I’ve literally procrastinated one month to write a blog on Madagascar, because I feel it’s impossible to put into words. Malagasy words are also impossible to remember – lots of letters and syllables. But now I’ll attempt to rant in some coherence about all the crazy, indescribable, and magical things that happened (not all good), and what a wonderful surprise it was to enjoy traveling there as a solo-female.

Tritriva Lake with my biking guide

My first moments in Antananarivo (aka Tana) were a bit stressful. Everyone I had left behind in Reunion told me to be careful, and that it would be dangerous. I landed just after sunset, which is always a bit discombobulating, and the airport didn’t seem like a very big or important international airport, or at least not an airport serving the capital city. I walked out to the small arrivals hall, filled with only taxi drivers, exchanged some money, bought a sim card, and took a taxi 45 mins to town for a little more than 10 euros.

The road was also dark, no kind of major highway, but we hit one traffic jam. There were hordes of people rushing from the dark to the road, and someone exclaimed ‘2 dead!’ It was a car accident, where a truck had rear ended a scooter. Its two passengers were scattered, meters apart and yards ahead of the shredded scooter, and only one helmet lay a few inches from the drivers head. My taxi driver simply drove on the curb to get around it, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the sight. It took me a few days to shake the image, though I can still recall it, slightly more blurry, but it still makes me gasp.

Another day I was on a bus that got stopped by an entire school of children. Everyone stood roadside in their uniform while a teacher held a life-less girl in his hands. She was board-stiff, so still alive enough to have all her muscles clenched. I guess she must have had some kind of seizure, but they couldnt fit her into our full bus, and the next car that passed took her to the hospital. I wonder what happened to her.

My first couchsurf hosts were actually some Turkish guys that had just moved there, and had seen almost as much as I had of Madagascar. I reached out to a couple other locals – one gave me a walking tour of the lower, middle, and upper cities of Tana, and another took me fishing. We didnt catch anything, but it was still fun, and he taught me the basic Malagsy words I’d need to know to greet people well enough to think, just for a moment, I spoke Malagsy.

a zebu cart taking me out to my boat to Anakao

I have 1 friend that lives on and off in Madagascar, and 3 friends who had recently backpacked Madagascar, so I asked them for some tips. Strangely enough, they came back with very similar ideas and itineraries, so I ended up traveling the N7 from Tana south to Toliara and surrounds. I spent a night in Anakao where I was the only tourist on the beach. I had the only bungalow rented out, I ate dinner alone, and I shared the beach with a plethora of children. There were always a lot of children in public areas, and never any parents. There were kids driving zebu-carts (zebu are the cattle in Madagascar), and kids alone in the middle of the open sea in dug-out canoes (some to paddle, others to sail with sails made out of old clothes) fishing with nets. Its strange how that makes you feel safer, but it definitely does.

my bungalow at Anakao

Then I went to Ifaty, or Mangily, I never figured out the difference, and visited a forest of baobabs and cactus-like trees. I saw some strange bugs and birds and then got escorted by my hotel security for a late-night walk, just before he proposed sleeping in my bed. I said no, quite politely, and he said ‘okay thank you, just had to ask. Good night!’

one fat baobab and a cactus tree fence

People had warned me that buses break down a lot in Madagascar, and it never happened, except for the two ways to Ifaty and back. Both ways, only 20 km, took hours to complete. One bus went up in smoke and we waited on the side of the road at high noon until they figured out someway to stop it. Another had the gas peddle stuck and the car stayed revving up its engine for a good 20 minutes, black exhaust smoke spitting out behind it until they also finalyl figured out what was wrong. They always did.

a ring tailed lemur at Anja Reserve

People also warned me about broken bridges. Luckily none broke when we were driving over them, but we passed 3 that I could clearly see had collapsed unexpectedly. One was on the way to Ranomofana National Park, a place where I stayed 3 days, also the only tourist at the auberge. I took a 8 hour hike through the park, a lush valley of greenery, rivers, waterfalls and of course, lemurs. Noone warned me about the leeches though, and those suckers were thirsty for blood. I actually had to pick them out from between my toes, where they had slithered to through my shoes and socks! some even crawled up my leg and I had to pinch one off my calf the size of my thumb. Ew. My guide kept reminding me it wasn’t life-threatening, which I knew, but its still gross.

