1. Visa to the Wonderland

He tells plenty of weird tales that no reasonable person could
ever believe. We are certain that the man is a liar and an impostor.
L. Arovani. On the writings of a certain Marco Polo,
who shamelessly claims to be a traveler and a merchant.

Among the many weird stories brought by Marco Polo to Europe, one told about Madagascar - "a big red island in the Southern seas". The origin of the name is still unknown; it could be a corruption of malagasy, the ancient name of the island's people. Arab traders called it Jazair al-Komor, "Island of the Moon". They told stories of elephant-size birds and forest spirits with human souls. Europeans didn't take those tales seriously.

I've been on the road for almost a week, and now all that stands between me and the mysterious island is the long queue at the Nairobi office of Air Madagascar, known to travelers simply as Air Mad. The trip begins as usual: little money, little time, lots of places to see. I would never feel homesick in such an interesting part of the world, but this time I don't have a home anyway. Before leaving the States, I vacated my apartment, rented a storage container and squeezed in my car and everything else. I am as free as one can possibly be nowadays.

"Tickets cost ten dollars more today," says the lady in the little window.


"Our football team lost."

"So what?"

"They promised to donate some money for the development of tourism if they win. When are you flying back?"

"I'm taking a boat, and I don't know when."

"We don't sell one-way tickets. Don't worry," she adds quickly, "The price is almost the same. You are not planning to stay on Madagascar forever, right?" She chuckles. "Five more dollars for insurance."

"What insurance?"

"Insurance of the airplane, in case it falls."

"Get used to it," - says a guy next to me in line, "It's the African way. I hope we get to Madagascar soon. Everything is different there."

I don't mind. A place like Madagascar is not supposed to be easily accessible.

Lemuria of the ancient tales is not far from Africa, but crossing the strait is difficult because of a strong current. The island remained uninhabited until 200-300 AD. When people finally got there, they didn't come from Africa. They sailed from Java or Sumatra in what was the longest mass migration in ancient history.

The islanders still don't want anything to do with Africa, even in southern Madagascar where they look more Negro after centuries of immigration from Tanzania and Mozambique. The difference is immediately obvious. In the airport, you can spend some extra time getting visa, but nobody tries to rip you off in any way. As you walk out into the lobby, you don't get harassed by fifty people shouting "My friend! Buy a safari!" The Malagasy are polite and somewhat introverted.

From the air, the island really looks red, and even the sea around it is a bit reddish due to iron-rich runoff from deforested slopes. You don't see much forest, just fields, pastures, and ravines. Centuries of tavi (slash-and-burn agriculture) have led to the loss of 95% of forest cover.

Before landing I ask the man in the next seat if a car is waiting for him at the airport. He promises to give me a ride to the city. Half an hour later, I walk out of the airport after finally getting my visa and changing some money, and am surprised to find out that he is still waiting for me. Soon I find out why he is so nice: he is a field zoologist. As the car makes its way through the endless suburbs, he tells me some local news.

Madagascar gained independence in 1960, after 65 years of French rule. Since that time, the country was governed by president Ratsiraka. He was not too bad, but he let the infrastructure fall apart, and embellished a lot of money. In 2002 he was finally removed from power. The new president Ravalomanana, a former street vendor, was able to get things moving. The economy got better (until recently, nobody even new there was an economy here). A few officials were fired for stupidity and corruption. In April 2005, the country got a huge loan to build new roads. I got there a month later, but the money still wasn't stolen - somewhat unusual for the region. And the roads were actually being built! Unbelievable.

Ravalomanana is very popular, although not all his reforms are easy to understand. He introduced new currency, the ariary. But instead of using this chance to get rid of numerous zeros which had accumulated on every bill after decades of inflation, he made one ariary equal to just four old Madagascar franks. Apparently, when the French occupied the country in the late 19th century, they replaced native ariary with franks at the same 1:4 rate. Now the old financial tradition has been restored.

My new friend gives me a ride to the southern bus terminal, a large yard packed with minivans. It's late, but I'm lucky: the last bus south hasn't left yet. I can spend the night on the road. Honorary passengers (me and a huge bandit-like man covered with tattoos) are led to the front seat. My backpack and all others' luggage are loaded on the roof. The central part of the island, Haut Plateaux (The High Plateaus), has surprisingly cold climate. Soon I'm freezing. People silently pass me a blanket from the back of the bus.

"My name is Andataratanaka", says the "bandit" in perfect English, "I'm a zoologist. I study flower flies."

Wow! I've never seen so many zoologists per capita. Well, it makes sense in a place like this.

For a biologist, Madagascar is not a large island - it's a small continent. Almost all its plants and animals are unique. And there's a lot of them. For example, the island has 200 species of frogs, four times more than North America.

But Haut Plateaux have been almost completely deforested a long time ago, and there's very little biodiversity left here. You can travel across the golden-yellow savanna for hours, seeing only pied crows, zebu cattle and sometimes larks. Once these rolling hills were inhabited by gorilla-size ground lemurs, mountain hippos and other large creatures. But humans managed to kill them all in a few centuries.

