I have cashed in my Delta miles for the big one: around the world, business class. I booked in January for March travel knowing that award seats aren't released until it becomes clear that they would otherwise go unsold. The rules are simple: a maximum of six stops, three per continent, all travel in a continuous direction (either east or west). No backtracking allowed except to make a connection. With Air France (Delta's Skyteam alliance partner), that means back to Paris. I had to juggle and substitute destinations to fit my schedule and availability that came up with a five-week itinerary. The computer could not print out my ticket because it had too many segments, so I ended up with the world's longest handwritten ticket. It took two agents two hours to write it.
With Delta, as always, the first leg is to Atlanta. Curiously, this was the only segment I couldn't get the flight I wanted. Award seats from Florida on a Sunday evening in winter are basically unavailable. (Shows what everyone else is wasting their frequent flyer miles on.) So I take the noon flight. The gal at check-in looks at my itinerary and remarks on how little luggage I have. I have two bags, mostly books and snacks.
A six hour layover in Atlanta, then onwards to Los Angeles. Travel is in Delta First Class. Big whoop. It's no surprise that no one actually pays extra for an upgrade. At least they have resumed serving hot food.
At LAX I join Air France's Paris to Tahiti flight. Business Class is not even half full. I didn't have enough mileage for First Class ticket, but I am not shorting myself. Those seats have a bit more recline, but not a private cabin-ette like some carriers offer. Anyway, I want to stay awake and enjoy the experience: comfy chair, good food, personal video. I am surprised that the movie menu includes Master and Commander, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars but the wrong side ?the English? wins.
The flight is ten hours across the ocean and the equator to the South Pacific. Tahiti is one of hundreds of islands that comprise French Polynesia, a French overseas territory (the modern and less harsh term for colony).
The airport is small and has tropical island look, but is completely First World in operation. A girl greets arriving passengers with a flower to put behind your ear. (Not wishing to accentuate my receding hairline, I decline.) I am off the plane first, through passport control and at the luggage reclaim while a long queue forms. Then I wait. So much for priority baggage handling. The whole 747 full of luggage is unloaded before I get mine. I am surprised to see a number of backpacks on the carousel; this place is not noted for being on the budget travelers' circuit. I pick up my rental car. It's a Peugeot 106 "Pop Art." It's peppy, has a nice radio, electric windows and door locks, but not a single cupholder.
Papeete is the principal city and administrative capital. The airport is in Faaa, some three miles from the city center. I hop on the expressway to go have a look. Total congestion, unlabeled streets. It takes me forever to find a parking space. Once I do, there is nothing to see. City Hall is nice. One building, that's it. The rest is just low-rise commercial structures of recent vintage.
Tahiti is famous for expensive lodging. I am staying at a pension I found for $60/night. Here, that's cheap. It's right on the beach so, uncharacteristically, I go in the water. Very nice: perfect temperature, perfectly clear, absolutely calm (the reef stops the waves), fish swimming about.
I am reading Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles of Oceania. Here's what he says about Tahiti: "expensive, traffic choked, noisy, corrupt, and Frenchified," but with great natural beauty.
At the end of the first day I am standing with camera ready, awaiting my first Tahitian sunset behind the over water bungalows at the Meridien hotel next door. It is a total bust: clouds lie on the horizon, and there is not enough dust in the atmosphere for any more color than a weak yellow.
The pension provides an excellent fish dinner for $15, which, in this place, is a bargain indeed. Tahiti is astonishingly expensive, a result of importing everything, a remote location, no taxes other than import duties, and a large, ravenous bureaucracy. Local pineapples sell for $5; roadside stands offer small watermelons for $10. Everything else fresh is flown in from California except thebottled water, which comes from France.
On Day 2 I do an island circle. The island is basically round with a mountain (extinct volcano) in the middle and a road around the edge. Everyone lives on the narrow flat part. Many attractive churches.
I visit the botanical garden. It's OK, bit could be better. No one else there. Next door is the Gaugin museum, which I skip since it contains only copies and photos of his work. 180? opposite my starting point the road is closed for repair, so I have to retrace my route rather than completing the circle. The car rental itself is cheap but I am paying a ridiculous charge for mileage, so the last quadrant will remain unexplored.
I've done Tahiti, so on Day 3 I take the ferry for the 11 mile, 50 minute run to the neighboring island of Moorea. It is smaller and much more attractive: jagged green peaks and dramatic bays; looks like "Bali Hai." Unlike Tahiti, it's uncrowded with plenty of open space and empty coastline. I bring the car with me because it's cheaper than to turning it in and getting another. The convenience and efficiency of having a car is also a drawback. No matter how slowly I drive and how many stops I make I cannot stretch the island circuit to more than three hours.
My left arm is getting sunburned from sticking out the car window. It's hot here in the tropics. Electricity is so expensive that only the upscale hotels are air conditioned. The locals beat the heat by parking their cars at the water's edge and parking themselves in plastic chairs in the shallow water.
As you would expect, the girls are very good-looking. But it doesn't last ? they blimp out at about age 20. Adult Polynesians are almost all obese largely due to a junk food diet. In the supermarket a family shopping ahead of me spends $223 on the contents of a small cart, mostly soda pop and junk food.
I stay at the original hotel on the island, built in 1908. It's very atmospheric; looks like a Graham Greene novel setting. I get the best room. I should, since I am the only one there. (The Lonely Planet says that guests are few and far between, but since its publication hot water has been added.) My room is large, opening directly onto a huge verandah. It is furnished with period pieces, unintentional antiques. By afternoon I am reading on the verandah. I bought a pair of drugstore reading glasses last week and now I can't do without them. It's like optical heroin.
It's beautiful here, but boring. This place would be perfect with a high-speed internet connection, a DVD player, and a large video library. (Oh, and while we are at it, don't forget the dancing girls.) I am glad that my itinerary does not include Fiji, New Caledonia, and some of the other South Pacific islands with which I was flirting.
