Saturday, November 17, 2012

Old Havana

I have just completed a week's work at the US Interest Section in Havana and am back home in Salt Lake City for the holidays. Until last week Cuba and St. Kitts were the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere I hadn't visited.  Now there's only St. Kitts.

I have tried for several years to get to Havana as there has been work I needed to do there. But the Cuban government severely limits the number of official US government visitors each year. I first applied for a visa six years ago, but after my passport had been held at the Cuban Mission in Washington for more than 6 months I withdrew it.  This past September I applied again, and with the help of a colleague in Havana, the visa was finally granted.  

Few American realize that we have a diplomatic mission in Havana, probably because it is not called an Embassy.  It is the US Interest Section (USINT) and is in the same building that was our embassy prior to the Cuban Revolution.  USINT is actually a legal entity of the Swiss Embassy. However there is neither a US nor Swiss flag flying over it.  Below is a picture of USINT followed by a wikilink describing it.

US Interest Section

Unfortunately I only had one day to see Havana's sights which I did from a double-decker tour bus.  I also spent one evening having dinner and walking around in Old Havana which was the highlight of my week. Old Havana has deteriorated a lot since the Revolution but it has fabulous old buildings and homes on broad boulevards surrounded by very attractive tropical gardens.  Havana is also known for the large number of vintage American cars that still drives through its streets.   Most are from the 1940s and 50s with some even from the 30's.  I saw Packards, Studebakers and DeSotos to name a few. Below are a few of my photos from Havana:

Image of Che Guevara on government building

Image of Karl Marx

Cuban soldiers jogging past national cemetery

Old American cars in Havana

An old Chevy

The Havana Cathedral
The following google link contains many more pictures of Havana

And here are also a couple of links on Havana's status as a UNESCO World Heritage City and on travel to Havana.

I don't plan to discuss US-Cuban relations in this post because they are well known and well documented on the Internet.  Some readers may be interested in the following links:

According to US law,  Americans can only travel to Cuba on people-to-people programs, typically sponsored by universities, churches and social service organizations. Commercial flights from the US to Cuba are also banned and the only way in is via charter flights, primarily from Miami.  However, things seem to be loosening up from both sides and I expect normal diplomatic relations to be reestablished before President Obama leaves the White House.  Despite the current red tape, a visit to Havana and the rest of Cuba is definitely worthwhile and I hope to return soon with Gertrud on a more extensive trip.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rome: Secrets of the Vatican Revealed

Gertrud and I are currently in Rome, having last been here in May 2009 when I wrote a post entitled “La Dolce Vita.” This time around my post will focus exclusively on "Lux in Arcana," a first-ever public exhibit of 100 original documents from the Vatican's Secret Archives which we viewed in Rome's Capitoline Museums.  Here is the official website for the exhibition:

I was especially impressed with the following documents which are presented in no particular order of importance:

Petition from Nicolaus Copernicus to Pope Paul III regarding his studies of the universe. Date: June 1, 1542

Proceedings of the Trial of Galileo Galilei which found him guilty of heresy for defending the Copernican system: Various dates between 1616 and 1633: 

Pope Alexander VI’s “Inter cetera bull” in which he "granted" the new lands discovered by Columbus to the rulers of Spain: March 4, 1493.

Pope Leo X’s excommunication of Martin Luther: January 3, 1521

Emperor Charles V’s edict at Worms establishing an imperial ban against Martin Luther: May 8, 1521

Letter from members of the English Parliament (with all wax seals attached) to Pope Clement VII emphasizing the importance of granting the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to  Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, and hopefully sire the longed-for heir to the throne: July 13, 1530

Letter from Russian Tsar Aleksei I Romanov to Pope Clement X, requesting support against common threats posed by the Ottoman Turks: October 21, 1672

Concordant between King Henry V and Pope Calixtus II which ended the struggle over investitures.  It provided that ecclesiastical investiture of bishops be reserved for the Church and that feudal investiture (including that of the bishops) be reserved for the emperor. September 23, 1122.

