Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Madagascar: Arrival on a New "Continent" and Meeting Lemurs

On September 28th, we boarded a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  For anyone struggling with that pronunciation, it also comes with the easily pronounceable nickname of Tana. 

Although departing South Africa was a breeze, arriving in Madagascar was not quite so easy.  Visas are required for all visitors to the country and we are staying long enough that we knew we would need to pay for ours.  Although Stephanie had found some confusing instructions online for applying for the visa at the New York consulate, our travel agent assured us that we could simply pay for the visa upon arrival.  After a short queue and perfunctory review of our passports, we made our way to the visa payment booth.  There, the customs official waived us away toward a different line, muttering something about gratis.  Was our stay so close to a thirty-day free visa stay that they were waiving the fee?  Regardless, we were eager to follow instructions and headed to the next and significantly more disorganized queue.  One woman took our passports and inspected the customs form, then passed the passports on to a string of five other officials (only half of whom seemed to serve any purpose), all the while emphatically directing people to avancée.  We anxiously attempted to track our passports as they made their way from one agent to another, but they eventually became lost in the shuffle.  The last man in this assembly line held a stack of passports and started calling out names as if taking attendance.  One official tried to give Stephanie a passport for a blonde diplomat, but we decided to wait for our actual documents instead.  When they eventually appeared out of a haphazard stack, Giorgio paused to review the new visa and realized that we were only authorized to remain in the country for thirty days.

We tried to flag one of the many customs agents to fix our visa – a particularly difficult task as we expressed our concerns in broken French and received shouted directions in broken English in return.  Did they not read our form with a departure date clearly more than thirty days from our entry?  The first official refused to believe that we wanted to stay in Madagascar for 34 instead of 30 days, but after reviewing our return ticket, waved over another official.  She escorted us back to the booth where we had originally tried to pay for the visa.  Seemingly angry that we had failed to pay the fee, she repeatedly asked us if she had been the one to review our documents.  As the only female customs official, we certainly remembered that she had been the one to conduct the slipshod review of our forms, but held our tongues as she “helped” us annul our first visa and pay for the requisite 60-day stamp instead.

As she escorted us back to the main visa line, she repeatedly asked Giorgio for a gift.  Although we were initially somewhat perplexed by this request, we soon realized she was asking for a bribe.  When we refused to reward her incompetence with the requested gift, the process of finalizing our visas slowed down even further as she shuffled our passports around from one desk to another.  In the meantime, Giorgio was called back to the payment desk when they decided his $100 bill might be counterfeit – apparently any bills prior to 2000 are suspect and Giorgio looks like he launders money in his free time.  After our passports made the rounds of the various customs officials a few more times, one agent suddenly shouted “Stephanie!” and handed back both our documents. 

After fighting off a few porters who desperately wanted to help carry our backpacks, we exited the arrivals hall and met the representative from our Madagascar travel agency, who will also be our driver for the majority of the trip.  In Madagascar, we are utilizing a car and driver instead of traveling on our own, a first for both of us.  Although being independent would certainly be our preferred method of travel, the poor quality of the roads and lack of signs would have made renting our own 4x4 an incredibly stressful venture.  The only other means of transport would be the local taxi brousses, essentially extremely crowded vans that travel to a destination once they are full to capacity with people, their luggage and possibly an animal or two.  Stephanie’s refusal to take one of these “chicken buses,” coupled with our limited French/Malagasy ruled out this option, leaving us with our car and driver.

As we drove toward the center of Tana, it quickly became clear that Madagascar is vastly different from the other African destinations on our adventures.  It seemed as if we had landed on a different continent unrelated to our prior African destinations – instead, Tana bore a striking resemblance to a small Asian or Latin American city.  Brightly colored shops lined the roads and there were almost as many zebu-drawn carts as cars on many of the streets.  (A zebu is the local type of cow, which is oddly humpbacked.)  The shops and houses were occasionally replaced by rice paddies – Giorgio was quite happy to learn that rice is a staple of the Malagasy diet and served at every meal. 

After arriving at our hotel in the center of the city, we set out to explore briefly before sunset.  We were close to many of the government buildings, including the presidential palace, as well as a large plaza where we stopped to sample the local Three Horses Beer (more commonly referred to as THB).  On a Sunday night, we were happy to find a restaurant open to serve us dinner, let alone one serving a New York-quality meal.  At least in Tana, the French influence on the cuisine is clear – we dined on foie gras and steak au poivre.  If only Anna had been there to speak French with our waiter, it would have been just like Le Grenouille!  In addition to the good food, we were intrigued by the restaurant’s name – Kudeta – a tongue in cheek reference to the country’s history of political coups.   

