Thursday, April 6, 2017

My Worst Nightmare


Since so few people fly with bicycles, I am always concerned when returning home with my bike that the staff at the check-in counter might find some reason not to accept my bike and I'll have to leave it behind.  I try to take a ride out to the airport a day or two before my flight to alert the check-in staff to my bike and find out what their requirements might be.  I went out to Madagascar's airport three days before my departure.  Unfortunately, it happened to be one of the two days each week that the airline I was flying, Turkish Air, did not fly into Madagascar.

I wasn't concerned enough to try again, as I knew the Turkish Air website clearly spelled out its bike policy.  Unfortunately, it wasn't so detailed as to specify that the Madagascar airport did not accept credit cards to pay the $128 bike fee--cash only.  That would not have been a problem if the ATMs of Madagascar  weren't so erratic dispensing cash.  The two at the airport had rejected my various cards upon my arrival and they were no more obliging at my departure.  

That did not cause me an immediate panic, as I was certain Turkish Air would find some way to accommodate me.  I have always been blessed with good fortune when it comes to my bike, so I looked upon this as another opportunity for goodwill.  I was confident this would have a happy ending.  I had saved the receipt for the bike fee from my flight to Madasgascar, which showed the credit card I had used to pay for it.  I hoped it would be a simple matter of the staff at the airport calling or texting my credit card number to an office where they could process my card, not much different than my on-line purchase of my ticket. 

The woman in charge at the desk did not have the authority to do such a thing.  She needed to check with her manager, who happened to be flying in on the flight from Istanbul that I would be departing on.  It was a quick turn-around of less than an hour, but ample time for him to resolve this issue.  He was returning from a training seminar.  Evidently it did not include customer service, as he was unwilling to do this or to take any initiative to solve my crisis, or even to see me, simply dictating his commands to his underling.

The $128 fee was for two flights, $64 to Istanbul and than $64 to Chicago.  I had $70 cash.  I asked if I could pay for the first flight and then the second in Istanbul.  He was unwilling to do that either. Now I was beginning to feel a panic at his obstinance as the clock ticked away. I've had my heart plunge may a time over some seeming bike catastrophe and have always remained calm and had the issue resolved.  I had remained calm for the two hours I had stood to the side of the check-in counter waiting for the manager to arrive or possibly for his assistant to suddenly come up with a solution to this problem.  

During my month in Madagascar I'd had numerous occasions where the Malagasy had been most considerate and helpful when I was in somewhat desperate circumstances.  I had several instances during the cyclone.  I was confident this personal cyclone would bring out that side of the Malagasy as well.  But these people either did not recognize how important a bike could be or they were so fearful of departing from strict corporate policy, that they stubbornly refused to find a way to accept my bike without the full amount of cold cash in their paws.  When it came down to less than thirty minutes to departure, I did start feeling panic. I was in a great dilemma of whether to delay my departure until the next day and get the funds for the bike or to leave it behind, reconciling myself that it was time to replace it.

I didn't believe it possible that the gods would allow me to be parted from my beloved bike that had taken me all over the world the past thirteen years.  It would be like losing a limb.  I've had bikes stolen, but the agony of this was causing me much worse pain.  I asked the woman I was dealing with how much it would cost if I delayed my flight.  She couldn't immediately tell me.  It would depend on my ticket.  It might be unrefundable, which could well have been the case since I had bought it from CheapAir at a considerable discount.  I had already been told that the Turkish Air ticket office in the city did not accept credit cards, so I might have to come up with fifteen hundred dollars or more in cash for a new ticket.  That would be less than what it would cost to replace my bike, but a daunting task.  

The woman at the counter asked if there was someone who could bring me the 407,000 Ariary fee for the bike.  I should have called Juerg, my Swiss Warmshowers host, long ago, but I didn't believe Turkish Air would be so obstinate and customer-unfriendly.  Now it had come to that.   The assistant manager allowed me to use her cell phone.  Juerg said he would dash right over on his bike.  He was ten miles away, not likely to make it in time, but I hoped the woman, who had heard our conversation, would trust that he would arrive with the money and release my bike.  She had to check with her boss.  He refused.  These people were utterly heartless.  I began moaning and doubling over as if I were having a heart-attack, hoping that might save the day, just as Bettina Selby resorted to tears at border crossings to get a visa.   But it had no effect.  

At least with Juerg coming to the airport, he could rescue my bike if it didn't make the flight and either hold on to it until I could return for it or find a reasonable way to send it.  With luck Turkish Air would put it on the next day's flight as delayed luggage, such as when luggage misses a connecting flight, though they would not  make any such promises. None were even willing to make an offer of holding on to it until I could return for it or get them the funds to send it.  If not for Juerg the bike would have been lost to one of these scoundrels, as they may have secretly been wishing.  

I did not feel any sense of relief when I boarded the flight.  I was still devastated by the trauma I had been subjected to and the heartlessness of these people.  My travels generally bring out the good in people.  I was leaving Madagascar with an extremely sour taste, not the way to end one's travels.

