Kerala: India for beginners

India has a reputation as a colorful, crowded and chaotic country. The state of Kerala on the southern tip of the country shares those characteristics but with a decidedly more laid-back vibe. No cows block traffic (even Hindus eat beef in the area), begging is outlawed and Kerala boasts the highest levels of health and education in the country (we were told thanks to the policies of the local Communist Party). If you squint at the ubiquitous coconut palms, you might think you are on a quiet tropical island.

But when you open your eyes fully, you are still frequently reminded of the difficulty of living and traveling in India. Even before arriving, we had to fill out the lengthy and intrusive Indian online visa application, trying to avoid the numerous scam look-alike sites on the internet. On the morning of our arrival, our eyes and lungs burned from air pollution that was so thick that you could barely see a block away. Luckily, after a couple of hours the wind picked up and the pollution level decreased from dangerous to merely distressing. On the day of our departure from the glistening eco-friendly Kochi airport, a security guard seized our souvenir wooden cobra, saying it was too dangerously realistic to be allowed on the airplane. It was a nice carving, though we probably wouldn’t have even bought it if weren’t for an especially persistent hawker who followed us for 30 minutes while we explored the Kochi waterfront.

The biggest tourist draw in the area are the “backwaters” — hundreds of miles of interconnected canals, lakes and rivers that you can cruise in one of thousand or so houseboats that ply the waters. You can stay in the houseboats overnight but we just took a day trip starting from the houseboat hub of Alleppey. The backwaters mostly pass through rural areas and you can watch local people going about their business along the palm-lined banks: farming, washing clothes, bathing, fishing. Local ferries frequently passed us, further emphasizing that the backwaters are still an active part of life in Kerala, not just a tourist trap (though the houseboats are only used for tourists these days). The view is pretty and the air pleasantly clean and cool on the water away from the hustle and bustle of Kochi where we were staying. Here is a video from our ride.

The biggest attraction in Kochi is Jew Town. No, it isn’t a theme park where you can get deep-fried pastrami-filled-bagels on-a-stick (we wish!), it is the old Jewish quarter of town where thousands of Jews lived until most left for Israel. Jews are documented to have lived in Kochi for at least a thousand years and oral tradition says over two thousand years. Today only 5 aging Jews remain and the area is mostly a tourist-focused shopping district where you can find clothing, handicrafts and spices among the Portuguese colonial buildings. The centerpiece of Jew Town is the Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568. Not enough Jews remain for it to remain active as a house of worship but it is a big tourist draw. When we were there, a long line of Indian tourists queued to get in. It seems that the people of Kochi, or perhaps all of India, have a lot of interest and pride in their Jewish heritage.

Don’t rain on my elephant parade

Full moons have special significance to Buddhists because the most important events in Buddha’s life and early Buddhism occurred during full moons. In majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka, every day with a full moon is a national holiday and celebrated with prayers and festivals of varying importance. The largest full moon festival in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo is Navam Perahera, held annually in February. The highlight is a parade of dancers from different parts of the country and about 50 colorfully decorated elephants. We were lucky to be Colombo on the special day and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it.

Getting ready for the parade. Is that elephant smoking a giant cigar?

We had spent the day exploring Colombo on foot (more on that later) and were very glad that the parade was to start after dark (at 7pm) because spending even more time under the blistering sun probably would have done us in. Because the streets around the parade close down as the appointed time approaches, we had to arrive about 6:00, get in position and wait for the fun to start. And wait. 7:00 came and passed. Somehow after the sun went down, the humidity went up, so our nighttime respite from the heat never arrived. We sat dripping with sweat, watching the crowd, until the parade started at about 8:15. After a troop of acrobatic dancers and a elephant in a glittering robe passed by, we felt a few sprinkles of rain — finally some relief from the heat! People around us grumbled and scrambled for umbrellas but we were enjoying it and wouldn’t let a little rain interfere with the exotic scene in front of us. Famous last words. The rain increased in intensity until it was like literally pouring down like buckets. The dancers and elephants retreated and the parade ground to a halt before it really got started. Here’s a video to give you a taste of the rain.

We know that tropical showers pass quickly, so we sat patiently and waited. And waited. At some point it became so ridiculous how wet were that we had to laugh. And laugh, and wait, and soak. The downpour kept up for almost an hour. Finally it tapered and the parade resumed, with more gusto than before because they were behind schedule. Dozens of troops of dancers in different sparkling ethnic dress, most performing with props of various kinds: deafening bull whips, spinning plates on tall poles, stilts, musical instruments, hoops, you name it. Between groups of performers, an elephant would come by with its handlers (and pooper scooper). Most of the elephants were covered in ornately sequined costumes, their eyes peeking out through cut-out holes, looking like they were heading to a Venetian masquerade ball. A few of the elephants seemed to have a role of special honor, decked out in electric lights and carrying what were possibly holy relics (it would have been nice to have a play-by-play announcer telling us what was really going on). Around 11pm it became clear that the parade wasn’t going to end any time soon, so we left, still soaked to the core.

A few more videos from the parade:

Colombo is a surprisingly easy city to get around in, by foot or in the ubiquitous 3-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. The roads and sidewalks were well maintained and drivers kept to their lanes and followed familiar rules of the road. If it weren’t for two factors, we would have found it a joy to explore: 1) the heat was unrelenting and 2) an endless parade of people (no elephants) wanting to give us a city tour. We couldn’t walk a block without someone approaching us. About half the time, the approach would be a friendly “welcome, where are you from” which would always end eventually with the man (always a man) pulling out a city tour brochure from his back pocket. Laurel eventually came up with a brush-off that worked better than the “no thank you” we had been trying: “we did the tour yesterday.” The most sophisticated tout chatted us up for a couple blocks without letting on about his motives. He told us about his time in Colorado going to school, joked about how white we were, subtly informed us about a chance to see the parade elephants getting dressed. But eventually we became suspicious (and very hot) and begged off to take an air conditioned break in a tea shop. It was only as we tried to pry ourselves away that his motives finally became clear. The faux-friendliness left a bad taste in our mouths and made us appreciate the tuk-tuk drivers who pulled-up and just asked us straight-up if we wanted a tour.

Hopeful tour guide noting Brian’s Seattle pallor

Sri Lanka is developing fast, apparent both statistically and visually. The tuk-tuks idle along with Mercedes and BMWs in the traffic jams. A whole new downtown is currently under construction just south of the old colonial downtown. The project is massive, with dozens of partially-built highrises and another huge area of new landfill that is being prepped for more. The details of the financing are a bit murky but China is heavily involved. Sri Lanka does seem to have a lot going for it, but it isn’t clear whether this “if you build it they will come” strategy will transform Colombo into the next Singapore or leave them with a ghost town and a mountain of debt. We have visited more than one developing country lately that has had to surrender valuable assets to China such as fishing rights to settle debts from ill-advised “development” loans.

A few miles from the new Financial City, Colombo’s Lotus Tower is now South Asia’s tallest self-supported structure (1,150ft) and lights up at night.

Laid back Sri Lanka

Most of the news you hear in the US about Sri Lanka isn’t good (if you hear any news at all). There was the horrible civil war that raged for decades and introduced the world to the explosive-vested suicide bomber. The country was hit hard by the 2004 Christmas tsunami, killing tens of thousands of people, more than anywhere except Indonesia. You may have heard earlier this year about a sort-of-coup that led to the prime minister being illegally removed from office by the president.

But on the ground in Sri Lanka, it is hard not to see the country as a success story with a bright future ahead. The civil war ended in 2009 and the country seems determined to put it in the past. The “losing” ethnic group now votes predominantly for the victorious general’s political party. No signs of the tsunami devastation remain. The supreme court reinstated the prime minister and the politicians grudgingly made up. It is still a poor country but the economy is growing fast, malaria was eradicated in 2016 and there is universal free healthcare. We saw almost no begging, homelessness or glaring disparities in wealth, a big difference from Seattle. The cities are tidy and the countryside lush. Overall, the vibe in the country is one of friendliness and optimism.

