A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 5: FINALE


Traditional Malagasy fisherman prepare for their daily excursion © Emily Koopman

The better part of the day was spent on the road, some of which was not in ideal condition. We ended our journey in the driest part of Madagascar, crossing sandy soil and mangrove trees, somewhat similar to what you might expect in Florida. When we reached the small fishing village of Ifaty, we only continued a tad further to the outskirts, where our beach bungalow awaited us. We bid Andry farewell, as he had the long journey back to Tana ahead of him. This time alone. The coast was the hottest location we had visited during the whole of our trip. Albeit beautiful, there wasn’t an awful lot to do except wander the beach. Since we were right on the ocean, I found it appropriate to have some seafood for lunch. We sat out on the restaurant deck, with picturesque views of the Mozambique Channel, and waited for our food to arrive. I had ordered “shrimp” (pretty sure they were actually prawns), and to my surprise, when placed on the table in front of me, their lifeless beady eyes stared straight into my soul. I had been warned they were fresh, but I didn’t realize just how fresh. It was almost as if the seafood saw me. I felt increasingly guilty with every bite.

When we returned to the restaurant for dinner, I didn’t have seafood. Just before the meals arrived, I all of a sudden began to feel nauseous. We were treated to traditional Malagasy entertainment, and even offered the opportunity to participate in a dance; I had to politely decline, in fear of accidentally covering the person in front of me with vomit. Eventually, I excused myself from the table and scurried off to the bathroom — where I proceeded to be sick for nearly 5 minutes straight. Let me tell you, I felt incredible after (even with occasional diarrhea run from my flu).

We spent the following day relaxing and exploring the beach. I found a praying mantis crossing the stone walkway which connected the bungalows, and decided an impromptu photoshoot was the way to go. It seemed like he was posing for the camera, and may have been on Project Runway in a past life. I should also mention that the sand surrounding the path was always covered (and I mean covered) in tracks left by the many hermit crabs that inhabit the area.

On the beach, we were followed by a woman (who had made her presence known from below as we ate earlier), continuingly insisting we check out the items she had for sale. Since I’m terrible at saying no, we wandered over to some spread out blankets in the sand where two of her friends were also set up. They were adamant that something be purchased from each of them, and although it was somewhat irritating, I could empathize with their situation and really did need more souvenirs for people anyway.

On the morning of the 29th, we were picked up by a driver and taken to the small airport in Tuléar where we caught a short flight back to Tana. Upon arrival in the capital city, we were greeted by a friendly and familiar face – Andry! He took us back to our original hotel where I tracked and followed geckos late into the evening. Since we hadn’t been able to do the hike a couple days prior, the tour company offered to buy us dinner at the restaurant hotel which was awfully thoughtful of them. One of the waiters and I had a grand ole time discussing geckos as we watched them clamber the terrace walls, hiding behind a light in preparation for moths and other insects going kamikaze in said direction.

The two of us spent nearly the entire consecutive day preparing ourselves for the flight home. Fortunately, I was feeling much better, but Grandma was beginning to show signs of sickness. She decided we best walk down the hill to the nearest pharmacy to get some flu medication, so that we did. It was a nice walk — not too hot, not too cold — and it only took about 10 minutes each way. The hotel staff had advised us not to take our wallets or cameras, as there was a local market nearby where pickpocketing was rampant. So we just grabbed a few ariary (the local currency) and went on our way.

That night was melancholic, as I watched my last Malagasy sunset from our balcony. I wound up taking a power nap, knowing that we were being picked up at 10:30 pm to catch our flight back to Paris.

Andry brought his wife along for the ride, and the 4 of us drove through the humming city of Antananarivo for the last time. Outside, we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. When we finally made it through security and into the waiting area, it was almost like being back in the rainforest in terms of humidity. It felt like time had stopped in the airport, and it was bizarre seeing such a large number of white people again. The amount of security checkpoints (after the original) was also surprising. I watched a lot of movies on that plane ride.

The rest of the story isn’t quite as interesting; we arrived back in Paris and took a shuttle to our nearby hotel. I conked out upon arrival, only to be awakened by my grandma for a food break. We ate at the neat music-themed restaurant in the lobby, and then we both went back to bed, as we had an early flight back home the next morning.

When I originally decided I wanted to visit Madagascar, I figured it would be a once in a lifetime thing, but looking back on it now, I refuse to let that be the case. Nearly every part of me longs to visit again. Whenever I reminisce about the experience, I can’t help but feel excited and ready for adventure; my single lament being catching the flu (which actually returned full force in back in Canada, leading to having bloodwork done to test for malaria; even though I had been taking anti-malarials the entire trip). I’ll be honest when I say it wasn’t altogether what I was expecting, layout-wise anyway, but there was something magical about it. Like many countries, it’s a place you have to experience for yourself to fully understand what I mean.

