Trinidad

February 27, 2017

Today we were heading out on the road-trip portion of our tour, so we were up at 6:45 am to get packed. Next stop: Trinidad. Our departure time was set for 8:30 am; our bus had 24 seats for 14 passengers, quite comfortable seats, but more importantly it had air conditioning! Next stop: Trinidad. So we headed out of Havana on the national highway.

The highway took us through the middle of the country for a while, and then we turned off onto a smaller road. In Australia we made our first stop, only to buy sandwiches for lunch. Our choices were ham, cheese, tomatoes, or any combination!

The road took us into “Bay of Pigs” country. That was an important turning point in Cuba’s history and there was a lot of evidence of it still, including large signs celebrating victory over the US’s proxy invaders.

We stopped at Cueva de los Peces, a place where it was possible to swim in a cenote, a pool made by the collapse of the ceiling of an underground river. Along with Ruth we sat on a lava rock to eat our sandwich and watch the wildlife, including several lizards. There were a few birds in the trees which were hard to see, but at the back of the restaurant there was a small flock of Blue-headed Quail Doves. Very pretty birds. After lunch we walked across the road to see the bay, where several people were snorkelling in quite choppy water.

Blue-headed Quail Doves

Blue-headed Quail Doves

We left there at 1 pm to travel just a short way down the road, to Playa Girón and its museum, which was all about the invasion. The museum displays were all in Spanish but José took us through it and did the explanation. It seemed that the Cubans were poor and not well-armed, but the invaders were not well-organized and the Americans were ambivalent about supporting them properly. Our visit was quite short, so soon we were on our way to Cienfuegos to do a brief tour of the main square.

First Great Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America

First Great Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America

British-made Cuban warplane

British-made Cuban warplane

Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage city, and it’s beautifully painted and restored. The central square, Plaza José Martí, was surrounded by several arts organization buildings in French or Italian colonial style, including the Teatro Tomás Terry. The city hall had been freshly painted but the police stationed outside it wouldn’t let us in, perhaps because Paul was wearing sandals.

Cienfuegos city hall interior

Cienfuegos city hall interior

Polski Fiat

Polski Fiat

The day was really hot by now so getting back onto the air-conditioned bus was a relief. We now had an hour and a half drive to Trinidad, which would be our home for the next two nights. We would be staying in a casa particulare, which meant the house of a Cuban family. The bus dropped us off shortly after 5 pm at Hostal Emiliana y Martin, along with Ruth and São. We had a room with a double bed and plenty of time to settle in. The place was a bit noisy, though, because they had a 3-year-old boy.

Hostal Emiliana y Martin

Hostal Emiliana y Martin

For dinner tonight we were eating at the casa, so we could have a true Cuban meal. First course was soup, which was maybe a kind of pea soup. Next was chicken for Rosemary and fish for Paul and Ruth, accompanied by rice, chips, and mashed-up corn. (São had been sick since arriving in Cuba and was still not eating.) On the side we had a plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, and shredded kohlrabi. Dessert was flan. All very tasty and definitely lots of food.

At 9 pm José came by and picked us up with the bus; our destination was the open-air Casa Musica, which is located about the Plaza Mayor. Every night there is a band playing there, and there’s the option of going up the wide staircase to the dance area (where the action is) or staying in the main square. The band played for about 20 minutes without stopping for each set, and the dancers were spinning and bouncing the whole time. We stayed to listen for about an hour before heading back down the hill.

February 28, 2017

Today we had the whole day in Trinidad. The alarm went off at 6:45 am, but we had time to lounge as breakfast wasn’t until 7:30 am. The bus came by at 8:45 am and took all of us over to Parque Céspedes to begin our walking tour of the city.

Ford taxi in Trinidad

Ford taxi in Trinidad

We walked up a residential street, General Linu Perez, which was a very ordinary street. We passed by a small school, where José explained the education system in Cuba. And then we stopped at a ration shop, or “bodega”; every Cuban gets a monthly ration book which allows them to buy a certain amount of staples (rice, beans, sugar, eggs, etc.) at a very low price. One could possibly survive on this ration. The book expires at the end of the month, so people were using their coupons up today before they expired.

Ration shop

Ration shop

José also told us how employment works in Cuba—most people work for the state, but recently more private businesses have been allowed to open. For example our casa particulare operator, Emiliana, was trained as a doctor. So it seems that she can make more money opening her house to paying guests rather than being a state-employed doctor.

Trinidad street scene

Trinidad street scene

The street at this time of the morning was quite empty, so we were able to take lots of pictures of the old cars and colourful houses. At the end of the street was the Iglesia de Santa Ana, which had been partially destroyed by a hurricane in 1812. Outside the church had been the old slave market, and José told us about how slavery had worked in Cuba.

