Africa 2017- Madagascar: Day 8- Tana to Andasibe

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Today we drive from Tana, east, to some other (more tropical) forests for different kinds of lemurs.

Tana on a weekday is ridiculously crazy and so dusty, it’s unbelievable. We are in awe at the smog, mostly from burning fires for people to cook with, but also diesel fumes from the cars- although the majority of people certainly don’t have cars. There are more people walking barefoot through the city than there are cars.

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It’s pretty much bumper to bumper for a long time and as we ran out of money (we only started with $300 and tip well), we needed to find an ATM to get more. The first bank we stopped at didn’t have any money in the machine so people were waiting for them to fill it. We think this is somewhat unusual- although it turns out that it isn’t. Many times there is not enough paper money in the machines- however, this is nothing compared to when we later arrive in Zimbabwe, only to find out there is no currency there at all!?

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We decide to drive further to the outskirts to find an ATM at a grocery store or plaza instead. We find a small, modern mini mall, which is oddly enough, decorated for Halloween, which is in a few days. I asked whether or not they Malagasy people actually “celebrate” it but Armand said no, as basically people have more to think about- especially where their next meal will come from. This is again, that strange juxtaposition of cultures- where any cost or attempt would be spent to decorate for a holiday no one celebrates, but is perhaps an attempt to show how modern and “western” this mini mall really is.

Bryan and I are quickly trying to do some math and determine who much money we will need- we think about 120mil Ariary. We type in the full amount, which alarms Armand and he says, “No, that won’t come out”. We look at him as he tries to explain to get that much money, we need to do at least 2 different transactions because the stack of bills, literally, would not be able to come out of the machine and would get stuck! This is not something we had considered, but indeed he is right: the stack for half that amount is quite tall and had we tried to get that much in one attempt, we’d have been very disappointed…it is a really strange thing to consider!

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We continue to drive on, past a lot of brick makers and rice fields. These fields are pretty much right in the middle of the city and I cannot fathom how polluted they must be from runoff, but there is little choice. There are cows and chickens, kids playing in the dirt (if they are lucky), otherwise there were kids as young as 6 or so carrying stacks of bricks on their heads! I cannot even fathom how hard that is for an adult, let alone a child, but they work hard to move the bricks from the kilns in this grassy wetland area to the street where they can be bought and further transported.

Some people have little canoes which are so full there are two people bailing out the water that is coming in while another paddles. Apparently, the area floods even more during the oncoming rainy season and they have a lot of bricks to get out of there or they are lost for the year! I don’t know where they put them all or how people don’t just come by and take them- or try to take over someone’s rice paddy for that matter- but I guess they probably have somewhat of a code…and when thievery may result in death, it’s probably best not to try…but still I cannot believe it.

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At home, someone would be along in a pickup and grab all the bricks and they’d be gone in seconds…which is an interesting thought when you feel like the US is “safe” and secure?! It’s very ironic. I guess it’s good that they have to rely on their hands and carts they pull themselves (maybe by zebu, if they are lucky)- because it certainly limits everyone in a more fair way. Some carts had little lawnmower like engines strapped to them, which propelled them along very slowly.

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These carts- and even zebu, goats and other animals being walked by people- are using the same roads as cars, trucks and buses. We have to swerve around them a lot and there’s again, a lot of honking…and I still can’t get used to the amount of pollution- or how far the city spreads out. I can only relate it to the sprawling mass of LA or something where you can drive for an hour + and still be in the same city…only this is shacks and shanty towns for miles and miles.

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Armand tells us that foreigners are buying up a lot of the land and buildings- which is interesting, because after investigating further, foreigners are required to invest $500k (USD equivalent) into the local infrastructure (very little of which we imagine actually gets much further than the government’s bank account)- to do so, attempting to limit foreign land grabbing….however, in one area, the foreigners bought the land and then fenced it in, just so as not to let anyone use it- but then neither are they! This seems contrary to the point of such financial restrictions imposed on foreigners.

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They are building a lot of new construction and making mostly commercial businesses- many of which seem to have living quarters above…but there seems to be so much growth and not a lot of wealth for people to rent the spaces. A lot of brand new buildings sit empty, for lease- while just in front, someone has set up their little table or stand of goods to sell. These little booths are everywhere and you can sell whatever you want- even just 1 or 2 things. It’s better if you have 3 or more of one thing it seems…more like a store might.

We see handwritten signs that say “lavage” so cars can pull over and get washed- either because they are near a gutter, or the people literally haul the water in buckets from some source to do it. You’d really think washing your car wouldn’t matter when so many people are without jobs and food, but like everything I guess, for the people that have cars, they can afford to wash them- and want to.

In all, these sights were pretty hard to get a grasp on. The pictures do it no justice, but overall you can see the level of poverty- and then the juxtaposition of those who have means. You can literally see a cow grazing in the culvert in front of a new car dealership- or a billboard for exciting electronics and furniture with dirty, starving families leaning on the poles of the billboard.

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We start to get out into the country and finally it looks and feels like fresh air, although it also almost always smells smoky because of the people using firewood and charcoal for cooking- and even the slash and burn farming going on frequently too. I asked Armand about what they are growing and why, and the answer, “just food to survive”, surprises me.

I know we are all aware of deforestation in the Amazon and probably less so here, but I know that often it is portrayed as due to the rise in agricultural needs of the rest of the world, not their own. For example, years ago I remember watching a documentary about Madagascar (which actually made me so worried there’d be no lemurs left if I got to go there), where they said the rise in use of palm oil was causing deforestation to a significantly concerning degree.

I asked about “all the palm oil” farming and he had no idea what I was talking about. He said there is one small area where they might focus on that, but it is far from the reason the forests have disappeared. I don’t know if the discrepancy is because in order to make the first world people of the US care about deforestation, is to make it personal? Like WE are doing it by demanding palm oil and therefore we need to be more conscious? Or perhaps it’s that maybe Armand is not as aware of the palm oil industry? Or maybe that documentary focused on one part of Madagascar where maybe there is no forest left and palm oil happens to be there- although not necessarily THE reason.

I am not sure, but it seems that overpopulation and survival is the number one reason- and nearly 80% of the forests are gone. The lemurs only have patchwork areas where they can live freely- but cannot easily connect with the other troupes, because the trees are gone. This depletes the gene pool and their capacity for longevity alone…soon, only the reserves will have the remaining ones left.

However, it is shocking to hear the Malagasy people are also allowed to eat lemurs- and many do. It seems that really, if you were worried about the lemurs, you’d try to make them also protected, not just a certain area for them…but again I come back to solar power as a solution. If people didn’t need to burn things, they’d not need wood. This would readily resolve many issues significantly, without trying very hard. But someone needs to care about making that initial investment in infrastructure- and the government will never do that! It seems a private foundation or conservation group would have to fund that…honestly, not that different than the US. Every day, nonprofits do the work the government could/should, but can’t/ won’t. Why would it be any different in a small, poor country with well known corruption and frequent revolutions?

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The villages out in the country are interesting and many made with the red clay rather than wood- or a combination of the two. Many homes here still use thatched roofs, not even metal. These people seem to have a nice little slice of paradise- albeit a tough, hard working life. The pictures are idyllic, but they work hard for what they have.

I never knew much about rice but it is hand planted, one little sprout at a time- and everywhere you can see people growing it. Lambert said they eat so much here they actually have to import it because they cannot grow enough to sustain the population, which is a bit crazy!

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We go through a few slightly larger towns, all are pretty much the same. Nearly everyone is out in front of their little booth store, which nearly everyone has. There are fruits and veggies, meats, fried items, drinks (in reused water bottles) and more. There are always a lot of people sitting around and even sleeping outside too. I know some of this has to do with the heat- but also being jobless, otherwise…I guess, what else is there to do when you have very little?

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It is too bad they don’t have a few books or something and the kids could be studying while they are sitting there all day selling bananas…but they don’t and they aren’t. This will probably be their life until they die…go everyday to sell bananas, nap until someone comes along- and then have more kids and sell more bananas.

The landscape changes to become a little more tropical as we are now coming out of the mountains. It reminds me a lot of New Zealand with the really windy, hairpin turns and the long drop offs, but even the foliage too. There is a similarity that brings back fond memories.

The road is mostly paved here but still has it’s major holes. Some people stand by the road and get rocks and dirt to fill the holes, then hold out their hats and hands as you go by trying to get you to pay them for doing this. This method of earning funds seemed REALLY ineffective to me because everyone just honks and zooms by them- many times you are not going slow enough to hand them anything or it’s not a good place to stop. I am not sure about why this started or whether my perception of its success is wrong, but there are a fair amount of people doing it.

Granite is plentiful here so they have some quarry like areas by the side of the road, where they break it into big 6 x 6 inch squares for buildings- and then there are women and children breaking them down, BY HAND, further into gravel. Breaking rocks by hand is literally a job…it seems like a really tough gig, but many of them are out there chopping up rocks into smaller rocks…

We finally get to Moramanga, which is the biggest town nearby the forests we will visit- which are about about 20km or so away. This time it is only about 30 minutes time too, since the roads are not too bad (apparently thanks to some Chinese investment in infrastructure). This town is pretty bustling too, busy marketplace area and more of the same chaos described as Tana.

We stop a little later at a restaurant which is very good. It is of an Asian influence, but perhaps also Indian or because there was curry as well. We had to beg Lima and Armand to sit with us because they thought we needed “alone time”, but we wanted them to eat with us so we can chat with them, which they seemed to enjoy.

We talked about different movies and music and Armand asked Lima if he knew of any US bands. He said “no doo-bit” and looked at me. Then he said it again and again- and then said, “Don’t speak” which immediately got me singing the song…and then I realized “no doo-bit” was NO DOUBT, he was just saying it phonetically! I said “Oh, No Doubt, yes”! He kind of looked a bit sheepish, but we all laughed. Armand’s ringtone is Maroon 5’s “Payphone” which is now totally in my head after just a few rings. Bryan joked later that maybe in another 10 years, Gwen Stefani’s solo career music would reach here, because there’s definitely a time lapse. It surprised me Armand (nearly 50) knew of Maroon 5 too- although maybe his UK and European friends introduced him.

After lunch we are almost there- there, being Andisibe (ahn-dah-see-beh). This is where there are 3 different forests to visit and the home of the Indri lemurs- the biggest who do a really loud call to each other that you can hear echoing throughout the forest. There are also a different kind of sifaka as well as brown and bamboo lemurs (which were not too long ago rediscovered after believing they were extinct. There was actually a book and a Disney movie about the lady who rediscovered them). There are also black and white ruffed lemurs which are my second fav to the ring tails.

We don’t even stop at the hotel, just straight to the park to see lemurs, which is fine by us!

This park is managed by the local people and all the guides are local as well. We meet Etiene (I believe this is how it’s spelled but it’s pronounced “ay-tee-yehn”) who ushers us off to find our furry friends. He is on and off the phone as we walk because they have spotters in the forest who announce where the sightings are.

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We hustle to the spot where there is another small group of Brits looking at the Indri in the trees high above. Armand gets out his phone and begins to play a recording of their call, in an effort to elicit them to respond.. They do nothing of the sort, just continue to stuff their faces with leaves, none too concerned about the alerting calls either. The Brits at first are fooled and think this is their call and they get all excited, until I think- I hope- they figured it out!

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The Indri are totally lazy and are not going to make the calls so we move on. We find a boa curled up in the leaves, which Bryan picks up. It’s pretty good size, like at least 4-5 feet. The snake is not thrilled, so Bryan pretty quickly puts him or her back down. I joked now we could be on Snake City (it’s an Animal Planet show about some people who catch venomous snakes in Durbin, South Africa)- but to be clear the boa is NOT venomous…or we’d not have interacted.

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I don’t know if Etiene got a call or if we just had a sighting, but suddenly we’re on the hunt for the bamboo lemurs, who can move pretty fast and be elusive (they’d have to be for people to thik they were extinct for 50 years!). We are off the main path now, literally crashing through the brush like we’re National Geographic photographers trying to get the shot we’d been trying to capture for weeks! Our hearts were racing and we’re sliding down the hillsides while hanging onto tree branches and racing to the spot where we find them curiously eyeing us- not even 10 feet away.This was really amazing especially as no one else was there, just us…thanks to Etiene (something we will say a lot of when we get to see everything we really hope to)!

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Hotel Andasibe is nice. The bungalows were full, so we have to walk a little bit further up a path to a large building. We actually get a suite of sorts with a queen bed in one room and then 2 doubles in another, with a little living room in the middle. We have no need for so much space, but it was nice not to have everything piled on our bed trying to get organized too.

Sadly, our refrigerator doesn’t work, which is a bummer with the heat. We tried unplugging the power strip, resetting it, using just the wall plug- but nothing worked (and we didn’t bother “complaining” about it. It’s a bit disappointing we will only be having room temp water (or rum and cokes) but it’s not quite as hot as Berenty and we’re in the shade more. Armand enjoys making flavored rum, although he doesn’t drink much- but he made a ginger rum, which he brought for us to sample…we were eager to have that- but it was going to be lukewarm!

The hotel has wifi which is great as I am hoping to post some pictures and a bit of this tale…but I didn’t know it didn’t work in our room- only the lobby- so I could only do quick posts really around meals, since otherwise if we’re at the hotel, I am usually napping or going to bed,like now! I needed to rest up for the night walk which we’d do about 6pm. I was of course exhausted and slept hard for more than an hour while Bryan read.

Sadly, Bryan’s Kindle broke somehow on the way here and half the screen is messed up. I feel pretty bad for him because while I have this typing to do and maybe some picture sorting, he really likes to read, and just do that. I let him borrow mine which has the book I was mentioning about Patricia Wright who established the 3rd national forest in Madagascar in the 80’s.

It seems highly appropriate now that we’re finally visiting Madagascar, we should be current on the book, since we can now relate. I read it so long ago I don’t remember much about it, but Bryan shared with me some of the surprising points (I remember being surprised about then). One was that the Malagasy people don’t like the aye-aye lemur- which is really very ugly. It has a giant long middle finger, which it reaches into trees to get out bugs- and has beady eyes and looks like a scraggly mole kind of thing- like a cartoon. Anyway, the Malagasy don’t like them and will kill them when they see them thinking this will prevent one of their family members being hurt or dying. You can see where this is a problem for us! The aye ayes almost became extinct because of that and are now protected- but I believe are only in one small area of the country now (although maybe always).

The night walk is great, we just walk along the road a ways from the hotel and shine our headlamps around into the bushes to catch the glowing eyes of the mouse lemurs and some others. I looked all over, but cannot find the brand new headlamp I bought for this trip, so I guess it is sitting on my dresser- but Armand has an extra and shares it with me. I guess when we’re on the safari I am either going to have to go everywhere with Bryan in the dark, or share?! I cannot believe I forgot it- super annoying…perhaps even more annoying is that it is not at home when I get back either?! Maybe it fell out of my bag on the plane?

Turns out Bryan’s light is super bright- like the sun and is blinding everyone- so he takes his off and uses it in his hand to scan the bushes. I couldn’t walk in front of him because it kept blinding me! We scan the bushes back and forth, but Etiene is the one who finds all the creatures.

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We saw a wooly lemur and even got really close to a fat tailed lemur, but did not see any mouse lemurs this time. We did see them at Berenty but they were so high up on the trees, we were looking forward to seeing them a bit closer, so this was a tiny bit disappointing, but what can you do! We saw some chameleons and I got 1 point for finding a firefly, which for a second I thought was the eyes in the trees 😉 Not quite! We all laughed about this- but next time I was going to find some lemurs, dammit!

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We went back to the hotel for another 3 course meal, which was very good- and as always, far too much food for us… then back to our rooms again to get some rest before meeting Armand at “half seven” the next morning. I learned goodnight in Malagasy is, “mana kori” (mah-nah koo-ree), and so I said this to every one of the hotel workers I saw. They smile so genuinely when we try to speak their language…it really makes a difference in my eyes.

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