September 20, 2011
Our second day in Antananarivo began with a very long (in time, though not in distance) bus ride to the Queen's Palace in the Blue Hills outside the city. Traffic here is extraordinarily congested. We would often stop for several minutes before moving ahead by one car length. However, it gave Vic the opportunity to photograph the lively and colorful street life: the market stalls and everyday life in this surprisingly underdeveloped country.
(Click photos to enlarge)
Waiting for the bus
Lined up for water
Embroidering while waiting for customers for the vegetables
We drove through the countryside after leaving Tana, through both forested and despoiled land. Madagascar has a long history of ravaging its environment. Rice, the principal food, is widely grown; all farming uses zebus (local oxen) for plowing.
The Ambohimanga Queen's Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the site of the summer palaces and tombs of the 18th century king who unified the 18 tribes of Madagascar, and of the three queens who ruled ruled during the 19th C until colonization by the French in 1896. The site includes the rather simple living quarters of the king and the Victorian-influenced Silver Palace of the last queen, who was exiled to Algeria by the French colonial government.
Ambohimanga is still revered by the 30% of Malagasy people who combine animism with Christianity. They still sacrifice here (mainly chickens, an occasional zebu) and come here to pray. When we finished being led through the buildings and grounds
View from the Ambohimanga grounds
by our attractive and articulate guide, Noro,
we listened to a rehearsal by Malagasy singers and instrumentalists in the courtyard, including this renowned, but one-handed, harpist - great music.
Malagasy harpist rehearsing for concert
Returning to Tana, we had a very nice lunch (including fish and creme caramel) on the patio of a hotel restaurant.
Then we drove to the Natural History and Ethnographical Museum, where we saw the fossil skeletons of the elephant bird and the pygmy hippopotamus, and stuffed specimens of contemporary animals including the ay-ay and fosa.
Ay-Ay mounted in display case
Then we saw the entomology collection done by the French: moths, cockroaches, beetles, etc. A nice collection for a third world museum.
Natural History Museum staff with case of giraffe beetles
Next we went to the Zoo next door, where we saw a live (though sleeping) foes, many varieties of reptiles, birds, and lemurs endemic to Madagascar.
For a third world country, the museum and zoo were quite good, although there is clear need for an infusion of support from more prosperous countries. We learned that the Biodiversity Research Center, focusing on plant and ant systematics, is a joint venture of the Madagascar Museum/Zoo and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It was perhaps the most hopeful place we have visited so far. Many students were participating in work on botanical classification/morphology of new species and sending samples to the CAS for DNA analysis.
Preserving plant specimens
Similarly, ants were being described and mounted and samples prepared for analysis.
Working on ant systematics
It was great to be able to access these labs to find out about their work, since they are usually not open to the public.
We got back to the hotel about 6 PM, and were immediately picked up by Tuki, a driver sent by Robert and Nina Strauss. It was an immersive experience in traffic and street life in Tana, which has a very inadequate road system. There are no traffic lights, and only a rare traffic cop who seems to make little difference. To get to the Strauss's house near the airport took an hour and 15 minutes; to return, when the traffic had disappeared, 20 minutes. Tuki's car also needed new spark plugs, so the stop-start traffic made it necessary to restart the car each time.
When we finally arrived, it was a huge contrast. Robert and Nina, and their 14 year old daughter Allegra, live in a lovely mid-century modern haven in a two acre compound with fruit trees, other flora, and a collection of golden orb spiders. We had a delicious dinner and stimulating, informative conversation - a great conclusion to a busy day.