Sunday, October 30, 2011

Janus pumpkin

Hallowe'en is a disgusting recent adoption of American commercialism and threatens the Christian morals of our children. Or something.

Anyway, before I drench myself in fake blood and go to drink beer and offer children-knocking-on-the-door toffee onions, here are pictures of the drunken two-faced pumpkin I carved for my god-daughter.

Happy drunk!

Day Fourteen – The End of the Tale

And that, as they say, is that. It chucked it down with rain the night we got back from Lokobe Reserve. 

The global HQ for Air Madagascar
 The next day we got up early and headed to Tana. We followed the repeated exhortations from the guide books, our guides, and the hotel staff, and prepared to look around the town. As per advice, we locked SD cards and valuables in the hotel safe, hid spending money across a variety of pockets, and made sure we had a sacrificial wallet containing a feasible but not excessive amount of money to give up if we were mugged. Having considered all these aspects, we walked into the main street unacompanied by guides for the first time in our holiday. We felt very conspicuous and very white. Being vaguely surrounded by beggars and people trying to sell us three-foot-long carved wooden galleons (unfortunately I didn't know the Malagasy for "Are you mad? That will never fit in my suitcase!"), we moved through the throng. We had a brief look around the town centre which was a bit like Basildon but hotter, saw possible signs of the political situation (a lorry-load of youths distributing bread to some people, and causing consternation and panic amongst others), drank a lot of rum in the Cafe du Gare, spent another night in Tana Plaza, and headed back to the UK the next day. There was a while when we thought our holiday would involve an unscheduled day in Nairobi, but they held our connecting flight so that we were able to make it despite an eight-hour delay (Many thanks to the Dutch cycle tourists who translated airport announcments and found us free food in the interim). Sadly our luggage didn't get that flight, but it showed up eventually, smelling of vanilla and lemur pee. Much love to Auntie C for collecting us from the airport despite a stinking cold, but she was thankful not to be able to smell us at that point.
In summary, Madagascar is a lovely country, two weeks is not enough time to spend there, and I'm determined to go back.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Day Twelve – Now for some luxury

In order for Mark and Liz to make it to the airport on time, we had to get up obscenely early. We motored into Hell-Ville in the dawn light, accompanied by a pod of three dolphins – or porpoises. That was the end of our time on the Salaama Tsara, and we said our farewells. 

Hell-ville harbour
More harbour
 We were met by our next guide, who took us to our hotel, a somewhat lavish affair. Although the room was not large, after a week of washing with brackish cold water we both spent some time gazing at the eight-nozzled shower with awe.

Having showered, we explored the hotel, accidentally wandered through someone's luxury apartment (we thought it was the restaurant!), and sat on the beach watching two people take a zebu for a bath.
Zebu. Bathing. Obviously.
More clich├ęd sunsets

Day Thirteen - Strictly Lokobe

 Having not been permitted to explore Lokobe when we were camping on the edge of it (it is classed as a “Strict Reserve”, which is not quite a national park, but similar), we booked a day-trip back there. We were told sternly that we would need to wear trousers and boots, so it was quite a contrast when we were introduced to our guide, Michaela, a young woman in a sequinned kaftan and flip-flops.

As our driver, Jean, drove us out of the hotel (in a car with a cracked windscreen), he halted before we got to the road. “What's wrong?” we asked, wondering if the car was broken.

Chameleon” he answered, pointing at the hedge.

Where?” we asked. “ I can't see anything other than that bright turquoise bit of- Oh, right.”

They weren't subtle.

We were driven through Hell-Ville, past the large cemetery with goats perched on the tombstones (sadly, I felt obliged to respect the fady prohibiting photography of tombs), through ylang-ylang plantations, and to the village of Ambatozavary. 
Ylang-ylang tree. They were all grotesquely stunted, but more sad than horrific.
Ylang-ylang blossoms
Ambatozavary (and pirogues)
 There, we boarded a leaking pirogue, were handed a paddle each, and we set off around the coast. Michaela hitched up her kaftan, sighed, and concentrated on bailing. She said she much preferred taking people on trips to Komba.

Traditional kayaker's photo (with paddle across face)
After about forty-five minutes, we landed in Ampasipohy, a small and rather charming little village. I think it is what Komba would have been like ten years ago. Yes, there were children singing and souvenir stalls, but far less blatantly than on Nosy Komba. 

 From Ampasipohy, we walked into the forest, having been warned to keep quiet so's not to disturb the wildlife. Thus it was that when we saw a maki, we said in hushed tones “Look, a lemur!”, at which point Michaela rolled her eyes and yelled “MAKI MAKI MAKI!” until the lemur wandered over to see if we had a banana.

