Thursday, June 30, 2011

Busy Days in Bangkok

I spent weeks working on my comic book job and decompressing from Africa. I bought shampoo, sunblock, a barrette, oil-free moisturizer, a SIM card, and toothpaste. I replaced my old Naturalizer sandals that had the melted heel from the motorbike exhaust pipe way back in Djenne—and because I was enjoying being tall here in Thailand, I bought the kind with platforms to play it up. I found the motherlode of soap sections in the supermarket in Banglamphu, and was saddened that much of it was advertised as being "whitening." I had to replace everything, I realized, looking at my worn-out clothes. I even went to the dentist, the same one I'd gone to in 2003 and got my teeth cleaned. Nostalgia overcame me briefly when they asked if my address in Australia was still the same.

"No," I said, a little forlornly as Australia had been a different life for me. "But the email address is the same."

Their prices had gone up too, or maybe it's just that US dollar had gone down. I had to pay about twice what I'd paid in 2003. Of course, I paid $13 then for a teeth cleaning and check-up so this didn't exactly cause great hardship.

I finally went back to Corner Hair and got my color done. The colorist matched the tone even without having Redken or Goldwell. I laughed at myself a little for having been so worried.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I Need to Learn How to Do This

I gathered up my possessions and left the hotel I'd stayed in for the past four nights, the first of my scheduled month-long rest stop in Bangkok.

I'd miss the bookstore that sold yummy iced coffee and the street food sellers across the block. Two nights ago, I'd bought some noodles from an older man there. He'd served me with a friendly "Okay, farang, you owe me 30 baht."

But I'd have 40 times the number of street food vendors in Banglamphu, near the backpackers ghetto called Khao San Road. And I'd be closer to the canal (or khlong) boat taxi and the Chao Phraya river boat taxi. The former goes to the metro. The latter goes to the monorail. Connections on Khao San are less of a pain in the butt once you take to the water—that's something I worked out in 2000, a month before I conceived a little project called MariesWorldTour.

And I'd have endless cheap foot massages and all the mango-and-sticky-rice I could dream of.

But nothing had prepared me for this fringe benefit. The elephant towel at my new hotel was so cute I didn't even dismantle it, not for days, until finally I *had* to know how they made an elephant out of a towel.

I ruined it, of course.

But the housekeepers made me a new one the next day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Digs

After my morning coffee from a bookstore, I walked over to the Wat Arun ferry in the blazing sun.

The walk seemed to take a lot longer than it should have as I sweated and baked. Then, on the other side of the river, I couldn't find the Sivalai Place lodging that I wanted to look at. I needed somewhere to stay for the whole month, my month of resting, working online, and catching up in Bangkok.

But I didn't need to find the place I was looking for. A quick look around the neighborhood told me that I wanted to be somewhere more central.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Errand Day

"What? Breakfast isn't included?" I was dumbfounded. I argued. The waiter argued back. But in the end, I was wrong. Breakfast wasn't included at the online rate I'd booked for the pleasantly inexpensive Bangkok hotel. That's a strike against the nice Neung Fakorn Hotel near Wat Po. The breakfast, I mean. Not my inability to read the fine print.

I didn't really want their eggs and toast if I had to pay for it, so I got up and walked a few doors down to an independent bookstore that also sells coffee. Delicious iced coffee for breakfast. Mmmm.

Thais love their iced coffee. It's for sale all over. I took the bookstore's iced coffee back to my room, where I learned that a man in the apartment building across the alley from the hotel loves to vigorously clear his throat in the morning.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Curiosities

Here's a few entertaining things I came across yesterday on Khao San Road.


Yay, fish-y-cure! I love a nice fish pedicure.


Awww, no worries. I won't hurt any dogs. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Arriving in Bangkok

Wow.  A normal hotel room.

I sat awed by the free bottled water, the electric kettle and teabags, the new A/C unit and remote control, the crisp white sheets, the ornately carved bed, and the mini-fridge with the label still on it.

To be fair, it might have just been my jetlag that was awed. I'd been on a plane overnight and been through multiple time zones. I was exhausted and semi-delirious.