The evening is absolutely quiet and still. My hotel is far from the tourist areas. I go to sleep with the doors and windows wide open. Ennui ends when I close my eyes. The Lariam has kicked in. It's an extremely effective anti-malarial but with powerful psychoactive side effects. Some people it makes crazy; me, I have vivid dreams. I wake up feeling like I've been on a roller coaster all night long. I would do it all the time but it wrecks your liver.
Day 4. What to do? There's nothing calling me back to Tahiti so I stay over on Moorea another day. I go to the beach where I witness an authentic Polynesian moment: a father strumming a guitar while his young daughter practices her hula.
That evening I am sitting on the verandah when a guy with a suitcase walks in from the road. An American. He has no car. I predict he won't last long. By morning he is complaining about the boredom and the mosquitoes. He wants to see the tourist shows at the big hotels. I give him a ride to the tourist district where he will be happier and not bothering me. In the afternoon, I take the ferry back to Tahiti. I have an early morning flight so I stay near the airport. I had five days here, which was two too many. I could have taken a day trip to Bora Bora or one of the other islands in the archipelago, but the cost is hideously expensive (~$500). Maybe next time, but I predict that day will be a long time hence.
There are direct flights south and west, but not free ones, so back to Los Angeles I go. A nice view out the window: tropical islets surround by brilliant turquoise lagoons. The flight is just fine, It takes all day, arriving in the evening at LAX, where the TSA has strived to ensure the maximum misery. Even international transit passengers have to go through immigration and customs, which takes the better part of two hours.
Seoul (OK, not an island)
Onwards that night to Seoul on Korean Airlines. The service is excellent; the food so-so. I pass on the kimchee. I watch a video about the great Korean delicacy of eel intestines ? it's hard to find because it takes many eels to make a heaping plateful.
The new airport for Seoul is at Incheon, where MacArthur landed, about 70 miles from the city center. Transport to and from the city is by "limousine bus," which is a cut above the ordinary. At a fare is $10, they are not making any money on this run since I am one of only three passengers. I am not sweating here: the temperature is a crisp 34?.
I have a 12-hour layover. There are daily tours to the DMZ but, I learn to my great disappointment, not today. Military exercises have caused cancellation of all tours. And it's Monday, which means just about everything touristic is closed. There are some temples and shrines, but viewable from the outside only. The royal palace is open. It was originally built about 500 years ago but torn down by the Japanese. It has recently been rebuilt. All the tourists in Seoul (not many) are there.
Seoul is not an attractive city. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt quickly without much regard for planning and esthetics. It is huge ? 10 million people. Lots of shopping opportunities, but not a whole lot else.
The War Memorial is impressive. The inside is closed today but there are lots of huge statues outside along with a comprehensive outdoor collection of aircraft, armament, and vehicles, including captured commie stuff.
At the end of the day I return to the airport. At the security check they want to confiscate my spare batteries. I protest so vehemently that they send me to a special counter where the verboten items are placed in an envelope marked "checked luggage" and I am given a claim check. I guess they have studied the problem and concluded that inflight bomb makers are unwilling to disassemble their flashlights (an allowable item) in order to obtain batteries.
I still want to visit the DMZ. I'll have to come back.
The entire population of New Zealand is less than half that of Seoul alone. After an overnight flight, we approach Auckland in mid-morning. From the air, the countryside looks green and pleasant and the city in the distance presents an attractive skyline. The airport is very nice and very welcoming. For arriving travelers there are offered free showers, free coffee, free internet, and free local phone calls. Immigration is quick and efficient. My luggage arrives within five minutes (batteries too). There is even a bicycle assembly area.
I pick up my overpriced rental car. This country was a lot cheaper to visit when the New Zealand dollar was worth 45? rather than the 70? it is now. Lord of the Rings notwithstanding, moviemakers are not flocking here because of the increased costs. I have a Toyota Corolla. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. Across the instrument panel is a large sticker: "KEEP LEFT" with an arrow pointing portside. The control stalks are backwards too: every time I try to signal a turn I switch on the wipers instead.
I head south. The cows and sheep begin right at the airport's edge. At Matamara (a town not even mentioned in my guidebook) there is a large sign: "Welcome to Hobbit Land." Some of the shire scenes were filmed here. The sets are long gone, but you can take a tour to go see the holes in the ground where they used to be.
My first stop is Rotorua, in the heart of Maori country. It's a geothermal area; hot springs and geysers abound. There are several lakes in the area and plenty of places to stay. It is the original New Zealand tourist destination. Every tourist, foreign and domestic, comes to Rotorua.
I check into a motel. In New Zealand, all motels have self-catering facilities; in contrast, hotels do not, but are more expensive. At check-in I encounter what will become a standard ritual: along with the room key the clerk hands me a carton of fresh milk to be used for my morning tea.
A beautiful Edwardian building housed the mud baths. It is now a museum. Part of it showcases the old spa facilities, while the rest has current exhibits. There is a display on the history of tourism in the area and the local volcano, which wrecked everything once and will one day blow again, and a paean to the 28th Maori Battalion, which saw action in the Mediterranean theater in WWII. The unit received many citations and took many casualties, but I doubt that Rommel really told Hitler, as is claimed, "Give me a division of Maori and I will win this war."
There are several competing geothermal attractions. I pick Wai-O-Tapu because it doesn't include a Maori dance show. I am too late for the big geyser which spouts daily at precisely 10:15. (They cheat: at the appointed hour they dump in soap flakes to break the surface tension and trigger an eruption.) Unscheduled but nonetheless good are the boiling springs; mud pots, and colored lakes of varying hue.
Another must see on the tour-bus route is the Agridome and with its sheep show, but I skip it; I need to get moving. Travel is not so fast here. The roads are good, but only two-lane; the national highway doubles as the main street of every town. The center of the North Island is mountainous. (I have but six days here, so I will not be getting to the South Island.) Scenic, but very twisty. It's the last week of summer and the weather is fine. That is what they say on the radio when giving the forecast: [city name] followed by either "fine" or "mostly fine." That's it.
