Benham goes on tour … with his mother
Disney Pixar’s “Madagascar” was inaccurate. There are no giraffes, no lions, no tigers, no hippos, no zebras on the island.
There are tourists. I was one of them.
My mother booked a trip to Madagascar with a friend. The friend canceled. I was the only one she knew who could free up the time on a moment’s notice to go. Why? It was mid-November. Lunch was delighted by my taking unpaid time off.
The travel company that organized the trip is called Indagare – which is latin for ‘wisdom.’
There were nine in the group. Rich and Donna, a couple from Toronto that’ve been around the world about ten times over. Leslie, a former Miss Ole Miss. Rumor has it she makes spiked punches. Melissa, founder and CEO of Indagare, former editor of Town and Country Magazine. Like Rich and Donna, she has also been around the world and back again. Marina crafted tiki lamp costumes for herself and her husband for this year’s Halloween. She came with a Canon Powershot. Alex, lives in Houston and is in charge of uniforms for her sons’ Little League. Mary produces movies and fears snakes. Jennifer is also afraid of snakes and is this reporter’s mother. The group is here to experience the culture and see the wildlife.
The wisdom of this trip was expansive. Never miss a meal. Drink at lunch. Then have a drink before dinner. Laugh. Order a side of fries for the table. Plan outfits the night before. Watch the lemurs leap. Those bugs are termites. It’s not yellow fever or ebola, it’s just a weak Western stomach. A neat whiskey at breakfast does not stop diarrhea. Charge the camera the night before. Watch the sunset every day.
is the capital.
The Malagasy, the people of Madagascar, call it “Tana,” relieving tourists of the terror of pronouncing the full name. It’s located in the middle of the island on a 4,000 foot plateau, wrapped over eleven hills, rising out of flood plains. It looks like a suburb, not a city.
The buildings are huts made of sticks, branches and corrugated metal. The big buildings are cement. They do not scrape the sky. The roads are built for one-way traffic. They fit two-way traffic. Traffic includes trucks, cars, bicycle taxis, zebu carts (zebu is a cow with a hump of fat between its shoulders), and pedestrians.
As in Mammoth, sidewalks are sparse. On the sides of the roads, there are fruit stands, vegetable stands, shoes hanging from strings, dresses, spices in sacks, box televisions, chickens and ducks tied-up lying on the ground. There are piles of eggs and cuts of zebu and whole chickens hanging from hooks. Flies swarm. People nap on straw mats and patches of grass. Plastic piles in the gutters. A dumpster has become the center of a trash heap. A young guy pees on a wall.
It’s the rainy season. It pours in bursts. Jacaranda trees bloom purple leaves. The Malagasy speak Malagasy (‘salamah’ equals ‘hello’) and French.
A presidential election
By Saturday, November 17, the first round of a presidential election had been called. Voters chose between 36 candidates. The front runners were incumbent Hery Rajaonarimampianina and former presidents Andry Rajoelina and Marc Ravalomanana.
Ravalomanana was elected in 2002. In that election, his opponent was the incumbent Ratsiraka, founder of the Democratic Republic of Madagascar. Ravalomanana won in a run-off, but Ratsiraka refused to concede. They set up separate governments, giving Madagascar two presidents in two capitals. After seven months, Ratsirika fled to France and Ravalomanana became the only president.
In 2009, Rajoelina, then the mayor of Tana, led a coup d’etat against Ravalomanana. The coup succeeded. Rajoelina is known as ‘a bad president’, as it’s put to American tourists. From 2009 to 2014, during his presidency, Madagascar’s economy tanked and poverty became rampant again.
Back to the 2018, Rajoelina received 39% of the vote. Ravalomanana received 35%. Incumbent Rajaonarimampianina got 9%. All three accuse the process of corruption and are expected to file appeals. The two involved in the coup and upheaval in 2009 are back. Because no candidate received 50% of the vote a run-off between the top two vote-getters, Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, is scheduled for Wednesday, December 19.
Like the US, there’s no cap to campaign spending and it’s a race between two wealthy men.
