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Trip 17 -- Madagascar

Part 1: Four continents to Tana and into the highlands
3 June 2015

"Vagabond, where will you jet-set now?
It seems that there's nothing to say.
The sun is setting,
And I am betting
You're half a world away."

So goes the last verse of a tender song my girlfriend, Charlie, recently wrote about coping with my travels. (Shameless plug: https://soundcloud.com/charlie-elizabeth-london/vagabond is our recording of it.) Half a world away at least, in this case. It took four flights to get there from New York. You can do it in two, but I booked the ticket with Delta miles and thus could take up to four flights in each direction, with up to a day for each layover, and go in business class. Why not fly by night and spend the days en route in places I like?

"Sir, are you aware that you're sitting in the snow zone?" asked the attendant when I checked into the Virgin Atlantic lounge at JFK Airport.

"The snow zone?" I hadn't been expecting precipitation on the flight. Or Colombia-sourced hard drugs.

"Yes, the snow zone. They keep the upper deck quiet so people can sleep. They'll serve breakfast up there but not dinner."

Ah -- he had been saying "snooze zone."

"But you can go downstairs to the bar for dinner."

I thanked him and settled into the lounge for a snack of crab croquettes and samosas. When I left, I noticed a small room next to the lounge entrance. It contained a statue of a giant silver apple. The statue was titled "Reflections of a Jetsetter." I failed to connect the name to the piece, but it put Charlie's song in my head as I boarded the plane to London.

Virgin Atlantic has always been fun; I miss their $99-to-London fares from 20 years ago. I went upstairs to the snooze zone and discovered that the seat was angled about 45 degrees toward the aisle, with a storage area for bedding behind it. This meant that it was impossible to see out the window without craning my neck like an owl. For shame! The seat also seemed to recline more or less when it felt like it. But it's hard to complain too much about business class. I was the lone diner at the bar, and as I ate my beef filet I pondered the amusing silver salt and pepper shakers, which looked either like miniature propeller planes or club-footed pigs.

As many times as I've been in London, I still don't know my way around, except for restaurants I like. I know, for instance, that when I find myself on Dean Street, I'm not far from the Red Fort, where my dad and I had the hottest Indian dish of our lives almost 30 years ago. And then I know I can walk through Soho Park and be on Greek Street, where I've enjoyed Hungarian food at the Gay Hussar. But ask me to find the British Museum, or Big Ben, and I'm hopeless.

So I spent my first warm London day (even in July it was cold and rainy) wandering around parts of the city I thought I knew, my route largely inspired by the wonderful street maps that the city planners have installed every few blocks. I saw "Berwick Street market" and ended up in a construction zone with a few restaurants and produce sellers. I saw "Seven Dials" and found the seven streets that converge on an intersection marked with a column topped with sundials. I saw the musical "Memphis" (I never got around to it in New York) and stumbled upon the British Museum and Big Ben. I still don't think I could find them again.

As we approached Dubai, the captain slashed my hopes for a comfortable early-morning walk -- the temperature was already 97 degrees. I love Dubai for its extremes: bustling alleyways with Indian eateries whose prices betray the city's reputation as expensive; broad avenues with hotels and swish restaurants that confirm it; twisted skyscrapers that stretch the limits of architectural stability; short traditional tan buildings with wind towers. Public transportation is cheap, even the taxis, and the people are friendly and honest.

I don't love Dubai for the temperature, but I walked anyway. I strolled along the creek, marveling at the rows of blue frosting-trimmed wooden ships ready to receive (or having just unloaded) their cargo of boxed refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines. I took shade in the narrow alleys of the Gold Souk and had a vegetarian thali lunch served in the proper Indian style -- four little savory bowls of varying spiciness, sourness, and consistency, plus different kinds of bread and rice, all ready to be refilled until I'd had enough, at which point I enjoyed a sweet creamy dessert from the fifth bowl.

I crossed the Floating Bridge; took a quick walk through the old Bastakiya district, with its maze of quiet alleys and traditional homes; had a swim in the Arabian Sea (not much cooler than the air temperature); and got bitten on the head by a crow as I entered the grounds of the One & Only Royal Mirage for a sunset drink. A caretaker saw it happen; he'd been bitten twice and explained that there was a nest above where I'd been walking. One baby had died a couple of days before, so the mother was being extra vigilant. It didn't hurt, but on a trip to Africa whose purpose was largely to see fauna, I didn't expect such an encounter with an animal in Dubai!

The temperature was tempered after sunset, and I finished the day in my favorite area for Dubai restaurants and nightlife, the hotels on Sheikh Zayed Road. Almost every time I come to Dubai I seem to stop at Al Tannour restaurant in the Crowne Plaza, which is kind of strange because you have to make the effort to walk through two other restaurants to get to it, and also strange because I've never actually eaten there. The first time I found it, it was a full room of music and dancing. All the other times it's been empty, so I spoke with the receptionist. It doesn't get going until around 11 at night, and no one goes before then. The bad news is that there's no space for a single diner; if I wanted to eat alone I'd have to pay for two. Would anyone like to join me sometime?

And so I backtracked to Oscar's Vine Society, with its fun wine-label chandelier, ornately framed French posters, and leather chairs. I savored charcoal-roasted leeks and stir-fried foie gras and lamb sweetbreads, and I listened to the singer with his guitar doing traditional Emirati favorites such as "Mustang Sally."

I'd planned a full day in Nairobi, followed by another night flight, but Kenya Airways had canceled my original flight and moved me up to the afternoon one. So I had just a six-hour layover, just enough time for a drive through Nairobi National Park, which has a gate only around five miles from the airport. The bad news is that the gate is exit-only. To get into the park my driver, Samuel, had to take me all the way around to the main gate, which took an hour in Nairobi's peak-morning, truck-snarled traffic.

We were a couple hours too late for prime animal viewing, but we did manage a few giraffes, a couple hundred buffalo ("Close the windows!" Samuel admonished), a lonely ostrich, several hundred antelope, an emu-like bird that neither Samuel nor I recognized, and three wild hogs. Samuel tried hard to find me a lion, but to no avail. He also exaggerated his familiarity with the park, and two hours before my flight he was searching for the exit. Fortunately we found the one right by the airport, and after going several agonizingly slow minutes in the wrong direction (the park exit led us only to the city-bound side of the highway), and then more agonizingly slow minutes due to an accident ahead once we turned around, we finally made progress, and I made it in good time.

I slept most of the two-hour-and-45-minute flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, which is frequently shortened to Tana. It means "city of a thousand." I awoke to a view of a rocky landscape of numerous short mountains, which gave way to greener hills with rice terraces and dirt roads. The first paved surface I saw was the runway. We landed, stopped at the end of the runway, made a U-turn, and taxied back the length of the runway to the terminal. Flights into Tana are sparse enough to allow that.

Madagascar's people originally came from the Indonesia region, with later arrivals from mainland Africa and other Indian Ocean locations. Its numerous kingdoms were united around 1800 by Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka, and the people had animist beliefs. Then British missionaries brought Protestantism, then the French Catholicism, and the last queen was exiled to Algeria in 1897, a year after the country became a French colony. Most people speak some French in addition to the native language. Madagascar regained independence in 1960 and struggled economically and politically. Elections in 2013 resulted in the promise of stability with the presidency of Hery Rajaonarimampianina...

...Whom Parliament voted by a 121-4 margin to impeach on the grounds of constitutional violations and general incompetence, just a few hours before I left on this trip.

I didn't know it until I was in London and a friend alerted me. I seem to have a knack for this. Last May, Charlie and I left for Thailand the day of a military coup. In both cases, I saw nothing but peace, however, even with a loosely enforced curfew while we were in Bangkok. In Tana, there was no sign of any unrest or political danger.

No, the main danger in Tana was going out at night. I was told this by the only other passenger on the airport bus, a Frenchman who spends three months at a time (the longest tourist visa) in Antsirabe with his Malagasy girlfriend and then goes back to France for a month until he can return for another visa. Knifepoint muggings are a problem, he said, and it wasn't safe to walk anywhere in Tana after 7 p.m.

He may have exaggerated it a bit, but it surprised me. From my reading up on the capital it didn't seem as unsafe as Nairobi. I'd booked a private room at Madagascar Underground, a new hostel with the country's first Mexican restaurant and a lobby bar where it was easy to talk to people. I met three Lutheran aid workers who had been in the country since August. I met an agricultural entrepreneur who had made a fair amount in the rice trade and now works in chocolate. I didn't meet any tourists.

Madagascar Underground was on a side street. I was greeted by two barking dogs, one large and one medium-sized, but they proved to be tame. The owner gave me directions to a casual restaurant and said I'd be OK to walk there; it involved going up a fairly long staircase. Had I seen it in the daylight, I probably would have done it, but the sun sets frustratingly early (well before 6:00; it's the same time zone as Kenya but much farther east), and with the frustratingly slow traffic from the airport, there was just a ray of light left when I arrived at the hostel. The staircase looked seedy. I passed it and took a turn at the end of the street, trying to double back up the hill, but I got turned around and found myself in front of another hotel. I took a taxi from there.

