The strangest animal you’ve (probably) never seen!

Meet the bizarre, but wonderful aye-aye.  It’s an odd nocturnal lemur with a kind of creepily long middle finger and a bizarre, wild and wide-eyed expression.  We were lucky enough to see a few of these in the wild and thought we’d share them with you.

By the way, did you know lemurs are primates?  Yes, this is your distant cousin…

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Barefoot in the Malagasy Jungle: the Making of Onja’s Crowdfunding Video (part 3)

In the third and and final installment in this series I have written about a trip we took out to a remote village in Madagascar, to help film a crowdfunding video for a great cause, Onja.  In this post I share (with the help of Anne’s photos) our impressions of life in the 700-person village of Andovolalina, about 35 kilometers west of Mahanoro, Madagascar, and the nearest drivable road.

The first thing I should probably talk about is food.  We had thought to be as self-sufficient as possible.  We’re not big eaters anyway, so we brought dense foods – nuts, granola-type stuff, pop tarts (vitamins!!) and a few ziplocs of sugary, fortified cereals…candy.  I grabbed a few small apples out of the bowl on the dining room table on the way out.  Boiled the last few eggs in the fridge, filled the water bladders in our backpacks with 3 liters each, filled some ziplocs with powdered gatorade…

It turns out that Sam had planned ahead.  To make sure we didn’t go hungry.  Every evening, the women in our small group would disappear, and then reappear mysteriously an hour later with the lady that lived in the next house, and a huge dinner (pictured here).  The neighbor and her son would join us for dinner.  We’d have red rice, some sort of spinach, and there would be french-fried potatoes and a delicious grated carrot salad.  Sam made a point of telling me they had brought peanuts and fish, I believe – which were added to various dishes.  For those of us not used to these foods, we probably looked like reaaallly moderate eaters for the first few meals.  I will admit that we were craving Coca-Cola by the second night, and I found the store where I’d buy a big bottle for us to share.  The village store charged me just over a dollar for the big bottle – which was a huge luxury for most of the village.  And seemed like a really good deal when I thought about how it had been carried the entire distance we had walked a few days earlier.

Around the third day I had grabbed an apple out of my pack, and Sam explained to me that there were no apples to be had in this area.  He explained that the “normal” food was just the rice and the spinach, every single night.  He told me that it had been our group which had brought all the potatoes and carrots, so we (Anne and I) wouldn’t go hungry.  Feeling guilty, I went and dug all the apples out of my bag and gave them to our host…

The real treat for me was breakfast.  We’d walk across the village every morning, to a house where we’d be served bread which was made by dropping lumps of batter in hot oil cooked over a wood fire.  We’d go inside this “Andovolalina Denny’s” and sit on small stools, and be served this bread with little metal enameled cups with the best coffee we’ve had yet in Madagascar.  The secret is that it’s sweetened with cane juice.  And while we’re on that subject, here’s where cane juice comes from:

Basically you take chunks of sugar cane and put them in this device, which looks like it’s made of stone – but it’s wood, and the stick is used to smash the cane so the sugar runs into the pot underneath.  Mmmmm.  So like 4 or 5 of us would eat our fill, and everyone had a cup of this delicious coffee, and at the end one of us would pay like 300 ariary.  An American dime.  There are completely different economies at play in Madagascar.

After some time in the village I reached a point where I couldn’t stall anymore, and so I asked Sam, “Um…so where’s the bathroom?”

I wasn’t sure – the village was surrounded on three sides by creeks, and hills.  There are actually two churches – one Protestant and one Catholic, all on hills surrounding the village, plus a major river.

Sam, ever the gracious host, didn’t say anything at first.  He left for a bit, and then came back 20 minutes or so later and announced that he had arranged for us to use the “toilet.”  I realized he meant that he had asked for permission for us to use the single outhouse in the village and I laughed, “No, I meant, like which ‘woods’ are the ones we’re supposed to use when we have to ‘go’?  I don’t want to just pee anywhere I want and risk offending someone!”

Laughing, h briefed me where we should ‘go’…when we had to go.  And so that was that.

I should mention at this point that mobile phone coverage in Andovolalina is pretty much nonexistent.  And as it turns out, where you go happens to be up one of the hills surrounding the village.  So one evening I figured, well, I guess I can kill two birds with one stone!  So I went out into the night to do my business.  And check email.

The former didn’t take me that long, but the latter…well, I never got a decent signal.  But I stumbled around in the dark for awhile searching.  And getting to and from the hill took a bit, and I didn’t really notice time slipping by.  But as it turns out, while I was away, a major crisis had erupted in the village.

It turns out that at a certain point, Sam had become concerned at my absence, and when Anne told him I was out tromping in the woods in the dark, he worried that maybe something had happened to me.  By now, most of the village was in the process of settling down to sleep.  Apparently this evening would be when the village drunk would decide to try and make off with someone’s hen by crawling under their house where they had settled for the night.  Hearing the ruckus, the chicken’s owner had come out to investigate, and caught him in the act, and with a loud shriek, instantly had the entire village on its feet!

Of course since I had gone missing, Sam assumed that I was somehow involved in the crisis, and as he hurried out to rescue me, the entire village went running up the hill to confront the thief.  The villagers “handcuffed” the thief, scolded him, and marched him around the village to shame him.

Of course, minutes later I wandered nonchalantly onto the scene, frustrated that I couldn’t check my email and wondering what the fuss was about…

Evenings, our cabin was a hotbed of activity.  During the day, kids would watch us shyly from a distance.  We were always horrified when some of the village’s youngest residents would burst into tears as we approached!  We learned that it’s a common practice in Madagascar to tell young children if they don’t behave, the “vazaha” (foreigners) will come and take them away.  So naturally they were terrified that the boogeyman – us – had appeared in their midst.

But by the second night or so, the older kids, curious, would visit the cabin.  Anne had brought bags of crayon sets and small coloring books, so this was the entertainment for one evening.  And lollipops.  And Pixie Stix.

On other evenings, Sam would give English lessons, or teach the kids how to play “rock, paper, scissors.”  Which apparently in New Zealand, is called “scissors, paper rock.”  You know, southern hemisphere….

Sam had been talking to us about “market day.”  Apparently, Andovolalina is a sort of hub in the region, and people were expected to come from miles around for the market which would take place the day before we left.  And that night, there was to be some sort of dance.  We thought this would be a great video/photo op.

Early the morning of market day, we were awakened to the most horrendous sound coming from near the creek.  And then again.  And again.  The expression “like a stuck pig”?  We learned about it at 5 am on market day.  Bacon in the making.

Since we were awake, we stumbled down to the creek with our toothbrushes and our towels, and came upon the process where fire was used to singe the hair off the pigs, and then cut them up into sellable portions.  Because we are used to our food magically appearing on the shelves at the supermarket, all of this biology caught us off guard a bit.  So we decided to go upstream a bit for our morning personal hygiene rituals…

Nevertheless, market day turned out to be a great photo op as we suspected.  People came from miles around, and they all wondered who these strange foreigners were, wandering around taking pictures of the most mundane, everyday things…

But it was an interesting day – people came from miles around to trade in all sorts of goods and we got a better idea of how things work out here, far from all of the shopping centers and malls, “in the middle of nowhere.”

As the market wound to a close and people started to close down their booths, we thought things were winding down.  We went to start packing down our bags and equipment, and there was a commotion outside.  I ran out with the camera to see what was going on.

It seems that part of market day, which we had apparently missed, is a soccer tournament.  Fans belonging to the winning village had been celebrating throughout the tournament already, and things really came to a head once their team won the final championship!

We left the winners to their celebration and continued our packing.  Sam told us that tonight there would also be a dance.  We had caught a glimpse of the huge speakers, powered by several car batteries that had been charged with solar panels.  After dinner – as late as 10 pm, we were told, the party would get going, and it would go all night.  We were a bit skeptical – after all, we were in a remote rural village.  We thought about getting up to check out the party, but by the time things got going, we were all quite literally sacked out, exhausted from the previous few days’ activities.

But we would not be left out of the fun.

While we tried to sleep, literally all night – until well after sunrise, at about 6:30 am – the “dance hall” – a large hut at the end of the village, packed with speakers and lights and all of the young people from miles around, were the scene of throbbing techno music that kept the entire village up all night long.  It was completely surreal.

When we made our way down to the coffee shop in the morning with our packs, saying goodbye to our new friends, paying our respects to the President, to Jerome and his family, we saw many of the night’s revelers, still tipsy, tired from the party, and preparing for their own journeys back to their villages.

We said our goodbyes, and in a light rain, we reversed our journey on foot through the many villages we had passed through a few days earlier, stopping each time to pick up our escort policeman from each village’s President.  Anne passed out the last of her lollipops and Pixie Stix as we passed through the last few villages, and we arrived exhausted at the village where the pickup truck had dropped us off.

We were too late for the truck, which was already full, and would have to wait for the next.  The prospect of being crammed again into the back of one of these trucks was not something I was looking forward to.

Down on the river sat a barge.  I asked Sam if he thought he’d be able to talk the boatman into taking us downriver.  Apparently the boat was waiting for a load of bananas, but after some haggling and a fair amount of pressure from my end, the boatman finally agreed to take us back to Mahanoro.

We had a pleasant ride back and reflected on the adventure we had experienced.  Sam was very thankful for our help with the video, but in fact it was us who felt the most grateful, for simply having been able to have an insight into village life as it is not experienced by many outsiders in Madagascar.   Now it was time to head back home…and actually edit the video!

As usual, photos are mostly – but not all – by Anne.  Video clips my own.

Postscript:  As it would turn out, it took months – hours and hours of work editing the video, uploading it, dreading the corrections Sam would suggest but would ultimately make the video better.  We probably sent 25 versions of the video back and forth before we finally felt comfortable with the end product.  It wasn’t until one of the late versions that Sam finally convinced me to add some music (a huge improvement) and I finally convinced him to finally choose a name (other than “Project Livelihood”) for his NGO and project, and he furnished us a logo for the end of the video.

We also thought about our trip – in the meantime we also managed to print many of the photos and had them sent to Mahanoro, where someone was able to carry them out to the village and distribute them.  Separately, we had asked Sam to look into whether anyone knew what it would take to repair the village’s well.  Other members of our team located a technician who knew what the issue was, and though we offered to cover his trip to Antananarivo, the cost of the parts, and his return trip to the village to make the repair, as it would turn out, the technician and a variety of other people ended up contributing their time and money and the well ended up being repaired about  a month ago.  A village of 700 people has a working well again for a grand total of about $10 in parts…

We have talked with Sam about returning to the village,  and hopefully carrying out some things they can use like schoolbooks or other supplies, and going out to film/photograph updates to the project.  So far, no firm dates – but we’re in the middle of the rainy season.

In the meantime, if the people of Andovolalina have made a little bit of an impression on you, as they did with us, you can visit the crowdfunding page that was created using the footage and photos we managed to collect on this amazing trip, and learn more about the unique project Sam has come up with to try and help talented kids like Jerome from his region.  Thanks for stopping by!

