Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rounding the Corner

Our tour of the Southwest is over and, when I turn north this morning to follow the California coastline from San Luis Obispo to Carmel, I'm sure the rental car  and I will begin to smell the barn. We are on the home stretch of what has already been  6,000 mile journey across America. It might be said that we've really seen the country, but that would be a mistake. Our wavy path on the map is like one strand of curly hair on a massive head. It covers so little. America is huge and, contrary to conventional description, except for a few spots, it is a land totally devoid of people and roads. Most of it still consists of open space covered by sagebrush, native grasses, rocky outcroppings, forests, or, over the former prairie, miles of corn or soybeans. Driving across these stretches, I am continuously struck by the country's beauty, including those areas what some people might refer to as wasteland, The scenery from these lonely, desolate places are serene, virtually undisturbed by the hubbub of human activity, and convey a vision of an earlier time in history. For those who appreciate the past intellectually or sense the magical aspect of nature aesthetically, seeing this vast emptiness brings a certain joy to the travel experience. It is much like the feeling a person has when he discovers a fossil in a long hidden rock. He has uncovered something special, ancient and seemingly timeless.

This sensation is revealed in the first photo showing two tabletop mesas from U.S. 199 just south of the Utah-Arizona border. The location is on the Navajo reservation and these monuments clearly served until recently as directional markers for indigenous people who wandered the countryside. Modern time  has altered the view dramatically as seen by the fence and telephone poles in the foreground, but these monoliths remain steadfast and stoic in spite of change.

The second picture comes from the trail leading to the base of Canyon de Chelly near Chenle, Arizona. It shows the red sandstone of the palisade walls that line the canyon and a peek of its verdant green floor which once was lined with fruit trees. Its stillness and the soothing beauty of its texture creates a healing potion which pervades the air. I have sensed this essence when visiting cemeteries or, in this case, battlefields, before. This place marks the site that saw the end of the powerful Navajo nation. In 1863, aided by the famous explorer Kit Carson, the cavalry attacked and decimated the terrified remnants of the tribe which had sought refuge in the canyon. The frightened survivors were then rounded up, removed, and marched three hundred miles to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico to be sequestered on a reservation.

The third shot demonstrates that it is hard to take a bad picture of the Grand Canyon. Undeterred by the fact that the South Rim is inundated by tourists every day of the year or that the roads from Williams or Flagstaff are clogged with traffic, the pilgramage to our country's Mecca is worth it. The place defines grandeur pure and simple. Although geologically a young phenomenon, scoured out by huge flooding of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon feels permanent. Does that impression inspire a sense of security in its viewers that, in spite of everything harmful to the environment away from here, that this place will remain unaffected and preserve an aesthetically amazing world?

The last photo taken of the edge of a small lake near the entrance to Vernal, Utah, I saved for the end. I don't want to add words, Fill in your own description as you read this. Let the colors and shapes form your thoughts as a brief break from your daily routine. Become a traveler for just a moment.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ramblings from the Road

Tonight we are in  Pinedale,Wyoming, below Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole. We have turned South and will soon cross Utah and hope to reach the Grand Canyon by mid-week. On Wednesday, it will be a month since we left Miami and, I have to admit, as I plotted this week's route through western states, I became anxious about the trip ending. There is a part of me that fears returning home and feeling restless with the familiar and the mundane.  I guess "I Was Born a Ramblin' Man." Sergio seems to have that "wind at your back" mentality as well. He has been taking in America fully. He has not slept or dozed in the car even once across the monotonous prairie, the vast stretches of farmland or through open plains. He snaps photos occasionally, asks a question once in a while, but is mainly silent. Like me, his eyes are fixed on the details of the passing towns and countryside which are magically drenched in soothing Autumn colors. There is little to say that can capture adequately the fullness of the experience. One enjoyable aspect of any road trip is to read the signs that pop up along the way that bring a smile. I have selected several for your review.

The first comes from outside a tavern at the edge of Interior South Dakota. It is a well meaning, good hearted message and implies that anyone is welcome at the Horseshoe. It also describes something about its clientele. I briefly considered stopping to buy a shirt and sit at the bar and have a Coors with some of the big boys, but then I decided that, after sitting on my butt driving all day, I needed exercise instead.

