Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Every Day an Adventure

When you take a break from bush taxis and hire a car and driver, the car's tire picks up a nail. If there's no rooster crowing at 4 a.m., there are pigs snuffling under the bathroom window. And when you find a hotel with internet access, the power goes out.

We're getting used to the challenges of traveling in Madagascar--in fact we're having a blast. But it may be a while longer before we can share our latest adventures. So, since we miraculously have a few minutes of internet access, a quick note to tell family and friends we're alive and well. Prepare yourselves--we plan to bore you at dinner parties with Madagascar stories for years to come!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

At Long Last Lemurs

At a community-run preserve near Andasibe, Madagascar, a guide has earned this indri's trust, so we got to see her close up . . . 
 . . . very close up.


The next day, at a national park nearby, diademed sifakas put on quite a show.


We also saw some lemurs who were too shy or too fast to photograph. Rie and Christian--our guide the first day--are looking for common brown lemurs here. We also saw bamboo lemurs and, on a night hike, some mouse lemurs.

 Here's Christian at the native plant nursery his organization runs.


And here’s Rémi, our guide on the second day.

 We also saw all kinds of other creatures great and small, like this nose-horned chameleon,

and tiny frogs,

a giraffe-necked weevil,

a poisonous spider,

and all kinds of plants we'd never seen before.

And with luck, there's more to come. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Misadventures in Madagascar – Part II

In which the sisters learn they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

All we had to do was get some cash and change hotels. Aside from those chores, we thought, we’d have a pleasant, relaxing Sunday strolling around Antananarivo.  

Things didn’t turn out that way at all. But before I get into what happened, a quick aside to our mother: Don’t worry, Mom. Everything  turned out just fine in the end.

We left our bags at our first hotel—charming but unfortunately full that night—and walked a few blocks to the long rectangular plaza in the middle of town. Immediately we were set upon by young men selling drums and some kind of stringed instrument, kids selling postcards and vanilla beans, women with blanket-wrapped babies clamoring for change. On every side, poverty and desperation and cries of “Madame! Madame!”  

We didn’t want to buy anything, and we knew giving handouts doesn’t do any good. So we tried saying, “Non, merci.” We tried just ignoring the clamor and walking on. But people were persistent, and they were everywhere. As soon as we passed one group, another would approach. The area looked well worth a stroll—Eiffel’s train station at one end, a fountain in the middle, arched breezeways fronting the two- or three-story buildings along both long sides. There were balloons and ice cream carts, and the place had a festive air. But we couldn’t take all the attention, so we hid in a restaurant to drink sodas and map out our hotel search.

Then off we went up a long cobblestoned hill, back down it again because I’d gotten the directions wrong, and back up it again.
Many of the people in this part of town were in Sunday morning finery. There were girls in shiny, poufy dresses with serious lace, vendors with stalls of fruit and samosas, guys lounging near old Renaults asking if we needed a taxi, more young children with their hands out.

“Madame! Madame!”

The first hotel was only semi-dismal, the next marginally better. To see one that had sounded promising online, we had to take a taxi, and that meant bartering with one of the guys with the Renaults.

“Sept mille,” a young driver told us. Seven thousand.

“Quatre,” I countered. Four.

We settled on cinq (five), but—just to be sure—he said as we got in, “Cinq mille.” Five thousand, not five.

“Si,” I said, laughing. “I mean oui. Cinq mille.”

He drove us through streets jammed with people, past all kinds of stuff set out for sale on the sidewalks—luggage, purses, food, stacks of jeans, piles of sneakers. Later in the day we passed somebody’s laundry, including cloth sanitary pads, spread out flat on the pavement to dry.

When we got to the hotel, Rie handed him a 10,000 ariary note. He said he didn’t have change and handed it back. So I gave him a 5000 ariary bill.