Iglesia de Santa Ana

Iglesia de Santa Ana

Then we walked uphill towards Plaza Mayor, but first we passed through a craft market. Naturally we had to buy something, we had lots of money! This area is known for its pulled-thread work on table cloths, so Rosemary bought one table runner and one small table cloth, for 15 CUCs. Also at this market she bought a small purse which had been crocheted incorporating pull-tabs from beer cans. An unusual way of recycling them!

Craft market wares

Craft market wares

Our next stop was Plaza Mayor, where José pointed out all the fancy houses and gave us a brief history of each. We then continued around the next block to end up near the Museo de Historia, which was the end of our walking tour.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

After José told us about the optional activities for this afternoon we went in to see the museum, which housed furniture from colonial times along with some regular exhibits about Marxist politicians. The mansion dates from the late 1820’s and it displays furniture, beautiful glassware, and figurines all in neo-classical style. We also saw our first hummingbird, the Cuban Emerald, which was flitting around the flowers in the inner courtyard. There was a tower in the museum, so we climbed to the top, fortunately just before the bus tours poured in, and there was a great view over the city and down to the Caribbean.

Cuban Emerald

Cuban Emerald

View over Trinidad

View over Trinidad

By now it was getting close to noon, so we headed over to the area where banks could be found, so that Ruth could change some money. And not a moment too soon, it was the last day of the month and they were closing early! But she did manage to squeeze in at the last minute.

Vegetable seller

Vegetable seller

We had lunch at a panaderia named Dulcinea; besides finishing our leftover sandwiches from breakfast we tried some fancy pastries, which were very tasty (and inexpensive).

After lunch we walked back to Parque Céspedes to meet up with José; he was leading the trip to the beach, and we didn’t want to go to the beach but we did need to find out tonight’s dinner arrangements. We chatted away for quite a while before he arrived with some of the group who had gone for salsa lessons. We found out that we would be picked up at 7 pm, so off we went for a walk.

Santería shrine

Santería shrine

This time we were going to be following a walk described in the Lonely Planet book. Back at Plaza Mayor we headed past a Santería temple and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco de Asis and onward to the outskirts of Trinidad, the Barrio Tres Cruces. The houses here were definitely not as fancy or as big, and the cobbled roads were in much poorer state. Outside several of the houses there were horses tethered, and we saw a couple of men wearing short rubber boots with spurs attached! The whole walk was only about 2 km in length, so we were soon back near Plaza Mayor.

Horseman in Barrio Tres Cruces

Horseman in Barrio Tres Cruces

We had a few hours before dinner, so we headed back to our casa to do some laundry. At 7 pm we went out to the corner to meet up with José and the others. Tonight was going to be a group dinner at a local family-run restaurant; as it happened it was very close to our casa so José just walked down the hill to get us. The restaurant was named La Ceiba, after the huge ceiba tree which towers over the tables. It was very busy and in order to reach the table you walk through the owner’s house.

Ceiba tree

Ceiba tree

This was the first time the whole group had dined together, so we met people whose names we didn’t know yet. In the spirit of “When in Cuba drink rum cocktails” Rosemary ordered a mojito and Paul tried a canchánchara, which is a Trinidad specialty. The mojito was stronger in the rum department then the ones we had made ourselves in Havana, and the canchánchara was honey-based and not nearly as strong as it smelled.

La Ceiba restaurant

La Ceiba restaurant

The menu was quite extensive, and Rosemary ordered the house special, honey lemon chicken. But when the food arrived, it was quite shambolic. We were to find out that the normal procedure in Cuban restaurants was for the waiter to bring a plate and ask “Who ordered the chicken?” This works fine when the menu has only one chicken dish but when there are several chicken dishes it doesn’t work. Eventually everybody got a dish which contained something like what they had ordered, but Rosemary didn’t get honey lemon chicken and she wasn’t the only one to get the wrong plate. But everything was really good and no one minded too much.

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Havana

February 25, 2017

People had been telling us we should go to Cuba “before it gets changed too much”. So here we were on our way to Cuba. We had taken the red-eye flight to Toronto, so naturally we didn’t sleep too well. But while sitting in the Toronto airport, waiting for our Havana flight, we snoozed a bit. The flight was late in leaving, which worked to our advantage. Not only did it leave late, but our pilot appeared to get lost in the taxiways and was then sent to the back of the takeoff queue.

