Some of you may have seen my “Artisan” series of mini-documentaries. The plan was to highlight different occupations in Madagascar’s informal sector that involve a specialized skill. Jobs that don’t really exist in the West, with detail that may even surprise some people in Madagascar. I didn’t expect the project to take over two years!
In this final (is it?) episode, I chat with the carpenter and multi-talented musician, Raymond Randriamiarisoa, who provided the soundtrack that has been used throughout this series, played on a valiha, or a kind of zither, that is considered Madagascar’s national instrument. He also makes other instruments out of bamboo and other materials, and he plays them all expertly.
The film has some sections that are a bit hazy or noisy, but since I left Madagascar more than a year ago, I can’t exactly go and re-shoot. But I am pleased to finish this series before I head off to journalism school to learn how to do this professionally, instead of as a hobby. OK, obsession.
As a preview, here is a short clip of Randrina (as he calls himself) playing another of Madagascar’s traditional instruments, a type of banjo which can be purchased for very little from Madagascar’s many roadside stands. And then I hope you’ll check out the actual mini-docu, either on YouTube or Vimeo. Be sure and maximize the resolution your internet provider can handle – best results on Vimeo.
Thanks throughout this series to Raymond Randriamiarisoa for the soundtrack(s); to Safidy Andrianarisoa for helping me find the stories, translating on the spot, and shooting some of the video; to Anne Daugherty for her advice, shooting some of the video, and overall support; and to my language instructor Tiana Razanalivaoarijaona, for translation and corrections.
And so, my motorcycle was repaired, and I planned for the next day to be completely uneventful – one of those days where you catch up on tasks that have been piling up. But I was wrong.
The morning was pretty routine, and then I went to my place of work, where I saw that a small black cat was sitting within the (fenced) compound. She was meowing for attention, and as I got closer, I noticed (with horror) that one of her rear legs was a mess. Apparently some fine example of a human being had attached a plastic zip tie to her leg and pulled it tight, cutting off the circulation, resulting in gangrene and eventual necrosis.
The cat was craving attention, despite the condition of her leg. She was also quite malnourished, with hip bones clearly visible. I continued homeward (I had a dog in the car) but I realized I had to do something about this poor cat. I called our local vet and sent him pictures I am not sharing here, and his response was “OMG that is bad.” I asked if I could bring the cat to him and he agreed.
Kitty meowed, but often made no sound. Her tongue appeared to be about 2mm too long and stuck out every time she meowed. And she craved human contact. As a Person Who Knows About Cats, I can officially qualify this cat as “very cute.” She insisted we scratch her ears. But her leg was a mess and smelled bad.
So what to do? Well, here’s what we did.
I stayed to watch the entire procedure, and help out from time to time. And I realized, at no point that morning had it occurred to me that by dinnertime, I’d be watching a veterinarian amputate a cat’s leg.
She’s a voracious eater and has already put on some weight to hide those hip bones and ribs. But now we need someone in Burundi to give her a “forever home.” Spread the word!
Life is funny. Some days you wake up and things are – meh – run of the mill, nothing to write home about. Other days you wake up and experience a day you never imagined.
I’ve had three traffic accidents in the last month. In the first, I was found at fault – a “tuktuk” swerved left to avoid a pothole on a road I knew to be badly potholed (Avenue des Etats-Unis, or USA, in Burundi – so I guess it’s partly our fault from the get-go) and I ended up slamming into the rear of his vehicle with my motorcycle. When he fled the scene and I finally managed to start the bike, I chased him down to my place of work, where I was able to get the armed guards to force him to stop.
In the second, some buffoon passed me on the right and decided that the halfway point of the passing maneuver was the appropriate time to cut into my lane. Moral of the story: crappy off brand import can’t compete with a Land Cruiser. But he still insists it was my fault.
Then last week, a car pulled out from a dirt road onto a priority road I happened to be on. I flashed, then honked, which caused the driver to collapse into mental disarray, neither accelerating nor stopping, and after skidding 30 meters I crashed my motorcycle into his car. (Oh, but you should have seen the OTHER guy’s car). Short flight over the handlebars onto her hood, roll left, end up on my back in the middle of the road. A crowd of Burundians at this point think the best course of action is to force me to sit up and remove my helmet. Good thing I had no major injuries, spinal or otherwise.
At this point, my motorcycle is permanently making a left turn because the frame has a 15 degree kink and who knows what else wrong with it. She wants to work out an “arrangement” because my bike has only minor damage. Yeah, if you’re into driving in circles.
At this point, I assume the bike is a total loss. But I was not prepared for the ingenuity of the Burundian mechanic. In a “workshop” somewhere on an unpaved road in Bujumbura, these guys completely disassembled my bike, straightened the frame in the 3 places where it was bent, the handlebars, shocks, and other assorted bent metal parts. Three days and about $200 later, the bike was back in my driveway, better than before.
So that was a pretty bad day, followed shortly by a pretty good day. But what I really intended to write about was the day AFTER that. I guess we’ll make that a separate post 😉
I was enjoying an idyllic vacation in Mauritius, swimming with the largest animals in the world. When we returned to the dock, my phone rang: how quickly could I get to Nepal? There had been an awful earthquake, thousands had perished, and many were still missing and/or trapped in the hills and passes of the high Himalayas.
I was in Kathmandu a few days later and stayed for nearly a month. When I returned, I blogged about the scenes in Kathmandu, but not about what I had seen in the Langtang valley. It’s still hard to grasp, really.
My daughter had hiked the valley a year prior with a school group, and I imagined a trail with a few scattered huts and hostels along the way. As it turns out, Langtang, a village situated in a wider part of the valley and a popular resting place for hikers, had at one time consisted of dozens of guest houses, hotels, and tea houses.
On April 25, a 7.8 quake shook loose a glacier high above Langtang village, causing an avalanche that instantly dumped 40 million tons of earth on the village. In an instant, a layer of rock, mud, and ice up to 30 meters deep covered an area a mile and a half long and half a mile wide. The shock wave generated by the avalanche flattened trees on the opposing slope and stripped their bark for miles in either direction. Ice and debris rained on the next village up the valley, carried by the wind generated by the impact.
I arrived three days after the quake. My job was to work with a small team of search and rescue specialists to find survivors and to bring them to safety. Others had already scoured, unsuccessfully, the tent camps throughout the city of Kathmandu looking for any foreign tourists that might have sheltered there. We had a few leads – there were pockets of hikers trapped in various locations along popular hiking trails; often one of them would have a satellite phone or a GPS messaging device, and we’d plot their locations and plan on how to get them out. But this proved to be difficult, because the Nepalese government – probably quite appropriately – had nationalized all of its helicopters in order to centralize control of a limited, but vital resource. But we continued to plead with them, to try and get a few hours of air time to fly over the valley, where tourists of various nationalities had not been heard from since before the quake.
Like many of the hotels in the city, the one I was staying in was deemed partially unsafe, and we were served our meals outside on the lawn, due to thea large crack running across the ceiling of the dining room. Other guests in my hotel were a mix of rescue NGOs, shellshocked tourists waiting for a flight out, and just-arrived search-and-rescue teams, from Virginia, Los Angeles, Spain, Israel, and other countries whose citizens had been reported missing in the region.
After a few days of calls, we were told we’d finally have a helicopter for a few hours. We knew three Americans were missing, but at this point, everyone in the search effort had started working together as a team, regardless of nationality. Pictures of any found remains were shared among a quickly-evolving network. In the office, I was asked why I was spending so much time on social media; I explained that the photos that had been sent by families missing their loved ones were school photos or other posed shots in their “Sunday best.” But Facebook and Twitter held clues to how they might have looked after weeks of hiking in the Himalayas, including clothes they might have been wearing, or people they ran into along the way who might have additional information. From what we could piece together, it appeared that all three had been having lunch in Langtang Village, one of the principal stops along the scenic Langtang trail, when the earthquake struck.
