Monday, December 17, 2012

Madagascar – October 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012:  Fly Khartoum to Antananarivo, Madagascar via Nairobi, Kenya.
My tour of North Sudan was finished and now I started on a tour of Madagascar.
I awoke at 00:30, showered and finished packing.  I discovered that my cell phone had not charged during my short sleep so I changed chargers and obtained an adapter for the local outlets hoping to charge the phone in the lobby and later in the airport.

I lugged my bag down to the lobby and found the rest of the group was there.  I put down my bag and camera and searched for an outlet.  The bus driver arrived before I was able to plug in my cell phone charger and we carried my bags down to the bus.  The airport was not that far from the center of the city and we arrived in just a few minutes to be greeted by a terminal agent that would shepherd us through the check-in process.  As we were leaving the bus I realized my camera was not around my neck.  I hoped I had stashed it in my carry-on which was in the back of the bus.  I exited the bus as the agent received a phone call and announced to the group “Did anybody leave their camera in the hotel.”
I told him I had and he said it would be sent over shortly.  Sure enough before we finished check-in the phone was delivered to the agent.  Security screening at the airport was performed before entering the ticket counter hall, at entering the Departure Hall and entering the gate waiting area.  I was able to find an outlet in the Departure Hall and was able to get my phone charge up to 60% before the announcement to enter the gate waiting area.

We were bussed to the plane.  The plane was full but I had insured that I got assigned to an aisle seat.  The flight was two hours and forty minutes and they served a small breakfast.  I slept about an hour and listened to a book on tape the rest of the flight.
When we landed in Nairobi we walked to the Terminal up a long stepped ramp at the end of the terminal.  We entered the terminal near Gate 1 and started following the arrows to Transfers.  The concourse was narrow and crowded.  In the middle of the terminal was the Transfer Desk, but since we already had our boarding pass for the next flight we didn’t need to stop.  We saw on a display board that the flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar was scheduled for Gate 9.  We continued to weave our way through the crowds toward Gate 9.  As I passed Gate 8 I saw Bob Prada standing in the distance at Gate 9.

Arriving at Gate 9 we were greeted by the rest of “Cathy’s Family” that would be traveling with us:  Bob Ihsen, Laurie Campbell, and Mike Bidwell.  We had to pass through another security screening to enter the gate waiting area and they were strict on the carry-ons which resulted in Neal having to check one of his bags.
We had to walk to the aircraft.  I had an aisle seat across from Neal.  Next to me were two young women returning home to visit their families after three years working in Beirut, Lebanon.  Shortly after takeoff we flew over Mt. Kilimanjaro and I was able to take a picture.  During the flight we were served another breakfast and I think I slept a little.

When we arrived in Antananarivo we queued up in the line for “No Visas”.  We were prepared to pay 70€ for a visa but Cathy learned that since we were to stay only three days we didn’t need to pay a fee.  The process to obtain the visa went very fast and just as I was handed back my passport my bag was appearing on the baggage belt.  Great timing!
When I exited the Arrivals Hall I was greeted by our local guide.  He suggested that we exchange money so I left my bags with him and exchanged $20.  It was noon when we departed the airport to Antananarivo, "The City of a Thousand Warriors," often known simply as “Tana", the capital city of Madagascar.

The ride took forty minutes starting out in level rice fields with a dike along the highway.  About half way to the city we came upon a long row small buildings perched on top of a dike.  I thought that it was a sort of shanty town because the buildings were not very large but they were identical in size and all had a high peaked roof.  As we passed the road that the buildings faced our guide told us that it was Marché Artisanal de La Digue, the souvenir market.  Artisans and middlemen from all over the country sell their products there; he told us popular souvenirs include embroidered tablecloths, brightly colored raffia baskets, woodcarvings, spices, vanilla, gemstones, recycled paper products and T-shirts.
As we rode into the city proper we found that Antananarivo has been built on the slopes of a Y-shaped granite mountain where vegetation covers an embankment, and the houses were slotted into the space not already taken over by the vegetation.  It had the traffic congestion that we have experienced in other African cities.  The streets are not wide enough to accommodate two direction traffic and parking along the streets in most areas.  Since most of the buildings I first saw were just a couple of stories since they were perched on the side of the hills.  We entered a rather flat area and there were several ten to fifteen story buildings and a lake (Lac Anosy).  The tallest of the buildings turned out to be our hotel the Carlton, a five star hotel, one block from the lake shore.

