Friday, July 3, 2015

Madagascar, Here We Come!

At O. R. Tambo Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa

Yesterday, George and I finally left home and began our long journey to Madagascar! I couldn't believe this day had finally come around - it's been months since we both decided to go on this trip.


My journey actually started the day before, July 1, when I left my home to spend the night before at George's house.  I battled afternoon rush hour traffic to make it to George's place just a few minutes after 6p.  I had arrived just in time for dinner.  George's husband, Joe, can cooked up some lasagna served with spears of asparagus.  I love going to their home for a meal because Joe spoils me :-)

Ready to head out!
After dinner, George headed upstairs to pack and I passed the time by chatting with his mom.  George is accustomed to getting up well before the sun rises so tomorrow's 4:45a wake up is par for the course for him.  Early rise also means early to bed so I bid him goodnight well before I was ready to even yawn.

I spent some time chatting and watching TV with George's mom.  She has her own separate living suite in the basement - it's a very well appointed space.

The plan was to leave for the airport at 4:45a for our 6:45a JetBlue flight from Dulles to JFK.  Joe would drive us there as he was also flying out of town, albeit his flight would leave a short while after ours.

I knew I had to get some sleep so I didn't stay up too late.  I bid George's mom goodnight and she wished me a safe journey.  I then slipped into bed, after setting the alarm for 4:30a.

As always, I was awake well before the alarm sounded on my smartphone.  The guys were already awake as well.  I laid in bed for a few minutes before rolling out of bed and getting dressed.  A quick trip to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth and then I was downstairs.  It was still dark outside.  Unless I am going somewhere that requires me to get up this early, I don't open my eyes until there is daylight outside!  Ugh.....

George was already moving about here and there, getting himself and his suitcase, backpack, and camera bag ready for the ride to the airport.

Pretty much on the dot, we headed out of the house and got on the road.  A short drive later, Joe pulled the car over at the departure terminal.  George and I made our way inside and to the JetBlue counter.  We got checked in and got our boarding passes.  It was then off to security - thankfully, a short line.  George went through the TSA Pre-Check line which was surprisingly much longer than the *regular* line that I was in so I breezed through and waited for George on the other side.  A few minutes after George cleared, we spotted Joe in line.  He was going to sit with us at our departure gate until our flight took off and then head to his gate.

View of the tarmac area from the Swissair lounge.
We didn't have much of a wait.  We took off on time and landed at JFK on time.   We had to make our way over to Terminal 4 as our South African Airways flight would depart from that terminal.  George and I opted to walk over instead of taking the train.  It took us about 10 minutes to walk between the two terminals.   In Terminal 4, George was on the lookout for an airline lounge.  He was going to be flying in Business Class as opposed to me who would be in Cattle (aka Coach) Class.  With all the flying that he does for work, he also has Gold Status membership in Star Alliance which means he's entitled to bring a guest in with me.  Today, that would be me!!  Yay!!  George decided to settle for the Swissair lounge so that's where we headed after we cleared through another security check.

It was pretty quiet in the lounge - fewer than 20 people.  By now, it was past 7a and I was hungry.  We secured some seats next to the window and then we helped ourselves to some food.  Nothing much - just some pastries and bagels but beggars like me can't be choosers so I ate enough to lightly fill me.  It was nice to be sitting in a comfy leather chair with a nice view.

On our way to the departure gate, we made a quick stop at the Duty Free shop where George indulged in a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon whiskey and a box of cigars.  As he picked out his stuff, I was wondering what he was expecting this trip to be like.  I can see him enjoying sips of the whiskey but exactly when did he think he would have a chance to light up a cigar??  Hmmm..... 

At O.R. Tambo Airport, Johannesburg.
Anyway, our 11:15a flight for Johannesburg left on time.  I settled into my Coach Class seat for the 14.5 hour flight.  Yes, a 14.5 hour flight.  I was dreading it but what to do?  It's so amazing to think that a carrier the size of the plane we were on (an Airbus A340-600) can easily fly long distances these days without having to refuel.
 
To pass the time, us Coach Class folks were served a couple of meals and some snacks.  I watched a few movies, worked on a puzzle on my iPad, played a couple of video games on my iPad, and slept a bit.  Even though I did my best to keep myself occupied, it still seemed like an eternity before the pilot announced we would soon be landing in Johannesburg.

We touched down a few minutes ahead of the 8:25a scheduled arrival time.  We left JFK on July 2 and arrived into Johannesburg on July 3. 

Even though we were just transiting, we still had to go through immigration - they stamped our passports.  After that, we had to go through security and then it was on to the departure gate.  On our way, I couldn't help but glance at the stuff for sale in the shops.  Lots of really cool handicrafts but now's not the time to buy and here's not the place to buy.  Someday, I will return to South Africa for a proper visit.  For now, I would just be window shopping.