Arriving in Havana we went through immigration quickly and because we had taken only carry-on baggage, we didn’t have to wait for checked baggage to arrive. Outside the weather was very different from Toronto’s—hot and sunny instead of cold and rainy. We weren’t travelling independently this time; we were taking the Explore “Cuba Libre” tour so our Explore greeter was there to meet us. We were soon sorted out with a taxi ride to the Hotel Sevilla, but before leaving the airport we each hastily exchanged $600 into CUC’s, the Cuban currency for foreigners.
The ride into Havana took about 30 minutes; the traffic was busy in some spots so our driver was continually changing lanes. He actually signalled each time!

The Hotel Sevilla, where we would spend the next two nights, was a lovely old building with Moorish tiles in the décor. Historically Ernest Hemingway stayed here, as well as Al Capone. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we sat in the lobby on lumpy couches which had been reupholstered but still retained the old springs. At 3 pm we got the key and went up to room 421. It was definitely old style, but it did have air conditioning and a firm mattress, so that was the important part.

Hotel Sevilla lobby

Hotel Sevilla lobby

Our hotel was quite close to the ocean, so we headed in that direction. Watching the old cars drive by was interesting; for the most part they were brightly coloured and in good shape. They mostly dated from the 1950’s but we did see a lot of new cars as well. When we got to the point, across from the old fortifications, we were disappointed because there were no pelicans there, not even any gulls! But along the Malecón were several brides and their grooms, cruising along in some of the old cars with their tops down. And farther down the coastline there was a cruise ship docked. Not one of the giant floating city kind, but we were still surprised to see it.

Havana street scene

Havana street scene

From there we wandered around the Old Town, looking at the various Art Deco buildings, plazas, and churches, checking out some restaurants as possible dinner places for tonight. There was quite a mix of old historical buildings, people’s houses, and bars and restaurants. We spent quite a while with a man who was selling colourful paintings of a street featuring the sign of El Bodeguita Del Medio, one of the famous bars in the area. He really wanted to sell us one of the paintings, of course, but we really didn’t want to buy anything on the first day of the tour.

Havana Old Town

Havana Old Town

Back at the hotel we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive from their British flights. Finally just before 7 pm we decided to give up and go out on our own, but just as we were leaving, a bus pulled up and there they were. Paul’s aunt Ruth was there (we had told her we were going on this tour and suggested she might like to come along, and surprisingly she did). She decided to go out with us and brought along Fiona, one of the other group members.

Havana Cathedral

Havana Cathedral

We set off back to the Old Town to a restaurant which we had seen earlier, but by the time we got there it was full. Eventually we all decided to just go back to the hotel for dinner. We didn’t want to go to the hotel’s fancy rooftop restaurant but the bar had a food menu so we ordered from that. Unfortunately it took about 45 minutes for the food to arrive, and it wasn’t all that warm. And Paul’s meal didn’t resemble the menu’s description at all, except for the presence of chicken in both! The menu’s French fries were missing, but the plantain chips which actually arrived were better anyway.

Tomorrow morning at breakfast the tour finally starts. It will be good to get going.

February 26, 2017

We slept really well last night, but fortunately we had set the alarm to beep at 6:45 am or we would not have woken up early enough. Downstairs in the breakfast room we were both surprised at the variety of food we had to choose from—sliced meats, lots of fresh fruits, hot items like eggs and sausages, as well as cereals and yogurt. Definitely something for everybody!

Street near Hotel Sevilla

Street near Hotel Sevilla

We were finished breakfast by 8 am, so we had plenty of time before the tour’s initial meeting. So we went for a walk around the block to check out the area. Then at 8:30 am the whole group met by the pool and our leader José told us all about the tour, where we would be going and what we would be doing. No surprises here, it was we’d already seen in our tour summary. He also told us how the money works in Cuba (which is kind of complicated) and other useful things like that.

El Prado

El Prado

At 9:30 am we all set off in the bus, on a short tour around Havana. Eighty percent of Cuba’s tour buses come from the national tourist company, Havanatur, so they all look the same. And there are hundreds, thousands, of them. So we had to take care to remember the bus number (3532). We drove past Parque Central, where there is a statue of José Martí—the first of many we would see in Cuba because he is their number one hero. Also here was the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s oldest hotel. We continued on to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro famously gave a speech over four hours long! José told us the history of the plaza and described the various buildings surrounding it. At the highest point was a very large monument to José Martí. José also told us that three popes have visited Cuba and they all spoke here at the plaza.

Martí monument by Plaza de la Revolucion

Martí monument by Plaza de la Revolucion

Che is everywhere in Cuba

Che is everywhere in Cuba

Moving on, we drove through the Vedado district, which was built up in the 1950’s and settled by well-off people so it had buildings on large lots. We carried on along the Malecón, seeing our first pelicans, and then through the tunnel under the bay to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. We had a few minutes to walk through the fortress before we had to carry on.

