Sunday, July 5, 2015

On the Way to Antsirabe.

This is Madagascar!

After a quick visit to the Croc Farm, located just a short distance from Ivato Airport, we drove back to Rija's house.

Two days ago, when we arrived, he had informed us of the Air Madagascar strike which had already been going on for two weeks and did not show any sign of ending.


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Update:  July 17th, 2015.   Today, it was announced that the strike was over after union officials and the carrier had signed a deal.  The strike started on June 15 over what workers said was poor governance and mismanagement of the airline, leading to a 65-70 percent cancellation of flights.
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To ensure that George and I could keep with our itinerary, Rija had rented a 4x4 to drive us to the west coast instead of driving.  It would be a 12 hour drive each way.  While I was not looking forward to the drive, I greatly appreciated him proactively taking whatever actions were necessary so that George and I could continue with our trip.  Luckily for Rija, the airline refunded him the cost of our air tickets which he said was pretty much the same cost as renting the vehicle.  I hope he factored the cost of gas in as well.  Rija also told us that the 4x4 rental would only take us to Kirindy.  After that, we would switch over to yet another 4x4 - the one that he had already rented to drive us around the west coast.  I really don't care what care we're in as long as it gets us to where we need to be.

In any case, distance wise, Rija's house is not far from the croc farm but with the bad road and traffic, it did take us quite some time to reach his front gate.

Rija.  I think the hat leaves his head only when he showers and sleeps. :-)

Of course, he was there to greet us.  Waiting for us in his driveway was our red colored, Nissan 4x4.  I was glad to see it there!


We didn't have any business to take care of so while I wandered around Rija's garden, George showed him some photos on the iPhone.  Rija was definitely curious to see how we were faring under the circumstances.

From left to right:  Beeo, George, and Rija.

Rija loves plants and recycles whatever plastic containers can be used as pots.  I loved his hanging soda bottle pots!

As it turned out, Beeo would not be our driver.  Instead, we would be accompanied by a full time guide, named Jean Claude (is that a Malagasy name??) and a driver named Binu.   Once Jean Claude (who looked very Indonesian/Malaysian to me) and Binu were ready to leave, our luggage was loaded up.  Before we drove off, George and I posed for a photo with Beeo.  He had taken very good care of us and for that, we gave him a nice tip.


We bid Rija farewell once again and with Binu at the helm, we headed off!  It would be at least a four hour drive to our final destination of the day, the city of Antsirabe.

By now, the views of Antananarivo were familiar ones.





Our first stop was to get gas.  While Binu took care of that task, George, Jean Claude and I headed inside the store.  I swear.....all gas station stores, no matter where they are in the world, all look the same.  We needed water and some snacks.  George took care of that task.


I was curious to see what was on the shelves and for the most part, the items were similar to what you would in a US gas station store.....down to the cans of Pringles and bags of Doritos and Lays potato chips.  Surprisingly, I did see quite a few Chinese food items....like bottles of soy sauce and oyster sauce.  Who comes to a gas station store to buy soy sauce?


Who knew that Heinz make oyster sauce?  I thought they only did ketchup!


Back in the car, we broke into the snacks while Binu drove.  It was already lunchtime and I was hungry.  I broke into my stash of Kind bars and shared them with the guys.  Those things are incredibly yummy.  Thanks to Pat for introducing them to me on our trip to Central Asia.

It took a while, with the traffic, to finally make it out of town but when we did, we were rewarded with wonderful views of the hilly landscape that is Madagascar.


It was an absolutely gorgeous day.  The sun was out.  The sky was bright blue with a few fluffy clouds floating about here and there.

Our ride was along Route Nationale 7 (RN7), the primary highway running from Tana to the southwest coast.  Overall the road was good - just a few pot holes and speed bumps here and there. 


It didn't take long for me to get lost in my own thoughts.  It's not that I'm unsociable but for some reason, when I get into a car, I just withdraw into myself....unless there's a big talker in the same vehicle.  George has his quiet moments too.  The scenery was so beautiful to be distracted from by conversation.  I'll talk another time.


We passed through many small villages.  The buildings are different here than from what we saw when driving on the east coast.  According to Jean Claude, in this part of the country, the clay is suitable for making bricks so we saw more substantial looking structures here.  And, surprisingly, two story buildings were a common sight.

Another common sight were garlands of corn cobs strung across balcony railings or draped beneath a roof.  Although rice is the main starch eaten here, corn is also popular.



We also passed by the occasional church....usually located in what I would describe as the larger villages.  On our morning drive from Andasibe back to Tana, we saw a lot of people, walking, on their way to church.  By afternoon, there were still people walking about but few dressed in their Sunday finest - church service was long over and it was time to just enjoy the rest of the weekend!


We also passed quite a few security checkpoints.  At one of the checkpoints, Jean Claude seemed to have quite a bit of an exchange with the soldier.  Later he told us that the soldier had expressed concern about George.  Turns out he was curious about why George was dressed in camo clothes.  According to Jean Claude, camo clothing is only worn by soldiers in Madagasar and so the man was wondering if George was in the military.  Jean Claude had to reassure him the George was just a tourist.  He let us pass but it did make me wonder if we would run into more issues later on.  Worse case is we have to outfit George in some local Malagasy clothing.  Now that would be fun thing to do!

