Reflections on Madagascar

October 8-19, 2013

Like a spring uncoiling, an indri (babakoto in Malagasy) flies high over our heads through the forest canopy.




We travel east by car from Tana, past numerous towns and small villages, workers out in the hot sun tending their rice paddies, little markets set up in every conceivable place along the road. During the four hour drive, constantly angling to pass the big pollution-spewing diesel trucks on potholed roads, we see almost no native habitat where lemurs might reside - the hills have been cleared and are mostly planted with eucalyptus which is used to produce charcoal for cooking - until we reach Andasibe National Park.

Here is a pocket of native (secondary) forest, and still home to 11 species of lemurs, including the remarkable indri - the largest lemur in Madagascar. Every morning the park guides are afoot, leading their groups of vazaha through the forest, searching for one of the 62 family groups that live here. As we hike on the trails that criss-cross the low hills, guides are in constant communication with each other (sometimes calling on their cell phones) to share the locations of the animals that the tourists are here to see. The pressure is on!

After a few hours following our entertaining guide Justin, we hear the sound of indri emanating from the forest very nearby. We quickly move in their direction, and at last, we're face to face with a group of a dozen indri. These guys look a bit like giant teddy bears with long lanky legs and arms. They have the disconcerting habit of looking totally relaxed, hanging from branches high above, and then suddenly without warning, with a quick leap, becoming completely airborne as they ping-ping away through the tree canopy (like a scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)

And then there's the indri song - a haunting series of cries that signal their territory to neighboring groups in a call and response sequence reminiscent of coyotes back home. These vocalizations can be heard several kilometers away, and periodically throughout the day (as well as every morning promptly at 6am) we hear the indri echoing from distant corners of the park.

Our guide Justin illustrates the difference between sifaka and indri calls.



Night and morning soundscape recorded from our bungalow porch in Andasibe.













Madagascar is a country of contrasts - first world luxury, third world poverty, incredible wildlife, slashed and burned forests. When we were planning this trip, I imagined a rich and verdant country, with lemurs leaping through unbroken expanses of ancient primary forests -- a "garden of Eden" in the hyperbole of one travel brochure.

But Madagascar is much more complicated than that. After a political coup in 2009, aid from other nations ceased and its already fragile economy nearly collapsed. Seventy percent of the population subsists on less than $1 per day. As one restaurant owner told us, a girl working as a receptionist at a high end resort speaks five languages and earns $50 a month, barely enough to buy a month's supply of rice, which has doubled in price over the last year.


By all accounts the government is corrupt and laws are not enforced. Illegal logging is rampant, and some estimate that less than 10% of the primary forest remains, with vast swathes of "protected" national parks (like Masoala NP, which we loved) falling victim to loggers; other forests are burned and cleared for agriculture. The forests are increasingly fragmented and lemur populations -- which are also hunted as food -- are plummeting. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, more than 90 percent of the 103 lemur species unique to this country are in severe danger of disappearing forever.

The people we meet are super-friendly, quick to smile, and go out of their way to welcome and help us. They laugh as we squeeze into taxis brousse, and cheerfully pose for photographs. But there is a dark side to Madagascar, a seedy side we don't want to acknowledge. Prostitution is rampant. On the back streets of Diego Suarez, Nosy Be and Tana, we see way too many overweight men-of-a-certain-age promenading with beautiful young Malagasy girls.

We arrive at the island of Nosy Be and discover that just two days prior, two French/Italian tourists and a local Malagasy man were lynched -- a mob set fire to the three men, convinced they were responsible for a local boy's death. There are weird rumors about organ trafficking and pedophiles. Nosy Be is somber, the gendarmes are out in force, and we are the only guests at our lovely, French-owned 6-room hotel, overlooking a stunning, almost deserted beach. Tourists are fleeing the island, future flights and long-planned holidays are canceled, the local expat community is scared. When we leave two days later, our flight to Antananarivo is packed (and delayed six hours, with no explanation.)
In Tana, we enter an alternate reality. Our room is spotless, with European fixtures, a down comforter, elaborate stonework, carved towel racks. Breakfast is served in an outdoor patio. We are surrounded by bubbly European tourists (and a few Americans) eating freshly baked bread with vanilla flavored confiture. In the evening we dine in a gorgeous upstairs room, feasting on gourmet food and drinking rhum, all at ridiculously low prices.

We are here for a week (while I recover from an injury) and lucky for us, our visit coincides with MadaJazzCar, an international jazz festival with a series of evening concerts (tickets cost $2.50) and a free daytime concert. The music is great, the vibe is comfortable and fun, the evening crowds are hip, well-dressed Malagasy folks. But after one evening concert at the Alliance Française de Tananarive, on the outskirts of town, we step outside and the streets are dark and deserted, rain is pouring down. We must find a taxi -- it's scary! A few cars and full taxis pass us, then a rickety, rattley 70's era Renault with dim headlamps pulls up. It barely runs. The driver stops and buys a liter of gas (taxis never have gas in the tank) then makes a beeline for our hotel, taking a route through a neighborhood we've never seen, where the streets are broken cobblestone, dark figures lurk next to small fires, and prostitutes stand in barely lit doorways. We all seem to be holding our breath, praying we won't break down or be held up during the 10 minute ride back to our hotel. We suddenly turn a corner and there we are, safely deposited at our oasis, where we are greeted by warm and friendly staff -- we've returned to the first world.





Blending in with the locals at an afternoon jazz concert (from MadaJazzCar's facebook page!)









A few snippets from concerts we liked at MadaJazzCar.

In mid-September I fell on a slick rock while hiking at Masoala National Park. Weeks go by and it is still difficult to walk, so we head to Antananarivo to rest and, every third-world traveler's nightmare, find a doctor.

Our hotel recommends Espace Medical, a private hospital. I don't want to go. I'm super-nervous as we drive through Tana's chaotic neighborhoods, finally arriving at the clinic, sandwiched between a tire repair shop and a dingy office building. But when we step inside, it is reassuringly quiet and clean. The kind nurse, extremely shy x-ray technicians and abrupt doctor quickly determine that nothing is broken, I have "Just a minor injury, take ibuprofen and paracetamol and rest."

In sharp contrast to medical treatment in the USA, I walked in without an appointment, was seen within five minutes, had x-rays taken, developed and analyzed, paid 49,000 Ariary ($22), and within an hour was in the taxi, on my way back to the hotel.

I am following the doctor's advice and am slowly, slowly (mora, mora) mending, while we readjust plans for the rest of our journey.