Categories
Adventure Travel Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Dining and Hiking on La Reunion’s Active Volcano

La Piton de la Fournaise

Seriously guys, I’ve already gabbed on enough about La Reunion, but want to point out two more highlights of the trip, Le Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, and a cozy restaurant called Le QG before returning to posts about Madagascar. Next week, look for some colorful photos I’m eager to share depicting the arrival of autumn in Antsirabe (wait, what? Fall? That’s right. Madagascar is not ‘Africa hot’ – as my mom would say – as we roll from April to May).

Hiking an Active Volcano

Plant

But anyways, at the center of La Reunion sits the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and perhaps the pinnacle of its attractions. The tourism board’s website is littered with dramatic black-and-orange photos of the volcano’s last eruptions back in 2007, 2008, and most recently 2010 to leverage this unique geographical feature in creating an adventurous allure to the island. “It’s like a moonscape,” one French expat had described it. Because we didn’t have a car, Chip and I weren’t confident that we would get the chance to see it, but lucked out by tagging along with one of our couchsurfing hosts and two of her friends visiting from France. Once we arrived at the trailhead to get to the volcano, having watched a landscape filled with every imaginable shade of green change to an ominous field of dried, black lava and scraggly plants, I could easily see why it gets so much attention as a tourist destination on the island – It is super cool up there.

A Fog Engulfs Us…

La Piton de la Fournaise 2

Unfortunately, a heavy fog engulfed the volcano the day we set out. Off in the distance we could blurrily make out other hikers on the trail – little specks too far off in the distance to shout out at and be heard – and it gave me the impression that I was caught in some sad, forlorn dream. When we ran into hikers closer up on the trail, they only emphasized my impression – many of them looking grumpy and defeated at how unexpectedly less than pleasant the hike was. I guess most of us hadn’t considered it beforehand, but trying to summit a volcano is clumsy business. Instead of an actual trail, visitors follow a route marked out by white spray paint on the rocks to the top. Small rocks and pebbles make the route slippery (I’ve got the scabs on my hand to prove it) and I never quite felt like I was on a solid, steady surface. Fortunately, a clumsy, rocky way up proves the only danger to hiking La Fournaise.

Wait, is This Dangerous?

Formica Leo

“Can they predict eruptions with enough accuracy to keep people from being on it during an eruption?” Chip asked aloud as we neared the top.

Our hiking partners assured us that yes; the eruptions could be predicted in advance enough to get a warning out. A nearby observatory, the Piton de la Fournaise Observatory, keep a constant watch on volcanic activity using geophysical sensors and have a no-nonsense warning system and evacuation plans for nearby villages. It appeared our only concerns should be tripping and falling – like one French woman who was now shuffling back to the parking lot with a chipped tooth.

“Ahrgg! Are we there yet??” I yelled, too cold, wet, hungry, and sleep-deprived to give a shit about being present and enjoying the physical challenge anymore. At the top, our hard work was rewarded with sitting with a half-dozen other tourists eating sandwiches in a cloud. We knew that we were sitting on the mouth of an active volcano, but appearances alone wouldn’t have given that away. We sat long enough to eat a cookie and left – now with the new motivation of knowing that descending meant ultimately reaching “the best creole food in La Reunion,” as told to us by Chef Fred.

“Pig Intestines, Please”: Lunch at Le QG

Creole FoodWhen we finally did reach Le QG, the cozy, dimly lit restaurant was a welcome reprise from the chill and rain outside. Chip, our couchsurfing host, and I clustered around the wall mounted fireplace in the back sipping Dodos (the local beer) and doing our best to warm up. Fred greeted us in a chef’s apron, an introduced us to the head chef, a Senegalese man with a broad smile and a towering, white chef’s hat. I had hardly finished my Dodo before we sat down and Fred asked us what we wanted to eat.

“Pig intestines, please,” Chip told Fred.