It was around 2:30p before we had our next stop - at a restaurant that specializes in serving duck and foie gras.  Foie gras!  Here, in Madagascar?  Why, yes.


Binu parked our SUV and as I got out, I could hear the music thundering from inside the restaurant.  There was definitely a party going on!  All four of us headed inside restaurant.  There was a private party taking place but Jean Claude managed to find us a table.  I would have preferred to eat outside, to escape some of the noise but I think the guys preferred being in the shade.

The restaurant wasn't crowded but there was a singer on the stage and I think the volume on the speakers was turned up as high as it could have been turned up.


The menu was definitely very duck centric but there is no way I can come to a restaurant with the words *Foie Gras* in the name and not have the stuff so I ordered the salad served with a slice of the delicious delicacy.  Yes, I LOVE foie gras.  Sorry, goose.  The three guys all ordered duck.

While we waited for our food to arrive, we took in some of the music and from a distance, I watched a group of happy people take to the dance floor and shake their booty.  Africans know how to shake their booty and they do it very well!

In no time, my salad was delivered and I have to say, just looking at it made me drool.  I also got a few slices of French bread which was perfect for slatering the slice of foie gras on to.

Very, very delicious!!

Although many people will tell you to avoid eating salads, my stomach has developed a cast iron lining thanks to years of traveling to remote destinations.  What used to give my tummy issues no longer does so salad is fine for me.  I don't recommend doing this if you're not a seasoned traveler to far flung places.

When the bill came, I was stunned.  My foie gras salad cost the equivalent of $5 USD.  A steadl at the twice the price.  If I lived in Tana, I would be coming here often!


The restaurant's parking lot backed up onto a couple of rows of pineapples.  There was fruit on the plants but not ready to be picked.  I love pineapple!


Back in the car, we still had about a 2.5 hour drive to go.  I went back to daydreaming and George kept busy checking his emails and chatting online.  Good thing about traveling with IT people - they usually have enough devices with them to keep themselves occupied.

It was pretty much farmland and rice paddies for the view.  The Malagasy use every inch of arable land they can, terracing where they need to.  Luckily, they get quite a lot of rainfall here.







Another reminder that it's winter here.  The day is short.  By 4:30p, the sun was already beginning to set.  George and I kept note of the time as day after tomorrow, we will be going to the Avenue of the Baobabs to watch the sunset.  We want to make sure we're there at the right time so we can photograph the magnificent trees against the setting sun.





It was twilight when we arrived into Antsirabe. The occasional lightbulb provided the only lighting around - there were no street lamps.  Unlike in the US where lamps are both decorative and functional, here it's just a lightbulb, dangling from the ceiling, and it's sole purpose is to light up the room.....it is not there for decorative purposes.


Binu pulled into a small parking lot and turned off the engine.  We had arrived at our destination - the Hotel Vatolahy, where we would be spending the night.  Jean Claude got us checked in and gave us a few minutes to settle in before meeting back up with him and Binu.


Sign in the reception area.  What kind of place are we staying at? 

We dined at a local restaurant, Zandina, that obviously caters to tourists.  How can I tell?  There was pizza and spaghetti on the menu :-)   We skipped over that section and went straight for the local stuff.


Surprisingly, George and I ordered exactly the same thingt - the Lelan'omby saosy malemy be aka zebu tongue aka beef tongue.  Apparently, we both love beef tongue!  (By the way, *Sakafo Malagasy* means Malagasy cuisine.)


So how was the zebu tongue?  Incredibly delicious!!  It had been stewed so tender that you didn't need to use a knife to cut through it.  It was served with a very flavorful mushroom sauce, accompanied by some rice and a bit of veggies. The portion size was perfect to just fill me up but not stuff me.  I left the dining table a very happy patron!


Jean Claude and Binu were sitting in the dining room adjacent to ours.  Had I known the guys were eating at the same restaurant, I would have insisted that they join us.  I don't like eating separate from the guide and driver.  As far as I'm concerned, we travel together, we eat together!

After dinner, Jean Claude and Binu dropped us off at our hotel.  Tomorrow morning, we hit the road bright and early at 6:30am.  We have about 300km to drive to reach our destination - Kirindy National Forest but the roads will not be good so it will be a long drive!

Since we really hadn't done much but sit all day, I wasn't ready for bed when George was.  Our room was very close to the reception room so the WiFi strength was very good.  I decided to take the opportunity to send an *I'm alive email* to my my family and to post a few photos to Facebook.

In the meantime, George decided he needed to use his bolster to build a fence to divide up the bed.  We had been given a room with a single queen bed and unfortunately, they didn't have any rooms with twin beds available to accommodate our change request.  Fearful that I would kick him to death while I slept, George decided the bolster would be the fence.   Hmmmm....no, I think not.  I told George that if he was lucky, he would still be in the bed come morning or at a minimum, bruise free when he woke up :-)

On that note, George says goodnight from Antsirabe!