Monday, 21 June 2010

new blog!

If you're still subscribed to this blog, you'll have noticed that I haven't posted anything for a while. this is because I'm a) now back in the UK and b) busy with being a freelance writer. you can continue to follow me on my new blog and website which is:

This week's blog is on bike week:

Monday, 22 September 2008

In which ruth eats a birthday lunch of rice and beans and takes public transport

In most countries, a fully operational website, along with up-to-date calendar and booking system is usually a sign that a company is operating fully. Not so in Madagascar. We turned up to the 'bus stop' of the Madabus company on Monday 1st September to find that it was no longer in existance and had not been for the past few months at least. But that was okay. We've been in Madagascar long enough to know that wherever there is a plan A, there must also be a plan B, plan C and plan D.

We put plan B in operation. This consisted of turning up at the 'taxi brousse' station in Tana and being mobbed by people trying get us to use their bus. Confused by the melee, we paid way over the odds for a seat on a bus going to Tamatave which would drop us off right by our hotel in Andasibe. Apparently. We were assigned seats and then waited on the street for the bus to fill up with passengers. This taxi brousse station was less like a bus station and more like a bunch of minibuses parked on either side of the road while the ordinary traffic continued on its way on the main road. Vendors wandered around each selling just a few - apparently random - items, offering out a bunch of sunglasses or a hair straightener towards us hopefully. When added all together in list form it began to look like some sort of conveyor belt of prizes on "The Generation Game" (the seventies version with Bruce Forsyth).

There were (not in order of being offered them); Oranges, baseball caps, hair clippers, sunglasses, torches, watches, sausages, screwdrivers, dvds, wallets, pens, batteries, hair conditioner, nail polish, garlic, hair straighteners, tool set, photo album (with photo of half naked blond white girl on the front), 6-gang plug, cd cleaning kit, knife, football on a strong, pliers, weighing scales, plastic clothes pegs, lanyards, mobile phone covers, bed covers/sheets, mirrors, biscuits, cakes, pants (underwear), socks, belts, combs, breadsticks (baguettes), brooms, moisturiser, tape measure, protractor set, deoderant, malagasy newspapers, flexible fabric bandages, an electric toothbrush (singular), calculators, small mp3 players and of course, just like the generation game, the obligatory "cuddly toy". In this case, pink and blue hideous monstrosities.

The journey itself was fairly painless. We set off about two hours after arriving at the station and continued more or less at a steady pace on the first fully tarmac'd road we've seen in... Well, our whole time in Madagascar actually. We made a pee stop after about 2 hours - all the men on the right hand side of the bus, all the women crossed the road and peed on the left. I did not need to go. During this time, Justin checked with the driver that he could drop us off at the hotel. He looked bemused at the very idea, shook his head and agreed instead to drop us off at the turnoff to the village of Andasibe.

Luckily, the hotel we'd booked into was less than five minutes away from this turnoff and we were happily resident in our wooden bungalow overlooking the forest and river by lunchtime.

Andasibe is three hours from Tana and is next to the Perinet national park, probably the most visited national park in the country. It was a huge contrast to our experience of travelling in the west. All the hotel staff spoke English, the place was full of tourists and there were even a few veggie options on the restaurant menu.

We did a circuit in the Perinet national park the following morning. The main attraction of this national park is the Indri Indri - the largest lemur in Madagascar. It looks, says Hilary Bradt (guide book guru) like a cross between a panda .... It is known for its singing - a sound we'd earlier had heard from our hotel. The Indri does not chatter like some lemurs. Instead it sings. Though that's a generous word for what sounds like a cross between a police siren, whale song and a hyperactive child who's just discovered how to use the theramin (weird musican instrument popular in the 60s and used by the Beach Boys).

During our 3 hour circuit, we came across two sets of Indri families and heard (and saw) one sing its heart out. We shared each Indri sighting with more tourists than we'd seen for our whole time in the west of the island. We also saw a family of diademed sifakas, some 'common' brown lemurs (not sure how they feel about being called common) and three woolly lemur asleep in the trees. It was exciting to see them all, though it did feel like being in a lemur theme park rather than any kind of wilderness.