“Don’t you have any . . . ?” He held up a 1000. He was forcing a substantial tip, though 5000 was already more than we should have paid. He was grinning and joking, but he wasn’t giving up. So I pulled out a 2000, took his 1000, and there we were, having paid 6000 for a ride that probably should have cost half that.

Ah well. This hotel was a haven, an old brick mansion with high ceilings, a flower-filled patio and a pleasantly ramshackle air. Our big attic room had casement windows with tall wooden shutters that opened onto wide views over the city. One mission accomplished.

Now all we needed was to find an ATM and to retrieve our bags from the first hotel. We wanted to head off to the rainforest early the next day, and the little town where we planned to stay had no bank. We walked back to the center of town, had a lunch of omelettes and frites, then decided to walk up the hill toward the palace before taking care of business.

More people selling, more people begging. One man followed us, holding his hat out upside down, asking for money.

“Madame! Madame!”

I was ignoring him until he suddenly turned the hat sideways and put it over my purse, which was strapped across my chest. Suddenly, begging was about to turn to purse-snatching. I had been walking with one hand around my purse strap and I clutched it tighter. Meanwhile, Rie turned to him and said “Vas!” in a threatening voice.  It did the trick and he went. Thank heavens for my big sister.

We steeled ourselves again—danger averted, after all—and climbed the long stone staircase to the upper town. More people begging, more people selling. One mother, toddler in tow, was so persistent that we stood by a security guard for a while until she gave up. We saw a beautiful red colonial structure—a government building? the president’s mansion?—and wandered over to have a look.  We heard someone whistling but we were in block-it-out mode and kept on ambling. Then the whistling grew somehow insistent and authoritative, and we realized a guard had come out of a sentry box and was yelling at us. Oops. Guess we weren’t supposed to be approaching this building.

We headed in another direction, still trying to get closer to the palace, though it was clear by then that it was further away than we thought. We came to an arbor looking out at the city’s hills, the square palace perched above us, lots of greenery all around. There were tree-sized poinsettias and some enormous yellow flowers.

But the beggars and touts were growing increasingly wearing, and it was hard to relax enough to enjoy the view. We decided we didn’t have enough energy for more sightseeing, not with the level of vigilance it seemed to require here. So we walked down the hill on another stone staircase. Maybe everything was just fine, maybe we’d be all right if we stayed alert, but without knowing our way around, without being familiar yet with local ways, we just weren’t sure how nervous we should be.

Especially when it came to withdrawing cash from an ATM. Since it was Sunday, the banks were closed, and though we’d seen quite a number of cash machines, they were all directly on the street. We saw one with a guard, but when we looked more closely we realized he was asleep.

At another one, the guard was awake and alert but nearby a man was leaning on a car, apparently just hanging out at the ATM. I realized later he may have been guarding the car, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. Speaking to each other in low voices, we agreed that even if we found a machine with an alert guard and no hangers-on, anybody passing by could watch us withdraw money and then follow us.

I’d read that the Antananarivo Hilton had an ATM inside its lobby. “Why don’t we get a taxi and go there?” I suggested. “We’ll go in, get our money and then get another cab. We’ll get our bags and go on to the new hotel.” It would mean a few cab fares, but it seemed the safer route.

Rie agreed, and seeing a yellow Renault right there, I went up to the driver’s window.

“Bonjour!” I said. I showed him the address for the Hilton and asked if he knew it.


Then we went through the fare haggling:

“C’est combien?”

“Sept mille.”

“Sept mille! C’est trop cher. Trois mille.” 

“Non.  Quatre mille.”

“Non, merci.” And we started to walk away.

“OK. Trois mille.”

It felt like a small victory until we got into the car. (Note to selves: always take a good look at the vehicle before you approach the driver!) The back door on the side we were on didn’t open and we had to go around.  Inside, the black seat was lumpy and battered, and when I leaned back I heard buckling sheet metal. There was no interior to speak of—any inside panels the doors may once have had were long gone, and the thin metal that remained was so warped that the door didn’t quite close at the bottom.

