February 16 & 17 - We've made it to Antananarivo

Finally, back in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport hoping that everything will go smoothly...So far so good... checked in our baggage, got our seat assignments, and checked the departure board for any sign of cancellations (none). We have time for a snack and just sit back and relax until it's time to go. Getting anxious as our time of departure draws near, there is an announcement, alas not calling us to board, but of boarding delays (of course, with our luck) due not to strikes in Madagascar, but rather strikes by airport personnel here. Our hopes still strong as we continue to wait patiently. Evon decided to make the most of all this waiting time and get some shut-eye before the excruciating 12-hour flight ahead of us.

We're on our way... only 45 minutes later than the estimated boarding time. Because of the on-going and unpredictable events in Madagascar, our flight is to be diverted through Reunion off the east coast of Madagascar. Probably just a safety precaution in case we are stuck again, or more likely a way to insure they can refuel. Regardless this actually ends up making our flight a bit longer.

It seems too good to be true to be getting on our way to our long awaited destination. We find ourselves occupying our time with our individual TV's (in the backs of the seats in front of us) filled with a selection of movies (including a hilarious French flick); informative and uninformative shows; and a selection of video games. Or just lounging, reading and re-reading Newsweek... anything we can get our hands on to keep ourselves preoccupied. Not much sleep though.

What we've been waiting for...Madagascar just a hop away from Reunion. Our flight arrived, refueled, changed flight attendant staff and about an hour later we departed to our final destination. The approach to our arrival is depressing... looking down at the Malagasy landscape there are only rice paddies or deforested and eroded mountainsides. This must have once been a beautiful place. Thick with jungles and rivers teaming with life. Few places on the planet are so indicative of the devastation of which we are capable.

Exhausted with our 7:30 am arrival, we collected our baggage and were cheerfully met by representatives of MICET (Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments of Madagascar). Not surprisingly, there is yet another delay....Evon's crocodile pole is nowhere to be found (and none of us is about to collect crocs by hand). Still, the MICET staff have been a great help with stowing our gear, whisking us to the hotel and otherwise just being reassuring that everything is on track and ready to go.

Inasmuch as being here in Tana is relief enough, the Saturday arrival was less than optimal. We will not be able to work through the permitting process and orientation with our student counterparts until Monday, which in turn means the earliest we can leave for the field is Tuesday. Altogether we will have lost a week and this will seriously impact our work schedule. Nevertheless, it does afford us a little time to relax and enjoy the capital. It seems no one is protesting on Sundays because businesses are closed anyway.

Antananarivo is set amidst about a dozen hills in the central highlands of Madagascar. It was the seat of the Merina Kings since King Andrianjaka stationed a thousand warriors here (a fact that gives the city its name), and until Queen Ranavolana's forced exile in 1897. It is a place of contrasts to be sure. Old colonial buildings with wooden shutters can be found nestled in the middle of rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks.

Today, Sunday, was spent wandering up and down the streets, avenues and the narrow stairways that haphazardly traverse the city. At one end of the Avenue of Independence (where the daily demonstrations are being held) is the train station that looks like it could have been plucked right out of the 8th Arrondissement of Paris. At the other end is the busy Analakely market complete with all of the sights, sounds and smells that every good city market should have. Surely there has never been so much vanilla, cinnamon, and other spices for sale for so little. And there is no way that the fruits and vegetables here could ever be exported; they are ripe and fresh in the myriad baskets and bins lining the curbside, along with nuts and a strange (but popular) milky brew (toaka gasy) served out of buckets in tin cups.

Like most economically challenged countries, there are plenty of entrepreneurs wherever we go hoping to sell us their wares. Reluctantly we have to decline even the most insistent of our many instant friends until we pass through here again on the way to the Seychelles. Still, the craftsmanship is exquisite. Miniature Volkswagen beetles fashioned from spent insect repellent cans, well-tuned harps made from bamboo shafts, embroidery, sapphires, and woodcrafts of all kind. Though it means leaving the rich and colorful tapestry of this city, we are eager to get into the field. Rains in the South are further altering our plans because some roads are impassable. It is likely that we will first fly to Fort Dauphin and work in Andohahela Park before working our way North to Midongy du Sud and Ranomafana.

Just before sending this dispatch up we walked back from being out at dinner and relaxing at the Terrace on Place d'Independence. The streets are full of life and activity at 10.30 pm and the throng is growing. There's a rumor that the incumbent president is likely to move the holdings of the Central Bank (a block from our hotel) out of the capital in the dead of night. Those congregating here are determined to see that this does not happen. The people have barricaded the streets leading to the bank with foul smelling trash containers. It would be hard for any armed force to quickly get by and overwhelm those here. Undaunted, the people are riding walking and otherwise moving into position around the Central Bank and nearby streets in order to protect it; apparently with their depth and mere force of number if need be, none are armed and there is no undercurrent of anger or tension. Barbeques are feeding those who have been around the longest, everyone is singing songs, and the mood (so far) is upbeat. One cannot help but notice the odd soldier, well armed with AK47 rifles, hovering in the shadows near the cigarette vendors, but there hardly seems to be a force large enough to disperse or disrupt this peaceful association. There are no placards, no slogans, no violence and we were greeted mostly with smiles (and a little suspiscion perhaps) as we threaded our way through to our hotel. It is not clear where this is all headed. Supporters of the president have basically blockaded the city (where the challenger's support is concentrated) from the outside with no fuel coming in and with goods destined for Tana rotting in trucks on the side of the highway leading into the city.

There are whistles... and engines revving up... not sure if they are police whistles or just revelry. The singing is getting louder and more in unison too. In an odd way one is tempted to go out and experience this historic moment. In another, and out of respect, it is important to recognize that we are not reporters, and that any involvement on our part however passive (perhaps even writing this dispatch), could compromize the credibility of our hosts at MICET.

Still, it will definitely be difficult to sleep tonight...