When our flight departed twenty minutes late, I held out hope that it might have been to accommodate my bike, but no one came to my seat with a claim number for my bike or the good news that it was aboard.  It was a long eleven hours to Istanbul, where I immediately went to a customer service desk.   They had no indication of an extra bag attached to me.  Next I sought wifi to see if there was word from Juerg.  Yes, he had the bike and would try to send it Turkish Air cargo the next day.  That was good news, even without knowing the cost.  But without a bike, it meant I would have to take a taxi home from O'Hare rather than riding my bike, the final indignity.  Janina couldn't pick me up as she would be teaching her Women in Art class.

Juerg was able to get my bike on the Turkish Air flight a day later, partially thanks to his UNICEF connections, but at about three times the cost of what it would have cost as personal luggage.  I will forever be indebted to his heroic efforts.  



And there was an additional $75 fee from the cargo company at O'Hare when I picked it up.  I was the lone civilian among a long line of truckers picking up much larger loads.  It was wonderful to be reunited with my bike, but I have yet to recover from the ordeal.  As one friend commented, "The experience must have taken ten years off your life."

I have waited three weeks to write of this nightmare, hoping there would be a happy appendum of Turkish Air refunding me the difference in cost of cargo and commercial, but surprise, surprise, they refused.  Will I ever fly Turkish Air again?  Probably, but I'll be certain to have $150 or more in reserve for my flight home.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Farewell to Madagascar



 
High on my list of things to do during my final three days in Madagascar, hanging out in its largest city and capital, Antananarivo, was to have a cinema experience.  Whether it was Bollywood or Hollywood, or at a multiplex or a stand-alone, I cared not, I just wanted to enjoy the comfort and escape and shared experience of watching a movie on a big screen in a large dark cavern and discover what more it might reveal about Madagascar and its people.  

My movie experience may have been as telling as any of my experiences in my month here, as it further emphasized Madagascar's lack of development and minimal disposable income and how it is truly a place unto itself, as there isn't a single movie theater in this city of 1.4 million nor in the entire country.  Maybe that's why the people seem so content and accepting of their limited incomes, not having been barraged by the rampant images of materialism by the kingdom of cinema.  They don't know what to want other than their basic needs.  The country is truly isolated.  The people have little knowledge of how the rest of the world lives, so don't know what they are lacking.   I didn't meet a single person who had been off the island, not even to Africa 250 miles away.  There is no ferry service nor any transport to elsewhere within the means of the vast majority of the population who earn less than $200 a year. 

During my final three days staying with Juerg and Gaby four miles from the city center I spent my time cycling to various sites and meandeirng the thronged neighborhoods and partaking of all the street food nibbling on fritters and noodles all the day long trying to regain some weight.  My first priority was to scout out the route to the airport on a new back road that Juerg had recommended before I arrived,  but was too obscure to find.  My GPS didn't show the road as it was less than six months old, built for the Francophone conference of over fifty countries that have a link to France that convenes every two years and was held in Madagascar for the first time.  The two-lane main highway into the city is so clogged with traffic, the president wanted to make it easier for the arrivals to get into the city and not to be immediately exposed to its poor roads and neighborhoods.

The country is in want of roads, or improved roads, from top to bottom, so this eight-million dollar expenditure on an eight-mile spur did not meet much favor, especially since the road is now closed except to bikes and motorbikes and is already producing potholes.  For those in the know, it provides a speedy venue to the airport, free of cars and vans up until the last half-mile on a pre-existing road.  I had hoped to confirm my flight and verify the cost of flying my bike, but Turkish Air does not fly into Madagascar every day, and this was one of fhose days without a flight. There were only six international departures this day, and just one to Europe via Air France to Paris.  I thought the airport might be thronged by passengers who'd had their flights cancelled by the cyclone, but with so few people leaving the country, the airport couldn't be thronged.

After reaching the airport I continued on for three miles on a rough dirt road to the Croc Farm, one of the premier attractions of Antananarivo.  It is a zoo of a sort, but it's chief feature is a huge lagoon teeming with over 150 crocodiles who are raised for commercial purposes.  They grow to gargantuan proportions.  At first sight they didn't seem real.  Only their pulsing jowls proved there was life in these critters.


Many were cruising in the water.


Others were just partially submerged, some with mouths agape trying to catch a breeze.


After I made the rounds of the rest of the animals on display (snakes and birds and lemurs and chameleons and tortoises and reptiles and panthers) I noticed four keepers hauling wheelbarrows of dead chicks to the crocodiles.  It was feeding time.


That brought them to life.



The bigger crocs, the males, pounced on the food first, while the smaller ones, mostly females, waited for them to get their fill.  It took a while, as after they feasted, they lay plopped on the dead chicks for a while digesting their initial gluttony, before partaking of more.  It was an extraordinary site to be in such close proximity to these creatures listening to their grunts and groans of satisfaction.


