Madagascar: LEMURS!

Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to see Lemurs dance. That’s fine. I understand. I honestly don’t have much to add, except lemurs are awesome. Really awesome.

Before we get to the lemur pictures, let me give you at least a bit of context. We had to head three or four hours outside of Antananarivo to see them in their natural habitat. Lemurs only exist in Madagascar; you can’t find them (naturally) anywhere else. We visited two different parks with different species of lemurs. One was a jungle where we hiked for several hours through dense forest to get to the area where a family of lemurs lived. These lemurs could not survive in captivity, so it was impossible to see them anywhere but here.

The other park was more of a lemur reserve, where people could come to see them in a more contained area. It wasn’t a zoo; this was still an area where lemurs lived fairly naturally. It allowed people to get pretty close to them.

We got pretty close to them.

BONUS: CROCODILES

We also got to go see some crocodiles. And feed them. They were not as cute as the lemurs and they did not sit on our heads.

Despite some trouble, Madagascar is an absolutely incredible place and we’re thrilled that we included it on our itinerary. Our one recommendation is to make sure to do a bit of planning before you come. If you stay at the right hotel (such as the one we stayed at!) and book your drivers and guides in advance, it can be one of the most spectacular trips you’ve ever taken.

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Madagascar: Keep Your Head Down and Do Not Get Far From Me

Black smoke billowed through my halfway-down window. Something was wrong with the car. Again. We’d gone three or four hours outside of Antananarivo to see some lemurs, but we’d stopped many more times for oil and water for the car than for pictures. It wasn’t the first time we’d had to pull over, but now that we were on our way back to our hotel, it should be one of the last.

The smoke was coming from the front-left tire and the driver quickly pulled off the main road onto a small dirt cul-de-sac that often lined the roads of rural Madagascar. In a combination of English, French, and Malgasy, we gathered it had something to do with one of the brake pads. The driver and guide we hired, popped open the trunk, pulled out several tools, took off the tire, and inspected the damage.

“Just a few minutes and we’ll be back on our way”

Mike and I got out of the car and looked at our surroundings. There wasn’t much for as far as we could see, but honestly it was just good to be out of the car for a bit. We’d spent the majority of the day with the lemurs and while we were ready to be back, it was kind of nice just to sit out in the last few hours of sunlight. The heat from the day had passed, grey clouds were billowing in over the hills to block some of the harsher rays. We played a couple of rounds of rock, paper, scissor, and threw some stones at a puddle while we waited for the car to be fixed.

After about an hour, the sun continued its westward way behind one of the large hills and our driver announced that it was time for us to also head in that direction. We loaded back into the car, fastened our seat belts, and made it about half a kilometer before the wobbling of the front-left tire clued us in that we may have a larger problem.

The driver steered the hobbled vehicle into a long and dusty driveway and turned off the engine. This time for good. If we were getting back to our hotel tonight, it wasn’t going to be this way.

The four of us each pulled out our mobile phones. We looked to our guide and driver; they shook their heads. Both were dead after a full day of usage. Mike and I pulled out ours; both had the unmistakable “Searching…” in the top left corner.

We were in the middle of the Madagascar countryside, hours away from our hotel. We had a broken car, four useless cell phones, and it was getting dark. Quickly.

We assessed the situation. The driver wanted to stay with his car, the guide wanted to get back home. We’d passed a small village about ten minutes ago and none of us were sure how far it was to the next one on our way.

As the last rays of light quickly evaporated from existence, our guide resorted to trying to wave down a vehicle, while Mike and I assessed our personal situation. We had a dwindling supply of ariary, Madagascar’s currency, and only a couple of euros between us. Should we stay with the guide and the car, wait until morning, and hope that he could somehow get it fixed? Or should we go with the guide and try to get back to city tonight?

The decision became more pressing as the guide successfully waved down one of the 15-passenger vans that doubled as buses between the city and its outlying villages. This taxi was heading back to the village we’d passed only a couple of minutes before and had room for three people. The guide told us to wait here and he’d come back for us. We told him we were coming with him and loaded onto the bus.

As the vehicle that had clearly been operating since the early 1960s barreled down the road, the guide explained to us what we could expect:

“You will be the only tourists here, it will be very apparent that you are tourists,” he began, “Keep your head down, hide all your valuables, and do not get far from me.”

We arrived into the village. I tucked my passport in my front shirt pocket, separated my money into different areas of my body and slung my camera around my neck, but below my shirt. Our first bit of good fortune quickly appeared: right next to our bus was another bus getting ready to leave for the city. There were already 15 passengers on board, but for a little extra, the driver allowed the three of us to get on. As the driver was pulling away, we were flagged down by four people; passengers 19, 20, 21 and 22 hopped on board the 15-seat bus bound for Antananarivo.