Pope Bonface VIII’s “Unam sanctam” stating that there is only one Church founded by Christ, and that outside it there can be no salvation. It also states that to maintain the universal order desired by God, popes can depose emperors and kings.  It further declares that “submitting to the Roman pontiff, is necessary for the salvation of every human creature:” November 18, 1302

Pope Innocent X’s brief declaring the Westphalia Peace Treaties, which ended the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), null and void. Although this letter was never published, it reflected the Pope’s concern that the treaties negotiated between Catholic and Protestant diplomats would do irreparable damage to the Catholic Church: November 26, 1648

The 1801 Napoleonic Concordat between France and the Papacy which recognized the Catholic Church’s pre-eminence in the life of France but guaranteed the freedom of worship to other religions as well.  It also deemed that Catholicism would no longer be the “state religion.”

Declaration by the College of Cardinals that the newly installed Pope, Urban VI, was an apostate and an anti-Christ, and that he was being deposed as Pope.  This was signed shortly after the Church returned to Rome following the 70 years period of “Babylonian Captivity” when seven French Popes resided in Avignon, France: August 9, 1378.

A desperate, handwritten note from Marie Antoinette from prison after she had been deposed as Queen: December 1792 or January 1793

Proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception signed by Pius IX which declared the Blessed Virgin Mary free from the stain of original sin: December 8, 1854

Letter from Lucrezia Borgia to her father, Pope Alexander VI. June 10, 1494

Abdication letter of Queen Christine of Sweden when she converted to Catholicism: June 1, 1654

Mary Stuart’s last letter, written to Pope Sixtus V, in which she professed her Catholic faith.  This was shortly before she was beheaded on the order of Queen Elizabeth I: November 23, 1586. 

Agreement temporarily unifying the Greek and Latin Churches: July 6, 1439

The Lunario Novo which eliminated 10 days from the 1582 Calendar and established the Gregorian calendar: 1582

Letter from the French philosopher and deist, Voltaire to Pope Benedict XIV: October 10, 1745

Report to the Vatican by the Apostolic Nuncio to Italy on the existence of the Ferramonti Concentration Camp: May 27, 1941.

Letter written on silk, from Helena, the last Ming Empress to Pope Innocent X: November 4, 1650 (11th day of the 10th moon of the 4th year in the reign of emperor Youngli).

Letters written in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to Pope Pius IX during the US Civil War.

I'm sure you will agree that this is an impressive list of documents which have had a great impact on Western civilization and on the history of the World. We feel very fortunate to have seen the originals.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Vienna, the Habsburg City

Opinions abound as to which of Europe's capital cities is the most interesting or most beautiful.  After a week in Vienna, Gertrud and I rank it high in both categories but also believe it may be Europe's most livable capital.  As much as we like visiting Paris, Rome, London, Madrid or Prague, we can't see ourselves living in any of them.  But we could see ourselves in Vienna if we were younger.  Obviously the fact that we speak German is a primary consideration, but Vienna's manageable size of less than two million, its music and arts, temperate, four-season climate, Austria's beautiful mountains, and close proximity to Italy and the Adriatic Coast are also very appealing.

From a tourist point-of -view, the primary attraction of Vienna is the legacy of beautiful palaces, buildings and the arts bestowed on it by the Habsburg Dynasty.  Click on the following links for more information.

A more recent Viennese personality and one of my favorites, is the late Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, a colorful twentieth century architect and artist, little known outside of Vienna and European artistic circles.  He was born as Frederick Stowasser to a Jewish mother who kept him under the Nazi radar by having him baptized Catholic and enrolling him in the Hitler Youth. Vienna's Hundertwasser Haus and Museum are memorials to his talent. Late in life he emigrated to New Zealand.   The only other architect/artist who I can think of who might be compared to Hundertwasser would be the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi who designed several unusual buildings in Barcelona. 

Here are several links on Hundertwasser and his art:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Swiss cheese!

