MY pockets I have airplane ticket stubs from places called
Maroantsetra, Antananarivo and Taoiagnaro. In my ears I still hear
the call of the hoopoe bird, the metallic-like whine of a cockroach
and the haunting song of the Indri.
My head is full of chameleons that are colored cerulean blue
and grass green, of full-grown lizards half the length of my
littlest finger. I still thrill to the memory of the feel of a
young tenrec's back, and the gentle touch of a ring-tailed femur
intent upon stealing the banana I was holding in my hand.
The femur is the telltale hint, for only on the island of
Madagascar do these primitive relatives of monkeys, apes and humans
survive; it was the chance to see femurs that lured my husband and
me to this poorest of countries, situated a full 13-hour filght
southeast of Paris.
Once there, however, we marveled at the strange and wonderful
flora and fauna that have developed during the 100 million years
since the Mozambique channel separated this island from Africa.
The catalyst for our trip was an article in Atlantic Monthly
titled "Otherworldly Madagascar," which I handed to my husband with
the casual comment that "this looks like our kind of trip." A few
days later, we owned the Lonely Planet travel survival kit and
guide book "Madagascar and Comoros." After that it was just a
matter of time before I discovered that Cortez Travel of Solana
Beach, Calif., was the only travel agent in the United States to
send trips to this remote and beautiful country. We signed up for
Cortez's 14-day discovery tour, but it still took us almost seven
months to get ourselves ready.
I began by reading selections from the bibliography prepared by
Cortez. I researched shots, vaccinations and malaria medications.
The panic engendered by the thought of flying an airline known as
Mad Air was mollified when I determined that Air France pilots flew
the international route for Air Madagascar. We gathered gear for
humid jungles and looked high and low for things called mosquito
coils. At least this was a trip where it was not necessary to ask
whether one might drink the water (an emphatic no).
Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world and
probably has the fourth-poorest road system to match. Our internal
travel was primarily by plane when it was necessary to cover large
distances. Once we arrived in Antsiranana, or Nosy Be or Fon
Dauphin, we were loaded into a series of motorized vehicles that
ranged from vans in relatively good condition to flatbed trucks
whose brakes required steady pumping on the part of the driver.
Three times we took boats - a fiberglass fishing boat, dugout
canoes and a wooden fishing boat that I was photographing for its
picturesque quaintness before I discovered I was to board it.
Our accommodations were more than adequate. We camped for two
nights in tents provided by Cortez. We stayed in a series of guest
houses or bungalows that sometimes were new and comfortable,
sometimes were not. Our oasis was the Hotel Colbert in the capital
of Tana, where we could wash our hair, have our clothes cleaned and
sleep with air-conditioning. Still, the mosquito coils turned up in
almost every room we occupied. We used them to discourage insects,
but since none of our windows had screens and the coils burned for
less than half the night, we were more often than not some
mosquito's late-night snack.
We were a group of seven Americans and Bruno, our Malagasy
guide, who shepherded us from the northern tip of the island to the
southern, using the capital of Tana as the wheel hub. At each
nature preserve, we had a local guide who introduced us to its
wealth of plants and animals. So much of the natural forest cover
of Madagascar has been destroyed that it is only in a series of
protected preserves that the plants and animals survive.
The femurs were a thrill, and we never failed to find some if
they inhabited the preserve. They won our hearts with their
inquisitive, pointed faces, huge round eyes and hands with flat
fingers and nails rather than claws. …