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!