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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Found Film in a 100-year-old Camera I got for Christmas

So my parents gave me this old camera for Christmas – a large, worn leatherbound aluminum case with shiny nickel fittings, that concealed intricate, shiny brass knobs, dials and gauges, along with a set of pristine red bellows.  As my mom put it, it was a bit “like a Chinese puzzle to open,” but I finally figured it out.

No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak Model B-4

This was a No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak, advertised as a camera that could be carried in a top coat pocket.  If you had big pockets – the camera measures 1 7/8 x 4 3/4 x 9 1/2 inches when closed!  The 3A Folding Pocket Kodak series was manufactured by Eastman Kodak from 1903 to 1915, in various models including B, B-2, B-3, B-4, B-5, C, and G.


The B-4 – this model – was manufactured from June 1908 to April 1909.  Depending on the lens and shutter, original price ranged from $20.00 to $78.00 and took 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 inch images on No. 122 film.  

No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak Model B-4

I thought I’d take a look inside the film compartment.  A bit more careful twisting and pulling of random knobs, pushing of protrusions and finally the back popped off.  And  there was the red backing paper of a nearly-completed roll of 122 film!

I knew that, with the move from India, and a planned move to Virginia and eventually to Madagascar, it would be months before I would have access to the equipment and supplies I needed to develop “found film.”  So I decided to package it up and send it off to the experts at Film Rescue International.  A bit more expensive, but also a notably higher chance of ending up with actual images (yes it’s true, it doesn’t always work out when I do it myself!)

So a camera that’s at least 107 years old – what were the odds that the pictures would actually turn out?  Fortunately, back in those days, people would use cameras for years and years – decades – unlike today’s disposable cameras.  In fact, if you could get the film (they stopped making it in 1971) this camera would still be usable today.

So thanks to the work of the folks at Film Rescue International, here are the photos:



Really just the first two came out, but I’ll include the other two just in case. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the make and year of the car. My money is on the 1960 Chevrolet Impala.

For more found film, check out this link.



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Madagascar’s Mantadia National Park: the Lemurs


Normally when we go on a trip somewhere, we end up with 6-10 really good photos worth sharing, which give an overall impression of the experience.  But I have been stalling on this post because the number of close-up lemur photos we got is pretty overwhelming.  So I’m just going to post a bunch of them below and let you discover these odd and endearing animals yourself.

But first, by way of explanation – Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is east of the capital Antananarivo – about halfway to the coast – and a common destination for tourists visiting Madagascar.  We’ve been there before, but like most people, we limited ourselves to the much more accessible Analamazaotra Special Reserve.  This time, we decided to hire a driver and guide and “rough it” down the 90-minute stretch of rutted dirt road that took us to Mantadia National Park.


We hiked up and down steep jungle trails for nearly 4 hours, and yet barely made a dent in the park.  To give an idea, the map above shows a satellite track of our hike.  Well, I forgot to turn it off as we drove southward out of the park.  The actual track we hiked is completely hidden under the top dark green circle.

But enough about all of that.  We got amazingly close to the lemurs, which not only seemed completely unafraid of humans, but many of them have this comical habit of staring off into the distance like they are intently focused on something else.  Enjoy.


This first guy is a diademed sifaka, and yes, he appears to be wearing a radio collar.

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The lemurs above are pretty common, relatively speaking, among Madagascar’s 110 or so species – known as the brown lemur.  They hopped from tree to tree, grunting, and collected near a high crook between two limbs where there was water.  As they drank, water would occasionally drip down on us below.

DSC_0792-2 DSC_0804-2 DSC_0819-2The black and white Indri is the largest lemur species.  The indri is known for its haunting call, which I recorded the last time we visited Madagascar – you can hear it here.  Typically one of them will keep a lookout while the rest of the group – anywhere from 4 t0 8 – will feed on leaves.  They are black and white, but appear to have a yellow stripe on their lower backs from sitting on branches.  They will also hang from their hind legs.  As you can see in the photo below, they will let you get quite close.  Sadly, lemurs are occasionally taken as bush meat by people who lack access to other protein sources, and even prized as a delicacy by those who can afford to pay for it.  This article explains more.

