Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Antsirabe to Ranomafana

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We had another driving day, moving from Andasibe-Mantadia to Antsirabe, a large city where we’d spend the night before continuing to Ranomafana, our next wildlife destination.  As with every other drive, the scenery was ever-changing and beautiful. 

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However, before we left, we asked our host, Henriette, if we could have a picture of her.  She was one of the most engaging, concerned hosts we met in Madagascar. She had a lovely smile and a contagious giggle, which she wasn’t stingy with. She also wasn’t stingy with her fruit. When she found out that guava was Lana’s favorite juice, she gave us a whole sack full of guavas, and told us to pick any cherry guavas we wanted on our way to our car.  She asked us to email her a copy of the photo—something many people mentioned to us when we asked permission to take their picture. We sent her an email, but never heard back from her; we hope she got it!

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After driving through the outskirts of Tana, we continued south, and around noon, stopped at a restaurant on the side of the highway, in Behenjy.  We’ve since learned it’s reasonably famous.  Neither of us detests foie gras, but we don’t like it enough to center a meal around it.  We had smoked pork and rabbit stew instead, and both were amazing, though the $6 bill was nearly as amazing.  For dessert, Dorique had arranged for the kitchen to clean and prepare some persimmons we’d bought at a road-side stand in the morning, along with some fresh guavas Henriette had given us after breakfast.  It was one of the best and most memorable meals we had.

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As we drove further south, we saw a number of herds of zebu, being driven towards market, somewhere (likely Antsirabe).  The ranchers in each village often cooperate and, while some keep an eye on the herd, the others will walk ahead and prepare camp and dinner for the night.  Sometimes they will spend 3 weeks on the road before they reach the market. 

After passing through a larger village, Ambatolampy, Dorique stopped at a road-side stand just outside town, and bought some cheese for a friend in Ranomafana (who would also be our local guide there).  We asked what kind of cheese it was, and he thought about it before answering that it was a farm cheese, and soft.  He asked if we’d like to buy some—for about a dollar we got two 6” diameter, 1” thick rounds, with a pliable white rind.  We were excited to try it, but that would have to wait.

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We reached Antsirabe in the early afternoon; the town was busy with a parade for Labour Day, which they celebrate on May 1st.  It was the first city in Madagascar where we were encouraged to walk around by ourselves (so much for Shielo’s warnings about the dangerous South).  It was delightfully cool and dry (high in the hills), and it was a very pretty city.  It is the third largest in Madagascar, at around 200,000 people.  We were also impressed by the poinsettia, which dwarfed this 6 foot tall brick wall.

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The primary way to get around town was in rickshaws, though walking and bicycling were also very common.  We walked lazily around town being followed by two ever-hopeful rickshaw men (apologies for the blurriness; it was dusk).

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The bicycles in Madagascar appear to have been shipped into the country, and resold.  They’re mostly late 80s and mid-90s mountain bikes, though there are some French road bikes as well.  An unusual number of them have bar-end grips—the ones that were very popular in the US in the 90s.  The bike below particularly caught my eye—not just because it has disc brakes, but because it’s been modified to use them on a frame that lacks disk mounts—each brake caliper uses one fender/rack mount, while the other bold is attached to a handmade bracket wrapped around the frame.  Clever!

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The next day, we continued on south.  As we drove through the countryside, we saw lots of groups of people heading toward a town, in the same direction we were headed.  Dorique told us it was market day in a town up the road, and he asked us if we wanted to see the market. He dropped us at a dirt road that led into town, and said he would pick us up at the other end—the highway curved around, bypassing the town’s main street.

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Never in our our travels have we felt more foreign. It wasn’t just that they stared at us, but their gazes were palpable. Not malevolent—it wasn’t a frightening experience, but everyone we saw was incredibly, intensely curious.  The children were particularly bold in their curiosity, and many waved at us, or returned our “salama” when we made eye contact with them.  Neither of us had any idea when he mentioned the side-trip that we’d be walking through the market without Dorique, but it was an excellent idea.  Walking with an escort is just a different experience, and we’re glad we were able to see this town with just our own eyes, and greetings.

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We ate lunch in a town renowned for marquetry.  One of the shops had a number of Tintin covers cut intricately into wooden boxes.  Sadly, Tintin in Madagascar has never been published; we would love to see that issue.

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That evening, when we reached Ranomafana, we finally tried the cheese we’d bought by the road; it was similar to edam, and very good.  It accompanied our dinner nicely.  After two relaxed days of driving, we were excited to hike into Ranomafana National Park, one of the most well-known parks in Madagascar. We weren't sure what we'd see, but so far no place in Madagascar had disappointed us.