Our night walk that evening was a lot more satisfying. We did not share this experience with any other tourists and our guide not only spoke better english than the guide we'd used in the morning, but also understood and laughed at one of Justin's jokes. He had the most amazing eyesight - and a very good torch - and found us two mouse lemurs (oh so cute), a tree rat (also quite cute) and three different kinds chameleons, including one that was the size of my forefinger. We were most excited by all of these sightings as we've not seen that many reptiles. We were especially excited by the 'leaf-tailed gecko' which was kind of cool as well and had an excellent latin name as well - the "europlatus phantasticus".

We did another circuit the following day with the same guide. This was in Mantadia national park which was not only a bigger national park than Perinet, but contained fewer tourists and primary rainforest. We saw less wildlife, but it didn't matter as I was endlessly fascinated by the mosses, ferns, lichen and huge trees that we saw there. We did come across a family of diademed sifakas though, so there was some primate action.

National parked out, we ended up leaving Andasibe a day earlier than planned on my 38th birthday. We might have stayed longer but the food in our hotel was particularly bad, the desserts limited and the wine Malagasy (ie awful) and so we decided to move onto Tamatave in the hope of better food, extensive desserts and decent wine.

I therefore spent the majority of my 38th birthday at the back of a very cramped taxi brousse. We had to get one taxi to the town of Moramanga. This was a very old school bus type of affair with the muscliest driver ever. At Moromanga, we only had to wait about 2 hours before leaving in a minibus which would take us all the way to Tamatave. We were not overcharged this time. We had the back seats and the journey was fairly uneventful if a little stinky. I stuck my head as close to the open window as I could, choking only slightly on the exhaust fumes.

We made two pee stops and one lunch stop at a town with many fruit and vegetable stalls and a 'tex mex' restaurant called Fantasia. We ate at a Malagasy hotely and I celebrated with a birthday lunch of... Rice and beans of course. A bargain at only 50p.

We finally arrived in Tamatave at about 4.30 and made our way to the one of the poshest hotels there. They had room for us for only one night but by this point, I didn't really care. I just wanted a wash, a decent bed and a glass of white wine. which is happily, exactly what I got. The food at the restaurant was excellent, the dessert -ice-cream - delicious and the wine, South African. Afterwards, Justin finally gave me my presents (three Malagasy themed items) and I fell into bed.

We'll be a few days here in Tamatave. Plan A was to head south down the canal system of Pangalanes and stay at a lake there. However, nothing is as easy as it appears from reading the guide book and also all hotels are booked up or their phone numbers no longer work. Instead I think we're going to fall back on plan B (again) which is to head to Isle St Marie earlier than planned and spending the rest of our Malagasy adventure sipping rum coco and snorkelling with the fishes.

Written on 5th September

Sunday, 31 August 2008

lemurs, birds and snakes! oh my!

The drive up to the Tsingy national park wasn't as tough as we'd been led to believe. We were told that the road was terrible, but in fact as it was actually a single track route that was pretty smooth, it was a vast improvement over the Morombe to Belo route. We even managed to hit about 70mph for a few minutes on a couple of sections. Like our other 4x4 journey, we passed through a variety of landscapes including the famed "Avenue of the Baobabs" as well as grasslands, dry deciduous forest and dried up rivers (it's the winter/dry season right now). There were also a few rural farmed areas (rice paddies mainly) and small towns and settlements. When we passed them, instead of being greeted by the children with "salama fazahar", they ran towards the road waving and calling out "eau vivre" in chorus or on a copule of occasions, "cadeaux" or "bon bon". This route clearly sees many tourists.

"Eau vivre" by the way is a plea for our empty water bottles which are reused as vessels for carrying all manner of liquids, candle holders or made into toys by the children.

Along the road we'd pass the occasional zebu cart - the local methods of transport. Most of the women that we passed had a straight posture and were carrying buckets or shopping bags on their heads. The men that we passed were rarely - if at all - seen without a tool of some sort. Whereas near Andavadoaka it was usually an axe, in this region it was more likely to be an "?" shaped blade on the end of a stick, a spear or an axe. You wouldn't want to mess with any of them. But then again at least if you broke down in the vicinity of one of these guys, there'd be available tools for repairs.

