Sept. 2, 1999
It is 7:35 a.m. in NY, 1:35 p.m. in South Africa, and 2:35 p.m. in Madagascar. I am halfway between Johannesburg and Madagascar. The plane is full of a mixture of chattering people. There are families and old salts, Indo-Asians and Germans, dark Blacks and Asian Blacks and back packers. Most people are speaking French. English is heard between people whose language differs and use it as common ground.
The food and drink have markedly shifted from American/English to English/French/Exotic. Exotic, je ne sais pas–yet. The entree is a buttery sauced curried white fish, done just right…amazing for airline food. It is served with zucchini and eggplant, grilled perfectly and well-seasoned, nestled with squid-ink pasta. The pasta is overdone, but we expect this. Instead of a salad, there is a separate dish with a stronger curried chicken, just OK, a slice of pineapple 3″ in diameter, (where do you find a pineapple ripe at 3″?), and way underdone curried rice. All of this accompanied by a chocolate cheesecake, not very good, but iced with chocolate drizzle, very pretty… a roll with 2 slabs of creamery butter, wheat crackers and a wedge of blue cheese.
It has been a long journey so far. I awoke yesterday in Manhattan at 6:55 a.m., five minutes before the alarm went off. I hadn’t had much sleep but somehow I didn’t sleep on the 14 1/2 hour flight from NY to Johannesburg. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful, and I, of course, have been in a splendid mood for days, in spite of lack of sleep.
I can see the shores of Madagascar now in the distance. It will be a new world. My adventure is finally becoming real. Up until now, it has been a fantastic dream.
It seems like only an hour ago I woke up in NY, even though the journey seemed long. We are over Madagascar now, viewing the dry strip of land up the western side. To my right, out the window, are bilious mountains of cloud formations miles high. They cover the many hundreds of miles of rain forest on the eastern side of this huge ancient chunk of Africa that broke off millions of years ago and now has an Eco-system all its own. 4 out of 5 species of flora and fauna are found nowhere else on earth. It is home to the many kinds of lemurs, the only other primates on earth aside from humans, and the ape family. This is what I’ve come to see. I wrote a report in the 3rd grade about Madagascar and the lemurs. I’ve wanted to come here ever since. I will sleep tonight in Antananarivo and fly south tomorrow to the Berenty Wild Life Preserve to play with the lemurs.
I didn’t realize how mountainous the dry side of the island is. There are hundreds of miles of red craggy hilly terrain. We start our descent.
Antanarivo is the capital city of Madagascar. The airport is small like many Caribbean Island airports. At once, what strikes me is the look of the people. They are a genetic mixture of Asian, Indian, Arab, Black and French…very beautiful. I am immediately swarmed by more gypsy cab drivers than at JFK, speaking French and Malagasy (or one of the 18 dialects), all vying very aggressively to take my bags. I am met by Erika, my guide, who I saw with a sign as I left the customs line. She is sweet and helpful, and speaks English perfectly. I later learn that College grads often become guides because there are so few job opportunities in Madagascar. A car awaits us and we make the 40 minute trek through the outskirts of the city to its center where the Tana Plaza Hotel sits across from the grand but empty rail-way station.
My mind is a-blur from exhaustion. The roads are narrow, winding, and slightly hilly. The tiny buildings lining the streets remind me of Belize City, though they are more country French in structure. Most are made of red brick, like the dirt of the region, with grass roofs. As we approach the center, there are more and more of the two-story version, white washed, with columns and porches and shutters.
There are ox carts and people drawn carts and diesel cars with fumes. As the center approaches, there are many vegetable and meat stands. Produce abounds of all sorts including the tiny pineapple from my plane meal. I mention to Erika that I had heard that the food of Madagascar is very good. She said that it is all very fresh.
Along the road I have seen many fields with small burning areas. She explains that they are making bricks. I also observed the many swamp-like fields with obvious cultivation. The rice paddies, are a major industry in the highlands. She points out a castle high on the hill. It was the French Queen’s Palace built 100 years ago (by a Scotsman) when the French colonized the country. It burned 4 years ago by accident and is an empty shell. One day, she says, they will restore it. She points out the Presidential Palace near my hotel.