Old cars on display

Old cars on display

Havana from the fortress

Havana from the fortress

From here we started on a walking tour, with the Plaza de Armas as our first stop. We were somewhat familiar with the area because we had explored it yesterday afternoon, but the others had arrived in the evening and so they hadn’t seen it yet. However José gave us a brief history lesson before we headed off along Calle de los Oficios to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This square was first created in the 16th century, when Spanish galleons stopped at the adjacent quayside. It is here where they filled up fresh water from local springs. Continuing along, we headed to the Plaza Vieja, which was laid out in 1559. It is surrounded by beautiful buildings as well as Gaudi-inspired art nouveau.

Street musicians in Old Town

Street musicians in Old Town

Just at the corner of this square was the Café Taberna, where we had a cocktail-making lesson. We all lined up at the bar and learned how to make a mojito (sugar, lemon juice, crushed mint leaves, sparkling water, Angostura bitters, and of course rum) and a Cuba Libre (rum and coke with ice). They weren’t difficult at all, especially the Cuba Libre!

Ready to make mojitos

Ready to make mojitos

Mojito: Job done

Mojito: Job done

Now we had no more tour activities for the rest of the day. We went off with Ruth to look for a restaurant for lunch; José had recommended the Café Paris but it was extremely full. So the three of us decided to go back to find La Dominica, which we had been full last night. It was full again now, but after a while some groups left and we were able to get a table. Ruth and Rosemary shared a Parma ham pizza while Paul had spaghetti carbonara. The meal was really good; the pizza shell was excellent and very crispy.

Sancho Panza statue in Old Town

Sancho Panza statue in Old Town

After lunch we headed back to our hotel and went up to our room to have a rest, which actually turned into a siesta. About 6 pm we decided it was time to get going, so we went down to meet up with Ruth. First we walked down to the point, where we had walked yesterday, enjoying the evening breeze. From there we headed over to the Plaza de Armas and actually found the restaurant which we had noticed yesterday, La Mina. The food was good and inexpensive, and the mojito that Paul had was just as good as the ones we had made ourselves earlier today.

Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso

Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso

Posted in Cuba | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Zealand

In November of 2015 we visited New Zealand. We had been thinking about New Zealand for a long time, because of the excellent hiking and the interesting wildlife. But we didn’t start booking things until September, so when we tried to book the Milford Track we found that the next available opening wasn’t until March!

So all right then, we booked the Routeburn and Kepler Tracks instead. And we booked some time on offshore islands, where some of the native birds still survive: Tiritiri Matangi, Kapiti Island, and Stewart Island.

We’ve published our diaries and photos in the web pages section, starting here: New Zealand 2015.

Posted in New Zealand | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Return to Tana

November 1, 2016

We were travelling today, back to Antananarivo for the end of our trip. Our flight to Tana had been changed from 4 pm to 1:10 pm—apparently this is typical behaviour for Air Madagascar—and so we had to be at breakfast at 6:45 am. After breakfast the boat came to pick us up, and luckily the tide was quite high so only a few feet of wading was required.

Farewell to Anakao

Farewell to Anakao

The boat journey to Toliara to about an hour or so, and our zebu carts came out to meet us. They all delivered us safely to the dock, where we were met by a bus which took us back to the Victory Hotel. There we changed into our walking shoes and repacked our bags, and then headed for the airport. We arrived at 11 am to check in, which was plenty of time because it wasn’t very busy—there was only one flight coming in and one flight going out today.

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Our plane was a Boeing 737—you don’t see many of them these days—and there were no seat assignments so there was a lot of maneuvering by people who wanted to get on first. But somehow Paul managed to get an aisle seat in an emergency-exit row! The flight took about an hour to get to Tana; we were met by the bus from Au Bois Vert and soon we were back in the coolness of the forest surrounding the hotel.

Paul was still not feeling well so he drank a bottle of oral rehydration salts and took a Cipro tablet, then spent the remaining part of the afternoon relaxing. Dinner was at 7:30 pm, and tonight we had the pleasure of watching a musical group singing and dancing to traditional Malagasy music. After dinner we chatted for a short while but soon went back to our room for an early night.

November 2, 2016

You’d think that once we got back to Tana, we’d just fly home the next day. But no, Explore has this day as a contingency day in case the flight from Toliara gets messed up. Which is a definite possibility. But we were happy to have another day in Madagascar.

