This is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to our families, after the recent 12/17/10 New York Times Travel section article on Madagascar. It's been exactly one month since our last blog post, and Polly thought this synopsis would be an interesting post. 2 birds with one stone. YES!
Since the NYT article seems to be the hot topic of conversation within the family, I thought I'd chime in with the "immersed" perspective. I hope our "in-the-know" insight brings another, deeper take on the article.
We've actually been to the park at Andasibe, which is mentioned first in the article. We went on a night hike with our entire "class" of 25 new PCVs in the park, and saw nothing, until we got lost, popped out on a road near our bungalow-style hotel, and saw a tiny lemur. I'm going to call it a dwarf lemur, just to check it off our list.
Perhaps it was our giant group of loud Americans that scared off the Indri? Polly (not I) got up the next morning and went with a smaller group at dawn, and successfully photographed them. Check out our facebook pics for proof. They're the big black and white ones that look like bears, not to be confused with the ever-awesome ringtails, which we just saw recently in Anja park.
Our next target is the jumping Sifaka lemur (Verreaux's), which we expect to see over a New Year's vacation in Morandava. We're also hunting the Baobab tree. They're easier to track than the lemurs. Go figure.
Back to the article...
The natural beauty of Madagascar is intense. The topography of the land absolutely makes travel a challenge. Coupled with intense, steep landscapes, the erosion from deforestation ruins roads, paved and unpaved. I do not recommend Madagascar travel to people with any sort of back-issues. I can feel the discs slipping in your backs now. Main roads are...OK, but a right or left off of the main drag will drop you onto some pretty intense routes. This is why travel ANYWHERE is slow. The author of the article is definitely right there. He pegged it.
The French influence is apparent, but not necessarily in a good way, as the article paints. He obviously was "rolling like a vazaha". This is pretty evident from his descriptions of the "delectable" food, and the prices he gave for his hotel stays. Wow. We pay around 15 USD a night for really decent places, with hot water, bungalows, mini-fridges, etc. He was traveling like aristocracy.
I think the fact that people travel in such stark contrast to the population is a problem for Madagascar. It's definitely affected us, in that everyone thinks we're French, and rich. People call out to caucasians with a bird call-like "AYE VAZAHA!", everywhere. I can't believe he never even mentioned the word in his article. I KNOW he heard it. Vazaha means, "white foreigner".
Most REAL malagasy food is pretty bland, and rice-based. A typical meal consists of a giant bowl of rice, and a side of either pork, beef, or chicken, or veggies. I don't do the veggies. Sometimes I have to have my meat switched out for something recognizable. They eat it all here. The author probably didn't even now he was passing restaurants, as these "hotelys" look like tool sheds, especially when the drop-down windows are closed.
The author is also right about the language. Not many people speak English. If you should come here, get an English-speaking guide, or you'll miss a lot. We could be your guides, but we still miss a lot too. We can get what we want with our language, but when the Malagasy speak to each other in their normal way, we're lost. (Me more than Polly.) My personal method is just to keep talking. (Surprise!) Eventually they understand my level, and dumb it down.
Antananarivo. It's like the author's mother-in-law described, "grubby". It's chaos. No city planning. Nno street signs or lights. No sidewalks. Lots of exhaust. It's not really THAT safe either. People slash pockets to get wallets and iPods. We have to travel by taxi after dark, and certain areas of town are "red zones". These are off-limits to us, as experienced PCVs, living in the country, with a decent grasp of the transportation systems and language. Tourists would be eaten alive.
We haven't been to Isle St. Marie yet, but a bunch of other PCVs are heading there for NYE. We opted for Morandava instead, because the baobab trees and Verreaux's Sifaka are higher on our to-do list than another beach. Pirates are cool, but they're so 2007.
We plan on hitting Berenty Reserve too, and live right near Ranomafana National Park. The place we've liked best so far is Anja Park. It's small, manageable, and filled with the coolest lemurs of all, the Ring-tail!
Overall, the article was very informative, and I hope to see the effects of the article by seeing some jet-set American NYT readers around.
It's always tough when spotting (again, like a rare bird) another vazaha. One never knows whether to say, "Bonjour", which would be correct 90% of the time, or to immediately identify as an American, with a casual "Hello". The French dress different too. We can usually spot them, and often make guesses on the nationality of the tourists we encounter, as we approach. Most of the time no one says anything. It's very strange.
It's time to eat dinner now, so I'm getting my rice-consumption gear turning. I still use a fork. Polly uses a spoon, like the Malagasy.
We hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season, and can't wait to read your feedback and/or hear your familiar voices!