My wife, Maxine, wanted to go to Madagascar to see the lemurs. A trip was being offered by Betchart Expeditions (Cupertino, CA) through the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for late August and early September 2016 to see the country and an annular solar eclipse.
The trip would begin with a flight from Atlanta to Paris, then 2 days later we would fly from Paris to Antananarivo (a.k.a. Tana), Madagascar’s capital city.
Madagascar has a high incidence of malaria and travelers are strongly advised to take an antimalarial medication. For us this meant getting a prescription for Malarone and taking tablets 2 days prior to departure and a week past our return to the US.
So, arrangements were made, checks were written and off we went.
Why should one have to walk so far from the gate to get transportation to a motel? The plane arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG) on time but we had trouble finding a bus to the motel. Oh, the bus left from here…, No, no that’s not right the bus actually leaves from over there.
When we reached the Best Western Motel CDG we were told that our reservations were in order and that we could get breakfast if we wanted. We did, the meal was adequate and we relaxed for a few hours.
We had instructions from Betchart to call Air Madagascar as soon as possible when we arrived Friday to confirm our airline reservations for Sunday afternoon. It seems that sometimes the airline fails to depart as promised so we should call, just to make sure.
Problem: the phone in our motel room would not work. We tried the phone at the reception desk but repeatedly got no response until late that afternoon. Yeah, there was going to be flight on Sunday and we had tickets to ride.
The next day was free and we wanted to go to the Louvre. The only practical way to get there was by taxi so we had the front desk call us a cab. The driver spoke a bit of English, accepted our credit card graciously and away we went. It was a bright, sunny day and as the driver entered the museum area he exclaimed proudly, ” Magnificent, no?”
We had a great time; I loved the moat, Venus, Mona and the head of John the Baptist. Lunch was tasty and not as pricey as I expected.
When we finished we walked the gardens for a while then looked for a cab to get back to the motel. I found one on a side street near the museum, waved my credit card at the driver, asking if he took plastic. He indicated that we should get in.
An hour and €60 later we were back at the motel, but the driver would not accept credit cards. The manager at the motel gave the driver directions to an adjacent ATM where I got the cash to pay him. He apologized but I was more at fault than he. The French are unpredictable and I should have had more cash on me for such possibilities. That problem would only get worse.
When I returned to the motel Maxine was waiting in the lobby. It seems that the motel was saying that we had no room for the night and they wanted us to leave. No way that was right. I had a receipt for the 2 nights but it was in the suitcase upstairs. I tried to use the elevator to get back to the room but my key would not work and I had to have the motel staff accompany me.
Oui, oui, so sorry, monsieur, our error, you may stay tonight.
The next morning we called a taxi for the trip back to the airport. It was about 3x as expensive as the bus but we would not have to tote our luggage through much of the airport.
But we would have to wait and wait some more. Air Madagascar does not fly out of CDG every day, only a couple times a week so if you want to fly with them you wait until they are open for business.
Paris had recently been attacked by Islamic State and the military was marching through the airport concourses with machine guns in hand. Should one feel more or less secure because of their presence?
Some of our fellow travelers to Madagascar began to arrive. All had a science, engineering or medical background or was with someone who did. They came from Delaware, California, Pennsylvania, New York, Nebraska and elsewhere.
We queued up, filled out forms, gave up our baggage and filed onto the aircraft, an Airbus 340. Once aboard we were told NOT to fasten our seat belts as the aircraft was being refueled. We would be told when the process was complete and then we could buckle up. Eventually it was and we did. Somewhat later we left on a 10 hour flight to Tana. The flight was about half-full.
Tana airport at 2 am
We arrived at the airport about 2 in the morning local time. As I walked down the ramp from the aircraft I distinctly remember the sweet smell of eucalyptus smoke as wood became charcoal. Ahead of us was a tiny airport with only a few lights still on. When I reached the terminal I stood in line to purchase our visas so we could stay in Madagascar. The cost was US$33.26. I had no cash of any type on me (bad, bad mistake, you dummy!) expecting that the authorities would take a credit card. They do take credit cards in Madagascar but most definitely not at the visa counter. Ultimately, someone offered to take me past security to an ATM for a bribe of 10,000 ariary (Ar). That sounds like a lot but 2700 Ar are equivalent to a single dollar. I purchased the visas, our passports then passing among members of the airport police, each of which wanted a bribe to release them. Eventually at the end of the line I ran out of ariary and had to watch as the young female officer releasing passports repeatedly put the dark blue US ones at the bottom of the stack to be returned. Eventually she tired of this and gave ours to me.
Maxine and I walked past security to our group and one of the guides, Herilala, who welcomed us, and put us on the bus to our hotel in downtown Tana. Why hadn’t the guides helped us before? Why hadn’t Betchart pointed out the need for cash in purchasing visas?
These were the only times these folks failed us, but it was a significant. Maxine said that she wanted to go home. Indeed.
