musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Paradise Found

So, for those of you who were unaware, I now live in Africa. It’s a bit weird to say you live on an entire continent, but since arriving in the cradle of civilization I’ve been in Madagascar once, Ethiopia and Kenya twice and Sudan thrice. So yes, kids, I live in Africa. Facebook and my landlord think I live in Ethiopia, so I guess that’s technically ‘home,’ so if it makes you sleep better at night you can go with that instead.

Despite this being one of the most exciting times – personally and professionally – in my life, I’ve woefully neglected ‘Traveling Turkey;’ I would say that hopefully that’ll change but I know myself better than that.

For now though, I thought I would tell you a little story about a guy and his girlfriend who took a trip to… wait for it… Madagascar!

The story begins with our heroes (or at least heroin and her sidekick i.e. me) getting on a Kenya Airways flight to Antananarivo, the capital city of the edge of the earth. Honestly, Madagascar may be the closest thing to truly, 100% exotic these two nomads have ever done.

After reading a New York Times article on the awesomeness that is Madagascar, we (and by ‘we’ I mean it was Lauren’s idea) had decided to try our luck at tropical paradise. As the plane approached Tana’s (Antananarivo is 1. difficult to spell and 2. the cool people call it Tana) Ivato International Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder – as I had many years ago when I first flew into Asuncion, Paraguay – who had stolen all of the asphalt? Moreso than the lack of paved roads though, I was immediately struck by the immense amounts of green everywhere. Grass. Trees. More grass. More trees.

Normally I plan trips out very well, trying to make sure that there’s a loose plan that builds in enough possibility for flexibility. This time; however, Lauren and I were so busy (her with Sudan’s historic referendum and me with starting a new job) that neither of us had really looked into what to expect in Madagascar at all.

Here’s essentially the extent of what I knew when we landed:
We were going to be staying in a place called Doany Beach somewhere in NW Madagascar (when Alix would ask me later how I found Doany I couldn’t even remember – I think it was probably Trip Advisor but I can’t be sure);
Lauren had taken care of our layover arrangements in Tana;
I was hungry.

I’m assuming Lauren knew more than me, but I’m willing to bet not a whole lot more. Needless to say, not the best planning job on our part. Luckily we’re both pretty laid back, which turned out to be a very good character trait in a place where… well, you’ll just have to read on to find out.

Miraculously, we were met at the Tana airport by a short Malagasy – what native Madagascar-ans and their language(s) are called – man with a handwritten sign that even spelled Lauren’s name correctly. A step in the right direction!

Arriving at La Varangue in ‘downtown’ Tana some 45 minutes later after a ride that caused me make sure my seatbelt was fastened on more than one occasion, I couldn’t help but feel that we had stepped into a 1960s French colonial dream. You see, Madagascar was colonized by the French (and to a lesser extent British missionaries) and, to be honest, it didn’t seem like much had changed. The collection of antique (yet at the same time incredibly appropriate) phonographs, lamps, record players and phones immediately awakened my long lost (ok – maybe it was never really there) French, which rolled off my tongue about like this:
Me: Good day!
Woman behind the bar/check-in desk: Good day.
Me: It’s good?
Woman: It’s good. Welcome.
Me: Thank you.
Woman: [something in rapid-fire French]
[awkward silence when she realized I had no clue what she said]
Me: Room? Reservation. Lauren Abel. It’s good?
Woman: Oui. It’s good. Here’s your key.

Our trusty NYT author had put us on to La Varangue because of its reputation as having Tana’s best restaurant. Praise like that is not something that Lauren and I regularly ignore. But before dinner it was time to explore the city.

Situated just down the hill from the Presidential Palace, our hotel was perfectly located for a stroll through Tana’s ‘downtown.’ Honestly, it wasn’t very impressive. We did get lucky enough to only get caught in the rain on our way back to La Varangue (which naturally necessitated a cappuccino detour to another hotel); January/February is the rainy season in Madagascar and it did not disappoint. Much like Houston, the humidity seems to build up during the morning and, when the clouds can no longer hold it in, buckets unleash on the masses. 

After a stroll through a shady park, several exercises in dodging 1960s Renault taxis and the aforementioned cappuccinos, we were none to happy to return to cozy La Varangue for a much-needed afternoon nap. Our room had a beautiful high ceiling and an even better balcony, on which we enjoyed a pre-dinner carafe of nameless, yet yummy, red wine.

Lauren and I like food. Good food. A lot. As often as possible. Which isn’t very often considering we have recently spent so much time in places like Iraq and Sudan.

