We passed through the famous Avenue of the Baobabs on our return trip to Morondava. It consists of at least a dozen gigantic and truly majestic Baobab trees (called Ranalas by the locals, who hold them sacred in a land where nature is unfortunately not generally revered) along a dirt road, flanked my dozens more Baobabs of varying sizes and shapes. I like Baobabs. I like their weird otherworldly shapes, their funky energy and their strange leafing and flowering habits. I like that they were here long before humans came to fetishize them and cut down the surrounding forests, leaving them to tower over the landscapes. And to see so many clustered together like a tall and bulbous family in one place was very cool. The dirt avenue is a road for wandering locals, Malagasy sightseers, and poor kids wanting you to pay money to take a picture of them and/or their chamaleon prisoners. Nearby is the famous "Baobab Amoureux", a couple of trees intertwined like cosmic arboreal lovers.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, having broken off from the mainland about 90 million years ago. This allowed for a special evolutionary niche to appear - apparently, 80-90% of its flora and fauna are endemic and appear nowhere else on earth! The Tsingy, as it is called, is an amazing and unique place in the world. It was worth the unforgettably crazy drive to get here!
Check out a video HERE of Carr crossing one if the chasms.
Fascinating and ultra-cool looking limestone rock formations (jagged pinnacles, deadly sharp spires, caves), fossils, rope bridges over dizzying drops and relatively protected wildlife (we saw several species of lemur jumping happily and grunting in groups) are among its many wild wonders. A number of trails are possible, but you must hire a guide due to the dangerousness of the trail (for example, some sections require climbing with a harness and many of the caves and cliffs require you to be relatively limber and fit) and to locate and protect the wildlife. We enjoyed it thoroughly and it was definitely the highlight of Madagascar for us. We spent a couple of nights at an overpriced and forgettable lodge named L'Olympe, and then hit the road back to Morondava.
Arranging travel in Madagascar is not unlike juggling 6 drunken lemurs while tightrope-walking over a vortex of chaos. After much haggling, calling, comparing and semi-successful attempts at communicating we were able to arrange for a 4X4 to take us to Tsingy National Park north of Morondava. What a ride! It took 8 hours to get there, over some of the craziest, roughest roads I've ever been on and a couple of most entertaining river crossings. We met many locals along the way, most of whom were very friendly and fun to interact with. Still, it was somewhat depressing to see the impact of great poverty and illiteracy/ignorance on both the people and their environment. Large portions of the land have been decimated by people whose situation makes their only concern immediate day-to-day survival rather than foresight and environmental sustainability. Many scientists have forecast that at the current rate of destruction most of the country's ecosystems and many endemic species (for example the awesome lemurs) will be gone in 20-30 years. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the world at large. We humans have the potential to be so beautiful and good, yet more often than not overall we are a plague on the earth.
We had heard the winding 700km road from Tana to Morondava could take anywhere from 11-24 hours to drive due to a number of factors- and it ended up being quite an adventure! To summarize... we hired a driver who spoke very rough French and left in his van on Friday morning. The road got progressively worse the further away we got from the capital. At some point near sunset we stopped at yet another army checkpoint at yet another village. There we were told it was considered too dangerous to continue on our own as there had been several violent bandit attacks in the next region recently! The guard told us we could however wait until 3 am when a caravan of taxi-brousse was leaving under army escort. We first made sure there was no cost and it was legit (not a scam), then had a meal of pommes-frites with our driver in a local restaurant before heading back to the van to sleep for a few hours (most uncomfortably)! Mind over matter. At 3 am we got up and began the furious and harrowing drive at breakneck speeds... We had an army guard with an AK-47 sitting right behind us. The road was really rough and at some point one of the other vans broke down, so we all stopped to help with the repairs. It was a tense 15 minutes, but people defused that by joking around as the guards looked about. We drove for hours til dawn broke and we reached another checkpoint at a crossroads, then left the caravan and continued to Morondava!
The area around Morondava is much more beautiful and undisturbed than the farmland further east. We found a place to stay, some cabins called Chez Maggie with a nice view of the ocean. We are going to chill out a few days and arrange to go visit Tsingy Forest as well as the Avenue des Baobabs, which are a few hours' drive from here.
After a brief stop in Paris for a nice visit with Carr's family, we took a 12 hour flight to Antananarivo (aka Tana), capital city of Madagascar. Overall I found Tana to be a pretty gross, depressing and stifling place. The overcrowded streets exude a sense of moribund poverty and pollution. Everything feels grimy, it stinks, and the choking smell of exhaust/diesel fumes is ubiquitous. Those people who were not begging or trying to sell us something were however generally pleasant. We knew ahead of time that we would not want to stay long, but unfortunately travel in Madagascar (like many other third world countries) can be difficult to arrange and we ended up staying two rather long days before finally escaping. One of those days we took a few taxi-brousse ("bush taxi", like a colectivo - a big cheap van completely stuffed full of locals and occasionally a chicken or two!) to visit a lemur sanctuary in the countryside. We also strongly suspect the rather oily hotel agent was lying to us about all the problems he was encountering with arranging our exodus, in an attempt to sell us more expensive travel options. What a slimy jerk. It was quite a ride when we did leave (see next blog entry)!
