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Journey to Madagascar 2009 

October 12, 2009

Montagne d’Ambre & Strangler Figs

We reached Montagne d’Ambre in time for lunch after a 30-40 minute drive from Diego Suarez. We have small bungalows on a windy bluff and are allocated one more hour of electricity this evening before the generator is shut off. The wind is blowing briskly; the starts are shining – they actually HAVE stars here, unlike in the city; and we are glad there are extra blankets in the closet. Breakfast is at 0730 tomorrow and then we’re off for a second visit to the rainforest before leaving for the airport and returning to Tana in time for late dinner.

We have limited hours of electricity at the Nature Lodge – four hours each evening – and no Internet connection. We will be able to upload our accumulated postings to the Internet – and you – tomorrow when we return to the Hotel Colbert in Tana. At least that is the plan.

We left the Grand Hotel in Diego Suarez shortly after 10:00 am and drove down the main street right to the water and the port. Just for the record, the Grand Hotel is sort of grand but not really truly grand, so don’t think we are living in luxury. But at least it has power all day and all night. I’ve become very fond of electric power.

Diego Suarez is one of the most important port cities of Madagascar and has been so for a long time. A major construction project is underway to build a modern port facility for container ships. Cement trucks and cranes are everywhere. From a sea navigation standpoint, we are told that sailing into this port is quite difficult since it requires passing through a very narrow channel at the head of the harbor.

Our natural science destination today is Amber Mountain, or Montagne d’Ambre National Park. The French created a number of reserves (protected areas) when they ruled the island, and this was among the first created in the 1920’s. In the 1970’s, sometime after Madagascar got its independence (1960), these special reserves became national parks. Even if you have a Malagasy guide, you still have to have a local guide from the park, and the guide for our visit was Philippe.

The history of the colonial period here is complex. The French were not exactly benevolent rulers and it appears that they did not invest generously in infrastructure. Much of what they did leave behind is in very bad condition. Our guide said that the people so hated the French that they took out their feelings on the buildings that had been left behind and let them go to ruin. It sure looks that way. Some lovely colonial buildings are crumbling into the ground.

Montagne d’Ambre is an evergreen rainforest that exists in a microclimate formed in the cone of a long-extinct volcano, the same volcano that produced the boulders that we saw in the Ankarana National Park yesterday. It is a very distinctive climate and has been called a paradise for botanists.

We didn’t know what the weather would be like in the rainforest. After all, the word “rain” figures prominently in the description. On the way to our Nature Lodge, the first stop of the day, it suddenly started pouring rain, both down and sideways given the wind. The question was whether it would stop and if it did, would the trails be too wet and slippery. Fate smiled on us once again. When we arrived at the park the sun appeared and the rest of the afternoon was delightful, cool, and with dappled clear light. It was a perfect day for walking in the rainforest.




Wild Figs


Deadly Nightshade Berries


Deadly Nightshade

Most of Montagne d’Ambre Park is a mature deciduous forest with native plants as well as some that have been introduced over the years. Since the elevation is well above sea level, there generally is a nice breeze. It was a perfect leafy, green glade reminiscent of woods in the northeastern United States, but with a tropical theme. We saw many examples of the strangler fig vine which to survive attaches itself around a tree and grows by wrapping itself around the trunk of the tree in loops until over a period of years it eventually kills its host tree. The mature fig vine/tree lives on.

Ring-tailed Mongoose


We saw many examples of epiphytes in the trees, giant lush ferns (think of the campy sci-fi flick, “Day of the Triffids”), tiny little orchids, an ebony tree (the interior wood is so black it looks burned), rosewood trees, and a lichen high in one tree that could have been Rapunzel’s tresses but is called “gray beard.” We were introduced to the world’s (not just Madagascar’s) smallest chameleon, a pregnant female one, tiny, and then to the male; she was tan colored and he very dark when we saw them, but as their name implies, they do change color to blend with their surroundings. In the picnic area at the edge of the trails we saw a ring tailed mongoose foraging in the picnickers’ leavings. There also were multiple sightings of the Malagasy sunbird, some swifts, a buzzard, and a beautiful flitting green bird called a Madagascar bee catcher.

Smallest Chameleon (Brookesia minima), female


We walked two different trails, both of which were mostly flat and covered with dry leaves interwoven with tree roots. The morning rain made for a bit of mud at the beginning and a few slippery spots, but overall it was easy trekking, thanks to our walking sticks. The first trail took us to a waterfall which is a place of worship where the Malagasy people believe they can communicate with the sprits of their ancestors. The second trail included another waterfall; both were quite high and rather small in volume, but beautiful and peaceful. Walking through these woods was soothing and exhilarating at the same time.


The Nature Lodge where we are staying is about a half hour’s drive from the park entrance. It is several years old and owned by a Frenchman who is married to a Malagasy woman. Its setting in a meadow with broad vistas of the mountains. The lodge includes a main building with a very attractive dining area and a series of small bungalows. The bungalows are simple and pleasant with all that is needed for a good night’s rest.

We had our lunch today outside on the porch of the lodge, picnic style. When you rent a car here, you also can order a lunch to go. “Hertz rent a lunch” – it’s a new concept. So we had “Hertz catering.” It included rice, zebu (local beef) with green peppercorns, cooked veggies (carrots, chayote, and green beans being the usual suspects), fried wontons stuffed with vegetables (all of the cooked food was served cold), bread, and many, many halves of luscious fresh mango. Along with our water and coke, it was just the right amount of food to give us energy for the afternoon’s hike.

Afterward the hike, we returned to the lodge and our cabins. Everyone did a fast clean up to be ready for dinner at 7 PM and then bed at 9 PM. It’s early to bed and early to rise on this trip. The fact that the power goes off early encourages good habits.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:25 pm

October 11, 2009

Green Chameleons, Hoopoe Birds and Tip Toeing

The hotel in Diego Suarez turned out to be a very comfortable place to spend the night, with a hitch or two. Shortly after we arrived I noted that the rooms had double windows in a climate that is comfortably in the mid 70s most of the year and never gets cold. Curious.

We found out why that evening – a Saturday. It turns out that the local discotheque is the other wing of the hotel. It must be very popular because it was hopping last night. So long as the windows were closed, the only effect was a very low frequency rhythm line that went until 4 AM on the dot. It wasn’t really all that disturbing if the windows were closed, but anyone who kept them open would have had a long evening of disco thrown in for no extra charge.