Throughout the "zoo" one was afforded close glimpses of its inhabitants, with only a few of the animals behind bars.  The lemurs roamed freely in the trees.  There was no concern of them escaping the park as they can't survive out of their natural habitat, which is confined to the small pocket of the Croc Farm in the midst of the sprawl of Antananarivo.

Three of the lemurs came scampering down from the tree tops for a banana from one of the keepers.


They were wild, but also tame.


Madagascar may be teeming with chameleons, it is thought to be their place of origin, but I had hardly glimpsed any until here, where I could better perceive their camouflage knowing they were contained in various pens.


One is also afforded a close vantage of tortoises, who were ambling about, some nudging others out of their way.


I had hoped to swing over to Ambohimanga Rova, a fortress palace sitting on a hilltop overlooking Antananarivo dating to 1788 that is one of Madagascar's three UNESCO World Heritage sites, nine miles away across the top of the airport, but it was on a dirt road that was a muddy quagmire from the cyclone, so I had to postpone my visit until the next day, making my approach on a paved road. 


It was thirteen miles on a road as clogged with traffic as the other had been with mud, at least the first few miles leaving the city. The motorized traffic was inching along at a snail's pace, while the few of us pedalling passed them by.   Eventually the traffic cleared and when I took the fork from the main road for the final three miles it was like being back out in the peace of rural Madagascar, one of the allures of the location of this hilltop palace.

It isn't particularly impressive other than in contrast to the standard habitations of the people.  A large heart-shaped rock is embedded outside the entry with cannons peaking out from the walls. It was a place of sacrifice.


Within are several large wooden buildings with original furniture.  One had to pay an extra 600 Ariary (eighteen cents) to the admission fee to take photographs, but it was forbidden to take photographs of the royal beds and some of the other interiors.  It was okay to take a photo though of the royal bath, whose water was considered sacred after the king bathed.  It was distributed to his supplicants.  


The palace is much revered by the Malagasy.  It was the only site I visited in all my time in Madagascar that I didn't have to myself.  When I showed up at the Croc Farm I feared it was closed, as there wasn't a car or any vehicle in the parking lot, not even of the employees. 

In my wanderings around the city the next day I came upon a soccer game on a dirt pitch with makeshift goals, surrounded by a crowd of fans.


I also swung by the US embassy ten miles out of the city.  It was one of the more impressive buildings in the country.  As large as it is, there is no dentist on the premises.  There are only 57 in the entire country and not a one that the embassy trusts.  When some one needs dental work they are flown to South Africa.  Just as happened the day before when I took a picture of the nondescript French embassy in the city center, a guard came after me.  I was already on my bike, so could pretend I couldn't hear his shouts of "Monsieur." I knew the traffic was too thick for anyone in a motorized vehicle, siren or not, to catch up to me.


On my return to the city I passed a stadium with fans streaming in.  I didn't know what they were going to until I bought my ticket and saw it was for a rugby match.  Vendors were walking around with tubs of noodles on their heads, my meal two or three times a day for the past month.


I was even more thrilled to see small packets of frozen coconut milk that saved my day more than once in the heat.  One can't imagine the pleasure they gave for a mere three cents.


Back in the city by the lake at its center were vendors selling another of those items that pleased me beyond measure--glasses of cold pineapple juice for all of six cents.


My eyes eagerly searched for these small thermos when I passed through villages knowing that they contained a hunk of two of ice and juice.


My best bargain came in the bicycle mart of one of the many street markets that turned side streets into pedestrian ways.  It was a pack of 48 patches and a tube of glue for three dollars.  I bought two and am now set for patches for at least the rest of the decade.


My search for vanilla, the country's most prominent product, came up empty other than a small pack of sticks I bought from a street vendor.  How authentic it may be Janina will have to decide.  Even though Madagascar is the leading producer of vanilla in the world,  most is immediately sold abroad.  I was told time and again that it was very hard to find vanilla and if I did find any its quality would be very suspect. 

I returned to Juerg and Gabi each night by dark and recounted my invigorating explorations as we had dinner with Julien.  They could provide explanation to my every query.   Gabi was in the thick of dealing with the cyclone aftermath, even being called in on Sunday for a special meeting with the UNICEF team. One of her colleagues was flying in from Dubai with a plane load of food from a UN warehouse.  Gabi wasn't certain that food was the best solution, as recipients are known to sell it so they can have money to buy other needs.  She thinks it might be preferable to simply distribute money to those in need, saving the expense of flying in food, when it can be trucked in locally and putting money in the pockets of those with the food.  

Juerg and I could lapse into our varied travel experiences at any moment. Besides biking, Juerg also paraglides.  It was a large part of his life when they lived in Lima, but not so much here.  Now he is getting his flight fix from his drone that he uses for his award-winning photography.  

A vital part of travel is the people one meets.  I don't know if I'm met any as extraordinary as Juerg and Gabi, greatly enhancing this travel experience.  I'll be eager to know where they will be posted next, as I'll have to make it a destination.

