November (already!) update

Evening all (depending on where you are reading from)

All is well here in Madagascar, it has been an eventful few weeks to say the least but pleased to report I am still having the time of my life! The wet season seems to be nearly upon us as I can see menacing storm clouds lurking over the horizon. Fittingly our Halloween party last night went on to the backdrop of rumbling thunder, and we awoke to sharp morning downpours – our first drops of rain in well over a month.

Work is keeping me horrendously busy but I’m still very much enjoying it (as the following blog link will show), and I am far, far from complaining. I spend next week on a mangrove field mission, it’ll be good to see whether I’m really cut out for this as I’m sure the forests will put me through my paces! All stocked up on mosquito repellent but yet to find crocodile repellent….

I am also pleased to say that all of this blog practicing has helped me write an article for the Blue Ventures website, which you can see here:

http://blog.blueventures.org/blue-forests-behind-the-scenes/

Thanks to all who helped to polish up my blog-writing these past few months (it is still by no means perfect), I hope you enjoy the read. It might also help to clarify what exactly it is that I’m doing out here!

From a safe, healthy and very happy SamSam (as I’m known here!)

PS we have it on good authority there are no crocs in the south of Madagascar! But I will leave you with a couple of pics of our new pet puppies, Scooby and Scrappy. Original, huh!

Too busy to write, but here’s some snaps!

Some snaps of one of the best weekend excursions so far… who needs Mauritius when you have Sarodrano on your doorstep!

Lots of videos too (including the emergence of Sam Sam as a brand name in Mada!), but need to be edited and will see whether they can be uploaded. Malagasy internet is, well, Malagasy internet!

PS to prove I’m not just on a jolly, some evidence for you:
http://blueventures.org/our-team/madagascar/blue-carbon.html

Click on my name 😀

Day 14: Sainte Augustine Day 2

Unsurprisingly Sainte Augustine is the kind of place where people awake at dawn and sleep soon after dusk. (I’m sure the pain in the arse roosters have something to do with this). So up we get at 7.30am ready for a pirogue ride up the river to clear pool.

We sailed for an hour, passing villagers well into the swing of their daily routines. Zebu (cattle) carts crossed the river in front of us, farmers tending to their sugarcane harvests (the Malagasy are famous for remarkably producing three annual harvests rather than the traditional two), and of course the rural folk talking their morning dumps by the river. Obvious highlight.

Zebu carts crossing the river

The wildlife continued to marvel, with even the most common of species such as ducks looking like dinosaurs. This place really reminded me of Jurassic Park. The horizon spanned huge cliffs that engulfed the meandering river with floodplains on each side, and huge birds took to the skies as we intrude their space. The only thing missing were the massive brontosauruses passing by. And to dramatise the whole scene, there was even a plume of smoke in the distance. Lost, anyone?

“Bonjour vazaha!” (hello foreigner!)

The pool was great, with a creek feeding it a constant supply of clear fresh water. Saw a blue kingfisher and some odd looking shrimp-like creatures as I swam underwater with my goggles – forgot my underwater camera this time!

Off for a swim

Malagasy Fishing

Lunch was taken at the town market, with Zo leading the way. Yesterday’s fish was appetising, but nothing extraordinary. Enter the local market lunch stall with more flies than food: I really haven’t tasted fish any better. Ever. Fried but still tasting fresh, with the spiciest sakay yet (HOT Malagasy chilli sauce) it was an extraordinarily tasty meal for next to nothing. We took 3 fish back for dinner and it still only came to 5,000Ar. £1.50.

The Malagasy can eat. Yet they don’t get fat (sounds a bit like me!). Heavy lunches combined with the midday heat makes it tough to go back to work during the week, and easy to dose off during the weekend. So back we went to the bungalows for some siesta time in the sun…

Slacking… and the boss has just found us

Home time. Madagascar is an incredible destination partly because it is so remote. The population is still only 20 million, just one third that of the UK. Yet it is twice as large by land mass. So you don’t have you travel far out of town before you hit somewhere remote like Sainte Augustine. We were home in just an hour.

A child sees off a taxi-brousse (bus) bound for Toliara. It will take a few hours to cover the 15 or so km, and will probably break down along the way.