Lynn and I were assigned a nice room on the eighth floor.  We had the afternoon to sightsee on our own.  I walked along the edge of the lake and then down an alley near the hotel that had little open shops to a Shoprite Supermarket where I purchased some beer and canned ice tea.  When I exited the Supermarket I was surrounded by kids begging.  A policeman shooed them away but all the way back to the hotel I was approached by little kids begging.  It was a little tough to navigate the sidewalk approaching the hotel because people had spread out a display of things to sell: music CDs, cell phone charges, small tools, etc.
Dinner that night was in the hotel dining room.  It was one of the most elegant and delicious French meals I have ever had.  The Starter was smoked fish topped with foie gras and summer vegetables.  The Main course was lobster also topped with foie gras and the dessert was an apple cinnamon tiramisu

Wednesday, October 17, 2012:  Tour Antananarivo, Madagascar
This jumble of houses covers the steep slopes with a maze of narrow alleys and stairs crisscrossing the town.  One such stairway, climbing 600 feet, is named Tsiafakantitra, which means "Old folks can't make it".  The city of Antananarivo is divided into neighborhoods or quarters, with quarter names more readily used by taxi drivers and local inhabitants than street names are.  Exotic fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, hardware, toys, furniture, handicrafts, potteries, carved stones and clothes are laid out over a central plaza and many of the adjoining streets. The wares are protected from the sun by enormous white umbrellas.  Hawking and haggling are animated but conducted in a dignified manner, without any raising of voices.  Several sections of the Zoma market in Antananarivo are devoted to Malagasy crafts, but you were able to find a wide variety of unique and superb handcrafts by shopping anywhere in Madagascar.  Because there are not many tourists, prices are low and bargaining was common.

The Lonely Planet describes the history of the city as follows:

“The area that is now Antananarivo was originally known as Analamanga (Blue Forest), and is believed to have been populated by the Vazimba, ancestors of today’s Malagasy about whom little is known.  In 1610 a Merina king named Andrianjaka conquered the region, stationed a garrison of 1000 troops to defend his new settlement, and renamed it Antananarivo, ‘Place of 1000 Warriors’.  In the late 18th century, Andrianampoinimerina, the warrior king, moved his capital from Ambohimanga to Antananarivo, where it became the most powerful of all the Merina kingdoms.  For the next century, Antananarivo was the capital of the Merina monarchs and the base from which they carried out their conquest of the rest of Madagascar.  Tana remained the seat of government during the colonial era, and it was the French who gave the city center its present form, building two great staircases to scale the city’s hills and draining swamps and paddy fields to create present-day Analakely.  In May 1929, the city was the site of the first major demonstration against the colonialists.  Today the greater Antananarivo area is Madagascar’s political and economic center.”
We started our sightseeing with a short drive north to the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, a World Heritage Site.  It is a 15th century royal city that consists of burial sites and other sacred places; it is the most significant symbol of the cultural identity of the people of Madagascar.  The bus stopped in the village of Ambohimanga where in the north eastern part of the village the entrance is marked by a large traditional gateway, one of the seven gateways to the hilltop.  This gate was built by king Andrianampoinimerina

To one side of the gateway was a large, flat, round stone.  At the first sign of threat to the village, the stone would be rolled by up to 40 slaves, sealing off the gate.  On the other side of the gate there was a deep trench which belts the hill.
After picture taking of the gate we walked through the village and up a long ramp with several sets of stairs to the courtyard of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga where we were met by a local guide who spoke very good English and guided us on a tour of the complex.

Ambohimanga (‘blue hill’ or ‘beautiful hill’) was the original capital of the Merina royal family. Even after the seat of government was shifted to Antananarivo for political reasons, Ambohimanga remained a sacred site, and was off-limits to foreigners for many years.  The flat area at the top of the stairs from the village is called the ‘Camp Site’.

“A PLACE WHERE THE SOVEREIGN GATHERED HIS SUBJECTS” – “A camp site which held the same functions as the ancient Andohalo in Antananarivo :  a consecrated place used for ceremonial events : solemn speeches meetings, presentation of the hasina to honor the Sovereign, jubilation of the crowd, in fact a place for royal ritual celebration.”
At one end of the Camp Site was a stage (which now has a large Banyan tree growing in the middle of the platform) that the Sovereign was able to address the crowd from.  Next to the stage was a row of stone tiered seats for the royal family.

Our guide led us up a flight of stairs from the ‘Camp Site’ to Ambohimanga’s Rova, the fortresspalace of the all-powerful Merina king Andrianampoinimerina.  Slaves were once sacrificed on the rock inside the palace’s entrance, and the many pilgrims who come to ask the blessings of the royal ancestors sometimes still slaughter animals in the same spot.  The fortress was constructed using cement made from sand, shells and egg whites – 16 million eggs were required to build the outer wall alone.
Inside the compound stands the blackened wood hut (1788) that was King Andrianampoinimerina’s palace.  It was as high as a three story building but contained just one large open room.  The central pole of the hut is made from a single trunk of sacred palissandre (rosewood), which was reportedly carried from the east coast by 2000 slaves, 100 of whom died in the process.  The top of the pole is carved to show a pair of women’s breasts, a symbol of the king’s polygamy.  The king supposedly hid in the rafters when visitors arrived, signaling whether the guest was welcome by dropping pebbles onto his wife’s head.  The royal bed is in the sacred northwest corner of the hut and is elevated on a platform about ten feet above the floor to indicate the king’s superior status.  He had to climb a ladder to get to his bed.  The Queen’s bed at floor level was in another corner.