Oooh, yeah!
Grey-backed sportive lemur. Nocturnal, hence the large eyes and peevish expression.
Boa. Sitting in a tree so close to the path we suspected it was planted by the guides.
Mantella frog (that's a thumb bottom left, stopping her hopping away. She's tiny!)
Vanilla flower
Spider. Seriously. Even the guides had to look twice when Tim pointed it out.
Crab spider (sorry for the focus - the web was moving in the wind)

Gecko licking nectar off banana flower
A walk which entailed much wildlife later, plus a translation confusion over the use of the Quinine tree (apparently Italians, who comprised the rest of the tour group, consider it to be “medicinal” as opposed to “with gin”), we headed back to the beach. 

Gift shop
There, we were served vast amounts of sea food and rum, and the Italians insisted on presenting a group of happily-minding-their-own-business local toddlers with colouring pencils, thus teaching them the art of begging from vahaza


Day Nine – The Nightlife of Mahalina

 The next day was a relatively gentle day – not that we'd had much exertion since joining the Salaama Tsara. Denis and Henri took Tim, Mark, Liz and me for a morning snorkelling trip where we found lobsters (which we were unable to bring back for lunch, despite Henri's exhortions) and Tim found a stingray, but otherwise the reef there was fairly quiet. On the way back to Mahalina, there was a vast amount of fishing excitement as Henri hooked a Kingfish which took over forty minutes to land.

Denis with Kingfish
 Mark and Tim were excited because this was EPIC fishing, and in the absence of Herman they got to have a go at steering the boat. The main reason for my excitement was because this would be something other than mackerel to eat (much as I love fresh fish, after three days of it, mackerel can become monotonous). It was only when I googled it later that day (yay for 3G Kindles!) that I discovered that the Kingfish is also a member of the mackerel family. Oh well!

Kingfisher hunting crabs
Back on the beach in Mahalina we sat around playing cribbage, drinking rum, and chatting. “Did anyone else see the snake spoor?” asked Gayle, whose hut was next to some scrubland.

Snake spoor? I wouldn't have a clue what it looks like, but there's no reason to worry – there are no venomous snakes in Madagascar,” I replied.

The chatting continued, we drank rum, watched the moon rise, looked at the Milky Way, spotted fireflies, and Mark decided the only thing missing from his life was a cigarette. He'd noticed the crew smoking in the evening, so wandered over to ask if he could have a cigarette too.

Hi guys, I was wondering about those cigarettes-”

IT'S NOT MARUJANA!!!” *giggle*

Eventually, we headed for bed. In the middle of the night I woke up with a funny feeling in my foot as if someone had just tickled it. “Must have been a dream caused by the rum and the talk about snakes” I thought, before experiencing it again. I grabbed the torch just in time to see a small rat run away from me, but fail to escape due to the mosquito netting.

Tim! Wake up! There's a rat somewhere in the bed and I need you to help evict it!”

Tim blearily gave the bed a search, and the rat was chased round and round inside the mosquito net in circles until we lost track of it. “I think it's gone” declared Tim, putting out his torch and going back to sleep. I spent the rest of the night in a somewhat wakeful state, turning the torch back on at every noise.

Moonrise from Mahalina

Day Eight – onwards to Mahalina

 We relocated to a place called Mahalina. On arrival, just as there had been at Russian Bay, we noticed a gaggle of people sat around under a washing line strung with embroidered tablecloths and proffering carved wooden souvenirs. This, we were to learn, was the way the gift-shops operated. Either the boat-operator or the camp caretaker would inform the local trader(s) that a bunch of vahaza were due to arrive, and a dhow would drop them off in advance, they would set up their wares, and then leave later that day. It was relatively civilised – there was no pestering or harassment, and if one wanted to purchase a souvenir one walked over to the washing line, and if one didn't, one remained in the campsite and wondered why a tropical beach paradise had a tradition of making elaborately embroidered tablecloths.

Mahalina was a strip of beach on the edge of a mangrove swamp, and not much else. Fresh water was extremely scarce, and we were warned to be prudent when washing with our rationed bucket of “fresh”1 water. Again we had A-frame bungalows with tattered mosquito nets as accommodation, but this time they were on the beach, not on stilts.