In the late afternoon I leave the mountains and enter the Hawkes Bay region. Due to the Mediterranean climate, this is a wine country. Fruit orchards too. My destination is Napier, leveled by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the then current style, art deco. Nothing happened for 50 years, then its architectural heritage was rediscovered. Napier now ranks with Miami Beach as a concentrated collection of art deco buildings. They have mostly been restored, and Napier is now the fashionable weekend destination for the wine and cheese set. I spend the next morning walking and driving around. The weather is glorious and the buildings beautiful. An entirely pleasant experience. Too bad I need to keep moving.
In the afternoon I drive to Wellington, the capital. My intent is find a motel on the outskirts, but I am stymied -- the city center is ringed by mountains, and one must cross them to reach the suburbs. I arrive just in time for rush hour, meaning I join the expressway congestion heading back out of town. It is a long way before I find a place with both a vacancy and a nonextortionate tariff.
In the morning I head back into town for a look. It's quite an attractive city, both buildings and natural setting. There are several lookout points with nice views. The main attraction is the national museum. It's my kind of museum ? underground parking and free admission. It's very modern, hi-tech, and interactive. Also very politically correct: one can take only a few steps inside before encountering those magic words "celebrating diversity." The signs, exhibit labels, and descriptions are in both English and Maori, which makes about as much sense as requiring captions in Honolulu to be in Hawaiian. There is lots of Maori stuff as well as on and from various islands in Polynesia. The message is clear: "never mind that they wore dog skins and bashed each other's heads in with clubs, they were/are not savages!"
I particularly like the reconstructed moa, bigger than an ostrich but extinct since the Maori ate them all, and the wool exhibit. There are still plenty of sheep in New Zealand even if the ovine:human ratio is no longer 20:1. There are also a couple of floors devoted to contemporary art, i.e., crap.
I look at the newspaper. Ungrateful taxpayers are carping about economic development funds being awarded to one woman so she could study hip hop culture in Los Angeles, Samoa, and Fiji. Another grantee traveled to Washington to investigate lesbian sports opportunities for Maoris and other minorities. This may be the antipodes, but the government is the same careful steward of Other People's Money.
I mustn't tarry. I have a long drive back to Auckland. The road runs up the wild and scenic west coast, then inland through the high desert under volcanic cones. My goal for the night is Lake Taupo, where I know there is plenty of lodging. There are also plenty of tourists. It's Friday night, and every place is full. I have to push on for another hour before encountering a vacancy. Odd: every place I've been has abundant backpacker hostels, but I have seen no backpackers or public transport, and in four days I have seen only one intercity bus.
Saturday morning I finish up the last three hours to Auckland. With a one million population, it is the Big Kiwi. Even at noon I pass long stretches of "no vacancy" signs. Finally, I hit pay dirt, getting one of the last rooms. I drive toward the city center. My first stop is a park that offers a drive to and lookout from a volcanic cone. It's a clear day, providing nice views of the city and harbor. Auckland calls itself "the City of Sails" and on this windy Saturday afternoon the sailboats abound. I drive the rest of the way in, find parking, and wander about. Lots of foreign tourists. To gain a waterfront prospective, I take a harbor ferry out and back. The big event of the day is the pro-Saddam rally downtown, but I am too late; I later hear it attracted about 100 demonstrators, which is not many considering round-the-clock appeasement propaganda that the media spews.
Sunday morning I visit the Auckland Museum, built after WWI as the War Memorial Museum, which has been modernized to cover conflicts from the Maori Wars to the current eNZed deployment in Bosnia. The presentation assumes, probably correctly, that the typical visitor knows little or nothing of 20th century events. The military stuff is upstairs, while downstairs is Auckland in times past. Outside, the antique car society is having a meet with the owners in period dress.
Today is also Race Relations Day. No, you are not supposed to celebrate by bashing a wog; you are supposed to feel guilty for being white. The poltroons on government radio are bemoaning the problem that white people don't want to learn to speak Maori.
I have been here five full days and haven't seen a live kiwi. It's not like they are like chickens -- they are close to extinct in the wild, and there are only a handful on exhibit. I drive to the zoo, but find that I am not alone. So far my impression has been that Auckland is like Los Angeles without the congestion, but on this Sunday afternoon the simile is exact -- there is not an empty parking space to be found. Well, I console myself, the little buggers are nocturnal and sleep 20 hours a day, so I am not missing anything.
There are no other major tourist sights, and I am not one for shopping. There's not enough time to go any place distant, so I head to the airport. By turning the car in a few hours early I save a full day's rental.
I bid a fond farewell to eNZed. What a nice country! I'll be back.
Back to Seoul. As on the outbound flight, the plane (the front at least) is empty. I don't know how they can keep this route running if they don't sell any tickets.
The airline lounges reflect the national character. In Auckland, the Air New Zealand lounge is spacious but simple. In Seoul, the Korean airline lounge is over the top with banks of high-speed internet terminals with large flat screen displays and even a slumber room. In Paris, the Air France lounge is crowded, smoke filled, and pretentious with one computer for public use and a Minitel. In Seoul I connect to Paris and then to Mauritius.
Mauritius is in the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles east of Madagascar. It used to be known as the only home of the dodo. Now it is known mainly for upscale resorts and offshore banking. I arrive in the morning after an overnight flight. My luggage does not arrive with me; I'm told it will arrive in a couple of hours on the next flight. Anticipating the possibility of several trips back to the airport, I get a car, which turns out to be a woefully underpowered Opel, and take a room in nearby Mahebourg. For $36 I get a beautiful room with a balcony directly facing the water.
I start my tour with a visit to the ruins of the Dutch fort. Mauritius was uninhabited until the Dutch came in 1498. They stayed about 100 years and left, having eaten all the dodos. Then the French moved in, renaming it Ile de France. They actually won a naval battle in 1818 against the British (commemorated on the Arc d' Triumph) but, true to form, surrendered the island. The Brits installed a governor, but not much else changed. They drive on the wrong side of the road, but that is about the extent of its Britishness. The official language is English but that is the mother tongue of only about three thousand of the one million inhabitants, who speak French and Creole.