On Monday, we were back to the airport bright and early the following morning for our 7 am flight to the west coast.  Our driver helped us navigate the beginning of the queue, but soon enough we were on our own as people pushed their way to the front of one line after another.  We managed to choose the longest line, but Giorgio surreptitiously inserted himself into the front of the line next to us and we were checked in.  Following a second round of security, we were in the terminal – that is, if you can call a small room with two departure gates directly onto the tarmac a terminal. 

With announcements only in Malagasy and French (and no signs), we attentively listened for any mention of “Morondava,” our destination.  Although we were certain we heard at least one garbled announcement meeting that description, no one else got up so we stayed put, fingers crossed that it wasn’t an announcement for any final stragglers to board.  A few anxious minutes later, there was another mention of “Morondava” over the loud speaker.  This time, the rest of the passengers began to queue at the gate, so we joined the group and walked across the tarmac to our Air Madagascar plane (pictured above).  Boarding from the rear of the aircraft, we marveled at the spaciousness of the seats, particularly compared to our South African Airways flights the two prior days.  However, once we were seated in our assigned row, we realized that the aircraft did not have a door at the front, placing business class in the rear rows next to the bathrooms.

A short flight later (complete with an early take off and a real breakfast – all American airlines should take note!), we stepped off the plane into the Caribbean, or a Malagasy facsimile thereof.  Our west coast driver was stationed immediately outside of baggage claim with a small sign reading “Swanson” and with our baggage retrieved, we were on the road headed north.

After a short stop to buy water for our six-day sojourn on the west coast, we arrived at the Allée des Baobabs.  These magnificently large trees are one of the symbols of Madagascar, which boasts six unique species only seen on this island.  Although we found them dotting the landscape throughout our drive up the west coast, there is a picturesque concentration of the baobabs along either side of the northbound “highway” – hence the name the Avenue of the Baobabs.  Sadly, although many of the trees are hundreds of years old, new baobabs are practically unheard of here in Madagascar.  One of our guides informed us that the baobabs depend on a now-extinct bird to disperse their seeds.  Not surprisingly, that bird has been extinct since the 1700s due to overhunting by humans.

Soon enough, we arrived at our first west coast destination, the Kirindy Reserve, known for a variety of animal and plant life.  Although we have been excited to see lemurs since we started planning our Madagascar adventure, Kirindy is also a great place to see other endemic animals, including fossa, chameleons, and giant jumping rats.  As we drove through the reserve’s entrance, our driver stopped the car and gestured for us to get out, exclaiming that there was a fossa just ahead.  Like most of you, we had no idea what a fossa was, but it turned out to be Madagascar’s only predator, a small cat with canine-like facial features.  Although they can be dangerous to humans, they are fairly small and easily handled by the guides, which allowed Giorgio to get up close for a photo shoot.

At the reserve, we were introduced to Marshall, the guide who would take us into the forest to show us both the diurnal and nocturnal animals.  On both an afternoon and evening walk through the forest, he introduced us to the local lemurs and reptiles.  (Note: Most of the animals unique to Madagascar are lemurs and lizards, so you’ll be seeing lots of photos of both!)

The lemurs were just as captivating as we had imagined, quietly munching on leaves at the top of the trees before making seemingly impossible leaps to the next branch.  We found a few of the photogenic animals toting youngsters through the treetops as well.  We were a bit more surprised to be entranced by a large (temporarily) white chameleon, blinking at us lethargically from his perch.  Marshall had a remarkable ability to spot anything in the forest.  Even after he pointed out the chameleon, we had trouble distinguishing the reptile from the branch he was positioned on.

At night, trekking through the forest with our headlamps, Marshall constantly found different nocturnal lemurs and geckos, spotting their eyes peeping out from high in the trees or following their eerie calls to the source.  Although searching for lemurs in the forest is not as action packed as a Land Cruiser wild dog chase, approaching these unusual creatures on foot is rewarding in its own way.  Plus it’s certainly gratifying not to be worried about running into a cranky elephant while walking through the wilderness!  However, just a note for anyone else wandering through a Malagasy forest at night – if you wear a headlamp, all the mosquitos in the forest will dive bomb your face.

Next up, we take a temporary break from lemurs to drive farther north and see Madagascar’s famous tsingy!


PS: Those are mouse lemurs above!

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