Sunday, June 26, 2011

Epic Vacay: In Conclusion

Sorry again for the extended intermission between posts, but this time I have a good excuse. Well, two excuses. First, I was out of town. I went to Tana to work on writing some funding proposals with my friend Shayla and then to Antsirabe for our regional VAC meeting. Second, when I was in Antsirabe I came down with strep throat...and scarlet fever. “Scarlet fever?” you might be asking yourself, “wasn't that eradicated decades ago?” And the answer is yes, if you live in a lovely developed country. We don't even vaccinate for it in America anymore because it is just that irrelevant. However, if you live in Madagascar you can still experience all the joys of a sandpapery, itchy rash, bloody throat, and total inability to eat or drink for days! Come one, come all. I'm happy to report that after a few heavy injections of antibiotics and days of sleeping I'm fully recovered though, and just waiting to see what the next disease is that I can add to my “sicknesses of the Oregon Trail” bingo card.

I'm going to fairly quickly summarize the rest of my vacation here, and then I'll be able to start posting about current stuff that's going on.

When I left off we had just left Fianar and Amber's site to head to the west coast. Our first stop was a few days in Isalo though. This was my favorite hiking of the whole trip. I don't really care for the rainforest I've found out, because it's just way too freaking humid. Isalo, on the other hand, is rocky, hot and dry. Perfect! We stayed at a cool lodge called Isalo Ranch, which is a collection of solar-powered bungalows with a pool and restaurant. We did a couple different hikes while we were there. The first took us up to the top of the plateau where you could see for miles and miles. We saw a lot of tiny plants since there's not much water in the rocky desert, including some two-foot-tall trees called "Elephant Feet" because they look like, well, what they're called (you can see a picture to the right). There wasn't much wildlife up there, but the scenery of the sandstone cliffs and canyons was really beautiful. We stopped for a picnic lunch, and were soon interrupted by pests...lemurs! They were habituated to people, so they were hopping right up on our table, trying to steal the food out of our hands. It was actually pretty annoying, as I was hungry and wanted to eat my egg sandwich and fruit.

Our second hike was my favorite. We hiked down from the plateau into one of the canyons that ran by a stream, so it was really lush and pretty. We followed it all the way to two natural pools that Matt and my dad swam in. My mom and I chose to sit that one out since there was no place to change into swimming suits and I didn't want to finish the hike in freezing, soaking clothes (and thankfully I didn't; we learned the pool was home to three-foot long eels!). Then we took another short little path to a 40 foot tall waterfall through a very colorful rock formation.

After Isalo we continued to the southern Malagasy coast. We had to make a brief stop in Tulear, where we had a pretty nice lunch at an Italian place (lasagna at last!), but other than that it was a pretty gross town. The people had a fairly hostile attitude, even toward our driver because he was from the highlands. Everyone wanted money for the smallest things, like saying where the bank was, or you know, being a policeman and just doing their job. Sorry, but you already get a salary for that, it's not my business to subsidize your drinking hours. Once we got to the bank the ATM ate my mom's bankcard, and the manager refused to give it back. It was quite a hassle, and I think everyone was happy by the time we left Tulear.

From Tulear we had to rent a different car to drive us the 27 km to Ifaty because there is no road, just sand dunes, wet and dry riverbeds, and lots of ruts. At this point it was dark, our driver was a sketchball, and everyone alongside us was carrying spears, so I don't blame everyone for thinking we were going to be sold to one of the local villages. We made it to our bungalows at Au Soleil Couchant after an hour and half and were greeted with the most glorious seafood buffet you could imagine -- shrimp, fish, lobster, you name it! In fact, I mostly associate our few days in Ifaty with eating lots and lots of lobster. So delicious!

The first day in Ifaty we went to the Reinala Arboretum and saw lots of baobabs (the iconic tree of Madagascar) and then went to a radiated tortoise conservatory (they are a very endangered species). From there we went to the beach were we walked for about .5 seconds until we were hounded by vendors and beggars, and then proceeded to sit in a beach-side restaurant. We had a good time talking with the owner of our hotel, although since he only spoke French I use the word “talking” to also mean pantomiming and drawing. We went snorkeling that afternoon on his son's boat, and the water was so lovely and warm. We stayed in an area with lots of coral and fish, and I didn't even freak out too much when the fish got close to me. Just a little. I actually really liked some of the prettier fish, like the parrot and angel fish.