The Tsingy National Park exceeded all my expectations. Words really can't do this sort of vast scenery justice, so I'm not even going to try. Okay, well just a little bit. I'll start with a brief explanation of the landscape. The Tsingy is Malagasy for "walking on tiptoe" because the first settlers in the region collected honey and the only way to walk on the spiky limestone rock was on tip toe. Tsingy is the name for the limestone rock - ancient coral reefs - which now rise up from the forest like spiky skyscrapers as a result of tectonic movement millions of years ago. Because of the acidity of the rain, these limestone formations are constantly changing as the rock is eroded by the rains each year. Our leaflet describes the Tsingy thus: "from a very thick system of faults, cracks, calcareous blocks areas sculpted in sharp blades or needles". don't know if that helps you imagine it or not. Probably not. Certainly, nothing I'd read about really gave me any idea of the vastness of this landscape, nor how dramatic it would actually be to be in amongst it.

We did four different 'circuits' altogether over our three days there plus a short gorge trip on a pirogue. Our guide for all trips, Narciss, was extremely knowledgeable and hugely enthusiastic about all things Tsingy - animate and inanimate - and I learnt a lot. He was able to identify all the birds by their calls alone, and once he'd heard a bird, would get out his binoculars and search them out for us. We saw over 20 different species including four different kinds of raptors. We also saw three different kinds of lemur - in the forest and climbing on the Tsingy and startled one group of grey bamboo lemurs who were hanging out right by the path we were walking on. We also surprised a snake on our very first walk which made me jump just a little.

All of our circuits took us into the forests and we were able to see the Tsingy from all angles. From the side from the forest, from the ground, as we sidled in between the cracks, from underneath in the caves and caverns and from the top after clambering and climbing up rocks, ladders and across suspension bridges. We had climbing harnesses which I was exceedingly grateful for at times, especially as we teetered precariously over huge drops, deep crevices and jagged rocks. I loved every moment of it. I especially loved the different formations of the rocks, seeing the massive roots of all the different trees and seeing how the rain had affected the limestone in the caves.

After three days and four hikes in the Tsingy, it was time to move onto another national park - the Kirindy Forest - which was on our way back to Morondava. Our accommodation was more basic and in the forest. We were underwhelmed by our night walk even though we did see a couple of kinds of lemurs including a cute mouse lemur. However, our day walk the following day was much more exciting as we had several encounters with families of lemurs - two kinds - and I was astounded to find on a number of occasions that my zoom lens on my camera was just too zoomy - we were too close! We also saw more birds but only two kinds of lizards. It's the wrong season for reptiles apparently - so our snake sighting was especially lucky it seems.

And now, after arriving back in Morondava, we had a couple of days to chill out before hopping on a short (one hour) flight to Tana. Tomorrow we head east for some more national parks and hopefully more birds, lemurs and maybe some reptiles.

Favourite photograph that I didn't take: Woman in the town of Belo Sur Tsirinbina carrying a sewing machine on her head! She had rather a huge bottom, so I think that helped counter balance the weight of the old-style Singer sewing machine.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

It depends on the wind - part two

It's been a very Malagasy first week to our holidays.
We'd wanted to do some diving after the volunteers left, but the winds were way too strong to go diving.

In the end, we spend our remaining time in Andava packing up and handing over things to Axelle. We finally left Andava on Tuesday 12th August in one of Ilias's 4x4s. There was hardly anyone left on site to see us off, though all of the Coco beach staff did come down to wave goodbye. The first stop on our trip was Morombe - an extremely laid back town to the north of Andavadoaka. Laid back is an understatement in fact. It's possibly the deadest town I've ever visited. But that was okay we thought as we only intended to be there a night. The first choice for our exit strategy was a plane - expensive but quick. Ilias offered to book us seats, but that afternoon we got a message to say that planes from Morombe were still cancelled. Our second choice, to leave by boutre, looked extremely promising however as Jean from Andava - in Morombe visiting family - managed to find us one that was leaving the next day. I had mixed feelings about the boutre. Yes it was cheap. Yes it was 'romantic' and yes it was adventurous. But it was also unpredictable and the toilet options were minimal. Well, non-existant. Still, I thought, how hard can it be to pee over the side of a boat?

