Wednesday, February 27, 2013


While riding a rented motorbike around the rocky roads of Ile St. Marie, a hilly strip of land 30 miles off Madagascar's east coast, we came across a sign for "Orphelinat Zazakely." 

We weren't sure what the words meant, but the sign was colorfully painted and featured what looked like happy kids and a tiny school house. Considering we didn't have a destination (or a map), and the Orphelinat was just 6 km away, we figured we'd go take a look.  

Diversions like these don't always pay off for us, to say the least. But this one certainly did. 

After six kilometers of some of the roughest roads we've ridden on the trip, we spotted another sign that looked like the one from half an hour before. We pulled to a stop and heard the unmistakable sound of children playing. 

Seconds later, a Malagasy woman smiled and waved us up the dirt track. After determining that we weren't lost or in need of directions, the woman explained in her limited English that the Orphelinat was in fact the island's only orphanage, established 10 years ago by a French woman to house and educate local children. As she talked, she gave us a brief tour of the facility, introducing us to gaggles of giggling children along the way. Before we could finish the tour a group of six girls dragged us into an intense game of jump rope. Luckily, we were able to overcome our clueless-ness with height, and we would've won but Kip tripped trying to imitate a double-rope jump one of the six-yr-olds pulled on us. 

Although we like to think the kids had a good time playing with us, our shiny red motorcycle helmets stole the show. The kids passed them both around so everyone got a turn to wear one.

We were also fortunate to meet a family from Belgium, living at the orphanage and volunteering with the kids for several weeks (the organization welcome long- and short-term volunteers). Thankfully, the Belgians spoke English and gave us some background on where the children came from. Although the organization is an orphanage, not all of the children are orphans. Many are without mothers, we were told, and their fathers were unable to care for the children, so they were brought to the orphanage. We also learned the children at Zazakely feel a very strong sense of family and community, with many of the older children who were raised in the orphanage returning frequently to visit their Zazakely brothers and sisters. 

Photo #1 from the future
Ansel Adams.
We had such a fun time playing with the kids, we went back the next day for more. Our motorbike helmets were already old news, but one precocious kid was adamant on using the camera. Kip was only too happy to show him how the camera worked, and after a brief photography lesson, off he went filling up a memory card with photos of everything in the area. And we mean everything.  

From rocks, to rooftops, to lots of photos of the ground, he covered it all. As his benevolent instructor, Kip thought he did a great job, considering he'd never used a camera.

Another photo from the budding photographer. Interesting composition.

Who is this bearded volunteer in the bead necklaces (designed and sold by village women to help fund the orphanage)?
Liz's favorite, little Francia.
For more information, or to support this organization, information is on their website (in French):

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


A gravestone marked with a skull and crossbones at what may be the world's only legit pirate cemetery.

Kip walks the plank en route to the cemetery.
When it comes to pirate lore, few places can equal the tales told of the infamous St. Mary's Island (or Ile Sainte-Marie, as it's known locally). 

In the 17th and 18th centuries up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the island home, including famous brigands William Kidd and Thomas Tew, to name two. Thanks to safe and secluded bays and its location on the trade route frequented by treasure-laden ships returning home from the East Indies, Sainte-Marie provided the perfect spot for shifty sailors looking for booty and a friendly place to live with like-minded looters. 

With so many pirates living on the island, some even raising families at the time, it's no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world's only legitimate pirate cemetery. No way we were leaving there without a visit (or two).
The sign marking the dirt trail to Sainte-Marie's pirate cemetery.

Atop a verdant hill overlooking a deep inlet once used by the pirates who supposedly still rest here, we walked among crumbling headstones and towering sailor palms. Much of the engravings on the stone markers has long since faded away. But on one grave, among wrought iron crosses and knee-high grass there remains the clear outline of an almost childlike carving of a skull and cross bones. 

Is it authentic? Everyone here naturally claims it is. And with so many pirate legends floating around Sainte-Marie, it's easy to believe so.

For us, it didn't really matter. Sipping a locally-made rum we'd plundered (purchased) from a store back in town, we sat alone among the centuries-old headstones as the sun set and we imagined what life must have been like way back then. Dead pirates or not, the cemetery's a place you can't miss next time you're in Madagascar. 