The second day my parents and I went on a pirogue excursion. These are just about the most primitive boats you can imagine -- dugout of tree trunks, sails made of whatever fabric they can find, and an outrigger made out of a really bouyant tree trunk. We sailed a little ways down the coast to the skipper's village and then he gave us a tour. The kids of course were so excited that vazaha were there and were showing us their best dance moves and songs, we visited a grade school, and our guide's family gave my mom and I some seashells as gifts for visiting. It was pretty cool.

After Ifaty it was back to Tulear to take a plane back to Tana. From there we did a quick little day trip to my site in Ankazobe where everyone saw my little room, garden, kabone, and ladosy. We had dinner at my french-fry omelet hotely which everyone enjoyed, and on the way back we ran into my friend Lea. Since it wasn't work hours they didn't meet any of the doctors, so I was glad they met at least one of my Malagasy friends. Then back to Tana and on to Isle St. Marie, my most favorite place in Madagascar.

Ile St. Marie is essentially "Fantasy Island." Absolutely gorgeous with sparkling turquoise water, palm trees, and grass huts. We toured the island by bike our first day there and it's just so pleasant. As opposed to my town where people barely say hello, the people on ISM were quite friendly. Everyone passed with a “bonjour” or “salam.” Our bungalows Le Libertalia were super comfortable, and the food at their restaurant was delicious. Every night was cocktail hour followed by a three-course meal followed by a food coma. I think I would go back for the food alone! The hotel also had it's own tiny little private island which had a hill you could climb up and pretend you were a pirate (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what we all were doing, right dad?). There was a pier leading out to "Pirate Rock" with beach chairs and ladders off the side so you could swim and snorkel around the little island. In short, it was relaxation heaven.

On one of our days on ISM we went to the much, much smaller Ile Aux Nattes which is just a stone's throw from the southern point of the big island. IAN is pedestrian only, and is so quiet. We walked around the whole island with our friends from the hotel, a couple from Switzerland, and Jean, a charming (and entertaining) 84-year old man from France. We really had a great time together and had lunch and cocktails there. We also got to spend the afternoon swimming in the most beautiful water I've ever seen. It's salty enough too that you just float...float and dream and forget that the rest of Madagascar -- er, the world -- exists. Mmm, bliss!

I guess Air Madagascar must have known I wasn't quite ready to leave paradise, so our flight was cancelled on the last day there. Fine by me! Air Mad put us up back at Le Libertalia, so free dinner, drinks, and breakfast before we actually left the next day. Once back in Tana it was really just enough time to reorganize, sleep, and then say goodbyes (boo).

It's amazing that almost a month flew by that quickly, but we covered so much ground and saw so many incredible things and ate SO MUCH delicious food. It was a vacation I will never, ever forget and one that might never get topped! I hope you enjoyed my recap of it, and if you have any interest in visiting this country, DO IT NOW. It's rapidly disappearing as people continue to clear-cut the forests and global warming messes with the ocean. I feel really fortunate that we were able to see it while there's still so much wild and beautiful nature, but I know it won't last. So come see it before it's too late!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Epic Vacay Part 3

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, more rainforests, and that time when my parents ended up in a brothel with a bunch of crazy Peace Corps Volunteers. I've posted a few pictures as well.

After Antsirabe we kept driving south to our next destination: Ranomafana. In Malagasy this means “hot water” because of the natural hot springs that are around the area. It's also a huge rainforest. We stayed at a really nice lodge that overlooked the forest and that prepared delicious 3-course dinners. We were there for two days, and both days we went hiking in the forest. There were really beautiful rivers and rapids, chameleons, and TONS of lemurs. Between Andasibe and Ranomafana I think we definitely met our lemur-watching quota! On the second day we visited the thermal public swimming pool which is filled by a hot spring. It was non-chlorinated, which is a little skeezy, but no one got any weird skin diseases so I think we're in the clear. We swam for a little bit and then went to a hotely in the town for lunch. I don't know if I've talked about hotelys before, but just to clear up any confusion -- they aren't places to sleep, as the name might suggest. They're restaurants that usually serve Malagasy food, i.e., rice and side dishes. This hotely, despite being recommended by the Bradt guide, was a little bit grimy, and Matt ended up sick after eating the fish. My general rule is that in a country where the travel time from coast to wherever you are is more than a couple days, beware of seafood! I ordered ravitoto (pronounced rahv-TU-tu), which is cassava leaves that have been boiled and pounded into a spinach-like mash and everyone got to sample that for their first time. Not everyone is a fan of the "rav," but to me it tastes really fresh and “green.” After lunch we met up for beers with my friend and fellow volunteer Mike, whose site is in Ranomafana. He's been here about a year longer than I have, so it was nice to have another person's perspective about what life here is like to share with my parents and Matt.

The next day we headed to Fianarantsoa (Fianar for short), a town where several of my friends were meeting up to do some business. It was so fortunate that our schedules lined up the way they did so that my parents could meet the people I talk about all the time. After doing some brief introductions at the Peace Corps Meva we let the PCVs get back to cooking their breakfast while we went to the old city to try to check into the hotel where we had reservations. The old city is really, really pretty, and is pedestrian only. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to be carrying lots of luggage up some pretty steep hills. We were also immediately mobbed by children trying to sell us postcards as a “school fundraiser”. It's interesting though, because a lot of the kids spoke excellent English, far better than any of the oldest highschool students in my town. I talked to one little girl while we walked to the hotel and she told me all about her family and the town, so I did buy a card from her. In the end, we ended up staying at a different hotel in the center of the new town.

After settling in, my parents and I went to have lunch with my friend Amber. Matt was still feeling under the weather, so he took a rest day at the hotel. I was so glad Amber and my parents could meet in person...after all, they've been facebook friends for months! Later that night we all went out to “the brothel”, which is a bar close to the Meva that also happens to be a brothel. Peace Corps Volunteers frequent it because it has the cheapest beer, but it can be pretty grim. Anyway, lots of merriment was had, and I ended up staying out way later than I should have (for which I paid the price the next day, blah). It was great seeing so many of my friends in one place though and totally worth it.

The next day we continued on down south with my friend Amber to drop her off at her site. Ambalavao has a lot of silk weaving, and Amber was kind enough to take my parents and Matt on a tour of the weaving that goes on by her house. It was really interesting to see the process step by step, and everyone ended up buying lots of scarves to bring back to people in the states. Fortunately I was still in the car, otherwise I would have ended up adding to my scarf collection! They're just so lovely.

Next time: West side, best side? Maybe, maybe not.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lemurs, Trees, and Ice Cream

Obviously one does not come to Madagascar to see the capitol city. If one does, they are pretty silly and won't have much of a vacation. No, what most people come to this island to see is the wildlife. That's the boat my parents and I were in, so our first venture was to Andasibe, a national park about 3 hours east of Tana. We got an early start, jumped in our brousse and hit the winding road (see pictures at right below).

We reached our hotel, the Feon'ny Ala ("voice of the forest"), around lunch time so we ate and settled into our bungalow. I think this was the closest to “roughing it” that we came on the whole trip, as there were no fans, no hot water, and fairly lumpy beds. No matter though, I think everyone managed. One benefit of being in the middle of the forest was that we could actually see the Indri lemurs in the trees across from our bungalow. Our first hike of the day was at an NGO run park called Mitsinjo. We arrived at their office to pay for park permits, and I discovered that one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers actually works there which was a fun surprise! We took a short 2-hour hike through the dense humidity and saw a few different types of lemurs, including more Indri, which are the largest of the lemurs. They also have a cry that will give you goosebumps and that you can hear from miles away.

Day two in Andasibe went similarly to the first, but we did our hiking in another national park called Mantadia. We saw more lemurs here, and much more closely than on day one. We even saw the Diademed Sifaka lemur, which are supposed to be pretty hard to spot. I thought they were especially cute because, as their name suggests, it looks like they're wearing little crowns. Aww...We also saw a pretty large family of them flying through the trees which was really neat. Our hike on day two had an end goal though- a waterfall and natural pool. We found them after a couple more hours, and had snacks by the waterfall and then continued on for a swim in pool. Well, “swim” is maybe overstating it. It was more a quick hop into the freezing water and quick hop out, with a frantic bit of doggy-paddling in between. It was pretty though!

The next day we drove back to Tana, where Matt was waiting for us at the Sakamanga. It's pretty crazy to see people from home after being here for almost a year. It feels like your brain gets shaken up a little because these people very clearly belong in your ideas of “home” and “America” and what the heck are they doing on this dirty, weird island?? That isn't to say it wasn't fantastic to see everyone, just kind of funny at first. We had a bit of downtime that day just to hang out in Tana, drink some Three Horse Beer, and catch up. Then the next day it was on to Antsirabe.

I had been to Antsirabe one time before going there with my parents, and I think it's one of my more preferred cities in Madagascar that I've been to so far. It's very clean and quiet, and almost slightly European feeling (probably because it was founded by Norwegians). Through the 'Gasy friends my parents have in the States, they know the son of the mayor of Antsirabe, so we met with her for a little bit. She turned out to be a good connection because we wanted to tour the THB brewery which is notoriously hard to get into, but after dropping a little hint she called the factory and got us a private tour! Guess it does pay to know people in high places. Other highlights of Antsirabe included eating terrific pizza at our hotel's restaurant which overlooked a beautiful lake and garden, touring a workshop where they make hand-made paper products and weave silk, and eating ice cream. Eating ice cream is a highlight wherever you go here. I doubt anyone would say it was their favorite part of the day, but riding in the pousse-pousse was quite an experience too. Those are the rickshaws here that take the place of taxis in Antsirabe. Some foreigners have an ethical problem with pousse-pousses because they're pulled by people, but I don't really see why -- they're environmentally friendly and provide jobs. People here don't see them as demeaning, and why should they? It's a sensible way to get around where cars would be too expensive and dirty. Although, I will say they aren't exactly comfortable if you aren't 'Gasy sized, which no one over five feet tall or 100 pounds is, really.

Next post: more rainforests, hiking, and meeting other volunteers

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Epic Journey: A Vacation Recapped in Pieces

Well! Another long absence from the blog, but at least this time I have a good excuse. I've spent the last almost-month traveling the country with my parents and Matt, mostly away from the grip of modern technology (and sometimes plumbing). The iphone/ipad/laptop addicted among us survived surprisingly well, and with a commendable lack of whining! Since it was such an epic trip, I'm going to divide it up into sections of places we went to make it a little easier to follow and for me to write. I'll try to post pictures for each section (see right).


Ah, Tana. Favored destination of so many of my banking weekends, cultural hub (relatively) of Madagascar...and center of grime and chaos. I guess you could say it's the New York of Madagascar. That is, the NYC of the 80's, the pre-Giuliani one with rats and high crime rates. For better or worse, this is the first glimpse of Madagascar that most foreign arrivals are met with. I went to the airport to meet my parents, and from there we went straight to the hotel, the Sakamanga. The Sakamanga is now my favorite place in Tana, and quite possibly Madagascar. We passed in and out of the Sakamanga throughout our whole trip, but the first room my parents stayed in was out of this world...actually, it made us feel like we were out of this world, or at least on some very powerful medications. There were murals and drawings covering every surface of the room, giant fish and turtle sculptures hanging from the ceilings, and hidden nooks containing miniature whimsical creatures scattered throughout. In short, it was amazing. Between the room and having a lunch of beer, pizza, and paninis in the secluded garden patio it was almost as if we were in another city altogether. But they came to Madagascar to explore this one, and so that we did!

We first ventured to the Avenue d'Independence, essentially the main street of Tana. The streets are bordered with travel offices, restaurants, and ice cream shops, then littered with vendors who will persistently try to sell you vanilla, musical instruments, and assorted junk no matter how many (hundreds) of times you tell them you aren't interested. I really wonder if there are people out there who after being asked consistently for fifteen minutes if they want vanilla just decide “You know what, I didn't for the last fifteen minutes, but I could really use some vanilla. Thanks for asking.” Of course, no journey to the Avenue is complete without attempted pick-pocketing, which we experienced in spades. As soon as I saw the first kid approaching with an outstretched baseball cap I immediately started yelling at him and knocked his hat down, causing my parents to wonder how just ten short months here seemed to have erased any manners I may have once had. Valid point, maybe, but I actually had a reason for doing this- kids will hold out hats in an attempt to distract you from the fact that underneath them they are undoing all your zippers and cleaning out your pockets. More soon joined the first wannabe thief and actually managed to get my dad's pack opened, but they weren't able to get anything out before we shook them off. Around this point the Avenue lost any sort of appeal and we headed back to the wonderful haven of the Sakamanga. Welcome to Tana!

The next day we met the driver we hired to take us around the country, Andry. He ended up being a great guide and fun guy to be around, and fortunately (for me as the would-be translator) spoke excellent English! We explored a bit more of Tana that day and took tours of the Queen's and Prime Minister's palaces. We also got a tour of the area around the palaces, which is the highest point in Tana. Great views of the city from there! Later in the day we went to Tana's little zoo, Tsimbazaza, which has a small lemur park in the center where you can feed the lemurs. I had been there during our training, but it was still fun to pet the lemurs and have them jump around on us. I definitely was not used to having so much activity in one day, so I was ready to go to sleep around 7 pm, and my parents were still adjusting to being in an opposite hemisphere's time zone, so we had some early nights in Tana. Actually, that was kind of theme of the whole vacation. I think I'll pin the blame on the hot Malagasy sun.

Next post: the rainforest!