Roads (more or) less travelled

US Roadtrip: Charlottesville & the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Mountains hold a special place in my memories from my early teenage years, thanks to a family trip to North Carolina that involved a drive on the infamous Blue Ridge Parkway. All I could recall was the spectacular scenery, stretching for mile after mile on deserted roads, with just the trees and animals for company - and my expectations of our return to the mountains were met and exceeded during the three days we spent on the Parkway this time around. After picking up a car in Richmond, Virginia, we headed for our first stop, a night near the charming town of Charlottesville. Home to the respected University of Virginia and regularly voted one of the best places to live in America, we were glad not to have missed the opportunity to stroll around this quiet town, complete with its old-school cinema and beautiful choir of Amish singers in the pedestrianised town centre. After city-hopping for the best part of a week, it was nice to experience a more gentle pace and have a relaxing dinner, watching the world go by outside.

Retro cinema in Charlottesville

The next morning we set off bright and early to visit one of the main attractions in the Charlottesville area: Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of looking round old houses, the tour of Monticello was very interesting, thanks in large part to the easy manner and thoroughness of our knowledgable guide, who took us through the history of Jefferson and his family as we walked through the downstairs part of the house. Elegantly designed by Jefferson himself, it was easy to gain an understanding of this intensely private man, from the intimate design of his personal rooms, to the huge maps of all known continents displayed on the wall. We were told that Jefferson regularly had friends to stay for weeks at a time, and it was not hard to understand why - perched on top of a hill, surrounded by mountains and forests as far as the eye can see, it is a pretty spectacular location for any house, let alone one as beautiful as Monticello. As we wandered round, we saw many visitors clearly stopping for the day, enjoying a picnic on the immaculate lawn and a stroll around the grounds.


We, however, needed to hit the road and within the hour, found ourselves at the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway, negotiating twists and turns, crazy old guys on motorbikes and the occasional deer with no traffic awareness. Every time we thought the scenery couldn’t get any more breathtaking, we rounded a corner and were faced with an even more astounding view of the mountains, lakes and forests of the Parkway. Some parts of the drive are distinctly hair-raising, with sheer drops on either side of the road, whilst the middle section just before the border with North Carolina gives way to a valley filled with farmland and scenes straight out of a book - tumbledown barns, white picket fences, horses and cattle everywhere. It was in these surroundings that we found our first stop for the night - the Woodberry Inn, beautifully situated on a lake, tucked just off the main road in the tiny community of Meadows of Dan. When I had booked it, I was looking for a traditional American inn, our first taste of Southern hospitality, and we weren’t disappointed. The owners of the inn and locals alike welcomed us like old friends, marvelled at our accents and demanded to hear stories of London and other parts of Europe. We ended up in the bar until the small hours of the morning, singing karaoke, dancing and drinking with the most welcoming group of people we met anywhere on this trip. Truth be told, we were sad to leave the next morning, but as was the pattern on this trip, the road was calling…

Spectacular view over the Blue Ridge Mountains

View over the lake at the Woodberry Inn

Day two and the slow progress of the Blue Ridge Parkway was starting to get a little wearing, not least on Mum, who was doing all the driving. The winding roads mean that it’s impossible to go at much more than 45 mph, and the concentration required leaves little time for appreciating the spectacular views. At that speed, the miles go by very slowly - a small petrol panic led us briefly off the parkway into the town of Boone. One drive through was enough to assure us that we needn’t stop any longer - petrol mission accomplished, we were back on the parkway for a short drive to our next stop, the Switzerland Inn, located in the ridiculously cute village of Little Switzerland. Clearly designed as a getaway destination for the middle classes of nearby cities in North Carolina, we felt a little out of place in amongst the bankers, lawyers, and oddly enough, Hell’s Angels. This didn’t stop us from taking advantage of the jacuzzi and swimming pool, complete with mountain view, as well as the rocking chairs neatly arranged on the edge of the hill around a small campfire (the mountains are cold at night, even in August!).