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Barefoot in the Malagasy Jungle: the Making of Onja’s Crowdfunding Video (part 2)

This is part two in a series.  Part one can be viewed here.

So as I noted yesterday, after our long trek into the countryside, the first order of business was to meet with the President of Andovolalina, the village we were staying in, to explain what we were up to and get his blessing.  Before I go on, I want to share a bit about the President.

He’s 50 years old, with 10 children and – if I remember correctly – 30 or so grandchildren.  I tell him I’m 50 too.  We share a bonding moment.  He ends up being one of our biggest allies/advocates over the next few days, explaining our strange behavior to the villagers who wonder why these “vazaha” or foreigners are walking around taking pictures of their ordinary daily tasks, their homes, their kids.  He tells them we are taking pictures because we really like Andovolalina.  Which is true.  Of course there are other reasons too.

Here’s his family – part of it, anyway:

And here he is clowning around a few days later when we’re filming:

Sam and I spend a lot of time the first couple of days scribbling on paper – rewriting the script now that we have a better idea of the context of the village.  Anne and I spend the morning walking around taking “b-roll” video and photographs that might come in handy later, to help convey to outside audiences what life is like in Jerome’s village.  Filler stuff for the video, since we won’t be able to come back if we need a particular scene.

drying rice in the sun

washing clothes in the river.  the well is broken.

braiding hair.

I believe this is a piece of sugar cane he’s peeling with a very sharp tool.

more rice

Finally we decide it’s time to pay Jerome a visit to introduce ourselves and explain what we’re up to.  It almost ends up in disaster.

When we arrive at his house, there are a group of kids his age carrying bags and looking like they are preparing for a trip.  We meet Jerome’s mother and realize that all these teens – Jerome included – are minutes away from embarking on the walk we just did, but in reverse – to Mahanoro, for a field trip of sorts.  It seems that, since the previous visit where Jerome had done so well on the aptitude test and there had been an agreement on making a video, others who hadn’t met Sam had talked her out of the whole thing.

In crisis mode, Sam explains to Jerome’s mom and his uncle again what we are up to.  Initially they are not convinced.  She calls in Jerome’s uncle, who listens patiently.  Jerome cries a little.  He’s not sure; he wants to do both.  His friends are waiting…  Eventually everyone agrees it’s best he stay, and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Except now the pressure is on to make sure we can make it worthwhile for him.

So now it’s time to start filming.  We choose our locations strategically, to get the best light, the best time of day, reveal a little about the character of the village.  We visit Jerome’s school.  Jerome’s teacher is part of our group that made the hike from Mahanoro.  He’s going to speak on the video.  We realize Jerome’s mom is a key part of the video, and talk about how we plan to capture that piece.  We don’t want to tell her what to say – we just want her to explain the situation in the village.

We worry that Jerome will end up being a poor actor, probably because he looks so much younger than his 16 years.

filming the village scene, where we first meet Jerome

at the school, trying to figure out how we’re going to get the proper lighting, using strategically placed open windows.

Jerome’s mom, after the interview.  Our light ran out of batteries during the key part of the interview.  Jerome’s little brother was getting restless, so I slipped him a lollipop.  As we were filming, he began restlessly clicking it on his teeth, even though I was doing everything to gesture him to stop!

Sam watches his scene.  We want to review everything, but we’re also conscious that once the batteries run out, there’s no way to recharge them…

No matter where we’re filming, everyone is curious.  Lots of people ended up on the video without realizing it.  Even the youngest kids are quiet and well-behaved when we ask them not to make noise.  We’re lucky to have great weather the whole time…

After Jerome’s mom does her interview, we realize we should get some filler scenes where she is working, doing typical things – so we can alternate scenes a bit while she’s speaking.  We go to find her, to ask her if she can stage something for us – and as we come around the corner we find exactly what we’re looking for, already taking place!

With the weather cooperating, we manage to get all of our shooting done, and we make it known that with the extra time we have available, we will take as many free family portraits as we can until it gets dark.  The next morning will be an early one, and to be honest, I was still a bit sore from the walk in!

Here are some of the portraits Anne took.

this is Jerome’s family

This couple owned the empty house we stayed in.  They live up on the hill overlooking the village, and when we came up to the house for a photo, he proudly pointed out his outhouse – the only one in the village.

Jerome’s mom and sister

As a postscript to this post, I’ll mention that the actual editing of the video ended up taking months.  We wanted to get it just right, but were constrained by the fact that the footage we had was all we could work with – so no major changes.  You can, of course, see the video on the Onja crowdfunding page at

All photos in this post were taken by Anne.  In part three, I’ll talk a little about our leisure time in the village, and some of the surprises we experienced!

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Barefoot in the Malagasy Jungle: the Making of Onja’s Crowdfunding Video (part 1)

It started back in July when I got an interesting item in my “Google Alerts” for Madagascar.  A small NGO was looking for a filmmaker and a social media manager to support their project in eastern Madagascar.  I quickly fired off an email doing my best to convince “Sam” that this project was tailor-made for us – me, with my passion for short films, and Anne, with her love of photography and her experience managing a large social media effort.  “I’m not a professional,” I confessed, but I hoped our passion, and the fact that we live in Madagascar and came with our own 4×4 would act in our favor.

Excitement mixed with disappointment when Sam wrote back raving about Anne’s photography, but he’d keep me in mind if he didn’t get a better offer.  Still, we were welcome to join and help out where we could.

As things would turn out, there were no other takers and we were both in.  The task would be to make a crowdfunding video that would persuade donors to contribute to this new NGO.  We’d explain how they planned to find talented young people in remote, rural parts of Madagascar, and turn them into computer coders.  They’d learn English and be given the skills to work and earn many times their potential salary otherwise, and feed back part of their profits into the system which would help train others after them.  They were currently testing young people, and we agreed that in mid-September, we’d go out and shoot a video featuring one of the top scorers, to introduce people to the concept by relating it to real people.  He didn’t know how far we’d have to go but there would be some walking involved.  “Are you fit?” he asked, and we started to worry a bit.  Maybe that 4×4 wouldn’t be so useful after all…

As the day came closer, gear started arriving from Amazon.  Most of it would be useful, but along the way we also ended up with a solar panel, and what amounted to a car battery, which we had somehow imagined would solve our power needs, but was ridiculously heavy.  We were going to be off the grid for a few days and we’d need to think about other ways to keep our cameras, phones and lights running for the duration of the project.

The plan was to meet Sam in Mahanoro, a town of maybe 50,000, on the east coast of Madagascar.  According to Wikipedia, “though a small airport is situated on the north side of the town, the location is quite isolated and with limited tourism, though it is reported to have a single hotel.”  We’d stay overnight, then set off overland for a day or so to meet “Jerome,” the star student of the testing they’d been doing for weeks.  The Land Cruiser would be staying in Mahanoro, because where we were headed, there were no roads…

I was nervous as we met Sam, a quiet young Kiwi who, we would learn, had developed the concept for his NGO while still in New Zealand, and had specifically chosen Madagascar based on his own research and its potential.  A trained engineer, he had quit his job, and brought his savings to Madagascar, moved into a village, learned the local language, local customs, learned to plant rice and survive on the local cuisine, gradually gaining the trust of the villagers.  Only once he had done all that, he had launched his search for a “video maker.”  The more I learned, the more I worried maybe I had taken on more than I could handle.  Was Sam really depending on my videography skills to collect over $30,000?

Too late to turn back now…

We woke up bright and early, packed all the food, water, and supplies we thought we might need for 4-5 days into our brand-new REI backpacks.  Plus another backpack with lollipops, notepads, crayons…to hand out along the way.  We walked down to the local “bus station” and loaded into the back of a covered pickup truck.  All of the bags were strapped to the top, and maybe a dozen or more of us piled into the back of the truck and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible sitting on the spare tire, bags of rice, cases of Coca-Cola…  We had negotiated with the driver that we’d pay extra, and that he’d cram fewer passengers than normal into the back.  We wondered how many would fit in the back had we not done that…or maybe the joke was on us…

Along the way, we picked up a few others who would be introduced by Sam as additional members of our entourage.  One of them was Jerome’s teacher, who Sam thought might be useful in the video.

We tried our best to keep the circulation in our legs moving as we headed eastward down a sandy road that would rise and fall almost rhythmically where the rain had worn huge indentations that were often filled with water.  After more than an hour (it seemed like three!) Sam announced that we had arrived at the end of the road, and would be continuing on foot.

Things started off OK, but it quickly became obvious this was not going to be a walk in the park for us old folks…even though I had said I was “fit.”  The days of carrying a 60-pound pack and hiking through the North Carolina woods had gone long ago.  We went up and down hills, through streams, slid on muddy clay roads.  I spent the first hour cramming more and more unneeded clothing items into my pack – starting with shoes, which would have just been heavy, wet blister machines.

Here I decided to strategically include the first of two photos, where Anne has gone calf-deep in mud, and I am crossing on the log.  In the next photo I am calf-deep in the mud, hanging on to the log to avoid toppling over into the creek.  I was carrying all of the electronics, and this would have spelled disaster.

Every now and then, I would ask Sam, “how much farther?” and he would say “oh about an hour.”  After about 3 hours, I asked one of the others, “Are we getting close?” and she answered “We’re not even halfway!”

In the photo above, everyone wondered why I had stopped – I had overheated, and had pretty much immersed myself in the stream for some relief.

Every now and then we would pass through a village – maybe 300 people or so – and the locals would stare curiously at the odd band of people who were passing through.  We would get a break while Sam would drop his pack and pay a visit to the village “President.”  The President would listen to Sam explain what we were up to, and would give his permission for us to pass through his area, and assign us a “policeman” (the gentleman in the red t-shirt is one such policeman) to escort us to the next village, whereupon he would disappear and be replaced by someone else.  Invariably, the policeman was always carrying Anne’s pack…and would carry it like it was filled with pillows, not 50 pounds of gear!

Along the way, we would pass others, either carrying their own luggage in rice bags, or often it was young men carrying (for example) two cases of large soda bottles tied to the ends of a bamboo pole which was balanced on one shoulder, or the equivalent amount of commercial goods, for sale upstream.

Finally, I was told, we had arrived.  We crossed one last stream and climbed uphill into the village that would be our home for the next four or five nights.  The locals stared as we came into town – a few smaller children cried, afraid.  We went to pay our respects to the village President, to explain what we planned to do, and he gave us his blessing and showed us to a vacant hut – one of the few which had a light, thanks to a solar panel – and a low bed with a mattress stuffed with straw.  The others insisted we take the bed.  When I protested, they insisted…”because you are the oldest.”

Getting old has got to be worth something, I guess.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to the village of Andovolalina, and we’ll meet Jerome.

Photos are mostly by Anne, and some by Sam.

Learn more about the crowdfunding project we were supporting here.