A minute later we could see the Senegalese chef and Fred discussing the order – “really? The American wants that? You’re sure? Well okay then…”

The intestines tasted salty yet full of flavor, but my favorite dish on the table was the goat seasoned with bay leaves. In true creole fashion, they brought out large bowls of rice, steamed greens, beans, and the various meats each of us had ordered – family style. In true French fashion, our host ordered a bottle of red wine since drinking beer with a meal was simply “improper” (this is totally a custom I can get down with). As our last real meal in La Reunion, we went all out, even splurging for desert – crème brulee and something called a “pineapple surprise” – and espresso. I couldn’t have imagined a better farewell meal.

Pineapple Surprise

Slightly tipsy from the beer, wine, and complimentary samples of rhum arrange, a rum infused with different flavors such as ginger, baobab flower, or vanilla, I got up to pay and thank the chef.

“Wait, before I leave, I have a question for you… Degena Wolof?” I asked – which means “do you speak Wolof?” in Wolof. He looked at me for a second then gave me a resounding “Yaow!” before running off around the restaurant shouting “did you hear what she just said? Degena wolof! Degena wolof! Oh my god, did you hear that?” It made me miss how vibrant and outgoing West Africa is compared to the passivity of Madagascar.

“Come back Friday and I’ll cook a big meal for us!” he exclaimed after he finished circling the restaurant in excitement. Genuinely sad, I shook my head and said “sorry, I’m going back to Madagascar tomorrow,” and instead said goodbye, thank you for the food, and headed back to our hosts’ home for a much needed nap.

Le QG Server

Photos: (1) Beginning the ascent (2) A plant on the hike to the volcano (3) On the way down from the parking lot (4) ‘Formica Leo’ (5) Pork and rice (6) Pineapple surprise desert (7) One of the owners of Le QG serving up some delicious food

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

From Strangers to Friends: Making Peace with Madagascar’s Swarms of Small Children

Two Girls

From a city with more dogs than kids

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I lived in Seattle. I will forever think it’s one of the best places on earth, but it is also one of the most childless. Of all the American cities, it has the highest percentage of single adults and one of the lowest populations of children.

In contrast, when I came to Madagascar, there were suddenly children everywhere. Even so, I don’t think I initially drew the comparison between childless Seattle and child-abundant Madagascar. The presence/non-presence of children just seemed like another part of the landscape, and it took me about a year or so to separate this bit from the Larger Picture. I don’t know how it took this long though — I am surrounded by kids here. I wake up to the screams of children outside my door on the middle school compound, I frequently think to myself “oh. my. god. somanychildren somanychildren psfhfdaffffft” This is totally different from my life-before-Peace-Corps. I have absolutely no recollection of ever interacting with a kid in Seattle. I don’t think I ever even saw children on a regular basis. I was more likely to cross paths with small dogs than small humans around my Capitol Hill apartment.

Ohmygod they are everywhere

Given my lack of interaction with kids, their presence felt as foreign to me as everything else when I first arrived. Especially with the language barrier, they just seemed to be these little creatures with snot running down their upper lips, smelling of pee, and generally screaming/shouting/crying. While I was still in homestay, meaning my first month in Madagascar, a group of children took to following around my friend Steph and I while shouting “Stephan-IEEE! Jess-y-KA-KA!” They would then roll around the dirt in uproarious laughter, because of the easy one syllable leap from my name to my name + ‘poop’ (kaka) in Malagasy. I wanted to strangle the little jerks. But mostly, their everywhere-ness made me long for a world filled with small-dogs outside of coffee shops and adults who didn’t care what I did/who I was. I hated being the target of such immature jokes but didn’t know how to respond.

Okay, kids can be kind of cool…

Kids doing yogaInitially, children were, and often still are, just plain annoying. At the same time, they just. won’t. ever. go. away. They are always there, always, and I quickly realized that letting them remain this annoying entity would only drive me crazy(er). The first time I started thinking differently of kids was in the classroom. Though my students are noisy and get on my nerves (there’s just too many in one classroom) I keep myself sane by thinking of teaching 7th graders as a social experiment. Sometimes I tweak lessons from one class to another to test when they best absorb information, or try pairing up a girl with a boy to see which one is more intimidated at the notion.