View from the Switzerland Inn

Misty mountains…

Before we left the next morning, we took the advice of one of our fellow guests and headed down a rocky path to some nearby waterfalls. At one point, we were crawling on all fours down a rock face, but it was well worth the descent (and knackering climb back up!) to see, run under - and in my case, fall in - these beautiful falls. Feeling newly energised, we were ready to hit the road again and head for our next stops, Asheville and Gatlinburg!

Waterfalls near Little Switzerland

US Roadtrip: Washington DC

It’s hard not to like D.C. For years, friends of mine have been raving about the capital and after two days there myself, I can see why - aesthetically beautiful, well laid-out and full of fascinating museums and monuments to American history, there is something special about this city. Surprisingly laid back for a capital, I found myself warming to this sparkling clean hub of political and cultural activity even over the course of our short stay.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Aware of how little time we had to see everything, we opted for a two day hop on and off bus tour - usually I’m not keen on bus tours and consider them to be tourist gimmicks, however the Big Bus Washington proved to be a great way to see the main sites of the city without losing too much time on public transport. As our first day featured rain of biblical proportions, we opted to take in some of D.C’s famous Smithsonian museums. The best of these was arguably the Museum of American History, which featured exhibitions on everything from the Civil Rights movement to the history of the US Presidency. You don’t need to spend all day there, as the format allows you to dip in and out of the parts that interest you (the section on military history, for example, didn’t interest me at all) - but as entry is free, even a short visit is can prove interesting and educational. The Air and Space Museum is also worth a stop if you’re into science, featuring exhibits about all the US space programmes and the history of air travel. Our bus trip included entry into Madame Tussaud’s, which was fun for 45 minutes’ escape from the rain, but I’m not convinced it would be worth the entry fee otherwise - it is ultimately a pretty small collection of famous people in wax!

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

As our second day dawned sunny and hot (28 degrees plus), we had the chance to check out some of the bigger monuments around the city. Whilst the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are breathtaking and central to the classic images of DC, my favourite is the often-overlooked Jefferson Memorial, which sits right on Washington’s tidal basin, providing some beautiful views over the water. Featuring a circular design, with columns and steps leading up to a huge statue of Jefferson, it is an impressive building, which somehow manages to be tucked away on the waterside. There were relatively few visitors here compared to the some of the other spots, and it was a lovely, quiet place to sit and escape the crazy number of tourists that seem to descend on DC in the summer - until the Korean tour party turned up, that is, and we swiftly took our leave.

Washington Monument

Over the course of the day, we took in the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol building and the White House, to name just a few. The overriding impression you are left with after spending any length of time in DC is just how much America values its presidents. I honestly cannot imagine anyone naming every other street in London after previous Prime Ministers (Tony Blair Avenue, anyone?), but in Washington, everything, not just street names, commemorates past presidents, who seem to acquire something of a celebrity status here in a way I haven’t seem replicated in many other Western democracies.

The Capitol Building

We spent our final evening in the charming district of Georgetown, famous for the excellent university of the same name. This part of town features a harbour front area and a high street with a mishmash of boutique shops, cafés and quirky bars. The metro doesn’t run as far as Georgetown, and there really is a sense of being cut off from the rest of DC in this haven of colourful houses and leafy streets. A boat trip on the river was a nice way to round off a long day of trekking around the city and we were glad we had made the effort to see Georgetown and the sun setting over the water. Two days felt like far too short a time to spent in this fantastic city, but it was just enough to tell me that’ll I’ll definitely be back…

Sunset over the river at Georgetown

Young girl splashing in the public fountains at Georgetown Harbour

USA Roadtrip: Philadelphia

Whilst I’ve always held a vague interest in American history, I have to confess that until now, the details had remained decidedly patchy. The names Jefferson and Washington rang a bell, but I honestly couldn’t tell you when they were alive or what exactly they did that was so significant. No more is that the case. After spending a day in Philadelphia, two days in Washington DC and a morning visiting Jefferson’s house, Monticello, I feel as though my brain is positively bursting with new information and am pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve retained. It’s all very well reading about history in textbooks, but walking through it seems to just make it come alive - and stick - that bit more.