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The No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie: still going strong after 105 years

No. 2A Folding Pocket BrownieI have most of my collection of 100-plus cameras on a couple of shelves made from old Indian doors whose multiple layers of paint was peeling.  By collector standards it’s not many, but it’s enough so that they grab your attention when you walk into the room.  Eventually they ask, “Do any of them still work?” and are surprised to hear that in fact most  of them still work.  “Yeah but can you still find film for them?”

Yes, but sometimes you have to get creative.   Definitely the case for this camera.

The “No. 2A” (don’t ask me how the numbering works) is oddly called a “pocket camera” – odd because you’d need pretty huge pockets.  The camera is 8.5 inches wide, two inches deep, and nearly 4 inches tall.  I suppose back in 1910 when they started making these, competing cameras were all significantly larger, so maybe it was all relative.  But for 7 bucks ($170 in today’s dollars) you had an attractive camera that was relatively portable and simple to operate.

According to the website, they made about 120,000 of these, starting in February 1910 until about November 1915.  They are all serial-numbered, and mine is 57635, which puts it around mid-1912 because in November 1912, starting with serial number 62,551, they manufactured them with black bellows instead of red.  I like the red bellows.

This camera used one of the many film sizes that existed in the early days of cameras – 116.  It was a bit smaller than some of the other film spools of that time but still bigger than 120 film, which is the largest you can reliably find nowadays.  So one way to make this camera work is to find an old roll of 116 film where you can salvage the backing paper and spool (it’s not always possible – sometimes the old film is fused to the paper); and you get a roll of 120 film – easily orderable by mail.

If you’re interested in trying to use 120 film in place of 116, 616, or any other old spool film that’s at least as wide as 120, check out this video.

Operating the camera can be a bit tricky.  Once you’ve focused it, based on your best estimate of the distance from subject to lens, you’ve got two more settings you can change.  First, you can set the shutter to “instant”, “bulb” or “time.”  The other switch can be moved from the numbers 1 thru 4.

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

At first, I had no idea what this was about – but I found a manual online and this is the aperture setting.  There’s no shutter speed, but according to the manual:

I took the warning in the last line quite seriously – the last thing I want is to experience “absolute failure!”

Thanks to Ivan Lo’s excellent Vintage Camera Lab, we know that the four stops are f/8.8, f/11, f/14 and f/16 (roughly, I assume).  He says the shutter is 1/25 second, which seems reasonable, given f/8.8 is the default stop.  Not that I had any luck figuring out what typical 116 film speed was in the 1910s.

So having figured all of this out, I took the camera out for a spin with a roll of 100-speed black and white film, and here is what I got:

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

In this first photo, someone jumped into the frame from the left right as I clicked. Frustrating when you only have 6.5 exposures!

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

It’s actually trickier than it seems to keep the camera horizontal. For fun, I took the same photo again, and then photographed a bush, to get this double exposure:

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

The last photo is probably the best, and it reminds us why, even with a relatively cheap lens and simple camera, “medium format” photographs can still be useful.

No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie

The amount of detail in this photo is phenomenal. Using a relatively inexpensive scanner, even at 2400 dpi you end up losing much of the detail on the original negative. The scans end up being 10,000 by 5,000 pixels (a 50 MP scan!) and a 150 MB file. I reduced them drastically before I posted them here, and they get squashed down more to fit on your screen. Below you can see what a portion of the original photo looks like, displayed at full size (hint: it’s the left part of the center plant):

Overall verdict: I’m always amazed that these old cameras still work as they should, even 105 years after manufacture.  It’s always difficult to estimate distance, so inevitably I ended up with some blur.  It would be beyond me to try and use a camera like this in low light or inside, using the “bulb” or “time” function, or adding a flash into the mix.  We’re lucky our modern cameras do all the work for us but it’s still fun to try and see what you can make these old cameras do using a little trial and error.

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Madagascar: Visiting the Tsingy de Bemaraha (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of my previous post, where I described out trip from Antananarivo to Morondava, and then north across two rivers and to the “petit tsingy” and a boat ride through the Manamobolo Gorge and the caves that border it.

In this post, I will share our experience in the “grand tsingy” and give a few tips for the ride home.

View from the Top

So there’s a trick when you visit the Grand Tsingy. We didn’t realize it until later, but our guide told us he was getting up at 3 am to “get our harnesses.” Apparently there weren’t enough for all the visitors or something. He encouraged us to push the lodge we were staying in (Orchidee the Bemaraha) to prepare breakfast as early as possible. Officially they started at six, but at our request, they had a simple breakfast, along with bag lunches, ready for us by 5:30, and by 6 we were on our way.

Climbing the Rocks

When we got to the park – if I remember right, it took an hour or so on a bumpy road – there was only one other car there. We walked on the forest floor along towering cliffs, and promptly spotted a pygmy kingfisher – one of two types of kingfishers found in Madagascar, and by far the least common.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher

Once we turned inward toward the park, it was time to start climbing metal ladders and clambering through rocks. And time to put on our harnesses. The harnesses each had a metal carabiner, and we were supposed to clip those into metal cables that were stretched across some of the more precarious/dangerous stretches. This video gives a bit of a better impression.

It was pleasant and cool. We took our time, took photos from some of the highest parts of the tsingy.

Over the Edge


Tsingy Rock Formations

As we started to make our way downhill, we eventually ran into a group of people waiting at the bottom of one of the metal ladders, and we realized the whole point of getting up early for the harnesses.  The people who had not gotten harnesses had to navigate the loop backward, and then wait for those of us who had gotten up early to come around and pass on our (sweaty) harnesses.  So we felt pretty lucky, passed on our harnesses, and continued on.

Lost in the Tsingy

Through the Gap

As we continued on, we passed larger and larger groups, laughing and joking, blithely heading forward to the point where they would have to stop and just wait for someone to show up with a harness. Then they would have to go in small groups and wait for the preceding groups to finish with the platform up ahead. A long day – and it was getting steadily warmer. Meanwhile, we were making our way through the canopy, spotting the lemurs overhead which the other people seemed to be missing somehow.

Once we got to the parking lot, we were starting to get hot and uncomfortable. And it was packed with cars – at least 50, crammed every which way, several drivers were working to repair their 4×4 while their occupants were on the trail – and at this point we realized how important it had been that our guide had gotten up at 3 am to secure our harnesses and prod us along the road to the Grand Tsingy. If you come to the Tsingy, tip your guide well, and make sure he does this for you.

We headed back to the lodge, and lounged by the pool, ordered up a few $10 massages, and relaxed until dinner, and tried not to think about all the other guests who were still out in the heat. Bear in mind, this is winter in Madagascar!

The next day, we again took our guide’s advice, and got up well before 6 am and headed out as the sun rose. Why? Remember the river crossings. It didn’t take long to get across the Manambolo river, but once we got to Belo Tsiribihina we knew things would be different.  We were looking forward to the Mad Zebu, but we knew our driver would be arranging the ferry crossing.  Instead of driving down to the river, the ferry “fixers” were in town and they seemed to have some sort of planned sequence in their minds.  Once we paid them, they directed us to a different part of town, to an unmarked river landing, where we waited for 20-30 minutes.  We got several different explanations for the delay but eventually were loaded on the ferry and were on our way.  By the time we left, traffic was starting to back up and we were thankful we had gotten up early.

After a relatively uneventful, but hot and dusty ride, we would arrive once again in Morondava at the hotel we had stayed at a few days earlier.  Great place to walk along the beach at sunset and recharge for the long ride home to Antananarivo.

You can see all photos from this trip in this Flickr album.

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Madagascar: Visiting the Tsingy de Bemaraha (Part 1)

Travel and Leisure has listed Madagascar as one of its 50 places to visit in 2017.  Since we’re talking about a country that would stretch from New York City to the tip of Florida, I’ll help narrow things down a bit.  Despite the hassle of getting there, the Tsingy the Bemaraha National Park is one of the places you should see if you make your way out to the red island in the future.  This post is chock full of lessons learned and travel tips in case you plan to go!

Tsingy Rock Formations

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Tsingy National Park and Strict Nature Reserve are a geologist’s and a plant and animal biologist’s paradise.  Encompassing large areas of extremely eroded limestone karst, resulting in sharp, knife-edged rocks interspersed with deep crevasses, the area is also home to a wide variety of highly specialized plants and animals, nearly half of which are locally endemic – i.e. occur nowhere else.  Depending on whom you consult, the word “tsingy” either means “where you can’t walk” or “where you walk on your toes” but you get the idea.  There are a number of “tsingy” parks in Madagascar, but this is the most spectacular.

Loading the Ferry

Getting there is a bit of a chore, and there are a few tricks I’ll share.  As we live in Antananarivo, we rented a car and driver from there, and drove to Morondava (on the west coast) over the course of two days.  But many people take a flight and rent a driver from Morondava.  The flights are not always reliable or the cheapest, but you save some time as the scenery along the way is not super-exciting, and there’s a lot of driving to be done once you’re in Morondava.

You can see my previous post on what to do in Morondava.  From there, it’s only 70 km – but all of it on dusty dirt roads and you’ll have to take two ferry crossings.  So leave early and plan on being on the road all day – after you’ve seen the baobabs, of course!


There’s a steady stream of tourists and rented 4-by-4s on the road between Morondava and Bekopaka, the entrance to the park.  Not all of them know what they’re doing, but you’ll want to focus on two choke points:  the ferry crossings. An experienced driver will keep you on your time schedule.  The first crossing is the Mania River, just south of Belo Tsiribihina.  On the way north, you’ll want to hit that early and get across – and then you can take a break for lunch.  We stopped at the Mad Zebu, which is popular, not cheap, but very tasty.  Your driver will likely grab lunch elsewhere.

Boy on the Ferry

The ferry ride is an experience in itself, as you’ve probably realized from the photos above. The ferry consists of a couple of metal riverboats with planking on top of them.  Metal ramps which beeeeeennnd are used to get the cars on and off the ferry.  They lash two ferries to each other sometimes for loading and unloading.  Then we set off for a 4-km trip downstream to the offloading point.  For the unitiated, it can be a bit scary.  I took a collection of footage from our various ferry rides and stitched them together below.  Watch toward the end – we were delayed waiting for a ferry with a single 4×4 that wouldn’t start.  Successfully lashed to another ferry, the crew push-started the 4×4, and when it started, it literally ran into the car in front of it.  Success!

After this experience, we continued for another 4 hours or so – endless red dirt dusty roads with the windows down because our air conditioner had broken upon leaving Antananarivo – until we reached the Manambolo River.  Another ferry!  This one had additional excitement.


If you visit the Tsingy, one thing you’ll want to do is ensure you arrive well before 5 pm at the park office, and buy your entry tickets the day before, to avoid a long wait the next morning.  We were pretty sure we would juuustt make it in time, when we hit the ferry.  It turns out that our rented Mitsubishi with the broken air conditioning lacked the clearance to make it on the ferry at the normal landing – so the crew gestured him off and we had to wait a couple of iterations before they would pull off to the side and we finally got on board.  You can actually see this on the video above.  Needless to say, we were annoyed – our Land Cruiser with good clearance, also with broken air conditioning, was at home.  We made it to our Hotel, the Orchidee de Bemaraha, in time for dinner.  While we waited for the ferry, however, I decided to send up the drone for a bit.

So the next morning we waited in line forever.  There were only 7 or 8 people in front of us, but the first person was a group of like 30.  So we probably lost 1.5 hours right there, because all of the entry tickets are hand written, receipts are hand written, and the guides are assigned right there.  It takes time.  So another travel tip:  if you don’t get there in time the day before, opt for the Petit Tsingy on the day you wait in line for tickets, along with the Manambolo Gorge.  We did the Gorge first and then the Tsingy – probably better to do the Tsingy first, and be out on the water and in the caves when it’s hot.

Entering the Gorge

To be honest, the gorge is nice, the caves are nice, but this part of the trip is not the most fascinating thing you can do in Madagascar. But the Petit Tsingy is only going to take you 3, 4 – max 5 hours, and there’s not a whole lot else to do in the hotels, which are basically just lodges for hikers. Ours had a pool, but I’d say go ahead and opt for this trip even though it costs a little extra. Plus it generates work for the boat guys.

From the Cave

The caves were mildly interesting, worth getting out of the boat and having a look around.

Looking Up

After the boat trip it was off to the “Petit” – or small – Tsingy.  As we entered the labyrinthine pathways – we were basically walking along the bottom of massive crevasses running in multiple directions – I couldn’t help wondering what the “Grand” Tsingy would look like if this was small.

Among Giants

We walked for some time between these huge cliffs, passing by huge, prehistoric-looking roots that belonged to unidenfied trees growing far above us in the sun.


Gradually we began to make our way upward, and from the patterns in the stone we passed we began to get an idea of what lay ahead and above.


Entering the Park


Once we made it to the tops of the Tsingy, you could really get a sense of these rock formations and the razor-sharp edges that gave them their nickname. Despite the inhospitable terrain, there are numerous animals that thrive among the rock formations, including a species of lemur you’ll see in my next post. This place was also said to be the last refuge of the Vazimba, the native people who supposedly lived in Madagascar (according to legend) when the present inhabitants arrived. Our guide would point out broken pots later in our tour.

Knife Edge

At the top we were able to pause and enjoy an amazing 360-degree scene. There are numerous birds in the area, including bee eaters and this Eleonora’s Falcon, a bird normally found on Mediterranean islands, but which completes a 5,600-mile (one-way) migration every year to be able to spend the winter in Madagascar.

Eleonora's Falcon

The sun was setting as we departed the Petit Tsingy, passing cowherds bringing their zebus in for the night, kicking up red dust on their way, people performing last-minute tasks in the rice fields. Our guide waited patiently as we kept stopping to take pictures through the trees.

Jungle Sunset

At the end we passed through a small village, where kids were playing in something that looked more like a submarine than anything else. Of course Anne couldn’t resist passing out some Pixie Stix she had brought along for the kids, and she took the time to demonstrate their proper consumption.

We returned home exhausted by our long, hot day – buoyed by having seen something truly unique and fascinating – wondering what the “Grand Tsingy” would be like. More spectacular? The same, just bigger? More about that in my next post.

Malagasy Boys with Pixie Sticks

Sunset Ridge

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Madagascar’s Majestic Baobabs

I’ve been pretty quiet here on the blog – we have been hard at work on some crowdfunding initiatives, and in between, I have been editing some of the video footage I shot on our trip to Madagascar’s west coast.  Way back in August!  That’s when we took a trip that most foreigners who spend a few years in Madagascar save until late in their time here, because of the relative difficulty in reaching this place.

I’m talking about the Tsingy de Bemaraha – the weird rock formations in the west, that require a day’s drive down dirt roads, several eye-opening ferry rides…but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Instead, I want to share a bit about some pretty amazing trees that grow near Morondava, which is the jumping-off place for most people when they visit the “tsingy.”


Most people have heard of baobabs and the stories and myths surrounding the baobab tree.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the “typical” baobab tree that people imagine is probably one of the two species that live on mainland Africa.  But there are six additional species that appear only on Madagascar! (Plus one in Australia, but that’s for someone else’s blog).  In addition to its odd shape reminiscent of a tree that was uprooted and stuck back in the ground upside down, the baobab is known for its gourd-like fruit that allegedly contains more iron than red meat, more potassium than bananas, among other qualities.  You can buy it in powdered form and add it to healthy smoothies.  And it provides material to produce paper, rope – and of course wood – but it’s a shame to chop these giants down!  Plus, if you’re into limericks, here’s a list of words that rhyme with baobab (good luck with that Pulitzer).

We spent two days driving west from Antananarivo.  We left our 20-year-old, just-arrived-in-Madagascar Land Cruiser in the driveway and paid for a rental (with driver, because that’s how it works here) because the air conditioner in the Land Cruiser was broken.  As it would turn out, we hadn’t even left Antananarivo when the air conditioner made a loud “chuff”….and that was the end of the cool air.  But by now we were in a race against time to make it to our overnight stopping point before dark (it’s unsafe to drive in Madagascar in the dark) so we couldn’t afford to turn around and get the vehicle replaced.  So on we went.  Except now we were riding in a crappy Mitsubishi with worn shocks and no a/c, rather than a Land Cruiser with no a/c, which would have been marginally better.


We eventually made it, and the next morning, set out again.  All day long we drove, constantly reminding the driver to slow down in the villages and getting irritated as we sweated in the hot sun.  In one village, he ran over a chicken at 50mph and when I asked him, “was that really necessary??”

He protested, “but if I slam on the brakes…”

“You didn’t even take your foot off the gas!!” I responded.  And on we drove.  As we got closer to Morondava, he proudly told us that this was where he was from.  “Great,” I said, thinking there was no way we could get lost.  He pulled over in one town, jumped out of the car, and ran into a gated compound beside the road.  A few minutes later, he emerged smiling.  “I wanted to say hi to my brother.”  Later he pulled over to hand a mystery bundle that had been in the back of the car with us to an unidentified person.  But the strangest thing was when he kept stopping to ask for directions (“isn’t he from here??”) until we finally had to explain the concept of Google maps and iPhones to him.

As the sun started to sink and we recognized that we would make it to Morondava by sunset, we drove through a vast, flat lowland area that had solitary baobabs popping up here and there for as far as the eye could see.  So I had him pull over as the sun neared the horizon and cranked up the 3DR Solo drone:

The villagers as well as passersby found this fascinating, and cars, buses, even oxcarts pulled over on the road as people crowded in to see what I was looking at on the iPhone screen.  The first time I landed the drone, the villagers scattered in a panic, but as I tried to put it away, they began insisting I launch it again.  So I did.

Eventually we would make it to Morondava and settle down for the night in a pretty decent hotel.  But the real attraction in the region, as far as baobabs are concerned, is the Avenue de Baobabs, just 10 km away and on the road to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, our destination the following day.


Now, the tourist websites will tell you that the time to visit the baobabs is at sunset – and there is certainly something to be said for the views you can get here in the evening with the lengthening shadows.  But now I am going to offer your FREE BAOBAB TRAVEL TIPS.

For me, the best time to be here is at sunrise. Why? Because at sunset, there will be tens – maybe a hundred – tourists walking all over the place, the kids from the local village will be trying their best to get you to pay them for the privilege of taking their photo, and all of your pictures will be crap because there will be people all over them. In the morning, however, the shadows are just as long, the light is just as orange, but you’ll have the place to yourself. A few enterprising young kids will be out there showing you the odd chameleon on a sticks, but the parking attendant won’t even be there so you can pay the 2000 ariary (about 67 US cents) for parking/admission. You can pay him on the way back in a few days, when you’ll also want to stop by the gift shop, which is also closed in the morning.


But by now you can probably guess what I did when I got there in the morning, on the way to the Tsingy, and saw not a single other person there, right?  Yup – I launched the drone again.  Here’s that video:

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Anjezika: Antananarivo’s “Waterworld”


This is Anjezika. Once a vibrant fishing and rice-growing village, it has gradually been encircled and choked off by the surrounding city of Antananarivo, Madagascar.  Now, nobody grows anymore rice here.  A few small fish can be collected from the stagnant water that separates small squares of low-lying land where the people have built their homes.

Anjezika Aerial

Rickety wooden walkways criss-cross the water.  Locals who have grown up here nimbly navigate the missing boards and carry their loads past me as I step carefully, awkwardly, on the unfamiliar terrain, worried one wrong slip will send me and my camera gear tumbling into the murky water below.

The people here are friendly.  They’re used to seeing us come and go.  I first came here to photograph the kids taking part in Teach for Madagascar – the twice-weekly, volunteer-led “school of the street” that represents the only schooling most of them will ever see.

Waiting for Class

School is officially free in Madagascar.  But there are fees – school supplies, sometimes uniforms, other fees – that simply don’t rise high enough in Maslow’s hierarchy for most parents in Anjezika to be able to afford them.  There are simply too many other, more urgent costs.


It’s morning in Anjezika, and there is work to be done.  The plants that grow in the water are bagged up and sold as pig feed; there is fishing, made easier by lowering the water levels in certain areas; there are crayfish to be gathered.  There are shops and businesses to be operated.  There is laundry to be done.

Waist Deep


Laundry Time

There’s also a business where guys make wheelbarrows.  For some reason, wheelbarrows in Antananarivo tend to all be green.  You can see them making them from scratch – welding them from pieces of sheet metal, riveting, painting…


Even the wheels are made by hand – from a few feet away, they look like ordinary rubber tires. But they’re actually made from chopped up plastic which is placed in molds and melted back together so that they fit around a metal rim.  With a nice coat of green spraypaint, the wheelbarrows are all ready to be sold – no pump necessary!


There’s a lot of water in Anjezika. The rainy season in Madagascar is about to start. I’m told that once the low areas of Antananarivo fill up, the water levels reach up to just below the wooden walkways that characterize the neighborhood.  

Carrying a Load


Many of the houses are at or above this level – but not all of them.  Many of the people will spend months walking through the dirty, parasite-infested water.  Besides parasites, people suffer from a lot of other medical problems related to sanitation.   There is a well where people can draw water, which is collected in large, 5-liter jugs, normally carried by kids.  But there is no trash collection, and there are very few toilets.  The water is important for Anjezika.  But in many ways also Anjezika’s curse.


Water Barge

The kids in Anjezika who take part in “Teach for Madagascar” were using a small building that was on loan for classes.  Then the owner rescinded the offer and they ended up outside, next to the building – in an area that had previously been where they had taken bathroom breaks.  Now they are in another building, but the organization pays rent.

I believe in Santa Claus

In the next month or two, we want to help Zanaky ny Lalana (“Children of the Street”) raise money to build a schoolhouse on land that the community has made available for the purpose.  The building will belong to the community, primarily as a safe space for kids. Using local labor and materials, you’ll be surprised how inexpensive such a schoolhouse can be – though still well beyond the means of the community of Anjezika.  We hope to announce our fundraiser shortly and hope to get lots of help!