My room is small, clean and simple, yet well appointed with the luxuries of modern technology. There is even a TV, with one channel, and a hair dryer in the modernly plumbed bathroom. There is an air conditioner, which I will not need, because the weather is perfect. It is spring and the end of the long, dry winter season. The large window opens to a bustling, small city street with an iron-grated park for a view. There are palms and many indecipherable trees. It is a lovely sunset.
I am refreshed with a tall bottle of beer from room service and will nap, probably until my wake-up call at 8:30 a.m. I must remember to brush my teeth with bottled water only.
I awoke this morning to a clatter outside the window from the city-street. The sun had risen. It was 6 a.m. I drew the curtain and opened the window to see what the clamor was about. The street was lined with food vendors, their goods lying on pieces of colored fabrics on sidewalk and gutter. Their clothes were multi-colored and draped in layers. Some heads were wrapped turban-style.
I quickly showered so that I might walk along for a closer inspection than my second story view of the panorama afforded. By 6:30 a.m., all but a few were gone. I looked down the street both ways and found that there were large groupings of very small and numerous tent-like edifices several blocks down in both directions.
The concierge told me that the street vendors I had seen earlier, were only allowed from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. because of traffic. I realized that what I thought the night before to be a park was actually homes of wealthy people. As I scanned the vista of the city I saw red tiled roofs and windowed eaves, some ornate, others with corrugated rusted metal roofs. The city was much more vast than I had anticipated. Erika told me that 2 million people live here.
In the informal dining room of the hotel, I had petit déjeuner. I avoided the pre-cut fruit and juices, choosing rather the mini-bananas and tangerines that I could peel myself. The croissants were more crisp and delicate than I had ever had. Generally not a coffee drinker, I indulged myself and greatly enjoyed it, until the handle of the cup fell off while sipping, ending in a broken plate and a coffee covered table. One of the few shirts I had with me was soaked. Quickly, I managed to wash and dry it in my room and got the stain out completely, to my surprise.
“Down the street” turned out to be a market, predominately of foods, most of which were produce. The little covered booths stood within a walled area about 100 ft. wide and many blocks long, numbering in the hundreds. I expected the produce to be more exotic. Only the passion fruit and those little pineapples were different. The carrots and cucumbers a little fatter and stubbier, the greens more wild, thin, and tangled.
I did not see another European looking person. I was stared at and solicited to by all, and followed by many. I felt a bit uneasy. Erika had told me not to wear jewelry in the city because it is dangerous. The only bits of jewelry showing were my modest rings, but the level of attention was overwhelming. Madagascar is considered one of the poorest countries in the world.
As I walked back to the hotel, it seemed that the number of people carrying goods in baskets on their heads had increased. I laughed as a man passed me with his head basket filled with chickens surrounding a duck, their heads bobbing contentedly. The duck voiced a single quack.
At the airport, I was informed that anyone leaving the city and ever expecting to return (which I would be in several days) was required to either have been immunized for cholera or would be required to take their pills of prevention. The health clinic in NY, where I received my other 5 shots and malaria tablets, had advised me, after careful research, that no such shots were necessary. I took the pills. They watched to make sure I swallowed them. An hour later as I sat waiting for a tardy boarding call, (all in Malagasy and French), I started to feel queasy and had a head rush that usually indicates headache and fever. I wanted to lie down but the seats were not designed for long-term comfort.
I drank water, did deep breathing and practiced a healing meditation I learned through a mystery school and called in the light…not necessarily in that order. I soon felt better.
Lunch on board the plane consisted of a 3″ baguette, split and buttered with a sliver of white cheese. I usually avoid bread and cheese, but had no choice. It was excellent. The only choice of beverage was a small cup of Coca-Cola. I had two. I don’t normally drink soda at all.