Gertrud and I have just finishing a ten-day stay in Switzerland while I worked in both Bern and Geneva. I wrote a post on Geneva during a May 2009 visit so won't say much about the UN city in this one.

What we will probably remember most about this visit is how much Swiss food we ate.  I just recounted my meals and I had fondue 5 times, raclette twice, rösti twice and birchermüsili for breakfast 4 times, probably resulting in a gain of at least 5 pounds.  If you are wondering what the Swiss eat, here is a link on their cuisine:

Gertrud eating fondue in Switzerland
Although we have been in Bern previously we have had more time to explore the city on this visit.  Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage City famous for the beautiful pedestrian arcades in its old town, for its location on a high plateau overlooking the Aare River, for its status as the Swiss capital, and for its city mascots, the Bern bears, which regularly entertain locals and tourists.  On our last visit, the bears were living in a large pit near the city center.  However they now live in a beautiful park along the Aare River which is a more natural habitat for them and where the public can more easily observe their activities. The following link provides just one example of how the bears entertain the public.

With easy access to beautiful mountains and lakes and to surrounding countries, Bern often appears on lists of "the most desirable places to live."  But like almost every other city, Bern is now affected by urban crime, with warning signs about pick pockets posted around the central train station. The following links contain information and pictures of Bern.

Geneva with its close proximity to France is also well located for travel. This past Sunday we decided to take a public bus to the nearby French city of Annecy which we were told was a "must see." We greatly enjoyed the city and were charmed by its medieval streets and walls and by its incredible alpine views.  Annecy is in the Haut Savoie region of France.  For further information, here is a wiki link on annecy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In the Grand Duchy

Greetings from the World's only sovereign Grand Duchy which is also the "lux" in the acronym Benelux for Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Although the country is a small democracy with a population of about half a million, the country's titular ruler is H.R.H. Grand Duke Henri who ascended to the position in 2009 when his father, Grand Duke Jean, abdicated - see the following:

Here is charming German song about the Duke (Graf in German) which topped the German pop charts about 30 years ago (

According to the IMF, Luxembourg has the world's highest GDP per capita.  Many international banks and businesses are located in Luxembourg City as is the European Court of Justice.  Like Switzerland, Luxembourg is known as a place where the rich park their money to avoid taxes.  However, Germany and other European countries have recently started monitoring their citizens' financial holdings and dealings in Luxembourg more closely. 

Luxembourg City has less than 100,000 people, but has enough attractions to keep tourists entertained for a few days.  For Americans on tight travel budgets, Luxembourg is a major entry point into Europe, usually with Icelandic Air after a stop in Iceland.  Icelandic has long provided the cheapest scheduled flights between the US and Europe. Gertrud and I took this route shortly after we were married. The following links provide more details on the country and the city.

For Germanophiles, a primary attraction of Luxembourg is its close proximity to the Moselle River and to Trier, Germany's oldest city. The Riesling wine and the castles of the Moselle are world famous. The primary attractions of Trier are the Porta Nigra, an ancient Roman ruin, and a cathedral which houses a holy tunic said to have been worn by Christ just prior to his crucifixion.  This past weekend, the robe was put on exhibit for the first time since 1996 and Trier was swarming with hoards of pilgrims mingling with the simply curious. The following links provide more on the Moselle, on Trier and on the holy robe.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Murder and Violence in Malabo

This is my last stop on a five week sojourn in Africa.  I'm in Malabo on the Island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, which was Spain's only colony in Africa.  In colonial days Malabo was known as Santa Isabella and Bioko as Fernando Poo.  Equatorial Guinea also has a piece of territory on the African mainland known as Rio Muni which lies between Cameroon and Gabon.