Independence Hall

My ‘tour’ of American history started in Philadelphia, former capital of the fledgling USA. A bus changeover meant we had just five hours to spend exploring the ‘city of brotherly love’, which was just about enough time to see the main sights. The first thing I noticed when we got off the bus was how much more laid-back the atmosphere in Philly was, after the craziness of New York. After being given directions by a friendly Community Advisor (helpfully positioned outside the Greyhound bus station), we walked a few blocks into the historic parks area of town, and grabbed a free ticket for a tour of Independence Hall.

Inside Independence Hall

This was where the fun started. A cheery Park Ranger, who looked as though he’d be better off wrestling grizzly bears somewhere, started attempting to sort the various people with their various tickets into some sort of queue system. The problems arose as more and more people kept showing up, resulting in the queue system constantly changing and groups of baffled tourists being herded from one side of the gravel square to the other. Despairing at how late it was getting, and worrying about our bus, we pleaded our case and were allowed to join the back of a tour heading into the main section of Independence Hall. It is a beautiful building in its own right and the stories of the drafting of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence that took place there helped to paint a picture of the struggles at the time for the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The irony of the constant references to the ‘horrible British’ was not lost on us either - the first of many uncomfortable moments as I came to learn more about US post-colonial history. Whilst I know a reasonable amount about African colonial and post-colonial issues, my ignorance on the US has surprised me on this trip.

Liberty Bell

We rounded off our short visit with a long queue to see the famous Liberty Bell and an exhibition about what it has represented at various points in US history. It was fascinating to see how groups such as the suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement took this symbol of liberty to refer to and represent them in their particular struggles at that moment in time. Looking at the bell itself, I was surprised at how small it is in real life, but I guess size isn’t everything. The huge crack that spelt its eventual demise was clearly visible, apparently the result of poor British workmanship (it was made in London) - more irony. With time marching on, we managed a quick dash to the lovely Reading Terminal Market to grab dinner. This market really was something to behold - food from all corners of the planet, and throngs of shoppers on their way home from work. With food in hand, we legged it back to the Greyhound terminal, just in time to board our bus for arguably the most hilarious of our three bus journeys. The bus driver resembled more of an army colonel than any bus driver I’ve come across - after reminding us no less than five times of Greyhound’s ‘zero tolerance policy’ for loud music or phone conversations, we were then lectured on the safety policy for another five minutes, and were treated to the whole thing again in terrible, barely comprehensible Spanish, leaving even the Mexican woman next to me looking baffled as to what language he was meant to be speaking. Suffice to say, we were happy to pile out of the bus three hours later onto the tarmac at Union Station, Washington D.C, ready to start the next part of our adventure…

US Roadtrip: New York

No matter how many times I visit New York, the sheer number of people crammed into this city never fails to amaze me. Even a whistle-stop weekend leaves you feeling drained, awe-inspired and a tad dazed, truth be told. As the main exit/entry point for European flights (plus the fact we have family living there), New York was the obvious destination to start and end our US roadtrip. Expensive flights in August necessitated some creative thinking regarding our route, and we ended up transiting through Dublin. This proved to be a pretty good choice, as Dublin has a US pre-clearance area and we ended up skipping the usual nightmare that is the 90 minute immigration queue at JFK (interestingly enough, the subject of my first post on this blog two years ago).

View from the Hudson River

New York is a city that sometimes seems to just sweep by you in a blur of people, taxis, bikes, buses and noise. However, pockets of tranquility remain and it is this side of New York that I enjoy the most. The best of these is arguably the towpath by the Hudson River, first thing on a Saturday morning. Leisure facilities in New York are surprisingly good and the riverside has a particularly relaxing feel, as cyclists, runners, rollerskaters and walkers jostle along together on the neatly-marked out pathways. Families were already setting out picnics and BBQs at 10am, and some very serious looking tennis players were battling it out on the free public courts. There were no signs of stress, none of the hustle and bustle that characterises New York during the working week, just families and friends out enjoying the August sunshine. We had a chance to enjoy some August sunshine ourselves when we took a boat trip out to the Statue of Liberty, one of New York’s icons that had eluded me in previous visits. The view of the city on the way to Ellis Island was breathtaking, as was the Statue itself, seemingly presiding over the modern jumble of glass and concrete skyscrapers. I had never really thought about New York’s mighty river before, but this trip really put its importance in perspective for me, not least due to its enduring relevance as an important port of industry and exports, visible only from the water.