Private school in Antananarivo

Private school in Antananarivo

So after breakfast we boarded the bus to go to Ambohimanga, where the former kings and queens of Madagascar used to live. The name means “Blue Hill” or “Beautiful Hill” and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site now. The bus took us through Antananarivo along very busy crowded roads and through some very poor areas. After a while we reached the outskirts, where the houses became larger and more elaborate. In the inner city the houses were more like shacks, with no running water and poor sewer systems, and Hery told us that after a heavy rainstorm there would be raw sewage running in the streets.

Ambohimanga palace compound

Ambohimanga palace compound

At the palace we were met by our guide, who told us the history of the palace and its residents. The king’s palace was basically a traditional Malagasy hut, but of course a large version to befit a powerful man. And his throne was just a small stool. But after his reign the Europeans arrived and redefined luxury, so the adjacent queen’s palace was a small but traditional European royal residence. The kings and queens are long gone but even today some practitioners of the old religion come to the king’s palace to sacrifice a duck or a goose. It was a very interesting tour and a nice way to spend the morning.

Queen’s palace

Queen’s palace

View from Ambohimanga

View from Ambohimanga

For lunch we ate at the restaurant next to the site. The food served was a smorgasbord of local products: several cuts of zebu meat, chicken, fish, salads, and of course rice. All very tasty. We also had entertainment provided by a band and dancers. Despite the warm outside temperature the cooling breeze made it very pleasant, and Paul’s stomach was finally prepared to accept food again.

Band and dancers

Band and dancers

As we left we stopped at the gift shop and surprisingly there was a Madagascar Scops Owl sitting on a tree outside it, guarding a nest with at least one chick in it.

Madagascar Scops Owl

Madagascar Scops Owl

Then we returned to the bus to continue on to the Lemurs Park. The trip to the park took about an hour and a half and upon arrival we quickly got our guide and headed off on the trails. This park is on the outskirts of Antananarivo and it’s devoted to housing lemurs which have been rescued from being pets, and their goal is to raise awareness of the plight of lemurs and Madagascar wildlife in general.

Coquerel’s Sifaka

Coquerel’s Sifaka

As we walked along we could hear loud claps of thunder overhead, along with short sprinkles of rain periodically. The lemurs were fun to watch as they interacted with each other; they were all habituated to people so they basically ignored us. So much so that one of the lemurs leaped right between us, hitting Rosemary in the face with its tail on the way!

Radiated Tortoise

Radiated Tortoise

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at a mall to shop for Madagascar chocolate. The mall was bright and modern and wouldn’t have been out of place in Britain or North America, but here it seemed kind of strange. And the supermarket didn’t really have much chocolate. From there the traffic was terrible; we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 7 pm so dinner was late at 8 pm.

November 3, 2016

The tour finishes today and we’re going back to London. But our flights don’t leave until the afternoon so this morning we went on a visit to a local vanilla producer. It was only a short walk up the road to her house, which was behind a locked gate.

First of all she gave us a short presentation on the production of vanilla. Vanilla is a type of orchid which takes three years to produce its seed pods. In Madagascar it has to be hand-pollinated by human workers because the bees who normally do that only live in Mexico. The best vanilla comes from the north-east, where she gets most of her beans. Not only are the roads really bad in that area, but the plantation is twelve hours walk from the nearest road! But despite that, vanilla rustling is still a problem.

Madagascar Red Fody

Madagascar Red Fody

We didn’t know what Agriculture Canada would think of vanilla pods so we bought some powdered vanilla and some more chocolate bars. Back at the hotel we finished packing and left for the airport at 1 pm. Our flight was at 5 pm but most of the others had a 3:20 departure on Kenya Airways. We didn’t have any problems going through immigration and security and police check, but a lot of people were called down to the baggage area to account for “contraband” in their luggage. And we heard of some who paid a bribe to deal with the problem.

End of the tour

End of the tour

The Kenya Airways flight had been delayed yesterday and the day before, and it was delayed today as well. So our Turkish Airlines flight left before theirs and headed off to Mauritius. Then Istanbul, then London, where we arrived early the next day. And it rained the rest of the day there. London in November, what can you expect?

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anakao

October 30, 2016

We were doing something different today, a boat trip to Anakao for a two-night stay at the beach. We were supposed to cut our baggage down to “an overnight bag”, which was easy for us because we didn’t have much baggage in the first place. And sandals were the preferred footwear because we would have to wade from the boat to the beach.

So breakfast at 8 am, followed by a quick bus ride to the Safari Veza boat launch. The tide was quite far out so in order to get to the boat we were taken out there by zebu carts, three or four people to a cart. A very interesting ride with Rachel, Wendy, and the two of us all in one cart. Our driver was told “muramura”, which means “slowly”, and our two zebus seemed to have a mind of their own, but we did get to the boat. Although most of the other carts passed ours on the way!