Not much was gross in Madagascar. For an African country, it wasn’t even that polluted or smelly. All of the accomodation I stayed at were clean enough, just the occasional cockroach and a few mosquitos, except for one night. In that same bus stop I got stuck at with the slaughtered chicken. There I ended up spending a few hours at a guesthouse the size of a prison cell where you werent sure if the floor or walls were dirtier. There were smears of brown, maroon and yellow, all fluids I couldn’t recognize, and opening the mosquito net revealed more blood spots and dead mosquitos than were already in the room. I couldnt decide if it was better to sleep under it or not, and eventually just covered myself in bug spray and lay on the bed under my silk-liner.

I usually went to bed shortly after sunset, maybe around 8 pm, and I always  rose before sunrise, maybe 5 am. The streets were bustling by 5:30, and all the buses departed for their destinations by 6am. Traveling a mere 150km could take 4 hours, and I took one 20 hour trip with only 4 hours of stops. One bus station I got stuck at unexpectedly, in a small bus-change city, was a small parking lot with a few buses and passengers waiting around, and not much else. As I stood there thinking about how hungry I was. a man walked infront of me with a chicken in his hand, a knife in the other, and stood on its wings while it slit its throat, right there in the parking lot. It bled out in a minute and stopped twitching after another, and he casually returned with the chicken to a food stall to prepare dinner. Needless to say, I lost my appetite.

rainy season makes everything green, especially the rice fiels

It was the tail-end of rainy season, but I managed to almost always miss the rain. I could see the dark clouds in the distance, and often heard lightning, but I never saw the thunder and the sun still shone overhead. During my long bus rides, we’d sometimes drive through a rainshower, or pass one by just to the side of the road. I was unlucky enough to once get stuck in the window seat where a window was stuck open, and got drenched to everyone’s entertainment. I thought I had figured out the best seat in the bus – the one beside the driver in the front – until I got into a stick shift van and the driver had to maneuver the gear stick between my legs for 6 hours.

I saw a guy working on paving the road in flip-flops, and the soles of his shoes had melted onto a layer of tar that must have made it really hard (and hot) for him to walk. There was a guy who threw a butterfly at me from out his passenger window when we passed, and I wondered if it was a nice gesture or not. I guess its better than getting hit by someone spitting out the window, which also happened to a few people.

Isalo national park

There were the most beautiful big blue butterflies floating around, and these little robin birds with bright red and orange stomachs. There was a boy who passed my in the street and sniffed me as he walked by. I never really understood if that was a good or bad gesture either. The kids I saw on the beach also had strange reactions; one splashed me, which may have been playful, but another threw a handful of wet sand at me from behind, which was a little mean.

Both men and women like to wear hats, all kinds of hats. Straw hats, baseball caps, bucket hats, and their Sunday’s best hats. The local hat fashion was usually a multi-coloured woven straw hat, which sometimes just fit like bowls on the tops of people’s shaven heads. It was beautiful to see how people had shiny, new hats, or at least very well taken care of hats, but their clothes were in rags and their shoes were either filthy or non-existent.

Madagascar was a pleasant surprise. In general, I never felt danger, I never felt lost, I never felt abused or taken advantage of, and I even think I barely got ripped off. And if I did, it was only for half a dollar at most. I thought Madagascar would be a bit weirder, more other-worldly, exotic to the point of unrecognition – but, it was very familiar. I’ve never been to Mozambique, but I imagine it was very similar to Mozambique.


The Cook Islands

French Polynesia and the Cook Islands are really far from everything, even eachother, but they’re the closest neighbours. Still, there’s only one (expensive) flight between them per week (Thursdays with Air Tahiti). I landed on the island of Rarotonga, a place I’d never heard of til now, and just started walking from the airport towards the bunches of hotels and hostels and resorts on the west coast. Its only 32km around, so you could almost walk around the whole thing in a day, but I was lucky enough to be picked up by a big Polynesian woman on her scooter, and we squished me and my backpack on behind her just in time for it to start POURING rain.

my only dry, visible sunset from Rarotonga backpackers' beach

my only dry, visible sunset from Rarotonga backpackers’ beach

She dropped me off at Rarotonga backpackers, one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at. It had a pool, bungalows on the beach, and sea-view apartments where some crazy partying Kiwi birds (a.k.a. women form New Zealand) stayed. In my hostel was a mix of Americans, Kiwis, Brits, Canadians and Japanese, and we all became family after a few days, cooking dinner together, pairing up on our rental scooters and exploring the island and its nightlife together.