Statue of Liberty

Times Square in the evening

Our short stay took on a more sombre tone with a visit to the recently-opened 9/11 museum and memorial on the former site of the World Trade Centre. It was a strange visit in many ways - like many people, I remember exactly what I was doing that day, but I suppose with the distance of time and space, even events as huge as 9/11 slip from the forefront of people’s minds. The memorial - waterfalls cascading down into the foundations of the original Twin Towers, with the names of the victims inscribed into the outer edge - seems a sensitive and fitting tribute, neither overstated nor insignificant, sitting neatly in the shadow of the new Freedom Tower. The museum, on the other hand, left me with very mixed emotions. Whilst there were undoubtedly some interesting factual aspects, I found much of what was on display very intrusive, both for the victims and the families. Personal effects, voiced tributes to the dead, walls of photographs and voicemail message recordings left me feeling that this was not so much a tribute to the dead, as a spectacle or entertainment of some sort, complete with a $24 entrance fee. Whilst the intention may be to honour those who lost their lives and inform the public, I’m not convinced this was a respectful way to go about this undoubtedly difficult task. I was equally uncomfortable with the highly nationalistic tone regarding the subsequent wars in the Middle East - in many ways, the whole museum felt like an attempt at justifying what came afterwards, with little reference to the huge mess that has since been made in countries like Iraq (with the UK and other countries as willing partners, of course). I left feeling saddened by the memory of the needless deaths of so many ordinary people, but unsure whether the museum hit the right balance between information and respect.

9/11 Memorial

Monday morning found us boarding the Greyhound bus for Philadelphia - whilst I like New York, I felt an immense sense of relief as we swept out of the city over the Hudson River, and away from the city that really does never sleep.

Marrakech: More than meets the eye…

Marrakech is somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for a while - many friends and family members, not to mention newspaper travel supplements, have been raving it about in such superfluous tones that I decided it was high time to go and see for myself. Despite having visited West, East and South Africa in the past, North Africa has eluded me thus far, so I thought it would be an interesting introduction to what this corner of the continent has to offer. Having roped in a friend and booked a very good Expedia deal, we exchanged cloudy London for sunny Marrakech and haven’t been disappointed so far.

The first thing to say about visiting Marrakech at this time of year is that it is very hot, sometimes unbearably so for the uninitiated - often 40 degrees in the heat of the midday sun. However, the good news is that if you book a good hotel, you can find the perfect balance between seeing the sights and relaxing in comfort, and our hotel thus far has been faultless. Marrakech is famous for its riads, small guesthouses tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Medina (old part of the city), offering a personal, hospitable service. Our choice - the Riad Al Badia - has fulfilled all my expectations and more. From the amazingly in-depth advice and guidance of the staff, to the impeccable rooms and delicious breakfasts, our Riad has meant that we’ve been able to achieve the perfect balance between sightseeing and relaxing, either by the small pool or on the beautiful roof terrace. Nothing has been too much trouble for our hosts, who gave us a mine of recommendations and useful pointers to help us negotiate a city that can be a bit hectic and overwhelming at first, with its endless winding streets, crazy drivers and street hawkers looking to sell you anything from traditional Moroccan handicrafts to the latest iPhone. But if you take things at a leisurely pace and soak up the atmosphere, you’ll find there’s more to this city than meets the eye.

We started our wanderings at the Bahia Palace, a stone’s throw from our riad in the south of the Medina. Built in the late 19th century, it once housed the Grand Vizir of Morocco and his many and varied wives and concubines (28 apparently!). It is a stunning example of traditional Moroccan architecture, with beautiful tiled floors, ornate plaster archways and attention to detail throughout. Entrance to this and most other historical sites in Marrakech is just 10 dirhams (around 70p), so there is no excuse not to spend half an hour wandering around and admiring the sheer beauty of this palace (and have a welcome break from the afternoon sun!). After this visit, we stumbled across the stalls of the nearby Marché des Épices (spice market), complete with clothing and traditional remedy stalls as well. After some hard bargaining, we came away with some beautiful traditional Moroccan kaftan dresses, which drew admiring looks from everyone when we wore them that evening. The way some tourists dress in this predominantly Muslim country has stunned me at times - hot pants and strap tops are not uncommon, and understandably draw disapproving looks from locals. It baffles me as to why some people visit a foreign country, presumably to understand something about its traditions and culture, only to totally disregard them. Kaftans are also by far the coolest option in the stifling Moroccan heat, so we felt satisfied with our clothing choice on two levels as we headed towards the heart of Marrakech - Jemaa El Fna square.