By Emily, on October 9th, 2017, under Travel // Comments Off on A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 5: FINALE


A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 4: I SAW KING JULIEN!


A curious Ring-Tailed Lemur © Emily Koopman

On May 24th, we made our way to Setam Lodge in the midst of the country’s most famous National Park. The hotel was nice, but not quite as nice as Vakona. There were also a lot more bugs — especially in the bathroom. Ants and moths galore! I was starting to get sick; sneezing, congested, and had very little energy. I still went on a hike that morning, determined to see more lemurs. Our guide was very sweet, though I didn’t catch her name. This trek included “a spotter”, whose job it was to go ahead of us and keep an eye out for wildlife. Grandma figured she would give the walk a go, and Andry said he would come with us in case she had had enough and wanted to turn around. They did eventually head back early, so it was just me, the guide, and the spotter.

This forest was even more remarkable than the one in Andasibe, but the trails were much steeper — meaning enormously more difficult when you feel like death warmed over.

We crossed bridges, jumped from stone to stone across rivers and creeks, and pushed past branches and bushes in search of wildlife. I tried not to think of how many spiders I had probably come into contact with. The spotter was just as great as the guide, and eventually, we came across some Greater Bamboo Lemurs, one of which came down from the tree, grabbed a stick of bamboo, and ate it about a foot in front of us. The guide said this was a very rare occurrence, as this particular species generally stay as far away as possible. They’re also one of the world’s most endangered primates, and were actually thought to be extinct until 1986… only around 500 exist today. It was an honor to see. Sadly, we cut the hike a little short due to my increasing sickness. I was so disappointed — there were still several lemur species I hadn’t seen that called the area home. My body just wasn’t having it though.

Later, after resting up for a while, I went on another night walk with the guide from earlier. We saw the cutest little mouse lemur, a frog (which it wasn’t yet the season for), and lots of chameleons.

The next day I wasn’t feeling any better. We headed to a much drier part of the country, which I prayed would be better for my flu. We made a few stops along the way, including a traditional silk factory. I didn’t think it would be as fascinating as it was. I didn’t end up purchasing anything, but it was clear that the women put a ton of effort into their work, as it’s all a very tedious process.

Once we finished up there, we drove to a paper factory, where two women were working even though it was a local holiday. Andry showed us around before we settled in for lunch at the little restaurant next door. I only had fruit, water, and some medicine that Andry had managed to track down for me. Bless his heart.

Next, we went to a small private park that the village had put together, to see the famed Ring-Tailed Lemur. I really wasn’t feeling good, and Grandma didn’t want to walk far, so we did a short 45-minute circuit. Our guide and spotter were two young men (probably around my age), with no shoes. Both were exceedingly knowledgeable and, in true Malagasy fashion, extraordinarily friendly. We saw tons of Ring-Tails and even the indigenous Flatid Leaf Bug, which I had been hoping to come across at some point. Once we returned to Andry and the vehicle, it was off to Isalo for the night.

I spent the subsequent day in bed, upset that I had to opt out of a hike through the desert canyon. The hotel could have almost been considered luxurious, and was truthfully the ideal place to take a day off. I was even brought all of my meals in bed, despite not having a large appetite. Most of the day was split between sleeping and wallowing in self-pity due to the fact that I was missing out on what had promised to be another once in a lifetime hike.

After a good night’s sleep, we continued to Tuléar; traveling through dry forests and the spiny desert. I was feeling a little bit better, but still not entirely up to snuff. We drove by plenty of striking tombs, which are hoped by the people to be built with great care and expense. It became clear as we passed each monument which families were better off than others.

By Emily, on October 8th, 2017, under Travel // Comments Off on A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 4: I SAW KING JULIEN!


A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 3: COROSSOL, LEMURS, AND THE BEST SPAGHETTI EVER


Fruit stands along the road to Andasibe © Emily Koopman

The following day, after breakfast at the hotel, we met up with our driver/guide Andry. He was an absolute wealth of information. It was only day one of the tour, and I already felt like I could teach a class with all of the facts he had supplied us with. We traveled from Tana through the highlands, “artificial” forests made up of Eucalyptus trees, and into the lush rainforest. On the way, we pulled over at a fruit stand where Andry bought us some bananas. A little while later, we stopped by an animal education centre, where we learned about, and saw, a number of different reptiles. I got to hold a Madagascar tree boa, but there’s no photographic evidence because my Grandma nearly blacked out when she saw the snake.