Out the window, we were passing the last of the red hills into green lush mountains. The view quickly became obscured by a thick cloud layer, which remained until we cleared the southern coastline. We banked hard, circled west then north, back over land among the many magnificent white cove beaches surrounding the green mountains. As we landed over a bay area, I could see dozens of primitive looking canoes tethered among many stick-like jetties.
This was Fort Dauphin, or Tablanaro, in Malagase. The airport was a tiny little stucco building with throngs of locals waiting for our 737. Many had signs with names. My name appeared with three others on one held by an attractive local woman who spoke no English. She took our luggage stubs and showed us to an awaiting small tourist bus. We were 3 New Yorkers, 3 German ladies, and a family of Germans.
We watched from the bus, as the luggage unloading spectacle took place. Several carts appeared laden with bags and each was handed off into the throng of workers. Some of our busload ventured out to supervise their own luggage. I resolved to trust our guide and waited patiently. Patience is not usually one of my virtues. We were off to the Berenty Wildlife Preserve.
Poverty seemed overwhelming both in and around the capital, to be referred to from now on as Tana, the shortened French word for Antananarivo, but took on a new meaning in the countryside of the South. The beaches and lands are beautiful and the people seemed contented though they had so little.
Our bus-load stopped at the Dauphin Hotel, where I was met by my own English speaking guide, Dodias, and driver, Odo. We collected my bags and got into a small pick-up. My 2 bags are less than 10 lbs. each. Regardless of this, 2 porters always carry them unasked. I tip them, of course, knowing they are doing what they can for income.
It is a 2 hour drive to the reserve, and we crossed several terrains to get there. The roads are red dirt with broken pavement in places. The driver is skilled and moves fast, avoiding every pothole and rock. Dodias is pleasant and thorough as he points out the flora, fauna and various sights. He is a knowledgeable expert on every subject about Madagascar.
Along the road, we see occasional plots clustered with obelisk stone monuments of varying sizes. He explains that the plots represent the dead of a village, but the dead are buried somewhere in the forest.
There are many rice fields along the way, chartreuse in color, dazzling, terraced, blanketing the deep green mountainsides. There are numerous 3 foot high banana palm-looking plants in the many ponds along the roadside. We pass occasional small groupings of huts, some with goods for sale: Bananas that have 2 dozen a bunch, each the size of a breakfast sausage. Jackfruit are oblong, a foot in diameter, and uniformly covered with bright green 1/4 ” spiked tufts. Coeur du Beouf are heart shaped with brown green skin. Papaya the large melon type… and many others that I can’t remember the names of, and of course, the ever-present bottles of honey. The bottles are found bottles…that is, Coke bottles, Evian bottles…whatever they could get their hands on.
The bungalow at the reserve is made of wood from a cactus like tree, the Aloedia. The roof is thatched with palm fronds. The floors are polished concrete, the ceilings parquet bamboo. Comfy beds and bathrooms, windows and doors complete with screens and louvers, make it a cozy retreat.
Dodias takes me to the spiny forest once it’s dark for a pre-dinner flashlight search for the nocturnal mouse and Lipi lemurs. We see their eyes shining as they nestle high in the tree crotches nibbling the tender leaves. The mouse lemur is the size of a hamster and the Lipi lemur is about three times the size.
There is very little underbrush to impede our progress through the forest. I neither see nor feel any signs of spiders or insects except for the infrequent moth.
Dinner is delicious, as expected. First, a salad of roasted potatoes, beets and fresh tomatoes, greens and onions topped with bits of seafood, then baked guinea hen with sautéed carrots and zucchini. Dessert is a split custard fruit of Coeur du Beouf, perfectly ripe. It is a little slice of heaven. Simplicity is what French culinary expertise joined with the exotic freshness of Malagase produce brings to the party.
I fell to sleep by 9:30 p.m. and dreamed all night of lemurs, the other primate. By 4:30 a.m., I’m up and can’t wait for the dawn. The electricity is turned off until sun up, so I light candles to write by. I am so excited. I can’t wait for an up close and personal experience with the lemurs. As the sun comes up I hear a clatter on my roof. I see the ring tail lemurs in their bounding dismounts from my cabin roof. They hurry across the square to the open aired breakfast hut about 50 feet from my hut. They obviously know the food schedule for guests.