It all seemed too good to be true - the boutre was leaving the next day and we were on it. We left the hotel at 5am Malagasy time (ie 6.30am) and Jean and two crew members carried our luggage through the town to the north end of the beach. I can report that Andavadoaka's poo beach is not the only one in Madagascar. Morombe has one too. Anyway, the smallest rowing pirogue in the world took our luggage onto the boat and we followed behind in an even smaller pirogue. We arrived on board at about 7.15am to find the boat full of passengers. About 30 in total. There wasn't much space and there was even less privacy. What reservations I had about boutre toilet arrangements were multiplied as I realised that there was no where on the boat without onlookers. Peeing over the side of the boat was one thing but to do so with an audience was another thing entirely.

As is the way in Madagascar, after plenty of waiting around, suddenly there was a frenzy of activity with a sense of urgency as the anchors were pulled up (they took half an hour to get on board) and the sails were erected. We finally left Morombe at 9.50 and set sail for Morondava and Belo Sur Mer. The wind was not ideal. Some might say that it was bad. In fact, someone did say it was bad, but the captain seemed to think it was worth trying anyway. We'd been shown into the captain's cabin, a tiny wooden box on the top of the deck. We shared it with a woman (the captain's wife I presume) and three or four children as well as lots of bags. We dozed on and off and ate some rice and fish prepared on board.

The sandy coast went past the window to our right as we sailed north. Though there were no engines on board, it wasn't that peaceful due to the plink plonk of the homemade Malagasy guitars which were attacked by the children. The boat tacked a few times and the noise of the crew above our heads was pretty loud too.

Still, the motion of the boat was pleasant and I was sort of excited about the journey, though anxious about what I would do when I finally needed to pee. At 1.30, the coast appeared through the left window. I'm no whizz with direction, but even I knew that meant we'd done a 180 and were heading back to Morombe. The captain had decided that the wind was too bad after all and so we'd anchor in Morombe and set off again at midnight. The idea of going all the way back to Morombe and starting all over again the next day pretty much floored me. At this rate, it could take us a few more days - and we still might not get anywhere.

A few phone calls later and we'd made other arrangements for transport. Back in Morombe, the tiny pirogue was lowered into the water from the boutre and we departed with our bags precariously perched across it, waving goodbye to the passengers and crew. Justin had tried to get some of our money back from the captain but he just looked frightened and explained that he'd already spent the majority of it on food. Our boutre journey was over somewhat prematurely - and had turned out to be quite a pricey day out which I would have enjoyed more had I known it was to be our only day out on the boat.

The adventure did not end there. Oh no. One of Ilias's friends came to the beach to pick us and our bags up and promptly got stuck in the sand as it was not a 4x4 and not made for sand. We were another hour on the beach with about 20 vezo men and children trying to push it out of the sand. Muscly though the vezo are, even they could not shift it and it needed the help of a 4x4 to pull it before it shifted. We finally arrived back in the same room of the hotel Baobab less than 12 hours after we had left it.

We finally managed to properly leave Morombe on our second attempt (third if you include the plane that didn't get booked) only 8 hours later than planned. We'd booked a 4x4 through Ilias to leave at 8am the following day after the aborted boutre journey. At 9.30 (which is approximately 8am Malagasy time) the car had still not turned up. Nor at 11. Nor at 1. Leaving Morombe was proving to be harder than it sounded. After lots of reassurances and blatant lies from the hotel staff, the car finally turned up at 4pm that afternoon with Patrick, Ilias's driver, smiling broadly at us. The staff advised us to wait for morning but I was worried that the invisible forces that had so far kept us in Morombe would strengthen overnight and we would not manage to leave at all.

We waved goodbye to Morombe with no tears at 5pm and drove for 3 hours through the most spectacular scenery until we got to a town called Ambiky. The drive really was incredible - with huge monster boababs lining the road and a rainbow over forest in the distance. I say road, but for most of the journey that would be a generous description for what was actually just an absence of vegetation. The journey was uncomfortable and violent as a result and it felt like a cross between being in a carcrash and being on a rollerocoaster. I did not mind. At least we were going somewhere.

We ate a lovely local meal (beans and rice. Hoorah) and then bedded down in one of Ambiky's 'hotels'. I don't think many tourists stop through the town. The hotel owners initially showed us a barn with no furniture in at all, but when we seemed unphased by the prospect of sleeping there, they relented and offered us a room with an actual bed in it. Justin erected our mosquito net and I was shown the bathroom which turned out to be a small room with a bucket of water in it. No toilet bowl. No hole to pee down, just a tiny hole in the back of the back wall where the pee was supposed to drain. Only apparently it hadn't drained for a while and there was a big puddle of pee towards the back of the room. Still, at least it was private.

We set off on the final leg of our journey to Belo sur mer at 6am the following morning. We stopped off for bok bok and coffee at 9 and then in a town called Manja for lunch before arriving in Belo at 5pm. The journey was as spectacular as it had been the day before and we drove through quite a wide variety of habitats on the terrible 'road'. Children in small villages ran out, singing "salama fazahar" in unison when we passed. My favourite image of the day however was not the huge towering boababs shrouded by mists in the early morning. Nor the two young zebu herders crossing the river while holding their clothes above their heads to keep them dry. Nor was it the village meeting in one of the farming villages. It was the sight of a naked man who was sat on his own in one of the rivers eating a french baguette grinning hello to us as we passed.

So... We finally arrived in Belo sur mer, optimistic and excited. We'd planned to do some diving there and visit a national park as well. I was initially disappointed to find that the diving centre was not sending out dives because the diving manager was on holiday. However, due to my divemaster status, Stephane, the hotel manager (who knew of Blue Ventures) agreed that we could rent out the boat for a day to go diving. Sadly, it was not to be. Monday dawned with a southerly wind and Stephane advised us that the visibility would be too poor and it wasn't worth our while.

Meanwhile lots of investigation over our first two days had finally rewarded us with a booking for a local guide to take us to a national park and we booked it for Tuesday. That day dawned with another southerly wind which the pirogue could not sail against to take us there. And so that too was cancelled. In the end, we spent four days in Belo relaxing, reading, not diving and not visiting national parks. I did, on the other hand, manage to find the best coffee in Madagascar at one of the roadside stalls. We ate breakfast there each morning (coffee and bok bok) and also commandeered the friendly woman to make us lunch which she did at a very reasonable price of 3,000 ariary per person (£1) for a delicious 'all you can eat' meal of very tasty beans and rice.

Belo is a vezo village - but much bigger than Andavadoaka. There are more hotels (mostly foreign owned) and more tourists. It is the centre of boutre building in Madagascar, and there are boutres in different stages of construction all along the beach. Apparently they take between 4 and 6 years to build. As I never saw anyone working on one in our five days there, this is possibly why. However, a brand new one was launched while we were there - though we were too tired to stay for more than an hour at the all-night party in its honour.

And now we're finally in Morondava having left Belo on a motorised pirogue this morning. Thankfully, that transport method was not reliant on wind direction. Ironically, the wind would have been in our favour for either diving or for visiting the national park today, but we were running out of cash and it was definitely time to move on. We've found ourselves a hotel that's a little more luxurious than anywhere we've stayed at yet. We have hot water and electricity that's on all the time! The hotel also arranges 4x4 hire (it's the only 'reliable' way to travel in this country it seems) and we're (fingers' crossed and all that) going to the Tsingy National Park on Saturday. The hotel is owned or run by a nephew of Ilias (the owner of Coco beach) it turns out - though we didn't know that when we booked in. In the meantime, we shall feast on some tourist food and prepare ourselves for six days of 'roughing' it. Whatever transpires, at least we are no longer reliant on a 'good wind' for our plans.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