We boarded the chopper and set off from Kathmandu’s airport. The pilot carefully navigated between thick banks of fog, having to reverse course several times when he lost all visibility. We weren’t sure we’d make it out of the city, which is enclosed by mountains and often covered by clouds. But eventually, he broke through, and we were greeted by vistas of snow-covered mountains, babbling brooks and dense forests…interspersed by small villages precariously perched on small ledges and surrounded by terraced rice fields.
Eventually the pilot pointed to a wider part of the valley up ahead. It was featureless, just mud flats. To the right I saw that the trees had been flattened, as if by a nuclear blast. As we flew over the place where Langtang Village had once been, I could see to my left a single building, backed up in a shallow cave under the cliff face, that was still standing; nothing else but mud and rock. This was all that was left of Langtang village.
We continued on, passing over an area where buildings had once stood, but now was nothing but rubble. A few kilometers further, we passed over Kyanjin Gompa, whose residents later reported that the shock wave from the avalanche had pelted their village with stones and ice. Seeing no signs of life, we made a wide “U” turn and headed back toward what had been Langtang.
As we passed over for a second time what had once been a bustling village just days earlier, we saw people in the distance waving. The pilot swerved and we landed. A half dozen Nepali survivors asked for help; we gave them the MREs we had on board, and one of my colleagues applied first aid to a head wound and gave an older gentleman a handful of Tylenol. They pointed to the lower part of the valley, behind us, and said there was a body of a foreigner, so we went to investigate. We found a young woman, face down, and after retrieving identification from her pocket, took a GPS reading and carefully wrapped her body in a mylar blanket to make her easier to find. And remounted the chopper to continue our search for survivors.
It was time to return to Kathmandu – helicopters struggle at those altitudes – and on the way back we saw no other signs of life along the trail. I reported the coordinates of the young woman we had found to the German embassy, and the following days were spent coordinating flights to ferry pockets of stranded survivors to the capital, and occasionally checking the morgue for updates. The evenings were spent speaking to the families of those who were still unaccounted for. We interviewed other survivors and scoured social media for clues, and although it was becoming near-certain that the three missing Americans had been in Langtang village at the time of the avalanche, I wasn’t ready to tell their families to give up hope. Because I didn’t want to give up hope. But the sheer scale of destruction at Langtang was hard to argue with. And the aftershocks continued constantly – day and night – on an average of every 15 or 20 minutes. After awhile, most of us stopped noticing them; the Earth moving beneath our feet somehow became normal.
As the death toll continued to climb – 7,000…8,000…eventually 9,000 – stories of tragedy and heroism continued to pour in. Hundreds of climbers remained stranded at Everest Base Camp, but flights were operating and they were in no immediate danger. The media talked about how this earthquake had been a long time coming, and all previous scenarios hadpredicted the destruction of Kathmandu. Yet in the end, Kathmandu was relatively unscathed; the vast majority of deaths occurred in remote, mountainous parts of Nepal. We had seen the evidence on our flight – signs of landslides and avalanches in random places on otherwise pristine green mountain slopes.
Five years after, I still remember the pride I felt when I saw four American V-22 Ospreys land at Kathmandu’s airport. The international community was mounting a massive rescue effort – India sent scores of people and helicopters, in addition to Spain and several other European countries – and I was glad to see us join in the effort.
On May 12, a 7.3 magnitude aftershock hit Kathmandu. Far less powerful than the initial 7.8, but still scary. Fortunately, it caused relatively few deaths – compared to the initial shock. But I remember drunkenly (it felt) stumbling out of the building I was in and taking a knee on the grass outside. And then it was over. And then we all got back to looking for the folks who had gone missing, though hope was fading quickly. Meanwhile, high on the mountain trail, family members of those who had gone missing had come to Nepal to look for signs of their loved one, and the massive aftershock and resulting landslides led to the military calling off its own search for survivors, in addition to ordering others off the mountain trail.
Postscript: Langtang Village has not been rebuilt. Western media tend to focus on the foreign tourists who went missing that day, but Langtang Village consisted of hundreds of Nepali people who suffered the same fate as the unlucky tourists. Stray boulders and collapsing buildings claimed the lives of locals up and down the trail, and the flow of tourists and the income they brought, whicht had allowed the people of the Langtang Valley to earn a living suddenly stopped. Five years later, hikers and tour companies are increasingly operating along the Langtang trail. While the avalanche site itself remains barren and clearly visible on satellite photos, nearby stands a memorial to those who died on April 25, and several new hotels have sprung from the rubble that lay just to the east of Langtang. One hopes that the tourism industry will recover, but like many parts of the world, the region is currently “locked down” to prevent spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the danger of another catastropic quake continues to lurk below the volatile Himalayas.
In memory of Nina Stechmann, who we found, and Dawn Habash, Sydney Schumacher, and Bailey Meola, whom we did not. My heart goes out to Will and Paul Schumacher, and Yasmine Habash, who came to Nepal with Reid Harris to look for their loved ones against all advice, as well as all the other family members like Khaled Habash, Rachelle Brown, and many others who, along with me, clung to the hope that Dawn, Sydney and Bailey would somehow turn up alive and safe. It is likely that Dawn, Sydney and Bailey remain to this day where they were seated on April 25, 2015 having lunch, or just stretching their legs; but if not, as Rachelle Brown noted, “Whatever the mountain doesn’t keep, we want to bring home.” I wish them the best in their efforts.
Living in Madagascar, people would sometimes ask, “Don’t you get island fever?” Of course, this never happened – given that it stretches the distance from New York City to the tip of Florida, it’s more like a small continent than an island. Still, from time to time, it’s nice to visit some of the smaller nearby islands, like the Comoros, Mauritius, Mayotte or – in this case – Reunion Island.
“Ile de la Reunion” or “Island of the Reunion” is a French overseas department and region, with the same status as metropolitan France. Except it’s a rock out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s formed from two volcanoes – the long-extinct “Piton des Neiges” (Peak of the Snows) to the northwest, which last erupted in 20,000 B.C.; and “Piton de la Fournaise” (Peak of the Furnace) to the southeast, which remains one of the most active volcanoes in the world. When we passed along the eastern edge of the island, we could see recent flows that had crossed the road and were still smoking in places; and since then, the volcano has begun erupting again.
Landing in Reunion from Madagascar is a bit jarring – given that the French have been here since the 1600s, it really is just like stepping into France, in many ways. We rented a small, fuel-efficient French car from a surly attendant at the airport, and as I saw there was a McDonald’s just ten minutes away, I had a sudden craving. There, I got into my first car accident. Turning left, I was startled by a loud bang and a motorcyclist came tumbling over the vehicle. He left a large dent in the rear left and tried to bully me into accepting fault and paying him off, but when I insisted on calling the police, he fled the scene. By this time, a crowd had gathered, some of them a bit hostile, and a young French woman took pity on us and led us to the police station. There we waited, made a statement, and eventually reached our AirBnB place in the hills along the south of the island well after midnight.
The next morning we went out to explore. We had an amazing view of the landscape below, with its winding road leading to the sea, and the volcano rising up behind us. It was cool, just a few miles from the sea, due to the elevation change. We decided to get up and explore, and about a quarter mile down the road, I moved left to avoid a vehicle parked on the outside of a curve, when another car whipped around the corner and smashed into us. The driver apologized and I told her “no worries” – at this point it was almost funny – and she said “but the damage to your car!” Turns out she had hit me exactly in the same spot as the motorcycle the night before, and she was relieved when I explained that it really was no big deal. But now I was definitely spooked – coming from chaotic Madagascar traffic to supposedly “orderly” France was not supposed to go like this. Needless to say, the rest of our trip, I was accused multiple times of driving with an overabundance of caution.
It’s a charming little island though – lots of green, interspersed with small villages connected by narrow roads winding through the hills. In the tourism world, it’s known for its challenging volcano climb, and shark attacks. That night, we decided to go for the former, waking up around 1 am to drive about 45 minutes to the trailhead. The idea was that we would reach the edge of the crater around sunrise, but alas – it was not to be. First, finding the actual trail in the dark was not easy. Then, the trail itself started off with a loooong descent down narrow stairs and pathways. And finally, once we got moving, it was constantly raining. But still, we forged on.
