Of course when I worry (or excited) about what time to get up and not to miss something, I am awake EVERY hour, just making sure I have not slept through it…so no worries we’d miss the flight (and the lemurs)! We were up and ready as the car arrived and we even got to the airport early. This time the airport was deserted, the exact opposite experience from our arrival, though we donned our masks anyway, just to be safe.
Armand waited for us as we dealt with the lady at check in. Naturally, our carry on bags were too heavy, which was a fiasco in NZ and Australia. Basically there, they didn’t care whether you got rid of weight, just as long as you distributed it differently. So we were constantly putting on clothes and shuffling things around- more than a few times, because NZ had a different rule than Australia- so when we’d thought we’d gotten it down, it changed and again all our bags were open on the floor and we were shuffling items, trying to make weight.
So, knowing this routine all too well, we started this same dance of shifting things around. She asked if I wanted to put more in my checked bag, but neither she nor anyone else made any attempt to bring it to me (from 15ft behind the counter) so I could. Instead, we started moving things around to an extra backpack Bryan had brought (for this reason) and we kept trying to make weight with my bag. The lady seemed annoyed and said, “but it’s the same, you’re just moving things around”…to which I said “Sorry, this is all we were ever asked to do previously. You are right- and smart- but no other attendant ever cared”! She just looked at us annoyed, shrugged her shoulders and let us go.
Yes, we made it!
But then right as we turned the corner, there’s a man with another scale to weigh our bags on! He stopped us and checked out documents, then had us weigh our bags- both of which were over. He started to say no, we couldn’t go, and I begged, please, the agent let us…as our checked bags were already gone. He waffled about it and started to go see the attendant, then came back, then went again…then came back and waved us on. I am sure they both motioned to each other we were lost causes- but it worked out just fine. That’s all I care about!
We went through security with no issues- here they only care about electronics. They all smile at me and then look at each other and comment- between my tats and my hair, I am definitely not their normal tourist! One of the security girls saw my tattoo and said, “You like cats”? I smiled and nodded. We turned around to the waiting area- which is only 10 feet away and just 2 gates.
Of course we noticed every cough and sneeze- and we tried to eat a granola bar off in the corner without getting coughed on. Again, we were the only ones with masks- and we inspired two older South African ladies to don theirs- but for how long they had been in there without, it would have probably been too late for them anyway…again, we were not paranoid about the plague, but once you have that in your mind, you just are not going to change the plan…and who wants to get sick with anything else, either?
They called a few flights- and with the French accent it’s a bit hard to understand, so we actually got in line for a flight that wasn’t ours…especially as again, there’s no clock…not even in the airport!? She thankfully told us this was not the right flight and we sat down to wait again. Lots of waiting in Africa 😉
Finally our turn. This is an airport where you walk out onto the tarmac and up the stairs, rather than down a covered jet bridge. We were pleasantly surprised to see they load from both ends of the plane- and there is no waiting for a zone or anything…honestly, this was much faster and it is too bad we don’t do things that way more often.
We had about a 2 hour ride in 2 flights, which made us pretty antsy…after all the flying here we were on the airplane again, but we were ready to see lemurs!!
When we got to altitude they brought around some pastries. I desperately wanted one, but decided not to chance it. I was going to try the coffee though- hopefully it was hot enough to kill anything in the water, but I was pretty desperate…so I gave in, and indeed it was pretty darn hot. I was confident I was not going to get “dirty stomach” as Armand called it. Bryan was worried, but we were both so in need of caffeine and Coke was not a choice…thankfully, we didn’t get sick!
Again during the transfer, we could not get off the plane- this time not so annoying with just a short unloading and loading of the plane, but still my legs were tired and I was ready for the real adventure to begin! Basically it had been 4 days of travel and we hadn’t even seen anything yet…
Getting off the plane was a bit shocking. This too a one room airport, only smaller- and the suitcase conveyor was about 10 ft long and then had rolling bars, where the people manually slid the bags down to the end, another 20 feet beyond. Both our bags came off again- we were quite relieved…and we turned to face the door.
Men are just clamoring at the windows, the way zombies do in movies- holding signs for taxi…and the minute you step out, they all swarm. We saw Renault, our new guide holding our sign- he came over and pulled us through the crowd and to the car.