Further along, I began discovering that kids can actually be kind of funny when the opportunity to laugh with them, rather than be laughed at by them, arises. For example, last weekend another PCV, Jackie, and I wanted to do yoga in a hotel’s garden, but peacefully, not under the Constant Gaze of curious Malagasy. I knew this would be impossible with a group of children milling about nearby but we went for it anyways. As expected the kids started giggling and mimicking us. I hate to admit it, but it was kind of cute seeing them join in, shifting from downward dog to plank, and falling over each other when Jackie and I turned sideways for side plank.

This would be simply unacceptable in America!

This never would have happened in a Seattle park. For one, there aren’t many children just bored and ‘hanging around’. Secondly, American parents would flip a shit if their children went to play with a couple of strangers, no matter how innocent the activity (yoga) or non-threatening the strangers (two young females in workout attire). Thirdly, the strangers themselves might be confused about why they’ve suddenly got themselves a posse of miniature people. It just doesn’t happen in America, but in Madagascar it would be strange if all the children in a 300-meter radius didn’t come flocking to us whenever we (foreigners) did something out of the ordinary.

In short, the division between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ has been blurred for me over the past 20 months. Especially as my Malagasy improves, they more often seem like ‘real people’. Even though they really do scream/cry/shout a lot, smell like pee half the time (Malagasy babies don’t exactly wear diapers), and I question whether I’d ever want one of these ‘things’ for myself, they confuse me less. They’re less mysterious, wonderful to take photos of, and I have a feeling that it will be strange, though quieter, to return somewhere where children aren’t everywhere.

Kid Ballons 1

Kid Ballons 2

Kid Ballons 3

Kid Ballons 4

Photos: (1) Kids playing at our hotel (2) Kids doing yoga (3-6) This is what happens when you give a group of kids a balloon

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

A Malagasy Family Holiday in Foul-Pointe

Beach Dog

Returning to a place in travel carries a comforting sense of familarity, gives us the wonderful opportunity to observe a place without worrying about getting lost, and to grow excited about some hidden gem we get to experience for an unexpected second time. However, it also inevitably urges us to draw comparisons. London in the fall is a totally different world than London in the spring; New York City felt bleak and grumpy under the grey skies of January, but optomistic in the budding heat of May; and in Foul-Pointe Madagascar, a lazy beach town just north of the country’s main port city, Tamatave, I hopped off the bus for the first time in the quiet low season in April, then again on a major Malagasy holiday just after halloween.

The first transformation I noticed was the faces of people; light-skinned Merina, the tribe from the central part of the country, dominated the landscape of the beach. Instead of the one small group of girls with braided hair loudly goofing off in the waves, asking my friend and I if we knew the last white person who lived there as we tried to hold our glasses of rum up high enough to keep out the salt water, the water was filled with Malagasy tourists. Wealthy families from Tana splashed in the shallow waters (since few Malagasy know how to swim), while snapping photos of their children with cell phones or digital cameras. Others camped out on the beach, cooking rice and loaka (the “thing you eat with rice”) to be served on plates brought from home. Some local men, who had traveled from their homes further out in the countryside, had posted up on the beach for the weekend to sell coconuts for 40 cents a piece, hacking the tops off with machetes before handing them to customers.

We were witnessing a Malagasy family holiday, a collection of families who had driven for eight hours to loaf about the beach for a day or two, always cooking for themselves, before returning to the dirt and grime of Antananarivo or wherever else they came from.

Noting the changes, my friends and I headed to our beachside bungalow, put down our bags, drank a little too much in a lounge chair in the sand, then went out in search of fresh shrimp in coconut sauce, that local gem we had traveled some 200+ kilometers to experience again.

The Local and the TouristsMalagasy Children on VacationFamilt Vacation

Photos: (1) Dog sitting by a beached boat at low tide (2) A local pirogue-man watching a group of Malagasy tourists (3) Merina children playing (4) A Merina family wading in the ocean

Categories
Asia In Photos Thailand Travel

Scenes from a Beaten Path: Thailand

Girly, Tropical Drink

The humidity felt like a second skin as my new friend and I sat collecting “Chang” and “Leo” cans on a hostel porch. A strange distant sound interrupted our conversation.

“What was that?”
“It sounded like an elephant…”
“Impossible, we’re in a city.”