Aware that my old standby—the Viengtai Hotel on Rambuttri near Khao San—had worn itself out before my first stay there in the year 2000, I'd dug around online last night while tucked in under many blankets in Johannesburg Airport's Terrylin Backpackers dormitory room. (The southern hemisphere gets chilly this time of year.) I'd ended up booking three nights at Feung Nakorn Balcony, though it was in an in-between area by Wat Po, not really near anything I needed to be near. The TripAdvisor reviews were excellent and the price was right. I was trying to avoid the madness of Khao San Road—I fancied myself past the point where I could stand all the drunken kiddies—but I didn't really want to stay next to a downtown shopping mall either.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shopping for Lemur Lamps


"What do you mean there's someone in my room?" I'd been aghast. I'd only been gone...oh, a week? I wasn't sure.

"We have other rooms," said the hotel receptionist, hopefully.
I hadn't booked ahead. Tana-Jacaranda Guesthouse had been almost empty the other times I'd been here. It hadn't occurred to me that it might fill up.

The receptionist showed me other rooms but they were nowhere near as nice as the one I'd had before.

"Wait, I will call the boss."

A lovely woman runs the hotel, and she was clearly distressed when I didn't like any of the other rooms. She offered me a room with a small balcony at the same price as my old room, but it was in a different section not near the communal table and both the toilet and shower were actually outside on the balcony. I didn't fancy putting on all my clothes just to visit the toilet, though I suppose no one is actually looking up to see if a tourist is wandering around in her pajamas.

"I'll see if I can't find a room somewhere else. I'm sorry. I realize this is my fault for not booking ahead."

Monday, June 13, 2011

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

"Are you sure a taxi brousse will come by here and pick me up?"

The small, winding road in front of Ranomafana National Park was not exactly full of transportation options.

"Yes, we do this all the time," said my guide. I had no reason to doubt him, aside from the complete lack of vehicles.

"Of course, it's a holiday..." His voice trailed off.

Uh-oh.

In the end, we sat with my backpack by the side of the road for an hour, hoping for a taxi brousse to the crossroads town of Fianarantsoa, where I'd transfer for the taxi brousse north. I'd planned to reach Antsirabe with Green Park Hotel's little bungalows and had high hopes for them, given that this morning I'd had an ice-cold shower in the shared facilities at Centrest Hotel (not on purpose) and yet-another-baguette for breakfast. I like baguettes but between the French influence on West Africa and the French influence on Madagascar, I was really at the end of my baguette-tolerance. Don't the French also make croissants and good coffee?

Golden Bamboo Lemur-Spotting

The guide met me at the side of the road, just at the bottom of Centrest Hotel's driveway.

He hailed a local share taxi, which is a short pick-up truck with a covered bed and an open back. People spilled out of the back and sides. I wished I hadn't brought my luggage, but the guide said that it would be easy to flag down a taxi brousse in front of Ranomafana National Park when we were done looking at lemurs. I intended to catch one to Fianarantsoa, where I could switch to a taxi brousse bound for Antisirabe. I had plenty of time and I was looking forward to a bungalow at Green Park Hotel tonight.

We hiked into the park after I paid my admission fee.

Lots of other tourists this time.

But my guide had his ways of finding animals. In addition to trekking far away from other tourists (I hurt for three days after), today's tactics were less nefarious than last night's. He simply made a few phone calls to lemur-spotters, freelancers who roamed the park spotting lemurs.

Using this method, we easily found the golden bamboo lemur.

Here he is.


Here are more photos of the morning's hike.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Banana a Day

Oink.


Oink. Oink.

I looked out of the window of my room at the sun rising over Ambositra's green fields and the distant rolling hills.

No pigs there.

Then I looked out the side window. There they were, having their morning feeding right next door.

Pig sound, I thought, is gentler and nicer to wake up to than is a screeching rooster, which is like the world's most irritating snooze alarm. But then the rooster kicked in too. Oink-a-doodle-do.

I packed quickly, had yet-another-baguette-breakfast, and got out of my room for my day's trip to Ranomafana National Park. Time to see some more lemurs!

Wait, there's one now.