This morning we got up around 5 AM to have a quick breakfast and then get on the road to drive 3 hours to reach the Ankarana Reserve National Park. It’s about 70 miles away, but the roads are not all that good so it takes some time to get there. The road would be smooth for a stretch and then dissolve into serial potholes or disappear altogether. We were in two 4-wheel drive SUV’s and the road was interesting enough given the potholes, washouts, wandering people, chickens, occasional zebu (beef) on the hoof, kids, bicycles, women carrying large baskets on their heads, and oxcarts, there was no chance that either driver would nod off. I also saw one lonely duck padding with webbed feet along on the side. He (she) brought to mind the penguins at the Academy.

After about an hour, our driver came to a sudden stop on the left side of the road. He had spotted a green chameleon on the fence and wanted to show it to us. He held it in his hand while we all gathered round and devoted untold numbers of multi megapixel shots to the green chameleon star who responded with a slightly bored air as if it happens every day. The driver has sharp eyes.


For much of the trip, the road was lined not by chameleons but by people and their homes which to be candid were more like shacks. The people and their lives spilled onto the road which functions as the rough equivalent of a long main street. In between clusters of shacks comprising a town there would be fields, rice paddies, and general brush, and then another long town stretching along the road.

I noted in an earlier posting that the people in Maroantsetra looked as if they were well fed and happy. They did but I may have cranked up my “power of positive thinking” a bit to much. Most of the people today looked as if they were just plain poor.


Roadside Housing

The difference between the two impressions may come in part from the fact that we interacted with the people in Maroantsetra on foot, walking among them. Today we were driving quite fast, the with frequent bleats of the horn to scatter people or chickens or oxen. It wasn’t personal at all. Still, the people who lived along the road would wave and we would wave back. Kids were the most reliable wavers, often using the two handed, really enthusiastic version.

Local Market

As in Maroantsetra, no one looked really hungry and there was a lot of food for sale along the road, mangos and tomatoes in particular. The region around Diego is mango central for Madagascar, and the fruit will be in season through December which corresponds to spring here.

Seeing all the people today I wondered about medical care in Madagascar, so I quizzed our drivers and guides. It turns out that there is on average only one doctor for every 150,000 people in this country and no medical center that could be considered comprehensive in western terms. From what Vy said, it sounds as if the medical center in Tana is the equivalent of a GP or internist clinic. As with the US, the doctors cluster in the cities. If you get really sick and can afford it, you travel to Reunion (French infrastructure), Mauritius (British), South Africa or even Paris. If you can’t afford it, and most people can’t, then it’s tough luck. Local people consult “healers” whose prescriptions are limited to natural plants which an be effective, of course, but are no substitute for real medical care.

Upscale Housing

Not having access to good medical care is certainly one definition of poverty and by that standard a large fraction of the Malagasy population is poor. Regrettably, some 29 million Americans do not have medical care coverage either. Yes, they can “go to the emergency room” and that is a infinitely more care than normal Malagasys have available, but it’s not the same as having regular health maintenance care and the opportunity to consult a doctor without financial fear when you are just sick and not in crisis. I think the situation is scandalous for a country of the wealth and ideals of the US.

For the record, I personally have experienced the “socialized” medical systems in the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany. I have been impressed by the quality of care I received from them. I hear high praise about their medical systems from my friends who live in those countries. They do not fear bankruptcy if they get really sick. It’s about time we could say the same for the US. The fact that there are more Americans outside the health care system than there are Malagasys (population 20 million) without health care does not speak well for home.

Rice Paddies


Madagascar’s Red Soil

Back to the main topic: after about three hours we arrived at the Ankarana Reserve. We were met by our local guide who would keep us on track and make sure that no one got lost. He also was a great source of information on plants, animals, and the general landscape.

Ankarana is a deciduous forest. Since this is early spring, most of the trees had no leaves, which made seeing the landscape and the animals much easier. We had been warned that the weather would be dry and hot, as hot as 100F, so we were ready to drink lots of water along the way. However, we were very fortunate. It was a partly cloudy day with occasional spritzing showers. The temperature never really got hot and the sunlight stayed moderate. So walking along was much more comfortable than it might have been. We were lucky.


The Original Flying Buttresses

As we walked we spied a number of creatures, including various lemurs and birds. One of my favorites was the Hoopoe bird, one of which strutted his stuff in front of us for about a minute. We also encountered a really great gecko and a sleepy lemur.


Nocturnal Sportive lemur getting its sleep



Madagascar Magpie Robin

The most dramatic sight of the day was the rather bizarre limestone landscape known as the “Tsingy,” which we were told means “tip-toe” in Malagasy. Tip toe is exactly what you would do if you were a giant and tried to walk across the tsingy. The park has two main geologic features. The tsingy developed from limestone deposits that had been under the sea, were thrust up by the forces of plate tectonics and then eroded year after year. Time and weathering have transformed the limestone into features criss-crossed by very sharp points and edges.



Sharp Pointed Tsingy Amidst Lava Rock

Mixed in with the tsingy are black volcanic rock and boulders that were hurled up a long time ago by a now extinct volcano. In fact, we will visit the extinct volcano tomorrow. It forms a basin – Montagne d’Ambre (Amber Mountain) – which has a very distinctive microclimate and is a botanical paradise. In contrast to the limestone, weather has smoothed the volcanic rocks. Different chemical compositions produced different chemical erosion patterns.


Wild Vanilla Growing on Tsingy

After seeing the tsingy massed in the distance (see picture above) we then walked through another area of tsingy where we could stand within sharp columns that had formed in the limestone. Clambering over the tsingy was downright treacherous. It as no time to stumble and fall. Our guide took us through one area of tsingy, rock by unstable rock. Then we came out into the open – a smooth (more or less) red earth trail. He was about to head for round two of the tsingy clamber when we revolted and said it was enough. We were surrendering. Tip toeing indeed.


We made our way back to the SUV’s and lunch. All in all, we had done about three hours of walking, alternating between easy and more rugged, but it was well worth it and is a very memorable landscape.