Twenty minutes later two men passed in front of our porch, leading a baby elephant by with a blinking red bike light attached to it’s tail.

“I suppose it was an elephant.” One of us said, and immediately the mood felt lighter, as though we had just created our first and only inside joke with each other, that we had just experienced one of those anecdotes no backpacker in Thailand leaves without. It reminded us that we were far from home. Reminded me that I was far from my home away from home. When would either of us ever have our conversations interrupted by a baby elephant in America, Switzerland… or even Madagascar? (And for those of you wondering, no, there are no elephants in Madagascar.) Thailand may have been part of a well-worn backpackers route, and I may love to stick my nose up at the throngs of tourists in Paris, Costa Rica, or Thailand from my seriously un-visited small town in Madagascar, but I’ll be honest: I had a damn good time and took photographs to prove it.

Suhkhothai WatBoardwalk SunsetMangrove ForestKoh Yao NoiFood Stall in Krabi

Photos: (1) Girly drink at a bar (2) Sukhothai Wat (3) Boardwalk Sunset in Koh Yao Noi (4) Signs in the Mangrove Forest (5) Women collecting crabs at low tide (6) Nighttime food stalls in Krabi

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Meandering Down the East Coast to Ile Sainte Marie

Bike MapIle Sainte Marie at Low Season

With the weather getting colder and talk of below-freezing temperatures soon to come near the Antsirabe area, a friend and I took advantage of our Easter break from teaching and headed to the east coast, where the bulk of Madagascar’s rainforests grow. Even with the school holiday, Ile Sainte Marie felt relaxed and empty of tourists as most tend to come for the whale-watching season around July/August. However, this worked to our advantage since it made it easier to haggle down prices and we never worried about hotel reservations. As one hotel owner admitted “it’s 40 euros for a room here, but I’ll take just about anything now since we’re seeing so few tourists.”

So what did this mean for two broke backpackers trying to forget about our unruly middle-school students and take in one of the most cliche-ishly beautiful (but expensive) areas of Madagascar? It meant we were able to haggle down our bike rentals from 15,000 AR to 8,000 AR a day at Randonne VTT, hotel  and restaurant staff were more relaxed and willing to chat, and the beaches were totally ours. The more relaxed atmosphere of the island at low-season made it feel less like a travel destination and more like a place where people live.

Biking South

Our first day. 5:30am. While the air was still cool and the sun was just beginning to come up over the harbor, we set out on our bikes. Rolling south towards the airport, we passed women crossing the road in towels, coming from their morning shower in the sea and families starting their breakfast fires. Small children crouched in rows behind their ravenala-leaf huts, pooping on the beach, and reminding us to be careful of where we swam. The further we traveled, the more life began to wake from the road-side huts, and concrete homes with satellite dishes, reminding us that we were in a more prosperous area of the country. We passed long wooden benches under USAID-donated tarp where old women wrapped in colorful lambas (sarongs) served fresh coconut bread and coffee, until finally deciding to stop at one.

“You live in Antsirabe?” one of the women exclaimed in the usual oh-you-speak-Malagasy-what-are-you-doing-here slew of questions. “How wonderful, there’s lots of fruit there!”

“What about here? Aren’t there coconuts, pineapple, and papaya?”

The woman shrugged. Although the markets of Tamatave and other coastal, mainland towns have an abundance of cheap, tropical fruit, Ile Sainte Marie seemed to produce little itself and import most fruits and veggies by boat from the mainland except for spattering of oranges, bananas, coconut, and a lumpy, green fruit the size of a head known as soanambo. A plant prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, soanambo, or breadfruit, has a starchy, potato-like flavor. Throughout the island, it was used widely in snack breads sold along the road, and even fried up like plantain chips as a bar snack for the gourmet taste buds of guests staying at the upscale Princess Bora resort.

Popping Over to Ile Aux Nattes

Lakanas to Ile Aux NattesTowards the end of our journey, we biked to the smaller island just south of Ile Sainte Marie, known as Ile Aux Nattes. Ile Aux Nattes feels like a more condensed, but less populated version of Ile Sainte Marie, preferring dirt cow paths and wooden bridges to paved roads and concrete. Although the two islands are situated close enough to swim between the two, a quick ride on a lakana, or canoe, only costs 1,000 – 1,500 AR (depending on how good your haggling skills are) per person.