It's my last blog from Andavadoaka and it seems fitting that our final week here has been one of the most hectic of all.
On top of doing 'end of expedition' admin (which is always hectic and time consuming), sorting all our stuff out into three piles (ditch behind, take travelling, send onto meet us in Tana) we've also been doing as much handover to Axelle as we possibly can so that she is well equipt to deal with her first expedition.
The days seemed to have zipped by in a whirr and I have barely had time to reflect or feel too sad, because as soon as we stop, we fall into bed and pass out. It has been a week of highs and lows - which also seems appropriate. Our goodbyes have been prolongued and drawn out. On Thursday we said goodbye to three vols (leaving two days early) as well as Georgi, Louis and Bic who were going to the south to do some diving for Georgi's project. It was hard to say goodbye to them all, but hardest to say goodbye to Bic who has been a big part of expedition life and who I may never see again.
On Wednesday evening, we had our final party night and I got drunk and stayed up by the bonfire with the volunteers until about 3am. It was good fun, but my head definitely suffered the following day.
I had my FINAL dive on Friday morning. We went to 007, one of my favourite reefs here with a really high percentage of hard coral cover. It was a stunning and relaxing dive as there was no current and fantastic visibility. We stayed together as a group and I was happy to see over 50 different species of fish, including some of my favourites from our stay here. Alec took lots of photos including some of me, which will be a great memento. Justin unfortunately did not dive as he still had sensitive ears.
On our final final night (with the volunteers), we had a lovely sendoff as the Coco Beach staff sang us two goodbye songs, the Malagasy staff sang two more and we were presented by an amazing gift by the Coco beach staff - a wooden model baobab. The BV staff gave us a model clown fish and a lovely card. I was quite overcome and gave a long speech about
how fantastic everyone had been.
Rather appropriately for our last expedition, the camion arrived more than 24 hours late but the volunteers finally left at 6pm on Saturday and since then we have been doing more training, more packing and saying our final goodbyes to the village and people in it. I am sad to say goodbye and have shed many tears. I am extremely sorry to say goodbye to all of the staff here and it makes me sadder because I do not know whether I will see any of the Malagasy staff again.
The wind had dictated our final week here and has also dictated our exit strategy. We were not sure how we were going to leave, we only knew that we were going north. However, the wind has meant that leaving bypirogue is impractical, the tides and winds means that there are no boutres (cargo) boats to hitch a ride on and so we will leave tomorrow on a 4x4 which will take us up to Morombe, and perhaps beyond to Belo Sur Mer.
I'm not sure how much internet access we will have from now on, but I'll try and keep this blog updated whenever possible. It's been an interesting experience. I have never worked so hard or such long hours in my life. And I never hope to again. But my tears at saying goodbye are also a good indicator of how attached I've got to the people here and to the life and I will be sorry to say veloma Andavadoaka and veloma Blue Ventures.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Penultimate blog

We're almost at the end of expedition 39. As with every expedition, the last few weeks go even quicker than the first. It still seems a bit unreal to me that we won't be here any longer. I can't quite imagine not going to sleep and waking up to the sounds of the waves. I've already said goodbye to one of our Malagasy staff members - Daniel - as he's gone to Kenya for some training in running marine protected areas.
The hardest thing about saying goodbye to the Malagasy staff is that there's a really high probability that I'll never see them again. The non-Malagasy staff will, at some point, be in the UK in the future so there's a possibility of seeing them. But the chances of our local boat drivers making it to Manchester, are pretty much zero.
Axelle, our replacement, arrived on Friday. I was a little nervous to meet the woman who was going to take over. I wanted to hand over to someone likeable and capable, but at the same time there was a little insecurity about it too. I didn't want her to be so good that it looked like we weren't up to the job.
Happily, she is a really lovely woman, and human too. We're in the middle of training her right now and I'm sure she'll be great but I don't feel intimidated by her or by that.

I've done a couple of lovely dives in the last week, each time aware that I'm probably saying goodbye to that dive site. We did a lovely dive on Recruitment, though it was actually supposed to be on THB but a current took us to there instead. As I also did a dive to THB as well, I'm pretty chuffed because it meant that I got to say goodbye to both of those dive sites - which have a very high percentage of hard coral cover. I saw an octopus this week too, which is always a treat. It's great to see them changing colour. It's better than many film special effects. :)
On the day off, Justin and I took a sailing pirogue out to one of the islands north of Andavadoaka. We took a packed lunch with us and had a lovely, lazy day out on the pirogue. We landed on Nosy Matata which is a tiny, rocky island with a few bushes, cactuses and trees and even a few mangroves. You could walk around it in less than ten minutes.
Despite its size, it is still home to two tiny settlements of people with around four grass huts or so in each settlement. We saw a bunch of women returning from octopus gleaning with a bucket full of octopus. I was surprised to see the octopuses (or is it octopi?) still changing colour in the bucket even though they must have been dead. It was a really enjoyable day out and I'm glad I finally did it as it's been on my todo list for months.