You can see more photos of Anjezika at this Flickr Page, other photos I have taken for Zanaky ny Lalana at this Flickr page, and other photos I have taken for Teach for Madagascar at this Flickr page.

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Photography with a 103-year-old box camera

A couple of months ago I took on a project that has frankly consumed my free energy and time, and so I have neglected the blog a bit. But a couple of weeks ago I decided to pack up a bagful of old cameras from my collection for some local photography. One of them was this 1913 Kodak Hawkeye No. 2 Model C, which is basically a cardboard box with a shutter built into it and a switch to operate the shutter.

Kodak No. 2 Hawkeye Model C Box Camera

There are no adjustments, just a simple 1/50-ish shutter located just behind an open hole.  The lens is actually behind the shutter, held in place by a piece of wood – probably about f/16 or so to ensure sharpness at most distances.  I loaded a roll of Kodak TMax 100 black and white film, size 120.

I had never shot with this camera before, but interestingly, this particular model was reissued briefly in 1930 as Kodak’s 50th anniversary camera – exactly the same, except the leatherette was changed to brown, the metal knobs and latches were changed to “gold”, and a foil anniversary seal was placed on the side.  552,000 of them were given away to children turning 12 that year (500,000 in the U.S. and 52,000 in Canada).  They were gone in days.  Since I owned two of them, I used a design from a 1929 photography magazine to turn them into a 3-D camera.  You can read more about that here.

I’m a bit out of practice when it comes to developing film, so I was a little concerned about whether the film would turn out.  As I unrolled the film, I was initially disappointed because the first few pictures were completely black.  But then it turns out the following four pictures (8 exposures on a roll) were just fine.

So here are those four photos:





I’m always impressed how these old, extremely simple cameras can produce such detailed, sharp and correctly-exposed photos. I am guessing the four exposures that were ruined were the result of having accidentally opened the camera up at some point – if you look carefully at the first photo above, you can see where the numbers on the backing paper (they are printed in black on light-colored backing paper that should be opaque) are barely readable across the center of the photo.  But still – 100 years?  Not bad!

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Merry-Go-Round, Madagascar Style


In retrospect, the kids somehow look terrified.  But they were having a great time, I assure you!

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As in many parts of the world, when you drive around urban areas of Madagascar, people will tap on your window asking for money.  Frequently these are little people.  There are many theories about how to respond – sometimes the kids are exploited by adults and sent out to beg, often carrying babies – and you never know if you are actually contributing to the problem in spite of your best intentions.  There are thousands of them in the streets of Antananarivo, and there is no way for one person to help them all.


Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.  These little guys, dirty, barefoot, and hungry, waited patiently while we gathered up our costly electronics and valuables so they wouldn’t be left in our (20-year-old) Land Cruiser.  I finally broke down and gave them the only food we happened to have with us – four cream/chocolate filled beignets and a couple of juice boxes.  Everybody deserves a cream filled beignet every now and then.  They plopped down on the sidewalk and started gobbling them up right away.

As we walked away, one of them called, “Monsieur – photo!  Photo!” – so I kneeled down and obliged by snapping this photo and showing them the result.

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Introducing Analog / Film Cameras to a New Generation

You don’t have to be as old as me to remember using analog/film cameras.  But there’s an entire generation entering university (depending on where you grew up) that has grown up with photography as a purely digital phenomenon – often involving phones.

Awhile back when we were still living in India, a friend I met there was living and working with a group of young people trying to make a decent future for themselves.  They lived – many of them still do – in a relatively remote village, in vulnerable situations, often without the support of immediate family members to help them.  My American friend was introducing them to different ways they might make a living – one of them being photography.

A decent wedding photographer can do well in India – weddings are heavily choreographed and photographed events, and a thick wedding album becomes a prized possession for any young family.  So I gave a presentation on the principles that make cameras work – many have not changed since the invention of early cameras – all interpreted into Tamil by one of the kids.  And I had brought about a dozen analog cameras of different types, along with some black and white film, which they would have the opportunity to experiment with.

If you’ve worked with older cameras, you know that on many of them you have to set the aperture and shutter speed manually based on light conditions and film type, and in addition on many of them you need to manually focus based on your “best guess” on the distance of your subject from the lens (i.e. you can’t tell focus by looking through your viewfinder).  Then I invited them to go out and shoot photos in the village.  Given the hour-long class on “sunny 16” and the variety of cameras I handed out, I was very impressed with the photos they produced on their very first attempt.  Here are some of their best.  Nice work by Devi, Mani, Sunil, Saravann, Shiva and Subbu!  And a caveat for some of those whose photos didn’t turn out:  blame the instructor!  You guys did great.




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Children of the Street: Ankorondrano

A group of about a dozen kids gathers on a small patch of green with a few benches and trees.  Basically a large roundabout.  Imagine an oblong Dupont Circle, except Starbucks is 3,000 miles away.  The sound of traffic is constant.

DSC_0109Two young volunteers lug a bag of supplies to a cement bench and quietly confer over a stack of French-style notebooks decorated with the image of a ring-tailed lemur, or “maki.”  They give the kids a folded vinyl tarp, which they spread out.  It happens to be a large tube, so they take a few minutes gleefully crawling through it.  Blue lanyards are handed out to identify the kids who officially form part of the program from the kids who just wander by and decide this looks like fun.  Some of the students carry young siblings.  They too receive a lanyard, so they don’t feel left out.

DSC05880The kids are curious about the two camera-wielding foreigners who have showed up this week.  They strike poses and jump in front of the camera in an effort to be photographed.  Eventually they settle down and forget about us.  They are divided into two groups.  The younger kids are given plastic slates and chalk, and they learn about letters and the sounds they make.  The older kids are spelling longer words and learning basic phrases in French – a language they would ordinarily learn in school, and one which will prove critical in their adult life, but until now they have rarely used.  About 50 feet away, a homeless man sleeps under a bush.  Laundry is drying on the grass as traffic continues to circle the small park.  For a couple of hours, the kids are focused on learning.

DSCF8933A man comes by with a large metal pot.  A few of the kids have a few crumpled Malagasy bills, and he serves them a bowl of a rice-based dish that looks a lot like oatmeal.  They step to the side and quickly eat, handing back the bowl when they are done.  A bit of water is poured in the bowl, he swishes it around and throws it out.  Fills it with the next serving for another kid.

DSC05873Suddenly, car horns honking.  A wedding!!  A dozen cars, all honking, follow another festooned with flowers and a happy couple inside.  Most of the kids run over to see the happy bride and groom.  Then they’re back on the tarp, to hear what their “zoky” (big brother/big sister in Malagasy), or teacher, has to offer them next.

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This is Teach for Madagascar, a group of volunteers that provides educational services to kids who otherwise are unable, usually for financial reasons, to attend school in Madagascar.  The kids get a few hours, a couple of times a week.  They soak it up like sponges.


The second part of today’s lesson is all about dental hygiene.  Everyone receives a toothbrush, which they wet and dip into a bag of wood ash, which was used to clean and whiten teeth in many parts of the world before toothpaste became available.

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They grimace from the taste, but apply the tooth brushing techniques they’ve just been taught.  They get to keep the brushes.  Soon, another Saturdays classes draw to a close as a few parents begin appearing to take their kids home.  Others will make their way home on their own, taking young siblings by the hand and carefully guiding them through the traffic that continues to circle around their makeshift classroom.

Visit for more information.

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Children of the Street: Ambohijatovo

In this third installment on a project Anne and I are involved in, we assist “Zanaky Ny Lalana”(Children of the Street) at yet another location.  This week we went to Ambohijatovo, one of the ten locations where Malagasy volunteers for “Teach for Madagascar” currently hold sessions.  Teach for Madagascar is a program whereby Malagasy volunteers provide literacy and life skills instruction twice weekly to children who are otherwise unable to go to school.


This group meets in Ambohijatovo Garden, a small, oval-shaped public park that is flanked by two busy roads near some of the popular shopping areas in Antananarivo. On one side, a steep hillside is popular with homeless families – in many cases just moms with young kids – who try to earn a living doing odd jobs for some of the vendors below, collecting recyclables, or begging. When we arrived, many of the kids were playing an impromptu soccer match, but once the volunteer teachers started setting up, they settled right down in the center of the park and focused on the lesson, seemingly unaware of the noisy traffic on all sides.



Although a few of the kids had younger brothers or sisters to keep an eye out for, the lesson progressed relatively smoothly – and only toward the end of the session did the younger kids become impatient. 

Helping HandIt’s always amazing to see how quickly the kids progress, even in the course of one session. 


One of my goals this week was to not only take photographs, but to also try and get enough video footage to try and make a short video for the organization. This also seemed like a good opportunity to do a black-and-white video, something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I think the video turned out pretty well – and am pleased that Teach for Madagascar was able to use it to try and encourage the next batch of volunteers – the application process (it’s pretty competitive) starts in September.

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Love Your Neighbor

Truth be told, we didn’t ask to come to Madagascar just for the lemurs – although they’re a pretty nice bonus.  A big reason we came here because we want to try and make a difference, somewhere, in someone’s lives; to have a purpose.  But Saturday was a pretty tough day.

We started the day at the dump, at 6 am.  More on that in another post, but suffice to say we were there to talk to a lady who lived in a small community bordering the city dump and making their living from what they could scavenge there.    She told us how, a few years ago, city officials had offered to relocate her family and provide a support package to get them started, but that the support had never materialized, so they ended up back here at the dump.


Then we went to a popular location where homeless were known to live in informal shelters, in downtown Antananarivo.  Most of the people had been cleared out, apparently.  We spoke to a group of about a dozen kids, barefoot, in ratty clothes and with runny noses, three women and an older man who were living under a shelter they had fashioned from tarps.  They told us that city officials had come a week earlier and cleared out the location, offering its residents space in an unfurnished building that was accessible only after 4 pm daily.  And then burned all of their belongings.


We went to a nearby park and did our weekly photography gig with Teach for Madagascar.  The kids were being taught in the open air of the park, and traffic was going by on both sides of the park, but for three hours, the kids practiced their writing, sang songs, and listened to stories.  That post will also come later.  But when we left we passed a boy who was very sick and in a lot of distress, and there was little we could do for him except give his sister some money to get her brother to a hospital quickly.


From there we had a wonderful meeting and fellowship event with volunteers for the Teach for Madagascar program.  But our schedule was still not complete.  Our last stop of the day was to meet with a group of young people who were looking for our help and advice in getting their young NGO, “Love Your Neighbor Madagascar” off the ground.  They had recently managed to get their NGO officially registered, and have a Facebook page talking about their activities.

Among other projects, the handful of young people from Love Your Neighbor Madagascar have gone out within their own neighborhood, and found a group of families suffering from poverty to such an extent that they cannot afford to send their kids to school, and have dedicated themselves to figuring out a way to get the kids educated.