Our driver was to be a man named François, and as they talked briefly, men and women were sticking their arms in the windows showing us trinkets and treasure for sale. I didn’t look at the jewelry really, but these little wooden carvings caught my eye. There were little lemurs and their tails came off. At first I said no but then I really wanted one- so Renault asked for us and it was like 5,000 Ariary, which we are finally figuring out now is about $1.75. Not bad- and hopefully that money means he can buy more food for his family. I was so excited about it, even if that’s all I bought the whole trip, I’d go home happy. I like most of all, that it’s miniature- I have decided if I collect things, they have to be small. I collect mini rocks too 😉
Renault asked if we wanted to get some water or food for the 3 hour ride to come, so he instructed François to bring us to the store- and saying yes, we needed food and water, we pulled away leaving him there. I didn’t realize that Renault would not be coming- and Francois does not speak English either! I could not remember a lick of any French I knew- even simple conversation, all that came to mind was Spanish. I was suddenly a Spanish expert, remembering everything I’d forgotten, but no francais! I wish I had spent some more time studying some French, but when really did I have time for that? Especially recently…
We are looking around at what the convenience store has to offer- it’s literally a gas station mini mart and a very small one at that. We settle on handmade madeleines and potato chips- both local, and I asked François if he wanted anything? “Yes.” Ok what do you want? “Yes.” Are you hungry? “Yes”.
I realize am not getting anywhere so I gesture to the store, waving my arm over the products like the ladies on “The Price is Right”. He thanks me and grabs some chips call “I’believe, which are imitation Pringles and apparently made in the middle east. He seemed so grateful for them- but he did not eat them- nor drink anything- for the next 3 hours.
We start driving through the town, which is literally some shacks near the road. People are sitting around, sleeping, selling things. A woman had no shirt and was sitting with a baby. People were carrying large things on their heads, and bikes were overloaded with pick-up truck sized loads. This is when it became very, very clear, this was going to be an experience…
We had heard the roads were bad, but they seemed ok. We passed though the first town, dodging and weaving among people- we were getting a little more used to it, but then we started swerving, slowing down to avoid some holes…still not THAT bad though.
But then Francois told me it was only 19k to our destination…19k takes THREE HOURS!? And it was about then, the roads got much worse.
There were points where the car was in a ditch so deep, I was eye level with the ground above! Most of the way we couldn’t go more than 5 miles an hour, if that. Busses carrying a ton of people looked like they were going to tip over as they teetered from side to side going in and out of the holes. Sometimes you have to wait for the person oncoming to get through before you can because there is no real option otherwise.
It was a long and very bumpy ride and quite the experience, in and of itself. We hit our heads on the windows multiple times and I was glad I took my motion sickness meds! I take them any time we will be travelling now, even on the plane. I used to be able to do anything, but now rides and even simple things make me feel woozy. I can’t even read my phone or the mail in the car- any looking down and I am ill. Bryan is the same way with the phone and mail, but he doesn’t take meds for it when we travel, unless it’s like a helicopter or something. He just will NOT read in the car- although he’s fine on the plane.
Just when I was starting to wonder when we’d eve get there, the road changed to more of a red, dusty sand and we’re driving among plants that look like agave. Francois said “sigh-zon”, but I didn’t know what that meant…later we found out it was sisal- the fibrous rope stuff they put on cat scratchers! Apparently this is a relatively lucrative product- because the plantation goes on forever. They plants are about 5 or so feet tall/ around- they are huge, with dagger-like tips on the ends of the leaves (I found that out when I backed up onto one while taking a picture).
Finally we reach our destination- the Berenty Reseve, a 3rd generation sisal plantation/ eco-preserve. We pull up to an open air hut that says Tonga Soa (welcome, in Malagasy) and this is the reception desk. There are a few people waiting there, ready to take our bags- and our guide introduces himself as Lambert. He is a happy guy and immediately we know we will have an amazing time here! He is friends with Francois- they have worked together for 7 years. We quickly tip Francois- around 50,000 Ariary for the ride- but we didn’t know we’d be seeing more of him before our return to the airport.
The porters carry our bags to our room and since we have no smaller change, it’s a 10,000 Ariary tip- about $3. This is kind of a lot for them really, so they are all very excited about it and smile. The room is nice- a stucco kind of building with a tile floor. A queen size bed has a large mosquito net over it, making it seem like a canopy bed. The bathroom is very modern and the toilet paper is pink. I am sure the bleaching process is expensive and therefore unnecessary…but I am not sure how and why it’s pink.
We were pretty hungry and excited to get some food, so we were directed to the restaurant- which is our only source of food here. Clearly with a 3 hour drive to the smallest town, there’s no going out to eat! Our only real hope the food is good- and has no meat! This is our biggest concern on this trip- as you might remember from the multitude of protein bars we packed!!
We were given three courses- the first being a cold salad. Uh-oh, fresh veggies? We are hungry though…we don’t want to be rude…we stress about whether we should eat it. I forgot to mention the first night in the hotel an Antananarivo, I instantly forgot about even brushing teeth with bottled water and totally didn’t- but didn’t get sick…we discuss the plans for this salad- until the plates are set down in front of us. It looks good, I want it. I think, “well, here goes” and I start eating. I have been on antibiotics for days already, so hopefully that will help…
The next course is rice and beans (which we will see a lot of) with a basket of bread. We are talking and laughing about how exciting this is and suddenly, my life is forever changed: a ring-tailed lemur with a baby on her back jumps onto our table, grabs a piece of bread out of our basket and starts eating it- not even jumping off the table to do so…just chilling there in front of me, mowing down the bread!
Quickly, a few others follow and suddenly I am surrounded by a troupe of ring tails, sitting on my table, eating my food! I am speechless, jaw on the floor and I am shaking- and WEEPING. This is my dream come true; nothing could have been more exhilarating or fantastical. It is so hard to describe…we weren’t even there an hour and already more than I could have imagined has happened! How could this possibly get any better?
We eventually finish and go back to our room (more like, they needed to close the restaurant and we had to stop marveling at the lemurs), discussing how exciting this is! Apparently as well, they normally do not normally allow the lemurs to do this- so someone either wasn’t paying attention or they didn’t have the heart to stop us feeding them- but at every meal since, there has been someone there specifically to get the lemurs to go away. Some ridiculous people even swiped at them with napkins, which I found ridiculous because I saw them on the paths with giant camera lenses bigger than their arms, weighing more than 10lbs, trying to capture these lemurs on film?! Experiencing them close up is avoided? What the heck.
They told us the entire place runs on a generator, so for certain hours they turn it off- basically between 2 and 7 as well as mid-morning and during the night until 5am. There wasn’t much to do and it was so hot, we pretty much just laid around, commenting on how we never get to just sit around and do nothing.
I took a nap for a bit but we were to meet Lambert at 4ish to go find lemurs as they were getting ready for bed. We walked a bit on a road next to more sisal plants and found 3 sifaka in a tree, not very high up. Lambert told me to try and touch the tail, by jumping up. The lemurs found this kind of funny but would not let me reach them. My heart skipped beats- it was exhilarating to see that it’s not only ringtails trying to steal your lunch, that are pretty friendly!
We walked around for a bit more and watched more ringtails and sifaka (which do a funny running dance you can’t help but laugh at)- until it was time for dinner.
Dinner was more rice and veggies- cooked…good, but certainly, expected. Dessert was a banana crème pie with chocolate sauce which was very good too. We hung out a while watching the workers shoo more lemurs away (and wishing they wouldn’t)- and with full bellies, headed out to do a night walk to find nocturnal lemurs: the white footed and mouse varieties.
These ones hide in trees- the mouse is very small, maybe the size of a rat, and they run back and forth in their branches. The white footed stay rooted in the crooks and holes of trees. You find these elusive creatures by sweeping your light around and trying to see the flash of their eyes, which glow yellow back at you.
The first creature we saw was a white footed lemur. This is the kind of lemur that Cedric the Entertainer voiced in Madagascar. They are super cute with wide brown eyes, about the size of a kitten and they pick one tree and live in it for more than 2 years! We could literally go back to that spot next year, and very likely, Cedric would still be there!
Besides more white footed lemurs, we saw quite a few mouse lemurs- all are really hard to spot though and it’s pretty amazing anyone can. Lambert is quick and I never saw them before he did. In all, our walk was about an hour and was very interesting, but we were pretty tired now. All the travel was catching up to us and the adrenaline of lemur lunch wearing off.
Lambert said we’d be meeting in the morning for a bird watching hike- at 5am. I looked at him with a pained expression told him with no uncertainty, that was way too early and sounded painful. He laughed as I guess he gets up at 4am every day and starts studying (English), so he took pity on us and agreed with the much later time of 6am.