Finally, we held the concert in the village on Saturday. It took place on the front of the Club Alo Alo building and our staff organised lots of benches from the primary school to be taken onto the beach. As per usual there were about three hundred children there, but happily, there were also some adults as well including a few of the village nahodas, the staff from Coco Beach and a few other village personalities.
BV kicked off the gig with a rendition of the sixties song, da do ron ron. I'd taught it - and two harmonies - to the volunteers three weeks ago. They were pretty sceptical initially about their ability to sing in harmony, but happily, with plenty of practice, they managed to make a lovely sound. Just before we went on, Gildas gave us blue sarongs to wear. As predicted, the audience loved it and clapped and laughed at us singing and dancing.
The second number was one of James's Club Alo Alo songs and we'd learned it all in Malagasy. They laughed and clapped quite a lot to that, especially when they realised that we'd be singing the whole song in Malagasy. The biggest laughs however were reserved for the dancing section at the end of the song. The women drew some loud guffaws and chuckling, but the men were rewarded with full on hysterical laughter which was so catchy that we all ended up laughing along too. I think that's one of the cultural things I'll really miss about here - the way that laughing at people is not cruel, but a sign of acceptance and joy. Because it's done with those intentions, the person being laughed at usually ends up laughing with them.
I performed a Scottish folk song after the BV crew did their thing. James had learnt the guitar part and I stood on the concrete veranda of the building and used a microphone. The sun was shining right into my eyes, but I could still just about make out the audience who were scarily silent for the duration of the song. I did not draw any laughter at all in fact which I'm not sure is a good thing or not! They did applaud me when I finished though. As the song was about the sea, I thought it appropriate to sing, and though I was completely terrified, I'm still glad I did it. Gildas briefly explained that it was about the sea before I began. Looking out to sea, singing the words "the tide, at thy head and feet, the wind about thy shoulders" never seemed more appropriate, even if most of the audience would not have understood the words.
The rest of the acts were varied and entertaining. The women's association did three songs that they'd prepared - including one especially for us to say goodbye. They'd all dressed up with make up and glitter on their faces and looked amazing. Madame Ziza made a short speech beforehand thanking us for our work for the women's association and presenting us with a present each (matching shirts in orange and blue garish pattern). I was quite overcome and thanked them. Following the WA, there were two groups (mostly related to James) who sang and danced, Angelo's wife who sang alone, and Vivienne (the lady who does the washing) who sang with three young girls.
They also sang a song wishing us well and saying goodbye to us. :) It was lovely. Finally, there was a band with drums and Madagascan homemade guitar. They were pretty charismatic and their dancing was furnished with lots of arse shaking, drawing more laughter from the crowd. Finally, elina came on again with her two friends and danced to two epi-bar songs. It had been a wonderful concert - what I'd imagined and more - and a great way to end our time here.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Whale song