They took us to the community – a group of makeshift houses with no plumbing and no running water, and introduced us to the families.  Imagine 3 families – a total of 42 people – living under one roof, divided into three rooms, with a total size smaller than the average master bedroom.  We were invited into the home built of bricks and plaster, with saplings holding up a corrugated tin roof, with one glassless window, and were introduced, one by one, to the 14 kids in need of schooling.  One of the adults was in bed – he had been sick – for a month, they said – and with just 20 of us in the room, it felt claustrophobic.


The family earns money by washing clothes, carrying water or other heavy things for other people, odd jobs – each adult earns between 3 and 6 euros per month.  Somehow they manage to provide one meal a day – often just plain rice, with salt.  But amazingly, everyone was positive.  The kids all have big dreams, even if they don’t quite know how they are going to get where they want to go.


It was wonderful and inspirational, after such a long day (by now it was after 3 pm) to see young Malagasy, college-educated and with a bright future, wanting to unselfishly do something for their neighbors.  There is a lot of need – 92% of the people in Madagascar get by on $2 or less per day – but every life that can be changed is worthwhile.  It had been a heartbreaking day, seeing kids with runny noses, in torn, patched, donated clothing and bare feet or mismatched shoes, trying to improve their future, but everywhere we see young Malagasy people trying to make a difference for their fellow citizens.


We spent the afternoon with the team that makes up Love Your Neighbor Madagascar, looking at their online marketing strategy and talking about ways they might generate more interest.  They showed us their crowdfunding page, which is pretty good and really explains what they are trying to do.  But over the course of talking with them, we all realized that although the crowdfunding page had been in place over a month, they had somehow forgotten to publicize the link on their Facebook page!

So they are a little behind in their goal, and could use some help.  We (Anne and I) are going to see how we can make a difference by helping the kids nutritionally, .  We realize it’s a tiny drop in a giant bucket, but it’s a start.

If you’re interested in helping Love Your Neighbor reach their goals – check out their BetterPlace crowdfunding page.  They are looking for a little over 6,000 euros, which will get all 14 kids through school completely, including medical care, clothing, and a pair of shoes each year.  This is a big number, but it breaks down to just 13 euros to send one child to school for one month.  They’d love your help.


Before we left the kids, even though we hadn’t really done anything except come into their space and snap a few pictures, they insisted on singing me a song – it’s posted on the top of Love Your Neighbor’s fundraising page – check it out!

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Children of the Street: Ampefiloha

Last week I posted about a new project Anne and I are involved in – assisting the NGO “Teach for Madagascar” via a group of street photographers called “Zanaky Ny Lalana” (Children of the Street).  This week we went to another of the ten locations where Malagasy volunteers teach children who don’t have access to other schooling literacy and life skills.

This week when we showed up, there was a little confusion.  It seems the organization had worked with parents benefiting from the program to secure the use of a room belonging to the local fokontany, or neighborhood administration (Madagascar is divided into 17,544 such administrative units) but the arrangement was tense, and it appeared that the fokontany was reluctant to allow the room to be used for free.  As a result, that morning, the building had remained locked for an hour after the appointed start time, and by the time the volunteers got the room unlocked, the kids had all gone back home.  So we had to go find them.

Wandering around the neighborhood with our cameras, we admittedly became distracted a few times.  For example, we saw and heard this festive crowd slowly making their way down the main, 4-lane road:

Music, dancing, waving sugar cane – what was it all about?  “Circumcision,” our Malagasy companions told us.  As it turns out, this is an important rite of passage all over Madagascar, generally irrespective of religion or tribe:

Malagasy people have a rich culture built around a strong sense of community. A key step in a boy’s life is circumcision, which usually takes place after the age of two. It is just one of many festivals and ceremonies celebrated across Madagascar and each clan marks the occasion in its own unique way.

Merina people of the central Antananarivo area take part in a riotous and exciting celebration as boys prepare for their circumcision. The operation is accompanied by a dance portraying a symbolic battle over sugarcane. This ceremony happens every seven years amongst the Merina people and, as you can see, it is a time of great jubilation for all concerned.

Circumcision is a significant rite of passage in Malagasy culture. In fact, it is so important that a baby who dies before the operation is performed may not be buried in the family tomb.

After that little diversion, we continued searching, and eventually managed to round them up.  We found out that the parents didn’t want to use the fokonany room anymore, so the class returned to its usual open-air location on the grounds of a nearby public university.

Gathering the Kids

The kids in this group seemed to have a wider age range than those the previous week – and we were told that a number of them were younger siblings.  The main group was working on reading and spelling longer words, but the instructors also spent some time with the younger kids, showing them how to form basic letters on their individual chalkboards.  And everyone loved hamming it up for the camera.





A Little Help

Nathalie was there with her younger brother, who was too young to really take part. When Nathalie walked around, she would bundle him up in a cloth on her back, but while she was working on her writing, he would would sit quietly and play. I asked another photographer to ask her how old she was, and after she looked at her badge, she answered “13.”

Nathalie and her Brother

After the writing exercise, the instructors talked to the kids about the environment, and then they spent a few minutes picking up litter.  The kids were so enthusiastic!

After that, it was time to learn about handwashing. The kids were pretty excited about learning to do it the way the instructors showed them. They laughed when he demonstrated how to shake them until they were dry – because there weren’t any towels.


Shake em Dry

While some of the kids were washing their hands, some of the others were getting their photos taken for their badges, to make sure everything is official!




And finally, before it was time to go home, the kids sang a song in a circle. We gave them each a little treat bag with a pencil, notepad, and a few other little goodies, and they took their homework notebook and headed home.

All Smiles

You can see all my photos for Teach for Madagascar in this Flickr album.  See photos from the project taken by all the photographers on the Zanaky ny lalana Facebook page.

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Vintage Camera Test: 1930s Franka Rolfix (I think!)

Last week when we visited the Anjezika neighborhood, I brought along a couple of untested vintage cameras from my collection.  One of them was this folding camera with virtually no identifying information, other than the brand on the lens and shutter.

Franka Werke unknown model

This is one of the first vintage cameras I bought when I started collecting them…waaay back in 2013….and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind it was, with no luck.  It has a Wollensak Velostigmat f/4.5 lens and an unidentified Vario shutter.  The bellows are in great shape and everything seems to work fine, except, strangely, the shutter sticks at every speed but 1/100s.  Which simplifies the “sunny 16” rule if you use 100-speed film, so that’s what I did.

There are two red windows in the back to see which exposure you’re on when you wind the film, so there must have been a removable mask at one time to allow either 8 6x9cm photos or 16 4.5x6cm photos.  To double the number of photos, you’d put in the mask which would cover part of the film, and then you’d wind it so you’d see the number “1” in the first window, snap a picture, then wind so the “1” was in the second window, and snap again.  The owner must have liked the larger photos, since he covered one of the windows with electrician’s tape and apparently lost the mask.

Unknown Franka Werke Camera

After looking at other cameras online and talking to a few collectors, however, I am pretty sure the camera is a Franka Werke, probably a Rolfix, dating from between 1937 and 1939.  I have seen ads for this type of camera being sold by Ward’s, which could explain the “generic” appearance (manufactured for direct sale by a department store), and it’s relatively simple, and thus was likely inexpensive at the time.

Franka was a Bavarian company.  I’m guessing it was a Rolfix because it resembles early versions of this line that was manufactured from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.  This particular model is one of very few that has its pop-up viewfinder on the right side of the camera when it is open and propped on its little stand.  But I’m more confident it was made in 1939 or earlier because I think it would have been unlikely for a Bavarian company to make cameras marked in “feet” during World War II.  And the 1950s models had much fancier viewfinders and round knobs to wind the film.

Unfortunately, the photos are all a bit blurry, which could mean either a miscalibrated lens or just a cheap lens, and a rough spot somewhere in the camera caused a long scratch (thin blue lines) down each picture that gives a bit of character, I suppose….but disappointing considering this is what I’m able to get with a 1951 Franka camera:

Granite Balls

I may try to repair the sticky shutter and try another roll of film. In the meantime, here’s what I got this time around using Ektar 100:




Water World

Some of the farther-off pictures came out relatively sharp, which suggests the lens is just miscalibrated.  I don’t know of any way to fix that, because it literally just screws all the way out if you want.  So you screw it all the way in and it’s at infinity; back it off slightly to get other distances.  No way to adjust that…



Boys on a Bike

This could have been a great photo.  These kids were zipping by, they are in focus, and the background is a nice blur, showing movement.  But unfortunately I was leading them by a bit too much.  Anne was next to me with a digital.  This is how hers turned out:


Something to be said for using a fancy modern camera…

Two Girls

I wish this last one had come out.  These little girls were so serious, and at the same time cute.

You can see the photos taken with this Franka Werke camera on Flickr in this album (more will be added if I decide to try again).

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Children of the Street: Anjezika


“Zanaky Ny Lalana” is a group of street photographers that was brought together about a half year ago with the goal of highlighting the challenges faced by some of Madagascar’s most vulnerable inhabitants.  I don’t exactly have much in the way of street photography credentials, but we were fortunate in that the group’s founder has allowed us to join them anyway.


One of the group’s current projects is to support Teach for Madagascar, another group of volunteers, which provides in-community schooling to young children in ten different locations throughout Antananarivo.  The teaching is done by volunteers – mostly, but not only, university students – who had to compete to be selected for the opportunity, and received instruction and supplies to help them administer the program.  Over six months, the kids learn reading, but also life skills and other subjects, which will give them a chance to improve their futures.  For most of the children, this program offers the only schooling they will receive.


Where possible, the classes are taught in a building provided by the local community – but in many of the sites, the instruction happens in the open air.  The role of the street photographers – many of whom are known throughout Madagascar and beyond – is to document the activities at the different locations and assist Teach for Madagascar in bringing attention to the issue so they can assist even more kids.  The founder of the group told me the project is near to his heart because he too had been a “child of the street” – and it was only through the sacrifices made by his parents to ensure he had a good education that he was able to escape the cycle of poverty.

Pond Panoramic

For our first photo shoot in support of the project, our host took us to the neighborhood of Anjezika. It’s hard to describe this community. We were told that it was once a community of subsistence farmers with rice fields and other crops, and that as the city grew up around them they were gradually closed in, the rice fields are gone, and life has gotten difficult. The community is in a low part of the city, and much of it evokes Venice – not for its scenery, but for the fact that its inhabitants live just a few inches above the water table. Precarious wooden walkways crisscross back and forth and lean in places where some of the supports threaten to give way.

WalkwayAnd this is the dry season.  We were told that during the rainy season, the area’s inhabitants spend virtually all their time moving through waist-deep water to get around.  Surely we foreigners were a strange sight to see walking through their neighborhood, but when we flashed a smile and a “manahaona” we received nothing but smiles in return as people went about their daily business.