One night we creepily (and soberly) followed the Rarotonga party bus to 5 or 6 different night clubs, and I danced my hiny off with this British-Kiwi guy who you woulda thought was way to mature and serious to break out his moves like Jagger. He showed me up (and everyone else on the dance floor), and he instantly became my favourite person on the island.

The next day was pouring, thundering rain, all day long, and we ran around on the beach like crazies, wondering if the lightning could really electrocute us in the sea. We played games and cartwheeled around like noone was watching (noone was watching – the beach was empty for miles) and stayed soaked to the bone until finally the clouds broke and we could scooter down to a waterfall I wanted to see.

Muri beach

Muri beach

Polynesian dancers

Polynesian dancers

Wigmore’s waterfall is uusally a trickling stream with a wading pool below it, but now it was an angry, brown, rushing flood screaming its way down the hillside. Other highlights were watching little Polynesian girls dance in their grass skirts at the market, getting lost and then finding the start of the hiking trail through the middle of the island, and wading in waist deep water to islands off Muri beach while avoiding stepping on one of the gazillion sea cucumbers on the way. The local people eat their guts, which apparently grow back, so I guess if I did accidentally step on one, it would just gush out all its guts and then grow it all back.

We barely saw the sun in the few days I was there, but when it did come out, it was hot hot hot, so I didnt mind the shade and rain. On my last night there, the clouds finally parted a bit and I finally saw the sunset, but that just made it harder to pack my bags and leave for windy, rainy, 15 degree Auckland.

Serbian Storms

I spent 4 days in Serbia, and when I say Serbia, what I really mean is under an umbrella in Belgrade. It was raining when I arrived at 6:30 am,  and I hadn’t expected to arrive so early. I took an overnight train from Hungary, which left on time and arrived on time, despite the slow border crossing. My couchsurf host hadn’t expected me on time either, so i stood shivering under cover til he found me, took me home, and tucked me in, where I finally got some dry, warm, rest. I had left Hungary in a storm, but thought I had left the bad weather, and a small ray of sunshine even broke through that afternoon. We drank dark beers in the sun on the Danube river bank, and then retreated to teenage public drinking in a grassy park with a Canadian rockstar named Eric (who I also found on couchsurfing). But, since all good things must come to an end, it then rained constantly for nearly 3 days. And I don’t just mean some slight sprinkling, Vancouver-grey kinda rain – I mean torrential downpour, streets-turned-into-rivers kinda rain.

the only sun I saw in Serbia

the only sun I saw in Serbia

I spent an entire day couped up in my couchsurfers apartment, shivering only from the sound of the wind and rain outside. I tried to leave the house, but within 100 m of the bus stop, my umbrella had inverted, wind was blowing at me sideways, and I couldn’t see well enough past the rain being thrown at my face to avoid the buddles, so the socks inside my waterproof boots were also wet. I returned back home, defeated and soaked. I stayed huddled and cuddled inside, as the walls started station – the leaks through the roof had started to seep in and drip down the stairs. I had tickets to the opera, one of the most preformed operas in history but still I’d never seen it, so I had to make it. The Serbian Opera company was performing L’elisir d’amore, and the tiny National theatre seemed like the perfect place to see it. It was performed in Italian and dubbed in Cyrillic Serbian, so I didn’t understand much, but for less than 2 euros for a 2nd balcony seat, I had no complaints. It was a splendid, entertaining evening, and I even indulged in a seat for my couchsurf host, who could only sit in it for half of one act.