“We wish we had come here first!” we gushed to the South African owner of La Petite Traversee and Lucky Dube Cocktail Bar one afternoon at lunch.

“You know, most people say that,” he said, “and because its so beautiful here, the folks on the mainland don’t like us very much. They’re afraid that if everyone knows how great Ile Aux Nattes is, everyone will be coming here! They’ll lose all their business.”

We understood fully. With a population of roughly 1,500, Ile Aux Nattes felt like we were at the edge of the world, as though nothing else existed beyond this dot on the map. Sitting under the umbrellas at Lucky Dube and watching tourists come pull up to the bar in wooden lakanas (“the lakana guys know to bring anyone who doesn’t speak French straight here — Russian, Australian, whatever” he proudly stated) we plotted ways to stay forever, but eventually relinquished our daydreams to hop the boat back to Tamatave and start the trek home to teach.

Child Fishing at Low TideOrangesShrimp at the MarketWine Bottle GardenPhotos: (1) lakana to Ile Aux Nattes (2) child fishing at low tide (3) beach-side fair in Tamatave (4) pile of oranges at the market (voasary = oranges) (5) fresh shrimp at the market (6) wine bottle garden on Ile Aux Nattes

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Going Coastal in Mahajunga, Madagascar

People on the road to MahajungaOn the Road North…
One of the most incredible features of this country are the drastic transformations the landscape, culture, people, and everything undergo in just a few hundred kilometers. Driving north from Madagascar’s capital, the rolling highlands and boulder dotted landscape gradually give way to forests of palm trees, thatch-roofed huts, bursts of tropical vegetation, and eventually, beach. A few hours into the drive I stop seeing the Asian-featured Merina tribe of the highlands, bundled in sweaters and conservative dress. Instead the women walking next to the road casually drape themselves with loose-fitting lamba, or sarong-like pieces of cloth while their children run around naked or in nothing but their underwear. By the time we reach Mevatanana, it has become far too hot for anyone to wear much more than that. Fruits become more tropical, and at some point I notice the large grass-woven baskets of mangoes, coconuts, and bananas women are carrying on their heads and salivatingly begin to daydream of sipping coconut juice on the beach.

After twelve hours on a bus, we arrived in the muggy, coastal city of Mahajunga, greeted with a cityscape of mosques, a roundabout with one of the widest baobab trees in Madagascar, and a salty ocean breeze.

Petite Plage and Cirque Rouge
On our first morning, we took a taxi-be, or bus, (500 Ariary; 20 minutes) from outside the Hotel de Ville towards la petite plage to lounge around in the ocean. As soon as we arrived, we headed to a French-run restaurant on the beach for beers and freshly caught shrimp the size of my hand. While we waited for our food, a couple of children amused themselves by posing for photos for me and shrieking with laughter as they competed to see how ridiculous they could make their faces. After lunch, we hiked for far too long to see the cirque rouge. However exhausting, meandering around the towering, red rocks made the hours-long trek along the beach worth it.

Returning back from the Cirque Rouge, the two friends I had trailed off with and I re-discovered the rest of our group (who had given up on the walk to cirque rouge) splashing in the waves and making friends with yet another French restaurant owner. Totally unanxious to return to the bustle of Mahajunga’s city center, we hunkered down with a couple of frosty beers again and watched the sun set. From the wooden patio, we could spot groups of local fishermen pulling in their sailboats full of the day’s catch. Chickens and dogs roamed the beach as the fishermen worked, making the beach feel more like an extension of everyday life than an exotic getaway.

La Petite PlageLunch at La Petite PlageBig Shrimp at La Petite PlageChildren at La Petite PlageCirque RougeBringing in the evening's catchSunset on La Petite Plage
Fin.

Categories
Europe In Photos The Nomadic Life

Daydreaming of Autumn in the Tropics

In celebration of the fall I’m missing out on below the equator, here are some photos of autumn in Colchester, England and Lyon, France taken during a trip in 2009.