It's a long night drive. The road follows river valleys and narrow streets of small brick towns. Sometimes owls snatch mice from the pavement in front of the bus. Sleepy cows graze on the shoulder. Once we stop on a high pass to stretch our legs. The air is clean and very cold. The sky is decorated by thin cirrus clouds. The moon is surrounded by a bright halo. Exactly midway between the moon and its halo ring is Jupiter. Such a beautiful sight.

A small roadside restaurant. Everybody is given the same meal: dry boiled rice and a tiny plate with slices of tilapia fish. It somehow reminds me of Soviet-era "public feeding system". The drink is carbonated water with syrup.

I feel very stupid. Apparently, I'm the only person on the island who doesn't speak French. I started learning it two months earlier, but in my head it got hopelessly mixed up with Swahili which I tried to learn at the same time, and also with Spanish.

The city called Fianarantsoa is filled with cold morning fog. It looks like all men here work as rickshaws. They rent their carts, and have to get a certain number of passengers every day to pay for the rent. So they get into fights over every person who gets off the bus. They all look malnourished. People say that the life here is now much better than three years ago, under the old president. I can't imagine what it was like. The local word for rickshaw is pousse-pousse.

Thanks to the currency replacement, everything is very cheap. I'm told that it's a temporal effect: the prices will go up in a few months. So far, you can have dinner for less than a dollar. But the food is so bad that you can't eat much, no matter how hungry you are. And I'm used to bad food.

The main mode of transportation is taxi-brousse (bush taxi). Usually it's a minivan or a covered truck, sometimes a bus or a passenger car, occasionally an SUV. Cars are all the same model - tiny Renault 4, locally called quatrelle.

Bush taxis leave than full, which means there's no way of squeezing more people in. This time I have only 50 km to go. But the pavement soon ends, and a more typical Madagascar road begins, so the ride takes four hours.

Parc National Ranomafana is a beautiful place, a river valley surrounded by densely forested mountains. Little blue kingfishers perch on river rocks. Everything is soaking wet from rain. It's supposed to be the beginning of a dry season, but the slopes of the mountains that go parallel to the eastern coast are wet year-round.

This is one of the most accessible parks, so there's a lot of tourists here: at least ten people. Virtually all visitors come to see lemurs. Finding them in the forest can be tricky if you are not a professional. But you can hire a guide for a few dollars. The guides all speak one-three European languages, and know local fauna really well. Some even remember scientific names.

I spend three days in Ranomafana, waiting for the rain to stop. But all I get is five-minute breaks. Wildlife is well adapted to rain and cold: most animals remain active, only butterflies don't fly around much. Forest trails are full of leeches. You have to either cover your feet and shoes with insect repellent, or stop every minute to take the leeches off. Otherwise your shoes soon become soaked with blood and get slippery. Tourists and even guides hate leeches. I find them fascinating: fast, vigorous, beautifully colored. Some even have fluorescent green stripes, like neon fish. Unfortunately, they differ from Asian leeches in that their bites itch a lot.

Terrestrial leeches are one of many mysteries of the island's biogeography. They also occur in Southeast Asia, Australia, and Chile, but not in Africa. And salt kills them, so there's no way they could cross the ocean.

Other forest inhabitants mostly ignore my presence. Each morning the guides run up the slopes, looking for lemurs. They locate them and bring up the tourists. There's a lot of lemurs here: large black-and-white sifakas, colorful red-bellied lemurs, and three species of bamboo lemurs. There are also brown lemurs around the ranger station. Lemurs either move around, leaping noisily from tree to tree, or quietly sit in the rain, chewing leaves and calmly watching me.

Later I managed to see all forty species of Madagascar lemurs, but I still get a little bit startled every time they look at me. They are weird. There is something in their eyes, some forest magic. It's good magic: lemurs are gentle and harmless creatures, charming and friendly. If you follow a group for a few hours, they sometimes get so tame that they would jump on your shoulders and hold your fingers with their soft hands. If you scratch them behind the ears or give them a piece of banana, they are your friends forever. It only works in Nature reserves: in places where lemurs are still hunted, they are so shy that you can spend weeks in the forest and never see one. Nocturnal lemurs are less approachable, but I managed to pet a few. Lemurs have very soft fur, more like down.

You can never get used to them. Every time you meet them, you keep smiling for the rest of the day. You feel like you've met an elf or a fairy in the forest.

I have to mention that there was a case when a lemur bit a tourist. A few years ago, someone tried to drag a sleeping avahi lemur out of a hollow tree to get a better picture, and got bitten in a finger. This horror story is now been told around campfires all over the island. I'll not say which country this person was from.

All lemurs are impossibly cute, but gentle lemurs (also called gray bamboo lemurs) are the absolute perfection in cuteness. They are quiet and shy, and spend most of the day in dense thickets, feeding on bamboo shoots and leaves.