Without a doubt, La Varangue’s restaurant was one of the best meals we’ve ever – and I repeat ever – had the pleasure of enjoying. Succulent meats were paired with perfectly seasoned potatoes, vegetables, and purees, all followed by a desert that can only be described as ‘chocolate death.’ In other words, Lauren was in heaven when the circular hard shell of local chocolate (in addition to other things like vanilla and perfume flowers, Madagascar is known for its amazing chocolate) about the size of my fist was melted at our table by our grinning waiter pouring molten chocolate all over it, revealing ice cream and God-knows-what-else inside. Wow.

The next morning we flew Air Madagascar to Nosy Be, an island just off the coast of Madagascar, lucky enough to be given stand-by seats on the 7am flight on which we already had tickets… don’t ask, we didn’t really understand either.

Alix, the owner/manager/star of Doany Beach met us at the ‘airport’ in Nosy Be which was essentially a bit of tarmac dug into the rain forest just off the coast, part of which was undoubtedly under water during high tide (luckily not when we arrived).

Alix was accompanied by Marna, his beautiful and friendly Malagasy fiancée. Unfortunately for us and her, her English was about as good as my French, so we relied heavily on Alix who, fortuitously, spoke flawless English. This bit of fortune cannot be underestimated as it seems Madagascar is not very high up on the list of anglo-friendly tourist destinations i.e. no one spoke English.

After bumping along for about 30 minutes in Alix’s 4x4 (a pickup truck - not the 4-wheeler Lauren was hoping for), we arrived in Hell-Ville, the capital of Nosy Be. Now, although an incredibly hot/humid town with only 2 public toilets could potentially be described as ‘hell,’ this particular town was in fact named after a Mr. Hell, some French guy who came to Nosy Be, fell in love with a woman/the island and never left. I actually just made that up – see the link for his real story.

In Hell-Ville (apparently now officially called Andoany although I’m pretty sure even the locals don’t know that) we were taken to the port, at which we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, and hopped in the wooden boat - appropriately named Alix - that would finally take us to our destination. That’s right, Doany Beach aka ‘heaven’ is only reachable by boat. No road. No cell phone service. No internet.

I had originally thought that Doany Beach was its own island, off an island (Nosy Be), off another island (Madagascar), which goes to show how little preparation I had done before this trip. Turns out Doany Beach is actually on Nosy Be, just on an incredibly remote part flanked by a small Malagasy village and a seemingly endless, unoccupied, stunningly beautiful beach. We might as well have been on our own private island.

We were greeted by the lovely female staff at Doany and spent our entire first day lounging on the beach, in the gazebo right off the beach or the hammock right next to the beach. With no air conditioning and Houston-like humidity, one had little to do but lounge around and periodically lower one’s body temperature through a dip in the Indian Ocean.

Another thing that I didn’t realize (or had forgotten having probably been told this by Alix in an email) until we got there was that Lauren and I had the entire Doany Beach facility to ourselves. The cook, cleaners, guards, boat captain/excursion coordinator and Alix were all working to make sure that our holiday was perfect. Now I’m not one that generally enjoys being the center of attention, but I have to admit that was very nice.

Although I’m sure Lauren would have been perfectly content to relax on the beach and read all day every day (we did plenty of this, don’t worry), I was ecstatic to hear that we would be going on daily excursions to close by places of interest! In case you haven't noticed, just sitting on a beach is not my idea of a vacation.

Monday was lemur day. If you’ve seen the movie Madagascar (which I haven’t coincidentally) you know that there are these funny, monkey-looking animals that have really long tails that are only found in Madagascar. Well, turns out there are 77 different kinds of lemurs in Madagascar and on Monday we went to go see some of them in their natural habitat on Nosy Komba – the island right next door to Doany Beach.

As I mentioned, we went during the rainy season, so there was plenty of activity in the sky. Fortunately for us, it never really impacted our ability to move around or enjoy the magnificence of Doany and environs; what it did do was create a stunning palate for my photographs which I greatly appreciated. On the morning of our trip to Nosy Komba, a full rainbow pointed us in the right direction, stretching practically from the shores of Nosy Be to our destination. One word: beautiful.

Alix had strategically planned each excursion of the week so that we would hardly ever see any other tourists. Nosy Komba was no exception. We felt like we were the only vazahas there and proceeded to have a private tour of the rain forest just beyond the tiny village next to which we came ashore. With our guide coaxing timid lemurs down from their tree perches with bananas and chants of ‘maki maki maki,’ we didn’t have to wait long for us to have our first of two encounters with these fuzzy creatures. Apparently after their initial reluctance, lemurs are actually quite friendly! In what can only be described as a ‘nature walk in the jungle,’ we continued on a path and were fortunate enough to play with a boa constrictor, gigantic turtles, and even a neon green cameleon!