Offering a friendly lift to a family of 8!

Back to reality: a mutiny had broken out at the international airport I flown in to just two weeks before. Some soldiers were killed and all international flights suspended. No biggie, apparently this happens all the time here – so much so, they didn’t even feel the need to cancel domestic flights! Business as usual then.

But the reality is also dangerous here. That night we had a group of bandits poke around the compound. Being told of potentially armed bandits at 2am with nothing but sticks to protect us is an experience to say the least. Lights were immediately shut, laptops hidden, and phones put on silent – nothing could alert them to our presence. The police were called, but didn’t come until 24 hours later! They saw nothing, so the episode passed without incident. Blue Ventures (and eventually also the police) have been great and have taken strong steps to ensure our safety. We’ve even been given whistles – hmm.

They said much of Madagascar is a lawless land. I’m certainly starting to believe it…

Link

This article finally puts Blue Carbon in the media limelight. It nicely sums up the work we are doing with mangrove habitats in Madagascar.

Blue Ventures have been working on their own Blue Carbon project since 2009, so the project is effectively a pioneer in this field – and I’m lucky enough to now be a part of it! Certainly not a bad way to learn the tricks of the environmental trade  😀

Mangroves: what it all boils down to…

Their ability to capture carbon may be on average five times that of tropical rainforests

FIVE TIMES! Amazon, eat your heart out!

Approaching the mangroves (with Zo in the distance). Mangroves are havens for dangerous wildlife: mosquitos, monster wasp nests, snakes, eels and even crocs. No crocs in this area (supposedly) otherwise I wouldn’t be going kayaking!

Kayaking through the mangroves at Honko (having just carried two kayaks half a km each – I think my arms are bigger than my waist now!). Please excuse the socks. £1 from Poundland. Designer pair right

Day 13: the weekend at last

Evening all! I think I need to start blogging more often, it’s been at least a week since my last update and too much has happened to put in one post. So I may break this one into a few instalments.

I’ll start off with last weekend. After a hard week’s work (environmental modelling can be painful work!), we ventured further south than the Sarodrano day-trip of the previous weekend, to a town called Sainte Augustine. It is the furthest south the coastal road goes before it is met by a monster of a river estuary:

Approaching an “end of the world”

Sainte Augustine, Madagascar

The trip over was immense fun. Zo and I rode at the back of the jeep for much of the way, to the backdrop of the ocean to our right and the open desert and hills to our left. Cliffs would appear out of nowhere, not great for vertigo sufferers such as myself but a hell of a ride! Climbing to the hilltop from where the above photo was taken, we passed a boy riding up on his bicycle. Anyone who can do that every day can surely tackle the Tour de France. Zo and I clambered back to the seats and along came the boy with his bike at the back. Great being a Good Samaritan!

We approached the town of Sainte Augustine, Zo once again proving his worth by occasionally leaping off the jeep in search of much-needed directions. We were after a very specific hotel (not that there were any in sight anyway). Lonely Planet provides an exclusive list of just nine hotels in Madagascar they refer to as the ends of the world:

Isolation, natural beauty, the sea, and a distant horizon, forming a distant place where the world appears to stop, and the spirit deepens.

Longamamy is one of them. Perched along the banks of the Onilahy River estuary, we were given a pair of bungalows for 18,000Ar (a fiver) each. Complete with candles, a rock to “lock” the front door and of course mosquito coils. And the French owner (he’s been here for 28 years now) was overjoyed at seeing his hotel feature as a highlight in Lonely Planet!

At his Lonely Planet shout out: “Oui oui, this is errrrrrrrrrr very nice to see!”

The sign says “no pooing on the beach”. So they poo’d on the sign!

A quick beach walk by sunset turned into a bit of a team show for the camera, but it wasn’t long before the label end of the world really gained meaning. To the south of us was nothing but the Antarctic, and around us no one but a lone fisherman cleaning his pirogue for tomorrow’s open ocean outing.

Moves for the camera

An End of the World…

Lonely Planet also recommends the fish supper here. Fresh from the day’s catch, the menu was crab, shrimp, or prawns, with rice and beans. Oddly enough, when the Malagasy serve beans on rice, it literally comes as a plate of baked beans on rice. And it tastes really really good! (maybe it’s just a tasty reminder of home?). The seafood was equally appetising, and made going to straight to sleep (it was only 8.30pm) easy, despite the crickets in acapella mode.