The restaurant, Le Buffet du Jardin (it's next to a public garden), was bustling, with indoor and outdoor seating and a live band. I sat inside to hear the songs performed by two female singers in English, French, and Malagasy, accompanied by a full band that included a dexterous keyboard player. I had a skewer of zebu hearts -- zebu are Madagascar's humped cattle, and a good Scrabble word -- and Malagasy pork and tripe in what seemed to be a lemongrass sauce. And then I made up for three nights of little sleep.

By day, Tana felt much safer, and I was more worried about falling into a sewer than getting mugged. There aren't many essential sightseeing spots; the most important are the Rova (which means "royal city" but is usually referred to as the Queen's Palace) and neighboring former prime minister's residence. The Rova was a museum for the century following the last monarch's reign, but it was mostly destroyed by an arsonist in 1995. The surviving stones have been put back in their original places where possible, the gaps filled in with replicas. The main building is now just a carcass of walls and interior staircases; the destroyed wooden pillars have been replaced with concrete ones painted to look like the originals.

The gate to the complex has on top a Napoleon-gifted bronze eagle and a stone phallus, which signifies the importance of circumcision in Malagasy society. Boys are circumcised between ages two and five, and the foreskin is eaten with banana by the grandparents.

The complex also contains the old royal residence, baths, and chapel and is the site of the first religious and secular schools. An inscription bears the names of the people who first translated the Bible into Malagasy so that the general public could read it. And there's a row of poinsettias, from which the national flag got its three colors. The plant has green leaves and red flowers that bleed white milk. The leaves, folded in half, look like maps of Madagascar.

The Rova was a 20-minute climb from town, and it was worth it just for the sweeping views of rice, watercress, and other fields. I could look down on the rugby stadium, and in the distance were the hills that protect Tana from cyclones.

I couldn't tell whether the nearby prime minister's residence was open to the public. I think it was officially closed and the entry fee I paid was really a bribe to the guard. It's now a museum of all the royal objects that were salvaged from the fire over at the palace, among some other things. Most interesting was a near-perfect skeleton of a dinosaur found in the first nearby. This particular species must have been cannibalistic, as some bones contain teeth marks that match the teeth of the same species.

A pair of men guided me through both sites. The one in charge called himself Jules César and was the easier to understand of the two; his friend followed us for a while and then gave explanations midway through. The prices for their services weren't fixed, so of course they pulled the you-can't-be-serious-this-is-all-you're-giving-us trick at the end. I relented a little, but I refused to double my proposed tip. "I hired one guide," I said.

In the afternoon I explored Tana's frenetic lower town. I headed up the staircase near my hotel, crossed through the garden, and took the long staircase down on the other side. The staircase was a mess of sellers and children and it dumped me next to a crowded market. I explored sausages, chickens, tripe, dried fish, lots of colorful produce, and household supplies. I walked over to Glacier and headed upstairs for a lunch of zebu tail, and I took in the activity on the broad, majestic Avenue de l'Indépendance below: a shirtless street performer, food stalls, running children, and traffic. I walked the length of the avenue to the grand old train station; sadly, there are no regularly scheduled services, and the building now houses stores.

I sought out the whimsically named Pourquoi Pas! (yes, with the exclamation mark) for a French dinner. I was ready to call it quits after my zebu steak and wine, but I heard a "Na zdorovye!" at the bar. A Russian speaker in Tana?

His name was Yannick and he could speak French, English, Russian, Spanish, and Mandarin. Yannick was a truck driver (with a mouth to match) from Alberta, but these days he spent as much time as he could in Madagascar. He had first met his friend Julien at another restaurant a few months prior, and they were reconnecting. Yannick invited me to join them for crepes with Canadian maple syrup he had brought as a gift for the owner of the restaurant. Then came wine, and more wine, and then the restaurant's own infused lychee and apple rum. Pourquoi pas, indeed!

I woke up later than I'd hoped the next day, a bit hung over. I gathered my belongings, and took a taxi to the chaotic, vile Fasan'ny Karana station to find a taxi-brousse (shared minibus crammed in with more passengers than seats) to take me south into the highlands. Ticket sellers swarmed my taxi even before we turned into the station, trying to take my bag for me; I held onto it tightly.