With head-mounted flashlights, it’s not too difficult to follow the trail once you’re on it – the black rock is marked every few meters by a dash of white point. We passed a few hikers coming the other way (this should have been a warning) but saw relatively few people as we made our way gradually upward. But we were definitely not going to make it by sunrise. In fact:
We hiked for hours and hours, and as the morning wore on, the intermittent rain turned into a steady drizzle. We were soaked, but by this point, determined to make it to the rim of the caldera. Which we did – and here’s the amazing view we had before heading back and passing all the hikers who had chosen a more reasonable time to start their trek.
Returning to the cabin exhausted, we decided the rest of our trip would be much more relaxing. We took some scenic drives and ventured out onto the rocky beach – it’s illegal to swim in the ocean around Reunion because it’s pretty much the world’s shark attack capital. The one exception to the rule is the small lagoon on the west edge of the island. More about that later. But here some of the scenes along the coast:
One day we took a drive inland, to a waterfall that was supposedly spectacular – the Grand Galet. We followed the winding road along the river to Saint-Joseph, where we could park near a platform overlooking the falls. But what we were after was a trail to take us to the pool below the falls. We headed down the road a few hundred meters, and eventually picked our way through the trees, clambering over (and under) rocks until we reached the spectacular pool where the river, having sunk below its rocky bed, sprays out of dozens of crevasses and caves in the sheer cliff wall.
The water was chilly, but bearable. For a bit. Refreshing!!
To round out our trip to Reunion, we checked out of our cabin and headed up the road a few hours to St. Gilles-les-Bains and Hermitage Beach, which is protected by a coral reef. As it was a Saturday morning, it turns out that half the island had the same idea, and we searched to find the last bit of parking before picking our way down to the crowded beach. And then the oddest coincidence of all, as we bumped into the same young woman who had helped us find the police station our first night there! We spent a few hours at the beach, where we were not bitten by sharks…but instead by triggerfish, protecting their nests! It seemed that nobody else was having any issues, but after a couple drew blood on my finger and on a toe, I decided a jog on the beach would be more fun than a swim. By the time it was time to pack up our wet clothes and head to the airport, there were so many people on the beach we practically had to step over them to get back to the car!
If we ever make it here again, I hope we can try the volcano again. Preferably when it’s not raining!
In my previous post I talked about our meticulously planned trip to see all four islands of the Comoros archipelago, which was so rudely interrupted by political violence…and so we shifted to Mahajanga, on the west coast of Madagascar.
I’ve blogged about Mahajanga before, and I’ve even made videos similar to what I plan to share today. But I can’t overemphasize what a nice getaway Antsanitia Resort is, if you’re ever in the neighborhood. Pro tip: it’s worth the extra expense of springing for the private pool. At first it seemed like too much of a splurge – but compared to what you’d pay elsewhere, it’s a bargain. And it’s oh so pleasant to hang out there in the hot part of the day, or when the mosquitos come out to feast….
You can go out and do excursions from Antsanitia, but this resort an hour or two north of Mahajanga, on the sea where the river empties out, is made for relaxing, as far as I’m concerned. Take a walk on the beach, but beyond that, just chill. If you really need to do something, borrow a kayak and explore the other side of the river.
While we were there, I sent the drone out for a couple of short flights, which ended up providing fodder for a couple of fun videos. In the first, meet the dog who really doesn’t like drones; and in the second, experience a flock of seagulls up close.
It was sad to leave, but we left at the appointed time and arrived at the airport only to be told that our flight was going to be delayed at least five hours. And the airport in Mahajanga is not a fun place to hang out for five hours. And don’t tell the manager I told you this, but a great place to kill five hours is to go back into town and hang out at the Karibu Lodge. If you’re staying in town, it’s a fantastic place to stay (but not on the beach) with two-story townhouses that all have a beautiful sunset view. But the best thing about Karibu is the food. If you ask the manager nicely, he may let you lounge around in the (small) pool for a few hours, topped off by an amazing meal. And then it’s 15 minutes, tops, to the airport.
If you can’t talk them into staying at the Karibu, there are also a bunch of restaurants along what must be Madagascar’s only boardwalk, just a half mile farther south.
During my time in Madagascar, I had the opportunity to visit nearby Mayotte a few times. Never heard of it? It’s and island in the Indian Ocean – part of the Comoros Archipelago, claimed by the Comoros as its fourth island but administered by France as its 101st Department. If you want to know more about its status and history (which are quite interesting), it’s worth having a read of its Wikipedia entry.
What’s remarkable about this small volcanic island is that it’s completely surrounded by a lagoon, which is created by long coral reefs on all sides of the island. Which makes for calm, warm water, amazing undersea life, and virtually no (dangerous) sharks. Like the other Comorian islands, it’s also the product of volcanic activity, thich has resulted in some interesting landscapes. And since 2018,, it’s had dozens of small earthquakes each day, because there is a new, undersea volcano erupting about 40 miles to the east.
Mayotte consists of two major islands. In French they’re known as Grande Terre and Petite Terre, but in the local language they’re known as Maore (the local name for Mayotte in general) and Pamanzi. When flying in, you land on the smaller of the two, at Pamanzi airport, and you can either stay on that island, getting around with local (shared and cheap) cabs, or take a ferry across to the bigger island and the capital Mamoudzou, where you can have a car rental agency meet you with a rental car for a very reasonable price. The ferry is free in this direction, but you’ll need to pay a small fee (in euro cents) to return.
Things to do on Pamanzi
If you spend a few days on Pamanzi, it’s worth having a hike up to the volcanic lake, Dzani Dzaha. It can be a bit tricky to catch a cab because it’s a bit off the beaten path and the drivers would rather just shuttle full loads between the ferry (“la barge”) and the airport. Have them drop you at the parking and make your way up the steep path to the rim of the crater, where you can go in either direction and wind up at the start about 90 minutes later, having gotten in a good hike and taken in some spectacular views. It’s a challenging trail run – be sure and take water whether you hike or run, because it heats up pretty quickly.
On our most recent trip, we opted to walk eastward along the southern edge of the crater, and after about 15 minutes, branched off to the east, and hiked for about half an hour to see the cliffs above Moya Beach. If you have the time, you can make your way down to the beach on one of a series of volcanic craters open to the sea. You’re likely to have the entire beach to yourself – but bring your own snacks and water, because there aren’t any tourist shops down there!
On two separate trips, I made the following short video clips which highlight the lake (slightly out of focus), Moya Beach, as well as Mount Choungui and N’Gouja Beach on Grande Terre. Yes, they overlap, but I made them from two separate trips, not knowing I’d go twice! And they’re short.
Things to do on Maore / Grande Terre
On Grande Terre, you can have a drink and a meal and watch the ferry come and go from one of several cafes near the ferry landing. In Mamoudzou are a few nice hotels and an ATM, and pleasant little shops, but it’s not safe to walk through town after dark. If you’ve rented a car, you can drive around the entire island in about half a day. Going northward from Mamoudzou, the first half hour is pretty industrial, but then things calm down and you’ll have the road mostly to yourself as you pass through coastal villages and jungles. There aren’t a lot of touristy cafes or stops along the way, but it’s a pleasant drive.
As you reach the southern end of the island, you can hike up Mount Choungui, a volcanic peak you’ll have been seeing from miles away. But the real treat that Mayotte has to offer is the sea turtles at Kani Keli. At N’Gouja Beach you’ll find a pleasant resort known for its giant baobab trees on the beach. To be honest, the resort is not that remarkable – the staff are a bit unfriendly, food and drink prices are high, but the cabins are decent and in the shade away from the beach. Which initially seems like a bad thing, but the beach itself is open to the public, meaning on the weekend it becomes a popular destination for busloads of schoolkids.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, you say? What makes Kani Keli special, however, is that its waters are teeming with marine life – in particular, sea turtles. It’s a few hundred meters out, and then you follow the reef parallel to the coast toward the west. Initially, you don’t see much, but as you approach the underground boulders and coral reef, you’ll find yourself surrounded by large majestic green turtles that seem to have very little fear of humans! It’s truly an awe-inspiring experience to swim with these animals and watch them feed on the sea grass and “fly” through the water! I’ve snorkeled and swum at my fair share of beaches, and I’ve never seen so many turtles, in every direction! Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For the more adventurous with time and money, you can also take a variety of boat tours out to the lagoon, either snorkeling or diving – the entire lagoon is a national marine park.