The simple furniture is aligned according to astrological rules.  Behind the hut are the open-air baths where the king performed his royal ablutions once a year, in the company of his 12 wives and diverse honored guests.  Afterwards his bathwater was considered sacred and was delivered to waiting supplicants.  
Next door to King Andrianampoinimerina’s hut, in a striking style contrast, is the elegant summer palace of Queen Ranavalona I (r 1828–1861), constructed by Jean Laborde in 1870 (who was thought to be Ranavalona’s lover).  It’s been beautifully restored and has original European-style furniture inside.  The dining room is lined with mirrors, which allowed the queen to check that no one was sneakily poisoning her food.  The ground floor housed a guest room and the second floor the Queens quarters with a balcony that circled the house affording a panorama view all the way to the city.  In back of the houses up another set of stairs were three houses that served as tombs.  Next to them were the royal bathing pools.

After the tour of the houses our guide led several of us to:

“AT THE ROCK WHERE THOSE FROM ALL SUMMITS GATHERED” – “A rock which affords panoramic view over the scared forest, over the surroundings: eastern, western and southern parts of the Capital included the plain of Betsimitatatra.  Is name originated from King Andrianampoinimerina’s wish.  He gathered on the summit the inhabitants of the twelve sacred-hills of Imerina.”
We took pictures of the panoramic view.  It was a clear day and it was a sight to see!

Leaving the ‘Rock’ we walked down a path back to the ‘Camp Site’.  There was a row of displays and our guide explained in detail each display.
Our tour of the Royal Hill was over but as I walked down the stairs to the village I stopped at a round terrace.  In the middle of the terrace was a round three tiered set of stones.  An inscription next to the stones read:

“THE SCRATCHED STONE” – “A place for legal proceedings of justice. Use for oath of allegiance or honesty.  In that case, the persons involved, drank holy water mixed with consacred – soil.

      A black-coated bull had been buried here to threaten and to show up liars”
On the road back to the city we stopped at the Relais du Rova Hotel and Restaurant for lunch.  It is in farm land on a little hill with a great view of the surrounding land.  The lunch was very good but the best part was listing to Edna’s stories about growing up with parents that were bootleggers and then owned a bar near Pittsburg, PA.

The drive back to the city took us down steep narrow lanes with many old houses built in a French Alps style with high pitched roofs.  We returned to our hotel for a rest stop and then went out on tour again.
We rode up to the Cathédrale de l’Immaculée Conception, (Andohalo Catholic Church)) which was built on the spot where Queen Ranavalona I ordered Christian martyrs to be thrown from the cliffs.  In the same area was Musée Andafi varatra, housed in the magnificent pink baroque palace of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony.  Around the corner we visited Jean Laborde’s house, a beautiful wooden building that served as Madagascar’s first French consulate.  From there we visited the pink baroque palace of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony and next to it the Inspector General of the Army’s Office Building.  We then walked up the street to the Justice building and then to the Residence of the Republic which was under renovation.

The sun was setting so we rode to a place that overlooks the city to watch the sun set.  Unfortunately this is the time of year they burn the rice fields in Eastern Madagascar to get ready for a new planting.  The whole city was covered with a smoke and smog with a burn smell so it was not a clear sight.  From the overlook we rode to the Lokanga Boutique Hotel and restaurant where we were treated to a Madagascar Culture Show with a band and dancing in various native costumes.  We were served a traditional Madagascar meal which had as its base red rice plus fish and meat dishes.  Dessert was a chocolate mouse and a small banana in a sweet sauce plus a small piece of cake.
Thursday, October 18, 2012:  Tour Antananarivo, Madagascar

We continued our tour of Antananarivo by spending the morning at the Zoological and Botanical Park of Tsimbazaza where we saw many different species of Lemur.  In one area if you had honey on your finger the Lemurs would lick your finger and climb on your shoulder and arm.  Great fun and I considered it the highlight of the visit to Madagascar.
There were other interesting creatures in the Zoo including some very old Giant Tortoises.  We returned to the hotel for lunch and in the afternoon visited the Analakely Market, Centre D’Art Et D’Archeologie museum, Post Office, Railway Station, and Town Hall in the city and then rode out to Marché Artisanal de La Digue, the souvenir market.  I was able to purchase some T-shirts of good quality for less than $10.

Our tour of Antananarivo was complete.  Dinner in the hotel was an Asian Buffett and we retired early because we had a 04:00 check out the next morning. to fly to Comoros and start our African Indian Ocean Islands tour.


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