A bus trip through Hell
For the next hour we rode through some of the most ghastly slums I have ever seen. Roofs of corrugated metal topped structures, some 2 or more stories high. Sometimes there would be a small light but mostly the area was dark. The roads were rutted and narrow. We had arrived in Madagascar where the average wage was the equivalent of a couple of dollars a day. There was corruption and we were part of a tour where the leaders had pretty much abandoned us.
Tana and beyond
It was nearly dawn when we checked into the Le Louvre Hotel in downtown Tana. The rooms were small and somewhat dark, but this hotel had the best accommodations of the entire trip. Our group stayed at this hotel several times during the tour as we crisscrossed the island.
The next morning in the light of day and after a good breakfast events brightened somewhat. We met the group leader, an ornithologist, who was knowledgeable and personable. She would get to know us well.
When I checked out of the room the following morning, I owed 7500 Ar for a bottle of coke. I had only a 10K note and the gentleman at the desk said he had no change so I gave him a credit card. Immediately his helper gave me a receipt to sign. I signed it without checking the monetary amount (you dummy, always check before you sign!) first. When I did check it became clear that I had signed a chit for 133K Ar for another couple in our group who had yet to check out. Bizarre, very very bizarre.
The roads around Tana are the best on the island and we made pretty good time from Tana to Vakona near Madagascar’s eastern coast. At the Vakona Lodge I had my first encounter with mosquito netting. It only took me a couple of minutes in bed to realize that there were mosquitoes in the room and even if they did not bite, let alone transmit malaria, etc, they did sing, so on went the netting and it stayed around us whenever we had it available.
The room was cold with a small space heater near the door that helped little with the evening chill.
There was a private park nearby where Maxine was able to get up close and personal with the lemurs. Our mission was accomplished.
Into the Bush: Perinet, Mantadia, Analamazaotra
Vakona Lodge is located in Perinet, home to several wildlife preserves and a national park. This is Malagasy rainforest at its finest. It is home to a variety of lemurs as well as many plants and birds of interest. Though the paths are narrow, somewhat dark and winding, there is much to see here.
My wife, Maxine, is a brittle type I diabetic and is visually impaired. The walk into the forest quickly became terrifying for her as she could not see well and she had to be escorted out. That was the last of her forest walks. Some of the remaining walks were along switchbacks near rivers and would not have been safe for her.
Return to Le Louvre; settling a Debt
After exploring Perinet we returned to Tana for a night. Yes, I had signed the wrong receipt and would have to deal with that at some point, BUT I still owed the hotel 7500 Ar from my previous stay. I learn slowly but I eventually do learn so the clerk was going to have to find some change for my 10K note. He did (bless his heart), giving me 25 – 100 Ar bills in change, each one worth a tad bit less than 4 cents. Even the local merchants would not take these so I gave the bills away as souvenirs when I returned home
Fly to Taolagnaro, then ride to Berenty
Madagascar is a large island, the 4th largest and travel by car is often slow and uncomfortable. Consequently we flew to Taolagnaro (Fort Dauphin) on Air Madagascar. This was our second and for me the most comfortable of all the MadAir flights. The plane was an old turboprop; there was quite a bit of vibration, but the weather was clear and the view was extraordinary as we made our way to the southern tip of the island. We sat together in assigned seats.
Taolagnaro’s airport was well-lighted, painted in light colors and inviting, directly contrasting with the Tana airport.
Waiting at the airport were all-terrain vehicles which would take us to the spiny forest of Berenty. Though the distance to the park was only about 80 Km (50 miles) it would take about 4 hours over some of the roughest, bumpiest, tush-bruisingest roads imaginable.
Lemurs are everywhere at Berenty. They hang out around the open air dining areas in search of food, often going on impromptu raids. Management chases them off but also feeds them, giving rise to 2 populations of lemurs, those dependent on humans for food and those that are not. Not surprisingly the non-dependents lemurs are healthier.
Berenty is the bush and the lodge we stayed at, while comfortable, has no electricity from 10 pm until 5 am each day. Most folks did not mind but if you are diabetic and you must get up several times in the night to test your blood glucose it is both unhandy and dangerous when your bed and the bathroom are on separate levels in a totally darkened room.
What about the food?
My guidebook from Lonely Planet says that, “Eating well is one of the delights of Madagascar and even the fussiest tourists are usually happy with the food.” I believe that our group would mostly disagree with that statement. We had some tasty meals at the hotels but as we got farther from Tana the fare became more and more unpredictable. Often entrees were served cold and/or undercooked. This was a problem since pure water comes only in a sealed bottle and tapeworm, E.coli and salmonella happen.
Most of us, including our tour leader, had stomach issues for at least a part of the trip. I had some cramping but was OK except for an episode of diarrhea after I returned to the US. Maxine was on a self-imposed liquid-only diet for the last week in Madagascar and the first 2 weeks back home.