Juerg sent me off by helping me try a new method of transporting my bike box, strapping it to my back, rather than carrying it under my arm.  It was nice to have two hands on the brakes and hands available to switch gears.  If only getting the bike on the plane had been as easy, but that is another story.







































Thursday, March 9, 2017

Antananarivo, Madagascar


For forty-eight hours Cyclone Enawo drenched and whiplashed Madagascar.  I was safely ensconced during the brunt of the storm in a solid, one hundred-year old wooden house converted into a lodge with five rooms for guests and a large dining room. The lodge also offered camping, so when I arrived early in the afternoon when the storm was still but a whisper I pitched my tent on a grassy patch that looked like it could absorb the rain and was shielded by a high hedge from the wind.  

I was looking forward to experiencing the storm in my tent as John Muir once famously experienced a storm in a tree, but a couple hours after I had set up my tent the proprietor of the lodge thought better of it and insisted I take a room.  I reluctantly agreed, thinking maybe that was a wise thing do, though even when the storm reached its full pitch around nine p.m. and then remained there for nearly twenty-four hours I was wishing I were out in my tent.  The rain lashing the roof was louder than it would have been on my tent.  The winds of the cyclone had been blunted by the time they reached the highlands, so weren't ruffling the trees with any severity or blowing debris.  Though a lot of rain fell, my camp spot never turned into a lake. It was all fully absorbed, so I would have easily survived.  The patter of rain on my tent would have been soothing compared to the clatter of it resounding on the roof.

While it rained all the next day I was in email communication with Juerg, fifty miles to the north.  He was at his home looking after his son, as school had been cancelled for the next two days. The storm was coming down from the north, so he could keep me appraised of its progress and intensity. He wasn't reporting anything catastrophic.  It wasn't until nine a.m. the next day that he could finally announce the rain had stopped.  It had diminished to a light drizzle outside my window with only a slight bend to the trees, so I quickly packed and was on my way.  I had been prepared to spend another day reading, alternating between an ebook and the real thing--Balzac's "The Magic Skin" on my iPad and Steinbeck's "Travel's with Charley."

Both had a connection to my present circumstances.  The young man whose story Balzac recounts in this early novel of his from 1831 had contemplated suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Seine.  As he discusses his despair someone tells him he ought to go to Madagascar.  Of all the places he might suggest, Madagascar had to be one of the oddest, especially since it did not become a French colony until 1897.

Steinbeck doesn't mention Madagascar, but what he said of the redwoods could be said of the baobabs--"they are like no other trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time."  His biggest disappointment of the trip was that his dog Charley could not recognize them as trees they were so huge.  Since Charley watered every tree he came upon, Steinbeck thought he'd be overcome by delight by these giants.  When he didn't react, Steinbeck told him, "Look Charley.  It's the tree of all trees.  It's the end of the quest."

I first read the book over forty years ago and have long wanted to reread this seminal travel book that was Steinbeck's most read book. It recounts his three-month ten thousand-mile drive around the US in a camper in 1960 as he was approaching his sixtieth birthday.  It is a fairly light-hearted search for America.  Many of his observations could be made now.  He was concerned about growing obesity, which he refers to as corpulence, and the dying of small towns, but mostly he is impressed by the wholesome and kind nature of most of the people he encounters.  It was a most joyous adventure.  All remains true and could be said of my many bike rides around the country, and why I supplement my international travel with two or three jaunts a year in the US.  I am looking forward to a several day ride with Janina when I return.  It will be a prep for our ride around France this summer.  

The conditions weren't ideal when I resumed this ride with the rain still coming down, but at least heat wasn't a factor.  For the first time I was wearing my vest under my rain jacket.  It had been cool enough the day before that I wore long pants and a sweater for the first time since stepping off the plane.  Not only was the road wet, but there were patches of gas and oil to dodge along with the potholes.


There were occasional  spots where the water was close to road level, but nowhere was the road submerged.


The rivers though were swollen and the rice paddies drowning in water.


After two hours I broke through the rain belt and shortly thereafter started seeing dry patches of road and then the road eventually became dry in its entirety.  The sun was threatening to break through the clouds.  Though I never saw it, the sky began to reveal patches of blue.  This was almost unimaginable.  The wind was still holding me back and buffeting me about a bit.  The headwind I didn't mind, as I had appreciated it on the descents when the road was wet.  For once it was a friend, also clearing out the rain.  As I closed in on the capital, I was so happy not to be contending with a wet road or wet skies, I didn't object to it being the rush hour.  Traffic was at a crawl, going slower than me.  I was entering the city on the same road I had left it nearly a month ago, so had no need to stop to verify the route, just for a snack or two, including potato chips sold by the cup dipped out of large burlap bags. 

I was less than five minutes from Juerg's apartment to the north of the city when I was hit by a final sprinkle.  It only meant that I had to wait until after dinner before I could set up my tent in his courtyard.  By then the sky had cleared and I had the moon illuminating me.