Mayotte is not a place I’d recommend spending weeks – unless you’re an avid diver, the tourist infrastructure is not exactly robust. On our final trip there, we had meticulously planned to island-hop all four islands of the archipelago – each island is unique and has its own activities and sights – as long as you don’t require four-star hotels – and most notably Moheli (Mwali) is said to be worth a visit due to its low population and abundant nature and sea life. Unfortunately, our plans were interrupted by political violence surrounding the Comoros elections (don’t worry – they only happen every five years!) and we had to ditch our plans to visit the other three islands, heading back to Mahajanga, Madagascar instead. But I’ll save that adventure for a different post.
The Voigtlander Vitoret is a relatively inexpensive camera manufactured in the 1960s in Braunschweig, then-West Germany. It’s pretty simple compared to its fancier cousin, the Vito, and it came in different versions – with an exposure meter, rangefinder, and other features – but this is the simplest of them – set your aperture (f/2.8-f/22), shutter speed (1/30, 1/60, 1/125 and bulb), estimate distance/focus, and click. The long stroke film advance cocks the shutter and it has a large viewfinder. Underneath, it keeps track of how many shots you have taken. It’s got a Prontor leaf shutter and a Lanthar 50mm/2.8 lens, or like mine) if built for export, a Vaskar 50mm/2.8 lens.
I’ve seen other folks get some pretty nice pictures with their Vitorets, but mine didn’t turn out great and honestly the camera did the job but it wasn’t that fun to shoot, in terms of feel, shutter sound, etc. I actually forgot I had film in it for quite awhile – some of the shots were taken in Mauritius, and then later in Madagascar, and then I forgot about the film (Fuji 400H) for a year or so, and that may have contributed to the loss in photo quality. some of the issues I blame on waiting so long to develop the film, but a good 50% of the shots were also blurry – maybe my fault for failing to estimate distance accurately, but not a lot of room for error Here are a few sample shots:
Overall, meh camera but still working nicely nearly 60 years after manufacture. I may put a roll of black and white through it in the future, but for now it’s going on the shelf. See more photos shot with the Voigtlander Vitoret here.
If you spend any time on “film photography twitter” you’ll have heard about the CULT (allegedly) that is the Sh*tty Camera Challenge. The rules are simple: find a camera that costs less than a roll of film and see what you can do with it.
This time around we were given a bit more time (3 months) than in previous editions, which is a good thing since I moved from Madagascar to Burundi and had to wait for all my film stuff since you can’t exactly drop off your film in downtown Bujumbura.
Back in August I acquired my camera: a handsome bright red plastic specimen that looked like a toy plastic from the 1990s or so. I had stopped by a camera shop in Pretoria, South Africa called Ludwig’s Photographic and when I walked in I saw he had a huge collection of vintage cameras stacked on shelves all over his shop. I looked at a couple of Kodak Retinas and picked up a tiny Minox for a very reasonable price, and when I expressed interest in the Braun, he threw it in for free.
It’s a cute little camera with an automatic flash and what appears to be autofocus. It was a bit cranky in terms of operation – I had to fiddle with it quite a bit before the shutter button would work, and if you forgot to shut it off the battery died pretty quick (and it won’t let you take photos without a working flash). But I took it along with me on a business trip to Geneva and gave it my best.
It turns out that according to the limited information available on the internet, the Braun camera company was started in 1915 but they stopped producing cameras in the 1960s because they had trouble competing with the Japanese. Given this new information, I was much more impressed with the fact that this 60+ year old camera still functioned at all! Incidentally, the company still exists, but they now sell photo- and optics-related accessories.
So how were the results? Surprisingly, there weren’t as many blank spots on the film as I had feared. I had chosen a gloomy time to visit Geneva, and thus the photos are a bit underexposed, and the Fuji 400H film in many cases has a lot of noise. A number of photos are also out of focus. But in retrospect it performed remarkably well, and it’s all in the spirit of the #sh*ttychallenge.
If you’re interested in results from previous challenges, you can check them out here and here. Thanks for checking out my results!
Some of you who have looked at my blog once or twice are aware that I used to develop “found film” that was found undeveloped inside cameras, either that I had bought or that someone else had found inside a camera and didn’t know what to do with. Occasionally it would be a trove of “lost” negatives I would come across. Anyway, I stopped doing that, mostly because it became trendy and the prices of found rolls of film started to go up beyond what I was willing to pay (for a gamble).
I have a collection of about 100 film cameras I carry around as I move around the world and I spent the better part of the weekend building shelves to put them on display. Along with the cameras is a fair amount of photography paraphernalia that has showed up with the occasional purchase, including these metal Kodak canisters that were produced until the early 1970s.
I’m not sure why I never opened them all, but I decided to look inside a few and to my surprise I found film inside them – tightly rolled up and smelling of vinegar (not a good sign, I’m told). But I could tell the images were quite sharp and I couldn’t wait to scan them and see what had been stored inside those little metal cans all those years.
I found pictures of a young family. A young man and a young woman, with two young daughters. Although the film was mainly Super XX and Plus X “safety film,” which was manufactured until the 1980s or later, the hairstyles and clothing suggested older.
What I found interesting about the photos, however – apart from the many posed family photos – was that about half the shots were of a building under construction:
I was able to determine from some of the photos that this was, in fact, the construction of the **stern home office of Prudential Insurance (with the first three letters unreadable).
I’m guessing the photographer’s father, or father-in-law, was a key figure in the construction of this building because there are several portraits of him. I began searching for Prudential insurance buildings from the 1940s. Why that time frame? Because of this single photo:
I initially thought the building was Prudential’s Jacksonville headquarters, seen here in 1955. But the building wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t explain the sign in front of the construction site, which clearly said “**stern” and not “southern.” Prudential is headquartered in Newark, NJ, so odds were this was the company’s Western headquarters.
So I decided to look further west. And I found the company’s Los Angeles “western” headquarters, which, when it was built in 1948 by Wurdeman and Becket was, at the time of its construction, the tallest and largest privately owned structure in the city, spanning two city blocks and holding 517,000 square feet of office space on Los Angeles’s “Miracle Mile.” According to this post, the building “altered the character of the Miracle Mile from a shopping destination to a white-collar office district. Its International Style design also marked a stylistic change for its architects.”
But I wasn’t fully convinced. One side of the building wasn’t quite right.
I consulted Google Maps and decided that either I had the wrong building, or else they must have added another wing onto the flat side shown two photos up. It was the signs on the photo below, “Steel Work Bethlehem Pacific,” but more importantly, the sign announcing the future home of “Ohrbach’s” that convinced me this was the old Prudential Western Headquarters at 5757 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, under construction in 1947/48.
Per the aforementioned article, Ohrbach’s, a New-York-based store, occupied this building until 1965. And Pacific is, well, Pacific.In 1982, Prudential moved to a larger building, leaving behind a piece of the rock of Gibraltar, its iconic trademark image, in the lobby. The building was renamed Museum Square. In 1993, the Screen Actors’ Guild moved its national headquarters into the building and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists followed in 1997. And as a part of the lease agreement, which expires in 2026, the building was renamed the SAG-AFTRA Plaza in 2014.
So the older child in these photos was likely born in 1945 or so. And her younger sister, shown below, I’m guessing, in 1947 or 1948. I wonder if they are still around and if they wonder where their photos ended up?
My favorite photo of the entire 96-photo collection, however, is the one below. This lady appears in two of the photos in the entire collection, and I’m guessing she was an auntie of the little girl. But all we can say for sure is that she had an ice cream cone in the hospital in the late 1940s, and was filmed on 8mm enjoying it.