How to get to the boat

How to get to the boat

Our boat was a speedboat which could carry about 20 passengers, and the trip took over an hour to reach the fishing village of Anakao. During the trip we passed a lot of small boats with square sails, as seen all around this part of the Indian Ocean, and there were also canoe-like boats from which men were diving, perhaps for lobsters or shellfish. And at the other end we did have to wade to the beach, but the water was warm and not even knee-deep.

Fishing catamaran

Fishing catamaran

Arriving at Anakao

Arriving at Anakao

Our hotel, Safari Veza, was located next-door to the village but had its own private beach above the water-line. The bungalows were very lovely, with a shower and toilet area apart from the sink. There was no running water, so instead we had three buckets of water to use. And instead of glass windows there were wooden shutters which we could lock from inside while away, otherwise we left them open. In the evening we could pull fabric curtains across them for privacy.

Our bungalow at Safari Veza

Our bungalow at Safari Veza

Shortly after we arrived we had lunch, very nice omelette sandwiches on cassava bread, and then had the rest of the day to ourselves. To start with we used up half our water allocation to do laundry; there was a lot of dust in our clothes from all the driving, but they dried very quickly after we hung them up in the warm breeze.

View from our front door

View from our front door

The view was very spectacular looking across to the low island of Nosy Ve. We could watch the fishing boats going by but other than them there was very little activity on this part of the ocean. In the late afternoon we went for a walk along the beach, looking at shell fragments, watching the crabs, and wading in the warm water.

Sunset from Anakao

Sunset from Anakao

Dinner tonight was at 7:30 pm, starting with a prawn salad which unfortunately had beetroot in it. Who would have guessed? So Hery got a new salad for Rosemary, sans beetroot. The main course was tuna with roasted vegetables. The tuna was really tasty and was very fresh, having been caught today. And finally dessert was a chocolate roll.

October 31, 2016

We’d left some of our shutters open last night so that outside air could circulate through the bungalow. As a result we woke up when it got light outside, sometime before 6 am. Paul got up early to go birding, out towards the back of the property. Surprisingly the commonest bird was the Littoral Rock Thrush, of which we had seen one in her nest next to the bar yesterday afternoon. Meanwhile Rosemary was kept awake by birds walking on the roof, so she got up and sat outside on the porch, enjoying the view and the quiet.

Sakalava Weaver

Sakalava Weaver

Breakfast was at 8 am this morning. Some of the others were going out to the island offshore, Nosy Ve, to snorkel around the reef, but we didn’t want to snorkel and we didn’t want to sit on the island for several hours. So after breakfast we walked the short distance along the beach to the small open-air market. One of the stalls had cut-work curtains which had Malagasy designs on them, and Rosemary bought a long curtain with a baobab and two tortoises and also a shawl which had lemurs cut out on one edge. After some bargaining they settled on 95,000 ariary for both pieces, which amounted to only about $40 CDN. She gave us them and we walked back to the bungalow to get the money to pay for them.

Cut-work fabric seller

Cut-work fabric seller

Once done with that we then walked along the beach past the village. It was still early in the morning so the villagers were going about their business. Fishing was the main activity but we also saw a freight catamaran picking up sacks of produce from the village to be sold elsewhere. The children were having a great time playing in the water, most of them just splashing around. But a couple of the boys had replicas of the boats used by the adults and they were sailing them, practicing with the waves and winds.

Delivery of reeds for roofing

Delivery of reeds for roofing

Sacks of produce being transported

Sacks of produce being transported

We had been told horror stories of people who went to the beach and were swarmed by kids demanding “cadeau”. But there was none of that. A couple of people came to offer us goods or services, but when we said no they didn’t persist. And the kids were too busy playing.

Girls skipping on the beach

Girls skipping on the beach

After lunch we went back to the bungalow to stay out of the sun. Paul felt a bit sick, maybe from dehydration or heat stroke, so we rested for the remainder of the afternoon.
Dinner was not until 7:30 pm, but at 6:30 pm we had a concert. There were two guys singing, one playing the guitar and the other one a drum. It was a nice way to finish off this part of our holiday. Dinner was also good but neither of us ate all of the food.

Sunset over Indian Ocean

Sunset over Indian Ocean

Our bed had a complete frame of mosquito netting over it, and last night Rosemary had noticed a big spider on top of it, on her side. But we poked it with a stick and jiggled it and it didn’t move, so we decided it was dead. We just left it there because it was too hard to climb up and remove it.

So, tonight the spider was gone. Hmm, we thought, maybe the staff took it away when they made the bed? But no, there it was running along the top of the frame! This clearly couldn’t be allowed to continue. So Paul had to knock it down onto the floor and whack it with a sandal.

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

To the West Coast

October 29, 2016

Breakfast was later today, because we didn’t have a long journey. We left at 9:30 am—much more civilized—and headed south-west. We travelled on a recently repaved stretch of Route 7 with no potholes!

Our courtyard at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Our courtyard at Hotel Relais de la Reine

No potholes!

No potholes!

Soon we came to an area of the country noted for sapphire mining, starting in the town of Ilakaka. There were a lot of buildings labelled “Bijouterie” (i.e. jewel shop) and a lot of clearly foreign investment. There were a lot of people panning for sapphires in the rivers and the whole area looked more prosperous than many of the other places we’d been.

Sapphire mining at Ilakaka

Sapphire mining at Ilakaka

We stopped briefly to buy water and then continued until we arrived at Zombitse National Park. We had a walk scheduled here to search for more lemurs. Our guide was named Lucien and he led us along the forest trails, stopping to see a very large Oustalet’s Chameleon. And before long he went off down a side path and then came back to show us the Zombitse Sportive Lemurs.

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

There were two of them, and since this species is nocturnal they were sleeping in tree cavities. One of them was larger than the other, and probably that was because they were a mother and a recently-born baby. Otherwise you rarely find two roosting together because they are solitary animals. We photographed them for quite a while before moving on. Then after a short distance we came across a group of Verreaux’s Sifakas who were feeding on leaves. Luckily for us they were at a reasonable height above the ground so we didn’t have to crane our necks too much. And yes, they had a cute baby sifaka.

Verreaux’s Sifaka

Verreaux’s Sifaka

Farther along we came to a big baobab tree, which was a hint of what was to come. Madagascar has six species of baobab, unlike mainland Africa which has only one, and we would see a variety of baobabs this afternoon.

Twin baobab trees

Twin baobab trees

Baobab grove with Pied Crow

Baobab grove with Pied Crow

We got to the end of the walk after an hour or so, and all of a sudden a Giant Coua appeared in the bush! Our guide had been trying to call one up for the whole walk but it only showed up at the very last minute. We had our picnic lunch at the table by the road before carrying on towards the coast.

Giant Coua disappearing into the bush

Giant Coua disappearing into the bush

The villages up on the plateau had been poor, but the villages down here in the spiny scrub were really poor, and it was very noticeable. The houses in the villages were made of sticks, the fences were made of sticks, and the lives of the people seemed to revolve about getting water. We saw the government truck which comes weekly to bring water to the area, but it looked like it was broken down. When we stopped for a break we talked to some young men who were riding their bicycles 10 kilometers in 40-degree heat to fill jerry cans with water to bring back to their village. Their bicycles had no gears and no brakes either!

Water boys

Water boys

Water brought by zebu cart

Water brought by zebu cart

As the bus went downhill into Toliara the air started to cool down and soon we could see the Indian Ocean in the distance. We finally reached the Victory Hotel, where we would be staying for one night; it was on the main road into the city in the middle of a rather industrial area. It did have a lovely swimming pool, but we decided to have showers instead.

We settled into our room, which was quite nice, and we found that Chambre 20, right next door, had fast and reliable wi-fi. So we took the opportunity to apply all of the app updates which were waiting! Dinner was at 7:30 pm and since there was pizza on the menu we ordered that, just one pizza for the two of us. That felt better than all the large meals we’d been eating on this trip.

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isalo

October 27, 2016

We were up very early to have breakfast before heading back up the twisty road to the main Route 7, on the way to Isalo National Park. Our trip was supposed to take 11 hours but fortunately we didn’t just sit in the bus all day. First stop was mid-morning, at the paper-making workshop in Ambalavao.

School bus in Ambalavao

School bus in Ambalavao

Here we found out about making hand-made paper from the avoha tree. The first step is to boil the bark for several hours to soften it up before sorting the fibres. The soft ones are used to make paper while the harder and stiffer ones are used to make baskets. Water is then added to make a slurry which is spread evenly over a mesh, after which the paper is dried in the sun. Some of it is decorated with the petals of local flowers and sold as decorative cards, which were very beautiful. We bought a book with about 30 pages to use as an album for some of Rosemary’s photos.

Boiling avoha bark

Boiling avoha bark

Decorating cards with flower petals

Decorating cards with flower petals

About noon we stopped at the Anja Community Reserve to watch troops of ring-tailed lemurs. The reserve is operated by people from the community who have protected the forest where the lemurs live; we spent quite a while watching them and they weren’t at all shy. (Of course we saw chameleons and stick insects and so on as well.) Before we left we had a picnic lunch at the entrance to the reserve.