Oh no. That's not a lemur. That's a dog.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Market Day in Ambositra

Ambositra, a village two hours south of Antsirabe, is—according to the LP guidebook—"touted as the arts-and-crafts capital of Madagascar." And there's a Saturday market in Ambositra.

I was loath to leave my comfortable bungalow in Antsirabe, but I had to get a move-on. I only had limited time in Madagascar—it was a miracle in itself that I'd found a brilliant reservation agent named Scott at Continental who had managed to wrangle my Star Alliance frequent flyer RTW ticket so that it would let me go from Cape Town to Madagascar and then back to Johannesburg to connect on to Bangkok. I wasn't going to mess around trying to change dates.

But now that I was here, I was learning lots. Like that I could have taken a local group tour with Roadhouse Tours, canoeing west from Antsirabe, eventually ending up where there are massive baobabs and giant jumping rats (though, as a former resident of Manhattan, I didn't think the rats looked all the big in the photos I'd seen). I'd initially thought I'd take a GAP Adventures trip here, but when I'd called to book, I learned the trip had been cancelled due to lack of enrollment. GAP does this a lot, which makes me opt for competitor Intrepid when other factors are equal. I find this "throw them all out there and cancel half" to seem deliberate and mildly deceptive. (Sorry, GAP. You're less pricey than your competitors, for what that's worth, and your Cuba leader Rodolfo was excellent.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Whirl About Antsirabe

Here's a quick pousse-pousse tour of Antsirabe, Madagascar.



For those of you who cannot view the video, here are still photos of the pousse-pousse tour.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Moving On

"I should have tried to get Guy to come with me to Antsirabe," I thought at I sat on the taxi brousse in the Tana bus park. Entrepreneurs kept shoving the dollar store in my face as I waited for the van to fill up and depart.

"No. No thanks. I really don't want that. Or that. Or that. You again? I promise you that I don't want nail clippers or a watch. Why don't you sell something useful like a lemur lamp?"

But no one brought me a lemur lamp. Instead, they brought me another tourist and deposited him on the seat next to me. I'd been alone all of twenty minutes.

The Stamp Man Works

Here's another look at yesterday's rubber-stamp maker.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Souvenir Hunting

After a breakfast of croissant, egg, coffee, and a glob of sweet milk from a can, I headed out to the Tana ATM (I have a Mastercard-branded CIRRUS card and can only access my account at one specific banking chain in Madagascar) and then to buy a stamp.

Not a postage stamp. No, it's one of those rubber stamps. But here in Madagascar, rubber stamps are handmade and purchased on-the-spot at small tables that stamp-makers have set up on the street. There's a group of them at the bottom of the giant stairs that lead up the cliff from the commercial downtown up to the residential and embassy neighborhood I was staying in.

I chose a stamp-guy at random, picked a sample design, and handed him my words to add to the stamp. I had a few orders to fill for my souvenir program. He had me spell out the words carefully on paper. No point in spelling a new stamp wrong!

The stamp-guy took the sample design of a lemur and chameleon, stamped it on a thin piece of rubber, drew a circle around it with a compass, then went to work with a bare razor blade.

A Crass Reminder

While walking in Antananarivo, I saw this depressing reminder of the poverty of Madagascar and an unpleasant side of international travel.

It's a huge issue on the beaches up north.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Back to Tana

I woke up early so that I could track down some coffee before we started out on our three-hour journey back to Tana. I couldn't figure out how to make the hot water work—oh well, a cold shower isn't the worst thing.

I walked down the road towards Andasibe's center just as the morning mist was burning off the green landscape, and hadn't even made it to the bridge over the small river when I stumbled across a little shack with a Nescafe seller. Teenage schoolkids were buying their coffee and tea in front of me, and they glanced shyly at me before one of them offered to help me order. Pointing at coffee doesn't need that much help but he did make the experience go smoothly.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lemur Island

Back at Association Mitsinjo, the community-tourism NGO in Andasibe, Guy and I negotiated for a car-and-driver to go on an afternoon excursion to Vakona Forest Lodge, an upmarket hotel about nine kilometers away. We certainly weren't staying at the lodge, given that it was ten times the cost of the Mitsinjo guesthouse, but we wanted to visit the grounds.