Afterwards, we continued our drive and at last made it to our destination: Vakona Forest Lodge. I doubt that words could ever do its beauty justice. You know in “The Notebook” when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling are dancing and can’t keep their eyes off of each other? Yeah, that was me with this entire place. Bungalows were scattered on a hillside, only separated by colourful gardens. The main building overlooked a small (presumably manmade) lake. The deck presented a few tables, one of which where we found ourselves eating lunch. Ya girl had some Malagasy chicken strips. They’re essentially just chicken strips… that were made in Madagascar. But like I said before, I’m pretty sure they make all the food 10x better there.

They’re in the running for the best strips I’ve ever had.

That evening, we went on a night walk in search of mouse lemurs (some of which are barely 4.75 inches long, tail included), and other nocturnal creatures. Our park guide, Zak, was fantastic, and always making sure that I got the best possible pictures.

Bright and early the next morning, Andry took me back to the park in Andasibe for a hike with Zak. This 3-hour adventure was a milestone for me, because it’s where I saw my first “typical” wild lemur. There are very few experiences that can compare to seeing an astounding animal go about its life in the wild. That said, we saw tons of them, including the Indri, which is the largest lemur in the country. We also saw the Common Brown, and Diademed Sifaka, which ended up being my favourite out of all the primates.

The forest itself was amazing, and I couldn’t have been happier to finally visit a tropical rainforest. It was like Disney’s Adventureland… but in real life. Even though I was hot, sweaty, and a little bit tired (are you sensing a pattern?), I kept thinking to myself how grateful I was to be there.

When we returned, I was promptly greeted by Andry, and we were off back to the lodge. He said we could meet back up at 3 pm and head to Lemur Island, which would prove to be the standout experience of the whole trip. In short, Lemur Island is a small, well, island, where several species of lemur live freely, but are used to people and will leap onto your head and shoulders. I had a soft, furry lemur bum pressed against my cheek. Is there anything better? I could have spent all day there, but settled for 45 minutes. If I asked you to guess how long it took to get to the island, what would you say? I bet it wouldn’t be 30 seconds, yet that’s the approximate time it takes one to drift across the ankle-deep water from the mainland to the island. All you do is hop in a 3 person canoe and blink a couple times. It’s all quite the thrill.

Afterwards, we visited the Vakona Reserve, which is a catch and release nature area similar to the Discovery Passage Aquarium in my hometown (but outside and much, much bigger). We saw Nile crocodiles, which are the only species found in Madagascar, a Fossa (pronounced Foo-Sa), lots of reptiles, birds, and plenty of interesting flora.

I was tired that night.

I should also mention that it was here where we discovered corossol juice, which we later found out is the French/Malagasy word for soursop. Neither of us had ever heard of it before, but it soon took the place of guava juice as our usual drink.

On Monday, we made the drive back to Tana, stopping to purchase a bag of fresh guavas from a young girl. Once back in the city, Andry searched far and wide (3 stores) to find me a replacement camera battery charger since mine had stopped working the night before. The Canon T6S hadn’t arrived in Madagascar yet, so we were SOL (and by “we” I mean “me”). The 3 of us had lunch at a pizza place with a knock-off Pizza Hut sign in a surprisingly modern mall. The pizza was alright, but my piece had goat cheese on it.

From there, we drove 309 km to Antsirabe, which is the beer industry hot spot. However, neither my grandma or I were all that interested in having a drink. Instead, we visited a small, rustic manufacturing plant where they create functional objects out of zebu horns. Zebu are a breed of cow with a large lump of fat on their backs; they are populous in both Africa and India — unlike in India, however, they are a popular meal choice in Madagascar. Luckily, the Malagasy people are not ones who let things go to waste. They use the horns from the zebu cow to make a variety of different items, such as utensils, bowls, and jewelry. During the demo, a worker made a small spoon. In due course, we proceeded across the street to a small shop owned exclusively by one man. By hand, he creates unique cars, bikes, and other things from pop and beer bottles (among an assortment of household products). In the back of the same building were several women cross-stitching colourful (and traditional) Malagasy scenes and animals. It was astonishing to watch them work at such an elaborate pace, as a man penciled out their next project at a table beside them.

It was late when we arrived at our hotel on the other side of town. Once again, our room was nice and spacious. I had the best spaghetti ever at the restaurant there. Italy who?

At 8:30 am the next day, we left the hotel and made way to check out a little museum which specialized in gems and precious woods, including Rosewood, which is often illegally logged and sold. The people there were very kind, but unfortunately, a lot of the information went in one ear and out the other as I was rather distracted by their “guard tortoises”. That was much more interesting to me. They let me hold one, and he was very heavy but a lot less bitey than my turtle back home. I liked him a lot.

Andry then gave us the nickel tour of Antsirabe before we hit the road again, this time destined for Ranomafana National Park. A pitstop was made in a town called Ambositra, which is the centre of Madagascar’s wood carving industry. We were able to observe the woodworkers practicing their craft; one gentleman even let me keep a small heart pendant he had made as the demonstration. They had an awe-inspiring gift store, where I bought several souvenirs. Beforehand, we had popped into a restaurant for lunch, which boasted both musical and dance performances.

By Emily, on October 7th, 2017, under Travel // Comments Off on A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 3: COROSSOL, LEMURS, AND THE BEST SPAGHETTI EVER


A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 2: THE ARRIVAL


Sunset over Antananarivo, Madagascar © Emily Koopman

Even though it was 11 hours of sitting, I was transfixed the whole plane ride. I got to see Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, and Ethiopia all lit up at night which was incredible. I figure I slept through all the other countries thanks to some melatonin. Oops.

On May 18th, we arrived in La Réunion. I was so gross and sweaty (again), that all I could think about during the entire 4-hour layover was having a shower. The airport was beautiful and had a huge jungle waterfall beside a staircase. There were also little birds everywhere, slipping and sliding on the floor. It was really cute. I would have loved to explore the island more, if time had allowed. As luck would have it, the airstrip was right on the beach, so we had a lovely view of the seemingly infinite Indian Ocean. It wasn’t long before we boarded a plane and were on our way to Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo. The aircraft was one that had originally left either China or Thailand (I can’t remember), so it was both huge and already carrying a number of people. It wasn’t a lengthy flight, and we arrived in Tana that afternoon.

Let me tell you that this was an airport experience like no other.

We jumped on a bus which took us to the main airport space. It was hectic, to say the least. We got our passports stamped, bought our 25 euro Visa, then handed our passports over to the police who took their sweet time checking them over. That took the longest, and they were calling names left and right. My grandma had to use the washroom, so I was standing there alone waiting for them to call either of our names. My palms were sweating as I realized that anyone could have snatched my passport, as we all stood shoulder to shoulder. During this time, I was being constantly accosted by men who wanted to help carry our baggage (if only they would have accepted emotional). They didn’t speak much English, but the word, “tips” was on repeat like your favourite One Direction song. It was all very overwhelming, especially when you’ve been going non-stop for the last 72 hours.

Eventually, we found our driver and he took us to a “legit” currency exchange booth. The “tips” guys followed us and kept an eye on our luggage (as did I), while our driver, Fetra, used the restroom. After our money was exchanged, Fetra took us to the car where we were once again approached and asked for money. This time, it was young boys, likely around 12 or 13. It was very sad, but not unexpected.

As Fetra drove us to our hotel, we passed rice fields upon rice fields, shops, and homes which all wreaked of poverty. For me, there was no culture shock, as I’ve seen so many documentaries, read so many books, and in general just knew what to expect. It was fascinating that the people seemed so content, even in their decaying homes. We always want to help, but from the outside looking in, I’m not sure they think they need it.

Fetra told us a ton of good information about Tana, and was a super nice guy. He explained that he wasn’t going to be with us throughout the trip, and we would be met by our guide the following day.

Once we arrived at the hotel, Fetra helped us check-in, and we said our goodbyes. Our room was clean, spacious, and honestly not at all what I had pictured. The views were incredible, and the balcony overlooked the city with the Queen’s Palace and mountains in the distance. That night, we had a delicious meal at the hotel restaurant — I ordered a Malagasy vegetable soup, and the best fresh guava juice I’ve ever had. The cherry on top was watching the sunset from our outside table, as we nibbled on a dessert made of whipped egg whites and vanilla custard (as suggested by our waitress, Theresia). It wasn’t long after that that we hit the hay. But let me tell you, nothing beats an African sunset.

The next day was Friday, and we surfaced at around 8:20 am. The breakfast included with our stay consisted of pastries, cereals, and an abundance of tropical fruit. We thought we were supposed to meet our guide for an orientation, but after live chatting with the people from our safari company, we realized that it wasn’t going to be until the next day. We were tempted to explore the surrounding area, but unfortunately, Tana isn’t the safest place, especially for foreign women. After some thought, we decided that we’d like to get to know the country a little better before attempting anything potentially risky, and opted for a day of recuperation in our hotel room. At dinner time, I had a club sandwich which was remarkably better than any of the ones I’ve had in North America. I think the Malagasy people know how to cook. The two of us had guava juice again, and the mosquitos had me.

By Emily, on October 6th, 2017, under Travel // Comments Off on A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 2: THE ARRIVAL


A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 1: PARIS


Mass at Notre Dame de Paris © Emily Koopman

Madagascar is one of those places you only read about. In fact, when I told people I was going there, the most common response was, “Oh, like the Disney movie?” It’s not a Disney movie, but yeah. In North America, nobody really knows much about it, which I think is one of the reasons I was so drawn to it. With everyone I knew going to Europe or Asia, I almost felt as if I had been to many of those places already, and honestly knew I could likely never afford to go to a place like Madagascar on my own dime.

When I graduated from film school, my grandma told me she wanted to take me on a vacation. She said I could pick anywhere in the world. Now as you’re probably aware, my bucket list is not a short one. There’s Jordan, Romania, Latvia, Botswana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nicaragua… I could go on for hours about all of the different places I hope to experience in my lifetime. Madagascar is somewhere that took me by surprise. I grew up obsessed with the PBS show, “Zoboomafoo”, and I was determined to visit Animal Junction one day in hopes of hanging out with the rambunctious namesake. Of course, back then, even with big dreams, I never thought I’d actually travel to the exact opposite side of the globe and see hundreds of Zoboomafoos jumping from tree to tree in the humid rainforests of Madagascar.

After finally deciding where I wanted to go and discussing it further with my grandmother, we booked the trip around January 2017, and were scheduled to depart in mid-May of that year. I hiked and worked hard to ensure maximum endurance on excursions because I didn’t plan on missing a second.

On May 16th, after a sleepless 9-hour plane ride from Vancouver, we arrived in Paris to a somewhat rude awakening. I contacted our shuttle at the (rude) information centre at Charles de Gaulle, where we proceeded to wait… and wait… and wait. What was supposed to be a 40 minute hang fire due to traffic (hey, it’s Paris), turned into nearly 2 hours. I went back to the (now a different worker, quite polite) info centre and called the shuttle company again. They apologized profusely and said they were having computer troubles. We were assured our ride would be there to pick us up within 10 minutes. We had run into a couple from Nebraska who had also been waiting a long time, so I asked for them too.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, we were greeted by an incredibly friendly and helpful young man (who after the response to my TripAdvisor review, I now know was actually the manager).

We got settled in our room, though neither of us had slept in over 24 hours, we eventually made our way to the Eiffel Tower (which we could see from our room) and hopped on the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus to take us to the boarding area for our Seine River cruise. That day was also the day I faced the strange and bewildering truth that the Eiffel Tower is NOT silver, but rather a rusty bronze. Witchcraft.

Anyway, on our bus ride to the cruise, I sat up top and enjoyed many of the iconic Paris sights, including the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, the Opera, and Hôtel des Invalides, among others. We disembarked at Notre Dame and boarded the cruise (which departed just across the river). By the end of it all, we were exhausted and somehow easily convinced to jump in the back of a bicycle cart being peddled by a Romanian fellow (unfortunately not the Sweet Romanian Prince I’m looking for, though friendly, he was no Sebastian Stan) who took us to the intersection nearest our hotel. We walked down the street a little ways and found a small hole-in-the-wall bar/restaurant called Les Prolongations, where I had a very messy and very rare burger with an egg on it. That’s a thing apparently. It was better than expected (albeit I had asked for the patty well done). After that, we headed back to our tragically AC-less hotel room, where we both slept sans couvertures and the window wide open. Thankfully, though exhausted, neither of us were jetlagged thanks to a magic pill from the naturopath.

Luckily, we had some time before our flight the next day. We decided to get back on the bus and do some more exploring (not before the world’s most expensive breakfast at the hotel).

First, we explored Notre Dame, which has free entry, but I thought (at the small museum inside, which cost 5 euros) I would be able to go upstairs and see the gargoyles close up. It turned out just to be a bunch of religious artifacts, which didn’t mean much to me. Pays to ask, I guess.

After that, we got on the Orange Line which took us to les Catacombes. I went into a flower shop and asked the girl working there which direction the entrance was in; she pointed to a massive lion statue and said, “derrière le chaton”, which translates to “behind the kitten”. Nice.

We did les Catacombes in such a rush that it didn’t 100% sink in that I was surrounded by millions of decomposed bodies underneath a bustling city. The lady working there wanted exact change which was very annoying and she was pretty rude about it.

We were too sweaty and tired to walk to the bus stop, ride for an hour, and then walk back to the hotel, so we took a cab.

I showered for the second time and we headed to the Orly Airport to catch our flight to la Réunion.

By Emily, on October 5th, 2017, under Travel // Comments Off on A LOOK BACK AT MADAGASCAR – PART 1: PARIS