The fact that limestone weathers easily, since it is calcium carbonate which dissolves in acidic rainwater, has given rise to many dramatic landscapes around the world as well as some remarkable caves with their stalactites and stalagmites. What differs is the shapes that result from the erosion. Tsingy is land of the sharp pointed structures. In contrast, the limestone landscape in Guilin, China, which we visited some years ago, has been weathered into surreal but tranquil looking dome structures. It too is a destination well-worth visiting.

Lunch was served in very simple restaurant that caters to people coming to visit Ankarana. The tables are on a platform on stilts with the kitchen at the end. The platform has a thatched roof to provide shade. A number of groups were eating lunch when we got there. If you don’t mind candor, I will note that one table had three paunchy white men roughly in their 50s – not Americans – and three very attractive, young Malagasy women who were perhaps 25 years old. It did not look like three happily married couples celebrating their tenth anniversaries with a trip to an exotic location. More likely, it was an example of sex tourism where your local guide never leaves your side and is more of a playmate than anything else. It’s common in countries like Thailand and the Tana airport has posters warning of the penalties for it, so it must be a business here as well. It is a terrible way to exploit a poor population eager to make money.


Back to Diego

After lunch, we drove back to Diego over the same road. This time, however, it rained part of the way, and the water transformed the dirt along the road into mud, and the shacks, which are on stilts, into rather a sorry state. Many people were drenched by the sudden rain. Yes, it’s what’s called poverty.

When we got back to the hotel the sun was out. We scattered and hit the showers and then took a break before dinner. It has been a great day in an infrequently visited corner of this fascinating country with all of its contrasts, both in the natural world and in human nature.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:16 pm

October 10, 2009

Tana to Diego with the Bottomless Handbag

Today is the day to travel from Tana to our next destination, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana) in the north. We will spend three days in that region and then come back to the mother ship of the Hotel Colbert to restock and recharge before heading out again.

It’s actually a convenient schedule because I can leave my big suitcase in the Colbert and travel around with a little one, returning to the big one for supplies now and then. It’s also possible to leave behind laundry that magically reappears cleaned and pressed when we check in again. In between we wash our duds in the sink, a technique that works just fine because we all are wearing nylon gear from REI and such providers. The plus is that it dries fast. The minus is that you begin feeling as if you are spending the day in Saran wrap, to borrow words from Marybeth.

Jean and I have adjusted fully to the time change – something like 11 hours – between here and San Francisco. It’s great when the system is finally in sync with the environment and you wake up and go to sleep at the right times.

This morning, perhaps because I was missing the roosters who got things off to a start in Maroantsetra, I woke up at 6 AM wondering whether I could finally get the high speed internet connection to work in the room so that I could broadcast all of the blog entries and photos that had accumulated over several days. I suppose it’s one definition of obsession, and I plead guilty to having a case in full flower.

It was terrific to see the frisky MacBook light up enthusiastically with a high speed connection to the world. It was even more wonderful to see all the photos go off successfully. I guess I assume that some people out there actually are reading some of what that we are recording. Either way, we will have a great summary of this trip for the memory bank. I recommend blogging if only for that reason.

At the moment we all are on a fully packed Air Madagascar plane from Tana to Diego-Suarez. It started out being a non-stop and then was converted to a one-stop (Nosy Be) and then rearranged back into a non-stop. The flight attendant, when he saw our group clambering aboard, shouted out “California!!!” He was working on our flight yesterday and was delighted to see us back. I should see if Air Mad has a frequent flier program given all the time we are spending on it.

Tana is the only airport so far where we have encountered any serious attempt at security screening since leaving Paris. I believe I saw passport control being taken care of nicely by some people ahead of us with a deft transfer of bills from one hand to another. It’s an old technique and it does simplify things. Of course, I could be wrong. We also went through the usual X-ray inspection of our hand luggage. I won’t comment more on that experience. Vy continues to herd us with great skill. He takes the stress out of traveling, that’s for sure.

We drove to the airport this morning through the commercial section of the city which was teeming with shoppers and street vendors. You could pick up spare parts for the clutch of your car right next to a shop displaying bathroom sinks which was next to a butcher with his meat conveniently hanging over the street for easy inspection. It wasn’t chilled so there would be none of the bother of bringing it to room temperature before cooking. There was lots more stuff for sale by sidewalk vendors with their merchandise displayed on a tarp on the ground, sort of like the guys who sell “genuine” LV handbags and Rolex watches on street corners in New York.

Since it was Saturday, everyone was out shopping. The city was like one enormous street fair. It would have been fun to stroll around but if we had we would have been overwhelmed by young capitalists trying to sell us nearly everything they could carry and doing so with a persistence that marks them, with a little more formal preparation, as prime Wharton School material.

We passed a high rise building standing more or less alone in a field as we neared the airport. I had noted it last night when it was lighted up with some of the most remarkable combinations of neon tubes that anyone could imagine. It might have been a corporate display of what is possible with neon lighting technology. Vy mentioned that it was intended to be the newest and grandest hotel in town and was scheduled to be completed last spring in time for Tana to host the African leadership summit. The summit was canceled, at least in Tana, when last spring’s coup put a 34 year old president in charge (his picture is everywhere). This was disruptive to the order of things, of course. Presumably it’s a case of the lure of power. If so, it’s an old story.

On the other hand, the whole thing may have been a stroke of luck since there is no sign that the hotel would have been completed on time anyway. Meanwhile it flashes away in the night like a kind of electrified and never-ending fireworks display. I feel certain that its architect is not Renzo Piano. It’s just not his style.

Meanwhile, I am sitting on the plane next to a stylish Malagasy woman (Jean is across the aisle) who has spent the entire flight so far unpacking and repacking her enormous handbag, which itself contains several more sub-handbags, folders, and all matter of what not. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls. The challenge that sparked this paroxysm of packing and unpacking was the call to switch off her cell phone. Some time into the flight she finally located it, buried someplace in her bag which must have been designed by Escher so that no matter where you put your hand you keep getting to the same spot. It’s a good thing that cell phones don’t really interfere with the navigation system (or so I have been told). On the other hand, how would I know? I haven’t the vaguest idea where we are. Perhaps we are about to land in Kenya because her phone acted up!

The good news is that our hotel in Diego is run by the same people as the Colbert. It bodes well for the next two nights. Perhaps we will see my seat companion in the dining room tonight. I’d recognize her anywhere by her handbag.