The driver continued through the night, slowing as we passed over twenty-foot gaps in the pavement and speeding up as we went around large trucks. As we popped over one hill, before coasting down the next, an unmistakable array of blue, red, and white lights greeted us. A police checkpoint. In the middle of the country, away from any city.

I pulled my passport from my pocket, waiting for the officer to board the van and demand to see the documentation of the two people who looked very different from the rest. Our guide leaned over to us:

“Do not tell them you’re tourists. Tell them we’re friends. Tell them you came from America to visit us, your friends.”

We nodded in silent agreement.

The officer took his flashlight off his belt, briefly illuminating the scene around us. Five or six stood around the bus, each with very large and very automatic rifles. The officer with the flashlight shone it on the driver, who smiled and gave him a few Malgasy pleasantries. He moved slowly towards the back of the bus, shining the light on each passenger who gave the officer a brief smile and then continued to look forward. He arrived at me. I met his gaze. He paused for a second and moved onto the person sitting behind me. He tapped the top of the van with the butt of his flashlight. The driver started the vehicle and we began anew for the city.

We arrived back to the bus stop. Like a clown car, we all began to file out of the vehicle, one after another. The driver asked Mike and I to stay put, offering to give us a ride to our hotel for a small fee. Several others stayed on the bus, as well; opting to sleep there rather than face the potential danger of the night.

We made it back to our hotel, a couple ariary and a couple of euro less, but with everything else we’d brought. Our cell phones picked up the wifi signal of the hotel and buzzed to life with new messages and new alerts. Dinner had been covered and left on the lobby’s table. As we sat down at the table, white steam escaped from the lid as we uncovered the meal that had been prepared for us hours earlier.

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Antananarivo, Madagascar

After jumping from hotel to hotel for almost four weeks, it was good to be in Madagascar. We were staying in the same place, sleeping in the same bed for four nights. Iran was far from what we expected, Madagascar should be more on point. We could relax and be a bit more comfortable from the get go.

Madagascar was one of those places that we’d always wanted to visit and we thought this trip would be a good time to do it. It also seemed like a place where we could prepare very little and just hire a guide when we get there. After meticulously planning 35 days for six continents and 12 countries in nine different languages, we were just plain tired of it. We did a little research on where to stay, found an excellent recommendation, and decided to ask the hotel owner when we arrived.

We knew we wanted to see lemurs on this trip, but the rest of Madagascar was a bit of a mystery to us. We arrived at the airport after midnight, transferred to the hotel, and quickly settled into bed; we told the hotel owner we would talk about planning over breakfast the next day.

Securing a driver was not difficult, our hotel had a list of them who were ready to take us anywhere we wanted to go. Since we had plenty of time here, we decided on an easy first day: let’s just see what Antananarivo has to offer.

Madagascar seemed very similar to Kathmandu: cars setting their own pattern and streets full of low rise buildings with vendors lining every inch. The main difference was the traffic; everyone seemed to stop in the middle of the road for something different. The only hope was that the car was small enough to go around, which with large 15-passenger vans masquerading as buses as the main transportation of the people, didn’t happen often.

We quickly saw one of the causes of the frequent stops: police checking almost every car on almost every corner. We eventually made it to the front of the traffic queue and was greeted by a young officer who was clearly asking the driver for his papers. He took a look back at the two (obviously tourists) guys in the back of the car and said something in Malgasy to our driver.

“Passports, he needs your passports.”

Mike normally carries his passport around; I normally do not.1 Today we both didn’t have them.

The driver waves us all out of the car and into a small building on the side of the road; his supervisor is waiting at a small desk inside a cramped room.

“English?” he asks, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes” I reply.

“No passports?”

“No passports.”

“20 euro.”

I pull out my wallet and hand him 20 euro.

“Each”

We didn’t have two 20-euro notes, so we had to settle on giving him a 50-euro note. It was fairly apparent he wasn’t about to give us change.

We leave the small room, get back into the car and head back to the hotel to get our passports. At several points, the driver asked us to get out of the car and walk on ahead as to avoid further police checkpoints.

We spent the rest of the day touring post-colonization Antananarivo, seeing palaces and other sites special to the Malgasy. With passports securely in a pocket.

The only other time I’ve experienced something like this is in rural Mexico, but the moral of the story is to be ready for it. Our fatal flaw here was getting a bit too comfortable, a bit too relaxed with things, and we paid for it. From all assurances from our driver, if we’d had our documents on us, everything would have been fine.

I can’t tell you to always have your passport on you because honestly, I probably won’t. But if you have a secure way of storing it on your body (a money belt or something similar that goes under your clothes), it may be a good idea to do it. But the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings and just get a good idea of where you are. In some instances, it may not matter, but in others it could be the difference between having and not having a 50-euro note.

  1. You’re told to always carry your passport with you, but it makes me a bit nervous to do so. If I get robbed, I can always get more money and cancel my credit cards. The same is not true for a passport. I usually carry around a paper copy, but I always carry around a digital copy on my phone

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