Day 15 to come…

Blog word-count: 2,500
Disso word-count: 0 (one month until deadline!)

Day 10: Settling into life in the Wild Wild Southwest…

It’s 8pm and I’m sitting here in complete darkness. It gets dark here before 6pm, and despite the very welcome sunshine and heat (28 degrees!) it’s a reminder that it is actually winter here. This evening a power cut has plunged the town into further darkness – power cuts here are by no means infrequent, and everything stops to a standstill.

First, I should dispel any myths that I’ve come to Madagascar to save the lemurs, or chain myself to baobab trees! Since arriving from Tana (a week ago), I’ve pretty much spent all day everyday cooped up in the Blue Ventures office. Downloading satellite data from NASA (waiting for it to download), processing data, building utterly gorgeous (!) maps, and so on. It’s all in aid of saving the mangroves (no Nims, not groves of mangoes, or indeed men!). The monotonous routine is partly why I haven’t bothered to blog for a week – very little has actually happened. Here are the few things I have to report…

My flight down from Tana (yes, on the blacklisted planes) was ultimately like any other flight I’ve been on – no surprises really. The plane did however look like it had been bought second-hand from American Airlines decades ago. It looked like the set of those brilliant Leslie Nielsen Airplane! movies from the 80s… old metal seats, faded interior etc. Nonetheless we landed safely. To an airport that is frankly not much bigger than my house (that’s not to say I live in a mansion back home!). I made sure not to make the same tipping mistake this time, much to the disgruntled moans of those who needlessly went out of their way to assist me.

Meet Zo (pronounced Zu). He’s both my flatmate and colleague. He’s been a bit of a hero in showing me around town and generally making sure I settle in ok. Any time I leave the office, he’s there with me. Also means I don’t get charged foreigner prices, as I’ll prove below…

One of the first stories he told me about was a road accident. Three weeks ago he was taking the same taxi-brousse bus journey I had initially planned from Tana to Toliara. It was approaching midnight, Zo had fallen asleep. The bus driver, also, had fallen asleep at the wheel. The next thing Zo knew, he along with the other crammed passengers were being thrown about the inside of the bus as it tumbled over. Zo tells of the shock that he survived, without any serious injuries too. Unfortunately, one child did die during the accident – the child’s whole family had been travelling. The accident has clearly affected Zo, unsurprisingly he seems tense as he tells the story. It certainly fills me with relief to have flown down instead.

On a more positive note, we did embark on a day trip South of Toliara on Sunday (our one day off), to a village called Sarodrano. Here lies a beautiful natural pool (Grotte de Sarodrano) which we had completely to ourselves for the day – me, Zo, my boss Trevor and his girlfriend Merika.

The road to Sarodrano is supposedly one of the better roads in Madagascar. In reality it was little more than a dirt-track – certainly not tarmacked. It’s such a rough ride that when you stop the car, it feels like you’re floating with the sudden absence of the relentless pounding you are subjected to. The pool is a weird mix of freshwater at the clear top and saltwater at the murky bottom. This produced some cool wildlife: a lizard, some crabs, fairly large fish and shrimp. Nothing extraordinary yet. Oh and a shrub who’s juice is so poisonous it could kill you if swallowed. And I finally had a chance to swim!

First taste of Mada’s wildlife

Poison

First underwater shot using my new underwater camera. Not great focus but nice shot nonetheless!


I’ve also moved out of my £6pn hostel east of town, a 15min walk from the office. It’s too dangerous for Vazaha (foreigners – a bit like the term Ferengi) to wander the streets much beyond sunset (a couple of French tourists were stabbed to death last month). The Malagasy seem very shy, reserved but genuine people. One theory is that the poverty here drives the desperate ones to crimes like mugging – which unfortunately end up as fatal stabbings as they panic to avoid confrontation. Whether there is any truth in this theory, who knows. Either way, I don’t want to find out – so I’ve moved to the apartment right beside the office – 50p per night! Unbelievable Jeff. I’ve also kitted out my room with a bamboo shelving unit, an absolute bargain at £2 (yes £2) from the local market.

