Saturday, July 4, 2015

More Animals (Yay!) and Andasibe Village.

Awww......A pair of adorable and super friendly brown lemurs.  I wanted to bring them both home with me.

Our afternoon kicked off with having to jumpstart our car!  When Beeo turned the ignition and we all heard the familiar clicking sound of a dead battery.  My first instinct was to get the jumper cables out and find someone who would help us jumpstart the car.  Of course, this is not the US and jumper cables are not a common item.  So, to get the car going, Beeo enlisted the help of his fellow drivers and George to push the car to get it going.


Pushing the car in and our of the place it was parked in was not enough to do the trick.


Luckily, our hotel parking lot is on a gentle incline and there was just long enough of a driveway to get the car going.  Whew!  I was relieved to hear the engine sound up because we are in the middle of nowhere i.e., no gas station around.  If it hadn't started, I don't know what we would have done.


We all breathed a sigh of relief, especially Beeo.  Down the road we went.  Our destination was a private reserve where we would get to see more animals.

We drove past the entrance to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.  A short way down the road, we passed a cluster of wooden homes.  Beeo said it was the village of Andasibe.  Today is Saturday and it looked like the place was hopping with activity.  I made a mental note to ask Beeo to stop for a visit, on our way back from the reserve, if we had time.


Sharp eyed Beeo also spotted a brown colored lemur.  He stopped the car so George and I could get a look at the cute creature.



The sign read *Vakona Forest Lodge* as we turned off the main road onto a road that wound its way through a very well tended tropical garden.  Looking at what was around us, it was apparent that this place was a far swankier accommodation than the more *rustic* place we were staying at.

Beeo parked the car and as he had told us earlier, headed to the main reception building to buy our entry tickets to the private reserve owned by the lodge.  We followed him inside where there was a small fire burning in the fireplace.  A bit too warm for me for a fire but it is winter here and the locals are feeling the chill.  The building also houses the lodge's restaurant, bar and a small souvenir shop on the second floor.  Diners have a lovely view of a manmade pond and if they're not in the mood for food and drink, there is a pool table that they can shoot a few rounds on.  It's a very nice place!

Our reserve entry trick cost 5 euros per person, a pretty pricey entry ticket by Madagascar standards.  I just hoped it would be worth it.

Before we got back into the car, we took a look at the garden.  Right off the bat, I spotted the loquat tree, a sight that I am very familiar with thanks to my brother who is obsessed with both the fruit and the tree.  The tree was laden with fruit but unfortunately, it was too tall for me to pick any :-(


George also noticed a very unusual fruit.  His first thought was that it was a rambutan an indeed it does look like one but I knew it wasn't.  I touched the fruit and immediately, my fingers sank - it was hollow.


I was curious so I picked one and opened it up.  There was no flesh inside, just two clusters of small reddish colored seeds.  Later I did some research on the web and learned that this is the fruit of the achiote (annato) plant, Bixa orellana.  I've heard of achiote (annato) as a flavoring ingredient in cooking but I've never personally used it.  It's common in Mexican cuisine and given how much I love Mexican food, I'm going to have to try it when I get home.


George and I marveled at the jackfruit tree.  He didn't know what it was initially but again, it's a familiar sight to me.  One of my favorite fruits which I can buy at my local Asian grocery store.  It's a very large fruit so I usually just get a pre-cut section.


Beeo drove us through the reserve.  On our way, we passed by a small group of tourists, clustered around a group of fuzzy somethings.  The fuzzy things turned out to be a group of lemurs. Since there were so many people already there, Beeo suggested we head to see another section of the reserve and come back afterwards to meet up with the lemurs.  We agreed so he drove on.

We reached a small building and Beeo parked the car out front.  There, we met up with a guide who would accompany us on a walk through the reserve.   We quickly introduced ourselves and without further adieu, began our tour of the reserve.


The first animals we encountered were a couple dozen sleeping Nile crocodiles.  Thankfully, we were on a dirt path that was located a bit away from the crocodiles.  Only a log pole separated us from the sleeping beasts.  I wonder if they allow guests here when the crocs are awake and active? That would be a scary experience.


