I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year. It’s hard to believe it’s already 2002! It was kind of strange for me to be way over here in Madagascar for Christmas & NY… watching Sydney’s fires and fireworks only on CNN – not sure whether to be sad or glad that I wasn’t there! 🙂
However my Christmas break here was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very different to the normal. After our staff break-up party I went by road to the port city of Tamatave to join up with one of the two couples with whom I was to then go on to our holiday destination, Maroantsetra. The trip to Tamatave was with one of the few Malagasy project staff that own a car. His family lives at the other end of our 4 hour journey – and he only gets to see them about once a month when he takes part of his salary back to them. Anyway, the trip was the first time I’d seen that part of the country, as the last return trip I’d made to Tamatave was entirely at night. The countryside was beautiful in places, but also stark in others – fires have rendered many hillsides bare and ugly (similar to NSW at the moment, maybe!), due to the traditional but questionable “tavy” agricultural practice. And now that I’ve seen how dangerous the road is during the day (we saw about 10 containers at various points along the side of the road – left there after falling off the back of trucks, and we also very nearly cleaned up a cyclist) I’m not sure that I want to make that journey again unless I have to!
On our arrival (on the Friday night before Christmas) at Tamatave my “chauffeur” left me with Kim & Colin, who told me that due to a combined mix-up between ADRA International and ADRA’s principal donor (USAID), they had to continue working on a project proposal until the end of the following week and thus could not come on our planned holiday! That was of course quite a disappointment both for them and for the other 3 of us that were still going. And poor Colin & Kim were working almost every hour of each day of the next week (including Christmas Day) right up until their revised deadline!
So I stayed with them just for the Sabbath. Kim gave me another packet of “Weetabix” for Christmas – so once again I felt a little more at home food-wise :-). They also showed me their pet chameleon eating grasshoppers, which is truly an amazing sight. I was holding the chameleon, as Colin held the grasshopper a full chameleon-body-length away. I was puzzled as to how the creature was supposed to procure his dinner, when all of a sudden the chameleon shot forth his very long, sticky tongue and sucked in the grasshopper!! So you can imagine I spent quite a bit more time treating the chameleon to a feast of grasshoppers while I tried (fruitlessly I think) to get a photo of the quick-fire tongue in action!
So on Sunday morning I took the plane up to Maroantsetra and waved goodbye to Colin & Kim who started back into their unfortunately-timed proposal writing! I met up with Pingo & Priscilla, another young couple working for ADRA, at our holiday destination for the next 3 days, the bungalow-style “Relais du Masoala” at Maroantsetra (on the northeast coast of Madagascar). And it turned out that for half the time we were the only ones there at the whole resort! (A French couple came later.) In spite of the fact it seems the place isn’t too popular at the moment, we enjoyed our time there – eating from a western-style menu, swimming in the pool (the beach wasn’t good), playing table tennis, and watching satellite TV.
On the 24th we took a boat to a nearby island National Park, where we stayed for the rest of that day, camped for Christmas eve, and left the next morning. The island, named “Nosy Mangabe” (island of the deep blue), is about 5km offshore, and about 2km wide & long. It is mainly beautiful & dense tropical rainforest rising up to a height of about 300m, and, as a reserve, basically uninhabited. Our time on the island was spent going on several walks, and being enthralled by the various species to be seen. During the day we saw quite a few black-and-white ruffed lemurs, some from close range, and heard quite a few more. Our guide was incredible in finding things for us to see – including a number of tree-leaf geckos that are about 20cm long but usually almost entirely camouflaged on tree trunks. He would find them as we walked through the forest, and point them out to us – but it would take us about 30 seconds of staring at the spot on the tree trunk before we realised we were actually looking at a gecko! He also found for us the smallest species of chameleon – one about 5cm long, slender and camouflaged – in the leaves of the path as we were walking! How he found these things I’ll never understand. There were a number of birds and some interesting, almost plastic-looking insects, lots of colourful crabs by the sea shore, and a variety of different plants the likes of which we don’t see in Australia!