Three Horses Beer
Three Horses Beer (‘THB’) is Madagascar’s unofficial national beer. It’s a pilsener that tastes warm even when served cold. THB is malty and it’s usually all the bar has.
Anjajavy is a village in the sand on the west coast. The people fish and farm and forage for subsistence or work at Anjajavy Lodge, an eco-hotel with a 17,792 acre land reserve.
The huts are wood with thatch roofs. One building has satellite television.
The people fish from dhows, wooden hulled boats with single triangular sails and outriggers. Children ride mild shore-break on slabs of tree bark and swim out to incoming boats.
There is a school. It has three rooms: two classrooms and a library. Tuition per child is $1 per month. The dollar does not include lunch. Families in countryside tend to have more children, so tuition piles up and becomes unfeasible for subsistence fishers and farmers. If they have to choose, families tend to send boys to school instead of girls.
The government stopped paying teacher salaries in 2009 when Rajoelina took over. It costs $82 per month per teacher.
The bays are lined with mangroves. At low tide, the roots show and the islands look like mushrooms, bases narrower than tops. Egrets, plovers, the Madagascar yellow-billed kite and the Madagascar fish hawk live here. The fish-hawk is ‘the rarest hawk in the world.’There are approximately one-hundred left in the wild. Fish populations dwindle from overfishing and habitat loss. Habitat loss means coral death. Rising ocean temperatures acidify coral. The coral turns white and piles like bones on the ocean floor.
The villages struggle to balance sustenance with conservation. Chinese fishing companies also struggle. Word around the village was that Madagascar’s federal government approved a contract with a Chinese company to allow 106 boats to fish Madagascar’s waters. They trawl line fish, raking everything in the boats’ path. Conservation groups have delayed the contract’s implementation on the grounds that the government couldn’t approve the deal during an election. Most people they can’t delay forever.
And even if theuy could delay, Madagascar’s Coast Guard has two boats. 106 versus 2. The ocean will lose. Then, the people.
Andasibe is a town in the eastern highlands bordered by regional and national forests.
A defunct train station–built for a now defunct nickel mine–serves as a bus stop.
The business of Andasibe is tourism and the business of tourism is lemurs, chameleons, birds and lemurs.
On a night walk, five flashlights interrupted a juvenile Parson’s chameleon on a branch. Those flashlights also found mouse lemurs, palm-sized with pointed faces and large ears.
There were stick-bugs. Their scientific name: achrioptera fallax. They are brown and don’t disguise on the green stems and leaves that they frequent. They’d be impossible to find on the ground.
Woolly lemurs napped in a palm. They have thick coats. Brown lemurs with tails longer than their bodies hopped down for bananas from a guide. One morning, three Indri lemurs spooned on a branch. Indri are black and white and the largest species of lemur about when standing an Indri is the same height as a seven year-old child. They travel in families with one monogamous mating pair. The families howl-screech to mark their territory.
Eucalyptus trees, non-native, have invaded and outgrown the old growth trees. Reptiles, lemurs, and birds eschew them. The eucalyptus burns easily and acidifies the soil, making it untenable for understory plants like the elephant palm and vakona.
Nosy Kumba is an island of the northwest coast. It has steep mountains that rise right out of the ocean. It is covered in rain forest. There are no roads. Trails connect villages. Children commute on beaches to school. At peak low tide, there’s enough room on the beach for a 12 on 12 soccer match. Cacao, vanilla, mango, papaya, pineapple, bananas, cassava, jack fruit, coconuts, clove, chiles, pepper, bamboo and lang lang grow under the canopy. Lang-lang is the scent used in Chanel No. 5.
The Malagasy spell it with an ‘h’ because they were colonized by the French. The ‘h’ invokes rheumatoid arthritis. They infuse rhum with papaya or mango or tamarind or baobab or passionfruit or vanilla. Put it in a punch. Add ice and a bendy straw. After dinner, they serve spiced rhum straight. The Sheet didn’t know if it was supposed to be sipped.
After dinner, they serve spiced rhum straight. Didn’t hear the sipping instruction. Don’t remember much else.