Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Is This Real?

We are in a tiny ancient car, zig-zagging slowly on the best parts of the road, almost stopping to cross potholes. The only light, coming from our head beams, illuminates towering gnarled trees. The air is heavy with a sweet smell. 

Tenga sua (ten-gah sue-ah) in Madagascar! Welcome in Madagascar.

We had one of the most pleasant flights, with large chairs and free leg space, a really tasty meal (with a choice of beer, wine and martini) and stewardesses who had a genuine smile. Ioan and myself are to be blamed for coming to this part of the world. He doesn’t remember why, maybe because of the Madagascar movies, but I wanted to see this “flora and fauna” gem. 

We start in Hellville (El-veel)( named after a general). The main road is asphalted, but the ones radiating from it, are yellow dirt. 

People going to a funeral

From our room we can see a bay, people unloading boats left on squelching muddy sand, carrying on their backs boards for hundreds of yards, a few backyards with quacking ducks, a dirt street on which children play noisily. Add to this the hourly cock-a-doodle-doos, from different roosters, with different intensities, spread around town and you probably got an idea.

Hervais (Air-vay) is our driver and in a way, guide. With his Renault 4, made in the 1970’s, he drove us on various points of the island Nosy Be (Nossy Beh), striving to improve his English, and we, our French. He taught us to answer to his U-bip-bip (Oo-beep-beep) with Oo-aah, and we happily did, several times a day.

Inside a Renault 4

Our first trip was to Lokobe reserve, started almost 15 years ago by the efforts of one man, Jean Robert, our guide. We had to drive almost an hour, stopping from time to time to look at chameleons, clinging to bushes on the side of the road. This one is a male, we know from its green color (the females are pink and black). We admired the design on his skin, his paws, so well-fitted for clasping the branch, his “Egyptian” walking, moving back and forward to fool his enemy, his perfectly coiled tail. It was frustrating to take his picture, as he wouldn’t look at us with both his eyes in the same time!

Then we climbed in pirogues, to traverse a shallow bay and paddled for another hour, under the hot noon sun. 

After a short brake, we were presented the different types of mangroves, long fruit, round fruit. The Malagasy children transform the round fruit into a wheel, harness a crab to it, and have races on the beach! 

Playing with boats made of drift wood and sails of plastic bags.

Whole family fishing: two people are holding the sheet, the rest scare the fish into it.

We had to cross his old village to get to the forest. Houses made of wooden poles and palm fronds were strewn around. The door frame was covered with embroidered drapes. We were asked not to talk in the forest, we could scare the animals, or he could not hear them. We followed his steps, stopping when he stopped, listening to the unknown sounds of the jungle, mixed with songs from the village and other tourists’ voices (it seems that other guides don’t enforce this rule of silence). 

Our first lemur was sleeping in a hollowed tree. Fluffy brown fur, human-like hands, he opened huge nocturnal eyes that seemed to say, “Why are you waking me up? I hope you don’t hurt me.” We would see others, also sleeping, or from a different species, a diurnal one, curious about us. 

The jungle walk is a life lesson. You have to have patience (to walk hours to find animals), to be physically fit (so you could climb up and down the trail, dodge that whipping branch, crawl in confined spaces), be quiet (so you will not scare that blue pigeon away),

 watch where you’re stepping (or you will crush that tiny chameleon)

 go slow (or you won’t notice the owl sleeping or a boa sliding on a branch), 

respect the environment and be mentally prepared that all your efforts have been in vain (sometimes you don’t see animals). 

A feast has been prepared while we were away, with grilled fish, skewers of shrimp and meat, crab and salads: carrot and papaya, avocado, lettuce and tomatoes. Dessert: fruits. 

We eat our fill and while we digest, Jean Robert explains to us what we saw. He begins by singing (and had us following the melodic line) the Malagasy anthem, translating the words (which I forgot). The flag is white—representing the people, green—the bounty of nature, red—the royal color (though now they have a president). He talks about 71 species of lemurs, from five families, where you can find them and so on. He says their scientific names and also the ones of the plants. It is obvious he loves what he is doing. He answers our questions about people. Their life is not an easy one. Most of their needs are satisfied from nature, but they have little cash, if crops fail, they will suffer from hunger. 

Under Jean's hand and tool there is a white diagonal line: that is the sap, streaming from a hole that he made. If you drink it, it's sweet, if you wash with it, it will take away even the resin. The stems are good for walls, fences, doors. The leaves for roofs.
This is the Travelers Palm Tree.

The school is free only in the elementary and now the teachers are in a two months strike for higher wages (the only raises are for military and police, even the doctors went on strike). Learning about our trip he is curious about the children’s school. “You are the school for today!” Mihai answers. And they are not the only one who learned new things today: I found out that pepper is a vine, and needs a tree support to have a good crop. The different kinds of pepper come from different handling of the seeds: white, black, green. The red pepper is a different plant.

Pepper vine with fruit

Going back on the pirogue I open my channels and take all that I can in: the swish of the pirogue over water, the rhythmic dipping of the paddles, the slanted sun, the birds, the open sky, the sound of insects, the children playing, my toes in the water slowly accumulating on the bottom, the grey sanded wood, the smell of all of them... filling that memory room for later, when I need it.

June 26th is the Madagascar National Day. Everybody is dressed in their best. The feast started the night before, with dancing and singing. On this day there is the fanfare playing while the schools (elementary, private, Muslim and so on), les jandarmes (police force) and some other institutions parade. The road is lined 4-5 people deep, all happy and proud, holding their children high so they have a good view. 

The Malagasy flag (right upper corner) is on every house!

The heat is too much for us. We retreat in our hotel and in the afternoon we move on the beach of Andilana.

We rented an apartment that has shutters instead of windows and there is a 6” space between the roof and the walls. Every bed has mousticaire (mosquitos drapes) that flutter in the breeze. In the night time we can hear the waves, changing sound as the tide comes or goes, and a small animal that moves through our room and disturbs the garbage. We have lunch on the beach, French cuisine under palm trees with sand between our toes. And an almost deserted beach...

But after two days we had to go back to Hellvile. We were to visit a perfume distillery. On this island there are many ylang-ylang (ee-langue- ee-langue) trees brought here from Philippines in 1903. If left alone they could grow to 30 m (100 ft), but here when they are three years old, they cut the growing tip. This makes the branches droop. Why? It makes for easy picking. Their flowers have a heavenly smell.

 Women, armed with headlights and front bags, will pick the flowers, starting at 3 am (the sun affects the perfume). They bring the bags to the distillery, where they would be weighted. They fill a cistern with flowers, seal it, and through a coiling pipe comes the water vapor. When it condenses, the water picks up the essential oil, and together they exit in a sealed cylinder. The oil stays on top, the water is recirculated. 500 kg (1000 lb) plus 300l (72 gal) water make 12 l (3 gal) of essence. A few milliliters cost $10. In the room were the old machines, made from copper, in France. Now they were using stainless steel ones. 

Crop of ylang-ylang and tourists.

Above the red funnel is a cylinder. The inside white band is the essence of ylang-ylang.

Crop of pepper

After this we were treated with a juice and fruits buffet. We got to try the cola nut, the one that goes into the soft drink formula. It was bitter and we didn’t feel any stimulant action. With bananas in our pockets we went into the forest to feed the lemurs. Emanuel, our guide, started calling them: maki-maki and making grunting noises. Soon enough four male Sifaka lemurs appeared interested in our bitses of bananas. They would hold onto a branch and lean to pick it, touching our hands or licking them (it felt like a cat’s tongue). As I was standing on my toes one of them caught my hand with his and steadied me, then he took his banana. It felt strong and sure, though soft and warm, and so tiny! It was wonderful to be there and have this kind of interaction, but in the same time I was asking myself: is this correct? We shouldn’t touch them, we could give them diseases, we shouldn’t feed them, it will change their behavior. But it felt so good... 

In the vicinity there were cages with other kind of lemurs, and a wild cat (this one is persecuted because when it attacks, it will jump for the eyes). The guide said that they were kept for three months and then released, their place taken by new ones. No one has any consideration for the change of habitat, or for territories, for the animals. Just for the tourist and his satisfaction (and his money). With one stop he can see many kinds of lemurs (including King Julien’s brothers - Madagascar movie, the ring tailed lemurs, who were kept on an island, as they are afraid of water), 

Catching a nap.

chameleons (kept for 3 weeks; while there, a female was digging a hole to deposit 4-6 eggs at intervals, that will hatch in 50-60 days, they will all have the same sex, the first one to claw its way out will be the strongest, the rest will emerge in 2-3 days), a giant tortoise, Napoleon, who celebrated his 200th birthday (he has a dent in his shell because after independence an hotelier wanted to shoot him, to have his shell in the hallway!), beside wild pigs, crocodiles, snakes.

Napoleon liked to be petted, especialy on the back of his very strong neck.

There was also a miniature botanical garden, with mini native trees and plants that look like rocks. The Malagasy people would keep it around the house for the water that is stored in it (the moment it develops horns, it becomes poisonous). 

So many new things for us in just a few days. It seems like a dream ... is it real?

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