The second sign was placed adjacent a path in a rural park in Central Florida where we stopped to have lunch. Its purpose is to advise people of the dangers of large toothy reptiles and to protect the animals from human contact  as well, However, warning people to avoid molesting alligators seems, quite frankly, a little perverse. I shudder to think how some local deviant might plan to molest an innocent unsuspecting alligator. Lure it with small sweet frogs into his van?

Last of all, I was amazed to see this highway sign while entering Interstate 140 off of Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. People often spell the way they talk. I can see how a Southern drawl might influence the misspelling of pedestrian.. But then again, in a state where edjacatn is hindured by maybe a little too much prain, shud I be sirprised?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Go West, Young Men!

Today marks three weeks since I picked up Sergio in Miami. Our route across America has followed the less traveled roads through the South and the Midwest with a layover in Chicago to visit my relatives and, mixed in between, to see a few important sights. For the past several days we have been crossing what was once the Great Prairie but now, from an ecologist's viewpoint, is sadly the corn and soybean belt We have completed over 3000 miles and are now at the western edge of the Central Time Zone in Pierre, South Dakota.

We are two fellas in a car travelling through towns that are off the interstate and on routes that once were major in the 1950's, These less well paved highways cover the gravel roads of the 40's and 30's, the mud paths of the 20's the wagon ruts made by pioneers almost two centuries earlier and the trading routes of Indians who rode horses or walked on them since the beginning. We look for any indications of  those earlier times in the scenery and are occasionally rewarded with remnants of that past. It is not clear to me exactly why we find the "old" charming or the seeing of a dilapidated barn "exciting" It is just that the newer standard architecture of America is common, uninspirational and can be found globally,

With no particular theme in mind I have selected four photos to share which provide some flavors of from the soup of our journey.

The first picture is of Sergio giving Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex, at Chicago's Museum of Natural History, an amorous glance. Today we will drive through the Badlands where she roamed 110 million years ago and see some of her friends at the Rapid City Geology Museum.

The second photo is taken from the heights above Winona, Minnesota. Below is Winona Lake and the town. It was built on a sandbar of the Mississippi River (seen in the background) and is protected by dikes (usually) from floods. The Fall colors have just started to come out so we have been lucky in that regard.

Our route has been dotted with fruit and vegetable stands are filled with Halloween decorations and are selling local foods, including jams, jellies, jerkies and pies. This part of the country really does the holiday like no place I have ever experienced. I had to snap this picture of Indian corn and share with the feeling of the season it evokes.

Last of all, Huron, South Dakota, where I took this picture alleges it's the home of the largest pheasant ever shot. I don't know how reliable this is or the statistics. This curious statue has critical importance though. Pheasant hunting season starts this week in South Dakota and it is a giant economic boom for the state. People travel here from all over America to participate. Even I, who jumped the season, shot this one with a camera.

(Special thanks to all those people who have shown us terrific hospitality and opened up their houses to us these past days, including my cousins Ron and Toni Ellis, David and Bonnie Spangler, Stan and Anne Hollenbeck, my dear friends Paul Buscovik and Dave and Mardy Vosbeck.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reflections in the Rearview Mirror

As I crossed the Mississippi River from Kentucky into Cairo, Illinois, I began to feel the blues. The South was behind me and I missed it immediately. I wasn't the guy ridin' the rails or hitchhiking back roads or drivin' an ol' Chevy outa town. I was just movin' on like everyone else and wondered when I would ever return. From tropical Florida to the Appalachians, across Georgia, North Carolina and to the verdant Tennessee countryside through Nashville and Memphis into Kentucky, I had become charmed by the accents, fascinated by the people  and seduced by the tastes of down home cooking. I'm not saying that I could ever live there. After all, this part of America has, well. you know for me, certain cultural shortcomings, which I expressed in my last post. However one thing is for sure. I grew to value from the heart the vibrant atmosphere of the South, which makes it distinct from other parts of America. Perhaps it has maintained more steadfastly a greater resilience against the creeping sameness which  is swallowing the cultural integrity of the rest of the country. Maybe its simplicity and folk culture struck a chord in me. In any case, I listened to its Cuban rhythm on Calle Ocho in Miami, its ballads at the Stephen Foster Cultural Park in Northern Florida, its twangy country songs on Broadway in Nashville and its blues in the clubs on Beale Street in Memphis and discovered that, most definitely, its music made me happy to be alive. (and that's not just whistln' Dixie!) The photos above really need no descriptions. Look at them and tell me what you hear!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The South Wind Blows