Anja Reserve

Anja Reserve

Oustalet’s Chameleon

Oustalet’s Chameleon

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

After lunch we travelled across a dry plateau and the road became straight and free of potholes, so we really zoomed along. However most of us fell asleep. There weren’t many villages in this area and sometimes there were no buildings in sight. But this was zebu-grazing country so from time to time we passed herds of them along with their herdsman.

Herdsman watching the herd

Herdsman watching the herd

Before arriving at Ranohira we made another stop, beside the road so we could watch the sunset. The view from here was similar to the views from our prairies towards the Rocky Mountains. Paul wandered over to a dry pond where clicking sounds could be heard, and found a small group of Harlequin Quail. We wouldn’t have seen those as the bus zoomed by!

Birding at a dry pond

Birding at a dry pond

Harlequin Quail

Harlequin Quail

Once the sun had set it took another half an hour to reach Ranohira and then another 20 minutes to reach our destination, the Hotel Relais de la Reine. This hotel is rated Top Choice by Lonely Planet in this area and it was indeed very lovely. The staff even came into our room to deploy the mosquito nets around our beds in the evening.

Sunset over Isalo mountains

Sunset over Isalo mountains

Dinner was very fancy, with a choice of starters, mains, and desserts. Rosemary had tomato and cumin soup, which was tasty, but neither of us were very fond of the swordfish. The hotel’s special dessert was Queen’s Cake; the base was a sweet potato cake topped with a gelatinous tropical fruit concoction. But Rosemary wasn’t very impressed by it. By the time we finished dinner it was 10 pm, so bedtime was later than usual.

October 28, 2016

Today we were going to go walking in Isalo National Park; we were up before the alarm went off and got our walking stuff organized before breakfast. Breakfast was really good, with a large plate of fresh fruit, toasted buns, and tea or coffee. We then headed out to the bus and back to Ranohira, where Hery had to do paperwork for the park. While he was doing that we went and bought water, as we had been warned that today would be hot. We also picked up our guide, Fleury, and our cook and helpers.

Swimming pool at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Swimming pool at Hotel Relais de la Reine

Queen Victoria Rock

Queen Victoria Rock

Our day was organized into two parts: first a walk through interesting scenery to a swimming hole and a picnic site for lunch, and second a walk across open country to a scenic gorge and a forest. So after a half-hour trip to the trailhead over an extremely rugged road, we started out on the first part.

Shop in Ranohira

Shop in Ranohira

We climbed 70 meters of steps up a narrow gully until we reached the plateau. Our guide was very good, telling us about the local traditions. The people of the area claim to be descended from the Maasai of Kenya, but on the way to Madagascar they became Muslims. And once in Madagascar they adopted the two-funeral tradition. But instead of tombs, they put the body in a crack in the rocks and cover it with stones. We could see several of those piles of stones nearby. While observing them our guide mentioned that hoopoes were nesting nearby, and as he was talking both of them appeared. So that took care of seeing hoopoes!

Grave site

Grave site

Hoopoe

Hoopoe

We carried on through the scenic rocks with views over more pretty scenery, with our guide pointing out chameleons, lizards, and birds. The day was hot, about 34°C, but luckily for us the wind was cool so walking was pleasant. We reached the natural pool about noon, but not many of us bothered to swim in it. And then a large group of Brazilians arrived and took over the pool, so we departed soon thereafter. Today’s picnic lunch was rice with vegetables and zebu meatballs, a very tasty meal.

Isalo park trail view

Isalo park trail view

Spiky-tailed iguana

Spiky-tailed iguana

Natural swimming pool

Natural swimming pool

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the optional walk, which initially went across a rather barren area. There were so few trees that we couldn’t even hear cuckoos calling any more. But it was now very hot, so it was nice to reach the path which went down into the gorge. At the bottom of the gorge was a forest which had a campground and plenty of wildlife. We stayed here for quite a while watching the Red-fronted Brown Lemurs along with a number of interesting birds. There was Benson’s Rock Thrush and Madagascar Buttonquail and Madagascar Turtle Dove. And besides that there was a spectacular black swallowtail butterfly with white spots which we kept mistaking for a bird.

Benson’s Rock Thrush

Benson’s Rock Thrush

Madagascar Buttonquail

Madagascar Buttonquail

It wasn’t that far back to the bus and back at the hotel we both had showers before heading over for dinner, which was good tonight.

Posted in Madagascar | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment