Friday, January 6, 2012

A Far, Far Better Version of Surreal

Ah, Christmas in Madagascar... Where do I begin? Perhaps, with our arrival in the nation's capital of Antananarivo (“an-TAN-uh-nuh-ree-voh”, often simply Tana), after a relatively short flight, albeit delayed, aboard Air Madagascar (booked directly through their French language web site thanks to my multi-lingual wife), which for its meals offers a raw vegetarian option. I know of no American airlines that offer that!

We did have a stop-over in Nosy Be (NOH-see BAY), where those of us continuing on to Tana got off the plane and attempted to claim our luggage before going through customs and reboarding the plane. It was more than a little chaotic, given the small size of the airport, the large size of the beetle that landed on one of the passengers after falling off a ceiling beam (about the size of my hand), the confused state of many of the passengers, and the lack of any real queue management within the facility. I never did find my bag while we were there. In fact, it was still missing when we got to Antananarivo. I was beginning to think I might as well have left it in the car when a dedicated baggage handler who, despite his supervisor's grumpy and dismissive disposition, managed to turn it up after a thorough search back through all possible locations. Woohoo!

We were met by our first guide, Mr. Dorique, with a sign he kindly brought with him again the following morning (we had arrived late at night) for this photo:

I had never been one of those folks whose name is on the airport placards indicating that they are important enough that someone has been dispatched to meet them. I thought it was kind of cool. I am also a dork.

Anyway, before I go further, I should mention that Mr. Dorique, and all our other guides, were with Cactus Tours Madagascar, the company through which we had booked our tour. They did a fantastic job and I highly recommend them. They worked with us to develop an itinerary that met our interests and fit our time lines, provided us with all the information we needed when we needed it, and their staff - from booking agent to the various tour guides - were always helpful and friendly. Our guides, in particular, were just the best!

So, we arrived late at night on Christmas Eve. Dorique took us straight to our first lodging, the magnificent La Varangue. (More on that later, as we returned to La Varangue at the end of our trip.) The following day, Christmas Day, Dorique met us first thing in the morning and began our day by driving us through sections of Antananarivo like this one (keep in mind that due to the holiday vehicle traffic was much lighter than it would be on a typical business day):

As you can see, Tana is a very vibrant city. I would gladly go back and spend more time there. But that day, we were off to Andasibe National Park. Along the way, we got our first taste of the Madagascar countryside. Around Tana, and indeed within the boundaries of the city itself, the landscape is dominated by rice paddies. We are told most Malagasy eat rice three times a day - perhaps owing to their Indo-Malayan heritage.

When we arrived at Andasibe, we were met by a park-specific guide, Jeannot, who, along with Dorique, took us deep into a spectacular forest:

While Jeannot and Dorique worked like madmen, dashing off into the trees, bound and determined to find some lemurs for us, Kathy and I were instructed to rest and relax. In one of our these resting places, we spotted our first gecko! At the time, I must confess, I did not know if it was a gecko or a chameleon, as its shades of green seemed to shift slightly as it moved about the plant. Looking back, our guides must have gotten quite a chuckle over that, as it is so obviously NOT a chameleon...

Jeannot and Dorique's hard work eventually paid off, and they led us to some Indri (“ihn-DREE”, one of the largest types of lemur), or Babakoto (Bah-BUH-koo-too), as they played, ate and rested amongst the branches of the trees:

Pretty cool, right? I thought so. If you look closely, you can see this one looking back at me:

Then we got closer...

Much, much closer...

In fact, here is Kathy posing with some lemurs:

And then taking some pictures of them:

But how they look, and how close we got, are not nearly the entire story. You have to hear them...

Truly, one of the eeriest and most unique sounds I have ever encountered! Incredible. Just being there, practically right underneath them, as the Indri made those calls... It is enough to give me chills just thinking about it. On the way back, we encountered an entirely different type of creature:

Thankfully, none of the snakes in Madagascar are poisonous. Or so we were told... We stopped along the way at Lac Vert (Green Lake):

Then we continued trekking through the forest. Just look at how lush and green!

We even encountered some brown lemurs, who were much more shy than the Indri had been:

We were treated to more of the magnificent countryside on our way back to Tana (with this and a few other videos where I was holding the camera in or near an open window and all you could hear was the wind rushing by, I have replaced that grating sound with clips of Malagasy music - both traditional and contemporary):

Before we returned to Tana for the night, though, we visited a private farm where we saw this crusty fellow:

And where we learned that this is what a chameleon actually looks like:

Or this (what a color!):

Or this (I wonder if that green glows in the dark):

And seeing a chameleon move became one of my favorite things of all time. If you can, check out its feet. And no, I did not slow down the video. That is how they move...

The farm also featured a boa:

And a bat (I went into this enclosure to get as close as I could for this photo since I knew my youngest sister would not forgive me if I did anything less):

This farm was very hands on, as demonstrated here by Kathy holding a chameleon:

And by me, holding this leaf-tailed gecko, which reminded me of Gollum and pooped rather prodigiously on my hand shortly after this shot was taken:

We then got a few more good looks at this region of Madagascar (there are several and quite different regions across the country, which is larger than you might suppose):

We finally got back to our hotel in Antananarivo quite late (again). Truly, a memorable Christmas Day! This was yet merely the beginning of our Madagascar adventure, but how sublime it was. What would I do without my amazing wife and the life we are creating with each other?

Car? What car...?

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