Coda: We arrived in good order at Diego-Suarez and were soon in our hotel, which is quite comfortable. My seat companion’s cell phone caused no problems. The city has a population of about 150,000, 25% of whom are Muslim. Like Maronantsetra, it appears far less crowded and frenetic than Tana. I think I really like the provinces.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:07 pm

October 8, 2009

Nosy Mangabe

It’s mid-afternoon at the Relais du Maosola where we are staying. The relais is a collection of thatched huts not far from the water and clustered about the main building where meals are served. All in all it’s very comfortable. The beds have mosquito netting and the huts are open to the world with big windows. There is electricity but not all the time. The breeze at night is lovely as are the night sounds. Morning comes when the local roosters proclaim it. Actually, there is one rooster somewhere about who clearly is an over achiever. He starts in a couple of hours earlier than the others when the world is still dark. Think “rooster who has dreams of a career on Wall Street.” What I thought about each morning when I heard him launch into his call was more like the recipe for chicken soup. It begins with “Take one chicken” and I knew just the chicken…

On the beach…where we landed on Nosy Mangabe


Speaking of food, we negotiated a slightly later start today with our guide Vy and so had breakfast at 7:30 and then left for Nosy Mangabe (“Big Blue Island” where ‘nosy” is “island”) in a small, but fast, power boat from the beach nearby. The ride to Nosy took just 20 minutes and we landed on an absolutely pristine and gorgeous beach. Coarse brown tan sand and aqua water deepening to indigo with palm trees a few feet in. Think Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “On the Beach.” It was just like that, but without Lancaster and Kerr.

Nosy Mangabe has provision for overnight stays (sleeping huts, wooden tables and chairs and even toilets) and there also is area where researchers can work. The vegetation was definitely tropical and the day was hot and sunny. Paradise to be sure but also a lot hotter than yesterday. To our surprise and relief, there were no mosquitos! Evidently we are not juicy enough, which is fine with me.

Leaf-tailed Gecko

Koster’s Curse

Hibiscus tiliaceus

Escaped Pineapple


I should mention that traveling with Frank Almeda is a joy since he knows almost every plant and could give us a commentary either on what it’s used for medicinally (this morning at breakfast it was the leaves of plant (Koster’s Curse) used locally to treat diarrhea), or what a particular flower is like (a yellow hibiscus on the tree which later turns to a reddish color with veins of yellow as it matures), which family it belongs to, and who its American relatives are! The other day we saw a cinnamon bush and today we were introduced to the pineapple with its rosy red flower, the pencil cactus, and the flower of the clove tree–green and slightly hard, but you can break it apart and get the wonderfully enchanting aroma of cloves. As a bonus Frank also knows a lot about the insects and the herps (frogs and snakes). We looked at a Leaf-tailed gecko that was perfectly camoflaged against the brown of the tree trunk and so flat that many of us missed it. At the end of the trip, a young man had a Tenrecs, a cute little black four-legged mammal with porcupine-like quills, a small face with a long pointed snout capped off with a yellow tuft the color of a dandelion. It’s an insect eater we were told, though this one looked a bit bewildered since we don’t look like insects.


White-ruffed Lemur


Serafin (Angel I), our other local guide, led this hike (he also was a guide yesterday) and gave us some history of the area and pointed out particular plants and was ever on the lookout for centipedes and other creatures. The rainforest was relatively dry so we didn’t see many animals crawling about. But, we heard and then saw the brown and black and white ruffed lemurs high in the trees. They were leaping and cavorting, and with our binoculars we were able to watch them for quite awhile, or at least until “lemur neck” set in.

Today’s hike was a bit steeper than yesterday’s but the trail was in better condition. After going up a fair way, we reversed and came down, crossing several small streams. We then continued on another flat trail inland, running parallel to the beach. Serafin made a point of showing us a nest with young in it of Madagascar’s equivalent of the hummingbird. Hummingbirds are only found in the Americas, but this bird has the same kind of long narrow beak that allows it to feed on nectar.

Lunch alfresco


We returned to the beach – still no Burt or Deborah – but even more idyllic, or so it seemed. A picnic lunch was waiting and we enjoyed it in the shade at a wooden table. There was a delightful breeze off the water. I was dreaming of a cheese course and maybe just a drop of port, but then it was time to get back on the boat and return to the mainland. Bye bye paradise island.

Trudging back to the relais…


The return trip took only 15 minutes and we got a bit of an occasional splash as the boat rode the waves. Since it was high tide, we had to go to the town boat dock. Our familiar blue boat was waiting for us, rust still intact. We and the lunch coolers glided down the canal, around the collapsed bridge, and again under the low wooden pedestrian bridge (prayer again) and back to the familiar little area on the shore from which we’ve set off and returned to before. From there, was about a 10 minute walk along a sandy road back to the hotel.

Nosy Mangabe is an exceptionally beautiful island paradise with many unusual and unique plants and animals. It was good to see that although people can come and enjoy the island, it remains largely unspoiled. We encountered only two other people – both visitors like us. There was very little trash anywhere, so there must not be too many visitors. We sure hope that if Madagascar becomes more popular as a tourist destination these forests and beaches remain as lovely and pristine and peaceful as they are today.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:35 am

October 7, 2009

Into the Masaola Rainforest

It’s 5 pm and we just returned from a day spent on the water and hiking in the rainforest, Tampolo, at the edge of the Masaola National Park. The park is the largest national park in Madagascar and the dense rainforest begins just a few feet in from the sandy beach where we landed.

To begin at the beginning, we got up early so we could have breakfast at 6:30. We had to get to our boat in time to catch the tide so we could get out of the harbor. The harbor is quite shallow, so it’s easy to get the keel stuck in the sandy bottom even in a small boat. There was no choice but to rise and shine or whatever and hit the path that led to our first boat that would take us to our second boat for the hour and half trip on open water.

Breakfast was a healthy one of a local juice from a spiny fruit, fresh mango, local crusty rolls, and eggs–scrambled or cheese omelet style – plus coffee and tea. The mango was particularly good. I am a fan of mango and papaya and quite a few other tropical fruits, some of which are a bit weird, like the mangosteen and the durian. Don’t ever take a durian on the subway or a bus. It’s not a good way to make friends.