Juerg didn't have any rain totals, only that the rain had displaced some, who were now encamped at a nearby soccer stadium.  I now have three days to acquaint myself with this city of 1.4 million before I fly home on Monday.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ambatolampy, Madagascar


After a two-day pestilence of kids besieging me with out-thrust hands and a "donnez-moi," about the extent of their French, often running alongside me in a pack for several minutes keeping up the refrain, someone for the first time offered me a gift, a banana.  I was sitting by the gated entry to a hotel on the main street through the vibrant city of Ambositra.  I had stopped to take advantage of the sign "WIFI Gratuit" on a pillar outside the hotel, the first such offer I had come across.  And indeed it was up and running, which isn't always the case.  I was the only person taking advantage of it. There were no benches, so I was plopped on the concrete, munching on fritters, the national pastime.  After half an hour, the guard wandered over and presented me with a banana.  It answered a craving I was beginning to have after staring at some for sale across the street.


The streets through Ambostriita were lined with such vendors selling all manner of food and sundries. Though there was a constant flow of traffic, little of it was motorized.  Rickshaws were the dominant vehicle with the puller running at a respectable clip.


I was in no need of water, as I had been led to a spring on the outskirts of a small village by a young man on a bicycle.


I could tell by the ease with which he was carrying the ubiquitous yellow container that it was empty and he was on his way for a fill-up.  I never would have spotted the water source, as it was a little off the road, unless I had noticed the cluster of others with their yellow containers.  Whether in the country or in the city, it is the same story.


Few have running water in their homes and even fewer have electricity or gas fueled stoves.  Two nights ago I stayed at a hotel that had electricity for just two hours powered by its generator.  It was just the second time I couldn't camp, as I was caught by dark in a densely populated valley of small farms.  I stopped at a walled in Catholic Church where four men were playing pétanque on its grounds and asked if I could pitch my tent there.  They said no, but that there was a hotel less than a kilometer away.  It was a fairly new, two-story building built in anticipation of travelers on the national highway who never materialized.  It was run-down and no longer served as a motel, just a restaurant and a residence for friends and family.  I was told there were no rooms available.

I asked if I could pitch my tent in the one secluded nook behind the stairs to the second floor.  I couldn't, as that was where the generator resided, which would create a roar when it was turned on.  It was nearly dark and I was desperate.  The nice young man in charge kept telling me it was just 21 kilometers to Antsirabe and lots of hotels.  It would have been impossibly dangerous for me to ride it in the dark, even with my lights.  He agreed and said to wait a moment.  He went up the stairs.  When he returned he invited me up.  Two young women were cleaning out a room that was a mess.  I would have gladly thrown my sleeping bag down on the floor as is.  I was saved.  All were cleaning with flashlights as the electricity hadn't been turned on.

And the next night I was rescued by another kindly soul after I had twice headed out of a town off the main highway on roads that degenerated into dirt tracks. I was taking a secondary road back to Tana rather than sticking to Highway 7 that I had come down on at the recommendation of Juerg.  It would be 75 miles longer, but much quieter and scenic.  But the road wasn't marked through the first bustling town I came to. After my second failure I was prepared to return to 7, fearful the road would be too rough, though it had been paved to this point.   


Just as I found the right road, which wasn't paved, but much smoother than the other two roads I had tried, an older gentleman on a bike asked me if I needed a place to stay. He said it was too dangerous to be heading out of town at this hour.  It was less than an hour to dark, so rather than heading out on the road, not knowing how far I could get, I accepted his offer of a room in his house.  It was a two-story, once stately home. He lived in it alone, as his wife had a good job in Tana, which she would retire from in four years and then move back.  It had electricity and running water, but the three burners in the kitchen were all fueled by charcoal.  He made me an omelet and some toast.  He was a genuinely kindly and sensitive soul.  When he asked me my name and I said, "George," rather than than the usual response of "Bush," he reacted with "Harrison."  That was a first.  Unfortunately, his English wasn't good enough for a genuine conversation. If we'd been able to communicate in more than a smattering of French and English we could have been up all night.

Later in the evening he came to my room with his phone in hand and showed me a weather report of cyclone Enawo bearing down on Madagascar.  It was the fifth of the season, designated by a first letter of "E", and would be the first to hit landfall.  It would not strike my route until later the next day, but it was doubtful if I could reach a town with a hotel by then, as it was nearly one hundred miles away, with the first thirty miles unpaved.  There was a town though at that thirty mile point where I might find a place out of the storm as I had at this town or that had found me.

I went to sleep wondering if I would be woken by winds.  If they made an early appearance I would either stay where I was or return to the main paved highway.  I awoke with the dawn at 5:30, partially thanks to a long barrage of church bells awakening all.  It was calm out but a misty drizzle had begun. That ruled out the dirt road.  It was 42 miles to the next city with hotels.  I would try for that. I began a day for the first time wearing my rain coat.