The people are a homogeneous mix, descended from white settlers, African slaves, and Indian laborers brought to work the sugar cane fields, which still cover much of the island. The roads are decent and more or less marked, though narrow and twisty. The rules of the road are governed by the Indian heritage rather than the English: everyone -- cars, trucks, buses, scooters, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians -- uses the middle of the road, but nobody slows down.
The capital, Port Louis, is in the northeast some 40 miles directly opposite the airport. The first day I do the lower east, center, and part of the south of the island. Nothing spectacular, but nice scenery. The history museum has a bunch of stuff salvaged from wrecks, a fair amount of interesting historical info, but no dodos. The best thing about it is that it is free. That is not an exception; once you have paid to get here, there are no admission charges on Mauritius.
When I return my luggage has arrived, but a seam has given way. A quick trip to the cobbler mends it at a cost of $1. That night an excellent meal is only $10. If one avoids the isolated resorts which prey on a captive clientele, this island is not expensive. Also, the people are very friendly. When I manage to get a tire stuck in a narrow drainage culvert, a crowd quickly gathers, assesses the problem and solves it: many hands simply pick up the car and place it back onto the pavement.
On Day 2 I head east. First stop is a lake in a volcanic crater surrounded by Hindu temples. They believe that its waters are connected to the Ganges. Next is the Black River Gorge National Forest. There are all sorts of hiking trails, and I arrive with ambitious intentions. I easily dissuade myself from that notion and am content to drive to the scenic lookouts. There is no chance of getting lost since I simply follow the line of taxis hauling tourists from their hotels. Nice views of waterfalls, the gorge, green sugar cane fields and the ocean beyond. After that, the spectacularly over-hyped "seven-colored sands of Chamarel," which is a small deposit of volcanic sands of varying hues. Then, a beautiful drive up the west coast to Port Louis, where I arrive just in time for rush hour traffic. Good thing that by now I am completely adept at this left-side driving business. I find a hotel and, more impressively, a parking space nearby.
The guide book says that the rooms are large and bright. True, but also very spartan. At least I am next to Chinatown, so food won't be a problem. I take a quick tour in the waning light: shiny bank towers and crumbling warehouses. The waterfront has been completely redeveloped into a shopping/entertainment/hotel/casino complex, but the place looks dead. All of downtown empties out at 5:00 PM.
Day 3. An early start. I head up the hill to the old citadel for a view, then work my way through the short list of sights. There are several handsome colonial buildings. The Natural History Museum has a dodo ? reconstructed but nonetheless impressive. Photos are not allowed, and they don't even sell postcards of it!
A radical change of plans. I intended to zip over to Reunion (formerly Ile de Bourbon, surrendered by France but returned to them in 1815), on a fast ferry and return the next day. I even have the schedule from the internet. Well, there ain't no ferry no more, just a slow boat which takes 18 hours. Flying over for one day is too expensive, so Reunion falls off my itinerary. I'll give those days to Madagascar.
I am holding a ticket for a Saturday night flight (it is the only air ticket I actually paid for). It is a full fare ticket (egad!), so freely changeable. I go to the Air Mauritius office to see about leaving on Friday. "Sorry, the flight is full. We can put you on the waiting list." I inquire about business class, at which point her attitude changes abruptly. It only cost $40 more. (What was I thinking when I paid full fare coach?) I next visit Air Madagascar to buy an internal flight. Lesson learned, I request business class. The red carpet is also rolled out. Now my entire trip can be in comfort.
North of Port Louis is Pamplemousse, where the botanical garden (formerly the Royal Botanic Garden) is located. It has one of the best collections of palms in the world. As soon as I arrive it starts pouring rain. I wait it out, over an hour. The gardens date to 1735 and are quite impressive. Also free.
My flight leaves early in the morning so I need to be back south. The rain delay puts me smack in the middle of rush hour. This is not a poor place. There are lots of cars. It takes two hours to get to Mahebourg and back to my favorite hotel. Even worse, I get nabbed in a speed trap. After creeping along in traffic for an eternity, the road opens up to a six-lane freeway. However, the speed limit doesn't increase. I am clocked at 103kph in an 80 zone. The cops are doing a brisk business. The fine is $20 payable at the traffic court. ( I consider skipping out on the ticket, but figure they will get the rental car company who will charge it back to me.) I offer to pay the fine on the spot, and the cop accepts (surprise!). But he won't give me a receipt, telling me I have to get it from the court. Although I have little doubt that my money ended up in his pocket; at least I hope he voided the ticket. If not, I may soon be on the Interpol most-wanted list.
I feared business class on Mauritius might be like that on intra-European flights, i.e., the same lousy seats. Not to worry. On even a 2-hour flight they put on the big dog: nice seats, multi-course meal, heavy cutlery, amenities kit. Nice lounge too. An ad in the inflight magazine claims that one of the world's leading hair transplant clinics is on Mauritius, and at only a fraction of European prices. Hmm, I might be back.
Madagascar is big -- 1000 miles long by 350 miles wide -- the world's fourth largest island (after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo). Its population is an Indo-Malay-African Creole. There are several tribes of different ethnic component proportions, but a single language, Malagasy. The island has been politically unified for the last 200 years. It was a French colony from 1895 to 1960.
The flight path is over green forest mountains, green hills, and green fields into Antananarivo, the capital (universally abbreviated to "Tana"). Located in the central highlands, it has a population of 2 million. It looks better than most African cities from afar, but does not stand up to closer scrutiny.
My new schedule gives me eight days here instead of six. I have no idea what I will do. Before leaving I made inquiries of several local tour agencies but they all quoted rates upwards of $200/day. Explore has a 2-week trip for which they charge $2,300. All I really want is transportation.
At the luggage carousel I meet a chap from London who is here on business. He has two free days, so we agree to join up. In the arrivals hall are the usual taxi touts. After some quick interviews and hard negotiations we have a deal: a car, driver, and fuel for a week for $400. (My share is $325 as I will have the car to myself for five days.) We write out a contract containing the itinerary and details, inspect the vehicle ? a new Peugeot saloon car ? and we are off. First stop is to the driver's house so he can grab some things and say goodbye to his wife. Then some banking; $200 gets me almost 1.5 million Malagasy francs, which is the unit of currency even though the money is denominated in ariarys. One ariary equals 5 francs. Compounding the confusion is the usual problem of no one having change for the 10,000 ariary notes the bank dispenses.