As I sip tea with the incredible local honey and enjoy custard fruit juice and buttered, toasted bread, I am again startled by the sound of six prancing ring tail lemurs on a corrugated metal roof next to and above me. They bound and leap and roll over one another. Some jump to trees and careen to the ground a couple of yards away. They play like happy children just released from school.
These are not shy lemurs like the natural ones. They are used to people and their hand-outs. They nibble red hibiscus flowers and let me approach to within a couple of feet. Soon there are a dozen. They travel in families. I am in awe and ecstasy…but the best is yet to come.
En route to this place, my guide, Dodias, suggested that I buy bananas to feed the lemurs. He said that they like them very much, though his boss, the owner, doesn’t like us to feed them. The American tourist who might give big tips if happy, is being led astray by her smiling hero guide. Hurray.
Flash forward to now… prancing ring tail lemurs on the lawn. Girl has one 1/2 hour to kill before her scheduled guided tour of lemurs in the wild…has bananas in bag…unzips bag amongst prancing lemurs…lemurs are suddenly attentive….girl procures banana intact…mass of lemurs pounce on girl…..girl quizzically wonders if this might have been a faux-pas and retreats hastily, lemurs in tow. Locals laugh heartily. A white dancing lemur counters the procession…girl breaks down in a fit of giggles while approaching her guide.
The rules say clearly on the sign, belatedly to me, the silly giggly girl, “Do not feed the lemurs near the canteen.” Obviously, it is where they are expecting to be fed. The sign also states that we are allowed to indulge them in other places inside the premises, but not in the wild. I consult the guide who had suggested that I buy the contraband bananas.
Apparently, he thinks it is better to feed our beloved creatures out of sight. 20 paces into the wood, Dodias coos in practiced voice. The shy and unresponsive whites are nearby. We hear the sound of the more social browns.
I procure a banana from my bag and feed the grunty sounding (2) browns that are at hand. By that time the only 3 bananas I’ve had in my bag are devoured by the browns, the ring-tailed family arrives, toting mouse sized babies at breast. We are swarmed by more than 30.
Where were you, sweet mothers, when I had bananas to give? I saved 2 bunches in my bungalow and wished I had a dozen more. These beautiful gentle creatures…they take your hands in theirs as they feast.
I am the pied piper in the forest of nymphs. I revel in the courage and vulnerability they demonstrate by presenting their babies at hands distance. I am to find out more.
The bravest, most powerful, of the species, are the females. They need more food, so nature has provided for them in their society. They feed the future. The males know this and step aside. If one dares to breach the covenant…she firmly, yet gently, reprimands him. The older males quake in her presence, the younger ones are gently batted.
The babies cling to their mother’s fur instinctively and suckle. I am in awe. Motherhood should be so easy for humans. If the baby loses its grasp in the course of maturing to independence, it is lost. If it is sick or weak it will not be able to survive, but nature has provided that the strong will be thoroughly protected by its mother alone, within the family structure. The structure protects the family. The family ensures survival of the species.
There is wonderment at every turn. A river with a 100 foot wide beach on one side, is a first for me. 50 chattering fruit bats hang, occasionally stretching their wings to their 3 foot wing-span. They hang on a single Banyan tree that looks like a grove of trees.
In the afternoon, I am taken to see the ostrich farm. They are raised for their eggs, not meat. They have been imported from Africa as part of the reserve. The French man who owns this place owns several other hotels in the area as well as a sisal, or yucca, plantation and factory.
I am given a tour of the factory and village where the workers live. It appears to be a feudal system. The village seems to have better housing than some of the other villages I’ve seen.
I ask Dodias if the people like the owner. He says that some do and some don’t. I ask if he is liked in general. He says no. He is not a good man. The factory conditions are appalling. Simple safety precautions are ignored. There is a giant broken machine out side under an open shed roof. The shed is adorned by a multi-level, gossamer veil of Golden Orb spider webs. I had seen pictures of the spiders and their webs in a book on Madagascar. I ask Dodias if they are dangerous. “Oh yes, they are!” They are 3″ in diameter and abundant on the webs.
