Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
By the time the sun set, again, over the dusty western horizon, I was beginning to question my decision to try to come here in the first place.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most famous national parks. In the northwestern part of the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable karst formations. The word “tsingy” in the local language Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Lonely Planet describes it as the thing to see in western Madagascar if you see only one thing.
Unfortunately, Madagascar’s roads are also some of the worst I have ever traveled on anywhere in the world. To reach the gateway to Tsingy, the seaside town of Morondava, I rode a bus from the capital Antananarivo for fifteen hours. And by now that the sun was setting, I had been riding in a four-wheel-drive truck with five other foreign travelers for another eleven spine-scattering hours. I was pleased now that I didn’t decide to head to Tsingy right away after getting to Morondava but went first to the nearby Kirindy forest to see the fossa, the big cat species that is Madagascar’s apex predator.
Divana, my guide, picked up a branch with a generous grove of green leaves on it and began waving it. Halfway up the tree, the indri lemur in his furry black and white suit like a climbing panda looked down skeptically, weighing the human’s proposition.
A minute later, he appeared to make up his mind and began climbing down. In short order he was only a meter in front of me, still on the tree but only at eye-level, and staring at us with those round yellow gemstone eyes of perpetual surprise. Divana handed him some of the leaves; he took them with neither apology nor urgency and began to chew them.
I had worked my way to Madagascar from Mauritius and the French island of La Reunion. After a brief stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, I had come east to Andasibe, the site of perhaps the country’s most accessible national park. Or rather, parks. Right off the road east to the port city of Toamasina, Andasibe has on its right the national forest reserve of Analamazaotra, and on its left the state park that is in fact the same eco-system, arbitrarily divided from it by a road. Another 15 kilometers north by four-wheel-drive and you would find the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its alluring primary forest but difficult trails.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
I always pictured the Maldives as a place for honeymooners and the occasional extreme destination weddings. Indeed many of its famous strings of pearls of atolls and isles are taken up with luxury all-inclusive resorts that require a chartered boat or plane to get to, where four-figure prices are not uncommon.
But when I visited recently I found that there’s also space for the backpacker — okay maybe not the starving student in a dorm type of backpacker, but certainly for the budget-conscious. For that matter, there are even budget-conscious honeymooners. I met one such honeymooning couple, Marine and Sebastian from France and Colombia, who scoffed at the boredom they’d experience in a resort, who spent even less than I did.
Here then, are a few tips for those interested in visiting the Maldives on the cheap.
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
This is another belated travel tale.
“Should i go to Chernobyl?” I asked my friend Marina over Gchat. She was born in Ukraine before relocating to much sunnier California. I thought she might know something about it.
“What? No,” she replied. “Unlike the Taliban, radiation can’t be sweet talked.” She was referring to my foray into Afghanistan. It was true, and it was the logic I relied on in not going diving — you can’t negotiate with physics.
My plan as I wound up the eastern side of South America was to get to Colombia and then cross over into Panama. But there was one key thing I didn't realize until I was getting pretty close to Colombia: It’s nearly impossible and certainly very dangerous to cross the land border between Colombia and Panama. The Pan-American Highway stops there at the infamous Darien Gap, and for a hundred miles there are no roads there, only a jungle haven for drug lords.
But I also learned that I could sail from Cartagena, Colombia, to Panama. Better yet, the voyage would pass through the San Blas Islands. Among the best things that Panama has to offer, San Blas consisted of 365 islands, most of them uninhabited and too small to show up on Google Maps. I stopped by Blue Sailing, the agency in Cartagena’s Getsemani quarter run by two women, one from the U.S. and one from New Zealand, which was responsible for finding yachts for a majority of passengers.
Travel advice? This is the first such post for this blog. But I’ve been asked enough times how I travel in countries where I don’t speak the language — and keep in mind that I am only a middling linguist, not one of those people who speak six or seven languages fluently. I know such people; so annoying.
No, I speak only two languages fluently, and then I dabble in a few others to varying degrees of proficiency. But I have never had any serious problems in the course of my travels as a result of language barriers. Below are some tricks of the trade that have helped me get around.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."