I decide to replicate the Explore itinerary, but condensed and without all the sitting around. The first stop is Perinet National Park, some 80 miles east. The trip takes three hours because it is on the good road, one of only two in the country. Only 15% of the roads are paved, and those that are can better be described as "once-paved." This is one of the poorest countries on earth. Per capita income is approximately $100. Only 10% of the homes have electricity or running water, 1% a refrigerator. Yet, it is a monetary poverty, not starvation poverty. The land is fertile and its ricefields productive. It's the standard story for Africa: political instability, corruption, and Marxist economics combined with a high birth rate have produced a steady decline in living standards since independence.
Accommodation is in bungalows on the edge of the park. They are not exactly luxurious, but there they have electricity, hot water, and only cost $18/night. At dusk our guide takes us on a night walk. With keen eyes and a powerful flashlight we find frogs, chameleons, and dwarf lemurs. When we return, dinner is ready.
Perinet is home of the indri, the largest and most evolved of the surviving lemurs. We are greeted at dawn by its call, which can carry for two miles. After breakfast we set out to look for them. In a guided walk of 3 1/2 hours we find them, two groups. The indri look like a cross between a koala, a panda, and a gibbon. Many good photos (I hope). Also, brown lemurs, birds, and reptiles.
We've seen the critters; no point in hanging around. Time to move on. There is no choice of roads. To go south, we have to go back to and through Tana. While doing so we get hit by a bus coming out of a side street. Our nice new car! The damage is cosmetic (body work and paint) but we figure we will be there for hours. Everyone was amazingly good natured about it. The other driver wrote out a statement of culpability. The police were not summoned and did not arrive. Our driver called the owner to report. After 30 minutes, we were again on our way.
It was three hours back to Tana and our destination, Antsirabe, is another 3 1/2 hours further. The road is the other good road, smooth but not particularly fast. Lots of slow traffic to pass on windy mountain roads. Nice scenery, though.
Antsirabe was founded by Norwegians and developed by the French for its hot springs. It is now a major town. We arrive after dark and check in to the Grand Dame of Madagascar hotels, the Hotel des Thermes. Built in 1897 and renovated in 1997, it is an enormous wooden building with extensive grounds. It is old and tired, but cheap: huge rooms with foyer and private verandah come with a rack rate less then $40. Anywhere else this place would be turned into a 5 star resort, but, like everywhere else in Madagascar, it is mostly empty. Madagascar gets fewer than 300,000 tourists a year, mostly French. About 4% are Americans, of which I don't encounter any.
A distinctive feature of Antsirabe is its rickshaws. Not bicycle
pedicabs, but old-fashioned, Chinese-style wooden rickshaws with a
barefoot guy running to pull you. There are hundreds of them. They are
not just for the tourists, of which there almost none. Nobody who can
afford to ride walks. They won't let you. Swarms of rickshaws
congregate outside the hotel. When we decide to walk a couple of blocks
to dinner, they follow us the whole way. Locals pay around 15? for a
ride in town, but with tourists the pullers are hoping for a big score.
No matter what we pay them, they act hugely disappointed or even
outraged. On Sunday morning we take a short tour around town and give
them $2 each, more than a full day's wage. They initially refuse paltry
sum and threaten to call the police. We turn away and head into the
hotel. Of course, they race back and accept the money long before we
reach the door.
The English guy has to head back to Tana. He was intending to go by bus or bush taxi but, after seeing actually seeing them, hires a private car. By coincidence, he will be on the same flight to Paris late Friday night.
I continue south. We drive for about six hours. The road is mostly good. The scenery is excellent: in the distance, terraced ricefields and granite outcroppings; along the side of the road, deforestation in action as the trees are being chopped down to make charcoal. At each town there is a police or military checkpoint. Almost always, they glance at a nice new big car with a bwana in back and just wave us through. Sometimes they ask my driver where he is going and whether I am a tourist. A couple of times he has to show his papers to show that he is authorized to carry tourists. Once I am asked to show my passport. But it's all very friendly.
We stop at a medium-sized town. A perfectly decent room at the best hotel costs $14. Dinner and breakfast raised the total tariff to $21. I think I am the only guest.
The next day, Monday, is a national holiday, the anniversary of a 1947 rebellion against the French. They made be proud of themselves, but since then things have gone from bad to worse. We continue south. After an hour or so we stop at Ambivalo, noted for its paper. They pound fibrous reeds into mush which is spread onto screens to make a rough paper. What's unique is that fresh flowers are then impressed into the pulp where they retain their color and become part of the paper.
The standard tour, at this point, goes to Ranamosama (these Malagasy names are impossible) National Park. Unfortunately, a cyclone tore through the island two months ago and washed out the bridges to reach the park. Instead, I visit a small reserve nearby which turns out to be much more suited to my style. Instead of hiking for hours in hope of spotting some distant wildlife, the guide takes us into a grove a short walk from the parking area. He has a bunch of bananas, and the lemurs rush out for the treat. If you hold a banana, they will even jump on your arm to eat it.
South of Ambivalo we leave the mountains. The countryside opens up and gets drier. We are on an open plain. This is zebu (the African cattle with the distinctive shoulder hump) country. Abruptly, the macadam ends. Instead, there are numerous dirt tracks running more or less parallel; other traffic heading in the same direction may be left or right. It looks like the Paris-Dakar rally. Eventually, the pavement reappears and we reach the night destination. My driver and the hotel manager are both amazed at my profligacy when the $18 deluxe room over the $14 standard one. Dinner is grilled zebu. Chewy.
Isalo National Park is canyon country ? Utah with lemurs. People usually spend a couple of days trekking, but I am trying to be hyper-efficient. With the aid of a vehicle, two day treks can be done in one day. However, my car is too low for the rough dirt road. I need to hire a high clearance vehicle. It turns out to be a Renault clunker into which we cram six people (I split the vehicle and guide costs with a Dutch couple). The first task is to find fuel, which is not as easy as it sounds since there is no gas station in town. We need to find someone who has some and negotiate a price. The drive to the trailhead takes an hour. Even though we get out and walk at a couple of rough spots, we still manage to tear off the muffler and exhaust pipe. No problem: they just leave it on the side of the road and continue. Without a muffler, the car is not noticeably any nosier.