And when the driver got in, he reached under the dashboard—or where the dashboard would have been if the guts of the car’s controls weren’t all spilling free up there—and put two wires together to try and start the car. He tried again and again. Meanwhile, I noticed that strapped into the leg space for the front passenger seat was a small fire extinguisher.

Soon I began to worry that we might need to use it. The driver finally got the engine going and black exhaust puffed through the passenger compartment. The smoke cleared, but the car’s frame rattled loudly as we headed up the cobbled street, and the whole car lurched as the driver jerked us through the gear changes. The streets were full of people and cars and hand carts and motorcycles, and we had a number of near misses. I wondered if we should just get out next time the car stopped.

But I calmed down as we drove along the hillside and the city’s central lake and out onto a wide avenue marked “Ho Chi Minh.” The driver asked again for the brochure with the Hilton’s address. He peered at it as he drove, looked around, then stopped the car and said with a here-we-are tone, “L’Hilton.”

We looked. Nothing remotely Hilton-like to be seen, just a wide commercial street. Meat shops, car repair, that kind of thing.

“Je ne le peut pas voir,” I said, or tried to say. I can’t see it. And the Hilton wasn’t supposed to be on Ho Chi Minh Avenue—though wouldn’t that be ironic if it was?

He kept insisting it was right there. We kept peering around fruitlessly. He took the brochure again and read aloud emphatically, “Hilton Madagascar, cinq étoiles, rue Pierre Stibbe d’Anosy.”

He read the “cinq étoiles”—five stars—as if it was part of the address. Not reassuring.

“Mais où?” Rie asked. But where?

He gestured vaguely down the street.

“We should go back where we started,” Rie said to me.

“Or to the Sakamanga,” I said. That was our first hotel, where our bags were, about two blocks from where we’d started this ride.

We asked him to take us there and he claimed to know where it was. And it seemed better to take our chances with him than to get out on Ho Chi Minh.

“Quatre milles,” he said. Four thousand more? We ignored this.

We rattled and swerved our way back. At one point, so much black smoke puffed up in front of the driver that I thought there really was going to be an engine fire.

But we got there. He did know where the Sakamanga was. And the little lever in the battered back door worked. We got out and gave him 4000, plenty for a round trip to nowhere.

“Non!” he said when he looked at the bills. It was two trips! It should be two fares!

“Non!” I said right back through the window, my exasperation overcoming my awareness that I really didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in French. (And those of you who can actually speak French may want to avert your eyes for a moment.) “Vous nous disez que vous savez où est l’Hilton. Mais vous ne le savez pas!” Probably what I actually said was even more jumbled than that, but he got what I was saying and started to protest.

“Let’s just go,” said Rie.

We did. We were still rattled and annoyed, so we sat on the pleasant little wooden bench in front of the Sakamanga for a few minutes to calm ourselves.

“We went through this in Chachapoyas,” I said, knowing Rie would know what I meant. There too we both felt anxious and fearful at first. There too we blundered around stupidly until we got our bearings.

“I know,” said Rie. “And it turned out we really didn’t need to worry there.” She paused. “And Cape Town is probably more dangerous than here, but I feel more scared here.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Why is that?”

“Part of it’s that we just got here.”

“And we don’t know the language.”

“Yeah. Being able to speak English was nice.”

“And there are more beggars here. The poverty is more in your face. People coming up to you and asking for money and not going away. That didn’t happen in Cape Town.”


We sat a bit more. We decided it really wasn’t essential to go to an ATM that day. We could go the next morning and just set out for the rainforest a little later.

We took some deep breaths, retrieved our bags and came back out on the street again, ready for one last round of vendor avoidance and taxi negotiation. And without further incident we got back to our new hotel, utterly wiped out. So much for the relaxing Sunday! We decided we’d stay put one more day, gather our energy, then get out of town and go find those lemurs. 

The next afternoon, rested enough to give it one more try, we set out again for centre-ville. We still weren’t entirely at ease. We were still unsure what was safe and what was not. But we were a little better prepared and so a little less tense.