So many interesting sights in Barcelona. For example all the impressive and whimsical architecture by Antoni Gaudi is a treat for the eyes - including the famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral (ever under construction and packed with tourists), Parc Guell (even more tourists) and various buildings all over town. The beach is also nice and helped us to cool down. Our favourite so far though has been the "hidden gem" of the Parc del Laberinto d'Horta, which as the name suggests is home to a bona fide hedge maze! It is a lot of fun to get lost in... if you can discover the center, you will find none other than Eros (in statue form) to congratulate your perseverance! The rest of the grounds sport cooling woods and refreshing pools filled with koi fish - which was nice because it was once again very hot during the day. For much of our visit there were also very few people around - though somehow after we found the center of the maze a number of visitors started pouring in. Spain's been fun and interesting in many ways, and at the same time challenging in others... the ubiquitous and intense heat leaves us pretty drained by the evening, and at this point cities with their crowded hustle and bustle are not so appealing to me. Hoping to connect with more nature/natural energies in a few days when we arrive in Africa.
From Cordoba we took a 3 hour bus ride south to picturesque Granada in southern Spain. We rented a small apartment in the Albaycin neighborhood, which has a fantastic view of the Alhambra (a sprawling fortress/palace built by the Moors and later the Spanish) and much of the picturesque city, which you can see by clicking HERE. It has been insanely hot since we arrived, at least 34-35 degrees in the shade if not more, so we have tended to venture out in the mornings and evenings only. There's a distinctive flavour of Arab and Berber culture here which is reminiscent of our trip to Morocco last year - and that is awesome. The Alhambra itself was packed with tourists and steaming, but it was still worth a visit. It is a sprawling epic palace which is interesting to explore. All in all it's been fun, but between the heat and the ongoing jetlag we both feel pretty tired.
As soon as we were in the air, heading to Madrid, I began to feel more aligned, better. From Madrid we took a bus down to Cordoba, Spain... a small city which had a very relaxed feel at least partly due to the fact that the streets were almost deserted. It was explained to me that many people are on vacation, and that others were staying indoors during the day (especially at the multi-hour siesta time) due to the intense heat. The torridity was a bit much - at least 40 degrees celcius starting around noon and not cooling down appreciably overnight. We found that we only had so much energy every day due to the heat. There was a cool little bar around the corner (Bar Yuste!) from our apartment where we had drinks and some meals. With a few pleasant exceptions, we found most of the people noticeably...brusque and grumpy. The old town of Cordoba is quite pretty, but the highlight of our visit was really the Mezquita de Cordoba (see pics above of its myriad arches) and the lively Roman Bridge nearby.
We have been back in Ottawa the past few weeks, to see friends and family and prepare for the next leg of our journey. While this "re-entry" has been good in many ways (more on this further down), it has also been a surprisingly challenging time. I'd had "re-entry sickness" before (e.g., after returning from Burning Man or longer trips abroad) but never to this extent. A few days after returning, I began to feel some unexpected waves of anxiety and inner tightness, which at first I had trouble understanding. I also grappled with some feelings of loss of direction, lack of meaning and even mild depression. These feelings were in such stark contrast to where I was at while we were traveling, and it took me some time to unhook from them enough to be able to process and understand where they came from.
It comes down, I think, to a few basic things. When we were traveling we slowed right down and opened to the world - feeling very in tune with with earth and her natural healing nurturing rhythms, getting out of our heads and feeling quite happy most of the time. One becomes more sensitive to the energies of the world, whereas in normal modern life one desensitizes and numbs out a fair bit. I had not anticipated the impact of suddenly being back around others who are living hectic lives in the city. So many people are living out an inherited script for their lives, a script which promises happiness but which really just leaves them stressed and unhappy, sped up and in their minds and judgements much of the time. And I found that being back in society brought up the same script and judgements in myself - for example, strong feelings of guilt and anxiety about not working/making money and doing something "selfish" and "frivolous". Even more than that, I found that being back in regular human society I was suddenly lacking an identity - if I am not Dr. Oliver or Luis Enrique the artist, who am I in this world!? - and it was difficult to relate to many people in other ways.
There is more to it, but that is the essence of it I think. It was all pretty confusing, and made all the more confusing by the fact that I thought I had seen these feelings coming already. For the first few days, the city seemed like a strange dream, and the other world I had just left felt like the reality. Very quickly though, the tables turned - back in the city I have trouble remembering our trip, particularly how it felt to be freer and more connected. The trip/nature now feels like the dream, and this the "reality" which I'm having trouble loving. It brings up questions about what a meaningful life is... I'm curious to see how it will be when we fly out in a few days.
It feels like people have forgotten something very important about how to live... and while I had found it for a time I feel like I have now forgotten it again. And yet I feel like I will remember it, hopefully soon.
Throughout all this, there were many things in the past few weeks which helped me remember what is good and essential, and to feel calm and sane. I have several very good and cool friends, for one. People who are tuned in to creative energies and who are alive and understand, and people with whom I feel loved and accepted and understood. Some good times spent with family were also nourishing (and meeting the new granddaughter!), as was doing some art (I played around with inks one afternoon, see the pic above). We spent some time out in the country at our friends' Glenn and Pam's cottage, some time hanging out with various friends at their homes making music or talking or just having fun and laughing. Some good conversations with people who "get it" - these were like beacons validating perceptions. Like the wise words of someone who said that once a creature sheds it's skin it cannot comfortably put it back on. Or believing that there is a right path, if you listen for it. And above all, there is the love between Carr and I - she is my beloved, my home.
We continued our drive east and camped at a brilliant place - the Badlands in South Dakota, which we previously knew nothing about. Spectacular landscapes - vast grasslands, rocky undulating badlands. A copious cornucopia of interesting animal life - herds of bison, bighorn sheep, badgers, prairie dogs, birds of all kinds. North of the Badlands is a gaudy but entertaining tourist trap called Wall Drug... worth a visit, just don't stay too long! Starting the drive to Ottawa tomorrow.