This week I also managed to tick off a few things from my before I leave tick-list.
One of them was to do some table coral measuring on a dive site called Cloisters. We went there on Wednesday and I had a really gorgeous dive there measuring table corals and getting exciting over the variety and abundance of coral. It is a very colourful and pretty site and one of my favourites.
I also logged my 500th dive on Friday on a dive site near the sandy coral island of Andramambala. I'd gone there with five volunteers, Louis (field scientist) and Thomas as our boat driver. It was quite an eventful trip overall. It was extremely calm when we left Andavadoaka's poo beach at 7am on Thursday morning, but by the time we arrived on the island, the waves had picked up and it was pretty rough. We dropped off our stuff and went for our first dive on the reef that we were surveying.
Before the dive, my Lizzie's high pressure hose burst and she had to use the spare
regulators. Then on the dive, her tank slid off and I had to reattach it.
The dive site wasn't very interesting and the swell made doing science quite tricky. Lizzie lost her fin as we got back on the boat after the dive. Oops.
Unfortunately that wasn't all of our bad luck. The weather picked up so that by the time we got back in, it was really rough and very windy. I was too cold to go back in for a second dive. Thomas filled up the tanks (we'd taken a small compressor with us) and we went back out for the next dive with Lizzie (my buddy) and I as boat marshals. But then the high pressure hose on Louis' kit burst! So he had to use my regulator to dive. Luckily, by the time they descended the wind had died down and that dive was uneventful and we got back to the island safely in time for lunch. One of the women on the one of the tiny settlements had cooked us beans and rice.
Afterwards Alec - a lovely young man (as many of our young male volunteers have been) - and I went for a walk and took my binoculars. We spotted two whales while sat on sand dunes looking out to sea. That evening, we made a fire and the lady who'd cooked for us earlier and her family brought us dinner of octopus, fish soup, rice, two kinds of fish and omelette. What a feast. We made a fire and told stories and then slept out by the stars. The only thing marring this rather pleasant experience was a persistent smell of poo. I wasn't too cold as I slept in all my clothes and my sleeping bag, but woke up a few times to put my woolly hat back on.
We woke on Friday morning and munched on some biscuits before heading out to dive a site that BV has only dived once before. We were now down to five divers as we'd lost two sets of regulators the day before so there were two boat marshals.
On the way out to the site, Thomas called out that there was a whale (or two) in the distance. I didn't manage to see it. But as we were descending on our dive, all of us could clearly hear the whale song. It was an eery sound. Sort of booming and out of tune. It was extremely exciting to hear though.
Then, about five minutes into the dive Roger - a 64 year old American volunteer - pointed out a green turtle on a ledge just below us. We had a really good sighting of it as it woke up, sleepily assessed the situation, looked around and then lazily swam off. The dive continued to be enjoyable after that as I found lots of little flatworms and nudibranchs to engrosse me. The site was interesting but there were very very few fish and only 10% live coral cover. We heard the whale song again later on during the dive. I looked out into the distance but did not see it.
That dive had been so good, I thought our run of bad luck had ended but on the second dive, Lizzie went through her air in about 7 minutes (we think there was something wrong with her kit as well) and ended her dive early and then I was quite discombobulated and while untangling a tape measure managed to let go of the SMB (surface marker buoy) and so we had to abort the dive as per BV protocol. Luckily, it was picked up by the boat marshal. The dive lasted a total of 20 minutes for me. It was my 500th and I shall probably remember it - though not for the right reasons! The 499th was more positively memorable.
Our underwater concert wasn't the only whale encounter this week. Most of the group us saw one half way between the shore and the horizon on Tuesday over breakfast. We were able to see it quite well with binoculars and saw it breach quite a few times. There were also sightings by divers after their dives on two separate occasions. Justin and I also had some very good sightings from the whale watching platform on Nosy Hau on Sunday. We saw about seven or eight in total, including a group of three which were very active - slapping their fins and coming half out of the water. It was exciting - despite being quite far away.

Village news
As well as being a good week for whales, it's also been a good week for peanuts and tomatoes - as both appear to be in season and in abundance in the village at the moment. There are numerous tiny stalls along the main street piled high with small tomato pyramids. Five cherry tomatoes cost less than 7p at the moment. Though sometimes the prices vary depending on who is womaning the stall and whether or not she thinks you'll pay more for them than that.
It's also been a good week for the peanut lady as she seems to have sold rather a lot of jars of home made peanut butter to this group of volunteers. She is now charging 4,000 ariary per jar (up from 3,000 last time I bought some) which is quite a lot of money (£3.30) in this village.
Meanwhile, samosa boy - the young boy who comes up to Coco Beach twice a day selling samosas to hungry BV staff and volunteers - has now apparently extended his range to selling us bok bok as well. And it's rather delicious bok bok too.

Finally, I am getting ready for my concert which will take place on 2nd August. So far, I have taught the group Da Do Ron Ron and James is teaching us one of his songs as well. Hopefully we will be more tuneful than the whales! We will rehearse every day this week. I am looking forward to it, but hope that we will have other participants from the village and an audience as well. I'll let you know all about it next week which will be my penultimate blog from site! The end, as they say, is now in sight.