Tuesday’s plans ended up a bit delayed (Alix likes to get things going early in the morning to miss the rest of the tourists – great plan if you ask me) because yours truly was a bit under the weather. But by early afternoon I had rallied and we were off to Nosy Tanikely. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, ‘Nosy’ means island – ‘Nosy Be,’ for example, means ‘Big Island.’) Nosy Tanikely is famous for two things: 1. one of only a handful of lighthouses (none operational of course) in existence in Madagascar and 2. the amazing coral reef right off the beach. Well, in short, we hiked up to the lighthouse and snorkeled. Not only were we the only foreigners on the island, other than our guide and the random guy who ‘watches over’ the island, we were the only ones there, period. The. Only. Ones. Ridiculous – where were all the people? This was paradise, yet no one was there?!

Perhaps this is a good time to discuss paradise; or more specifically what paradise means to those of you who haven’t been to one of the tropical persuasion. Paradise means unbelievable vistas, white sandy beaches, amazingly fresh food, relaxing, swimming in crystal clear water, smiling white people jogging on a beach, etc.

What most – those of you who only see those white people jogging on the beach in commercials – don’t realize is that paradise also means heat, humidity, bugs (and the accompanying copious amounts of bug spray), electricity from 6pm-11pm only, sunburns, tropical diseases, lack of medical infrastructure, etc.

Alix was telling us that during colonial times many a European died of exhaustion and disease after only a few short years in Madagascar. In his opinion, they came with the same work ethic and general life expectations that they had in Europe. Unfortunately for them, life in paradise is not as conducive to the 9-5 as in the north. Long story short - lots of lounging, very little physical activity. Especially during the heat of the day.

Wednesday’s excursion took us back to Hell-Ville and off on a tour of the Nosy Be island in Alix’s 4x4. After dropping Marna off to do some shopping and touring a factory where Madagascar’s famous perfume base is produced (there was also a mini animal park with lots of fun lemurs, crocodiles, etc.), we ventured off to a remote oasis atop a hill, approximately 27 minutes from absolutely nowhere. Here we found a watering hole – again we were the only ones there – with a magnificent waterfall i.e. a perfect spot to play with my waterproof camera!

Lunch at the peak of another one of Nosy Be’s hills (they called them mountains – I’m not quite so liberal with my topographical interpretations) came in the form of a picnic in a random house near the summit where we were serenaded by Celine Dion's greatest hits. Coincidentally, Africans love Celine Dion. Who knew?

On the way back to the boat, we were granted the rare (and I’m still not sure 100% desirable) pleasure of visiting Nosy Be’s only penitentiary. After exchanging pleasantries with the commissar, we were shown into an open area where male prisoners of all shapes and sizes stared at us (or, more accurately, at Lauren) to a degree to which only celebrities must be accustomed. After paying a brief visit to the incarcerated women – who were kept separately for obvious reasons – the guards asked us for money, showed us how they kept track of time served using chalk on a chalk board, and asked us again for money again before we bid our adieus, happily walking back into freedom – and as far away from the Malagasy jail as possible.

On Thursday we arose extra early to head off to Nosy Iranja, an island approximately really far from Doany Beach that, in my now expert opinion, was probably the closest thing to tropical paradise this world can get. Picture two small islands separated by an incredibly white sand bar that vanished completely during high tide. Now picture perhaps 50 natives total on the islands, with two intrepid paradise hunters fearlessly swimming in the unbelievably clear water, only pausing to dine on delicious grilled calamari and climb to the top of another non-functioning lighthouse with breathtaking views of the surrounding land and sea. Ok, you can wake up now if you like.

Friday was our last day at Doany Beach, so much of it was spent soaking in the last bits of what had turned out to be an amazing and unbelievably relaxing vacation. We took a hike around the surrounding beaches and up into a bit of the dense rainforest dominating nearly everything non-beach in that remote part of Nosy Be. It was here that Madagascar made its most lasting (physical) impression on me in the form of a large cut on my shin, gifted to me after a clumsy attempt to jump from one slippery rock to the next as Lauren and our guide had so gracefully done just moments before. Just when I thought I had grown out of my awkward stage…

Finally, after 5+ days in paradise, it was time to call it quits on Saturday and return to life in S. Sudan. Madagascar, you were beautiful, challenging, invigorating, wonderful, and… well… simply amazing.