The mist was intermittent and the road mostly dry.  The roadside vendors mounting their wares i took as a sign that the storm wasn't imminent. 


Whenever a gust of wind materialized I feared the worst, but neither wind nor rain intensified and I made it to Ambatolampy by noon.  It was another 42 miles to the capital and my Warm Showers' hosts, but I wasn't brave enough to push on.  Now I await another authentic Madagascar experience safely ensconced in a hotel.   The typhoon is slowly approaching the island from the northeast at less than three miles per hour but with winds of over 150 miles per hour.  It will be the worst storm to hit the island in thirteen years with predicted rainfalls of twelve to eighteen inches.  Could be massive flooding.  I'm down to my last five days here.  I'm only fifty miles from the airport, so shouldn't miss my flight.







Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ranomafana National Park


Before humans began settling Madagascar two thousand years ago the island was covered in forest and was the domain of the lemur.  More than one hundred species of this cat-faced primate ran rampant over this one thousand mile long island. For thousands of years they evolved on this isolated island and remained confined to the island, a species found nowhere else. With ninety per cent of their habitat no more, the most dramatic devastation of forest on the planet, they are now confined to a handful of national parks and other small preserves.  

It wasn't until my eighteenth day here that I had my first encounter with a lemur, one of the emblems of the country.  It adorns the most common bill, the one thousand Amiary, while the baobab graces the two thousand note.  I finally saw a real one on an early morning hike in Ranomafana National Park accompanied by the mandatory guide.


I thought I might be visited by them the night before as I camped at the park entrance besides a fast rushing river, but they stick to the forest and have no interest in foraging from humans.  Shortly after we entered the dark and dense forest Idi began making a guttural clucking sound hoping for a response from the bamboo lemur that inhabited this section of the park. On and on we went without a response.  Twice Idi left me at an intersection while he dashed off to check if there might be any lemurs that-a-way.  I didn't mind a pause, as the going was steep, and Idi was going at a brisk pace as if testing me.  I was keeping up, but I was using different muscles than I use on the bike and I could feel them tightening up. As we approached a ridge top after nearly half an hour Idi pointed and said, "Look" and there was a troop of lemurs barely discernible quickly scampering through the tree tops.


We could barely catch a glimpse of them through the thick foliage as they were moving so quickly and gracefully.  With their faces pointed upward, their most prominent feature was their long bushy tail.  They passed directly over us and our trail.


Idi gestured to hurrily follow along.  We managed to catch up with a few stragglers who had paused to munch on leaves.  One nearly directly overhead was straining to reach a few.  He didn't seem perturbed by our presence at all, not expressing any curiosity in us or desire to pose for the camera.  He was fully preoccupied with the business of getting those leaves.


After a few minutes he continued on his way. Idi left the main path for a barely detectible trail through the tightly packed trees where we came face to face with another lemur fifteen feet away.  He barely gave us a glance and returned to munching. 


And so it continued for a full half hour, playing tag with an assortment of the bamboo lemurs, a species only found in this park and one other.  Another eleven species are scattered about the vast park, but none within our range.  I had paid for just a two-hour hike, not caring to abuse my legs beyond that.   We did come upon a few other creatures, a snake curled in a tree, a furry rat, some birds and butterflies and brightly colored insects.  Idi was regularly pointing out something of significance--an orchid and other distinctive plants in the thick vegetation.

I got a better idea on the vegetation at an arboretum five miles and a nine hundred foot elevation drop down the road, a mile past the town that bears the same name as the park.  Though over eighty per cent of the plants in Madagascar are original to the island, my untrained eye could only distinguish a couple of the more dramatic ones--the baobabs and a huge fan-shaped palm known as the "Traveler's Tree," as its palms provide a liter of fluid for the desperate. 


The arboretum had a variety of odd plants that out in the countryside blend in, but here on their own one could appreciate their individuality.  Some have only recently been identified.  Madasgascar is truly a botanist's paradise.


My day was further highlighted by the first library I had seen in Madagascar in this town of 5,000 that was a tourist town even before the park was established in 1991 thanks to its thermal waters.  There are baths and a full-sized swimming pool.  The library resided in a small building by the town hall--bare bones and basic, just one room and just one wall of book shelves that weren't even half-filled.  


There were books in Malagasy, French and English.  I was delighted to donate two books that I had finished, both novels, one Austrailian, "The Slap," and the other an Irish Booker winner, "The Sea."  I was going to leave them with Juerg, but I'm sure he'd approve of this gesture.  

There were five shiney-faced, gleeful young girls in the library, not much different than kids everywhere,  more interested in a computer game than the books.












Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ambohimahasoa, Madagascar

 


Riding in the highlands on a road that rarely straightens or flattens for more than a few tenth of a mile through small villages with rarely any food other than the omni-present platters of three-cent fritters, when I came upon a couple of girls standing along the road offering eggs it was almost an answer to a prayer.