Much of that “daily business” was all about putting food on the table. Teens used long sticks to push the water lilies that grow everywhere there is any standing water in Antananarivo into clumps where it could be fished out, bundled up and transported by cart to a place where it could be sold for pennies as cattle feed. Others were standing knee-deep in the water with large buckets, throwing the water over a short mud wall that separated two areas of water. We were told they were fishing, which only led to more questions. Fishing??

So the way it apparently works is, enough water from one area (about half an acre) gets transferred to the other area so that the fish can be easily collected. We saw some kids with such fish later on – 5-6 inches long.

Another thing people can do for money is laundry – we were told some of the women do laundry for about 2000 ariary (65 US cents) a day.

Everything centers around the water. Which is used for absolutely everything.

So the “Teach for Madagascar” program provides a little hope for some of these kids. In Anjezika, a small building is made available by the community, and a handful of volunteers come in twice a week for 3 hours each with their bag of supplies. The children are waiting when they arrive, and they quietly filter in, those who have shoes take them off, and they sit on the tarp and wait for their lesson to begin.


I was amazed at how quickly they progressed and how well they behaved. Apparently last time they had covered basic vowel sounds. These were reviewed today, and they practiced writing them, sometimes with help of the volunteers, and eventually progressed to combinations of letters – la, na, ni…in six months when the program ends and the next group begins, these kids will be reading.


The Answer




Behind Bars

At the end of class, each student was given a notebook with prepared homework lessons – which some of them immediately started working on – and they went outside in groups of two and three to get a detailed class on proper hand washing.

Hand Washing

After the session was over, we walked a bit through the neighborhood. Life is hard here, but people were universally friendly to us outsiders.   Apparently Madagascar is not just about lemurs and orchids…


We stopped in to chat with a few of the local residents.  Our host from Zanaky Ny Lalana is doing research on the community to better understand their needs – and we were invited in to a few homes.  These kids were excited about being photographed, but disappointed when I took a photo with an old analog camera because I couldn’t show them the photo on the screen (I was just disappointed with the photo!)



But through a translator I was able to explain to them the inner workings of the 50-year-old Chinese camera.  I wonder what they thought as I showed them the film roll…


We stopped to visit with this 76-year-old grandmother who grew up and raised 10 kids in Anjezika.


This is the first in a series.  The street photographers, Anne and I contribute our best shots to the Zanaky Ny Lalana facebook page.  More photos I have taken are available in this Flickr album.

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Travels in Madagascar: in and around Ampefy

Ampefy is a little town about 100km west of Antananarivo, in a landscape dominated by volcanic landforms – many of the surrounding hills have the telltale conical shape of dormant volcanoes.  There are a few hotels in town, but we opted for an AirBnB (yes, even in Madagascar!) lakeside lodge that went for around $22 per day and settled in for the weekend on the eve of Madagascar’s Independence Day celebration. The rural town’s surprisingly snazzy fireworks celebration caught us by surprise! And we learned that our recently-adopted dog is no fan of fireworks.

The town is a nice place to escape the city for a few days and enjoy some fresh air. Our first morning after arriving, we decided to launch the drone for an aerial overview of the area, which is dominated by the Itasy lake. Like all the videos I share, if you have decent bandwidth, it’s worth taking a moment to maximize the resolution settings and full-screen the video.

Once it had been launched, the local kids at a nearby school figured out quickly the source of the buzzing sound in the air, and quickly came running to get a closer look. As I squatted to allow even the smallest kids a look at the screen, I quickly found myself weighed down by about 20 kids who were all hanging on my shoulders and arms to try and get a closer look.


At night, we walked around the grounds with flashlights and discovered no less than four pretty large chameleons asleep in the nearby trees. And a hugh-jass spider eating a moth. The next day we went out in the morning and discovered them in their same places. It turns out that chameleons don’t necessarily change color to match their environments – it’s more a question of mood, and species.

There are a few other interesting places to visit nearby, which require a bit of 4-wheel-driving. First, we went to see the Chutes de la Lily – literally, the waterfalls of the Lily (river). When we arrived, we were once again mobbed by local kids – this time, trying to sell us volcanic rocks shaped and painted like hearts, turtles…and guides wanting way too much for their services. We walked out to the first waterfall, where a couple of enterprising teens had set up a photo station – with a printer powered by a solar panel set up out in the sunshine. Again, I launched the drone, and when it landed somewhat close to the cliff, made the mistake of grabbing it a little too hastily. It got the kids’ attention – that’s for sure!


But we eventually made our way down to the second falls as well, and were rewarded for our efforts. This was the walk where we learned our little dog is also terrified of crossing running water. I carried him across several shallow river crossings, but he quickly caught on to the gig and we had to get a bit devious to avoid leaving him behind. But in the video below we test the 3DR Solo’s new orbit/follow feature (that’s our Land Cruiser) and overfly both falls. You can hear in the audio the local kids remarking on the Solo.

Finally, as the sun was getting lower in the sky, we rushed out to catch a glimpse of the famed local geysers – the “Geysers d’Andranomandroatra” – accessible via a brutally rutted 10 km long road that winds through villages where everyone stops to wave at the “vazaha” (literally “white people” but meaning “foreigners”) driving through their hamlet. We arrived at sunset and were underwhelmed by the geyser, which only shoots up a meter or so due to local mining activity, but the light from the setting sun was pretty amazing from the drone’s eye view.

There are apparently other interesting things to see in the area – volcanic lakes and scenic hikes. Unfortunately, these will have to wait for our next visit – the next day, it was time to head home.

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The Rescued Film Project

So I like processing “found film” and discovering lost images, and it’s a relatively unique hobby, but this is kind of an extreme way to look at it.  It’s really not as complicated or as amazing as he makes it sound. But I guess that’s part of the art of making a good documentary.

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Scenes from a Moving Car: Antananarivo Commute

When I first got to Antananarivo I would stare out the window during the commute to work, and started taking pictures with my iPhone through the window of the shuttle.


The water in the rice paddies has dried up significantly (but not all), and much of the effort has shifted to digging up the mud, making bricks which are allowed to dry in the sun, and then baked in a self-constructed kiln in the fields.  I now bike or run through the fields 3-4 days a week, and the smoke from the kilns has made the ride a bit more difficult, though the skies become an odd shade of pink at sunset.

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Along one of the main roads in town is a large levee, or “digue” (dike) with a path along the top.  Often when it is sunny, people will dry their clothes on the grass on the side of the digue.

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Mostly young men, but occasionally families, will transport goods through the city using hand carts.  Often they appear overloaded.  Antananarivo is somewhat hilly, and the uphill slogs often look pretty brutal.  Typically there will be someone up front (usually barefoot) pulling with everything they’ve got, and they will enlist the help of 2 or 3 colleagues whose heads and/or shoulders will be fully engaged at the back of the cart.

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June and July are winter in the southern hemisphere, but temperatures in the 60s don’t keep people out of the water when there is work to be done.  Typically that work involves a few men with buckets bailing water from one field into the next, so that they can start producing bricks.

DSCF8393 DSCF8397It’s tough to drive on most roads because the sidewalks, to the extent that they exist, are often home to roadside businesses.  This forces pedestrians into the streets, and the single line of cars moving in each direction means I am always cringing because it looks like the right mirror is constantly inches from hitting someone in the face or head.


An official taxi stand.


And every evening the sunsets are spectacular.  I am rarely able to get a decent shot from the hill we pass over every day, but here is one from lower down.

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Getting Lost in Antananarivo, Just a Mile from Home

Orange Building

Less than a mile from our home is a lake that functions as a water catchment area during the rainy season, but also offers a running trail, a place for young lovers to escape, a livelihood for a small informal community, and maybe a bit of photography.


We took a walk there late one recent afternoon, to try and catch the best light as the sun dropped behind the “Orange” (phone company) building, which doubles as a landmark when we get lost. Along the north side of the lake is a small informal community, living in improvised housing, with chickens, ducks, cows, and garden plots that allow them to keep their families fed along this lake in the middle of a sprawling, crowded city.

Boy with Wheel


We are finding that in Madagascar, everyone smiles and is friendly – if not immediately, at the latest after you greet them in the smattering of Malagasy words we have picked up. They will say “bonjour” but if you respond with “manahoana” you’ll get a huge smile in return. Of course, that makes photography a bit awkward – it’s no good sticking a giant lens in someone’s face after you’ve asked them how they are.

Occasionally, you’ll get people who ask you to take their photos, like these three boys.

3 Boys

Unfortunately, this can be followed by demands for money – which we firmly refused and continued on our way.

Leaves and Sun

As the sun set, we worked our way up into the surrounding neighborhood, a different way than we had come. Narrow lanes winding back and forth, stairways leading to gaps between buildings, unpaved roads with the occasional car crawling between the masses of people making their way home with the day’s groceries. Gradually it dawned on us that we were not really sure where we were, and we asked a trio of older, well-dressed men to point us toward our neighborhood. “In that direction,” one of them pointed out. “but keep your cameras under your jacket.”

Armed only with our smiles and our “manahaonas,” we continued working our way homeward as dusk set in, occasionally pausing to take a photo that caught our “artistic” eye, trying our best to ignore the quizzical looks from the townspeople as they wondered why on earth the vazaha (foreigners) were taking pictures of a shuttered window, or a stray dog next to an empty pizza box.


Pizza Dog

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Madagascar’s Saha Forest Camp: An Eco-sperience! Part 2.


As the title suggests, this is a continuation of my previous post, wherein I describe Saha Forest Camp and its surroundings…in case an orientation is needed!

We’re not serious hikers. But our local guide had done a good job so far guiding us through the rain forest, and we had nothing planned, so we decided to opt for the longest hike on offer. It would only be about 11km long, but would wind up and down the hills through the jungle, along slick clay paths through an on-and-off drizzle, eventually through grassy hills to his village, where we would visit his home, and then finally make our way through the rice paddies back to the camp, over a total of about 7 hours.

Heavenly Country

Our hike through the forest was pretty strenuous.  We stopped a few times while he went to look for lemur groups known to frequent certain areas, but no luck.  As we continued to climb higher and higher, we eventually came to a spot where we appeared to be crossing an earthen bridge across a deep trench, maybe 5 meters deep and 2.5 meters wide.  I thought at first it was a dry creekbed, but our “bridge” would have blocked it.  Our guide explained that these were defensive trenches dug by the Merina Kingdom in their war against the coastal peoples. [Few people know that the Merina Kingdom was a functioning, relatively advanced state prior to being “colonized” (defeated and occupied!) at the beginning of the 20th Century.  The previous link is worth checking out to learn more.]  He further explained that these defensive trenches had been dug without shovels – they had used sharp sticks to loosen the soil, which was carried away by others, and they felled trees to create a way across, and after retreating, they would push the logs into the trench.

We continued up the hill until we ended up in a small clearing.  A storm had knocked a tree down across the clearing and he appeared pretty concerned.  I noticed something odd in a tree in the middle of a clearing and asked – then realized it was some sort of bovine skull.  “A zebu skull,” he explained.