The hike is about another hour. The path follows a stream flowing out of the canyon. The canyon walls are steep and dry, but the river course is lush. The walk ends at a large pool with overhanging ferns. Our guide sets out to find lemurs. He succeeds. The sifaka is the fifth type I have seen. On the way back we pick up the muffler, cram it in the back, and return to town.
For lunch I order fried tilapia. I have seen numerous fish ponds along the way and figure it should be fresh. It is. It is also tiny: guppy size. They should leave them in the pond longer.
In the afternoon we visit the Piscine Naturelle. Once again, driving reduces a three hour hike to 45 minutes. We walk through impressive sandstone cliffs and hoodoos (a la Bryce Canyon in Utah) to reach a perfect natural swimming pool fed by a waterfall amid lush tropical greenery. Unlike this morning, we are not alone: a French group is camping nearby.
On Wednesday we continue south through Saphir, where the discovery of sapphires a few years ago triggered a gemrush. It is a boom town, wild and lawless. Like a movie set, saloons and casinos built out of raw, unpainted lumber beckon the lucky and their easy money. Impromptu markets offer electronic geegaws and logo sportswear. On the outskirts are squatters camps where reside hopeful miners and their families.
After a few miles the countryside flattens out completely. There are grasslands to the horizon. Another movie location shot; the only thing missing are the buffalo. I note a complete absence of litter which is unusual for the third world. In Madagascar, they have nothing to throw away.
I stop at Zambitse National Park, which is noted for its birds. I am not a bird watcher, but the park is right by the road. In a 2-hour walk I spot a few, but mostly small, drab, and far away. There is a specie unique to the park, which I can now check off on my lifetime bird list. I also see a lemur, a lizard, wild orchids, and lots of butterflies. The best moment is when the guide spots a large boa ? he jumps and runs away in panic in a scene worthy of any jungle movie.
Journey's end is around 3:00 PM when we reach Tulear. At the driver's suggestion I am staying at a beach hotel about 10 miles south of town. (There are nice beaches to the north but inaccessible without a 4-wheel drive.) Although rooms here begin at $8, I opt for the super deluxe beachfront bungalow at the top rate: $22. It's big enough for a whole party, if I were the type and there were anyone else staying here. The Frogs like to swarm en masse: in high season, it's chockers; low season means empty.
Actually, I am not quite alone. There is another guest: an old fat Frog with his very attractive companion of color. Am I looking at the future? Naah, I'll never be French.
In the morning we drive into the city for a look and a bit of shopping. The only thing worth seeing is in the museum: the egg of an elephant bird, which weighed some 800 lbs. and went extinct after man arrived around 500 AD. All the megafauna of Madagascar are gone, including a gorilla-size lemur.
Even though we have traveled 600 miles further from the equator, we have left the highlands and are now at sea level. Tulear is right on the Topic of Capricorn. It's hot here. I am glad that my hotel has a pool. The southwest is sunny and dry. One of its distinctive features is the "spiny forest": what appear to be trees are actually, on close inspection, cacti.
In the afternoon a visit to St. Augustine Bay. Nothing there, but the drive is nice. It's the only road that can be negotiated by ordinary cars. The fishing village would look better if they had money to paint their boats.
In the morning, to the airport. The flight board lists two flights that day. There is no lounge. I bid farewell to my driver.
Air Madagascar (f/k/a Mad Air) is just fine, although they could try harder with the food. The flight is on a mostly empty 737. A shocking secret revealed: there is no security check at Tulear! I am amazed I did not hijack the plane.
Back in Tana I have 12 hours to kill before my flight to Paris. The airport is no place is spend it, and I have no desire to go back into the city. Feeling profligate, I take a room at a hotel nearby. The price, $15, includes a free transfer back.
Everything to date has gone flawlessly. The streak ends at the Air France check-in counter. Their computer shows my reservation and that it has been ticketed. I have a computer-printed confirmation and itinerary, but the name of the originating city on the flight coupon was handwritten as "Tanassetts," not "Tanarive," although the flight number, date and destination are correct. After many levels of discussion, they will not accept the ticket. They will not call Delta for confirmation. "What should I do?" The response is a gallic shrug. It's not their problem; I should take it up with my "travel agent," but if I want to go to Paris I must buy a new ticket. So I do. $1,700. I'll sort it out later.
If I hadn't already had a reservation I would have not been able to buy a seat. The plane is full. International bankers have been here this week wasting your money and are heading home. The boarding process is extra slow because Air France doesn't trust the terminal security. They redo the entire check at planeside.
It's April. I am looking forward to a new slate of movies but am disappointed: a bunch of holdovers along with crummy new ones. I read in the inflight magazine that Air France is switching to a two cabin configuration with better business class seats on some routes, i.e., those, the ones where they compete with British Airways.
Arrival in the morning at Charles de Gaulle airport. I am connecting out of Orly and am entitled to a free transfer. The price of a free bus ticket is an eternal wait at the transfer desk. Everyone ahead of me has a problem. The whole counter if full of frustrated passengers arguing with Air France agents, who simply shrug and say "not our responsibility."
The flight from Tana gets in too late for a same-day connection, so I need to spend the night in Paris. Normally, I would head into the city and hunt out a cheap room, but I have too much luggage to schlep. So I stay at the Ibis at Orly. Amazing, a budget hotel on airport property! The weekend special: 59 euros. It's afternoon by the time I check in. What to do? Go into the city? There's not much I missed last year, the weather isn't the best (as they would say in eNZed, "not fine"), and I am not feeling particularly peppy. So I take a nap. So much for the afternoon. My flight is in the morning.