I’ve uploaded my favorite 36 photos of the collection here, in case you want to see more, or prove that my sleuthing was incorrect.
Eons ago (ok, October last year) I posted the first episode in a series of mini-documentaries about jobs in the informal sector in Madagascar, about the traveling blacksmiths that wander through the city repairing umbrellas, plastic tubs, roofs…
A couple of weeks later, the second episode, about brickmakers. And then, for a long time, nothing. I had recorded the footage for two more episodes, and with the help of my Malagasy language teacher, eventually translated the footage, but I didn’t think the stories were quite complete. My friend Safidy, who created Zanaky ny Lalana, was busy building a new house, but we finally found the time to head back out to La Reunion Kely to gather what turned out to be excellent footage. I had repaired my drone and re-shot the aerial scenes I had missed the first time (I forgot to record!).
I didn’t realize Safidy had arranged for Benja, my subject, to create a piece of jewelry from start to finish – more than two hours of recording – and I didn’t have enough battery juice to finish. Luckily, Safidy stepped in and shot some great macro footage with his Olympus camera, supplemented with what I could gather on my iPhone and we made it work.
Then came my departure from Madagascar, a long period of leave in Oregon during which I thought I’d edit video but never managed to, and a move to Burundi. Finally, a year later, I finished this episode – I think the best yet in the series, about Benja, who left his job as a truck driver and retreated to La Reunion Kely, an informal settlement in Antananarivo, to create jewelry from discarded metal or old coins.
Benja made a vangovango, a traditional Malagasy bracelet, from discarded aluminum cable, and it was amazing to watch him work. In the end, I insisted on buying the finished product, for which he wanted 12,000 Malagasy francs (about $2.40) but needless to say I paid him a bit extra for his time. It was fascinating to see him work, using tools he had adapted or created from discarded materials to shape his artistic creation.
And so now I am pleased to announce the completed video, which will form an integral part of my grad school application(s). I’m pretty proud of how it turned out – please give it a look so it will have lots of views by the time the selection committee has a look!
There will be one final (fourth) episode in this series. The background music you hear throughout all three episodes, played on a traditional Malagasy valiha – I’ve interviewed the gentleman who plays that music, and made the instrument on which it is played. But that will be done once I submit my college apps. Until then, I hope you enjoy seeing how Benja upcycles discarded metal to create jewelry!
Admittedly, I own too many cameras. So when it was time to leave Madagascar, I invited a couple of friends – who happen to be the only other film photographers in Madagascar, as far as I know – to see if anything caught their attention.
Safidy and Toni browsed my collection just days before they were destined to be packed in boxes and shipped to mainland Africa, and Toni liked the heft and feel of one that happens to also be a favorite – but I never really used much (another sign I own too many cameras). It’s a 1958 rangefinder I blogged about here, that I had acquired from an estate sale of the late Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Robert Williams, who had passed away in late 2008. How do I know? He engraved his social security number in the bottom.
I always thought I had only ever run a single roll of black and white film through it, but when I went hunting for a photo of Toni, I stumbled across a folder of color photos I had taken with the Aires at Safidy’s wedding, where we can see Toni doing what he loves best.
I asked Toni if, once he had a chance to experiment with the Aires, to send me some samples and he recently obliged. It’s great to see an old camera like this get a new life with yet another owner, and I’m certain it will keep clicking for years to come. If not, hopefully Toni will pass it on to another person who appreciates it as much as the late LTC Williams, I, and he did!
Toni’s pictures featured below. You can learn more about Toni’s work and see some of the phenomenal pictures he has taken over the years with cameras both digital and analog, at his website.
Off the eastern coast of the island of Madagascar stretches a 57-kilometer long by 5 kilometers wide island, covered mostly in green and dotted with thatched-roof villages. Ile Sainte-Marie (Saint Marie’s Island), or Nosy Boraha, as it is known in the local Malagasy, is a popular destination among the whale watching community (see this post for our whale-watching experience) late every summer.
And just off the southern tip of Ile Ste Marie is another small island, Ile aux Nattes. It’s about 10 kilometers all the way around (I’ve “run” it – involves splashing through shallow water in places or clambering over rocks) and separated from Ile Ste Marie by only about 300 meters and a short pirogue ride.
Ile aux Nattes is ringed with small resorts, most of which have been there for years, and are owned by foreigners who love the simplicity and tranquility of the island. There are no cars on the island, and people get around either via the packed red clay trails that criss-cross the island, or via the small boats that work the perimeter of the island.
From the southern end of the smaller island, you see nothing but blue sea as a lagoon stretches at least three miles into the distance before reaching the distant breakers. Les Lemuriens (“the lemurs”), a small resort, is a frequent lunch destination for visitors to the island – the food is excellent – but you can also stay in their bungalows and spend the day reading or napping in a hammock strung from the trees overhanging the water.
It’s a magical place; there’s not a lot of touristic hoopla but you can simply relax, or you can venture over to the main island and rent a moped and explore, stop somewhere for freshly-caught seafood, or dine in some truly amazing restaurants. There’s also a Pirate Cemetery, as the island was once known as a getaway for pirates who marauded the Indian Ocean, and many of whom ended up settling here.
This is the third in series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series here, here and here.
When it came time for the kids to choose their third roll, I had extra color and black-and-white film and I offered them their choice. I was hoping they’d opt for black and white, and they generally did – but I think it was mainly because they knew this would be their last roll before we had to wrap up the project, and my color film was 24-exposure and the black and white offered 36!
For some reason, this roll of Feno’s turned out a bit out of focus, but it can have a lot to do with the camera we gave him. I still appreciated his choice of subjects, and honestly every photo doesn’t have to be razor-sharp to be good. His photos make me a little nostalgic for the many times we went to Anjezika, both to build the center and to work with the kids, because I think they accurately capture the mood of the neighborhood.
Hasina rejoined the group for the final session. We learned that he doesn’t actually live in the community, but has to walk several kilometers to enjoy the center’s services; maybe he has relatives here – we weren’t really sure. But I thought this was a phenomenal photo, even with the framing issue – if it were mine, I’d fix it with a slight crop. And yes, I know that’s cheating!
Nevada also re-joined us for the final session, and we had a hard time selecting just a few photos from a roll which pretty much all turned out well. She clearly likes portraits, and the only real problem was occasionally cropping the tops.
Nantenaina was our most regular participant – he was always the first to arrive, and his results were consistently good, once he stopped opening everyone’s cameras 😉
I like his attention to backgrounds.
Sarobidy also proved she has an excellent eye and attended every session, studying her proof sheets carefully to see how she could do better. For this last session I had told each of the students to try and capture things that were important to them or held meaning, and I think Sarobidy did this well. Like some of the other kids, she often wanted to be the subject of the photo, but she would set up the scene and then let the other person know when to press the shutter button.
So what’s next? Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to implement the entire program we had envisioned – I had wanted to print their best photos in large format and host an exhibition at the center, but we simply ran out of time. I was able to print postcard-size photos of all of their best shots and I left them their negatives. Rendi, a friend of the center living in the United States, donated a digital camera which Nantenaina uses to shoot updates for the Facebook page; and they are working on getting a DSLR. Safidy, our partner and the visionary behind the center, is mentoring three of the kids to see if their early exposure to photography can translate into something that can lead to a better future for them.
And as for me, I’ve moved on from Madagascar, but I’ve learned from the experience and am looking forward to implementing this program again in other countries and communities!
This is one of a short series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series here and here.
Previously I wrote about how we had sent the kids away, each with a different camera, and a roll of color film. When they came back, the intention was to actually demonstrate how the film gets developed, but this ended up being logistically too challenging, given the lack of running water, and so instead I brought the equipment and explained the process. We were even able to use a dark bag I had brought along to demonstrate how the tanks get loaded to “unstick” a roll of film inside one of the cameras.
For the black and white roll, we repeated the process, and it was clearer to explain about the difference between positive and negative images using the monochrome images. Given that I had given them some less expensive “student” film to practice with, there were some issues with the results, but I was able to correct most of it using Photoshop, since the errors weren’t a reflection of mistakes made by the kids.