Sunday, Sept. 5
I slept until 5:30 a.m. waking with the first light to the sound of roosters and the clattering of dishes and chatter in the canteen. We: guide, driver, and I, return to Fort Dauphin today. The people I’ve met here have departed already. I watch the compound in transition as I warm myself in the sun. The mornings and evenings have been somewhat cold. The days comfortably warm in a tee shirt.
The shudders are thrown open as the Black woman dressed in a white coat and white turban enters, head piled high with new linens, buckets and mops in hand. American disco and local music blare from the canteen, The other tourists are in the forest. I am the only Anglo, at least for the next half-hour. I hear the lemurs calling me.
Each kind of lemur has a different sound. The ring-tails sound like a baby crying. They are not always vocal, but just now they are all crying out. I walk amongst them to see what is happening. Perhaps it is a mating ritual. I watch a female on the ground rub her butt against a baby tamarind tree trunk and run off 2 yards to another tree which she hugs with her arms. The male that was watching, runs over to sniff the tree she has just marked. Surprisingly, he doesn’t go to her. The family slowly migrates away from my cabin crying out for another 5 minutes. The whites, Sifakas, play in the trees and prance in long strides, intermittently following the parade of ring-tailed lemurs.
Dodias, Odo and I depart in our pick-up for the bouncy 3 hour trek to the sea. To get from the dry forests of the Berenty Reserve to the seashore town of Fort Dauphin, one must traverse deserts and mountains. Between the forest and deserts there is the in between. There are many villages of a primitive nature. It is Sunday. Sundays are market days all over Madagascar. Market days mean that everyone (yes that means everyone) travels from their tiny village to the nearest central market to sell and buy goods. Goats, fowl, produce, weavings, and wooden artifacts are carried dragged, pushed and pulled. Most people travel on foot or by oxcart. There are many rivers to cross between here and there and most of the bridges are just wide enough for a single oxcart or car. Sometimes these bridges are long.
One such bridge was being crossed, while we waited on one side among a parade of oxcarts and pedestrians laden with goods. Either oxen are generally unruly, or their drivers don’t quite have a grasp on leadership. It is a circus to behold. I’m glad I don’t have to catch a plane. The pedestrians passing us stare at me with the same wonderment I have for their colorful procession. We pass through dry forest, spiny desert, low desert, and lush mountains on our way to the radiant seaside.
I think I am going to cry now. I am in paradise. I am sitting alone on a beautiful terrace. Smooth concrete, walled with two-foot high stone masonry is surrounded just enough by tropical trees and flowers, on top of a hill overlooking a grand cove beach of azure blue water that reaches 1000 miles westward to the coast of Mozambique. This is the restaurant of Hotel Miramar. It is noon and I await a crab lunch with sautéed vegetables and rice.
The restaurant is situated on a mini peninsula in the center of a cove–2 miles wide. On the left and right sides are white sand beaches. In the center, a gentle slope with stairs that open to 2 levels of small terraces surrounded by trees. Each terrace has lounge chairs and palm frond umbrellas.
The beach on the left: waves break at the shore. Not too large….Quite swimmable. The sand beach cove is about 40 feet deep and 1/2 mile long and ending in rocks at either end. A couple dozen people are scattered, some under shade trees. The hill behind it rises on a 45 degree undulating incline, covered by trees and grasses. There are a few scattered huts and two large buildings that could be houses or hotels. A dozen long and primitive looking canoes lay in the sand at the edge of the green.
The beach on the right: Waves break continuously from about 1/4 mile out until they reach the shore. The beach is about 20 feet deep and curves lengthening beyond my vision, which is obstructed by the trees of the mini-peninsula on which I sit. It is over six miles.
The hill rises up behind it at a slightly steeper angle than the other. It is adorned by many large houses , for about 2 miles. A mountain range rises up behind it. The sky is a clear brilliant blue dotted by tufts of pure white clouds. The air is 75’F with a gentle sea breeze. Did I remember to say that I am very happy? My life is good. I am happy to be me.