Serbian Philharmonic band

Serbian Philharmonic band

The next night we watched the Serbian Philharmonic preform Bach’s Mass in B minor. It was also staged at a small, intimate, theatre, but not as showy or comfortable. The seat rows weren’t spaced far enough apart for even me to sit straight, let alone your average guy, and they kept all the lights on in the hall. It may have been because the Serbian Radio and TV was broadcasting it, but then the symphony and choir made lots of little mistakes. People walked in and out of the performance without any door locks, and again the seats we paid 3 euros for were actually worth double that, since there was noone sitting in the front-n-center expensive seats. But wearing informal clothes or wet jeans were a perfect occasion to seek shelter from the storm, so it makes sense the kind of crowd that fills a room of  €3-6 seats. The guy who sold me the opera tickets smoked a cigarette while he did it, coat check was free at the opera and the symphony, and the drinks that you could buy cost only  €1 or  €2, so in many ways, the music and arts scene was 10 years behind the rest of Europe. But, in other ways, Belgrade was very forward compared to the rest of Europe. The conductor for the opera’s orchestra was female, and the crowd attending both shows was much younger than the average age of 60 (which it was in Paris). 

waiting for a bus in the rain

waiting for a bus in the rain


We took home one of the very tech-forward buses (which no-one likes to pay for in Belgrade) but they do have amazing, frequent, 24 hour service and a no-touch pay system with an electronic announcement system (very helpful if you don’t know where you’re going or coming from). The rain kept falling, and eventually the roads started to close, from flooding and landslides, so long-distance buses stopped running and I considered a new life in Belgrade… not knowing when I’d leave. Buses to Bosnia were cancelled for 2 days, but after 4 hours at the bus station, I got on one to Zagreb.

Vancouver: Rainy City

sunny vancouver

The Olympic Rings floating on a barge in the Vancouver Harbor. Visible from Stanley Park on a rare sunny day.

Dec 21 has just passed, the shortest day of the year, and now we can slowly start to look forward to longer days. Ironically though, the weather will still get colder, as Vancouver gets most of its frost and snow in January and February. Even though it doesn’t get very cold (temperatures hover around 5 degrees Celsius), it is typically very damp and dreary in Vancouver from Nov until about April, and this is the worst time for bad weather since its so dark all the time. But, now we can begin to look forward to longer days, and atleast the grey clouds won’t seem as dark anymore.

It never really feels like Christmas without the icy cold chill or snow Iceland usually gets around this time. But the lights covering all the houses makes it a bit more festive. Maybe it just doesn’t feel like the holidays since all I’ve done since getting back to Vancouver is work in an office or write my thesis. I also came here from California, where the sunny days and palm trees never make you think its winter or Christmas time.

This year my family decided to do something peculiar. We are not exchanging any gifts, both because our materialist, consumer driven society has begun to make me, my sisters and my mom very anxious in an economically tight time, and also because there are much better things we can do with our spare time and saved money other than add to the clothes hanging in our closets that we never wear. We are going to spend Christmas day donating half our possessions (mostly clothes and accessories we’ve accumulated over the year, in addition to some household things), and I think it will be a much more gratifying experience than opening gifts that result in more stuff to pack into our rooms.

Vancouver seems extra rainy and non-christmasy because everyone is just thinking about the Vancouver Olympics as the games near closer and closer. February will be a crazy time here as thousands upon thousands of athletes, fans, and tourists flock this little city to try and get a glimpse of just a handful of events that actually comprise the Olympics. Tickets range from $60 to $1,100 – a hefty fee for watching the opening ceremony, but apparently a price which people are still willing to pay. Which made me think – perhaps thats why people are thinking less about Christmas and spending less on gifts, because the Olympics are occupying our minds and draining our accounts.

Eitherway, Vancouver is still the same old, familiar place in all its rainy greyness, but it makes you appreciate the sunny days so much more. Today the weather had bright blue skies, not a breeze in the air, and me and a friend actually managed to have lunch outside on a patio, basked by the sun and wishing we had our sunglasses. It felt like I had just momentarily been transported to a warm, sunny vacation destination (even though I was cloaked in winter clothing which was actually the cause of my warmness); I guess its true that without rain, sunny days wouldn’t be so special, so let it rain – as long as the sun shows up once in a while.