Because Vakona Forest Lodge features a place called "Lemur Island." That's where semi-tame lemurs jump on your head.

Hiring a car wasn't cheap, but I'd never had a lemur jump on my head before and neither had Guy. We were both keen to experience this unique activity.

"We forgot to buy bananas," I worried as the white 4WD took us along the winding road towards the hotel.

Living in Lemur-Land

Our guesthouse didn't serve breakfast, so Guy and I trekked along the road from Andasibe through the misty sunrise to Hotel Mikalo to start the day. Our guide Dipsi was meeting us at the national park entrance in half an hour, and the hotel was on the way.

Dipsi was there waiting for us, chatting with a dozen other guides that were hanging around looking for work.

"Which circuit would you like to do?" He showed us a map that detailed three different circuits around the park.

"Which one is the best for seeing lemurs?"

After several confusing answers, we learned that the #2 circuit was the best. But #1 and #2 were the same up until a fork two hours in. So now Guy tried a few more suggestions.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Evening Stroll

Darkness falls early this close to the equator, and that's a good thing when your scheduled activity is a nighttime wildlife-spotting walk.

Guy and I met our guide at the Mitsinjo headquarters across from our guesthouse at 5:30, when the sun was setting. His name was Dipsi, or maybe Deep-see. I could remember how to pronounce it if I imagined Samuel Jackson getting chomped by the shark in Deep Blue Sea.

Dipsi led us along the road past the railway terminal and Hotel Mikalo. The national park is two kilometers from the town, but we weren't actually going into the national park, since nighttime visits are forbidden. No, we were walking along the road and then hiking through Mitsinjo's private forest.

On to Andasibe

Drivers and touts surrounded our taxi as we pulled into the open-air gare routiere, and I thought I saw Guy stiffen as I called out our destination.

"Moramanga!"

That's the jumping off point for the local taxi brousse to Andasibe, which would be another hour away after our first three-hour Tana-Moramanga leg.

Now several men tugged at us as we left our taxi, tried to carry our bags, and directed us towards their vans, assailing us in French with (presumably) tales of their vehicle's superiority.

I gleefully waded in. This is where I'm in my element, when touts with senses of humor are sportingly competing for attention, trying to sell their product along with cheerful acceptance when the other guy wins.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Still Nervous in Tana

I talked to Guy and a German man over Tana Jacaranda's "American" breakfast of croissant, eggs, coffee, and a glob of condensed milk from a can, in the sunny common area right outside my large room. Both Guy and the German were in two of the simple-but-decent single rooms with the shared bath.

The German rattled on, advising us to to take various trains and canoes—he'd been on a small guided group trip and was about to switch to a second one. He was a walking encyclopedia of information about Madagascar—he even told us there was such a thing as a giant jumping rat on the west coast—and both Guy and I made poor showings in comparison. Guy had been studying for exams and hadn't even had time to get a guidebook or a camera storage card before leaving Cape Town, and I had an old Lonely Planet that I hadn't yet read.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Landing in Tana

4 a.m. taxi to Cape Town Airport, heading to a connecting flight in Johannesburg.

Ugh. 

As soon as I got to the airport and checked my bag, I headed straight to Mugg & Bean for a "bottomless" coffee.

I hadn't managed to get to sleep early last night, between packing and remotely working at the comic book factory. I'd slept a few hours, then dragged myself out of bed at 3. I'd thought I was doing pretty well until I left my room, crossed the street, and tried to buzz myself into the main building at Cape Town Backpackers.

I couldn't get in. What? Oh hell. The gate was bolted from the inside. I could see the security guard's chair and folded-up newspaper. But where was the guard?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two Rainy, Touristy Days at the Bottom of Africa

"Should have gone up Table Mountain when I had the chance," I grumbled to myself as I contemplated the bleak weather forecast.

Rain, wind, rain. And chilly! I shivered at night under a thin comforter, wore my fleece to bed, wrapped my toes in a towel. There was no heater in my room at Cape Town Backpackers.

I thought about doing a shark dive, but I couldn't sort out the ethics. Are shark dives okay? Are they not okay? They're certainly cheap enough in Cape Town. But is it acceptable to chum to attract sharks, to associate them with humans? What I needed was an expert.