Monday, June 29, 2009

Antananarivo, Mauritius, Dubai, Tripoli, Tunis

Most of these pictures are from Madagascar.

We made it off Madagascar Saturday morning -- barely.

(Lemur at Anja)


We got to the airport at 5 for the 8 am flight. We had a coffee upstairs while the sun came up and we noticed all the Air Madagascar planes lined up and pointed nose first at the runway -- that arrangement made it easier to push start them, we joked.

(Tripoli airport)


It took over an hour to convince the airline to honor our etickets, and I was sure for a while we would be stranded.

(Anja lemur, with haute plateau in the background)


We had a short hop to Mauritius, where we now know our way around. We rode a public bus (nothing irks taxi drivers more than tourists on a bus at the airport) to Mahebourg, got croissants and paninis, and then took a second bus to the beautiful public beach at Blue Bay.

(Taking in scene at l'Isola)


We spent the day there, made use of the public showers, and rode back to the airport. The hours in the airport were enlivened by the fact that an Air India flight was leaving for Delhi. Let me just say: Indians getting on a plane = hours of endless entertainment (and abhorent body odor). Emirates lifted off at 11 pm and we crossed Seychelles and the equator before I drifted into a short nap.

(Canyon mouth at l'Isola)


(Dubai from the air with Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, on the right)


We arrived in Dubai just as the sun was rising and got hazy views of the city, its buildings and the constellations of artificial islands. We did not care to go outside and sample the brisk 87 degree 6am air.

(Chameleon eye watching me at l'Isola)


(Typical street scene in Antananarivo -- burning piles of trash with kids playing nearby)


From Dubai Emirates took us across Bahrain and the red sands of Saudi Arabia. We saw the Suez, southern Jordan and Israel, and the smog of Cairo.

(Laura with kids at Ilakaka, who look sullen because they are slowly coming to the realization that they will not be getting bonbons.)


We touched down in Tripoli just after noon to take on a soccer team headed to Tunis. Unfortunately they would not let us off the airplane but we did get a good sample from the window: endless drifts of windblown trash, olive trees and an unsettling number of junked airliners bulldozed into piles.

(bugs at l'Isola -- they become butterflies)


From Tripoli we flew over the Med and had a lovely twilight view of Tunis.



Tunis is very nice and atmospheric. We have just two weeks here before heading to Malta.

(Box canyon in l'Isola)


Saturday, June 20, 2009

L'Amour En Les Temps de Madagascar

I suppose it's easy to become enchanted with Madagascar.

The country is dotted with little villages which seem to have been airlifted, albeit with a few changes, from the European countryside. Restaurants serve steak au poivre vert (featuring fresh green peppercorns) for 4 dollars while roadside cafes have fresh baguettes and croissants as well as perfect little cups of cafe au lait.


The island of Madagascar was set adrift from mainland Africa 165 million years ago and since then its strange cargo of plants and animals have been evolving into weird and wonderful shapes ever since. The signature animal is the lemur, a sort of cross between a monkey and a rat which lives in families and holds hands and seems to hug its mates. The signature tree is the baobab, a startling monument to strangeness which seems to piece the sky. And much of the countryside is a jumble of granite domes and spires which have to be seen to be believed.


The gems of Madagascar are its national parks, and there are a lot of them filled to overflowing with forest and animals. We are here in late autumn; the weather is sublime. The people are proud of the country and its assets, and proud that you are there visiting. They are protective of tourists and rarely hassle you.

We arrived in Madagascar's strange French-influenced capital, Antananarivo, on an incredible sunny Saturday. We had great food, walked the cobbled streets, dozed about a bit, then got down to business.


Transport in Madagascar is fairly diabolical, so we did something we have never done before: we hired a guide and driver. Germain showed up at our hotel smartly dressed and with a smoke-belching LandCruiser. Between his English and my French we could sort of communicate. We toured south through Parc Nacional Ranomafina where we saw the elusive bamboo lemur. We visited Anja, a community preserve home to a remarkable nearly tame family of ringtail lemurs. We hiked through the immense open spaces and sunstarved slotcanyons of Parc Nacional Isola. We wandered through a loose forest of baobab trees tailed by curious village children who whispered 'bonbons, monsieur, s'il vous plait.' We ate steaks in small village restaurants and drank sumptuous cafe au lait with our petite dejeuner (ok, so the petite dejeuner, France's idea of the way to start the day; is really just a piece of stale bread and the aforementionned coffee). We had a very, very, very nice time.

For the most part, I mean.

Like many of the world's beautiful places, Madagascar is also heartbreaking and tragic. At times the country seems to be sagging under the weight of its own poverty, corruption and stupidity. After traveling the past 15 years to some 80 countries sometimes I have begun to think that nothing is shocking. In Madagascar, however, nearly everything is shocking. I could entertain (or sicken) you for hours with the most amawing and unlikely of stories. Here's one: we are in a bus where the gas tank has been removed and replaced with a bucket which sits next to the driver's foot; a hose snakes from the engine through a hole in the dash to the bucket, which is sloshing as we race around mountain curves. Not a big deal, except all four people in the front seat insist on smoking.


The tragedy of the country is its poverty, which is grinding, even when seen in the broader context of Africa. Such little stories like the smoking gas tank are a symbol of the country at large; the fact that such things exist in a country so beautiful seems to make it all the more appalling. What I have been trying to figure out is wether Madagascar is beatiful in spite of its poverty or perhaps because of it.

Like so many other countries we have visited on this trip, Madagascar has seen more than its share of political problems. Long suffereing from inept goverments, the country finally seemed to get a decent president a few years ago. Unfortunately, residents of the major metro areas did not see it that way and this spring took to the streets. The several-week-long war saw the ruling president flee and the upstart hopeful take power. The well publicized event featured rioting and civilian deaths. Predictably, the tourist economy, already weakened by a bad economy in Europe, burned to a crisp. I estimate that during our two weeks here tourist arrivals had slowed to a stunning two to three dozen a day ... and this during the height of the tourist season. In a country with poor education, no middle class and few opportunities for real advancement, association with the tourist trade is one of the few ways ordinary people in Madagascar can get ahead. Most of our time here, wether in hotels or parks or negotiating with guides, we have been the only tourists in sight.

Laura thinks the nexus of the country's problems is the lack of education among the vast majority of its residents. She's probably right, but I have to wonder how much the nation's colonial history has to do with it as well.

Madagascar was the domain of France from the mid 1800s to just before World War Two (in fact the country is still to a large degree trying to rid itself of its French heritage; the former president ordered that the new national language be English, not French). France has a long and storied history of colonialism in Africa, though excepting Madagascar all of its holdings were in West Africa. The history of colonialsim in Africa, and how colonialism ended, is complicated and open to multiple interpretations, but its fair to say that few former colonies in Africa have faired well. From my experience, those ruled by the English have fared better, especially if you look at examples like Kenya and Botswana. Those ruled by Portugal, meanwhile, have had the hardest go at things. None of them have fared as well as former colonies in places like Asia, where even the plight of a place like Laos looks enviable when put up against, say, Mocambique.

European countries seem, in my view, rather unwilling to make amends for the debts owed to their former charges, and debt is the only way to look at it. Countries like France and Belgium and England systemmatically raped Africa of its resources while installing puppet governments which were allowed to develop the largesse and corruption which rule today. One, I think, could forgiven for cynically supposing the French, seeing the number of espresso machines and the quality of the croissants here could sit back, smoke a Galouise, and say Mission Accomplished. It's by no means all France's problem, but their misdeeds on the continent seem to stand out the most illconceived.

(What the hell? Am I French bashing? What's next -- watching Fox News?)

OK, enough on France. Our last day in Isola I walked to the edge of town, trailed by the usual coterie of children, many of whom simpy wanted to touch my hair. The sky was wide and full of autumn. When the kids got bored and left me I could walk away into the countryside, the dry yellow grass whipping around my shins. We've spent most of the past halfyear in jungle and forest, where the horizon is just a few yards ahead. Here, I could see silent peaks 100 miles in the distance. Simply incredible, this place.

We head to Tunisia in 48 hours. Our trip is down to its final three weeks.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Fifth Continent

In the span of 48 hours Laura flew a full two-thirds of the way around the world -- from Atlanta to Tokyo to Bangkok to Dubai to Mauritius. She arrived in Bangkok after 1 a.m. local time -- I met her at our favorite hotel. We had a nice sleep, a good breakfast, and within 12 hours we were back at the airport.

On this trip I`ve flown in and out of Bangkok so many times it had become like a second home. This time, though, when I got our tickets and we got stamped out of Thailand, was the last of this trip. Thailand has been very good to us these past three months. I`ll miss the vibrant street scenes, the pleasant hotels and the killer food.

(Flic en Flac)


In the airport, waiting for our Emirates flight to Dubai, I glanced out the window. Sure looked like a big plane, I thought. It took me a moment to realize we were flying on an Airbus 380 -- the double decker plane. It was brand new and very nice. Best of all were the personal video screens and the ability to look at plane-mounted live cams positioned at the nose, the tail and the landing gear. Very cool.

We had a nice layover in Dubai; the airport, like the city, it really just a shopping mall. Who plonks down thousands of dollars on gold jewelry in airports, I wondered. Then a woman sat down next to us and opened her bag. Inside was a huge gold necklace. Well, there you go. Our flight to Mauritius left at 3 a.m. and we flew straight south, over Oman and into the Indian Ocean. We crossed the equator and at 9 a.m. descended into Mauritius.

(Flic en Flac)


Mauritius was not a destination we chose. We wanted to go from Bangkok to Madagascar, but our booking agent said we would connect through Mauritius and could have a layover there at little extra cost. After seeing what the price of accomodation was, always a factor in francophile nations, we decided we could afford to stay a week.

Mauritius was colonized by the English and the French. Socially, it`s a low key version of France. Ethnically it`s more like India. Economically it would rate as second world. Geographically it`s got a flat high central plain which slopes down to the coast, where jagged mountains meet the sea. Meterologically it was as close to perfect as you can get at 21 degrees south.

(Blue Bay from the air)


Mauritius is about the size of metropolitan Atlanta; there`s one city and a slew of dense villages and towns. We stumbled out of the airport to find crisp blue skies and a temperature in the 60s. We took a series of pokey busses across the island and to a beach town called Flic en Flac. I wandered down to the beach for sunset and bought a baguette but we fell asleep before dinner time.

There`s not a whole lot to Mauritius. Besides biking and swimming and chasing dolphins you can taste rum and then lay on the beach. All we did was sleep, eat and lay on the beach. The scenery was fantastic and the weather incredible, especially after the soggy warmth of southeast Asia. It`s a place we`d definitely go back to.

This morning we woke up to rain and chilly temperatures. We had cute little French pastries and took a local bus to the airport. Our Air Madagascar flight gave us a surprise -- a half hour in Le Reunion, an incredible island to the west of Mauritius and a departement of France. We landed in Madagascar at 2 p.m. local time. It`s Africa, but a part of France, too. For those of you keeping track at home, we are now on our fifth continent. We are down to the final month but are still trying to take advantage of every minute!