The crab is sautéed lightly in butter with vegetables done to perfection. There Is just enough Creole spice to allow the delicate crab flavor to shine. You can tell that the French have had their influence here. I could live like a queen here. Lunch with 2 bottles of beer and a large bottle of water was almost $6.00.
I saw one of the boats go out to sea awhile ago with 2 people on it. One is just leaving now with 4. They disappear around the peninsula. There has not been any fishing done here until just recently. The government has worked to establish the industry to help the locals through the many drought years of late. I suppose it means that the boats aren’t really primitive, just rudimentary. The seafood harvest is excellent.
I would lose track of days and time if it weren’t for this journal.
My hotel room, slightly up the hill from the restaurant, overlooks another view of the ocean. It is large and clean and sparse. 2 large windows, a bathroom with a bidet, and a large veranda complete with sunset. Maybe I’ll come and live in the hotel when I don’t have to work any more. I only see 4 other people so far. They say the high season is August when all the Europeans vacation. Oct. will be warmer. Nov.- May are probably rainy. June and July- 20 degrees Celsius, are coldish. 3 months a year wouldn’t be bad. It’s just that those months are good everywhere in the world and I want to go everywhere at least once.
It becomes cool at night in Sept. Dinner is great as usual. The fish is fresh and superb, the vegetables perfect and the presentation excellent. I am in bed by 9:00 p.m.
I awake at 5:00 a.m., but sleep again until 7:15 a.m. I am served croissant & fruit, cafe au lait in the breakfast nook of the Hotel. Everyplace has a view of the ocean.
The climb down to the beach is steeper than it looks. The seashells are mostly tiny. Remains of oysters and sea urchin lie about as if someone had a picnic. Punctured and cracked coconut shells, instead of beer cans, indicate a local’s feast rather than tourist. The oyster shells are several inches thick, like the prehistoric one my cousin, Nicola, gave me from a mountainside archaeological dig in Rome. This is a prehistoric island, after all.
It is very warm today. I sit in the shade. After lunch, I fly north to visit Perenet Reserve and more and different lemurs. I am reading “Tropic of Cancer” in the tropic of Capricorn. The poverty in the book reminds me to write of my beach walk experience this morning. As in any poor country, tourists are approached by vendors and beggars, especially when walking without a guide. It is the same at the Hotel Miramar. The walk on the beach, however, was startling to me. I walked out to a far peninsula on a rock, alone, watching the waves. 2 natives walked toward my end of the beach. Before they reached me, I saw their baskets and surmised that they had come to solicit.
I don’t generally buy souvenirs. On this trip, especially, because there is a weight limit for the African safari part of the voyage that I will soon embark. I was annoyed at their persistence and walked away from my rock to another post toward the center of the beach. As I sat again, I thought perhaps my annoyance had made me too hasty. A hand-made silver Malagasy bracelet would be a perfect thank-you gift to Nancy-Jean, my long time assistant in New York.
I strolled the beach hoping to find the girls again. One had an infant strapped to her back. A five year old girl approached me. She spoke Italian. We conversed. She showed me carved wooden trinkets. She was cute. I thanked her and walked on. This started an avalanche of peddlers that seemed to come out of the sea. Everyone was putting their bracelets on me, hanging their beads, quoting their prices. It was too much. I didn’t have much on me. I paid the baby-laden one a token for the bracelet I liked. Still some followed me as I approached the hill for my ascent.
I wish my French were better. They all speak French here. Italian is rare. English is somewhat spoken and understood.