Gravestones and sailor palms at Ile Sainte-Marie's pirate cemetery.
View from the cemetery. 

Monday, February 25, 2013


For an animal as adorable and cuddly as the lemur, life's gotta be tough. 

Never a moment of peace and quiet thanks to the constant sounds of footsteps from nosy tourists, the grating "ooh-ing" and "ahhh-ing" of countless visitors, not to mention the never-ending shutter-snapping of wanna-be paparrazzi. 

What's a furry primate to do? 

Feign complete boredom, for one.
"Dahling, you bore me. Please move along."
Or try some Kung-Fu Panda.
And if all else fails, give the people what they want.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Sri Lanka
An adolescent elephant and its mother search for food after a quick mud bath in Sri Lanka.
For those who missed it, Kip's first story for CNN recently posted about Sri Lanka's elephant migration, called "The Gathering."  Here's an excerpt:

"In north-central Sri Lanka's Minneriya National Park, hundreds of elephants travel each year to the shores of an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 years ago. They've made the trip for centuries, coming from across the region to bathe, mate, socialize and, most importantly, to feed as part of an annual event known as "The Gathering."

View the full story HERE.

For more wildlife adventures, including some pygmy elephants, check out our post about a visit to a remote river in Borneo

If that's not enough, here are a few photos of baby animals in the Serengeti.

Friday, February 22, 2013


As one of the largest chameleons in the world, this Parson's Chameleon gets hungry.  We were lucky enough to catch this female (note the absence of "nose horns" seen on the male in our last post) having an early lunch.

Her tongue can extend roughly one to one and a half times her body length. The cricket she was targeting didn't have a chance against the heavily muscled, sticky tongue that forms a suction cup at the tip, specially designed to capture quick moving insects. 

We're amazed that she was able to roll it all back up into that tiny mouth. Nature...especially on pretty cool.

For more fun chameleon facts, click here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Andasibe National Park has lots of lemurs, including the curious, cuddly common brown lemur above. 
If there's one thing visitors come to Madagascar to see, it's lemurs. The island is home to 101 species, all endemic. The cute little creatures range from the smallest primate on the planet--the mouse lemur, to the famous ring-tailed with its black and white-striped tail.

After the sailing drama of the west coast, we headed inland to check out the country's unique animals and insects. It's worth noting that almost all of Madagascar's reptiles and amphibian species, half of its birds and all of its lemurs are found nowhere else on earth, making the place a virtual Eden for animal lovers, of which we definitely are

Just three hours outside of the capital Antananarivo, lies Andasibe National Park, famous for its families of indris, the largest species of lemur and also one of the most endangered. 

On a three-hour hike and a night walk, we were able to check off just about all the critters on our 'must see' list, many of which you can peruse below. 

For what it's worth, we didn't get lost once, we only had a few bug bites, we could hear indris calling from our lodge near the park, and the bus we took left and arrived more or less on time. 

Pretty boring actually...and so long overdue.
Liz happy to arrive at the park, where we would soon meet our first lemurs.
The elusive indri, which sings somewhat like a humpback whale, jumps a little like a frog, and looks kind of like a kid in a skinny panda suit.
A colorful Parson's chameleon crawls through the leaves after a light morning rain. 
The tiny, curious-looking giraffe weevil above is a full-grown male.  
A Diadem Saifaka kicks back while checking out some nosy tourists.
The Blue Coua, which eats bugs, fruits and small reptiles.
A sleepy chameleon we met on our night walk.. He's about four inches long and could easily snooze in the palm of your hand.
If you're really interested in hearing an indri's call, feel free to check out this video we shot in the park. While you can definitely hear the indris, you won't see one in this shaky home movie, despite a lot of panning around the forest. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013


As mentioned, Belo sur Mer is home to some of Madagascar's most famous boat builders. Check out some of their handiwork below:
Sun sets behind the skeletal remains of a would-be ship who never saw her maiden voyage. 
A cargo boat under construction in Belo. Vessels like these require intricate woodwork, as noted by the tightly-connected stem, knee joint and ribs, which are held in place by physics, wooden pegs, and frequent prayers.
A man hammers pegs into a beam support of a dugout canoe. His friend smiles for the camera.
The scalloped sides of the pirogue above highlight the traditional methods  still used to carve these ocean-going vessels.
The old-school boat building continues on one of the wide beaches of Belo. They even have goats, too!