Setting off – blue boat


After breakfast, we walked roughly ten minutes along a sandy road to get the blue long boat that would take us on about a ten minute trip along a canal to a bigger boat in the Maroantsetra harbor. The blue boat itself was about half metal and half rust held together with lots of bright blue paint. Fortunately the water was shallow, so if the boat suddenly crumbled we could have waded ashore. As we puttered along, we came to a pedestrian bridge that was so low to the water we had to bow down nearly flat as if seized by sudden religious fervor to face Mecca. No fingers over the edge. No peeking if you valued your head. Just maintaining a position of deep devotion until all was clear.

Fortunately we got under the bridge quickly and soon landed in the harbor and transferred to a much bigger motor boat, sort of a cabin cruiser without the cabin, which had a reliable inboard engine. As I boarded the boat, I reflected on the reality that in such circumstances the state of the engine is really important. I developed a sudden interest in internal combustion technology. I was hoping that our particular inboard engine had been well maintained, since we were crossing open water for a trip that would take about two hours each way. I tried to peek at the gas gauge, but I couldn’t figure out which one it was. So, I had to give up and just have faith in our crew. Perhaps this was the message of our Mecca devotional earlier

Masoala National Park


Fortunately, my faith was requited and the trip came off without a hitch – not even a hint of a queasy stomach on anyone’s part – and we arrived at the sandy beach that would be our landing point for our trek in Masaola Park.

Invitation to swim and nap…


Getting off the boat wasn’t quite as simple as getting on. It was a wet landing since we were coming into a sandy beach. So we changed our hiking boots for flip-flops or water sandals. Then one by one we climbed down a ladder with orange plastic rungs, two of which were history, and then plunked into the water. We all passed the test albeit without total grace and walked onto shore. The last time I did any wet landings, actually the only other time, was on our trip to the Galapagos. Once on the beach, we put on our socks and hiking boots, organized our gear, had a big gulp of water, used the “facilities” in the form of conveniently located plants by the beach, and reported for duty to our guides, Vy and Seraphim I and Seraphim II (Angel I and Angel II).

In search of the red-ruffed lemur


We ten ventured into the rainforest and for the next three hours 3 hours explored it – really only its edges considering that the entire island is rainforest – along a series of paths that were mostly rocks, tree roots, streams, old logs, and so forth. Our walking sticks which made a real difference. In one way we were lucky. It wasn’t raining. In fact, we had great weather – sun all the time. It would have been more difficult to clamber up and down on the rocky paths if they had been made slick by rain.

Before coming to Madagascar, I thought that rainforests were so dense at ground level that you had to sort of hack your way in. But it isn’t so. It turns out – and is logical – that younger rainforests can be very dense at low levels because the plants are younger, shorter, and all competing literally for their place in the sun. But by the time they are older, the plants are much taller, competition has sorted them into winners and losers, and too little sun penetrates to ground level to support dense growth low down to human height. So, walking through the forest did not require great machete technique.

I must say that the rainforest to me was impressive in a very profound way. Impressive in capital letters. It’s a celebration of life in a very big way. It’s obvious that when life finally found a way to get going, it went all the way. Given the right environment of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, sunlight, and warmth, LIFE thrives – and it thrives in thousands of different ways with diverse plants and animals competing individually and collectively to LIVE. And LIVE they do, in so many different ways. Being in the rainforest is a total immersion experience in LIFE. The environment is also a jewel box of individual species each of which has evolved so it can survive.

It would be so engaging to spend the time it would take to tune one’s senses to hear, see, and sense all that is going on, all the time, all around even one single spot in the rainforest, let alone a pathway or a totality. What fun it would be. I felt as if a vast number of life forms had tumbled all around me in some sort of green avalanche. The rainforest is a celebration of what came to be when that first spark of life ignited and LIFE exploded, developed, competed, and evolved for a spell, like a billion years or so.

Not surprisingly, there were more life forms than plants in our rainforest. We were on particular lookout for the rarest lemur of all – the red ruffed lemur. We were lucky and caught sight of roughly a dozen of them frolicking about high in the trees and leaping from limb to limb. They are quite big and often you could see their long bushy tails before you saw the rest of them. Several of us were snapping pictures as fast we could.

Red ruffed lemur


They also made quite a racket when we got close to their territory. Racket is the informal word. Vocalization is the approved term.

We also were on the lookout for a birds. Top on the list was the Helmet Vanga, which in the words of Frank Almeda looks like “a bird designed by a committee.” Despite all the attempts our guide made to sound like a lovelorn Helmet Vanga, none appeared, so I guess we’ll have to come back someday and try again.

We emerged from the rainforest tuckered, sore here and there, and a bit peckish as well. Lunch was waiting on a tarp on the sand by the beach. Cold chicken, cold pasta, and vegetables, rolls, and plenty of liquids of diverse sorts. We may have failed in our wild Helmet Venga chase, but lunch was partial consolation.

The boat ride back was not quite as smooth as the morning, but not really uncomfortable. We also made better time and the engine never faltered. The long blue boat was waiting at the dock and so we hopped from one boat to the other, ducked under the bridge in gratitude for a great day, and in a few more minutes we were back at the launching place where we began the day.

It had been a terrific day. We were very lucky to have experienced it. But, to the elusive Helmet Vanga – next time we’ll find you!

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:32 am

October 6, 2009

Encountering People in Tana and Maroantsetra

On our first evening in Tana, it was delightful to sit in the comfortable dining room of Hotel Colbert and enjoy a good dinner. For those of us around the table, it’s what we consider normal life. Good food. White napkins. Upstairs, clean sheets and plenty of hot water. Normal life if it’s what is normal for you.

Of course, it’s not what is normal for everyone. Madagascar, like the US, has a mixture of economic classes. From what I can see so far, the country has a small but wealthy upper class and a small middle class, but most of the population falls in neither category.

Presidential House


The thin upper crust was on display one evening before dinner in the lobby lounge of the Colbert. As I sat pecking away at my MacBook and taking advantage of the wi-fi connection, I saw three youngish women walk across the lobby and greet two friends who were already seated. Each was dressed in elegant silks and had the latest sunglasses and mobile phones. They swept through the lobby as if they owned the world, as they probably do, or at least a local slice of it.

There was another reality and it was right outside the hotel’s front door. It’s what constitutes normal life for most of the citizens of Madagascar, and it encompasses many different worlds. These other worlds begin to appear in the windows of the mini-van as you travel from the airport to the city center. Some people are living in the middle of rice fields in small huts the size of a garden shed and, on the street, men and women of all ages are hawking whatever they can – newspapers, guides, baskets, vanilla beans, whatever. Small businesses line the streets and often are so small they are just counters open to the street with a few dozen items for sale. People are spilling from the sides of the street into the traffic. It’s a scene that could be seen in any number of third world cities.

The world most Malagasays inhabit is not one of white napkins and plentiful hot water, but that’s not to say that they are poor since what it means to be poor has so many definitions and nuances.

I am told that there are some parts of the country where most people have a hard time getting enough to eat. Hunger is one definition of poverty most of us could agree on.

The world of the capital city, Tana, was filled with what we could call an urban lower class swelling the city beyond its capacity to deal with the population. Aspects of the same crowding can be seen in Bangkok, parts of Hong Kong, Beijing and dozens of other similar cities.

However, a capital is a whole country. What would we find in smaller cities? The scene changed significantly when we flew to the provincial center of Maroantsetra. The city as a whole appeared to be even poorer than the capital, but the people did not seem so. There was more space and open air. Many of the people we encountered in Maroantsetra would be considered poor in the sense that they do not have electricity, computers, cars, or the many gadgets we take for granted, but the reality is that most of those we saw were healthy looking, neatly and attractively dressed, friendly, and full of warm greetings and smiles. They make a living here and there, now and then. They are surrounded by their extended families and the families they grew up with and their parents grew up with. Are they poor? Well, it all depends on your definition of the word.

An older man in the US once described to me what it had been like for him to grow up during the Depression in a very small town far from any big city. He had three brothers and sisters and his mother had been widowed when they all were still kids. Life was not easy. He realized later that he had grown up poor, but, as he explained to me, he hadn’t known it at the time because everyone else was more or less in the same situation. It was normal life for them, but they had enough to eat, clothes to wear, close family support, school, church, and fields to play in. They were’t poor in the ways that mattered.

Certainly, some ways of being poor (hunger) are genuine. Other states of deprivation (not having private tennis lessons, ski vacations, the latest laptop, all the latest clothes, and so forth ad infinitum) are more attitude than poverty.

We tend to visit countries like Madagascar and focus on all the ways that the people we encounter have poorer lives than we do. Doing so is supposed to make us thankful, and perhaps it does, but it’s not really a great way to learn because it presupposes the conclusion. An alternative is just to think about the ways in which our lives and those of the people we encounter are similar and different, not better or worse, or richer or poorer.

It seems to me that it’s much better to approach people as individuals to be engaged rather than specimens to be studied. The more we engage with real people, the more we are likely to find that we have quite a bit in common. I found that to be true in our many visits to China and Southeast Asia. Observing people is no where near as interesting as interacting with them, however haltingly due to of the constraints of language. Fortunately, smiles are international.

After all, each one of us arrives on earth in the same condition: newborn brains without much more than the basic software. World-wide, the most important resource is also the most easily renewable – the greenest – and it’s kids. Kids don’t arrive programmed to be Malagasy or American, Christian or Muslim. Kids are not predestined to be Ivy League freshmen or inner city drug dealers. They just arrive on the scene, full of whatever potential they have been blessed with in their DNA. The rest is up to the people who teach them combined with their innate talents and determination. A kid has to be taught to excel in school or do drugs, to play on the baseball team or join a street gang, to fulfill his or her potential or squander it. Regardless what we learn to be, I suspect that in the end we have much more in common than not.

In Maroantsetra, we spent quite a bit of time walking through the community and environs. Yes, the roads, such as they were, were dirt and the houses on each side were more like shacks than anything we would consider a house. Yet, the people we saw greeted us cheerfully and spontaneously. They appeared to be happy in their lives though their lives are doubtless as complex as our own.

Of course, Madagascar is a big country and we are seeing only bits of it. Fillmore Street doesn’t tell you much about the hills of Tennessee or the realities of the Mission, so it’s important to keep things in perspective and not be too sweeping in one’s conclusions.

It’s a process of learning for all of us. The future of Madagascar will be determined by its young people. Their vision will be formed through formal education and their personal experiences, which include their encounters with us. I am proud that one of the primary missions of the Biodiversity Center of the California Academy of Sciences in Tana is to educate Malagasy students in the biosciences. It is the right thing to do. It’s a way to change the world for the better. Kudos to the scientists at the Academy who have made it all happen.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:29 am

October 5, 2009

Good-bye Paris. Hello Madagascar

Yesterday we took the Eurostar “Chunnel” train from London to Paris and immediately took a cab to Charles de Gaulle Airport to catch our flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar. The train is a model of smooth, on-time efficiency. When it gets dark, you are under the channel. When the light returns, you are in France. In between, there is lunch and a reasonable French wine. Not bad at all, especially compared to the old days which took two separate trains and a boat in between to go the same distance, but in a lot longer time.

Getting to Madagascar involves flying of course. There is only one flight and not every day. We flew Air Madagascar on a reliable Boeing 767 and took off right on time at 10PM for the 11 hour flight. Believe it or not, we slept on the plane, which was great (the sleep not the plane), and arrived in Tana a few minutes early at 0955 in the morning.

Getting through the formalities of entering Madagascar is like arriving at some of the Caribbean islands – lots of officials stamping lots of forms many times over. Lines. General confusion. But then it all works and suddenly you find yourself on the inside of the guard stations, which is where you wanted to be all along.

Finding the luggage was no problem. Tana is not Chicago. There is only one luggage belt. Our bags arrived in fine shape. Overall, the Air Madagascar experience wins high marks. Good staff. Good service. We took off in the right place and landed in the right place, on time. That’s what you want in this business. Then there is the struggle with all the guys who want to sell you something. That’s normal.

We were met by our local guide, Vy, who is a great fellow. He will be with us for the entire visit to make sure everything works. Our van took us into the middle of town to the Hotel Colbert, which is located in the main square next to the presidential house and other government buildings. It’s thoroughly first class. We had a lovely lunch – French cuisine, since Madagascar was a French colony for many years. The lunch was excellent in fact.

Then we were off to check out the Biodiversity Center that was built and is operated here in Tana by Academy scientists, Brian Fisher being in the lead. It is right by the city zoo. We had a great visit. It’s a slice of California in the middle of this city, not that it’s luxurious, which it is not, but that it’s very functional and maintained in excellent condition by the full time staff.

The Biodiversity Center is the hub of various explorations of the flora and fauna of Madagascar by people from the Academy and some from other institutions as well. Most importantly, it also is a center for graduate education of local Malagasy students from the University of Antananarivo, which is the largest of six national universities in the country.

It is very impressive to me that our scientists are not merely flying in now and then to collect specimens but are investing in developing the future intellectual leadership of this country. It’s the right way to promote responsible stewardship of local nature – not by visiting and preaching but by helping develop local leaders who are committed to the cause.

Now we have all collapsed for a few hours. We are repacking to leave tomorrow morning on a flight at 0745 (argh) for three days in the north of the country. Then we will come back to the Colbert for a night or two. I have a feeling we will look upon this hotel as paradise – a welcome respite in between forays into the countryside. We have to get up very early so are having a very early dinner tonight.

More in a day or two…

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:42 am

October 1, 2009

The Eden Project

The purpose of our trip to Cornwall was to spend a day at the Eden Project which is nearby St. Austell. It was conceived as a grand green undertaking to introduce ordinary people to the plants that contribute to human life and health. It was Cornwall’s designated Millennium Project, one of 12 constructed around Britain to celebrate the year 2000. Perhaps the most notorious is the Millennium Dome near London which was largely a flop until taken over and transformed into a successful private venture.

Eden Project: winding walks among gardens leading to the geodesic Biomes.

Rainforest domes at top. Mediterranean climate dome on the right.


Our Eden hosts noted that when their project was proposed the national press rated it most likely to fail. After all, the site was a long train or car ride from London. To succeed it would have to attract a million or so paying visitors each year, and Cornwall only has 500,000 residents. The press evidently wasn’t counting on tourists, but the creators of Eden were. Cornwall attracts millions each year, so the project was oriented and strongly marketed to them.

Eden opened in 2000 and this year will welcome about one million visitors. Adult admission price is approximately $25 at the current exchange rate. Eden has a wide variety of evening programs, education offerings, and special events. In many ways, it is similar to California Academy in mission and scale, if you take away the fish and the planetarium and natural history museum and expand the Academy’s Rainforest by about a factor of ten. Eden does have living creatures but they are of the ant and bug variety found in most gardens.

Inside the rainforest: hot and humid!


Eden also has land – space – and much of it consists of outside gardens, pathways, and exhibits. In fact, it would be possible to have a great day at Eden and not even go into the biomes, as the domes are called. A couple of biomes are dedicated to the rain forests of the tropics, complete with plants from all over the world, pools, waterfalls, and so forth. Another focuses on the regions of the world that share a Mediterranean climate. A new dome is planned as well, one that will be dedicated to plants in arid climates.

Mediterranean climate dome

Mediterranean theme restaurant: one of five or six eating places.


The only plants in the domes and the gardens are those that have use for humans, such as food, fuel, fibers for clothing, medicine, and so forth. Mere ornamentals need not apply. The displays are very well done and interweave information, the plants themselves, and various works of art, some of which are more appealing than others.

Eden has a large staff of botanists – from chaired curators to students – who are involved in running the institution, staffing the exhibits, and carrying out research programs. They talk of being a “no box” institution, one that discourages the compartmentalization of people into specific functions – or hierarchies – such as Research, Education, and Gardeners, but rather celebrates the integration of the staff and their functions. They also discourage words like “interpret” or “explain” or even “guide” since they feel that the goal is to make visitors feel welcome and engage them in learning by interacting not teaching. One result is that the people we would refer to as “guides” are called “pollinators.” It’s amusing but an important concept and commitment.

Throughout Eden are various stations where staff make informal presentations throughout the day. A cider-making demonstration was particularly popular when we visited, though many others were on the schedule. The staff who entertain visitors waiting in line to gain admission are referred to as “Line Buskers.” Eden’s messages begin even before you buy at ticket.

Eden has extremely active educational programs to engage students and visitors about all aspects of sustainability. It’s a theme encountered at every turn, and one that is presented in a clear but low key style.

Overall, Eden is an impressive and obviously successful project. Kudos to the visionaries who dreamed of converting an old clay quarry into an innovative institution devoted helping people learn about the challenge of sustainability. The staff we met were equally impressive and passionate about the cause Eden represents. Given that Eden is a long way from London, it’s not surprising that relatively few of its visitors come from the US. This is a pity, since a visit is well worth the journey, and thanks to First Great Western train service, the journey is easy. Anyone who loves the California Academy would love Eden, that’s for sure. We are glad we went and look forward to future visits.

View of domes

More domes

The Great Bee

Education building

Real bananas!

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 11:09 am

September 30, 2009

Cornwall: Land of Clay, Scallops, and Shipwrecks

Cornwall coast at sunset


On Wednesday we set off from Paddington Station by train to Cornwall, specifically St. Austell Station which is a mile or two from Charleston Harbor. Our destination that day was the Pier House Hotel. It’s right on the harbor and it had been recommended to us by the head of the Eden Foundation, an arm of the Eden Project nearby and our actual destination for a visit on Thursday. The trip took 4 1/2 hours and involved one change. Otherwise it was a model of smooth rail service – starting on time and ending on time. The British may complain about their rail service, but compared to the US they live in railroad paradise.

Cornwall these days is an economically depressed area. Its industries, which centered on tin and clay mining, have largely closed and moved elsewhere in the world where the seams are richer and the labor cheaper. Cornwall produced china clay which was shipped out of Charleston Harbor to be used to make shiny white paper. Clay is still used for that purpose, though other formulations have been introduced, just not clay from Cornwall.

Teen-aged would-be surfers jumping into the cold Cornish water from a great spot for diving right next to the “No Jumping or Diving” sign. Problem: no surf, but on good days Cornwall is a center for surfing in the UK.


Cornwall in history, of course, is the land of shipwrecks, master mariners, fishermen, and romantic fiction filled with heroes like Poldark. Jean had hoped to meet Poldark but he seemed to be away for the day. It also is the land of Manderlay, the fictional home of Maxim de Winter, Rebecca de Winter, and the troubled (!) Mrs. Danvers. They figure in the great tale, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, that Alfred Hitchcock turned into a dark mystery film of the same name. I have a particular fondness for this film and for so many of Hitchcock’s. What a master he was! To go to the land of Rebecca was a treat even if the people we met were far less sinister than those in the movie. It also was great to see that Cornwall really is in “living” color. The film wasn’t – nor was the mood of its story – so you couldn’t be sure.

Over the years Cornwall has also been a major holiday destination for the British. Jutting southwest into the Atlantic and ending appropriately at Land’s End, its coastline is long and lovely. Its weather typically is warmer than the rest of Britain, so Cornwall is also the home of hundreds – of gardens, many of which can be visited. It would be a great area to spend several weeks going slowly from garden to garden, and country hotel to country hotel.

Pier House Hotel at Charleston Harbor, Cornwall


The Pier House Hotel is a very friendly place – with comfortable accommodations and really good food as well. Located by the seaside, it is not surprising that it excels in seafood. Dinner was a relaxing treat, starting with local scallops and continuing to an excellent Dover sole, which is in plentiful supply and therefore not priced over the top as it would be in New York. The smoked fish of various sorts also was excellent. I have a weakness for smoked fish.

The manager, who doubled as bartender, launched into a peans of praise for the delights of San Francisco when he noted where we were from. San Francisco seems to have that effect on people, much more than Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, did when we lived there. Curious. After all, Bethlehem has a bridge too, and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation did build the Golden Gate. It’s fun to hear about all the ways that people love the city we have come to love as well.

Crab pots


Breakfast the next day was a modest affair that included smoked fish, eggs of all varieties, grilled tomatoes, sausages, bacon, and fried bread. I didn’t eat everything – or even make an attempt – since I could hear the voice of my cardiologist in the back of my head. Cardiologists and guilt come close together in the workings of the mind. The fried bread is a particular affront to healthy living; though, truth be told, the sausages were not exactly of the low-fat turkey variety. Breakfast is a wonderful meal. I have felt for many years that I would have no trouble being a vegetarian so long as I could make a few exemptions for breakfast treats like sausage and bacon. Then there is the matter of lunch and dinner, where lamb chops, veal scaloppini, and similar vegetable products would have to be exemptions. Then there are the great hams of the world. Oops, I forgot good hamburgers. Fish are veggie too I think. You get the idea.

All of this is context and prelude for our visit to the Eden Project which will be the subject of Thursday’s posting. We will arrive well fed.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 12:00 pm

Darwin Meets America: Darwin Loses

The poster pictured above advertises the new film about Charles Darwin that was recently released in Britain. It stars Paul Betany and deals with the struggles Darwin faced in reconciling his religious faith and his scientific studies. It’s playing at the Curzon Mayfair. The Curzon cinemas in London are somewhat of a cross between the Kabuki and the Clay theatres in San Francisco in terms of style and typical offerings.

We haven’t been to the movie yet but were delighted to find that it was playing. We had hoped to go yesterday, but jet lag overwhelmed the operating system and called for a short time out to reboot, so we didn’t do much except take an afternoon walk in the park. The flat where we are staying is in Bayswater, just across the street from Kensington Park. You could start walking from our corner of the park and not run out of green park until you emerged at the Houses of Parliament. It is a long walk to be sure and one we have done in segments many times over the years. The various parks each with its own personality along with their flower beds and plantings are one of the joys of London,.

Yesterday we noted a plaque honoring a parks superintendent a century or two ago whose name was Forsyth and who, according the the plaque, gave his name to the forsythia, a bush that is rather undistinguished most of the year, twiggy in fact, but bursts forth in a glorious blaze of yellow flowers each spring. It follows the early spring flowers and signals that summer is on the way. Appropriately, a bank of forsythias is planted behind the memorial plaque.

Anyway, I titled this entry “Darwin Meets America: Darwin Loses” because of the response the new film, Creation, has received from our side of the Atlantic. In fact, it’s America that is losing. According to news reports, no US film distributor has agreed to distribute the Darwin film. Presumably it will be available on DVD in time, but that’s not the same as seeing it advertised on posters and marquees on the street baldly in public. Presumably the distributors’ hesitation comes from the fact that Darwin and his ideas are “controversial.” I should say “still controversial” since he published Origin of the Species 150 years ago.

The US is distinguished among major (and many minor) countries for having only a very low fraction of its population accept the theory of evolution – roughly 39%. In contrast, approximately 90% of the people in Denmark and Sweden accept the validity of Darwin’s ideas. [Of course, I must point out that the Scandinavians have other strange beliefs, like the importance of government sponsored health care that guarantees all of their citizens high quality care without the fear or threat of financial bankruptcy should they become seriously ill. Strange ideas indeed. But I digress....]

There are many reasons why America has such trouble dealing with evolution. I won’t explore them now. But what is so frustrating is that in our country, one that is justifiably renowned for its scientific and technological leadership – and one that bases so much of its economic strength on technological creativity, a majority of the people believe the equivalent of “the world is flat” and “the sun revolves around the earth.”

The reality is that the world is round and not flat, and the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. No degree of passionate belief or determined rejection can change these realities even though they are not necessarily intuitive nor were they immediately accepted in their time. The same is true for Darwin. While admittedly not intuitive based on the timescale of our human experience, Darwin’s model of evolutionary change has the same intellectual force and validity as the earth being a sphere and up being up and not down.

It does no service to our nation or its future to deny rather than learn from the truths that arise from scientific investigation. Children should not be taught that the world is flat. It handicaps their minds for the future. Suppressing a movie about Darwin because his model of evolution disturbs people’s view of their special role in the universe is like suppressing a movie about Galileo because he defied the established church by stating that according to his observations (a key word and concept) the earth revolves around the sun. Of course, he did make that assertion; he was persecuted for it; but he was right.

The same is true for Darwin. We should study his ideas not suppress them. Let’s hope Creation shows up at the Kabuki.

Filed under: Uncategorized — greg @ 5:00 am
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The Chief Penguin


Greg Farrington

Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, is visiting the island of Madagascar. He is joined by his wife, and Academy researchers, who are surveying and assessing this biodiversity hotspot.

Visit the Farringtons' personal blog, Madagascar Adventure, for in-depth details of this Academy expedition.

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