We didn't have long to wait - barely half an hour before we had to board the shuttle bus that would take us across the tarmac to our awaiting plane.  On this short, three hour flight to Antananarivo, George would join me in Coach Class.  Brave man....

Is this what you get in Cattle Class?
The plane was barely a third full which was nice.  George managed okay except for when the flight attendant brought around the snack.  He's accustomed to canap├ęs and champagne; we got a couple of slices of deli meat (supposedly beef) and some potato salad.  It came in a box; not on fancy china.  Brave man....actually tried the stuff that us poor peons get fed back in Cattle Class :-)

Even though we had been traveling for more than 20 hours, I was too excited to be quiet.  Usually, I have an aisle seat but today, I took the window seat.

As we munched on our snack, we would occasionally look out the window.

I was surprised to see how spread out Johannesburg is.  Geographically speaking, it's a large city.  It was also a very arid landscape. I don't know if this is because it's winter now or whether it's like this all year around.  I will come back one day to find out.

Then, land turned to water - we were flying over the Mozambique Channel and the land of Madagascar would soon appear in our view.

I was expecting to see rainforest but instead, it was a lot of farmland.  I read somewhere that more than 90% of the country's original landscape has been slashed and burned for agricultural land.  I guess this is what we were seeing as we were flying over the landscape.  I also noticed just how mountainous the country is and how few roads there were. 

Flying over Madagascar.

I was so excited to flying be here - it seemed like an eternity before we landed.   We disembarked from the plane and walked the short distance to the arrival terminal.  It was a cloudy, cool day.  As the cool air cut through my shirt, I wondered if I had under packed for this trip as I hadn't brought along any warm weather clothing.  I only had a lightweight long sleeved shirt.  If that's not enough, I will have to pick up something in the market.  I'll play it by ear.

First, we had to clear immigration.  On the plane, we had been giving an embarkation form to complete so that's what I handed to the officer, along with my passport.

Then, I got a reminder I was no longer in the US.  The officer, who wasn't really dressed in an official uniform, took my passport and the form.  As he looked at the form, he said something to me but with all the ambient noise around me, I couldn't hear what he was saying so we both leaned in closer to each other.  From behind the glass, I could hear him ask, "Do you have a little something for me?"  Oh....you want a *tip*....I'll just call it that.  I replied back that I didn't have any money on me.  Not quite true but I figured I would take the risk.  The man didn't push the matter and further.  With my reply, he leaned back and I heard the sound of a stamp being pounded down.  He then handed me back the form and my passport.

I thought I was good to go but it turned out he was just a *pre-check* of some sort because the next line I got into led to the *real* Immigration Officer.  This time, there was no request for a *tip* and I got my entry stamp in my passport.

Rija (Photo from RijaTours)
By the time I exited Immigration Control, George was already at the Telma (local telecommunications company) kiosk inquiring about buying a local SIM for his iPhone.  For $40 USD, he got a pre-loaded SIM with 3GB of high speed data.  I opted to not buy a SIM; I will just take advantage of WiFi wherever and whenever I can.  I figure George will most likely be checking his work email while he's here.....something I used to do when I was working as well.  These days, I don't feel the need to be so connected - it's a very liberating feeling!

We exited the arrival area and I immediately started to scan the crowd, looking for someone holding a placard with my name on it.  No luck inside the building so I excited.  I continued to scan the crowd, looking for something with my name written on it.  Nothing.  Then I crossed paths with a man who had a cowboy hat on.  It instantly jogged a memory of the image of Rija that I had seen on his website.  So, I just uttered his name out loud and lo and behold, the man turned his head to look at me.  Indeed it was Rija!

We had been corresponding off and on for months.  It was nice to finally put a face to the email address!

We did a quick round of intros before following Rija to our awaiting car. Along the way, he introduced us to our driver who told us his name is Beeo as in Beeology i.e., biology.  I don't know how his name is actually spelt so I will just go with a phonetic rendering.  Moreover, Beeo is probably just a shortened form of his first name - he's made it simple for tourists to remember and pronounce.

 



Ivato International Airport, Antananarivo, Madgascar.

We piled our luggage in to the trunk and proceeded with our next order of business - getting money!  Rija led us to a nearby building - a small place that housed the currency exchange.  I exchanged $200 USD which gave me just a few bills shy of  658,680.00 Malagasy Ariary. I got my lot in 10,000 Ariary bills. I had no idea if those bills were going to be too large or not but that I will worry about later.  For now, I was enjoying feeling very rich :-)  George converted 400 euros and got 1,332,000 arirary, instantly making him a millionaire!
  
We left the place with our respective wads of bills. Back in the car, George and I were now in good hands and we could just sit back and relax.

Our Madagascar adventure now begins!