the value to the local people in conserving their natural resources.

Tonight we’re staying in the very fancy Isalo Rock Lodge – our last hotel was missing a toilet seat, so finding not just a fully functional toilet, but also a huge bathroom that would rival any top hotel in Los Angeles, is a massive change for the better. We’ll be up at six o’clock tomorrow morning in order to do some hiking before the day hits the “crazy hot” stage, and with luck there will be some nice pictures, and with even more luck I’ll manage to avoid heatstroke during the planned seven hours with our (required) park guide.

Chameleon in Anja Private Reserve

Chameleons are extraordinarily difficult to spot during the day, unless they’re like this guy and are a foot long and climbing a small tree trunk out in the open.

Diamond

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 9:20 pm, September 18th, 2014

While planning this trip I underestimated how long it would take to drive from place to place, so while we have two nights at Ranomafana National Park, we arrived late last night and need to depart early tomorrow morning, leaving today as our only chance for activities in the park. Luckily we continued to have nice weather, and our karma stayed strong as our guide (and the entire Malagasy team of trackers that apparently work together to alert anyone in the area when something interesting is found) discovered all three species of bamboo lemurs that live in the park, including the very rare golden bamboo lemur and the even-more-rare greater bamboo lemur. The bamboo lemurs are different from most of the lemurs we’ve seen elsewhere – they look like a cross between a koala and Yoda, and are maybe a third of the size of the sifakas that danced on our balcony in Anjajavy.

The first lemur we saw today was a grey bamboo lemur that was running around calling for its family, much to our amusement since its call alternated between sounding like a squawking crow and a snorting pig. The second set of lemurs was discovered after we had already passed their location, and required backtracking down a significant number of stairs, but luckily the cuteness of lemurs outweighed any issues due to excess stair climbing. The family of lemurs were golden bamboo lemurs, which were only discovered in 1986, and are the primary reason that the national park was formed. From there we got word that two greater bamboo lemurs had been found, and since they are the rarest lemur found in the park we set off in search of them. The route was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with vines being pushed out of the way, steep hills, giant trees, and after much sweat two lemurs hiding up in the canopy. Despite the bushwhacking it was all worthwhile after one of the two lemurs decided to climb down to a log near the ground, and we sat a couple of meters away while it groomed itself for ten minutes before jumping onto the tree a couple of feet behind Audrey, and then clambered up to rejoin its companion.

We returned from our morning adventures at about 1:30, grabbed lunch and a nap, then headed off for a night walk, aka the path of many chameleons. Things started with spazzy mouse lemurs leaping out of the shadows a few feet from where we parked, then turned into chameleon-o-rama with at least one lizard on seemingly every tree and bush. A few frogs and bugs made appearances for good measure, but chameleons were clearly the stars of the show tonight.

Tomorrow we’re off to see paper and silk making, visit a private lemur reserve, and then, if the roads are good, we’ll get to Isalo National Park by sunset. This trip down RN7 is going by quickly – there’s still a lot of Madagascar to go, but amazingly we’ve already been here for ten days.

Greater bamboo lemur in Ranomafana National Park

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the most endangered lemurs in Madagascar, but fairly easy to photograph when it decides to groom itself on a log three meters from the admiring tourists.

Leaf-tailed gecko in Ranomafana National Park

The leaf-tailed gecko. The guide found it for us on a branch next to the trail – there is approximately a one-in-a-billion chance that I would have spotted this thing on my own.

Chameleon in Ranomafana National Park

Night walks are awesome, because you see lemur eyes reflected in the flashlight, and find chameleons with tails that retract like vacuum cleaner power cords.

“Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 8:33 pm, September 17th, 2014

The Madagasar trip is primarily a nature trip, but I also acquiesced to Audrey’s request to include some of the craft workshops along the way. This morning we started out in a rock shop, with one of the salesmen hounding us about a good price he could offer on a pendant that Audrey had made eye contact with for more than six seconds. We left there in a bit of a rush and moved on to a workshop where they were making items out of zebu (oxen) horns. The process of boiling and cooking the zebu horn in order to make it pliable was a stinky one that had me questioning what we had gotten ourselves into, but as the artisan started cutting and polishing it into a spoon I actually moved from being mildly nauseous to fully impressed – the final product rivaled anything you would find in an art gallery in the US.

Our last stop was my favorite – the artist at the workshop cut up cans and bits of scrap metal to make finely-detailed miniatures. He demonstrated the process for making a miniature bike tire, which involved a tiny piece of a tin can to act as the wheel frame, a tiny piece of a spring to act as the hub, fishing wire as the spokes, and medical tubing as the tube. Bending, threading, and soldering those parts together into a tire that was barely two inches across took him a couple of minutes, and the fully-assembled bike showed an equal amount of attention to detail for the handlebars, frame, chain, etc. Final price for this tiny piece of art was less than $10 US. I bought two little cars from him (one of which is pictured below) that are actually fridge magnets – my first real souvenirs in more than nine weeks of travel – setting me back a grand total of $2 each.

From the magical toy emporium our route was south, and we spent the vast majority of the day driving to Ranomafana National Park. We stopped briefly in the afternoon for a coffee and a bathroom break – when we asked to use the bathroom we were led out of the back of the restaurant, down a flight of stairs, past a cage containing two chickens, a duck, and a goose, and up to two open doors. Madagascar is renowned in the guidebooks for its dirty bathrooms, and while we have been spared that horror thus far, Audrey’s first words upon entry were “Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”. And that’s what it was, quite literally a messy hole in the ground. In a very gross way, we have now been informally certified as genuine Madagascar travellers.

Today was the first day without lemurs in quite some time, but we’re meeting our guide at 7 AM tomorrow morning for a hike through some of Madagascar’s most pristine rain forest, so a new streak of lemur sightings should begin shortly.

Tin miniatures in Antsirabe

The sweet pink ride in the front left is now mine. I’d be the proud owner of one of the kickass bottle cap airplanes, too, if it wasn’t likely to get smooshed in my luggage.

The Madagascar Margarita

Posted from Antsirabe, Madagascar at 10:39 pm, September 16th, 2014

After we said goodbye to Anjajavy and our plane returned to Tana, our always-smiling driver Desiree was waiting to meet us outside of the airline’s offices. Shameless plug for Faniry Rent-Car: we got a great car and a better driver.

The plan for the next eight days is to drive south along National Route 7, which goes from the capital past several national parks, ending 570 miles later at the town of Toliara along the coast. The start of that journey today took us about 100 miles, past rice paddies, small markets, many cows, people on bike/foot/rickshaw/anything-that-moved, and at one point to the town of Ambatolampy, which is known for its metal casting. We paid the equivalent of $2 to see a group of men in a hut melting scrap aluminum and casting it into cooking pots. They made fifty pots per day, retail for each pot about $8, barefoot and in shorts while molten metal was poured inches from their toes. I’ve probably spent too much time in this journal writing about how lucky everyone in the US should feel to have the benefits that we don’t even realize we have, but seeing these guys slaving over their cooking pots was the millionth reminder that being born in America was a very, very lucky occurrence.

After leaving the metal casting, the trip continued through pretty scenery until we reached our hotel for the evening. Much merriment was had when we attempted to order off of the French menu, with each of us getting a meal that was completely unexpected – French lessons will need to continue. Audrey also ordered a margarita from the menu, and the waiter had to check the drink list to figure out what was in it – never a good sign, although whatever it was that he ended up making was a strong pour, and she fell asleep quickly after we returned to the room.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Reason number five thousand to be thankful you live in America: no one I know has a job that requires casting molten aluminum cooking pots in a sweltering shed while barefoot.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Note all of the protective gear in place in case that crucible spills? Neither did I.