As for black magic, local people believe that it's carried by chameleons. Madagascar is where they have originated, and it still has more of them than all other places where they occur: Africa, Asia and Southern Europe. It used to be considered a very bad omen to touch a chameleon, step over one, or cast your shadow on it. Dwarf chameleons gave people a lot of trouble: they are very difficult to see in leaf litter where they live, so all sickness and bad luck was attributed to having unknowingly stepped over a dwarf chameleon. Now people don't take it that seriously anymore, but a chameleon walking across a highway can still stop all traffic for a few minutes.

Night walks are very popular in National parks of Madagascar. As usual, nights are more interesting than days. People who have traveled so far to see wildlife are mostly a tough lot and don't mind rain or leeches. They are awarded by meeting weird creatures, even more magic than the ones active during the day. Obsessively shy civets, tiny mouse lemurs, crane-like giraffe weevils, frogs pretending to be pebbles, spiders pretending to be flowers, snakes pretending to be lines of army ants, snails pretending to be tree nuts, and the weirdest of them all: sad-faced flat-tailed geckos, so perfectly camouflaged that they look more like works of art. Secret life, mysterious and incredibly diverse.

After three days of rain, my video camera stops working, and my raincoat is covered with mold. I have to buy a new one for a dollar. Back on the road, I hitch a ride with two Italian tourists. They have a rental minivan with a driver. For some reason, renting a car without a driver is more expensive here.

Being a zoologist on Madagascar is like being a geologist on Yukon during the Gold Rush: everybody wants you to travel with them. I spend three days moving across the island with Eric and Francesca. Their driver is a very nice guy, but he grew up in a city and doesn't know much about wildlife. So I try to pay for the ride by pointing out as many animals as possible. The Italians would give me a ride anyway, but I try to be a symbiont rather than a parasite.

This is one of Madagascar's few good roads. It crosses the southern part of Haut Plateaux - the land of savannas, highland steppes, pastures, granite hills and small towns. The air is dry, and soon my camera starts working again.

Madagascar is inhabited by a dozen tribes, all speaking different, but similar dialects. As we move from the land of Betsileo to the land of Vaso, the people gradually begin to look more African. Brick houses are replaced by mud huts, then by straw ones. There are some old tombs, decorated with zebu horns and totem poles, and stone stelae, very Celtic-looking. Christianity here is mixed with traditional beliefs, such as the cult of ancestors and numerous fody - ancient taboos. For example, it is fody to point your finger at tombs and cemeteries, to bring pork to sacred mountains, to swim in sacred lakes, to have sex in sacred canyons. In addition to "federal" fodis, there's plenty of local ones.

Old funeral ceremonies still resemble some traditions of Malaya and the Philippines. Often people are buried in caves, but a few years later their bones are removed, cleaned, wrapped in expensive silks and reburied in permanent coffins. To prevent theft of the silks, the coffins are sometimes attached to inaccessible cliffs. Every seven years, the family gathers at the burial site and gets the bones out to clean them and take family photos. This is called famadihana - "double funeral".

In addition to old villages, there are some shanty new settlements built by sapphire diggers.

The most scenic part of Haut Plateaux is Parc Nacional l'Isalo. Here, the granite mountains come into contact with eroded sediment rocks, some of them riddled with burrows of Jurassic marine worms. Deep canyons shelter dense forests, where white black-backed sifaka lemurs can be seen. On the plateau itself, the only lemurs are catta, or ring-tailed lemurs - the ones most often seen in zoos. They live in remaining patches of dry forest, and move around in groups of up to fifty. Once we saw them in a small cave under granite boulders: they come underground to lick mineral salts.

Other local wonders include piscines naturelles (tiny ponds of clear water hidden among rocks), three-eyed iguanas closely related to some North American lizards, and cute plants called Pachypodiums. They look like bonsai versions of baobab trees with red or yellow flowers.

The road is paved, so we meet a lot of tourists. Most are French, but there's also a lot of Italians. Eric and Francesca try to teach me to identify dialects. Chatting with them is a bit like a game. They speak English, but sometimes they don't understand me, and I have to try Latin or Spanish words. I also remember some Italian nouns, but almost no verbs. After three days, there's a strange mix of Roman languages in my head.

As we get closer to the western coast, open savanna is replaced with dense brush and giant baobabs. Spectacular thunderstorms move in the opposite direction, producing sudden showers and occasional rainbows. The pavement ends in Toliara, a large port city. Modern civilization here is concentrated in the Internet cafe: it is surprisingly advanced, and I copy all photos from my digital camera on a CD there. The city also has a few mosques. Western Madagascar has a large Muslim population, mostly from Zanzibar, Yemen and Iran. They own virtually all restaurants, but the food is no better than elsewhere.

Here we have to part ways. Eric and Francesca have air tickets to the far southern tip of the island (it's not far, but the road is so bad it takes two days from Isalo, or three from Toliara). The driver is going back to the capital. He'll have to go on his next trip after just one night's rest. I will try to go north along the coast. Local people are skeptical about my plan, but making a detour via the capital would take four days, and it's only three hundred kilometers to the next city. The maps show some road. I decide to give it a try.

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