We started our trip to Sri Lanka in its second largest city, Galle (which we found hard to remember is pronounced “Gaul”). Galle is divided into two parts: the Fort and New Town. The Fort is a 400 year old walled city built by the Portuguese as an important European trading post for spices and other Asian goods. While the Portuguese left long ago, the Fort today is again occupied by Europeans but now they are tourists. We walked every cobblestone street in the Fort and the well-preserved colonial buildings were all filled with trendy boutiques, boutique hotels and restaurants. We were excited that the shopkeepers were so unexcited by our presence that we could browse unmolested. We were a bit torn about what to make of it. On one hand, it was very pleasant and picturesque (the giant stone walls of the fort have a beautiful ocean view) but we also couldn’t help thinking that it was missing the essence of the country by being such a Disneyfied tourist trap. But as we explored more of the country, we did learn that the tidiness and calm of the Fort was in character for Sri Lanka, though perhaps the Fort was the most extreme example of that unextremity.

The New Town of Galle is only “new” compared to the Fort and didn’t have the glistening skyscrapers we would see later in the capital Colombo. It was a real working smallish city that was just as easygoing and approachable as the Fort but clearly did not expect to have any stray tourists wandering about. No souvenir shops or fancy boutiques were visible among the busy storefronts. But they had something for sale that is the stuff of our dreams: piles of fresh mangosteens, our favorite fruit in the world, for about 10 cents each. In the rare times you can find a mangosteen in the US they cost at least 20 times as much and are usually rotten inside. Brian got a good workout lugging around 12 pounds of mangosteens while we finished our sightseeing.

Outside of town, we took a tour of a tea plantation. Sri Lanka shares the title of largest tea exporting country with China and Kenya(!). The tea is still harvested by hand and processed by giant iron machinery, much of it looks to be left over from British colonial times. The process of making tea is surprising complicated: plucking, withering, disruption, oxidation, fixation, sweltering, rolling, drying, curing, and sorting. When you drink a cup of tea, it isn’t just some shriveled up leaves.

A longer excursion into the countryside was a trip to the city of Kandy in the central highlands of the country. It is a traditional tea growing region and we flew over beautiful terraced fields on the seaplane we took there. The main attraction of Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. The temple is a large complex built to house the left upper canine tooth of Buddha, one of the (too) many little bits of him that are said to have survived his funeral pyre and are housed and venerated in temples around the world. The tooth is kept in seven nested golden caskets which are housed in an ornate wood and ivory shrine inside a large temple. We were told by our guide that the temple is a popular destination for pilgrims, especially so because the tooth is sometimes taken out for public viewing while most of the other relics around the world are encased permanently in sealed structures called stupas. As we stood by the shrine being circled by worshipers from around the world, we asked our guide when was the tooth last displayed, hoping that maybe we’d get lucky. About 20 years ago.

Instead of flying back from Kandy, we took a train. Trains are always an interesting way to see an area from behind the scenes. We passed through amber fields of rice, watched several back lot volleyball games (the national sport) and peering into people’s back yards while they were doing their laundry. We did pass through some shanty towns built along the tracks but they were pretty nice as shanties go, with concrete walls and satellite dishes.

Our last countryside excursion was to Brief Garden. It was the estate of Bevis Bawa, a mid-century architect who, along with his brother Geoffrey, created the “tropical modern” school of architecture and landscape design. Bevis died without an heir and left his estate to his gardeners who now run it as a public park/museum. The official web site for the estate says that during his lifetime Bevis had to fend “off the unwanted attentions of Colombo society who saw him as one of the most eligible bachelors around.” The numerous statues and paintings of nude men around the house make it clear why he remained a “confirmed bachelor.”

The house and grounds are beautiful but unremarkable today because of the success of the Bawa brothers’ architectural movement. We’ve seen many similar places in Hawaii and around the world. But we can appreciate how amazing it is that a 90 year old house and garden still looks “modern”, not unlike seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. We had some fun wildlife spotting on the trip: a troop of shy monkeys and many flamboyant birds in the garden, and a 5 foot monitor lizard strolling down the driveway as we left. We also saw one close-up basking in the sun outside the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

This post is getting pretty long, Colombo will be saved for another day.

Mini-Manhattan in the Maldives

If you come across one of those Tropical Island Paradises calendars at a mall kiosk, the chances are good that the cover photo is a tiny green island surrounded by a ring of white sand and impossibly blue water. And that island will be in the country of the Maldives, a string of atolls between the Seychelles and India.

An island in Baa Atoll, tantalizingly out of reach for us because high winds prevented us from visiting it.

That is why we’ve been eager to come to the Maldives and experience some of that trademarked Tropical Island Paradise but our first stop in the country was the capital Malé, which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Its unexpectedness was the highlight. The Maldives economy is tourism-based but they have not encouraged tourism in Malé where about a third of the population lives, instead directing it to isolated high-end resorts on remote islands. The taxes, leases and salaries that these resorts pay flow mostly back to Malé, which has grown into a surprising metropolis of highrises and swarming motorcycles on a tiny island with about the same population density as Manhattan (albeit with only 110,000 inhabitants).

Malé island, that’s the whole thing, packed coast to coast

It was unlike anything we had seen before. Though the island is a very walkable mile square, everyone buzzes around on motorcycles which meet at uncontrolled intersections but somehow the streams of cycles pass through each other without a honk or traffic jam (video). The shops were well stocked with everything a modern city dweller could need and absolutely nothing geared to tourists. Some fellow travelers we talked to were disappointed that there “wasn’t anything to see or do” but that contributed to its unexpected allure to us. We enjoyed being the only obvious outsiders on the street but encountered no frowns or touts. We just walked around and soaked in life in a place that was at once both completely different and completely familiar. One of those familiar/unfamiliar sights in the city (which is short on both land and fresh water) was a small park where the grass and most of the trees were plastic and festooned with lights, now apparently in disrepair. Even the birds in the trees were artificial. It was a whimsical, colorful and absurd respite among the densely packed buildings.

AstroTurf and giant plastic birds of prey fill this city oasis

The Maldives is a Muslim country and until recently practiced a very relaxed form of the religion that didn’t emphasize public displays of piety such as headscarves and frequent prayers. But in the past decade, a more conservative vibe has grown in Malé, apparently as a tool by one of the local political parties and with the usual money and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. Now headscarves are almost universal on the street and every shop closes for 20 minutes during the calls to prayer. But this piety appears to be at least partly superficial. For example, we were wandering in a large shop when prayer time came. The staff apparently didn’t know we were there and turned off the lights, locked the doors and retreated into a back room. When we peeked in on them, they weren’t on their mats praying but instead sharing YouTube videos on their phones. We were able to escape the shop and noticed similar scenes when we peered into the darkened windows of other “closed” shops. The more liberal political party has recently returned to power so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.

So we had a good time in Malé but one day was enough. Now we wanted to see those calendar-cover islands and the colorful life below the water. But the windy weather that has followed us through the Indian Ocean continued during our visit and kept us out of the water for the next two days. Finally on our last day in the country, off South Ari Atoll, we had the great snorkel we had been waiting for. The fish were plentiful, of many varieties, good sized and not scared of us. All of those are positive signs that they are well protected from overfishing.

Healthy fish, dying reef

We also had a chance to see the fish while eating lunch in the world’s first underwater restaurant, at a resort on the same island. You descend from a dock down an enclosed spiral staircase into a glass dome. Inside is seating for maybe 20 diners. Someone periodically feeds the fish from above which encourages a constant parade of colorful visitors and even some small sharks. It was an amazing experience despite merely OK food at an extravagant price.

Fish for lunch

On a more depressing note, the coral was mostly dead, probably from a combination of warming seas and runoff from the resort. The fish are having a good time now, living in the skeleton of the dead coral and eating the algae that is fertilized by the nutrient-rich runoff. But the party won’t last long. The reef is visibly breaking down, eventually leaving the fish and the islands exposed to the wrath of the open ocean. The highest point of land in the Maldives is only 6 feet, so the entire country may disappear beneath rising seas within a few generations.

Here are some additional videos:

And as always, plenty of other photos:

Sexy seeds in the Seychelles

The largest seed of any plant in the world is the nut from the coco de mer palm tree, which is found only in the Seychelles. It is a protected species and only rarely are specially certified nuts available for sale, much to Laurel’s disappointment because the meat is said to have a unique and intriguing taste. We never saw a real nut for sale but every gift shop in the country is filled with replicas. Not because of their rarity, size or taste, but because the two lobes of the nut come together in a shape that is reminiscent of a woman’s crotch. A feature that is even more exaggerated in the souvenirs and novelties.

We encountered the real tree in a botanical garden in Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, which is on the island of Mahe. When we stumbled across the tree, we didn’t realize it was a coco de mer at first but were immediately impressed by the size of its nuts.

The Seychelles is made up of dozens of islands spread across several groups. Earlier we visited the Aldabra Group of the country. Mahe is part of the granitic islands. Granitic was a new word for us but just means they are made of granite, as opposed to the coral sand of the atolls like Aldabra. The granitic islands hold the vast majority of the population, which isn’t vast. Victoria which is sometimes described as the “smallest capital city in the world” or sometimes “one of the smallest.” La Digue is another one of the granitic islands we visited, a sleepy tourist destination with its granite displayed to great effect at a much-photographed beach called Anse Source d’Argent.

We also visited the island of Praslin where we had some good snorkeling among the granite boulders and saw a shape-shifting octopus (in the middle of this video). On Silhouette Island we enjoyed a lazy afternoon watching crabs go about their business on the beach. If you would like to enjoy the relaxing pastime of crab watching, try this or this video.

Below are our other highlights from the granitic islands.

Mauritius: unexceptional, in a good way

On our first visit to the island country of Mauritius in 2011, we just hung out at a beach resort while we recovered from the epic jetlag of flying to pretty much the exact opposite spot on the globe from Seattle. Mauritius “is known for its beaches” as Google says, so that was a fine first date but this time we wanted to get to know the country better, exploring its capital and countryside.

Like its closest neighbors Reunion and the Seychelles, Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures but with the strongest influence from the descendants of Indians who came to work the sugar cane fields 100-200 years ago. Colorful Hindu temples dot the island. One we visited was popular with a troop of photogenic monkeys who made-off with the offerings of fruit that worshipers left on the altars.

The sugar fields are still active and we spent a few hours at an interesting museum dedicated to sugar production and its big role in the history of the country. But Mauritius is now branching out economically well beyond sugar and the sugar-white beaches. It has a history of good governance that has made it a financial, logistical and corporate hub for Africa and the Indian Ocean counties. Modern (or in some cases ultra-modern) highrise bank headquarters have sprung up around the capital of Port Louis, mixing with the old colonial-era buildings and modest lowrise shops. Though there is a glitzy new shopping area on the waterfront (where the store clerks outnumber the sparse customers 4-to-1), Port Louis mostly has the feel of a true middle-ground between a rich western country and a poor country in Africa or South Asia. It is a little grimy and rundown, but also bustling and seems like the rising tide is helping the many, not just the few. It even has safe drinking water! Or so we heard, though Laurel might have gotten a mild stomach bug from eating the local street-food delicacy Dholl Puri, which was OK but definitely not tasty enough to be worth the trouble. Click here of a video of a busy street scene near the farmers market, in one of the less modern parts of downtown.

We visited a few art galleries around the island and enjoyed the work, especially the bold tropical visions of a successful local painter named Vaco who had a pet giant Aldabra tortoise named George. The most common motif seen in Mauritian art, culture and commerce is the flightless dodo bird, adopted as a symbol of the island despite it’s sad claim to fame as one of the most visible man-made extinctions.

One of the headline attractions on the interior of the island is a place called The Seven Colored Earth. In guide book photos, you see rolling hills of various shades of brown, purple, red and orange. When we arrived, the whole thing was much smaller than our expectations, a patch of bare eroded mud that you can circumnavigate on foot in two minutes. Charitably, it was maybe four shades of reddish brown. Without the build-up (and the hour long drive) we probably would have come away thinking “that was kind of interesting and pretty.” Instead it was a bit of a letdown but you can definitely take some nice photos of it from the right angle. Hopefully no one sees a pretty picture like the one below and decides they have to visit Mauritius to see this eighth wonder of the world.

Overall we enjoyed our explorations and found Mauritius a pleasant place. Easy to get around, safe, no hassles, decent infrastructure (except for the traffic jams), and pretty scenery. Maybe it didn’t have the WOW views of Reunion or the more unique cultural and wildlife experiences we had on Madagascar and Aldabra, but overall it was a perfectly serviceable tropical paradise. :-)

Is Reunion the most beautiful island in the world?

We are suckers for lush green islands with pointy mountains. Our jaws were perpetually dropped while on São Miguel Island in the Azores last year, and we’ve been struck in the past by Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia and St. Lucia in the Caribbean. But Reunion Island, a 39-mile-long spec of France in the Indian Ocean, may be tops (so far) in our book. Can cliffs get any steeper? Can you pack any more waterfalls into one viewpoint? Can you wedge any more vegetation into a valley?

Reunion is a volcanic island that rose up from a hot-spot under the earth’s crust. The hot-spot has moved relative to the earth’s surface over millions of years, leaving a chain of islands that stretch from India south to Reunion. Reunion is the newest member of the chain and still volcanically active, just like the Big Island is the newest and most active island in the Hawaiian chain. Its recent birth accounts for the dramatic topography and it is home to one of the most active volcanoes on earth, Piton de la Fournaise. It was quiet the day we visited but erupted as recently as last fall. We had to check it out. Because of the fresh lava and cinders, the volcano is the one part of the island that isn’t green. Instead you have a starkly beautiful moonscape, or maybe a Mars-scape since many of the iron-rich rocks have weathered into shades of red.

Reunion is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. It packs in almost a million people throughout its many mountains and valleys. Like its neighbors Mauritius and Seychelles, Reunion was uninhabited until the arrival of Europeans a few hundred years ago and today the population is very ethnically mixed with people whose ancestors hail from Africa, Madagascar, Indian, China and Europe. It is an integral part of France and even had yellow vest protesters occupying a roadside park. Reunion has good infrastructure, including an offshore highway currently under construction that is said to be the most expensive road in the world by some measurement. We didn’t get a chance to see much of the capital Saint-Denis since we were so busy gawking at the mountains but we did have a pleasant morning at a Sunday market in an outlying beach town. We could have mistaken the farm tables, food carts and pyramids of artisanal condiments for a Seattle neighborhood market if it weren’t for the tropical fruits. Those who weren’t at the market were at big family picnics nestled in the trees by the beach. A giant storm was just an hour away, but the barbecues went on seemingly unconcerned.

150,000 giant tortoises

Aldabra Atoll is inhabited by a dozen researchers and about 150,000 giant tortoises that each weigh several hundred pounds and live for well over 100 years (the tortoises, that is, the researchers were all young and slim). If you’re not familiar with an atoll, it is a ring of reef and low-lying islands surrounding a central lagoon, formed after a long extinct volcano in the center eroded to nothing over millions of years.

Nearby Cosmoledo Atoll, showing the typical ring of low lying islands. Aldabra is too big to fit in one picture like this.

Giant tortoises used to live in warm areas around the globe but were hunted to extinction by humans everywhere but in the extremely isolated islands of the Galapagos and Aldabra. Even there, the tortoises were at risk after their discovery by Europeans because they can stay alive for months without food or water and were thus a useful source of fresh meat on long voyages. Aldabra is now a protected World Heritage Site and the tortoises are secure and doing well.

I’m doing well, thanks for asking.

Aldabra is governed by the Seychelles but far from the main inhabited islands that make up the rest of the country. It can only be reached by boat. Due to its remote location and permitting process required to visit it, only 20 or so tourist boats will come this year, up from zero a few years ago when the island was in a no-go area because of Somali pirates. But the staff on the island was very receptive to tourists, perhaps because the foundation that protects the island is funded in part by private donors so they like the good PR. They even had a little gift shop, where Laurel bought an official Aldabra t-shirt and coffee mug. We landed at the research station and were greeted right away by a giant tortoise. Then another, and another. We are used to long searches to get fleeting glimpses of the exciting rare wildlife of a particular location, but Aldabra is teaming with the giants. They are roaming around the cottages in the station, parked along the path into the forest, pretty much everywhere you look, chomping grass like cows.

Aldabra is also known for its sea life, being a marine protected area as well. Regrettably, the wind and waves were rough during our visit, so we were unable to snorkel. Aldabra Atoll itself is the largest of a group of four islands, collectively the Aldabra Group. We were able to snorkel at two of the other islands in the group, Assumption and Cosmoledo, but the continuing rough seas limited what we could see.

The Aldabra Group is coincidentally a hot-bed of activity for another giant shelled reptile, sea turtles. In a brief land visit to Assumption Island, we found fresh tracks from nesting sea turtles every several paces down the beach. Notice our footprints for scale next to the tracks below.

Finally, a few videos from the Aldabra Group:

  • The tortoises spend 99% of their time munching grass. Perhaps it isn’t very exciting in the usual sense but it is hypnotic and relaxing to watch these prehistoric creatures go about their business.
  • Here is a tortoise in action, racing past.
  • Cruising the lagoon of Adlabra at sunset, while the birds come home to roost.
  • We had a chance to snorkel with a couple flapping stingrays, all of us being pulled along by a strong current.

A lemur on your arm and a chameleon on your head

There are many highfalutin reasons why we love to travel, including experiencing nature and cultures that haven’t (yet) been wiped out or turned into a zoo-like setting for gawking tourists. Who’d want to see that? Well…sometimes us :-) The small island of Nosy Komba is a popular day trip from the resorts on Nosy Be. You get there on a small motor boat, landing at a cute beach town that seems to still have a small fishing industry but is mostly geared to tourists. Local guides lead you into the jungle to see the “wild” life (more on that in a minute) but not before passing dozens of gift shops along the way. Much of the offerings were good quality local handicrafts like embroideries, carvings, paintings and baskets.

Once you run the gauntlet of beckoning shopkeepers, you have your first wildlife sighting – a group of guys with a selfie-ready chameleon. Ethically dubious but it is fun see a chameleon so close up and get an opportunity to touch one. Turns out their stubby little fingers have sharp claws! Tip from Laurel to any chameleon fanciers: don’t put them on your bare skin. Tip from Brian: they don’t hurt at all when you put them on your hat, but they do get antsy after a few seconds and leap off.

Then the guide pulls out a boa constrictor you can wrap around your neck and a shy baby turtle. Luckily not at the same time. We briefly played with both and then moved on to see the promised headline act – lemurs. Our guide reaches into his bag and pulls out…bananas! Thankfully, the lemurs are not in the bag and are roaming free in the forest. But they know that if they hang around the trail, some nice people will show up with bananas. The guide smears banana in your hand and you wait while the lemurs hop from tree to tree, edging closer to your outstretched hand. These lemurs were not as tame as the rescued pet lemurs that we met on Lemur Island in 2011, still being a little leery of these banana-handed tourists. Eventually they take the bait and jump on your arm to eat the banana, the guide all the while trying to smear on more banana to keep them interested. The whole thing was definitely unseemly but a lot of fun.

After our lemur-high wore off, we walked back down the trail and checked out the shops. We bought a colorful straw beach bag and filled it with tropical fruit, conveniently using the last pennies of our Madagascar currency. So long Madagascar!

Nosying around the islands of Madagascar

First, an embarrassing admission. We noticed when planning our 2011 trip to Madagascar that some place names started with the word “Nosy” such as a beach resort popular with Europeans called Nosy Be. We had no idea what the word meant but found it endlessly amusing to say. On this trip, it wasn’t until after we visited a few places that were all named Nosy This or Nosy That that we finally learned that nosy means “island” in Malagasy. All those Nosy places were islands, a pattern that it probably wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes eight years to deduce.

Madagascar itself is an island, but it doesn’t feel that way when you are on it. It is bigger than California and Washington combined. When you are inland, you can drive for hours in any direction without seeing the ocean. Heck, it look us over a week to drive half the length of island in 2011, though we were slowed by bad roads and distracted by lemurs. So the locals don’t think of the “mainland” of Madagascar as a island. But the northern part of Madagascar is surrounded by many little Nosys, most with beautiful white sand beaches, impressive rocky cliffs and rich coral reefs.

One of the many islands in Nosy Hara National Park

And don’t forget the land-based wildlife. On Nosy Tanikely, we found our first chameleons of the trip. Playing a bit second-fiddle to lemurs, chameleons are the other signature animal of Madagascar. When most people think of chameleons, they think of a lizard that uses its powers of color changing to blend in with its background. But in Madagascar, many of the chameleons are brightly colored and change hues to communicate their emotions. (Yes, chameleons have feelings too…) This guy below was gorgeous perhaps due to his excitement of having his picture taken.

A Panther Chameleon on Nosy Tanikely

The day after visiting Nosy Tanikely, we went to Nosy Hara National Park. We had a great snorkel there and combed the remote beaches. Here are some pictures from both areas: