Friday, June 15, 2007

Madagascar 2007

Update #1: 5/18/2007
Hello dear family & friends! I have arrived safe and well in Madagascar and my luggage made it, too. Calvin was waiting at the airport for me, but I almost didn’t recognize him because his hair and skin are much darker than what I remembered when I saw him last – two years ago. He looks great – healthy, strong, happy… He’s the same Calvin you all remember, just a bit more grown up now. His command of the language (Malagasy) is awesome! It sounds like nothing I’ve heard before in any of my travels. I haven’t even learned how to say hello, yet –- it’s a difficult language -- but I do know how to say “blue.” He asked me what the language sounds like when I hear him speak and I said it sounds like, “Manga-manga-manga!” He told me that actually means blue, light blue, and dark blue. First night in town we stayed at the Hilton – the nicest, tallest building in the country, with 14 floors. The room was very nice, by Madagascar standards, but reminded me a lot of my college dorm my freshman year -– very small, very plain, and very hard beds. My tour book insisted on taking a stroll around the adjacent lake first thing in the morning to get acclimated… so we did this… I think the “acclimation” that took place was learning how to dart in and out of traffic without getting hit and gaining an entirely new appreciation for water pollution. The lake was anything but beautiful and peaceful – it was a mess of brown/black sludge with trash and dead fish floating in it, and a giant statue rising out of the middle with some big verse in French that I didn’t understand (apparently the French tried to colonize this country a long time ago, but were quite unsuccessful). After the lake stroll, our driver picked us up in what appeared to be a 1974 Mazda minivan and we headed for the coast (where we are now).The road to the coast is terrible – it’s kind of paved or cobble-stoned, but mostly there are gigantic potholes that could swallow a donkey-drawn buggy (of which there are many!). The road winds and winds up and down mountains and through valleys and just when you think you’re out of the worst of it, the vehicle stops and the co-pilot gets out to guide the driver through the next series of nearly impassable ruts and ravines. I’ve never been more thankful for Dramamine in my life! We covered about 200 kilometers in about five hours and decided to stop for the night at a little village that happened to have some thatched bungalows for rent – one bed with a big mosquito net, but we were so tired that we took it and slept like babies in a crib (and it kind of felt like a crib because the mattress sagged in the middle like a taco). At about 5 a.m., we were awakened to the howls of lemurs in the jungle canopy all around us – they sound like police sirens in hot pursuit. We got out of bed and grabbed a guide who took us on a four-hour hike through the jungle where we spotted tons of different kinds of lemurs – they are the coolest and cutest creatures… absolutely amazing creations!

I think it was even worth the $12.50 per tourist entry fee that we had to pay to get into the park… You’re probably thinking that doesn’t sound like much, but the sign at the entry gate blatantly indicated that for the Malagasy it was $1,000 Ariary (about 50 cents), but for anyone else it was $25,000 Ariary! Total discrimination! And, if that wasn’t bad enough, since then, I have realized that most restaurants and hotels downhere follow the same pricing model – if you’re from Madagascar you pay one price, but if you’re not, you pay about ten times as much. The difference doesn’t equate to much, but it’s the principle! And, they are shameless about it when they ask for the extra – as if we should just understand and not question them… It’s so funny.

Update #2: 5/27/2007
It's been more than a week since we've had success finding an internet cafe that is actually an internet cafe -- we have found many places with a sign that says "Cyber Cafe" or "Internet", but when you go inside, they pretty much don't have a single computer and maybe they have electricity, but usually not, and mostly they are just little stores that sell stale bread and deep-fried flesh of some sort. We've decided that this country must have received a shipment of surplus signs from the USA and then distributed them to each town and told them to put them up wherever they had space. When I asked Calvin why there are so many misleading signs all over the place, or in the bank there was a computer sitting on the teller’s desk but it wasn't plugged into anything (monitor not even to the computer itself), he told me that he's pretty sure they see things in American movies and then they do it here, though they don't really know what it is or how it's supposed to work (he usually just says, "Ahhh, they saw it in a movie once."). It's actually quite entertaining and a very good way to get exercise because you have to walk for hours sometimes to find what you actually are after - from sign to sign to sign, until you find the sign that truly sells what it is advertising.
The other day while walking down a beautiful deserted beach in southern Madagascar on the Mozambique Channel that separates this country from Africa, we came upon a settlement of Malagasy living in huts - they were fishermen and their women were pretty much just lounging around, carrying their babies on their backs with some sort of homemade wraps, or grinding rice into flour on rocks. Each time I get to a new place in this country, it's about twice as primitive and unique as the previous. I fell in love with the place instantly, then, just as quickly as I fell in love, I fell out of love when I realized that the little squishy thing I poked with the big toe of my right bare foot (we were walking on the beach and I figured it was some sort of rare sea creature that had washed up amid all the starfish and other shells that lined the high-tide line) was actually a giant pile of human crap. No sooner had I dug my toe into the middle of the thing did Calvin look at me, then at my toe stuck in the pile, then back at me and say matter of fact that it was indeed Malagasy excrement and that it was all over the beach so I should watch my step. For those of you who know me best, you've probably already guessed how I have dealt with this situation - hours on end of scrubbing my foot with dirt, sand, rocks, soap, bleach, gasoline, dragging it along rough asphalt, along with waking up with a startle in the middle of the night certain that I didn't scrub my foot well enough! Fortunately, I can tell you that the beach we walked on was actually still quite beautiful and safe as long as you stayed one mile north of the village which was where our "bungalow" sat and it was also up-current from the village; though, we didn't swim, for a few reasons - 1) none of the Malagasy were swimming and that was concerning (but I think maybe they just don't swim as a culture - they don't look very buoyant), 2) none of the other four Western tourists who were brave enough to travel to this part of the world were entering the sea, and 3) the Lonely Planet guidebook warns against menacing sharks along the beaches and since we were a 30-mile outboard-motor boat ride through the high seas plus a short ox-cart ride plus a 24-hour truck ride away from the nearest 3rd-World hospital, we opted for working on our tans, rather than entering the water and risking the probability of becoming another story in the Reader's Digest's "Drama In Real Life" section. We stayed on the beach (the clean part) for a couple of days and then, the morning the outboard-motor boat was to pass by and take us back to the ox-cart to take us to the truck, we stood on the deserted beach in blistering sun for three hours, with our backpacks, staring off into an empty blue sea looking for any sign of our ride. Finally, it arrived, which was a good thing because we had a flight to catch back to Tana (the capital). When we asked the Malagasy boat driver why he was so late (since we had gotten up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready and down to the beach in time), he said, "Oh, change of plans..." And, that was the only explanation... I think I may have also heard something that sounded a lot like there had been too much "drinking" the night before...but, who knows - I don't really understand anything they say down here and, although he is incredibly and impressively fluent, I'm pretty sure Calvin's not telling me the whole story when he provides the translation (I think he's protecting me from what I'm probably better off not knowing). Aside from the couple of days on the beach, we spent a few days driving through the middle of the country with those Malagasy guys I think I referred to in my first email update. The Mazda van actually made it the entire journey - miraculous (even Calvin thinks so, and he's used to this place!). We started calling the van "Old Faithful" about halfway through the journey. Though, we did have to push-start it every time we needed to go somewhere and there was a major gas-leak that had lasted for two days as we drove through the country but that they didn't decide to fix until one day in the middle of nowhere on the high plains of central Madagascar (looked a lot like Oklahoma, except for the Baobab trees, nomads herding cattle, and occasional settlement of tiny huts that looked about as big as doghouses you'd find in average American backyards) -- I guess the gas leak was finally bad enough precisely at that point. Our drivers were covered in grease, gas, and oil for the majority of the trip, but they were very nice and very, very affordable ($20 US/day, plus gas and food -- the gas expense probably would have been less if we hadn't sprayed most of it across 500 kilometers of the Madagascar outback). We heard the muffler fell off the van after they dropped us at our final destination.

Food here.... Hmmmm... all I can say is that it has been rice, rice, more rice, rice, rice, buckets of rice, and that's about it, except for the occasional chunk of pig fat with skin and hair on it that you politely hide in a plastic bag or put on Calvin's plate, and some boiled grass. We have had some bananas and papaya, too, and some sweet bread with lots of sand and dirt in it, and some kind of brown meat (beef or dog, I think) over rice, with giant veins and jagged bones sticking out of it. Lots of Coca-Cola, thank goodness! But, no Diet Coke. I think this may be the longest I have ever survived without a Diet Coke. Little villages and big towns we've gone through have been eye-opening. "Civilized" and "modern" have become very relative terms... Civilized and/or modern here, to me, really just means the town has electricity and maybe running water from some faucet (maybe in the houses) or hand-pump(most-likely in the center of town off the main road, always with a crowd of women filling giant pots, buckets and vases that they then balance on their heads and carry back to their homes). I find myself feeling guilty taking pictures of these scenes, thinking things like, "What if some French tourist drove down my street in Utah and stopped to take pictures of me mowing my lawn or having a barbecue..." I think that would be weird... everyone here thinks we're French because the French tried to settle this place along time ago and there are a few of them still lurking around. I really have so many experiences to tell and I don't quite know where to start and how to fit them all in, so I imagine that when I get home I'll write a much longer summary of this trip and post it to my blog for everyone to read and see pictures (some really incredible pictures you'll see). Though, to wrap this up (because the internet connection here is slow and may drop at anytime), I'll finish with some very great quotes from Calvin on this trip:

One day while in a town somewhere in the middle of nowhere (everywhere here is actually in the middle of nowhere if you think about it), we were looking for an Internet Café. Calvin sent one of our drivers into the street to ask around and as the guy stepped away, Calvin yelled one last instruction at him - he said, "This time, ask somebody who has shoes on!" That is a quote I never imagined hearing in my life, but it made perfect sense at the time. The town we were in was what Calvin ultimately decided was the ugliest town he had ever seen in his life (and this is after he has lived down here for two years and is actually pointing out certain towns to tell me how nice he thinks they are) -- most people do not wear shoes in any towns except for Tana and I have not seen one town or settlement that I would consider "nice" by any stretch of the imagination. One day, we were driving through a village that had lots of cows strolling the main road, many women with pots on their heads, giant potholes everywhere, and some trees, and Calvin said, "This kind of reminds me of the drive to the Brewer's house in South Jordan, Utah." Oh, boy, is he really in for a shock when he gets back to the States... He's been down here too long!
While sitting in a dive of a restaurant translating a menu for me, there was an item on the menu called "Cheval" - I told him I thought that was some sort of horse. Calvin, bless his soul, said, "I ordered it once hoping it was horse sh*t, I mean 'steak'." It was truly a complete slip of the tongue for him, which made it so much funnier. We laughed all night about it. He said that what he had the night he ordered the "Cheval" did actually taste a lot like what he said first...