And here the results of week two:
Hasina and Nevada didn’t show up this week. We agreed that Nantenaina’s photos showed talent and improvement. They come up a bit dark here on the blog, but we discussed how he’s paying attention to proper framing, his backgrounds, and consciously placing his subjects where he wants them. I like that he is experimenting with different kinds of subjects as well. Great job Nantenaina!
Sarobidy clearly has a preference for portraits, and they are well exposed and generally well framed, though we talked about extraneous things in the edges of the photos. But she is good at capturing expressions at the exact right moment.
You can see the final installment in this series here.
I wrote last time about the youth center, Le Cameleon, we crowdfunded and built in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and the project we organized to introduce a half dozen interested kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s.
I was excited and hopeful the kids would wind up with good results, because I didn’t want them to be discouraged by their first try. We had spent a fair amount of time explaining how light enters the camera and affects the chemistry on the film, on framing, and use of light. All of the cameras we had given them were slightly different, with different features and capabilities, but we avoided showing them things like the timer function and complicated flash settings (other than off/on). We put the (color) film in the cameras for them and suggested themes, like “animals” or “buildings”, or “portraits” and sent them off until the following week.
But kids are curious and clever when it comes to figuring out how things work. One of the kids complained that someone else had opened her camera and exposed the film. As it turns out, he had also opened his own camera, and he wasn’t alone in this. But this ended up being instructive, as we were able to show them what happens when there is a light leak. We also learned that you can’t get too close to your subject, or your camera can’t focus properly. A couple of the girls figured out how to use the timer function to take selfies, but they didn’t figure out how to aim the camera correctly and ended up taking pictures of their chest and lower jaw. So this first roll was a great learning opportunity, and all of the kids were able to find a few photos they were pleased with.
And so here are some of those photos they were pleased with from that first roll:
At the end of the session, we gave them all a roll of black and white film. We wanted to wait until they saw their results before they tried again. You can see those results here.
A few years ago, I joined a couple of other folks with a passion for photography and an interest in doing something for the local community in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We collaborated to successfully crowdfund a small youth center that would cater to local vulnerable kids who, for whatever reason, were not attending school. Thanks to the support of generous donors, including a member of that community who did the actual construction, a few months later, Anjezika Community Center and School – later re-dubbed “Centre Le Cameleon” – was born.
The idea behind the center was that it would provide a safe space where kids could engage in enrichment activities to expose them to new interests and skills that would pique their curiosity. We never intended to function as a school or to focus on schooling itself, but thanks to the initiative and imagination of our paid administrator, who has become the energy and lifeblood of the center, Le Cameleon has managed to integrate virtually each and every child at the center – over 200 – into a local school, even to the extent of training them for the 5th grade completion exam.
The one thing we three founders had in common – besides a passion for helping disadvantaged youth – was photography. And from the start, we had always had the intention of introducing some of the older kids to photography, in the hopes of “awakening” some hidden talent. And so over the next two years or so, I gradually built up the supplies I would need. I bid on batches of “condition ‘as is'” point and shoot cameras on eBay, built up a supply of film and other implements we could use to demonstrate the magic of photography, but for a variety of reasons we kept postponing the actual classes until I was poised to leave Madagascar for good, and we could postpone no more.
Finally in April, just a few months before my departure, we managed to assemble a handful of 13-, 14- and 15-year-old kids with an interest in photography, and present our class. We explained to them how cameras worked, and briefly turned the second floor of our center into a camera obscura – basically putting the kids inside a giant “camera” in which the outdoor scene was projected onto the opposing wall.
A half dozen kids expressed an interest in learning about photography. After the camera obscura demo, we showed them a series of vintage cameras, gave them each a point-and-shoot camera and a short class on how to operate it, courtesy of Safidy, who runs the humanitarian photography website Zanaky ny Lalana (Children of the Street), and photographer Toni Haddad. We sent the kids away with a roll of b/w film and an assignment.
A couple of weeks later we showed them how film is developed, but were unable to actually demonstrate it due to the lack of running water at the Center. And we sent them away with a roll of color film. And in subsequent weeks, with additional rolls of film of their choice, until I finally ran out of time in Madagascar and we had to “go final” and collect the cameras. But along the way, we printed their pictures and asked them to evaluate their own work, choosing which pictures they thought were best, and explaining why.
In the end I think we achieved our goal of exposing these kids to something completely new, and maybe even kindling a spark of an interest they may return to at some point in the future. Their patience and dedication were impressive. And I got a smile when I explained that they were likely the only kids in their whole country who know how film gets developed!
So if you’ve read this far, you’re probably curious how the photos turned out. For that, you’ll have to wait until my next post, because there are so many to share! You can start here.
Shortly before leaving Madagascar after having lived there for more than three years, I finally made it to Isalo National Park, which is one of the premier tourist destinations in country, and one I would have regretted missing out on.
My wife and daughter had visited this huge national park, established in 1962, which incorporates a huge (about 100 miles in perimeter) expanse of limestone that has been weathered and carved over millions of years into cliffs, gorges, odd pillars and towers, and valleys containing rich and often completely unique plant and animal life. It’s a beautiful park where you can hike for days and days, reminiscent of some of the national parks in the American West. But with baobabs.
We took a flight to Toliara, picked up a local driver, and stayed in one of the handful of excellent hotels in the local area – Isalo Rock Lodge. Another common way to experience the park is to spend a week or so driving the RN7 (national route 7) all the way from Antananarivo, stop at Ranomafana and the other parks along the way, and then fly back from Toliara (you’ll still need to work out something with a driver). It takes too much time to try and drive both ways from Antananarivo, and I wouldn’t recommend that option, especially if you plan on driving yourself. Guides are required in all national parks in Madagascar, and we tried to stop by the park entrance to arrange a guide for bright and early the next day, but were told this is not possible. But I do recommend you arrive no later than 0630 to pay your entry fee and hire a guide, so you can cover some distance while the weather is still cool.
I took along a Rolleiflex 2.8c, which allowed me to capture spectacular, square, square, medium format exposures of the varied landscapes and hidden gorges of the park. In addition to 120 format Fuji Pro 400H, I also took along some other film, including an expired (in 2005) roll of Agfa APX25 and a Kodak Tri-X 400. Oddly, the expired Agfa film turned out pretty nice – a bit of lightening along the edges – but the Tri-X ended up looking like expired, fogged film.
As much as I was tempted to snap photos of every single jaw-dropping vista we came across, I forced restraint because I realized that at a certain point, all of the rock formations and cliffs end up looking the same in the end. And it’s forbidden (probably justifiably so, given the nuisance value) to launch drones inside the park, but I did send my DJI Mavic up for a look along the park’s periphery (but technically outside, and also quite high) to get an impression. I launched from “la fenetre” (the window), a rock formation that is approached from the south edge of the park, and can be accessed without paying an entry fee. There are some spectacular photos of la fenetre out there, but on the evening that we were there, it was far too crowded to try and capture one of those iconic shots you can see elsewhere on the web.
So rather than sharing with you all of the various photos I took, I decided to splice the photos and the drone video together to produce the two-minute video below. Unfortunately the photos are square but the video aspect ratio is not, so the tops and bottoms of the stills are all cropped. But I think it still turns out ok.
If you do decide to visit Isalo, I encourage you to also check out the much smaller Zombitse-Vohibasia national park, just 50 miles to the west. This small, community-run park takes just a few hours to visit on your way and is home to eight species of lemurs and many other species of plants and animals.
Given today’s justifiable flak surrounding the keeping of pet lemurs or the existence of lemur “petting zoos” that rely on capturing lemurs from the wild, Madagascar’s “Lemur Island” (officially “Vakona Private Reserve”) near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is seen by some as controversial. The reserve consists of several different islands (lemurs don’t cross water) criss-crossed with canals, and each island houses a small group of lemurs rescued from pet or captive situations. The animals can’t live on their own in the wild, and their density is too high for the islands without augmenting their food. So tourists help pay the bills.
This reserve also gets a bad rap because some species of lemurs, already quite trusting of humans, have gotten quite aggressive and will jump on visitors to get at bananas and other fruit. Which has made some of them a bit chubby. But while some species are difficult to keep in captivity, all of the lemurs at this attraction are pretty hardy types, and among the more common of Madagascar’s 107-ish species of lemurs – some of which are endangered or threatened.
You could live in Madagascar – for as long as three years – and have trouble getting to see all of the on the beaten path things there are to see in that country–in fact, that’s what I just did, and I can confirm this. But for one of my final posts on traveling in Madagascar, I’d like to share one of the places we visited in Madagascar that’s off the beaten path.
Vatomandry is roughly on the midpoint of the east coast of Madagascar. It sits on national road 11a, between the smallish towns of Mahanoro and Brickaville, each with less than 50,000 inhabitants. The road is sometimes good, sometimes completely covered in potholes. But traffic is pretty sparse and it’s a pleasant trip as long as you keep a watch for the potholes.
Vatomandry sits astride the Pangalanes canal, a series of waterways, lakes and canals that stretches 645 km along Madagascar’s eastern coast. While the actual canal runs west of the town, an inland waterway about 300 meters wide runs to the east of the town, separating the town from a thin band of land approximately the same width.
it is on that thin band of land that Ms. Jeanine and her husband decided to retire some years ago. I suppose things got a little too quiet, and so they decided to build a handful of bungalows to house guests. They have two brick-and-mortar units, each with a couple of bedrooms, and a half-dozen smaller units modeled after traditional family homes, made of locally-harvested building materials and thatch roofs.
The facilities are a bit rustic – don’t look for a hot shower or multiple outlets to charge all your devices – but it’s clean and comfortable…and absolutely quiet. Some of the local women are employed to prepare fresh meals – which were excellent, and more than we could eat. There’s no need for shoes, and if you walk east (away from the mainland) about 50 meters from the house, you see the open sea across an expansive beach that extends in both directions. When it gets dark, there’s not much to do but go to sleep, and you wake up again when the sun comes up, rested and refreshed.
If you’d like to stay here – it costs 120,000 ariary (about 35 dollars) plus a bit for meals (30,000, or $8, to include dinner and breakfast) and tips – you can give Jeanine a call at (+261) (0)34 94 787 81. If you’ve got your own car, they’ll have you park it at the Shell station on the mainland, and someone will get your suitcases and paddle you across the water in a traditional pirogue. You’ll find less expensive places to stay, but they won’t be anywhere as nice or as charming as this one. And Jeanine loves to chat, and speaks a bit of English for those who are French-challenged.
Be sure and bring mosquito repellent if you go. The breeze keeps them away much of the time, but once things quiet down you’ll be grateful you did.
We ran into a French couple there who were visiting the place for the second time in as many years. They said the peace and quiet was exactly what they had been looking for, and they planned to stay in one of the traditional huts the following year. Asked where they were headed next, they answered, “We have no idea.”
I’m not sure why I’ve never really heard of this film – most online discussion refers to it as a “cheaper” film produced by Ilford Photo, but I was quite impressed.
I found the tones and the grain very pleasant, and found the results nicely balanced despite having shot both day and night, indoor, outdoor, and with and without flash.
I received a roll of this in the 2017 Emulsive Santa gift exchange, and it’s sat in my freezer for nearly a year. In December 2018 I took it along in my Nikon F100 on a trip to New Orleans and carried it along well after dark in the French Quarter.
About half the night shots came out blurry. I didn’t use the flash a whole lot, and I simply wasn’t holding the camera still enough. But I like the balanced results – you can tell it’s night, but you don’t see a lot of noise or crushed blacks like I’ve seen in other films.
At the other extreme, daytime shots in sunlight were equally balanced. I tend to prefer a bit more contrast, but I think that’s something I’ve subconsciously absorbed from looking at too many post-Lightroom digital shots where people have slid the ‘clarity’ and ‘detail’ sliders too far to the right. Once I successfuly fought the urge to push the contrast slider to the right, I found the grays grew on me – and this is how black and white exposures should look, I think.
A little online research reveals that Kentmere 400 (and 100) are indeed among the cheapest films available – less even than the Arista EDU I like to use when I’m testing a camera’s functionality. And aside from a bit less sharpness than I’ve seen in some other black and white films (I actually find the fuzziness pleasant) I don’t really see why I should be paying double for higher end films, as a hobbyist – and even as a professional, depending on the effect I’m looking for. Will definitely check this out again!
Shortly after arriving in Madagascar a few years ago, we watched the BBC’s Planet Earth II episode in which a film crew found it amazingly difficult to track down a swarm containing more than a billion of the tiny, destructive creatures. Apparently, it can be surprisingly difficult to find and film them. We had also seen footage, prior to coming here, of the swarms that occurred when locust populations exploded in 2013. But, thankfully – given the impact they can have on already-meager crop yields in parts of the country – we had not seen any since our arrival; it seems international organizations are working with the authorities to keep them in check.
But we were returning from Madagascar’s Isalo National Park, some four hours by road from Toliara, on the island country’s southeast coast, when we spotted several large swarms along the Route Nationale 7. They were nowhere near as large as those filmed on Planet Earth II, but they nonetheless made an expression. We pulled over to the side of the road, and I quickly launched my drone to get (and film) a closer look.
Needless to say, a number of the insects were caught by the drone’s propeller blades and I had a cleanup job later. I also had trouble with the drone’s obstacle avoidance system – it kept braking because locusts were flying in front of its sensors – but I was happy to get a decent amount of footage from inside the swarm itself.
Never heard of the Pho-Tak Corporation and the cameras they manufactured around 1948-1950 in Chicago? Neither had I, until I unwrapped this Christmas gift from my daughter, who sparked my interest in vintage cameras about 6 years ago.
It’s a solid little tank of a camera, made almost entirely of metal, with a worn black leather strap on top that tends to flop in front of the viewfinder at inopportune times. It takes eight 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch exposures on a roll of 120 film through it’s fixed focus lens and single blade shutter that offers either 1/50 second or “time” exposures. It apparently cost $6.95 back in 1950, but I’m sure it costs a bit more nowadays, pretty much wherever you can find it. On eBay, expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $40 for this 70-year-old camera.
Fun fact about this camera: some of this type were manufactured with the word “time” printed to the left of the word “Traveler,” making this, for some, the “Time Traveler” 120. Mine is not one of those, but arguably shooting with one of these cameras is still traveling in time.
It’s a simple camera, really – much like most other box cameras. No aperture or focus settings, just a switch for 1/50 second or “time” exposures, a shutter button, and a film winder. There are inputs for a flash, but I’m guessing you’ll be hard pressed to find one of those, much less put it into actual use. So this is a camera you’ll want to use outside in bright sun. I took mine out for a test run in New Orleans after I found a shop selling overpriced Tri-X 400 and Fuji 400H film. I bought one roll of each.
With color film, the results were mixed. The camera is a bit bulky and heavy to carry around, but the leather strap is handy as long as you move it from in front of the viewfinder when you shoot. But the results were generally sharp and well-exposed at 1/50s. Unfortunately, I realized partway through the roll that the little red plastic window was no longer attached where it belongs and I used my thumb to block bright sunlight as much as I could, but was not always successful.
The other issue I had, clearly visible in the image above, was that the film didn’t advance smoothly, and it seems that forcing the film to advance caused it to scrape across the rollers so that the emulsion was scratched – not much in the beginning, but increasingly as I worked my way through the roll.
In a number of the photos – both black and white – the film appeared to loosen in the camera, causing the bottom (and sometimes the top) of the exposure to be not-quite-straight, requiring cropping.
The black and white photos were much better. I took care to tape the red plastic window in place and I didn’t have any more scratching of the emulsion. Nearly all the pictures turned out – even in low light (may be more a testament to the film than the camera) and at closer distances.
Verdict: This camera is virtually indestructible – apparently except for the plastic window protecting the film from light leaks. A bit chunky and bulky but as long as the film moves freely, seems to take reliably good photos. If nothing else, it will definitely start conversations.
Thanks to my daughter for passing along this unique “time traveler” of a camera. As I take more photos with this camera, they’ll show up here.
I followed with interest the hype surrounding the re-release by Kodak Alaris of Ektachrome 100 slide film, announced in early 2017, after having been completely phased out by 2013. Honestly, initially I wasn’t that interested, but as time wore on I become more intrigued as to what the slide film might offer. When the long-awaited and long-delayed release finally happened on September 25, 2018, I was ready, having pre-ordered from Freestyle Photo.
Unlike many photographers out there who have reviewed the film, I suffer from logistical delays. My film shipped on September 26, and arrived weeks later. But this film wasn’t cheap, so I waited for the right opportunity to shoot it, over the course of December. And then shipped it off to Blue Moon Camera in Portland, because E6 chemicals only appear to be available in liquid form, meaning I can’t get it in Madagascar.
I grew up in the 70s, and I remember adults shooting slide film. I remember the jokes about being invited to look at others’ vacation slides. But I never shot slide film myself. So I was curious what was so special about it – other than the fact that it’s positive film, not negative.
When the film arrived in late January, neatly framed in slide frames just like I had seen growing up, holding the slides up to the light, I was impressed by the bright colors. None of the faded colors I sometimes see with underexposed negative film – I always feel like I need to process the scans with software to make them “pop” – in the case of these slides, every single photo was as bright and as vibrant as I remembered from the day I had taken the photos.
I was especially impressed with the night shots – even the ones that were blurred because the shutter was forced to stay open too long. Blacks were black, neon was bright and crisp, not blown out – and there was none of the noise and grain that so often disappoints when I shoot color (or black and white) film at night and I think, “it seems like there’s probably enough light, I’ll just risk it.” And firing the flash did the trick – no blur, and none of the overdone highlights like I often get with negative film.
I chuckle as I think of folks from my parent’s generation, who have been trying for years to figure out what to do with their slides, and wishing there were a cheap service to convert them all to digital. Because now I have two 36-exposure rolls of slides, neatly mounted in frames and stored in transparent sheets. And unlike the previous generation, I have no projector for them, no idea where to get one, and even if I did, I can’t imagine the reaction I’d get if I invited friends to come and “look at our vacation slides.”
So what should we look forward to from the Ektachrome re-release? Can we expect a resurgence of slide projectors (currently only available from eBay and other vintage resellers)? What are people going to do with their slides?
One thing is for sure – the consistent, bright colors offered by Ektachrome aren’t offered by any other film on the market today. Unfortunately, it costs over $12 per roll, and then there’s the development cost if you haven’t invested in the chemicals. And you end up with a product that takes up space but has to be scanned back to digital if you want to share it.
After three years living in Antananarivo, you gradually stop noticing the things that you found so fascinating and unique about this city as a newcomer.
Antananarivo is a city of 1.5 million people. It has a downtown – an older, French-looking “haute ville” (high city) – cobblestone roads running along, over, and under the hills that characterize this central highlands capital of Madagascar.
The low areas between the hills are filled with the accumulation of centuries – millenia – of silt that has run down with the seasonal rains. Raised digues – or earthen dikes – crisscross the low-lying areas, along with traffic arteries. They separate the rice fields, and also serve as earthen roadways. Others have been widened and paved over, and 1970s Renault and Citroen taxis, big Mercedes “bush taxis” and SUVs operated by government officials and expats move in stop-and-go traffic, while in the rice fields below, people living on a few dollars a day continue planting and harvesting rice as they have for generations. Running or biking through these areas, you feel like you’re in rural Madagascar – yet you’re in the middle of an African capital. And after awhile, it doesn’t seem all that unusual anymore.
Many days when we head to work, the morning light is amazing. A yellow-orange light hangs over endless bright green rice fields that stretch into the distance, interspersed with areas of reflective water that reflect that light, the occasional egret fishing for minnows.
But every January, the race is on to harvest all of that rice.
Many of Madagascar’s people can trace their roots to Borneo. Much of their culture and traditions comes from that part of the world, to include architecture, rice cultivation, and the worship of the ancestors and their ways. Consequently, even though it may not make economic sense to an outsider, Malagasy people insist on growing rice when it might be more practical to grow other crops, and sell that to purchase rice. Planting and harvesting often appears inefficient, labor intensive, and wasteful, but it’s how the ancestors did it. And the city of Antananarivo accomodates the practice by operating locks and waterways in such a way as to flood and drain the rice fields in accordance with the needs of the growers.
After nearly three years in country, we decided to spend a day taking a closer look at the rice harvest in Antananarivo. Throughout the rice fields, small groups of people can be seen heading out early in the morning carrying small scythes, tarps, bundles of rice straw, and a 50-gallon drum or similar item. Around 8 am the work begins.
The workers deftly cut handfuls of rice using scythes, dropping the chest-deep rice grass where it is cut. Behind them, others wander into the knee-deep water carrying bundles of dried rice straw, and they drop them in the water, where they float. We watch, wondering what the dried bundles are for, and we finally realize they are pulling individual pieces of rice straw from each dried bundle, and using those to tie the freshly-harvested rice into bundles of wet rice straw.
Some of them stretch out a tarp on the water, which inexplicably floats as they toss the freshly tied bundles onto it. In other locations, pirogues are used to gather the rice and take it to the digue pathways, where they are piled up for the next step in the process.
Up on the raised trails that crisscross the rice paddies, others are preparing for those next steps. Tarps are spread out across the full width of the path, and a 50-gallon-drum or something along those lines (we saw a wide variety of implements – main thing is it needs to be about the size of a drum, and not too heavy to carry from miles away) is rolled to the center of the path.
Bundles of rice, either just collected from the paddies or stacked the previous day, are then individually beaten on the drum (or other implement). The people doing the work are typically wearing some sort of apron and often also have a piece of plastic to protect their hands, because once this part of the process begins, rice starts flying everywhere, and it can sting.
Bear in mind that these digues also serve as roads of sorts. They are used by people to get from village to village – not only on foot, but by bicycle, by zebu cart, occasionally a small Renault, and in our case, by motorcycle. The tarps cover the entire expanse of the raised pathway, and you feel a bit odd walking – or driving – over what is essentially these peoples’ food, but they will cheerfully pause what they are doing and wave you through.
After the rice is “beaten” from the grass, the grains, still in their woody hulls, are collected in 50kg rice bags. Later, they will need to be spread out to dry – over the coming weeks, we’ll see rice hulls spread along roadways, sidewalks, in the middle of roundabouts…. Once it’s dry, flat trays will be used to toss the rice in the air so that the wind catches the lighter hulls and blows them away. These are in turn collected and used as fuel for the brick kilns that wil follow in the coming months. And the straw? The straw is immediately tossed aside, but will be spread on, and next to the roadways, and once dry, will be collected in piles to be used as feed for the zebus. Nothing is wasted.
Well, sort of. To be honest, a lot of rice is wasted.
As outsiders, one thing we ask ourselves is why the Malagasy insist on using such a labor-intensive and frankly wasteful method to harvest the rice. As you can see from the video, rice is literally flying everywhere – into the canal, off the tarp…in the villages there are chickens eating it almost as soon as it is harvested. Much rice remains on the plant and is discarded. So much rice is wasted that later in the year, on these pathways, the rice will start to poke out of the ground like a new lawn.
We wonder why there are not more entrepreneurs using hand-portable rice mills. Or industrial rice mills, which will capture a much higher percentage of the rice that has been painstakingly planted by hand months before, in exchange for a small “fee” – say, 5% of the harvest. Or why they even grow rice in the first place, when it’s relatively cheap, compared to other products. But we remind ourselves that we’re outsiders, and many of the mysteries of rice growing that were brought from distant Borneo as much as two millennia ago are simply not known to us “vazaha.” Maybe they’re not known to the Malagasy either – some will tell us, “the ancestors also didn’t know why they did it this way, but they did it anyway.”
But that’s how the rice gets harvested in Antananarivo.