I'm sure I paid more than the going rate for the 3.75-hour ride to Antsirabe, but I didn't care. I was tired and the $6 ticket didn't seem like the world's biggest ripoff. I got lucky and occupied a seat by the window, and the taxi-brousse left within a few minutes, its owner having deemed it overflowing enough. The Lutherans at Madagascar Underground had warned me about the curvy road, and the agricultural entrepreneur had advised me to keep a plastic bag handy. I prepared mentally for the worst but slept most of the ride.

How tranquil Antsirabe was compared with Tana! The most noticeable form of transportation were the pousse-pousses, two-wheeled carriages propelled by a man, frequently barefoot and running, holding onto a bar at the front. It was a long way into town from the taxi-brousse station, but a friendly passenger offered to take me with him in the bicycle version of the pousse-pousse. He also helped me find a good, clean hotel in the center of town.

I walked the broad, green avenue toward the train station, which, like Tana's, stands grand and tall and has no regular services. I found the cathedral, with its striking cobalt-blue interior arches, and stepped inside to listen to the singing accompanying the late-afternoon service. I hadn't eaten all day, but I made up for it with a cozy dinner in the firelit Venise: foie gras flambeed a l'orange (there's a big foie gras industry between Tana and Antsirabe), an avocado farci with plenty of shrimp but way too much dressing, a zebu stew that was a little on the bland side, and flambeed bananas. When I arrived, the dining room was empty, but I was soon joined by the friendly taxi-brousse passenger and his girlfriend.

The main reason I stopped in Antsirabe was to head 13 miles west to Betafo, where my guidebook promised me a good hike. The taxi-brousse that brought me there was a shell of a Peugeot that I didn't think would even make it out of the station. The driver jammed the radio into place and put on two crooners singing a soft ballad accompanied by a guitar. Directly behind him, a girl listened to an upbeat women's band from the speakers on her phone. Eventually she turned her music off, but it was replaced by the car's horn, which the driver used anytime there was another creature in sight.

Monday was market day in Betafo. Our car, like all the others entering the town, sported bags of produce on the roof. I spent a while in the jam-packed aisles; there was a large presence of dried, salted fish, which I could smell several lanes away. I walked downhill to the crater lake -- there's much volcanic activity around -- and asked how to find the Antafofo waterfall. People pointed me in the right direction, but at the turnoff a woman said to a couple of kids what I assume was the Malagasy equivalent of "You two have nothing to do right now; how about you lead this guy to the waterfall?"

I'm glad I had them as guides, for I probably wouldn't have found it on my own. It involved walking on the narrow, raised walls that formed the boundary of rice fields and trying not to fall in. We also passed terraces of tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Other children joined us, and eventually we reached the lookout point of the waterfall. We sat for a while and told each other our names; then the original pair led me back into town. Unlike Julius Caesar and his compadre, these two were genuinely pleased with the tip I gave them.

Coming back to Antsirabe, I was in a properly overflowing taxi-brousse minibus rather than a car. I squeezed into a seat with no knee room.

"Excuse me, but you should pay me for two seats," the conductor said. Apparently the tiny fragment of a seat I was using, plus the fold-down seat next to it, counted as two! I let them cram in one more person next to me, and we took off, at a much slower pace than on the way to Betafo. Using the kilometer posts at the side of the road, I calculated our top speed at about 15 miles an hour; I was sitting behind the driver but all I could see was that the speedometer didn't work and the odometer was stuck at 702,023 kilometers -- probably for years.

I picked up my bag in Antsirabe and took a cyclo-pousse to the taxi-brousse station for the two-hour drive to Ambositra. The mob there gave me some nonsense about it being late in the day and the taxi-brousses having finished their runs, and instead offered me a private car and driver. It was only $6 -- why not ride in style? This thing even had power windows and a functioning speedometer!

Ambositra means "mountain of the castrated zebu," due to a legendary herd adopted by the king, and is a fast-paced, hilly town with throngs of students. Everyone seemed to be running there, especially the pousse-pousse operators, who ran down the hills in order not to lose control of their vehicles and ran up the hills to keep momentum. I walked to the Benedictine convent and listened to the singing of the nuns, but they were sold out of their famous cheese.

Ambositra was very dark at night, and I was sleepy. After a dinner of vegetable soup and pork cutlet in what turned out to be a kind of Chinese sweet sauce, I retired early. I'd need a full night's rest before a day and a half of trekking through the Zafiraminy villages.

Go on to part 2: Too much