We have been on the road a week and are both tired. After traveling  through Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee Sergio and I have decided to spend an extra day in Nashville to relax, work on arranging photos, blog and hopefully do laundry.

For  this post, I selected a few pictures to share of the hundreds I have taken  not because they were the best compositions, but, due to fatigue, chose them almost at random. They are like several colored stones in a kaleidoscope, just fragments of one whirling design which makes up my impression of the South.

The first picture is of Sergio wearing his camouflage ball cap with an American flag embroidered on the brim I bought for him in a small restaurant in the Appalachian Mountains of Northern Georgia. He is sitting with a couple we met who were traveling on motorcycles from Virginia to Alabama. To meet some real natives when visiting a foreign country and to talk with them is a quality moment for a curious tourist. I listened to their conversation. The time was spent with a lot of good-hearted fun and hilarity since Sergio had some difficulty understanding their Southern drawl and idioms which they struggled to explain and they likewise made him repeat words to understand his English, spoken with Spanish accent.

The second photo was taken at a roadside stand also in Georgia. Such places sell pumpkins and gourds of all kinds, home made jellies and jams, fresh peanuts boiling in cajun sauce or salted water, fresh jerky and of course, fishing tackle and bait. It is a hub for local people to sit around and talk about huntin', work, and of course politics. When I purchased a ladle full of steaming nuts and asked the proprietor jokingly if my five dollar bill was any good, the old codger behind the register retorted. "Sure, as long as"Olbama's pikshur ain on it."

In the next shot, I have included a church sign of the Neverfail Community Church. It was next door to another church, The Free Will Baptist Church, which was not far from the Church of the Eternal Tabernacle of God's Blessed Children.  Sergio has discovered that the South has a whole lot of  religious fundamentalists and, although the people are not Catholic like Colombia, it has its own flavor of fervor. As a biologist, he has a strong understanding and commitment to the facts of evolution. In Florida, outside of Gainesville, he spied a giant billboard along  the major highway depicting a series of hunched over ape-like creatures followed by a human form in a circle with a slash through it. The caption read something like "Seek Truth in God's Plan."

The fourth photo needs to be looked at carefully. It is a spin on the bumper sticker that some peace -loving people have on their cars that says COEXIST using  symbols from the world's great religions. This bumper sticker I found attached to guard rail in North Carolina has the same message. However, the emblems representing the letters are made from the logos of gun manufacturers and the NRA. I certainly don't want to shoot myself in the foot by saying that most folks down here love their firearms and their rights, but a whole of them do. The gap of trust in the federal government seems pervasive. You can draw your own conclusions about why and where this will lead, but there is a nasty ignorant sentiment out there and I, for one, don't like it.

Finally, the last photo comes from a truck on I-40 in Tennessee. I have no idea why someone painted a raccoon on the back of the truck, but it certainly made me feel good. I wonder if there is a fleet of different animals. This is why I love to travel. I see the usual and the unusual.  I watch the landscape go by and remain appreciative.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Welcome to America

As I had planned, Sergio's first hours in America were to be spent at Little Havana in Miami. Not surprisingly, his first impression of America was that it was like Central or South America, since all the people on the streets spoke Spanish and all store signs were in Spanish also. He seemed both relieved that he didn't immediately have to speak English and disappointed that America wasn't filled with the white cowboys he expected. Our quest was to experience genuine ethnic food and live music. I took him to "The Pub", an authentic Cuban restaurant, and we ordered a local platter of black beans and brown rice with plantain, topped with grilled pork loins, onion and seasonings. However, we could not find music since it was 4 PM on a Wednesday during the low season. After touring an art gallery filled with bright tropical Cuban paintings, and then watching locals playing dominoes in an open air plaza, we began to head back to our hotel. A modest-looking bar/buffet/ restaurant beckoned to me and I suggested we duck in for a cup of real Cuban espresso. It was virtually empty of customers. We were welcomed warmly by a smartly dressed lady, who seated us and hurried to have coffee made. People began entering the room from the back, some carrying flowers, presents and a delicious looking cake. There was to be a birthday party for one of the waitresses.We were at once included in the festivities and caught up in the laughter and merriment.  A fellow appeared holding a guitar and then began strumming and singing Cuban folk ballads and love songs. I was later told he had been a famous professional musician in Havana before fleeing in the 1980's. He even stood before us and serenaded us. The music was rhythmic, exotic, and gentle. I sketched him quickly and then later captured the likeness of the birthday girl who desired my drawing as a gift. I felt the magical aspect of  life enveloping me. We had found Cuban music and such an amazing cultural experience, yet the serendipitous and coincidental, cloaked in Cuban music and its cast of players had found us. Outside now, it started to rain and I spied a barbershop. I told Sergio that such places were excellent places to learn about the neighborhood. We were anointed in its colors and felt at home.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Destiny's Child?

I haven't blogged on this road trip up until now. Nonetheless, it is time to report that it has been a spectacular journey through Eastern Oregon, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, through Western Montana, Southeastern British Columbia and here to Kamloops. I have been focused entirely on the scenery and fishing and have not had the inclination to stop and record my impressions. My fortune has been remarkable as I have found breathtaking isolated campsites along idyllic streams,rivers and adjacent mountain lakes. However, by last weekend, my endeavor became more challenging. It was Thursday, the fourth of July weekend and, where last year along the Madison River I had felt like a hermit in my tent, this time I found myself fighting hoards of vacationers. Finally, I resigned myself to finding a room fifty miles away in Bozeman. Friday evening was a better night for me. I found the last available site in a small remote campground along the Blackfoot River.

By late Saturday afternoon I felt uneasy, as I left Whitefish Montana and headed further North on U.S.93. I began to feel increasingly anxious as the afternoon slipped on. After all these years of travel I have not fully overcome the fear of not knowing where I would to stay. It is primal. I spied a sign which announced a lake five miles up a dirt road. I turned off and bumped my way up a mountainside, only to discover when I arrived, that there were many warnings which told that overnight camping was prohibited. I had lost valuable time, had gotten hungry as well and felt misfortune. I began to feel genuinely discouraged and frustrated. I returned to the main road and drove further. After twenty minutes, the highway coursed through a narrow valley and announced the beginning of Stillwater State Forest. Large pine trees lined the road and snow covered peaks turning pink from the alpenglow portended the coming evening. I resolved that I would look for some isolated forest road to turn down in order to squat and find my own site, I spied the glimmer of what appeared to be a large lake through the foliage. Perhaps I could find my way to its edge, overnight there and even be able to fish. Then, as I slowed, looking for perhaps a jeep trail, I spotted several colorful tents through the trees and rolled past a driveway with a large open gate with a sign over the top which said Stillwater. Wow, I thought, how cool, a state campground. I hope it isn't full.  I hung a u-turn and went to the open gate and  rolled  down the driveway. To my amazement it was a private road leading to acres of luxurious lakefront property.  I was greeted by a woman in a long flowery dress who immediately pointed me to a spot to park and welcomed me to the "Stillwater Festival". Without asking me who I was or what I was doing there, she said I could put down my tent anywhere and added the music would begin shortly. Along the lake's edge before me was a state of the art outdoor band shelter and stage equipped with speakers situated before a grass amphitheater. More cars and vans began arriving filled with young people, mainly in their twenties, some holding small children. I learned it was a free concert for anyone and sponsored by the property owner, some aging hippie who believed in fostering love through music. Also there was much buzz that one of  the guest bands would arrive by helicopter. I realized that I had time for me to put my pontoon boat in the lake and so I began to fish. Soon the sounds of excellent live electric and acoustical guitar, drums and vocal echoed across the water. I rowed and kicked  relaxed and even hooked a huge trout. By the time I returned to the shore it had grown dark. There were probably not more than fifty people at the concert. Many were on the stage with the band dancing and singing to popular songs from 1990 to the present. I had never heard these tunes before, but felt gladdened to be exposed to this rhythm and to be part of the scene. The people were enthusiastic, incredibly energetic,  and danced so well. Incidentally, I saw no inappropriate behavior due to drugs or alchohol and every effort was made to maintain a sense of joy at the event.  I took off my sandals and danced along. I was, of course, the oldest person there and no one seemed to mind. Then the host made an appearance on stage to thank everyone for coming. He had a large white beard, twinkling eyes and was clearly someone of my generation and curiously looked like Jerry Garcia. The well-known Whitefish or Kalispell group played until midnight. The party broke and I returned to my tent to sleep. I shut my eyes and felt amazement. I had been struck by another episode of magical events composing my daily adventure.

(I am sorry about the poor picture quality. I had to take the photos from my phone rather than my normal digital camera and at that hour I couldn't find the right take good night photos.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Over Madagascar

I  have been home for over a month and practically every day I have opened my notepad and resolved to write a follow-up or concluding chapter of the Madagascar experience. Unfortunately, it feels like my creative juices have run dry. Perhaps I have not  adjusted properly to my normal circumstances.  In any case, I have lost the clarity of mind I felt so vibrantly while I was away. So to help kickstart my brain, I sorted through the more than fifteen hundred photos I took. I listened to the entire CD of authentic Malagasy music Clement, my guide and I recorded. I've reread my previous posts and examined the souvenirs I brought back.  Yet, in spite of the effort, I can not stop the dulling of memories. I am left with vague visions of landscape and animals, imprecise impressions of people, dumb platitudes about Madagascar society, and am out-of-touch with the sounds and odors that made the country distinctive. One experience though does suddenly come to mind and may help me offer at least something I learned.

One morning during the middle of the trip, I was on a private tour of Isalo National Park with a bright young naturalist whose name I no longer recall. We hiked up into high rugged dry terrain of plateaus separated by sheer cliffs of red, yellow, pink and white strata which drop vertically into deep narrow canyons. This topography, known as massifs, is considered to be among the most scenic and dramatic landscapes in the entire country and was not what I expected at all. At first glance, this un-tropical spot looked like it could be mistaken for landscape in Arizona and, if it were not for the presence of mud hut villages and herds of zebu, African oxen, I could see in the distance, one would expect to see road signs measuring distance to Phoenix.  Along the trail the guide and I stopped at viewpoints and scanned the horizon. We shared water and snacks and, interspersed between his narrative about the indigenous plants and animals that we encountered, he spoke, like so many of his type, of his dreams and aspirations to see the world. I had heard such sentiments many times before by others like him on this and other trips. The obstacles these young third world, environmentally conscious, people faced to satisfy their desire to discover the world beyond their neighborhood were numerous. Not only thwarted by impossible financial limitations, commitments to wives, children and extended family to be ever present providers, created a moral dilemma which left these bright curious people frustrated. His tone saddened me and made me feel undeservedly privileged. Exploring the world for me was a passion and a somewhat frivolous hobby, but for my naturalist guide discovery was integral to his identity and career development. He pointed out a "walking stick" on a branch which I had a difficult time spotting, even after he pointed and traced with his finger the insect's outline, and then indicated a small exotic-looking lizard whose head bobbed up and down. Later he told me of the life cycle of the golden-webbed spider.  He explained some of the theories of these animals strange behavior, which he communicated enthusiastically in English, but have could have done so as easily in French, German or Malagasy. The sun was now high in the sky and we reached the edge of a precipice. The view was expansive. I suddenly felt faint and overloaded from the rigors of travel and need to rest. Surrounded by ancient geologic Cambrian formations teeming with trilobite, ammonite and pre-dinosaur fossils, I lay down on my back, rested a bottle of water on my belly, dangled my feet over the edge, and looked up at the sky. I saw shapes in the clouds that looked like people I had known. I recalled the faces of my parents, sister, children and intimate friends and took an assessment of my life. My guide let me lie there for perhaps a half an hour or longer and made no effort to interrupt my reverie. He stood quite some distance away in the shade of a hillock. I winced from the pain of some recollections and felt gratitude for the imbalance of my life's positive fortune. It was then that I realized I had the ability to help a deserving young naturalist expand his experience and help him tour America in order to derive the benefits of world travel as I have.

I couldn't help that guy. He had committed himself  to a five year contract with his park service and also his wife had a second child due, but I have subsequently  made efforts to foster someone else. I have offered to pay a round trip ticket for a deserving fellow from Colombia I met several years ago to spend a month here. It is a work in progress and a struggle though to accomplish this in ways I hadn't expected. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Ah, think twice, just another day for you and me in ....."

I returned by plane to Antananarivo an hour ago and am now holed up in a rather disappointing, dirty, but internet-friendly hotel near the airport. From here I will spend my last two days in Madagascar before the long flight home. Finding my room depressing, I decided to use the lobby to write you a few thoughts about where I had been this past week. In my embarrassingly broken French, I asked the intelligent young lady at the front desk for the network password and remarked to her I had just arrived from the east coast where I had been out in the ocean on the primitive island of Ile Sainte Marie. She responded in equally broken English that she had only heard of that wonderful place, told me she had never been there, and the chance of ever going near there would be financially impossible. I mention this conversation because it reminded me again of my life's serendipitous blessing and the dichotomy I have continually experienced throughout my trip of seeing amazing beauty and unique wildlife intertwined with a world of poverty.

My driver took me on a route along the Indian Ocean through small robust towns and fishermen's villages and then, as planned, we split up and I went off on my own, making a two hour crossing of the sea to the renowned island. The landscape for the entire week was so lush and tropical. There were crystal clear lagoons, reefs, wide sandy beaches and palm trees everywhere. The travel agent who organized my trip had considered maximizing my pleasure and booked me each night in tourist-oriented resorts owned mainly by French expats. These hotels were guarded, self-contained  and walled off to minimize crime or any other unpleasantness that might occur from too close proximity with locals. What is paradise for some, I found just the opposite. The atmosphere was downright annoying. The other guests, mainly French tourists, most who still smoke and also drink too much, were generally unfriendly and pretentious and, as stereotypes go, seemed mainly interested in eating. Partially out of mischief, I avoided the almost obligatory dinners in the hotel's overpriced restaurants or several times ordered only a breakfast omelette instead of lobster tails. I explained to my frustrated and thoroughly perplexed guide that I didn't come to Madagascar to be with French people or for French cuisine. I asked to be taken into the nearest village to eat healthy ro mazavah* in Malagasy restaurants, in which I was treated respectfully and was charged the normal  price. During the days, I sat relaxed alone on the beach in a deck chair under the hot sun, read a book, swam in the warm calm water or snapped pictures. I also kept my eyes peeled for people among the work staff or hawkers on the beach to draw.  I've included several photographs which are intended to clarify the above narrative. As I look at these pictures, they fall so short of capturing the content and intensity of the week. They don't include the morning I spent touring at an old stone fort built by the English to protect terrified natives from the forays of Arab, Dutch and French slavers nor are there pictures of the wizened old man who related the historical events and then took my photo.
In any case, I have included only fragments of an incredible week, typified by three solitary beach scenes which convey a certain tranquility I experienced. Perhaps they describe some of the loneliness I felt as well.

Another photo shows one of the perpetrators of a terrible commotion of hoots and screeches just before dusk from the canopy above my cabin at a resort. Although not necessarily indigenous to the area, somebody introduced and released a family of variegated ruffed sifaka lemurs. There were obviously doing well, since I spied several young ones clinging and swinging through branches nearby.

*The food photo shows an upscale version of a plate of Ra Marzava I was served in a better restaurant and really doesn't portray accurately the authentic meals I ate had among the locals in little eateries. Normally the dish is prepared with either chicken, fish or pork which is boiled in its own broth together with cooked greens of cassava leaves, bok choy or sweet potato tops. This mix is then added to a large mound of rice and eaten in traditional Malagasy custom, cut up, shoveled up and lifted to the mouth using a large soup spoon. Most everyone adds varying quantities of hot peppery sauce or paste, some of which was so hot, that the smallest drops brought me practically to tears.