And all went well. In the pharmacy, two staff members smiled at my primitive French and cheerfully used no fewer than four keys to open up glass cabinets and get us bug spray, a toothbrush, ibuprofen, sunscreen. True, they sold us sunscreen tinted for brown skin, but then again we should have realized what “couleur de peau” means here.

Later we managed our ATM withdrawal without incident. And at a little restaurant near the street market, we bought some food for the next day’s bus trip and fell into conversation with the two friendly men working there.

You are from the United States? one asked in French while the other went off to get change. Really? It’s so far! He paused. And the people there, they’re all very intelligent?

We laughed. It’s a big country, I said. Some people are intelligent. Others, no.

His co-worker came back with our change. You are very beautiful, he told us.

And you are very nice, I said as we left.

It was a small exchange, but it cheered me up enormously. Sometimes all you need is some benign interaction. The scene on the street seemed much more vibrant than threatening, the bustling street market fascinating. I started noticing the piles of tiny fish, the mandarin oranges stacked in piles of five, the people eating at stools at little counters, the people playing dominoes on the dusty sidewalk.

Antananarivo market. In the foreground, one of the ubiquitous Renault taxis--this one in pretty good shape.

In Cape Town and in some of the places we visited in Argentina, much of daily life was hidden away behind walls, even at times behind high locked gates. Here, everything is out in the open. Yes, there’s peeing on the street, but there’s also music. The occasional attempted purse-snatching, but also laughter and give and take and conversation. We have to be careful—and we will be careful, Mom!—but we might just be able to have a good time too.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Misadventures in Madagascar – Part I

In which the two traveling sisters discover they still have a lot to learn.

The plane door opened onto a black, humid night and a smoky, vegetative smell I couldn’t identify. Our flight to Madagascar had landed on Nosy Bé, a small resort island off the northwestern coast of the country. Some passengers were headed for the Nosy Bé beaches. The rest of us would go through customs here and then continue on to the capital, Antananarivo.

Inside the little terminal were rafts of officials with rubber stamps. Then we were motioned through an x-ray machine that wasn’t on and into a hot waiting room with wooden-shuttered windows and rows of blue plastic chairs bolted to the floor. In the ladies room, the toilet paper was blue and the toilet didn’t flush.

As we sat in the waiting room, a bulky white man, white-haired and bearded, approached us, smiling.

“I thought you were getting off here,” he said.

“No, we’re going to Antananarivo,” we said. People call it Tana, but having finally learned how to pronounce it, I said the whole thing.

“First time in Madagascar?”


“You’ll love it.”

“Yes, I think we will. And you?”

“Oh, I live here. Been here 17 years.” He was traveling on business and was headed back to see his family, he said. “I’d like to retire, but they want me to keep working. Don’t want me around, I guess.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said.

“Are you with a tour group?”


“Making your own arrangements?”


“Save a lot of money that way. A lot of money.” Pause. “Are you planning to go down the river?” Pirogue trips down the Tsiribihina River are a big thing here.

“Maybe. We aren’t sure yet.”

“You’d enjoy it. And you’ll enjoy Tana. It’s very poor—don’t be surprised. And don’t feel bad. Because of the color of your skin, people will ask you for things.”

“Mmmm.” Changing the subject, I asked what we should pay for a taxi from Tana’s airport into town. We hoped our hotel would send a driver, but it’s always good to have a back-up plan. We knew we’d have to haggle, and we’d heard wildly varying rates.

“40,000 to 50,000 ariaries,” he said. “That’s if you take the yellow taxis, the Deux Chevaux or the Renault 4s. The white taxis are much more expensive.” Pause. “What hotel are you booked into?”

“Oh,” I said with a smile, “we make it a practice not to say. I don’t mean to be unfriendly.”

But without another word, he stalked off.  

“What do you suppose was up with that?” I asked Rie. I thought he might be a tour operator hoping to sell us a river trip.

“Who knows?” she said.

Whatever he was up to, we evaded one scrape and went straight into the next. At least I did. When it was time to board the plane again, I looked up at the Air Madagascar logo on the tail—a stylized traveler’s palm, very pretty—and without really thinking about it snapped a picture.  

An official immediately loomed before me, tall and stern, in a white, short-sleeved uniform.

“No photos!”

“I’m sorry!” I said, picturing being taken back into the terminal by the ear. “I won’t do it again!”

The guard smiled then and that was it. No confiscation of my camera, no troublesome interrogation. Whew.

“We just got here,” Rie said quietly, grinning. “Don’t get us arrested.” We got back on the plane for the last leg.

Antananarivo is a city of several million, but aside from a few pinpricks of light, it was all but totally dark from the air. On the tarmac, several trucks shone their headlights so passengers could make their way to the terminal. At baggage claim, where the one clunking belt looked like it dated from the 70s, a huge iridescent insect with whirring wings flew around, bumping into the rails of people’s baggage carts.

We got our bags, squared our shoulders, and headed for the arrivals hall, where we expected a horde of taxi drivers to clamor for our business. There were only a few, but one round-faced guy latched onto us right away.

“Taxi? Taxi? Speak English? Hotel?”

“Non, merci.”

What we wanted was a phone to call the hotel and see about our ride. In the best of all possible worlds, we would have made certain in advance that they’d send a driver, but we’d finalized our Madagascar plans in a bit of a hurry and hadn’t gotten to confirm that detail.

We scanned the little room. Nothing. Not just no phone—nothing. No little shops, no restaurant, no information booth, no ATM. No sign for ground transportation. There was a guy sitting in a little window changing money, but that was it. It started to look like we might be at the mercy of the round-faced driver who had accosted us. He knew it too.

“Taxi?” he said again, smiling hopefully, holding out a card and pointing to a figure. “40,000 pour centre ville.”

“Non, merci.” The price was right, but the more persistent he was, the more wary we felt. And now he had a friend with him and the two of them were grinning away at us. By then we had found the lone payphone just outside the arrivals hall, but it only took phone cards and there was nowhere to buy one.

Naturally, Round Face had followed us. He held out his cell phone. “Call hotel. Free!”

“Non, merci,” we said again, a little more emphatically. We retreated to the ladies room to regroup. We hadn’t seen any sign of a taxi stand, but the guidebook said there was one. Maybe it would have one of those put-you-in-a-cab guys that airports often have and he could fend off our pursuer. We went out to look further, Round Face and his friend close behind.

“30,000,” he said when he saw we’d located the stand. We ignored him. The stand wasn’t far, but there were only white taxis, which River Trip Guy had said were really expensive. And the parking lot was too dark for us to go exploring for yellow cabs. Shoot.

But just past the taxi line, we discovered, there was another doorway into the terminal, and in there, a slightly more familiar airport scene—shops, a restaurant, people milling about.
“Est-ce qu’il y a un téléphon près d’ici?”
I asked a woman with an ID card strung around her neck. And asked again, when my shaky French didn’t get the message across. Is there a phone nearby?

But no, there wasn’t, only the one we’d seen outside the other door.

Is there somewhere we could buy a phone card?

Unfortunately no, because the shop that sells them is closed.

Round Face saw his moment and tried again. It may have been paranoia, it may have been instinct, but something kept telling me “Don’t ride with this guy.” And I could see from Rie’s expression that she felt the same.

“Non!” I said, looking him straight in the face this time. “Laissez-nous tranquille!”  Not sure those were the words I was after, but surely he’d get the point.

He didn’t.

The woman with the ID card, who had spoken only French till now, suddenly looked sympathetic and said in English, “Maybe you want to try the information booth.” She indicated where it was.

“Maybe we do,” I said, smiling. “Thank you.”

The woman at the booth said unfortunately she couldn’t let us use her phone. But, she said, there was an airport shuttle that would take us to our hotel for 10,000 ariaries each. She called the shuttle driver and he walked us out to the van.

Apparently we were the only passengers, and he had several chuckling conversations with friends in the dark parking lot. Then another man joined him, grinning at us, and our tattered danger antennae went up again. But this time instinct said all would be well, and it was.

After one last transaction, that is.

A young guy standing by the van wanted to load our bags for us, the bags we’ve carried through six or seven countries now and could probably haul another six feet.

“Je l’ai,” I said and put mine on the luggage rack in the van. But he got one of Rie’s, went up the van steps and put it on the baggage rack. Then he stood just outside the door, smiling.

We had no change and no small bills.

“Gracias,” I said. “Pero . . .” Oops, wrong language.

“Just a little something?” he said in French. Still grinning, he held out his hand in case we hadn’t understood.

It was late, we were tired, it had taken so much effort to get ourselves into a conveyance for a rate we could afford in a currency we weren’t used to. French just wasn’t surfacing for either of us. We smiled and shrugged sheepishly. We should have gotten some small change at the exchange window. But what could we do now?

He held out some rolled-up small bills. “Comme ça.”

“Si, si, si—I mean oui. Mais. . . .”

Neither Rie nor I could remember how to say “I’m sorry?” Finally she dug out some South African change. “OK?”

He smiled, thanked her and went away. Then he came back, holding out the rands.

“Ne marche pas,” he said, smiling again. They don’t work.

Finally the driver spoke to him and he handed back the rands and gave up.
And with the driver and the other man up front, we were off. There were no streetlights along the narrow road, and the people walking in and alongside it popped out of the darkness when the van’s headlights hit them.

“Reminds me of the Huancas road,” I said to Rie. But there were many more people on this road, and it was lined with low buildings built cheek-by-jowl from a jumble of materials—wood, concrete, corrugated metal, old billboards. We were both a little nervous, but we were excited too, each in our own way.

“I just saw a traveler’s palm!” Rie said, looking happy. Me, I was energized by all the people on the street and the newness of our surroundings. It’s been a while since we’ve been somewhere so very different from home.

We drove through a more crowded section, with dark sidewalks full of people sitting on folding chairs near small, smoking grills. Others were milling about, smoking and talking. I could see small speakers set up but I couldn’t hear the music from inside the van. Saturday night in Tana.

Two officers with a flashlight manned a police checkpoint, but they waved us on. The streets were rough and many of the oncoming cars used only their parking lights. Some didn’t have headlights on at all. After about half an hour, I saw a big square building up on a hill, lit up with orange lights.

“I think that’s the Rove,” I said to Rie. “Sort of a palace.” I’d read that it was within walking distance of the city center, so the sight was reassuring. There were some streetlights now too, though they were widely spaced and dim. And the streets were now cobbled. Good—that meant we were in the colonial part of the city, where our hotel was.

We passed a floodlit train station, a grand building, and more guidebook reading kicked in. “I think that was designed by . . .”

“Eiffel,” Rie finished.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was about to say ‘designed by the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower.’ I guess I’m pretty tired.”

But we were almost there. A fountain lit by colored lights, more cobbled streets, busy with people. Then out of the van and into a lobby with panels of elaborately carved dark wood, an orchid on the reception desk, tiny candles all around. A smiling desk clerk, a room key, a porter who took us down a maze of narrow hallways lined with artifacts we were too tired to take in. An outdoor passageway with a stone floor, a brick wall with hanging vines, a dark courtyard full of drooping tropical shrubbery and . . . our room! I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to arrive somewhere.

The next morning, we fortified ourselves from a wooden breakfast tray of coffee and croissants, with a malaria pill for dessert. Everything seemed manageable. We were here! We were in Madagascar! Getting into the city had been a bit of a challenge, true, but now we were ready for anything.

Or so we thought at the time.

[To be continued.]