Map of Equatorial Guinea showing both Bioko Island and Rio Muni

Since 1968 when the country became independent, Equatorial Guineans have lived under two repressive dictators, both stemming from the same family.  The current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo ( is the nephew of the first president, Francisco, Marchias Nguema, who many considered insane and who on Christmas Day in 1975, has 150 coup plotters killed in the national stadium while a band played "Those Were the Days."  For more on the country's sordid political history see the following link:

 Shortly after independence, the State Department opened an embassy in Malabo and assigned two officers -- a charge' d'affairs and an administrative officer.  The stress of opening an embassy on Fernando Po must have gotten to the Charge' as in 1971 he radioed the Embassy in nearby Yaounde, Cameroon to report that the Administrative Officer was involved in a communist plot.  The embassy directed that the consul from Douala immediately charter a plane to Malabo and to take control of the embassy.  Upon arrival he found that the charge' had killed the administrative officer in the embassy under very mysterious circumstances.  It was a bizarre case that shocked Washington and led to the closing of the embassy which had only recently opened.  The following two articles from the Foreign Service Journal review the murder and its aftermath. 

I first heard about this murder shortly after entering the foreign service in the late 1970s and had no idea at the time that I would play a role in reopening embassy Malabo in the 1980s while I was posted in Yaounde. At that time Ambassador Hume Horan was accredited to both Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea and oversaw a team from Yaounde that helped set up the new embassy on a floor of Malabo's Hotel Impala.  Despite Equatorial Guinea's close proximity to Cameroon, there were no scheduled flights to Malabo from either Yaounde or Douala.  We therefore chartered a small plane to Malabo every few weeks to assist new staff that had been assigned there.  At that time Malabo was the poorest place I had ever been and was without electricity or running water.  The new embassy and the residence that was set up for the first resident ambassador ran off of Caterpillar generators 24 hours a day.  It has often been said that one can tell how poor a place is from its garbage.  There was virtually no garbage in Malabo and I never saw a dog, a cat, or a rat which says something about their source of protein. And when we were there for a few days, we never knew what we might find to eat in the island's few restaurants.  Malabo is the only place I have eaten porcupine.  Despite the poverty, there was virtually no crime due to people's fear of the violent police state they lived under.

The embassy we opened in the early 80s was closed for a second time a few years later as a budget cutting measure when it was determined that our interests in Equatorial Guinea didn't warrant a full time presence. However with the discovery of oil in 1996, an embassy was established for the third time and with a new US Government-owned chancery compound now under construction, we can now probably assume that a US presence will remain. 

Equatorial Guinea has been the target for at least two coup attempts.  The first, against former President Marchia, is said to be the setting for Fredrick Forseyth's book "The Dogs of War" which was made into a movie by the same name. The second, the so-called Wonga Coup, took place after oil was discovered.  It was led by Simon Mann, an Englishman living in South Africa and the son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is said to have helped finance this attempt.     

 Here are a few links related to these coups: section on controversies)

With the discovery of oil in Equatorial Guinea, Malabo no longer resembles the place I visited in the 1980s.  It is now crawling with international oilmen, businessmen and construction workers.  A new four lane highway crosses the island and there are several first class hotels, including one with an 18-hole golf course. An impressive new hospital, staffed with more than 40 M.Ds from Israel also recently opened.  On the surface, Malabo appears to be quite affluent but I doubt that the country's new found wealth trickles down very far and I believe that most of the population still remains very poor.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Yaounde' Coup

I'm back in Yaounde', Cameroon for a few days which was our first foreign service posting from 1982-84.  It is the first time I've returned since we left so it has been a trip down memory lane.  During our two years here, family life was basic but pleasant. Although there weren't many places we could take a young family, we nevertheless had an active social life within the American and diplomatic communities, typically meeting in homes, at the Marine House, or at the American Club, which was co-located with the American School.  We also started playing a lot of tennis which we enjoyed for the rest of our foreign service career.

For old times sake, I went past our former house in Quartier Bastos which was large and reasonably comfortable, but which had clearly been built without an architect or an engineer and without reference to any building codes.  One morning during the rainy season, Gertrud went into the kitchen to discover a large termite mound in the middle of the kitchen floor.  Apparently the house had not been set on a concrete pad and instead the builder had simply laid the floor tiles directly on top of compressed dirt. The termite colony had pushed itself up through a crack in the grout during the night.  It was not uncommon to see large termite hills along the roads during the rainy season, but it was certainly a surprise to find one in our kitchen. Termites swarming out of mounds was also a delicacy for the natives. We frequently saw Cameroonians grab termites out of mid-air, and after pulling off the wings, popping the wiggly protein directly in to their mouths. I've read that if the world ever has a protein shortage, the insects of Africa could quite readily be exploited as a new source, with termites being among the tastier ones.

When we lived in Quartier Bastos, our veranda overlooked a traditional African neighborhood which we felt part of because we could hear and observe almost everything that went on. When they celebrated births or weddings we knew it and when someone died we knew that too.   Today the area consists of large houses, shops, restaurants and cafes filled with expats and successful Cameroonian businessmen which have supplanted the old African neighborhood.   In the 1980s there were few restaurants in all of Yaounde' and to my knowledge, no cafes.

And now about the Yaounde' coup:

Shortly after midnight on April 6, 1984, we were awakened by sirens and gunfire coming from the nearby presidential palace.  About an hour later a message came over the embassy radio confirming our suspicion that palace guards were attempting to overthrow the government.  The message directed all embassy staff and families, except essential security personnel, to remain home until further notice and to stay close to their radios. In the early 1980s, their were few working residential telephones in Yaounde and the embassy radio net was our sole source of reliable communication.  Sporadic shooting from guns, armored vehicles and aircraft continued for the next couple of days. We spent many hours at a neighbor's home listening to live accounts of the insurrection on Radio France International.  From the neighbor's patio, we also had an excellent view over the city and watched low flying planes and helicopters as well as jeeps and armored vehicles hurrying through the streets.  Occasionally helicopter gunships flew directly over our house. After a few days, government forces put down the insurrection and the shooting stopped.  When we returned to work and school, we continued to be uneasy because young soldiers manning checkpoints throughout the city, pointed their guns directly at us until we stopped. We held our breath hoping they didn't have a hair trigger. The following wikipedia link provides a good summary the coup attempt.

Our greatest foreign service travel adventure happened in Cameroon when I decided to take the family with me on State Department business by car to N'Djamena, Chad instead of flying  (Click here for a map and information on Cameroon:  I'll try not to bore you with detail here and will only say that it was a National Geographic-type experience in the real African bush. Northern Cameroon is incredibly picturesque and includes such market villages as Mora, a game park at Waza and lunar-type landscape around Rhumsiki.  And on our first day of driving while approached a small town, we were suddenly waved over by a policeman.  He had seen our diplomatic plates and wanted to invite us to a local political rally, which we accepted out of curiosity.  Like many political rallies in the American West, it included riders on magnificent horses. However the topless dancing girls shaking their bodies to pounding music while the politicians clapped their hands, was probably more of a local custom, but then what do I really know about what happens in politics?

Crossing the Chari River From  Kousseri, Cameroon to N'Djamana, Chad was its own adventure.  Due to almost continuous civil war in Chad over many years, the Cameroonian Government refused to allow a bridge to be built.  So we had to drive our car onto a small homemade ferry and to then get into a dugout boat which men pushed and steered with long oars. It was certainly an exotic crossing and we were relieved that our car didn't sink.

It was quite a shock to see N'Djamena due to all of the shelling it had suffered. We were there while a peace treaty was in effect, but it wasn't long until fighting broke out again. The roof of the cathedral was missing and most of the homes were reduced to piles of mud bricks.  But the people were still friendly and there was brisk commerce in the markets. Gertrud and the kids enjoyed visiting the local handicraft markets and perused what remained of N'Djamena.  An interesting side note here: the Ambassador in N'Djamena had a clay tennis court which he paid a man a dollar a day to maintain. The man simply  went into the street and picked up some of the clay bricks that were laying all around and then broke them onto the court with a hammer.  After he rolled the court, the Ambassador's court was fresh for tennis.

Indulge me in  one more story: Hissène Habré, the President of Chad wanted to give Ronald Reagan an Arabian stallion as a present but  apparently never saw President Reagan in person so presented the horse to the Ambassador on Reagan's behalf.  Word came back that Ronald Reagan had gratefully accepted it but the embassy was told that under no circumstances should the horse be shipped to the US and that the embassy should take care of it in Chad for President Reagan.  I saw it there on several trips eating grass from the embassy lawn.  A locally hired Canadian woman on the embassy staff who I knew, had been tasked with taking care of the horse and I believe she tried to ride it a few times even though it was very high spirited. I don't know what ultimately happened to it, perhaps it is still there.

Anyway, after a couple of nights in the very rustic Hotel Chadienne, we returned to Yaounde' the same way we had come. For anyone interested, here are links on some of the places we visited:

A final note:  In February 2011, I wrote a post on this blog on the subject of German colonies in Africa. I made a few comments regarding Cameroon (Kamerun) having been a German colony from the late 1800s until after World War I when the former colony was given over to the British and the French to be administered under a League of Nations mandate.  The following link provides a good summary on Kamerun

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jambo Bwana in Kenya

Last evening I flew into Nairobi from Madagascar and will be here about 30-hours before catching my onward flight to Yaoundé.  The layover provides an excellent opportunity to blog about Nairobi where the family lived between 1984 and 1987.  For a charming Swahili introduction to Kenya, click here:

Our three years in Nairobi were among the most enjoyable of our lives: how does this lifestyle sound, even if only for three years?

--we had a large, comfortable house in a beautiful garden;

--we could afford household staff, including a driver which made it very enjoyable to host family and friends from Germany and the US;

--we needed neither heating nor air conditioning in Nairobi's ideal climate;

--the kids attended the wonderful International School of Kenya, and were very content with school, friends, sports and other activities;

--We lived in a very diverse and interesting culture, included exotic Kenyan tribes, a large Indian/Pakistani community, a small, but very visible White Kenyan/British settler minority, and a vibrant expat community of diplomats, teachers, researchers and adventure seekers.

-- I enjoyed my job at the embassy; Gertrud enjoyed her part-time embassy job and volunteer work.  She was a guide for the Kenyan Museum Society, which exhibited many of the anthropological finds of Louis and Mary Leakey and hosted lectures by such famous researchers as Richard Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould.  She also provided volunteer support to an orphanage in Mathari Valley, Nairobi's largest slum.

-- We were often in Kenya's fabulous game parks, either on safari, or simply relaxing over dinner or drinks at sunset, observing elephants, rhinos or giraffes at a watering hole.

-- Gertrud, her sister, and the families spent a week on a very exotic camel safari, led by a former game hunter who had to create a new life for himself when some of the species became endangered (unfortunately I had to miss this opportunity due to work). The safari consisted of two camel trains -- one that went ahead to  prepare high tea and to set up cots, mosquito nets, hanging tree showers and latrines for the night. Everything was ready when the second train arrived with the guests, and according to Gertrud was very comfortable and even luxurious.

--We belonged to the famous Muthaiga Country Club (, which was a frequent venue in the movie "Out of Africa." You will recall the scene where Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) was booted out of the club's  all-male bar. In response to a posting on the Club's bulletin board, I became an extra in the movie, being paid $20 for a days work.  My sole claim to movie fame is that I was directed by Sydney Pollack: during one scene, he briefly looked at me and said "Hey you, please move over there!" Alas, all the celluloid with me in it ended up on the cutting room floor. 

-- We visited Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, often called the"Cradle of Civilization." We also spent a couple of days in the unique ecosystem known as the Ngoro Ngoro Crater, which provided an excellent opportunity to view many of Africa's magnificent animals up close.

-- During a business trip to nearby Rwanda I visited a family of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat  (I wrote about this last year in a posting about Rwanda).

--We spent a few wonderful days on Lamu Island which I believe may have the purest version of Swahili culture left. 

Unfortunately, fond memories are often interrupted by real world events. In 1998 while in Utah on home leave, we turned on the TV to learn that the embassy in Nairobi had been bombed. The building I had worked in for three years was completely destroyed, with seven Kenyan employees killed who had worked directly for me. Here is a wiki summary of the terrible event:  (

Today I visited the park created at the site of the former embassy to remember those who died.  Here are a couple of my photos:

Welcome sign at the peace park on former embassy site

Some of the names on the memorial wall

When the bombing was announced in Utah, Peggy Stack, a writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, and a close friend who we had met in Kenya, knew we were in town. She mentioned our presence to one her Tribune colleagues who wrote the following article, which you can click on to make larger. Unfortunately I scanned the article from a paper copy and is a little difficult to read.  I am hoping to replace it with a more readable version. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventures in Madagascar

Madagascar is unique: it's not Africa and it's not Asia but an exotic blend of the two with some French colonial influence thrown in. The majority of the Malagasy people in the highlands and around the capital Antananarivo (Tana), appear Asian.  And although I haven't  been to the coast, I'm told that the coastal people tend to be African.  Madagascar is a magnet for biologists and botanists with over 90 percent of its flora and fauna not found anywhere else.  

On this, my fourth trip to Madagascar, I finally made it out of the capital of Antananarivo. I had a free Sunday and hired a car and guide to pick me up at 6 a.m. so that I could see as much of the Island as possible, with my primary goal being to glimpse some of the island's famous lemurs. Our drive to lemur country took about 3 hours on an excellent highway running through scenic towns, mountains and valleys. I was surprised at how clean everything was. Rice paddies were common in the valleys which made the island feel very much like Asia.  I've never seen a rice field in Africa which supports my view that Madagascar is not really Africa, despite the close proximity.  During my trip, I never had the impression that the rural population was really poor. Poverty is much more visible around Tana.

I saw my first lemurs at the Andasibe reserve, the home of the Indri, the largest of the species. I spent about two hours with a guide hiking around the park with binoculars, looking at the shy Indri which remained high up in the trees eating leaves and chattering with their mates and which were almost impossible to photograph.  We also saw several brown lemurs at Andasibe.  Our next stop was at Vacuna Forest Lodge where we had lunch. On lodge property is a small island with about 5 species of lemurs including the ring tail. The Vacuna lemurs are much more accustomed to tourists than those at Andasibe and when we got close they climbed on our shoulders to eat the bananas we had brought for them. It was a long day, but I can now say I've seen lemurs.  I also have a much broader appreciation for the island than previously.

With Ernest, my lemur guide, at Andasibe

Brown lemur at Andasibe National Park Madagascar
A colorful lemur species at Vacuna

My second Madagascar adventure started on Monday morning when I arrived at the embassy for work.  A meeting of the Emergency Action Committee had just been called to prepare for a category 2 cyclone that was coming straight at Antananarivo and was expected to arrive that night.  Monday morning had blue sky and many in the embassy were skeptical that we would really have a cyclone that day.  However the Charge' d'affairs directed that everyone except essential security and administrative staff, remain home on Tuesday because most embassy employees live long distances from the new embassy compound that was completed in 2010, and they have to pass through low lying areas that always flood with major storms.  Since my hotel was near the embassy, I was told I could work, which I did for a few hours although the  computers and air conditioning was down.  

As predicted, the storm hit Monday night with a fury.  The wind howled and torrents of rain came down for several hours.  On Tuesday morning I could see some flooding and damage from my hotel window, but the worst of it was on other parts of the island.  After about 12 hours the wind died down and things began returning to normal.   The airport was closed for a couple of days but opened just in time for me to leave on Thursday as scheduled.

Anything else you may want to know about Madagascar and lemurs can probably be found at one of the following links:

Click below to see some pictures of some of Madagascar's scenery and to hear the most famous German song ever sung about island: