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.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Posing for the Camera?

My hat goes off to wildlife photographers. That's the way I feel this afternoon after spending several hours with a guide to find lemurs in the Ramofana Rainforest Preserve in Eastern Madagascar. This morning under leaden skies and a light, humid mist, Eliaza, my 25 year old guide, took me on the "short" two hour trek through what he referred to his tribe's native land. Running ahead of us was his "spotter", a sixteen year old local youngster wearing a recycled t-shirt, ill-fitting pants and cheap rubber sandals. The trail descended quickly into a gorge and crossed over, using a rickety bridge a roiling, rain-swollen, chocolate-colored river. I was well outfitted with rain gear and waterproof shoes but the red mud began to splatter over my clothing as we hiked steeply up the other side. I had said to myself that I had needed a workout, after the day before's long car ride, but began to feel out-of-breath, miserable and sweaty. I seriously wondered if the quest to just see some "big-eyed" animal would be worth the effort. Then the spotter suddenly appeared from around a bend and began gesticulating and whispering in Malagasy. With that, my guide moved with agility and quietly off the trail and urged me to follow him upwards into the undergrowth to wend through densely packed trees, vines ferns and lianas. With my camera swinging wildly from my neck and my pack, like a giant barnacle, attached to my back, I squeezed and strained my way almost vertically for several hundred yards to a place where the spotter almost magically reappeared. He pointed to the canopy almost directly above me, as my guide announced proudly that we had come upon a family of rare Edward's Sifaka lemurs. I fumbled for my camera, adjusted settings and saw, tucked peacefully on a branch, a beautiful black and white furry mass. I began to focus and almost immediately the damn thing left its perch and proceeded gracefully, and with amazing precision, to swing and leap from branch to branch further up the hill. I grabbed hold of wooden vines to help me climb onward and was cautioned to avoid certain thorny trunks. Finally we caught up with the our quest who was joyously munching on ripe guava fruit. As I reached for my camera, I felt a strange tickling pain in the hollow between my thumb and forefinger. There, attached to my skin, was a small black leach who had decided to join in the adventure. As I pried the "sucker" loose and began to bleed, the sifaka, which I was told was the male, was joined by the female and a baby. Without as much as a warning, they split up suddenly, with one of them leaping within ten feet of me. I grabbed my camera and shot wildly. Instantly I saw that I had captured some amazing streaks of light and nothing that even resembled a body of an animal. I cursed my existence and my lack of camera skill and again slipped and slithered my way through leaves, mosses, branches and wet goo to a new location. Finally I achieved a certain degree of composure and, from a decent angle, spied clearly the "wily" male. I aimed, saw a dark object on my screen with the white light of the sky behind it, and pressed the shutter. Upon review of the picture, I had snapped nothing more than a black silhouette. It was a humbling and another in a string of perplexing moments. Finally though, I had some luck and modest success which I hope the above photo demonstrates.

I don't know how people who tote tripods, cameras with giant lenses and a crapload of equipment do it. All I know, this kind of eco-tourism experience is intensely educational, often exhausting, and, best of all, thrilling. To achieve top-quality moments sometimes requires effort and, as I sit here now, showered and relaxed, I feel blessed to have lived through another fulfilling day on this journey.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Snippets of Scenery

Maybe I should have pushed myself out the door of my comfortable hotel and experienced something of the nightlife of the small, poor, bustling city, where the driver and I have stopped. However, I got excited when I discovered good internet connection in my room and rationalized greedily that I should do a post before it becomes impossible as we head south. The truth of the matter was that I simply didn't feel tonight like going through the hassle of walking on pock-holed streets and sidewalks in the darkness amid a throng of local folks to look for that memorable moment, all the while being hassled by rickshaw pullers and street hawkers. It'a not like a backpacking-wearing, camera-toting, older white guy goes unnoticed. Besides,on rare occasions, it can be dangerous.

People have asked me to share scenery pictures to get a sense what Madagascar looks like. I find fulfilling this request most challenging, since it is a country about 3/4 the size of California, and, like it, has vastly different climactic zones. So far I have been in the capital Antananarivo, an eastern rainforest, and today, the beginning of the south. Within these zones alone, I have seen much diversity.

The first photo is from a prominent mount in the center of Tana, the short name for the capital. It shows the sports complex, which was built and paid by the Chinese allegedly as part of a deal to allow Asian business interests to buy up the county's entire bauxite industry. Behind it  is the monument in the lake commemorating independence from France in 1961. I'll spare close-up city scenes which, as you can imagine, show much poverty, a subject I have intentionally avoided in my posts so far.

The second, third and fourth photo shows the landscape transitioning to fertile highlands. I have oodles of pictures of people harvesting the fields and orchards. It is Fall here and vegetables and grains, such as corn and rice, are drying on mats everywhere.

The fifth and sixth photos show  the primary rainforest  It has towering trees, dense undergrowth and great lemur habitat.

As you can see by the brevity of my comments, I have run out of steam. My eyes are heavy and I have reached a point where I can barely type. I hope this  has helped give you some visual idea of this amazing country. I will do my best to furnish more the next time. Thank you all for your loving encouragement and good night!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lemur's my name

I promised to show scenery in my next post and yet I don't know where to begin. It is a sign that either I am not ready or I'm not up to the task. At the moment, I'm on the East Coast of Madagascar and in one of the country's few remaining untouched tropical rainforests. My last two days have been spent with a guide hiking through the lushgreen settings. His name is Leeva and he is like many of the young naturalists I have met on various trips. He is passionate about the environment, knowledgeable, can make amazingly accurate bird calls and animal sounds, spot camouflaged creatures that even with specific directions I barely can see, and best of all, is patient with me. He is a self-educated villager, who has never been out of Madagascar, would eagerly see the world if he had the resources and didn't have an extended family he is required to support.

Our quest, of course, was to find lemurs, a collection of unusual species found only in Madagascar that have not evolved from monkeys but share common ancestry to early primates. It became apparent that even though there are many in the area, they simply don't eagerly seek out noisy camera-toting tourists but prefer to forage for tasty leaves in small family groups in peace and quiet. Certain lemurs, the largest type the indri, make loud hooting calls and are relatively easy to locate. but others only make a low whistling sound or grunt and are more difficult to find.

The lemurs lead a lovely life. They spring from tree to tree with amazing agility using soft clawless hands and are really free from predators with one exception, a strange weasel-like animal related to civets and mongooses, namely the fossa, pronounced in Malagasy as "fusha." There are many of these sleek animals lurking about, but even my guide has only seen one once in the wild. For the less adventuresome traveler, an upscale resort has a private sanctuary open to the public to see all the animals endemic to Madagascar.

I sweated my way up and down and through lush undergrowth and had great fortune to see and photograph a number of terrific lemurs, but a part of my tour itinerary was the obligatory stop at the French-managed five-star lodge. I wanted to see their captive fossa first hand so I had first to go through an initiation of being photographed with a lemur. It may seem like I enjoyed being kissed, licked, and chewed on but you would be wrong. I was totally freaked. Once, several years ago, I tried to throw a banana at a Hanuman, langur monkey in India and was practically attacked by another one, who hidden from my view jumped down on my shoulder and wanted his due. I have learned that wild animals can be totally unpredictable and later learned that one visitor had been accidentally bitten in the past year. In this part of the world, liability concerns seem non existent.

Tomorrow I leave this luxurious area and head back inland. I have a portfolio of photos of mammals, insects, reptiles and birds. I have pictures of giant trees some wrapped by lianas and others wearing broaches of bromeliads. I have made a few friends of local people and have been able to draw some portraits. These are keepsakes which memorialize my visit. They will outlast my memories.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Faces of Malagasy People

As I predicted, blogging on my tour of Madagascar is going to be challenging. Uploading pictures requires great patience. At the moment it may take over ten minutes to load even one and that's when I'm not knocked offline. The benefit is that it means I can not fool around. I need to report succinctly and with clear purpose.

First of all, I feel great and am totally thrilled with the experience so far. I have seen amazing countryside in my day and half  here and have met worthwhile people. Tonight I will have my first look at animals. I have left the capital and am staying in rustic lodging at a nature preserve in the interior of the country.  I am going on a night walk with a private guide to spot nocturnal lemurs and glow-in-the-dark chameleons.

This country is vastly different in character and landscape than I experienced in Tanzania. The inhabitants don't consider themselves even Africans. The island has many people who have come from the continent, but many more who trace their origin to Indonesia. This Asian element, with years of mixing, including with the French, is obvious. Unique facial expression, shape of heads, skin color, language and food preference makes the culture as special as the animals that live here.

I know I have not shared any landscape pictures today and that many of you may be curious of what it looks like here. I promise I will share a few snapshots in the following report. It is simply the fact that I can barely condense the diversity of geographical features and I felt a greater urgency to show people. The above pictures are a fraction of faces I have snapped. I even got to draw one of the young ladies in pink, who were part of a choir on their way to a performance. I must thank my stars now and sign off before I lose all my work to the caprice of the signal. Best to you all from out here somewhere.

Friday, April 11, 2014

South African Smiles


After a short commuter train ride from the airport, I emerged from the underground and found myself in a square at a busy intersection. At least 50 school children, all clean and in pressed uniforms, were lining up to get train tickets. Other South Africans moved confidently around me. I looked at their faces and saw dark-skinned, smiling people, many with fashionable hair-dos. I realized to my core that I was in Africa again. It was a joyous feeling that was similar to seeing a great painting from a far-off gallery I had enjoyed years before and now had the fortune to see again. I took off my pack, sat down on a bench to breathe and take my bearings to find my hotel. A huge poster of Nelson Mandela grinned down at me and clearly welcomed my return to this continent.