There was also a very nice secluded beach, but we didn’t get to enjoy it much as much as we would have like due to all the other things to be seen & done. The Relais du Masoala arranged the guide for us, as well as a cook – both Malagasy, and both of whom we had to ourselves. So Christmas eve dinner was candle-lit (no electricity, of course!), under a thatch (ravolana) roof, with western food (pasta & salad) cooked Malagasy style (a charcoal stove). It was actually quite an enjoyable way to spend Christmas eve, talking to the guide as we waited for the evening rains to stop so we could go for our next walk. The rain didn’t let up and by 10pm our guide said it would be best to go to bed (in our tents) and go for our night walk at 1am. So sure enough he woke us up, the rain had stopped, and we set out in search of the aye-aye. This unique and incredible species (like lemurs, but so unique it has a family and genus all to itself) is solitary and nocturnal, so sightings in the wild are hard-earned and memorable experiences. After almost tripping over a boa, seeing several mouse lemurs (the smallest lemurs – which are more like a mouse in size but swing around the tree branches like the rest of the lemurs), and walking for about an hour, the guide found an aye-aye for us (I think by hearing it feeding). When it looked down at us from its branch about 15m up, its eyes reflected our torch light in bright-bright red. Incredible. I have seen one in captivity from close range, and got to see its very long and slender middle finger (almost like the tongue of a chameleon!) which it uses to scratch out termites and other insects from trees.
The other memorable aspect of our night walk was finally realising that the stomach cramps and diarrhoea that I’d had for the past few days truly was giardia. But when I took the necessary medicine the next morning, it soon cleared up. Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as a previous occasion when I got a stomach bug (but I don’t think giardia) while in the field working for the project, and had to cut my trip short to come back for treatment. And also fortunately for me I’ve never had troubles when the water has been cut, like our project director did one day when the water was cut for over 24 hours. Not much fun for him indeed!
Anyway, Christmas morning a French photographer who is staying on the island for a couple of months introduced us to his “family” of brown lemurs that come every morning for biscuits. There was even a mother with a tiny baby lemur clutching his mother’s back as she jumped around from tree to tree.
Time to leave the island and then Maroantsetra came all too quickly. We flew back to Tamatave, where I had originally planned to spend the rest of my holiday until NY, but because of Colin & Kim’s mad rush to finish writing their proposal, I thought it better to join Pingo & Priscilla & stay with them at their home in Antsirabe. Fortunately there was space on the next plane to Tana which was leaving within an hour, so I bought a ticket (about $A 150) and jumped on the plane back to the capital, Antananarivo. That experience of getting a ticket was a lot better than getting the return ticket between Tamatave and Maroantsetra – for which I had to wait in the Tana Air Mad (often also referred to as Air Bad) office for 2 hours! After the tiny airports (more like sheds!) at Tamatave and especially Maroantsetra, the Tana airport now seems huge and grand! We then drove 170km south to Antsirabe – a lot of Madagascar seen & travelled in one day!
I stayed there for almost a week, including New Years Eve, which we spent mainly in front of the TV – watching the celebrations in other parts of the world on CNN (which made Antsirabe’s local singing and shouting look a little tiny), and also watching the Aussie “Water Rats” translated into French (“Brigade des Mers”).
Apart from enjoying Priscilla’s great Brazilian cooking, most of the time in Antsirabe was spent working. Pingo & Priscilla on the “School Feeding” Project which is just starting up there in Antsirabe, and me working on a computerised planning tool I’ve developed for the Moramanga “Food Security Project”. I presented the system on the 2nd day back at work, yesterday, to all the staff. I’ve got my work cut out for me over the next 7 weeks that I’m here in Madagascar ensuring that the system is successfully implemented before I leave, as well as finishing the web page and several other things.
Interestingly, the Adventists here in Madagascar don’t celebrate Christmas at all, however make quite a big thing about New Years. (I’ve just come back from a rather long celebration for the whole of the first Sabbath of the New Year…) When I preached a week before Christmas, I thought I’d try to allude to Christmas in a positive way that would help remove some of the barriers. I preached on God’s gifts. First I compared God’s gifts with worldly gifts. Then looked at what gifts God gives to everyone (Jesus, life, creation, choice), then what He gives to His followers only (eternal life, forgiveness, salvation, Holy Spirit, peace, rest). Then I looked at what conditions must be met to receive this second lot of gifts (faith, repentance, obedience, victory). Then I showed from the Bible that each of these are also gifts! So everything we need is a gift! Finally I looked at how/why we might accept or reject all of God’s gifts (which must eventually either all be accepted, or all rejected).
Anyway, wishing you an abundant blessing of all of God’s gifts as we start this new year!
PS. A question I’ve been pondering for some time, especially since I’m involved in development work… “Why are most countries in tropical regions less developed than those in temperate and colder regions?” I’d be interested in any of your thoughts… and may try to give my perspective next time I email.