The last picture is a quick sketch I did of Anita, a server at a hotel. I drew quite a few folks on the trip, and found art a great way to relate to people. As usual, some drawings turned out okay and others not so good, but at least I became accustomed to the pressure of a crowd of people looking over my shoulder..  Special gratitude to Dawn, Steve, Sheryl, Jane and others who have encouraged me to find joy in drawing.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Out in the Wild

Tonight I am confined to my hotel room in Tamatave, Madagascar's second largest town and the country's major port on the Indian Ocean. My new guide Jonathon pleaded with me, more accurately, ordered me not to go out after dark. It's not safe he explained, for a "va-zaah", a naive-looking white foreigner, to walk along the city streets.  It is not difficult for me to heed his warning this time. As we rode along garbage-strewn streets, amid throngs of people, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and overloaded minibuses, through streets lined with wooden stalls, selling everything from hanging meat to bicycle tires, I didn't find the odors, the traffic, the massive amount of poverty, the ramshackle houses, the run-down and unfinished buildings, the nickel, cobalt or vanilla industrial section or anything else, for that matter, refreshing, positive or exotic. Perhaps I'm just feeling tired of being on the road and the rigor of being in the "third world." In any case, I welcomed the opportunity to stay in my room, catch up on sorting pictures, doing laundry and writing to you.
My internet connection shows only one bar, so uploading pictures of any large file size into blogger is futile. Therefore I am limited this evening to include small pictures, just a few close ups, which serve to tell something of Madagascar.

The first photo comes from an exciting nighttime boat trip I took from a lodge to a small tropical island where the government has introduced three pairs of highly endangered nocturnal lemurs known as aye-ayes. The guide spotted a pair and lured them down from higher branches with offerings of coconuts and corn for several of us to photograph. This is easier said than done. He shined his flashlight at them and I, completely inexperienced at how to use night settings and flash in a way not to spook a nervous, wiggly animal, shot away and managed to capture several decent pictures among the many black, blurry, out-of-focus attempts. The aye-aye is one of the weirdest mammals to be found. Even though it is, from a  morphological standpoint considered a lemur, this hairy creature is related in behavior to the woodpecker. It has a long index finger that it taps into wood and bores out sweet pulp, insects, and juice.

The second photo is of a mushroom I saw along a trail yesterday in a coastal rainforest. It looks like mosquito-netting covering a vertical tootsie roll. I don't know its name and a cursory image search has yielded no success. For a moment I thought it wasn't real. and it had been placed by the lodge where I was staying as a gag to amuse the tourists. Then I realized that, like many other living things I had seen, it was simply another oddity endemic to Madagascar,

My third example shows the national symbol of Madagascar, the traveler's palm. In the past few days I have seen whole forests of these fan-looking trees waving at me. The shape of the tree creates a decorative greeting and appears on the currency, on many stamps, and on the tail of Air Madagascar planes. The fronds are used as coveted roofing material on many huts but, most important, the tree has been earned its name from the huge reservoir of water that collects in a pocket near the base, which is available to the thirsty traveler during the dry season.

Last I decided to share another bird photo to compliment a picture I had posted last time. This is a Madagascar Harrier Hawk and sat still long enough, unlike most of the smaller colorful birds here that flit about, for me to take his picture. Like the other raptors here, it preys on chameleons, lizards, small mouse lemurs and other birds.

It is now late and my mind is beginning to churn with memories associated with the above scenes and many countless others. I shut my eyes and before me is a kaleidoscope of colors and objects swirling together. It is quitting time for me. Tomorrow I begin my final week here. Oh my gosh!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Thousand Words?