I Was A Prisoner on Devils Island
My next stop is French Guiana, a/k/a Guyane, which is right next to Suriname, f/k/a Dutch Guiana, which is next to Guyana, f/k/a British Guiana, all of which are on the northeast coast of South America between Venezuela and Brazil. Few tourists come here and those that do are French. There are lots of business and technical travelers because French Guiana is Europe's spaceport where the Arianne rockets are launched. A French Overseas Department, it is another bit of France in the tropics. Prices are even higher than Paris; this is easily the most expensive place in South America. There are no backpacks on the luggage carousel.
I arrive at the capital, Cayenne (like the pepper and the Porsche), on Sunday afternoon and find something unusual ? a place to park. This is a small city and I pretty cover the place in a couple of hours. Predictably, the main public buildings are attractive; the rest not. Lots of drunk locals sleeping in doorways. Near my hotel a building houses the Committee of Friends of Jacques Chirac, a/k/a The Brotherhood of the Weasels. There probably is a John Kerry campaign headquarters inside.
I'm going to Devils Island! Strictly speaking I'm not, cause you can't. Some 60 kilometers up the coast off Kourou and the space center lie three islets. They are the Iles de Salut, the "Isles of Health," so-called because the sea breeze seemed to reduce the incidence of malaria. Much of French Guiana was used by the French as a penal colony, with the worst cases condemned to the isles. The main prison and administration buildings were on Ile Royale, some prisoners were kept on Ile St. Joseph, while political prisoners were housed on Ile Diable. Dreyfuss was a political; Papillion was in the main compound. The prison closed in 1951 and the isles are now a tourist attraction, very popular on weekends. There is a daily ferry from Kourou (35 euros -- this is French Guiana). It's Monday, so I pretty much have the place to myself.
I spend around three hours wandering about the ruins of the prison complex and surrounding jungle. A chilling place, except it's hot. My GPS says we are 5? north of the equator. Lots of wildlife ? birds, lizards, monkeys and giant rodents which look like a cross between a rabbit, squirrel, and deer. Solitary confinement cells, a hospital with iron rings in the wall to which the prisoners were manacled in their delirium. Rustic and crumbling, very atmospheric. The commandant's house and the church have been restored as museums (closed Mondays). The guards' quarters have been converted into a hotel. Everything else has pretty much been left to deteriorate.
I spend around three hours wandering about the ruins of the prison
complex and surrounding jungle. A chilling place, except it's hot. My
GPS says we are 5? north of the equator. Lots of wildlife ? birds,
lizards, monkeys and giant rodents which look like a cross between a
rabbit, squirrel, and deer. Solitary confinement cells, a hospital with
iron rings in the wall to which the prisoners were manacled in their
delirium. Rustic and crumbling, very atmospheric. The commandant's
house and the church have been restored as museums (closed Mondays).
The guards' quarters have been converted into a hotel. Everything else
has pretty much been left to deteriorate.
But I am a prisoner myself. The ferry only runs once a day -- out at 8:00, back at 5:00. It's possible to go to St. Joseph's where there are ruins of a cellblock and warders' graveyard, but I don't. Devil's Island is forbidden, the prohibition enforced naturally by jagged rocks, a strong current, and sharks.
But I am a prisoner myself. The ferry only runs once a day -- out at 8:00, back at 5:00. It's possible to go to St. Joseph's where there are ruins of a cellblock and warders' graveyard, but I don't. Devil's Island is forbidden, the prohibition enforced naturally by jagged rocks, a strong current, and sharks.
(I don't think anything is there, although I have seen a picture of what purports to be Dreyfuss' cell.) I find a breezy spot in the shade and serve my time dozing and reading. I find a fresh coconut, which I manage to open with my Swiss army knife.
Most tourists come to visit the jungle and see the birds, particularly the scarlet ibises. I would too if I had the time. I only have a couple of hours on Tuesday morning. I wander over to the Musee Departmental, but it's closed on Tuesdays. I peek in the souvenir shops and am astonished. I think that when France converted from the franc to the euro at a ratio of 6.5:1, the stores here simply changed the "F" on the pricetags to "E" and left the numbers the same. Twenty-five euros for a mounted butterfly, a dried piranha, or a little wood carving? Puh-leeze!
Leaving the heart of darkness, the flight to Martinique has only one class of service. For 2 hours I have to sit in steerage. The horror, the horror! My seatmates are on their way to France to visit family and go skiing. Do they ever go skiing in Chile? No, the airfare is too high. It is cheaper to travel to Chile via Paris than to go directly. Same story for other areas in South America. They are almost completely isolated from the rest of the continent. They go to France, Martinique, or stay home.
This is an internal flight, since Martinique is another Overseas Department of France. I am the only person who goes through the "other passports" line.
I was apprehensive about coming to the Caribbean during Easter week without hotel reservations, but the tourist office at the airport does me right. They find me a small hotel at my desired location for 38 euros. To my surprise, I am the only one here. It's a school holiday and all transport is full, but the Frenchies aren't crowding the resorts. Same story at the restaurants. I pick up my car, another underpowered Opel, but this one has a/c, so it is really sluggish, and set forth (hurrah, no mileage charges!). The afternoon is waning, but I figure I will get in a little sightseeing. First stop is an old sugar mill converted into a museum. It is nominally about sugar but its subtext is slavery. Then, a "must see" in all the guide books, the birthplace of Empress Josephine. The museum has an assortment of Napoleonia, but the only thing the guide talks about is slavery. What is it with these people? They get up in the morning thinking about slavery, work themselves into a lather during the day, and go to bed angry. Get over it! You aren't a slave! If you want to see slavery, go to Africa where it still exists!
Wednesday is my only full day on the island. I get an early start, which means I join the rush hour traffic to Fort de France, the capital. (There is a convenient ferry just steps away from my hotel, but I need to drive through Fort de France anyway.) It is an ugly, semi-modern, traffic-choked city with a couple of nice buildings and a fort. There is a famous statute of Josephine who was unbeloved and is now beheaded; they blame her for slavery. The guide books say allow a day to explore; I give it about 50 minutes. My general rule is to divide the suggested sightseeing times by 6. "A few hours" generally means less than 30 minutes, that is if you want to see everything.
I continue along the Caribbean coast. The beaches in the north have an unappealing gray volcanic sand, one reason why the resorts are all in the south. My next stop is St. Pierre, the principal city of Martinique until May 8, 1902, when the mountain erupted. A blast of superheated gas killed all of the 30,000 inhabitants but one, a jail inmate who was saved by the thick walls of his underground dungeon. The city was leveled as effectively as at Hiroshima. A museum exhibits melted and charred items salvaged from the rubble and before and after photos. A much smaller town was rebuilt on the old foundations, but ruins are still in evidence.
I swing inland and return south along twisty and tropical mountain roads, The air is about 15? cooler than at sea level. Back through Fort de France and on to Ste. Anne and the southern beaches. This is where the long stretches of golden (not white) sand beneath coconut palms draw the crowds of tourists, Frenchies of course. Unfortunately, the girls you would like to see topless aren't ? it is the old and the fat who are all flopping about. The drive itself is nice, with numerous views looking down at blue bays full of sailboats. Many, many sailboats, all of which are at anchor in the marinas; I don't see anyone actually sailing.
Thursday morning I finish up the last bit of the island. Two days is just right.
There were no award seats available onwards to Guadeloupe, so I was planning to
go by fast ferry. Logistics work against me so I decide to buy an air
ticket. Air Antilles is the cheapest but sold out for the flight I
want. Air France costs twice as much, and no way am I going to pay a
premium to suffer. The winner is Air Caribes (pronounced "Karib"). It
can't be any worse. It is a 50 minute flight a couple of islands up the chain. (Dominica (British) is in between.) All is well until I reach the car rental counter.
My credit card is rejected. Impossible! The other one I had was devoured by an ATM in Paris on Sunday and my debit card is no good for car rental. I try to call the phone number on the card. No dice; 800 numbers don't work from here. For the same reason, I can't get through to the Visa help line. I buy a France Telecom card; still no go. I have an AT&T prepaid card, but need the local AT&T access number. No one has heard of such a thing; "there is only France Telecom." Everyone I turn to for assistance informs that I first must dial 00 then the country access code. I know that! Then, with supreme condescension, they ask me what state I live in, because I must next enter the state (i.e., area) code. When I try to explain how toll free numbers work, they look at me like I'm daft.
I finally have a brainstorm. I hand my AT&T prepaid card to the information counter gal and tell her I want to charge the call to it. She tries it through France Telecom. Of course, it does not work, but that operator sloughs me off by giving me another number to call. At last, the AT&T access number!
I get through to AT&T. I can't use my prepaid card to access other toll free numbers or directory assistance, but a helpful supervisor obtains the number of Visa International which accepts a collect call. They put me through to the issuing bank. I've maxed out. The reason? The car rental companies have been putting credit holds large enough to buy a new car in case I absconded with theirs. The bank accedes to my request to increase my credit limit. I'm all set. Back to the rental desk. Rejected again! But now I have a phone number.
This time it's the fraud department. The bimbo at the car rental desk kept trying to run the charge through so many times (I told her to stop) that the computer decided the card had been compromised. I get that straightened out. Finally, I get my car. This ordeal has consumed 3 hours and the rest of the day.
The tourist office has found me a guest house in the main tourist district of Gosier for the astonishing price of 20 euros. Why so cheap? It's a long hike up the hill from town, and most people with cars opt for some place more flash. It's simple but adequate, with plenty of parking.
Guadeloupe, another Overseas Department of France, is shaped like a butterfly. One wing is mountainous; the other more or less flat. Friday I do the flat side. Lots of beaches, but they don't take much time: I drive up, get out, take a look and maybe a picture, and move on. The Caribbean coast has the beaches and hotels; the Atlantic coast has some good rocks, cliffs, and viewpoints. The towns are a disappointment: I was expecting quaint and attractive with lots of Caribbean pastels; instead, I see dilapidated buildings and concrete block housing. The posh tourist areas have expensive shops but they could be anywhere. Pointe a Pietre, the principal city (but not the capital) has nothing; 40 minutes is plenty to cover the suggested walking tour. I finish my tour early. It's Good Friday and by afternoon everything is shut drum tight, even the police station. Hope the restaurants are open for dinner. (Postscript: no they are not. I eat at McDonald's, which is doing a land-office business because it is open.)
Saturday I devote to the circumference of the mountain side. The scenery is much better: waterfalls, banana plantations, dramatic cliff drives, and sweeping overlooks.
I am driving a Toyota Yaris, a micro-box with wheels at the four corners. But it sips gas ($5/gal.), handles well, and has adequate power and cupholders. The mountain is always on my right and always hidden behind the clouds. It is an active volcano; it can be scaled in a strenuous 90 minutes with hiking boots and determination, of which I have neither. There is a road directly through the middle which is a national park. I save that for tomorrow.
Sunday. Easter. He is risen, and so am I. Up and out early to do the national park. Twisty mountain roads, lush greenery, muddy hiking trails. This is the last time I will have to deal with aggressive French drivers who try to compensate for their national inadequacy by tailgating, cutting in, and passing on hairpin curves. Their hurry is completely pointless because there is no "there" to get to (unless being first at the "picque-nique" area is important). There are numerous distilleries where you can buy a liter of 100 proof rum for 5 euros, but I don't; I have been assiduously shedding weight and do not want to reverse my progress.
It is possible to take Air France to Haiti and on to Miami, but there were no free seats. There was availability for Guadeloupe to Paris to Atlanta to Jacksonville, so that is my routing. I leave in the late afternoon on Sunday and am scheduled to be back in Jacksonville Monday midnight. My only complaint is that by now I have seen all the movies multiple times.
I arrive at Orly and transfer to CDG in time to catch an Atlanta flight five hours earlier than scheduled. In Atlanta, I am able to switch to an earlier flight to Jacksonville as well. I am back early Monday evening. Five weeks, 60,000 air miles. (Too bad you can't earn miles while on an award ticket.) Continental Airlines will probably be joining Skyteam, which means I have enough miles banked for two more of these RTWs. Let's see, I can go to Angola, Cameroon, Dubai . . . .