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This group of sifakas was jumping from tree to tree – easily clearing 5 meters in a jump.  The dominant female is in charge of the group in all lemur species, and she determines where they eat.  In the photo below, the lower lemur jumped to this tree and first had to pay his respect to the dominant female above, by licking/cleaning her fur before he could go and eat.

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Scientists are still discovering new species of lemurs – usually small nocturnal ones, but not always.  They are up to about 110 species.  Sadly, their habitats are very specific to each species, and all of them are quickly disappearing as deforestation is not only holding steady, but increasing.  Protected areas have been established, but the government does not have sufficient resources to protect them.  Some experts predict that in the next 15 to 25 years, all of Madagascar’s primary forests could be gone.  This means up to 90% of lemurs will face extinction in the same time frame, because most have thus far been unable to live in captivity.  We feel extremely fortunate to have been able to see them, and are hopeful that people will find a way to keep these little primates around.

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First Photowalk in Tana

We’ve had a few weeks to settle into the groove here in Antananarivo (pronounce “tananarive” but more frequently shortened to “tana”) and so we figured it was high time we got out and about with our cameras.  There is so much going on, and so many fascinating street scenes to photograph here – but we haven’t really gotten a feel for whether people are OK with foreigners snapping their photos while they go about their daily lives, as they were in Chennai.  So for this one we are playing it conservative.

Vegetables for Sale

Tana is a different kind of capital city – it is built on hills in the central Malagasy highlands, and these hills are interspersed by low land with a high water table, such that the locals have cleared much of the rich silt that has washed down from the hills to create a network of rice paddies, spearated and demarcated by low “digues” or dikes.  On some days, my commute home takes me past a particular curve in the road where, when the clouds are right, the setting sun combines with the standing water to turn everything a brilliant sunset orange for just a few minutes.  So late one afternoon, that’s where we headed.

Golden Hour


Unfortunately we arrived a bit too early, and everything was still very much blue.  People were hurrying home along the road, and they looked at us quizzically as we took pictures of the view they probably passed every day and considered completely ordinary and un-photograph-worthy.

Banana Grove

Lettuce on the Digues

Here we see where someone has marked out for himself an orderly little lettuce field, and one of the wider digues we walked down was lined by banana plants. I’m not sure how people control who gets to pick (and sell) the bananas that grow here.

So to kill some time, we walked through the nearby neighborhoods.  Most people were busy with their afternoon/evening chores – carrying laundry, or filling big yellow 20-liter water jugs from the neighborhood water poing.  But everyone was extremely friendly, greeting us with “bonjour” and breaking into a wide grin when we not only responded with “bonjour” but also added “manahaona” or “salama”, from the smattering of words we have learned in the Malagasy language mostly spoken by locals.

Bringing home the laundry

Boys Playing


As the light began to turn more and more orange, we headed down this narrow lane, and as we passed a group of giggly teenage girls, the sound of singing grew louder and louder.


I realized that we were passing the open door of a Sunday afternoon church service. We had passed another church earlier, where two groups of 20-25 boy scouts (scouting is very popular here!) were singing in a circle outside the church, but it seemed intrusive to record the scene. But here I paused to record the singing. As I was recording I heard the group of girls call something out in unison, and as I turned the camera in their direction, they began giggling and ran to avoid being captured on video.

As the sky continued to turn more orange and we rushed to get back to our original spot, we passed this community water point where one of the young men who appeared to be administering the point took a moment to demonstrate his martial arts form to the (mostly) young women getting water.  As we walked by, the attention turned to us and our silly Vibram Fivefingers (“toe shoes”), which, in the month we have been here, consistently draw the attention of the locals.


But finally we made it back just as the sun was putting on the best of its sunset performance.

Rice Paddy Sunset

Rice Paddy Sunset

Rice Paddy Sunset

Rice Paddy Sunset

We caught one of the rickety Renault cabs home, excited to look through the photos we had captured, and already planning our next (ad)venture!


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Madagascar: Paying Attention to the Little Things

Walking through the jungle in Madagascar in search of lemurs, it’s easy to overlook the little things…and trample them underfoot.  Bugs, tiny plants, lizards.  There are upwards of 100,000 species of insects in Madagascar.  We didn’t see the long-necked giraffe weevil, but we saw lots of other interesting creepy crawlies.  For instance, this little guy, perched on the door of our hotel room.  Twice.  I don’t know if it’s a moth or what…


Some other numbers to put it in perspective:  80 species of stick insects.  100 species of cockroaches.  235 species of mosquito.  And the world’s smallest bee, at 2 mm in length.

4 following photos by Anne




The butterfly above is one of the few critters I was able to identify.  It looks like a leaf with its wings closed, complete with the central vein, and when it opens its wings, they are bright white with black spots.  It’s the clouded mother of pearl, Protogoniomorpha anacardii, which occurs all over Africa.

Our guide also showed us a number of termite nests, which are built on the ground, and ant nests, which are attached to trees and can be as large as two to three feet in diameter.  And so I saw this one – I didn’t see a single ant – but I found the nest to be….grotesque

Ant Colony

Ant Colony Closeup

Ant Colony Closeup

And then there were the spiders.  Below is what I think is a type of “orb spider.”


And there were LOTS of spiders.  Crossing a footbridge, it is not uncommon to see that spiders have somehow strung their webs across the span between trees on opposite banks.  Some of them were pretty creepy looking spiders.



Besides insects and arachnids, madagascar has a variety of pill millipedes (Sphaerotherium).  I learned about them as we were driving up the rutted dirt road to Mantadia National Park, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and indicated there was something in the road.  I jumped out and there were a good two-dozen copper-green bugs that resembled two-inch giant roly-poly bugs.  Only they are millipedes that can roll up into a ball.

Pill Millipede

After snapping a couple of photos I had to spend a couple of minutes clearing them from the road so that they wouldn’t be crushed by the passing vehicle.  I wondered if the driver thought I was foolish, but when I got in, he said, “Thank you.”

There are some 260 species of reptiles in Madagascar, in just a few types – between 40 to 60 percent of the world’s chameleon species, a handful of tortoises, a bunch of geckos.  About 90 percent of the reptiles in Madagascar occur nowhere else.  One was the lined day gecko, phelsuma lineata lineata.  In Andasibe’s nature reserve, there were these plants that looked like agaves, but grew as tall as small trees, and each one seemed to have its own lined day gecko.

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And then there are the birds.  Madagascar has about 280 species of birds, 100 of which are endemic.  Not as high a percentage as some of the other animal types – but birds do get around, what with wings and all!  I wanted to share a few of the bird photos Anne managed to grab.  The first is a red fody or Madagascar fody (Foudia madagascariensis); some sort of sunbird, and the Madagascar kingfisher (Corythornis vintsioides).  I remember the guide getting particularly excited when we saw a Madagascan green pigeon, saying that birders come for a week on end to try and spot this bird; as well as the nuthatch vanga.  We saw both but didn’t get any good photos.

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Finally, it’s not just the fauna that are so interesting in Madagascar – it’s also plants…and fungi!


Given that between 9,000 and 12,000 plant species occur only in Madagascar, we were keenly aware of the likelihood that we were seeing the plants all around us for the very first time.  Which seemed weird, but then again plants generally look pretty much the same.   As do mushrooms, right?

But in one of our hikes we ran into a particular fungus which caught our attention.  It’s not endemic to Madagascar, but it’s weird.

Stinkhorn Fungus

At the bottom of a stairway carved into one of the hills was this odd, 10-inch-tall mushroom with a delicate white, veil-like lattice cap, topped with a brown knob that had the full attention of about a dozen flies.  This is the phallus indusiatus, or “stinkhorn fungus.”  They grow in tropical areas all over the world, but are interesting to see because they emerge from a small egg-shaped fungus in the ground, grow to the form in the photo, and then disappear back into the ground, all in the space of about 12 hours.

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One of many interesting things about this fungus is that the brown tip gives off the odor of rotting flesh, which attracts flies, which in turn aid in dispersing the spores.  The whole family apparently has this characteristic.  But interestingly, one of the close cousins of this fungus, found in Hawaii, has been identified as causing a spontaneous orgasm in 6 of 16 women who sniffed the odd mushroom!  We didn’t have the opportunity to test whether this is the case for this particular pungent cousin.  And despite its odd appearance, it seems that these are regularly dried and eaten in some markets…not something I would have guessed.

If you’d like to see mor photos of Madagascar, including life forms both great and small, you can refer to this Flickr album.

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(Re)introducing Madagascar: Golden Hour in a Roadside Village


So it was our first “real” weekend (i.e. the first during which we were not stumbling around in a jet-lagged haze) and we decided to head out of town.  We decided to return to a destination we had visited on our vacation trip in 2012, and a place many visitors to the country go and see – the Andasibe – Mantadia National Park area, about 150km from Antananarivo.  In short, it was a wonderful trip, with hundreds and hundreds of photos we’d like to share (and this in spite of having brought only my Fuji X100, which has no zoom – but Anne made up for me) and we don’t even know where to begin.  So I thought I’d just start with the drive down there.

(next 3 photos by Anne)


Antananarivo (“Tana”) being in the central highlands, we headed east through rolling hills with beautiful panoramic views.  The driver we had hired pulled over where we took these pictures and explained how the locals use materials found in nature to build their homes – i.e. thatch roofs and mud bricks – and pointed out that people build a cooking fire inside the home (upstairs, see the soot above the window in the bottom photo) to make use of the heat that’s generated.


So as we were driving along the sun was setting and we passed over this river and I had the driver turn around because the whole thing was lit up orange – by the time he got back the effect had just passed.

River SunsetA bit farther down the road, I saw there was a pretty good valley view of the sunset and I asked the driver to quickly pull over.  In my bare feet, I climbed on top of the SUV’s roof rack and snapped a couple of photos:



So this was actually a tiny roadside village – 6-8 small huts with some vegetables growing out back, and the villagers were amused to see a foreigner – a “vazaha” (which literally means “white person” but is used to mean outsiders, which have tended to be white…) standing on top of his car taking pictures.

With hand gestures I asked if I could enter the village to get a better shot.

Rural family

As we drove away, the driver said, “They liked you – you are like from the country,” referring to my shoelessness.

We would arrive at the park after dark, and over the next few days I shot a few more pictures of homes located around the outskirts of the park.  Few people have electricity, and drying clothing on the grass is common even in the capital, Antananarivo – but I was struck by how they had used found or repurposed materials to build their homes.




Some sobering statistics on Madagascar. Something like 80% of the living things that are on the island occur nowhere else in the world. This includes the 103 or so species of lemurs, its most famous creature – but also some 400 species of frogs, for example. 11,000 plant species – 165 of Madagascar’s 170 palm species occur nowhere else. Six of the world’s 8 baobab species. Time is running out to save many of these species. But then you have poverty – 92% of the people of Madagascar, known as the Malagasy, live on less than two dollars a day.

During the coup regime between 2009 and 2013, nearly all foreign aid was cut off – which at the time represented 70% of Madagascar’s income. We could clearly see conditions have improved from 2012, our last visit, and today. But to me the people, struggling to make it day-to-day, living along the fringes of these marginally protected National Parks containing such a treasure trove of biodiversity, are somehow symbolic of the challenge Madagascar faces. There needs to be a way to make saving Madagascar’s natural wonders and eliminating the poverty of its people, part of a single solution.

To be continued…

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24 Hours in Paris


When moving to a new home, as we’ve done every 2-4 years for the last 25, we’ve always traveled with pets.  When we were traveling with a 100-lb dog requiring (due to his size) a separate booking on a cargo flight, the object of the game was to get to our destination as soon as possible.  But with only two cats, the calculus changes – and it becomes preferable to break up long itineraries and give everyone a break.  Especially when that break happens in Paris!

Tour Eiffel

After the long transatlantic flight, though, all you want to do is take a nap. Luckily we woke up after a few hours and managed to drag ourselves into the city – a half-hour train ride from the airport. Which left us about 6 hours to paint the town red!


We bought a “Paris Visite” metro pass, which allows you to use the train to/from the airport, and all of the city metros, until midnight. and then we basically bounced around tourist sites. We’ve been there a number of times, so there was no pressure to see any specific site(s).

Pont au Change


We made our way up to the Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre, which were packed with tourists, and had a nice crepe and coffee.

Tourists on the Steps


We wandered the streets a little randomly and opted to stop by the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.


We ended up having a great meal at one of the countless restaurants just south of the Ile de la Cite and got back to the hotel shortly before midnight, well-refreshed and rested, and ready to complete the second leg of our journey and to start a new chapter.  On to Madagascar!

Pont de Bir-Hakeim

All of the photos from Paris can be seen here.

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…and we’re off – to Madagascar!

When we were posted in Namibia, we took a trip to Madagascar.  The thought was, “when will we ever have this opportunity again?” because plane tickets from the U.S. are wicked expensive.  How ironic that a few short years later we should discover that we will be posted there for a two-year assignment (extendable to three!)

Entering Madagascar

Exploring Madagascar’s Jungles at Night

Madagascar on 12.12.12 Part 1:  the Lemurs

Madagascar on 12.12.12 Part 2:  the Snake

Madagascar:  Chameleons and Lemurs

and a couple of videos that I thought were embedded in blog posts, but I can’t seem to find the actual blog posts.  Maybe I got lazy or distracted.

Dirt Biking on Ile Ste Marie:

Madagascar:  Lemur Island

Driving in Tana (Antananarivo)

Madagascar: Chameleons and Other Critters

Madagascar: Underwater at Ile Ste Marie

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Photo Assignment: Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial


Given that a trillion photos were snapped in 2015, the odds of snapping an “original” photo at a tourist attraction or monument/memorial in Washington are ridiculously low, but it’s fun to try and see what you can accomplish.

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is one of my favorite places to visit in Washington.  Compared to the other old buildings and monuments in Washington that recall ancient (for the U.S.) history, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is a living monument.  Besides memorializing a war that happened during many of our lifetimes, it is constantly changing, with the mementoes being left behind behind by these visitors making its recency much more palpable.


The Memorial was quite controversial around the time of its design and construction, with its black stone (from Bangalore, India!) and unconventional design.  The Memorial includes two other pieces, the Three Servicemen and the Women’s Memorial, which are placed close enough to interact but not so close as to distract from the design of the black wall.


Red Carnation

I went to photograph the Memorial early in the morning – actually well before dawn.  The reflective black stone allows a visitor to see his or her reflection simultaneously with the engraved names (58,307 total), which is meant to symbolically bring together past and present.  The two 246 foot, 9 inch walls point toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and at night, the row of lights and the interplay of the lit monuments in the distance , along with the reflective nature of the walls, offer a lot of interesting photographic options.


Dawn 2

Reflecting on Lincoln

So when I g0t there at 5 something, intending to set up at the apex of where the two walls meet, there was this guy all set up with his tripod up by the Washington Monument end.  There was this giant pink cloud passing in the sky.  But fortunately he packed up about 10 minutes after I arrived.


I thought it was a cool shot, but the next two ended up being my favorites.



It’s a stunning Memorial to a tragic loss of 58,307 lives. I tried to capture it photographically, probably like thousands before me – but ultimately, there’s nothing like going to see it in person.

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Testing the Aires 35 V

Aires 35 V

I found this rangefinder at an estate sale in Virginia.  It’s a heavy, solid camera and it came with a second lens, and despite never having heard of its manufacturer, I decided to add it to my collection.  Being from a different era, its previous owner had engraved his social security number in the back of the camera.  So we know this camera belonged to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Robert Williams, who passed away in November, 2008.

It turns out the Aires Camera Works was based in Tokyo, and it seems they put a lot of effort and research into the Aires 35 V, the last in their “35” series.  It was put out on the market in 1958, but Leica’s M3, put out just a few years earlier, had taken the rangefinder world by storm, and other serious photographers were switching to some of the early SLRs.  Aires would also attempt to enter the SLR market but wound up folding in 1960.

Aires 35 V

The camera was sold with interchangeable lenses as options.  Mine was mounted with an f/1.5 45mm lens and also came with an f/3.5 100mm lens.  Other options at the time were an f3.2/35mm, and an f1.9/45mm lens.


With this lens combination, it would have cost about $180 back in 1958, or just shy of $1500 in today’s dollars!  So I was excited to take it out for a spin.  I loaded it up with a roll of black and white film and we headed into Washington.

I found the camera a little tricky to operate.  Usually changing lenses on modern cameras is pretty intuitive, but I had to consult the owner’s manual to get the larger lens to click into place.  There’s also a built-in light meter that works backward from most I have seen:  rather than setting the aperture and shutter speed so that the needle on the meter is within a certain range, and I couldn’t seem to make this one work.  I ended up using settings that seemed right for the light conditions, and it was only afterward when I re-read the manual that I realized that the needle measures the light, and this is used to indicate possible aperture and shutter speed settings.  It’s not really described very clearly.

light meter

The other oddity on the camera is the dial on the front.  Leicas use a dial in this spot to set slow-shutter speeds.  Instead, this dial is used to allow double exposures, single exposures, or allow the film to be rewound.


Despite my inability to use the light meter, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the low-light photos I took.  The photo above was taken just a few minutes before sunset with trees blocking the little light that remained.  It’s dark, but much better than I would have expected from a 1958 camera in low light. The photos below, taken inside the The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception illustrate this further. I wanted to see what it could do with the stained glass windows – not really expecting a decent photo, but just looking if I could accurately capture the detail in the windows.  And for the interior shot of the basilica there was very little ambient light – this is where the f/1.5 lens gave a lot of flexibility.

Stained Glass


Outside the basilica the sky was clear and the sun was bright – also great results.


We headed over to the National Arboretum, where I took a few pictures with the telephoto lens. I was reminded that unlike SLRs, you don’t see what the lens sees – so I realized that the viewfinder has an “inner” square that helps frame through the 10cm lens. Focusing was a bit tricky in the bright light, as the rangefinder ‘double’ image was pretty hard to detect, but I used the markings on the lens(es) to double-check that I was focusing properly.  Maybe taking it apart and cleaning it will help the focusing.

Walk in the Park


Unidentified Structure

Again, really pleased with the sharpness and clarity of the photos that came out of this camera – and the detail of the grass and trees reminded me why I like to shoot with film.


I have read in other reviews that the shutter in these cameras tends to stick. I had no issues, but obviously this is something you’ll want to check before buying one of these. In all, I think it was an outstanding camera for its time and the quality lenses that come with it allow the taking of clear, sharp photographs – 70 years after its manufacture!

I hope to run a roll of color film through it when I get some more time.  Those photos, and the others already taken with this camera, can be viewed at this Flickr album.

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Washington’s Cherry Blossoms

The last couple of weeks, the National Capital Region has been all abuzz about the annual return of the cherry blossoms.  I blogged about it the last time I was in the area for a few months, back in 2011, and so I thought it would be good to check it out again this year.  Only this year, it would prove to be much more difficult.

I tried driving into town one afternoon and found the crush of pedestrians as dusck approached to be so overwhelming that I turned around and headed back home.  So I decided instead to try an early morning foray into the capital.  I arrived shortly after dawn, and started out snapping a few pictures on the National Mall before heading over to the Tidal Basin.  I should have taken as a hint the number of photographers on the mall.

Washington Monument at Dawn

When I got over to the Tidal Basin well before 8 am, I was shocked at the number of people already there.

Spring Tourists

Spring Tourists

In all directions, people were pointing cameras.  Posing in front of the water, photographing the trees above them – every imaginable angle and camera type.  Honestly, I wasn’t completely sure what the fuss was about – being in this grove surrounded by other people was anything but magic.  It turns out that, in addition to the cherry blossom “peak”, it was also spring break for many schools.  Impossible to get a decent photo of anything involving cherry blossoms.

So a few days later I decided to try again.  This time I arrived well before dawn.  I snapped a few night shots at the Vietnam Memorial and headed once again to the Tidal Basin, arriving a quarter hour before “official” sunrise, and waited, shivering, on a bench by the water. It turns out three’s a charm!

Cherry Blossom Sunrise

Blossom Grove


Blossom Path


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