I can’t remember having had a better lunch, my last meal at Hotel Miramar, is a beautifully done French-style omelet, golden brown, bubbly/buttery, filled with petite crevette. These are some of the tastiest shrimp I’ve ever had. The salad…ooh the salad. I’ve never seen prettier lettuce than in Madagascar. So fresh, the perfect color green and tender, topped with sliced plum tomatoes and red onions. The dressing was vinegar & oil, sweet and fruity with a slightly oniony flavor. I could drink it. I sop the rest with a piece of excellent French bread that I shouldn’t be eating. I can’t help myself. It’s so hard for me to say no to me. ($3.50, with tip)
Fort Dauphin to Tana, and Tana to Perenet
At Fort Dauphin airport I waited for a flight to Tana where I was to be met by a guide and driver to take me to Perenet in the rainforest. More and different lemurs, flora, and fauna awaited me. Well, at least I looked forward to them eagerly.
It was a little difficult to decipher the proper gate and procedure, but I was doing fairly well. A handsome French speaking man appeared at the gate where a number of tourists were waiting. He was a fellow traveler. The loud speaker announced boarding of our plane, which had just arrived. It was just outside the door. At an adjacent door, another line of people suddenly appeared and were being escorted to my plane. I joined their line and was promptly turned back to my original waiting area. Several French speaking men consulted my boarding pass to make sure they were in the correct place, too.
Loic Bonenfant, the before said, French speaking, handsome gentleman assured all of us, unasked, one by one, that we were indeed in the right place. I already had no doubt, thanked him politely, and took a seat to wait.
The plane was a little more decrepit than most and I was reminded that domestic flights in the poorest country in the world might not be the safest. Landing in Tana was a little tremulous.
At the baggage claim, Loic was friendly. His bags arrived first and we said adieu. My bags arrived and I looked for my guide or a sign with my name. No one was there but Loic. He spoke little English. I spoke little French, but somehow we managed. Swarmed by gypsy cab drivers, vendors and porters, I felt like a cork bobbing in a frothy sea.
Loic took me ashore with phone card in hand, to sort out my questions. As we waited for the only phone booth in the airport to call my travel agency, he offered me a cigarette. I asked him if he was my hero. He said that he was not Gerard Depardieu. I laughed. By the time I was on the phone with Erika, Loic was signaling that my guide had arrived…He didn’t even know my name, and how had she found him? C’est le vie.
He refused payment for the phone card but accepted a ride into town from Michelle, my guide, and Lili, our driver. I thought Loic was Malagasy and didn’t know his name until then. He lives in Paris and has a new business exporting hand made craft stationary to Europe. He will call me at Tana Plaza in 2 days when I come back from Perenet.
The ride from Tana to Perenet was long and winding, up mountain roads into the rainforest. The economy is much better here than in the South, judging from the size and quality of the houses and villages.
Vakona Lodge is startlingly beautiful and modern. French wine and food on the menus live up to their origin. We are late arriving and are the last ones to leave the dining room. I arrive back in my room just in time for the electric time out, which renders me in complete darkness. At least I remember where the matches and candles are, and find them by Braille.
It was raining when I woke up at 6:30am. I love rainforests . This is the rainforest primeval. I am in the rainforest of Madagascar. It is a dream that I am living. After breakfast, Michelle, Lili and I go to the special reserve to see the Indri-Indri lemurs. We meet Marie there. She is the local guide in this reserve. It is 3 hours of hiking through a jungle of thick underbrush consisting mostly of small bamboo.
We find two families of Indri in their usual territories. They yell to each other with a loud cry that can be heard for miles, it seems. It sounds like a trumpet with a trombone slide to a shorter, higher note. They swing like monkeys from tree to tree. They are the size of chimpanzees and are the largest of the lemurs and tailess.
There are orchids all over the forest, many of which are not yet in bloom. Of the blooming ones I saw: tiny white ones the size of 1/2 my pinky nail, red and green speckled half the size of a dime, translucent green ones the size of a 50 cent piece, and white ones the size of a silver dollar.
There are flowers of every size as well as orchids. Large trumpet whites and tiny periwinkle starlets, bright oranges with green/purple leaves, pink ones that smell of Jasmine…a plethora.
The tree ferns were one of my favorite flora. They grow as high as 15 feet with as much as 20 foot frond spans. They look prehistoric. There are planter pots made out of their root balls everywhere. They must be prolific to be chopped down for their roots.
This afternoon, Michelle and I will go to the Perenet Reserve Island to see the bamboo lemurs, which are said to be small, living lower to the ground, and not shy of humans. Marie will then take me later in the evening to see nocturnal lemurs.
The lemur island turned out to be the highlight so far. The welcoming committee was a Hapa Lemur, Igor, and a Bamboo lemur named Sou-sou. They made a home in my lap. Both licked my hands, face and neck. Sou-sou, the one year old, the size of a squirrel, liked sticking her tongue in my ear,nose and mouth. I didn’t dare open my mouth since she was probing my lips so forcefully. When it was time to move on to see the other lemurs on the island, these two clung fiercely. They wouldn’t let the caretaker take them away. I was in heaven in their company.
Two black and whites came bounding down the path, Gigi and Romeo. Gigi liked to be scratched, like the little ones and lay on her back stretched out like a dog. I scratched under her arms and her chest. The little ones purred like kittens, this one growled like a dog. The little ones kept hopping on my head and shoulders, screaming as I scratched Gigi. They were jealous of each other. So cute!
The caretaker called as we walked, and 4 or 5 browns came up to join in the fun and games. More Bamboos and Hapas gathered round. A baby brown had to intervene in any attentions to other lemurs. The black and whites (Farecia Varegata) showed off their acrobatics.
A group of Italians showed up but were afraid when the lemurs jumped on their shoulders. They shoved them off. How could anyone be afraid of these cuddly creatures? We returned to the launch to say good-bye to Sou-sou and Igor. I got my last bit of cuddling and kissing. Sou-sou left teeth marks for good measure when I tried to put her down. She doesn’t like saying good-bye.
I did not go on the night walk. I took a nap before hand and was cold from my slumber. I sat for a while in the lodge central by the fire, trying to regain my bodily warmth. When Michelle arrived to summon me, it was misty outside. I had not yet shaken the chill. I wanted to sit by the fire. Fires are such crazy gathering places for international tourists. New groups of tourists were coming in, in rain gear, ready for a night venture. I asked Michelle to give my pardon to Marie.
We had dinner. The four French men on motorcycle tour were playing cards. The English and Italian groups had dinner. I struck up conversation with the Frenchmen, then the English group. We lingered. Everyone’s story is so interesting. I wish I could travel forever. Sweet partings.
We go to Perenet this morning to pick up another guide for our trek in the national forest. It is so lush and fragrant. There is a kind of bamboo that is very long and slender and bends over to touch the ground in a grand arc. Its tufts of leaves are equidistant, about every one foot. There are little purple orchids the size of my thumbnail, that grows on the ground unlike the others which are tree dwellers. We climb the mountain up an exquisite stream that babbles and roars intermittently.
There are mostly winding mountain roads on the trip back to Tana. Country houses and farmland abound. There are both small and large villages. There is nowhere in the world to compare this place to. The mixture of Afro-Euro style is aromatic to the senses
Traffic is very heavy just outside Tana and the fumes of these old cars and trucks are killer. I hold a cloth to my nose and mouth most of the time. The ride makes me sleepy.
Back at the Tana Plaza Hotel, I watch bad French/Malagasy TV for a while until Loic calls. It was his birthday yesterday, 31 years old. We have a drink at the Tana Plaza, then go to pick up a message for him at another hotel. We have dinner there with his friends, all French speaking, but mostly Malagasy. He has a meeting with Hallmark next week for his new business.
Walking in Tana at night is an interesting experience. I would not have done it by myself, but I feel safe with Loic. He seems to know many people and the city very well.
There are a lot of beautiful, young Malagasy women at the disco. Some are very young. Loic explains that most of them are prostitutes. They are all over the men. They eye me. I am the only woman wearing pants. It was too cold out side this evening to wear a dress. Loic doesn’t mind. He thinks I’m “simpatique, cool”, he says. We laugh a lot.
Next stop is South Eastern Africa for my tour of the great animals there, Botswana and Zimbabwe, with a short stop in South Africa, and then onto the Seychelles where I will scuba dive. I’ve always been a great fan of Jacques Cousteau.