I have been without connectivity for a week and am finally able to write to you from an overnight stopover in the capital of Antananarivo. It is evening and I am fatigued from a long day's travel and am sitting alone in the lobby at a table in front of the windows which face the narrow street. It is pitch dark outside. The strong light above me reflects heavily against the glass making the ability to see through it difficult. During the day beggars and souvenir hawkers are usually in full view as they bargain annoyingly their wares across from the front door. They are gone now. I turn my attention to the task of finding the proper words to share with you about the past several days and feel constrained. There has been too much remarkable. To say anything effectively, I know I must narrow my scope and limit the subject matter. As I contemplate how to do that, a weird moment occurs. I am distracted and my attention shifts back to the window. I see my face staring back at me. It looks double and blurry and it takes me a second to realize that a shape, is superimposed behind my own. A person is outside standing closely up against the glass and like a hologram or halo, his face is shining through my own. It belongs to a reasonably well-dressed younger fellow who doesn't look quite like the other sorts who hang around. For an instant, I consider he is a messenger from my tour company trying to get my attention. He gestures and points with his left hand to his right in which he is holding something. I realize he wants to show me something, so I move closer to get a better view. To my shock, slung over his shoulder is a leather pouch, and in his hand, directed for me to see, is an open booklet containing lovely old French Colonial stamps from Madagascar.

He said he needed money for his son. I broke the news to him gently that I had spent my life collecting stamps, especially French Colonies, knew these particulars well and regretted, for his sake, they weren't rare. I kept on thinking how this meeting was meant specifically for me. In a neighborhood devoid of other hotels or tourists, and, in a country where stamp collectors are as scarce a snowflakes, we found one another. It was one of those mysterious fragments of time that are found in dreams, in stories of magic, or unexplained instances that are called amazing coincidences, which are then shelved and forgotten.  Like a spider that dropped down from a single-strand web, he appeared at my window. I have seen people selling newer issued stamps in markets on the street in other countries and never old ones. I have seen no such vendors in my travels here. These earlier stamps that he was selling were testimonials to the inglorious history of French imperialism. RF (Republique Francais) appears printed on each in colorful letters over or around the name Madagascar as a reminder to every mail sender or receiver what government was in charge. The lithographed scenes of native people, pristine countryside and indigenous animals which make the body of the stamp told of a wild and romantic world.

This past week I saw the remnants of that life, indescribably beautiful, but one now damaged beyond belief. It is too hard right now for me to explain. Perhaps it is best to share with you "my stamps." It is said that each picture is worth a thousand words and, in my case,  I hope these tell you my story.
Btw., The bird is a Madagascar spotted kestrel. I saw it perched on top of a palisander tree just around sunset. It is a sacred symbol of the tribe that lives where the shot was taken.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On the Road with Clement and Me

The cool temperature of the highlands and the fertile rice fields of its valleys have given way to a spiny wasteland. We are approaching the end of National Route 7 in the southwest of Madagascar just above the Tropic of Capricorn. Driving at a leisurely tempo, Clement, my guide, is humming and singing softly the words to the traditional folk songs from the CD in the player which we bought several days ago. As usual, I am watching the landscape and the people along the road, snapping an occasional picture, when I become aware that I feel frightened. It is an odd sensation I have had before on trips and arises when I am too far away from the safety of the world I know. As if Clement senses my anxiety or he suddenly feels his own, in his gentle Malagasy-English accent, he articulates what I see. "Sad, very sad" he laments and makes first a clicking sound with his tongue and says "The people have no water."  Along the desolate road I see locals, mainly children, pushing carts loaded with 20 gallon jugs. Some appear at first like ghosts out of the shimmering heat, miles from the nearest house or community. They are headed for tiny dark red mud or straw huts, which are clustered in small groupings around a charcoal burner in order to deliver an essential which I have taken for granted. I reach into the pocket of the passenger side door and pull out my plastic bottle of "Eau Vive" and take a swig. The water is warm. The car thermometer says its 29 C outside. I eagerly anticipate the sighting of the ocean, which I feel by its different color and texture will help soothe my mood  and, when over a bluff  it comes into view, I realize I'm looking west and homeward. I flash back to a vision of my childhood. I'm standing above Torrance Beach in Southern California. The sky is bright and cloudless and I am looking at the blue of the water to the horizon. It seems endless, which is both exciting and a little unnerving. Here the section of ocean before me is called the Mozambique Channel. I'm told it is 400 kilometers wide before it washes up against the east coast of Africa. I push away the thought and, for a moment, preferred the chance to see the familiar distant outline of Catalina Island.