After a decent night's sleep, a backpack-toting anomaly in my fancy hotel, I was intent, as my dear friend Jim, another veteran traveler, recently reminded me, to go out and "hone my edge". This means making the effort to find experiences which bring a person closer to the reality of the place you are visiting. It means avoiding vestiges of traditional tourism, which are filled with well-to-do folks who aren't local and where the service people who are, usually act and speak artificially, according to proscribed protocol, since they are expected to do so while they are at work.

It took little time for me to uncover, several blocks away, a small enclave of street vendors who were unpacking their wares. I knew that this was the place I had sought and would stop there after making an obligatory visit to the "famous" Mandela plaza and shopping mall. Upon my return I began chatting freely with several sellers, one in particular, who pulled up a plastic crate for me to sit. He told me of his family and himself, gave me his Zulu name, related various prurient adventures, and then willingly let me take his picture. Then I pulled out my sketchpad and captured his likeness. This attracted the attention of other hawkers who joined in on our conversation. I drew another who suffered the laughter of his comrades who chided him about his big nose.

After a while, a food cart opened several stalls away and, needing lunch, and against what would be considered sound judgment and the advice of many of you, I ordered local chicken, potatoes and spinach in a hard-to-describe sauce. From my rickety outdoor table, I snapped pictures of various customers and the ladies cooking behind the counter.

I was happy and felt like I had TRULY begun my journey to Africa. Tomorrow I fly to Madagascar and hope that more quality days will follow.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Afar from Qatar

Yesterday morning my ticket took me from Bend to Seattle and then on to Chicago, from where I boarded a 12 1/2 hour flight to Qatar. Now I have 13 hours in the Doha airport before my next leg to South Africa; therefore it seems like a good time to record some thoughts while I sit  in a comfortable chair in the business lounge.

Spending long periods of time at home in Bend has clearly made me unaccustomed to cultural diversity. The departure lounge for the international flight in Chicago was overflowing with passengers from many different backgrounds, especially those from North Africa, who were speaking often loudly and frantically in strange languages, not only in Arabic. I saw also quiet people too, waiting patiently, including many veiled women wearing burkas. There were unfamiliar odors and curious facial expressions and gestures that I had not seen in a long time. For a brief moment I felt depressed and unnerved amid the oddities and chaos, troubled by the reality that, in the greater world, I was a minority and ethnically alone. Only after I boarded and sat peacefully in first class among the "rich and refined", did I experience a sense of relief to be separated from the din of the masses.

I enjoyed immensely that the symbol of Qatar Airways is an Arabian oryx. It was pleasant to see the image of a once, almost extinct large-horned antelope staring at me from flight attendants' broaches,  from ticket envelopes and napkins, and adorning the plane's massive tail.

I have to admit that, at times, I felt embarrassed and out-of-place by the luxurious food, drink and service afforded me by the staff on the plane, none of whom incidentally appeared to be Qataris. I was later told that it would be impossible for a Qatari woman to work in a plane for she would have to be covered from head-to-toe and also could not be relieved from family obligations. Likewise, I heard from a young fellow, who has been bringing me bottled water while I type to you. that practically all service work, especially in the hotels and airport, are done by Muslims from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and North Africa. Qataris, he alleged, are educated and groomed to be given the "better" jobs.

I am growing weary and my eyes are suddenly heavy. My body is reacting now pleadingly to the change in time and from the perils of peculiar sleep. Also my digestive system has started to question, with somewhat humorous alacrity, the delicious meals that have been filled with savory spices. Traveling requires measured steps and now it is time for me to end this piece and rest.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"I am you and you are me and we are......."

                                                  Homage to a Madagascar Warrior.

When I was little, my Uncle Paul and my dad helped me become interested in stamp collecting. They gave me a big bag full of little colorful paper pictures and a book  in which to attach them according to country. It was from this earliest time that I first learned the word Madagascar and heard my father intone, with his heavy German accent, its capital Antananarivo. My favorite stamp from there, featured what I assumed was a tribal chief bedecked in skins and holding a spear.
Over sixty years have past since I proudly found the right spot on the album page and affixed this fellow to a black and white photo of himself. I think how much the world has changed since then and consider the fact that if this warrior were still alive, he might today be carrying a cellphone tucked in his loincloth.

My curiosity drives me to explore what was once his magical world and to meet his ancestors and descendants. I wonder what I might find that still shows the remnants of that former time. Feeling amazing excitement and anticipation of adventure, I write today from the Seattle airport, finishing what might be my last cup of Starbucks for some time, as I wait for my flight which will eventually take me to his large island off of East Africa. In a way, I feel a sensation that he has invited me, lured me since childhood to experience his mysterious world. I am finally answering the call and am on the way.

I will do my best to stay in touch with you, my friends and family, and report on what I find over this next month although opportunity to connect to the internet may be intermittent.