Friday, February 15, 2013


He may look like he's about to inflict some serious pain on an intrusive photographer, but 70-yr-old Philibert, who worked at the guest house where we stayed, actually had a smile nearly as bright and contagious as the grin on the kid from last week's Photo Friday

We caught Philibert in action while he was building a fence out of palm leaves to protect some brand new coconuts he had just planted around the property. If you've got a fence that needs mending or building (or a photographer that needs scaring), this is your man.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


So, eight hour boat trip aside, this place really is beautiful. We can admit that now.

When we arrived, however, hot, thirsty, and sunburned with still a 1 kilometer walk through a sandy marsh to anything reminiscent of a hotel, we can't say it made the best first impression.

But, we were glad to be on land. And, Liz was particularly excited about the diving. We'd heard stories about the reefs offshore in the deep, clear waters of the Mozambique Channel, which was one of our main reasons for heading to this very out of the way place.

Alas, the universe had other plans. After struggling along in the mud and sand, we stopped at every guesthouse (there are four in total, even counting the uninhabitable one barely standing after cyclone damage). Each one we passed was either closed for the season or full (though we saw no other foreigners for miles). Sounds like a typically planned Liz and Kip trip so far...

As we went to what we thought was the final hotel (they were closing down for the season and wouldn't let us stay), we were lucky to meet one of the owners of Ecolodge de Menabe, who told us he had rooms. The owner ran the only dive shop within 100 miles. Despite his perfect English, he only wanted to speak French, so Liz decided to wow him with her skills, asking, "Plongee?" For those without such an amazing command of the language, this is the French word for diving.  And he replied, "No plongee." To which Liz said, "Oh no!" and he replied in his heavy French accent "Oh, yes!"  She was not amused.

But, his place was marvelous and he gave the three of us (thank you Ernest for not smothering us in our sleep) the best bungalow in the entire place. We felt special. We were the only guests in the entire village, and the local kids showed off for us a bit  by having a contest with their spinning tops.

We were also served some tasty samosas by these adorable and precocious kiddos. We can honestly say, nothing tastes better than a fresh fish samosa. Especially when it's delivered right to your doorstep, with a smile.

And then, there were the sunsets.

All of this ALMOST made up for the fact that we had an eight-hour boat ride back...which, in true Madagascar style, was really 12 hours. 
Market stuff in Belo: Clockwise, starting with dried sardines, weird hush puppies, two bowls of salty fish patties, and six fuzzy round fruits from the baobabs, which Liz took a liking to.
Liz with a sunblock-covered friend we met after picking up trash along the town's main road (a sandy path). 
The kids could work wonders with their homemade tops.
Winding the rope around the spindle, they would hurl
the balls into the air  and at just the right moment,
pull back so the top dropped, spinning madly,
into their palm or on their chest or even
on one guy's head. Good show.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Dawn breaks on the first minutes of  what would be a 20-hr round trip crunched into this two-foot wide dugout pirogue/sailboat. No bathroom, no motor, no food, no shade. #wedodumbstuff

Traveling as we do, slowly and without a real itinerary or timeline, we sometimes hear of idyllic, off-the-map places that sound in dire need of a visit. In whispers and with hand-drawn maps, locals and like-minded travelers will describe these mythical spots, making sure others don't hear lest they ruin the sacred secrets passed over by time and place and cell phone towers.

Supposedly, this was the case with Belo Sur Mer, a coastal village south of Morondava. What little we found to read about Belo sounded incredible. Tales of locals still building large ships “the old way," using only handtools and wood, right on the beach. There were rumored to be beautiful beaches, stunning bays, sunsets (readers of this blog-hi Mom-know how we love sunsets), and best of all, a guy who would take us diving in the Mozambique Channel not too far offshore.

There was just one catch. It was rainy season, and the road was closed, so the four-hour 4x4 ride option was off the table. But an enterprising restaurant manager assured us, “no problem.” He could get us a pirogue that would sail us down the coast to this magical place...and it would only take three to four hours. It sounded so easy, we got ourselves so worked up that neither of us even thought about the original "Boat Trip from Hell" we took across the Pacific at the beginning of the trip. 

Us, hurting, eight hours into the trip.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. 

In the same restaurant we met Ernest, a backpacker from Charm City, Baltimore, not an hour's drive from our house in DC. We quickly convinced/conned him into joining us and splitting the costs. Over celebratory drinks we toasted our good luck. Plans were made for a 7 AM departure the next day.

We met our pirogue captain as planned, and walked to the boat, which was about half a mile down the beach. This is where things got interesting.  For starters, the boat was not exactly in ship-shape condition. Loose wooden planks floated in the bottom in standing water already inside. The skinny mast, a bark-less former tree limb, looked splinted and weak. And the boat was small. Really small.  Barely shoulder width at the widest point, and about 15 feet long. We gave each other reassuring looks, shrugged our shoulders and climbed in. We could handle anything for four hours. And we would be eating amazing seafood on the beach in Belo by lunchtime.
Over 20 hours, we were passed by lots of pirogues, like the one above, which had a full-size sail and unbroken mast. 

Earnest, with ripped sail in the
background, still manages to smile.
This guy is awesome.
More than four hours later...

We were in the hot sun, with limited shade (thankfully Liz brought her umbrella), limited water, and no food, somewhere in the Mozambique Channel. Our sail, which was an oversize bed sheet tied to a large stick, pushed us along painfully slow. Saltwater that soaked us when waves crashed over the sides constantly stung our eyes. Water in the bottom of the boat grew slowly deeper, despite our bailing efforts. We prayed we were close.

"How much longer, Captain?" Kip asked, since he was the person wedged closest to where the driver hand-steered with a paddle he probably carved himself. 

"Don't know. Maybe we arrive by 2 PM." 

Wait, what?!  Four more hours. Liz asked the same question, and we got the same answer. Gritting our teeth, we wished we’d been smart enough to bring some food with us. Not surprisingly, 2 pm came and went. We sailed on, butts numb, backs aching, sweat pouring. No one spoke for hours.
Our first mate, searching for wind and land...and probably a bathroom.
Then the mast broke during a surprise wind gust. At least we had some excitement. Which was then followed by an even slower pace. 

We finally make landfall around 4 pm, as the sun sank slowly toward the sea. Painfully, we struggled out of the boat into knee deep water. Moments later, we kissed the beach. Incredibly, our new friend Ernest was still speaking to us.

Two days later, we would repeat this process, only somewhat better rationed with water and food and sunscreen. After the previous journey, we thought we were prepared mentally and physically. But nothing could have readied us for what turned into a 12-hour marathon back up the coast. 

Mythical places? Idyllic, untouched locales? There's probably a reason they're like that. Take our advice--let them stay that way. You'll thank us later.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Selling fruit can get boring, or so it seemed when we met this lady at the market in Belo. After we bought a few limes, she did her best to convince us we needed a tomato ,too. We assured her we didn't, which she for some reason found hilarious. She then proceeded to make funny faces at us, cracking up us and all the kids around her in the process. 

In case you're wondering, the yellow stuff on her face is a local version of sun block made from thanka, the same stuff ladies in Burma use. Small world.

As a bonus, here are a few other funny faces we saw in Belo...

Friday, February 8, 2013


The seaside village of Belo Sur Mer on Madagascar's east coast is known for its boat building. The little boy above, who we met playing on the beach, is Belo's next generation, learning to construct vessels by hand as his family and others have done for as long as anyone can remember. 

Tune in next week for a story on the nine-hour 'boat ride from hell' we took to get to this place. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Baobab's almost as photogenic as the Pushkar Camel Fair. But when there's a grove of 1,000-yr-old trees around, the photos tend to look pretty good from no matter what angle you shoot. 

If Avenida de Baobab  was in the U.S.,  it would be one of the most popular, well-protected national parks on Earth.  Here in Madagascar, families live under the trees' shade and huge trucks drive within inches of their trunks. 
A half-moon shines through  a baobab's branches.
A family  leaving the Avenida de Baobabs.