Accommodation and shower (the bamboo screens back left, plus the bucket)

The afternoon was spent collecting “pretty” shells and sand dollars from the beach, and watching the world go by from our table. The caretaker had a small (about three years old) child named Ali, and Ali had a puppy (named Bobo) and a kitten (named Cat). The three of them together were quite hilarious, since the kitten thought it was a puppy, the puppy was convinced that it could climb like a cat, and Ali thought that they were toys to be dragged around by whichever appendage he could grab. We noticed that in this place, the sacred rock (identifiable by the red cloth tied to it) was fenced off – probably to stop Bobo breaking the “toilet” fady

Ali, Bobo and Cat

My notes become a little hazy at this point, but I think it was on this evening which the rum-for-tourists ran out (in terms of the bar, rum was free and we were charged for the mixer) and we moved on to drinking the rum-for-the-crew. At least, we think it was rum, but it might equally have been engine-degreaser. Denis seemed amazed when we said we liked it, though I do recall my vision going sporadically black at points.

The sunsets were terribly cliched

1The water was brown and murky and the bottom of the bucket couldn't be seen. The only thing “fresh” about it was that it wasn't salty.

Day Seven – How to respect the Sacred Tree

The next day dawned exceedingly bright and very early, but we found we didn't mind. Since we had no electric lights other than a couple of torches, we all happily adapted to a sunrise-to-sunset clock – and when the sun rose at about five-thirty, by six o'clock it was far too bright and hot to stay in bed for long. 

We breakfasted on fresh fruit and black coffee, consoled Mark for his murderous sentiments towards the chickens adjacent to his hut, and then it was all aboard the Salaama Tsara for a morning of snorkelling on the coast of South Afrika Island. I found a stingray (happily some distance from me), Mark found pretty shells on the beach, and Tim stayed in the water so long that we began to wonder if he'd ever return. As we chugged back towards Russian Bay, we passed a peculiar beehive-shaped island named Ankivonjy, and watched flocks of beautiful white birds with long tails flying around the cliffs.

What are those called, Henri? The white-tailed birds”
Them? Called “white-tailed tropicbird””.

Yup. So much for imaginative naming.


After lunch back in Russian Bay, Henri took us for a stroll through the nearby village and up the hill. The first thing he showed us was a large tree with a set of logs (for use as seating) arrayed around it. This, Henri explained, was the village's sacred tree. When a boon was required, one would come and tie a white cloth and a red cloth to the tree, leave a case of beer, offer rum, and later one would return (presumably after fulfilment of the boon) and pour the beer on the ground with elaborate ritual. We listened in interest, and then, aware that the Malagasy have many fady (taboos) relating to their spiritual beliefs (such as not pointing at tombs, or photographing them), we asked whether it was permitted to photograph the tree, and walk as close to it as we were.

But of course,” replied Henri, looking bemused.

Well, we just don't want to offend anyone, so please tell us if we're about to do anything inappropriate, since this sacred tree is right next to our campsite. Is there anything we must be careful not to do?”

Henri thought for a few seconds, before responding solemnly “Just don' mak' the toilet on it, OK?”

Following that revelation, the rest of the walk with burrowing crabs, a fish sunbathing in a mangrove tree (mudskippers seem terribly confused creatures), a sea eagle, and a plethora of children making rude noises and laughing at the vahaza had a lot to live up to. 

Mudskipper. In a mangrove tree.

 But it managed it, with the addition of further rum and fireflies on the beach near the sacred tree when we got back to camp.

Day Eleven – Nosy Komba (please exit through the gift shop)

Souvenir stall in Lokobe - note the tablecloths
The island of Nosy Komba is for the tourists. It's where you go to have a lemur sit on you, and to buy embroidered tablecloths. Some aspects are interesting, such as the people wearing designer jeans coupled with the traditional Malagasy clay face-paint (the clay acts as a moisturiser and a sun screen, as well as allowing intricate doodles on the face). Others are annoying, such as the children all attempting to out-volume each other in their “traditional” (allegedly invented in the last twenty years) greeting songs. But we went to the petting zoo and played with the snakes and chameleons, fed the Maki lemurs (who have great banana faces), bought some vanilla, and admired the T-shirts for sale emblazoned with the traditional Malagasy “ALOHA!”.

St Mark of Assisi
Liz, discovering that lemurs tickle
Tim of the Jungle
Communing with nature
Srs 'nana face
Silly 'nana face!
This giant tortoise sneaked up on Mark and startled him. I think that's a record for giant tortoises.
We returned to Lokobe via a fairly dull snorkelling expedition and settled down to enjoy our last night with the boat. I left a banana near the tents in the hope of luring more lemurs down, and we were not disappointed.

Is that a banana?
Tastes like a banana...
OMG! It *is* a banana!
I also discovered that when one goes to the toilet at dusk and spots something brown and glistening perched on the seat, it's quite a relief to realise that it's a frog. 

Sorry for the lack of focus - oddly enough I didn't have the right lens to hand