I was into my third day of this leg-sapping terrain after my climb up from the coast.  I knew I needed some better nourishment than what I'd been getting, as my legs began to feel depleted after spending so much time climbing in my lowest gear. I realized it had been days since I'd seen a hard-boiled egg, instantly giving me a craving for these protein-rich nuggetts.  And then almost within minutes, there were these two, almost angelic, creatures holding bowls with eggs.  I had to blink to make sure they weren't an apparition.

There was enough space in one girl's bowl for me to give an egg a spin to confirm it was hard-boiled. I would have been thrilled to pay anything she asked, so didn't quibble when she only let me take two when I gave her a 2,000 Ariary note, thinking I might get four for that price.  But I wanted four so handed her another 2,000 bill, all of sixty cents.  She was so ecstatic that she sprinted down the street to show her mother her mighty windfall, before I was tempted to buy two more.  She disappeared so fast, I had to look at the eggs I had already placed in my handlebar bag to make sure this had really happened.

With no amenable place to plop down and eat them in the row of shacks that comprised this typical village, I pedaled down the road, as I customarily do after getting something to eat, in search of a secluded, shady spot.  Within a mile I found a nook beside a stack of wood.  And as usual after a few minutes either kids walking the road or from an unseen nearby habitation spotted me and came to stare.  It's usually a posse of girls or of boys, rarely a mixed group. The girls will shyly let out a giggle or two after a couple of minutes, while the boys have a hint of a sneer in their guffaws.  None are threatening and only rarely demanding.  The girls tend to be better attired than the boys.  Like their mothers, their garb is usually colorful and has some flair to it. They are often attired with a wide-brimmed hat with a distinguishing sash.  A woman may be barefoot, but a hat to spare her of the sun she is not without.  It brings to mind the saying of the read-a-holic Icelanders, "Better to be barefoot than without a book."


Passing adults will give me a "bonjour," but otherwise leave me in peace.  If my head is bent sometimes I catch a whiff of them before I hear them.  But never is it a scent of tobacco.  Contrary to the experience of Dervla Murphy in 1983, who was continually encountering women smoking, making her fit right in, rarely do I encounter any nicotine use.  Whether it's less disposable income or enlightenment, smoking is almost extinct. A couple days ago when I was seated on a bench I was startled when someone sat down at the other end and lit up a cigarette. When I coughed at his first exhale, he politely moved away, the Malagasy way.


One strong impression of Murphy's that has been maintained is how child-friendly the men are.  It is almost as common to see men carrying young ones or walking hand-in-hand with a child as it is to see women in the act.  The men may not look quite as natural carrying a child in their arms, rather than wrapped in a papoose of some sort, but they seem no less nurturing or caring.

Even though my legs were beginning to feel the strain of the seemingly non-stop climbing, with the descents done in a minute or two, barely enough time to recover, followed by another ten or twelve minute climb, I had some extra impetus on day two after learning a day after the Oscar telecast that "Moonlight" had upset "La La Land" and won the best picture.  Having known the director Barry Jenkins since he was a 22-year old intern at the Telluride Film Festival fifteen years ago and working with him every year since, I couldn't have been more thrilled. It had me reveling almost as if the Oscar were my own.    It was a shame that all the post-Oscar conversation had to be about the snafu of the wrong envelope, rather than why the Academy justly awarded this much more meaningful and significant and enduring film over the heavy favorite "La La Land."

Even if Barry hadn't won I have been greatly looking forward to seeing him again this fall and hearing all about his six-month whirlwind since debuting "Moonlight" at Telluride.  He is well-liked by all.  Everyone will be in a great state of exaltation this fall over his success and recalling being the first to see the film and interacting with the cast.  One of the highlights of the festival was a panel discussion in the park with Barry and the five principals of the cast which can be seen at the film festival website http://telluridefilmfestival.org.  And that was topped off with my own brief  conversation with Naomi Harris, the British actress who so powerfully played the crack-addicted mother and who would have won the best-supporting actress Oscar if Viola Davis had more justly been in the best actress category.


The latest Warren Cycling podcast once again gave me some extra energy, especially when Randy concluded his latest with an acknowledgment of my presence in Madagascar.  He and his brother had been pleasantly diverting me with their reports on Oman and its Green Mountain, where I had been cycling two years ago, and entertaining me with their interesting asides, when I was suddenly brought into the conversation.  Though they focus their attention almost exclusively on racing, they branch out to related topics.  Randy managed to acknowledge the great rivalry between he and his brother's college, Hope, and Calvin, two division-three schools in Michigan.  They don't play football, but their basketball games rank in fervor with those of Duke and North Carolina.  Randy also gave a mention to the football program at Indiana University.  He coaches a former fullback for IU, who says that he finds cycling is a tougher sport than football. 