The best food had a French flair to it; I especially remember a lunch consisting of some delicious piping hot chicken in mushroom sauce with pasta. The desserts were always yummy but, since most were served cold, I usually took only a bite or two.
We flew back from Fort Dauphin to Tana for a day then took a flight to Majunga on the northwest coast of the island. When we left that morning it was cold, maybe in the high 40’s F, while in Majunga it was near 80 when we stepped off the plane.
After an hour’s drive on rough roads we stopped at the Antsanitia Lodge for our last 3 nights of the trip. The lodge consisted of 1,2 and 3 couple suites. We were with 2 other couples; each of us had separate bedrooms with a large common area which included a kitchen, lounge and an extra toilet. Missing, however, were keys to the individual bedrooms. We three couples had a single key to the 3-suite building but individual keys to the suites were never found. Security was always a concern.
The resort was pretty, very near the beaches on the Mozambique Strait, but the rooms and dining areas were poorly lit.
The last day was a particularly long and stressful one as Maxine and I had an hour flight from Majunga to Tana, then queued up (with baggage) for boarding our return flight to Paris.
The line to check bags was very slow. One of our compatriots standing just behind us in line complained that he was afraid he “would never get off this island”. A couple of minutes later he and his wife had vanished. He had given one of the airport personnel $10 to get to the head of the line to check his baggage.
We waited and eventually our bags were taken, though it was unclear where they were going. The clerk said he had no idea how to get our luggage through to Atlanta but did know how to get them to Paris, even though the bag receipt indicated they were on their way to Atlanta.
As we finished going through security, two very young and obviously inexperienced airport security people offered to get us on the plane early for a suitable amount of money. We told them to get out of our way and leave us alone.
We boarded the aircraft and went to our seats. The clerk had separated us for some reason, but we traded with a sympathetic tour member, took our seats and prepared for a 10 hour flight back to Paris.
Back to Paris (CDG)
When we landed at CDG, we left the aircraft and headed to baggage claim. Though our bags were supposedly headed to Atlanta there was enough doubt in our minds that we wanted to make sure. The flight arrived in the early morning and the return was not scheduled until 4 pm local time so why not?
Paris was and still is very security-conscious because of recent incidences so we passed through a line to have our passports checked as we moved to baggage claim. Ahead of us in line was an elderly French gentleman in a wheelchair. As the line moved it became evident that the fellow had passed out; his chin resting on his chest. The airline steward who was pushing the wheelchair became alarmed. Some confused moments later, Gail, a nurse who had been with our tour group volunteered to help and was waved to the front of the line. To the layman it appeared that the gentleman might have had a stroke or heart attack. Because of his position and the clothing he was wearing Gail could not find a heart beat so she had him removed from the chair and placed on the floor. She found that his heart was OK, but that he was diabetic and had not eaten so was having an insulin reaction and had lost consciousness briefly. Security provided help. Bravo, Gail! Très bien !
The gentleman was fortunate that he had not had a coronary since the CDG security folks apparently had neither access to nor knew how to find a defibrillator.
On to baggage claim. Our baggage did not appear on the belts and a nice lady confirmed that our luggage was on its way to Atlanta. (so we thought!)
However, among the bags missing that were supposed to be in Paris were the ones belonging to the tour-mate who paid the $10 bribe. It seems that if MadAir runs short of baggage room in the aircraft they just leave the extra bags on the tarmac.
Home again, home again…
After another 10 hour flight we touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. As before, we left the aircraft and headed to baggage claim and had the same outcome as in Paris: no bags. You really stand out when you leave security in an international terminal if you have no bags, so it was very easy to get some help, file a lost baggage claim and…, finally, mercifully, head home.
Late the following evening we got a call from the baggage return contractor for Delta that our bags would be delivered to us in an hour or so.
Since much of the clothing I normally would wear was either in the missing bags or was dirty, I pulled on an old Ohio State championship tee from 2002. The baggage guy delivered our suitcases, I read (this time) and signed the receipt for the bags and gave the driver a $5 tip. He said that the tip “almost made up for the fact that I was an Ohio Set fan”. I asked him if he was a Michigan fan. He replied that, no, he actually hated both Ohio State and Michigan and seemed to think I should know or care. What an ass. What a conclusion!
It was quite a trip and I am glad I went. The scenery, especially the flora was incredible.
I taught in Mississippi in the 1970’s and I have seen poverty, but poverty in the US does not begin to compare with what I saw in Madagascar.
I taught environmental science at the college-level for 15 years. Madagascar is a living, breathing environmental science textbook. Turn a page, find an environmental problem and there is Madagascar. Air pollution, check; water pollution, check; high population growth, check; invasion of exotic species, check; species endangerment because of habitat loss, check; poor agricultural practices leading to loss of soil fertility; check… It goes on and on.