Bamboo furniture – £2

Lastly, I was told during a lunch that farther South of Salondrano is somewhat of a Wild Wild West. Bandits, cattle thieves, witchcraft, zombies – it all happens there. Apparently. A place to be avoided for the average tourist. I’m not your average tourist though…

Skype

Aside

Skype will be the best way to contact me:
srgandhi87

I have a Mada number now as well as my UK one, both will remain active. If you want the Mada number, message me.

Time difference – only 2 hours ahead of you guys in the UK. So comms should be relatively easy

Day 2 – Good morning Madagascar!

QUICK NOTE – PLEASE ‘LIKE’ BLUE VENTURES ON FACEBOOK FOR BETTER INFO ON WHAT WE’RE WORKING ON, AND FOR GENERAL NEWS ON ENVIRONMENTAL MATTERS IN MADAGASCAR AND BEYOND  😀
https://www.facebook.com/blueventures

So it’s actually happening. I’ve made it to Madagascar. You guys weren’t the only doubters, three months ago this trip was nothing but a pipedream for me (and yet another £10 bet with Hinesh – pay up lad!)

My journey so far has been relatively painless. I did confuse currency denominations to then tip the airport trolley guy what is probably the equivalent of his family’s weekly wage (I was to realise this when paying FAR less for an entire restaurant supper later in the day).

I’ve taken two flights to get to where I am now, the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo – or Tana for short. One thing you quickly realise about the Malagasy language is the Sri Lankan-esque names that people and towns have adopted. To give you a couple of examples: Ambohimahamasina, or Fianarantsoa.

Fianarantsoa is potentially the next and final stopover en route to reaching my ultimate destination, Toliara in the Southwest of Mada.

Google Maps reckons it would take just under 12 hours to cover just under 1000km. Google Maps clearly hasn’t been to Madagascar. Here’s an excerpt on the taxi-brousse bus journey, from the newly published Lonely Planet Mada guide (which I recommend to anyone planning on coming):

Beware: these amusement park rides are packed beyond capacity. Passengers bounce around and are frequently ill. There are a limited number of breaks, and provisions are sparse along the way. You will need a scarf and pullover for the dust and wind. All things considered, we have never seen a rougher form of public transport.

This is saying something, coming from Lonely Planet! Now, being me, I jumped at this opportunity. It looks like a cracking adventure through Mada’s remote wilderness, for supposedly anything up to 50 hours. And all for £20 rather than £150 for the 1 hour flight! A clear no brainer, right? Hmm. Ultimately common sense has prevailed, with gentle encouragement in the form of two hefty bags (combining to weigh more than me) and a common British cold that just won’t go away. However, there is a downside. All Air Madagascar planes have been blacklisted and barred from European airspace. In other words, I’d somehow be safer on the aforementioned “amusement park ride”. Some excitement at least. So I’m off to the airline office tomorrow morning to book the first flight down, where the work I have so eagerly been anticipating will finally begin.

The experience so far? As expected really. Tana is ok. Dusty, polluted, busy. Lots of comparisons to India. Spinetingling animal screams during the middle of the night etc. Bizarrely the Malagasy people look slightly Indian too – go back far enough and the Malagasys can trace their roots to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Which I suppose physically averages out to India (or not)… And of course there is the heavy French influence due to Madagascar’s French-colonial past. This all reflects in the evolution of Malagasy cuisine, a real international fusion. Tana reminds me of Southern Vietnam and Laos in a sense – French-style patisserie cafes line the streets in places serving very tasty puds. And I’m not even a dessert person.

Anyway, that’s enough for my first post. Three snaps to finish off: 1 and 2) snaps from the plane as we approach Tana. And 3) the delicious pud after a somewhat carniverous dinner at, er, La Carnivore

Looks edited, and it very slightly is – only to make up for the greyness the translucent plane window gave the image. This is really is quite close to what I saw early this morning…

I had to capture the distinct redness of the land peeping through the clouds. For a stunning pic of what widespread deforestation is doing to the environment: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4388

PS – I miraculously didn’t sleepwalk on the flights! Which can only mean no stress whatsoever – this is hardly surprising. Of course there’s always the blacklisted flight on Thursday…