There was absolutely no movement.  I wondered if they were all real or if there was a fake croc or two among the lot.



The sign points to where the dangerous crocs are.  There's pole gate to stop humans from walking any further but most certainly it would not stop crocs from coming out.  George asked our guide if crocs escape and our guide nonchalantly responded that they do.  What??  Okay, I had to put that though out of my head as we continued to walk on.  Hopefully, there were no escapees and if there were, they weren't hungry for human meat.....at least not today.


Okay, no crocs, no crocs, no crocs.  Just follow George.

We soon came to stream, spanned by a rope bridge.  I waited for both guys to cross over before taking my first step. Too many people at the same time causes the bridge to swing and I was not about to fall into the water....at least not water where crocodiles swim.  Yes, our guide said there are crocs in the water as well.  I was beginning to wonder about this whole reserve thing.



On the other side of the rope bridge were a couple of enclosures.  One housed a black and white ruffed lemur, one of the more common species in Madagascar.  The other was a double enclosure that was home to a fossa, Madagascar's premier predator.  The poor thing looked very agitated, moving back and forth in the enclosure as well as making his way back and forth, via a short underground tunnel, between the two enclosures.  I'm sure it's well taken care of but I still felt sorry for it.


There were a lot of Nile crocodiles in the reserve.  If you were that black and white ruffed lemur, you could spend your day looking out at the crocs lazing around a small man made lake.

Forget trespassing.


Just when I had had enough of wincing at the sight of the crocs, I was able to smile at the cutest little chameleon on the planet.  I love how his little tail curls around the tree limb!  As I moved from one side to another, so did his eyes which can move in different directions from each other.  A very cool looking little creature.



Clinging on to a nearby limb was another chameleon. Very cool looking as well. 



A small pond was home to a flock (?) of white-cheeked pintail ducks (Anas bahamensis).
Blooming azaleas were another reminder that it is cold weather season here.  I have to admit, I was really surprised to see azaleas in the land of the rainforest.  Presumably, these were introduced to the island.


A grove of very large bamboo plants stopped us dead in our tracks. I have never seen such large bamboo in my life though I know they exist.  The larger trunk members of the bamboo family are typically grown for lumber purposes.


Our guide spotted a bug.  I don't like bugs but have to admit, this one was very interesting looking.

Lots of different types of ferns here.

We crossed over a second rope bridge on our way out of the reserve.




Oh....and of course, we had to end our visit with one last view of a croc - this one was gliding through the water.  Yep, good idea to not rock the rope bridge and fall into the water below!


Back at the entrance to the reserve, George and I stepped inside the main bungalow to look at the skin of a massive croc, hanging on a wall.  I took a photo of our guide before we thanked and tipped him for his services.


Beeo was waiting for us inside the car.  He drove us back to the place where we had seen the tourists and the lemurs.  This time, there were only a handful of tourists hanging around the lemurs so we decided it was okay to join them.  We didn't know it at the time, but we were in for some fun!

From the car, met up with yet another guide who led us down the embankment to the edge of the stream.  There, George boarded a canoe and the guy rowed him over to the other side.  I think it was a 3 oar stroke ride that took about 20 seconds.  I wondered why they didn't simply build a bridge for people to walk over.




With George safely standing on the opposite side, the guide returned to pick me up.


On the other side, we came upon a group of men who were interacting with two black and white ruffed lemurs.  To the joy of the men, the friendly creatures were jumping all over them.  Watching the men and the lemurs brought a smile to my face.  As soon as the men moved on, George tried to get one of the lemurs to hop on his shoulder but no luck.  The adorable animal had no interest in George whatsoever.  In fact, it seemed a bit reluctant to be near George and that made me wonder if George's bright blue jacket was scaring it off.


I just decided to let the cute creature be - taking photos as quickly as I could because these two were really active, barely standing in any one spot for more than a few seconds.


I love the eyes!

The path that we were on ended in a small area where a group of four, adorable lemurs were hanging out on the tree limbs and anything else (oh...say your head, your shoulder, your arm...) that they could perch themselves on.



As George stood near one, the curious brown lemur jumped on to him.  As he moved around George's head and shoulder area, George took a few selfies.  I just chuckled at the sight and from the look on George's face, he was having a lot of fun!


I took a few photos to capture the moment.  You have to admit, that lemur is charming beyond words!


Then, without warning, a couple of brown lemurs decided to make me their perch!  I was surprised at how lightweight they felt.   I had to reach out and gently touch one.  The fur was incredibly thick but soft. They're basically large fluff balls!

As one of them put his front hands on me, I was surprised to feel just how soft the skin was - it was like a baby's bottom.  Our guide had small chunks of carrot with him.  He handed me a piece and told me to just leave it on my palm.  In no second flat, one of the lemurs grabbed it with his fingers.  Oh my God, this twosome was so adorable. I was completed captivated by them.  In my dream, they would come home with me!



Soon enough the pair moved on to another human being and I could switch my focus to taking photos.  This lot of lemurs was obviously accustomed to being around lemurs - I would almost describe them as pets.  As a result, we could admire them up close.  Regardless of the species, they all have that bug eyed look to them that makes them so endearing.

A variety of the species of brown lemur.


Another variety of the species of brown lemur.


I was fascinated by their hands and feet.  The opposable thumb is a reminder that they are primates even though they look like a cross between a small bear and squirrel.


This cutie pie, with the brownish orange patch of head fur that makes it look like he's got a toupée, is a small bamboo lemur, so named because that's what he exclusively feeds on. This fella was a bit shy but nothing that a small bit of carrot couldn't cure :-)



What a lovable face!

We spent quite a bit of time with the adorable foursome.  Then it was back to the canoe and a quick row back to the other side.  I suspect the reason for the canoe is that the lemurs we just interacted with are living on a small island so they can live in the wild but they cannot escape.  This allows tourists like us to be able to see them up close.  If this is the case, I'm okay with not having a footbridge.


It was late afternoon by the time we bid our guide farewell.  He too got a small tip.   Our time with the lemurs wrapped up our visit to the reserve.  It was time to go back to the hotel.   When we reached the road that led to the village, which turned out to be the village of Andasibe, Beeo asked if we wanted to go to the village.   Of course we did!  I was curious.

As we drove along the main road, Beeo pointed out that the wood plank style homes are typical of the ones in the eastern part of the country.  They can only be described as shanty homes at best - most look like they could easily blow over with the wind and I wondered how well they weather through the storms that pummel this place during rainy season. 

I was surprised to see electrical lines running overhead. I didn't see any TV antennas though.  Though it's available, I'm sure electricity is expensive here so luxury items like TVs are probably a rare item here.


Although rain had stopped falling hours ago, the hardpack mud road was still wet.  Sadly, there is absolutely nothing picturesque about Andasibe village.  Although the village was a dreary sight, it was bustling with activity.



Beeo parked the car and headed off in one direction to have a smoke break.  George opted to stay in the car and I went off to explore a bit of the town.   Beeo had parked the car near the village's small central market so that's where I headed to first.  There was not a lot of produce for sale.  I would presume that most families here grow enough to feed themselves and only purchase (or perhaps, trade for?) a few items to supplement.  The produce selection was quite limited but what was available looked very good - very fresh.

The bananas are very sweet and delicious here.

Moving down the street, I didn't get all that far before I saw some food for sale.  It looked like the spring rolls I had before.  Beeo called them *nem*. 

Notice the wok shaped pan, filled with oil,  sitting atop the charcoal fire.  It's how they cook here!  Reminds me of Malaysia.

The nem we had yesterday were filled with pork. These nem were stuffed with vegetables and at 100 ariary (about 3 cents) each, a really cheap snack!  I told Beeo to buy a few for him and I to share.  I knew George would not have any.  Street food here does not exactly meet his standards of food hygiene - who knows what the quality (i.e., freshness) of the ingredients and cooking oil are and how long the cooked food has been left sitting out.  Thanks to years of eating food in remote destinations, my well traveled, albeit it abused, stomach can now handle food like this.


As we munched on our nem, Beeo and I took a short walk up main street.  Popular vegetables include tomatoes, squashes, leafy greens, peppers and chilies.


Not surprisingly, meat is sold in the open here.  Malagasy love sausages and pretty much every meat vendor will have links for sale.  Sausages are generally made from either zebu or pork.


We didn't far before we encountered another food vendor.  My eyes fell on the fritters.  For 100 arirary each, I bought a couple.  They were simple scallion fritters - the very light batter tasted like it had a bit of egg mixed in with the flour.  They were lightly salted.


Very delicious!  I could've easily eaten a dozen of these!


On the way out of Andasibe village, I shot a bit of video, just to remember a little of what this place looked like.


By the time we got back to the hotel, I had less than a half hour to wait before I had to meet back up with our guide from Andasibe-Mantadia National Park for a night time walk along the road.  George wasn't quite up to it and moreover, he wasn't keen on walking along the road so after a bit of indecision, he finally opted out after I assured him that I would be okay on my own.

My guide and I set out with flashlights in hand.  I quickly realized that my LED flashlight was not the right tool for spotting nocturnal creatures.  What I needed was the powerful Maglite that my guide had.

The country road was pitch black dark, nothing to illuminate our way but the light from our flashlights. Everytime I heard a car approaching, I would  head for the side of the road and wave my flashlight back and forth to signal to the driver that something was up ahead.  Once the car passed, we would walk back along the center of the road.

After just a few short minutes of walking, my guide had spotted a small frog.  This thing was so teeny, weeny and partially obscured by leaves, I don't know how he spotted it!  He told me it he saw the glow of the frog's eyes - must have just been two tiny pinhead sized bits of glow!


We spotted a few more colorful, penny sized frogs, on our walk.  It was a really challenge taking photos in the pitch black dark so I pretty much avoided photography unless it was really something truly worth capturing an image of.  Like this very colorful, cool looking chameleon.  It was at least 5-6 inches long from the tip of it's nose to the start of it's tail, which was curled up into a perfect coil.  I have no idea what type of chameleon it is but it stood absolutely still, balancing very comfortably on a very thin branch.  I was surprised it didn't move away under the glare of the flashlight.  According to my guide, the two horns on the front of the chameleon's head indicates that it's a male.


We also spotted a few nocturnal lemurs on our walk.  Actually, we just saw bright eyes shining high up in the tree canopy.  I was hoping we would see bats and owls too but no luck on tonight's walk.

This morning, we saw the largest lemur, the indri.  Tonight, I saw the smallest chameleon.  From head to tail, it was less than 2 inches long.  So cute!  I wanted to put it on my hand to take a photo but decided to leave it be so as not to scare it....though it didn't appear to be afraid of us at all. In fact, I thought it looked a bit pissed at us :-)


Our walk was scheduled for an hour and half but shortly after an hour, the rain started.  I decided what I had seen was enough for me so we quickly walked back to the hotel.  Once again, I thanked my guide and tipped him for his services.

George was waiting for me back in the room.  By now, we were both hungry.  It was back to the Marie Lodge, where we had our lunch earlier today, for dinner.  At lunch, I spotted Beeo having a plate of rice with a side of stewed pork and peas.  It looked delicious so I decided to order it.  George did the same.  Our meal also came with a small dish of pickled carrot and a bowl of what was described to us as a soup with leafy green - it tasted like plain water with a few green leaves added to it. The *soup* was pretty tasteless but the pickled carrot was tasty and the pork stew was scrumptious.  I ate up every bit of the carrot and the stew :-)


After dinner, we just relaxed the rest of the night.  Tomorrow morning, we have to leave bright and early - we have a 3 hour drive back to Tana and then from there, begin our overland journey to the west coast.  It's going to be a very long travel day and I need my rest.

Today was an awesome day!  As I get ready for bed, I can't help but take a few minutes to look over the photos I today.  The lemurs.  Oh my gosh.  I actually saw lemurs in the wild today!  And having the opportunity to see them up close, not to mention serving as a perch for two of them, at the private reserve at Vakona Lodge was a dream come true!  I will remember this day for years to come.

I can't wait for tomorrow to come around so our Madagascar adventure can continue!

Goodnight from Andasibe!