My mind also took a wander to previous travels in Nepal and Laos. The terrain and habitations and look of the people were similar.  I hardly seem to be in Africa.  The South Asian-African racial mix gives more of a chocolate than black hue to the people.  Only along the west coast did I encounter the truly dark-skinned.  Madagascar is truly a place unto its own.




Monday, February 27, 2017

Ambositra, Madagascar



As one of the least developed countries in the world, Madagascar bears little resemblance to France, yet there are constant reminders of cultural trickle from its period as a French colony.  French is one of the two official languages of the country along with Malagasy.  Not many people speak much French, but most know enough to greet me with a "bonjour" and sometimes with a "papi" or "papa" attached.  Children frequently call out "vazaha," (white person), as I pass, almost as an alert to those around so they can come quick and get a gander.  There's nothing impolite about it.

Those with some grounding in French will give me a "bon voyage."  Considering the demands of these travels "bon courage" would be more appropriate, but I appreciate the spirit.  Though I'm often plopped on the ground in the shade eating noodles out of my Tupperware bowl, only once has a passerby conveyed a "bon appetite," which is almost mandatory in France.  Late in the day when it has begun to cool and the shadows are long I am instantly transported to France when I see a gathering of men playing and watching pétanque, a most common site in France.  There are good enough players here that Madagascar won the world championship in 1999.


The gendarmes wear the same contemporary blue uniforms and caps of their counterparts in France and are most cordial and dignified.  And I am hearkened back to France with every passing kilometer, as they are marked by the same posts as in France, though doffed by red rather than yellow.  But nothing could signify the imprint of France on the Malagasy more than the site of a Johhny Hallyday concert DVD in a small shop in an out-of-the-way rundown small town that offered WIFI.  If he has a following here, even though he didn't hit the rock-n-roll scene until well after Madagascar gained its independence in 1960, the Malagasy truly do have some French blood running in their veins.

I've seen no evidence though of a love of cheese, nor of couscous, both popular in France.  Apart from the variety of patties, dumpling and fritters, or "thingies" as one touring cyclist on crazyguyonabike.com referred to them, the predominant food on offer from small stands is noodles, quite a surprise, as rice is the center of the Malagasy diet, but evidently just in their own kitchens.  Or perhaps they only prefer it fresh and wouldn't be inclined to eat rice that had been sitting out for hours.


The roads have even less traffic than the small departmental roads of France, but one has to be ever vigilant for potholes.  There seems no road maintenance.  On bad stretches someone will stand by the holes with a rake pretending to be repairing them and hoping for a donation from motorists when they slow to pass through.  It is reminsicent of the Pan-American highway through Peru that I biked in 1989 where drifting sand would block the road and opportunistic men would stand by with shovels to help motorists through for a fee.

After a day of rest in Antsirabe up at 5,000 feet I am somewhat revitalized after pushing myself to the limit day after day in the coastal heat and two-day climb back up to the highlands.  It is still hot, near 80, but not as oppressive as the high 90s of the lower elevations.  When I make a descent in the rolling terrain of the highlands I can feel some cool in the air, just what I need for my overheating engine. There are even natural springs spewing water that I can use to cool myself. That is the ultimate luxury after days of limited water.   It is no wonder that the majority of the island's twenty-four million inhabitants live in the highlands. That land is a patchwork of small rice paddies and cornfields, some on terraces. I will spend as much of my remaining two weeks on the highlands as I can.  

I spent much of my day of rest eating and laying about, even getting a nap beside my tent in a compound of bungalows.  Only two of the twenty bungalows were occupied, one by a Malagasy family and the other by a 60-year Frenchman and his wife.  It was his third visit to Madagascar.  He only travels to former French colonies.  His only visit to the Americas was to French Guyana.

I spent two hours at an Internet cafe down an alley with the prime objective of regaining access to my email.  For the second time here Yahoo was suspicious of someone using Yahoo mail in this out-of-the-way place.  I spent nearly 45 minutes using FaceTime and Magic Jack talking to Janina as Yahoo texted and emailed her codes for me to reaccess my account.  Just another of the many frustrations of Madagascar.  Yahoo wasn't alone, as Google had earlier denied me access to my blog, but it wasn't so tyrannical in keeping me off.

During my two hours at the cafe, which had three ancient computers, the only customer was someone taking advantage of its copying services.  It wasn't the expense so much, as my two hours cost thirty cents, but more a lack of computer-consciousness.  It was refreshing, at least, that the terminals weren't  packed with teen-aged boys playing militaristic video games, as was so prevalent in Turkey and China.  

While I was talking to Janina, the young proprietor brought his sign into the shop.  I thought it might be an indication that he was closing, but it was only four and he made no gesture to me that he was closing.  I talked with Janina for another half hour and then sent off a couple of emails after we hung up, the most important to Ralph informing him that my Cannes credentials had been verified so he didn't need to come to my assistance, as I had been struggling to register with the unreliable Internet here. Still no indication that he wished to close.  But when I rose to leave, he closed up.  It was another example of the supreme cordiality of the Malagasy, more than compensating for all the headaches.