He pointed out a couple of leafy twigs – a small brush next to a tree and told us the Malagasy name for this bush meant “light.”  And the tree it was next to meant “sacred.”  That’s when I noticed the 3-foot tall, flat, arrow-shaped stone standing upright directly in front of the tree.


“The people who have not converted to Christianity [most of Madagascar is Christian], they come up here and they slaughter a zebu and share it among them.  This is a sacred spot, and they believe the ceremony will bring them good fortune.”  I noticed a small depression in front of the stone, and saw that it was filled with coins.  Offerings.


I wondered what we would have thought, had we come upon this spot on our own.

Since then, I have seen another spot like this elsewhere – protected by a small fence after it was discovered on a mine site.  Apparently there are many such sacred spots in Madagascar!


After this we continued downhill, and after some time, the trees abruptly ended and we found ourselves in grassy, rolling hills.  And we continued to walk.

Along the way, we talked a lot with our guide.  I asked him what he had done prior to 2008, when the Camp opened.  He explained that he had been a farmer, and had grown rice, and cassava, and manioc.  A few cows and chickens.  I asked him if the locals were able to grow enough rice and/or vegetables to sell them, and he explained that for four or five of the wealthiest families, this was possible.  But for most of the locals, there was not enough land even to be self-sufficient.  Land was divided equally among children, and those who had come from larger families ended up with smaller parcels, and they thus couldn’t get through the year on the rice they grew.

Resting by the Hay

The people of Madagascar have traditionally used slash-and-burn cultivation – clearing small patches of forest and burning the brush, thus fertilizing the soil, and moving on after a few years to a new patch of forest.  Called tavy, the process has been outlawed as no longer sustainable with a population of 24 million.  However, the prohibition is difficult to enforce in remote areas.  But the arrival of Saha Forest Camp had put a definitive limit on the expansion of farmland – the community now had an interest in preserving the primary forest for tourism, thus maintaining a habitat for the wildlife.

Man and Egret

So I asked if the people who didn’t directly benefit from the camp resented the fact that they were no longer able to get what they needed from the forest – whether it was wood (over 80% of Malagasy energy is supplied from burning wood or charcoal), farmland, or even bush meat.  He explained that the Camp brought money to the community – and was used to build schools, roads…all of which required workers.  People who didn’t work on roads could make money planting and harvesting other peoples’ rice paddies.  Women plant rice for 2500 ariary per day, and men plow the fields for 3000 ariary per day (at today’s exchange rate, one U.S. dollar is worth 3,257 ariary).

Mother and Son Planting Rice

Taking into account inflation and other factors, on an individual level people feel like things have gotten tougher.  But they make the sacrifice willingly because they know their children will have better education, better infrastructure, and better opportunities.

Doing the Laundry

Three Boys and a Zebu

We passed some boys tending their zebu cattle, came over the crest of a hill and descended into rice paddies for the third or fourth time, slipping in the mud all the way down.  Three women were doing their laundry in one of the narrow channels of water that course through the paddies.  We climbed out of the valley and walked up the muddy earth road that led into a neat little village with muddy roads, filled with barefoot children, geese, chickens and probably one dog for every house.  Sleepy dogs.


Lazy Dog

A Heart for Animals

Our guide stopped at one of the houses and announced, “This is my home.”  Right then, a woman and teenage girl walked up, dressed in their Sunday best, and barefoot.  “My wife and daughter,” he explained.  They had just come from church, in a village 3 miles away.  He invited us into his home.

None of the homes have glass, so there are no windows, just wooden shutters.  Malagasy homes are all rectangular, unlike the rest of Africa, where homes are often round.  The homes in the village were all oriented in the same direction, which our guide explained, was to take advantage of the direction of the sun and the prevailing wind, which helped cool their homes.  There is also a cosmological component to Malagasy architecture.


We climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor.  The interior was sparse, and smelled of burnt wood from the many fires that had been built indoors during the cooler season.  The sitting room was furnished with “poufs” and the floor lined with long mats.  He explained that his wife had made them from rice stalks – each meter-wide mat, the length of the room, had taken a day to weave.  He explained that he had two other children, but swelled with pride as he told us they were both studying at the university in Antananarivo.  The money he made as a guide paid their tuition.

He explained that his house had been constructed with 30,000 bricks, made from the mud of the surrounding fields.  The walls were filled in with a mixture of rice hulls, cattle dung and earth.  That he and his wife had built this house together themselves.  I asked if everyone built their own house and he answered yes.  He then asked how our houses are constructed in the U.S. – the materials, but also whether I had built my own home.  He found it curious when I explained that the average American has no idea how to build a house, or make bricks.  He asked where we got our bricks and I explained that I wasn’t really sure where they came from – maybe factories – but people specialized in the building of houses took care of that and we just bought the finished product.  I think he found this very strange.

Clowning Around

As we walked through the rest of the village and snapped a few photos, the girl above started clowning for the camera.  We stopped at one house where there was an odd bulge in the ground, and he paused there to draw a diagram in the mud using a stick.  He described the exact dimensions of the hole that had been dug underneath, roughly in the shape of a spinning top, lined with fern and then – was it wood? – in the very bottom.  I realized he was describing a septic tank of sorts – the fern somehow pulls the liquid out of the waste and siphons it to the bottom, where it is absorbed, leaving behind the solid waste.  I didn’t want to ask what happens to that.  But noting that nearly 90% of Malagasies lack access to a toilet, I was impressed.


One of the many characteristics Malagasies share with the Kalimantan people in Borneo, thousands of miles away and long-suspected to be the origin of many of Madagascar’s first settlers, is ancestor worship – i.e. recent ancestors are consulted for advice on important life decisions, and their avoidances often revered as fady, or taboos.  So as we passed this house, our guide pointed out, “This is the traditional blue balcony” (nearly all of the balconies in his village were this shade of blue).  Because I always assume there is a practical reason for things, I asked him why balconies are traditionally blue.  He explained, “I don’t know why.  The ancestors didn’t know why either, but they always painted their balconies blue.”

OK, that works for me.

Before we leave the village for good, here’s an aerial view. Note how all of the front doors are roughly oriented west, and the long wall of the house roughly north-south.

So  the rest of our hike was pretty uneventful.  The rain turned into a steady drizzle and we took the most direct route, which was over the red clay roads and through the rice paddies.

Boys with Zebus

Fetching Wood

We ran into some shy boys curiously watching the two silly foreigners slipping and sliding on the muddy barriers separating the rice paddies, and Anne gave them a packet of candies. Another, older, boy came along and took it from them, and we were bummed about that. But then a few minutes later we saw them huddled together as the older boy distributed the candies between the three of them, one at a time.

Boys Sharing Candy

We returned back to our rooms sore, muddy and exhausted. Time enough for a nap under the down comforter, until the delicious dinner that would be served in a few hours.  Until then, here’s another video from some of the things we saw during our time in and around the Camp.

To see all the photos from Saha Forest Camp, click here.

To see all photos from Madagascar, click here.

Four Stacks

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Madagascar’s Saha Forest Camp: an Eco-sperience! Part 1.

Heavenly Country

A couple of hours north of Antananarivo, at the end of a rutted, slick red clay road that meanders for about 10 kilometers eastward from the town of Anjozorobe, where the winding rice paddies finally end in a jumble of primary forest, Saha Forest Camp is perched on a hillside.  We arrived at a clearing next to a village made of small, rectangular huts made of mud baked onto sapling frames.

Mud House Village

A  woman with four children passed us – spaced about two years apart, everyone carrying something, all of them barefoot – and headed into the village.  We parked our rented SUV next to another one which had arrived earlier as two men arrived to take possession of our bags and lead us on foot down a 3-400 meter path, across a steel bridge, and up the stairs to the lodge.

Mother and Kids Walking Home

Saha Forest Camp is an eco-lodge in the truest sense of the word.  As I understand it, the camp was set up by the NGO Fanamby in collaboration with the local, very much rural, community.  With 10 “luxury tents” and a common area built on land leased from the community, Fanamby seeks to promote tourism with a minimal footprint, in a way that benefits the local community and also protects the environment.  We had hot water and electricity most of the day, but no internet, TV or heat, and the delicious meals were prepared and served by trained local villagers using ingredients sourced from local providers.

Having arrived late on a Friday afternoon, we didn’t want to go on a full “night walk” with tour guide along one of the prepared trails through the rain forest behind the lodge – but we did want to explore a bit.  So we grabbed our flashlights and headed out on our own. And we found about a dozen tiny chameleons along the trail leading to our car – all perched at the end of branches or leaves and settled down for the night.  So we woke a few of them up.

Sleepy Chameleon

Sleepy Chameleon

Sleepy Chameleon

Getting decent “macro” photos at night can be challenging. The majority ended up blown out or blurry or the wrong part of the picture was in focus. with animals, it’s always good to get the eyes in focus, if anything. So a lot of deleted photos of chameleons from that first night.

Staying on the subject of night photography, I’ll skip ahead to the next night, when we had a guide, and found out just how many things we probably missed completely. We did find more chameleons, but this time more species (Madagascar has about 150 of the world’s 200-odd species) and bigger ones.

Sleepy Chameleon

Sleepy Chameleon

Sleepy Chameleon

None of them were all to happy about being woken up.

Once our eyes became a little better trained, we got better at spotting things.  Anne spotted a tiny frog, less than a centimeter long, sitting on a leaf.  Sadly, the photo was blurry.  But also this stick bug.  At night!

Stick Bug

I found this dragonfly, and got pretty excited when our guide said “Uroplatus”!


Uroplatus is a gecko that’s virtually impossible to spot during the day. Cleverly camouflaged to look like tree bark, with loose skin that covers the gap between their body and the surface they are on, and a tail shaped and colored like a dead leaf, they blend in perfectly when they sit unmoving on a tree. Our guide spotted the first one, perched precariously on the end of a branch, and completely ignoring us while we shone our lights on it to try and capture a passable photograph.


I don’t know if they lose their tails like most lizards, but this one had an odd little pointy tail. And about ten minutes later, walking along the rain forest trail, I spotted a second one – this one higher up and the photo not as clear, but you can see its leaf-shaped tail rolled up as it hangs in midair.


Sadly, we didn’t see any of the shy, tiny nocturnal lemurs and could tell our guide was disappointed. But in fact we didn’t see any lemurs the whole trip, though they are quite common in this area. When returning to the lodge, however, we did spot a pair of bright green “lights” across the rice paddy. When we decided to go in for a closer look, we realized they were eyes. We’re convinced it was a fossa – pretty common in the area – Madagascar’s odd, dog/cat-like predator. We’re still hoping to see one more clearly to confirm.

Our guide would take us on a 7-hour adventure the following day, hiking up and down the hilly rain forest, slipping in the mud and drizzle, and eventually emerging into the open where he would lead us to his village – and back again through the ridce paddies to the Camp. I’ll tell you about the stories he told and the people we met on that hike, in my next post. Until then, here’s an orchid – one of 20,000 orchid species, of which 1000 in Madagascar, 85% of which exist nowhere else.


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