Gardens of the Bahia Palace

Ornate archway at the Bahia Palace

Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

Described by our hotelier as the ‘theatre of Marrakech’, this seems to be the beating heart of the city and at night it really comes alive. There is a certain charm to the cobblestones and traditional pursuits on display, such as the storytellers, however the sense is that this part of town has become too much about tourism - a casual stroll is certainly not for the fainthearted! You cannot walk a metre without being accosted by someone trying to get you to eat at their restaurant, buy a leather bag or get a henna tattoo. Whilst participating in the inevitable banter (often in French) that ensues is all part of the game, after a while it becomes tiring and you feel relieved to have escaped to the relative quiet of the backstreets, complete with their small pastry stands, crazy moped drivers and children playing in the streets. To my mind, this is much more what the ‘real’ Marrakech is about - people going about their lives, not gimmicks for unsuspecting tourists.

Sunset over Marrakech

A key part of daily life that can observed at the moment is the role of Islam in Moroccan society. We arrived on the second day of Ramadan, the most important Muslim festival, which has provided a fascinating induction into the devotion of an entire population. Our first moments on the streets of Marrakech coincided with the evening call to prayer - watching the hoards emerge from every building and alleyway, headed together in the direction of the nearest mosque really was a sight to behold, as is 7:45pm, when the daily fast can finally be broken and everyone sits down to share food together. Islam has become somewhat demonised in the British press lately, but I really could appreciate the devotion and commitment of these people who deprive themselves of food and water all day for a month, in the name of their God. It seems to me that such devotion in any sphere of life is rare these days and I have felt privileged to be able to witness it.

More in the next post on trips to the Kasbah and the Atlas Mountains!

France: Tricky times for tourism in the Charente

It’s been nearly two years since I last posted from the sleepy backwater that is the village of St Romain in Poitou-Charente, France. Thanks to a family home down here, it’s a frequent escape destination for me, particularly when, as now, I really need to get my head down and work. Finals at Oxford are approaching fast, and with a reading list of over 100 books to revise, plus French, German and Romanian grammar to relearn and perfect, peace and quiet is in order. And that is precisely what you get in this part of the world that I’ve previously described as the ‘black hole’ of France. Descended upon twice a year (Easter and summer) by the few groups of British and Dutch tourists who have discovered its secret, it is relatively untouched for the rest of the year. Sat in my room, reading some of the French literary greats, like Flaubert and Balzac, I begin to understand a little more clearly their depiction of French rural life – I’m feel like I’m living through it for the three weeks I’m here, with the quiet village days, broken up only by the spluttering exhaust of our neighbours rickety van, the incessant tweets of the numerous birds than eat in our front garden, and the ‘bonjours’ of our neighbours as they walk their dogs, or take the kids to school. Exactly like the villages described in Balzac and Flaubert – only difference is they were writing in the mid-19th century…. Time really hasn’t moved on much here, which has advantages and disadvantages.

St Romain, Charente

If you’re retired and looking for a rural retreat, it doesn’t come much better than the Charente – good food, wine, rolling fields, tranquillity, pretty good weather March-October and cheap house prices (you can buy something decent for £200,000). But if you’re young, ambitious and need a job outside of catering, agriculture or traditional trades (like mechanics, baking, butchery etc), then you’re pretty stumped. The nearest big city, Bordeaux, is a good two hours away, and even if the train was quick enough, there isn’t really a ‘commuter culture’ here anyway. There is a noticeable dearth of young people in rural Charente these days – whilst sons would previously take on their father’s business and continue it on down the generations, this cultural tradition is fading fast, as young people grow restless and look for opportunities elsewhere. In many ways, I can’t blame them. Whilst it’s nice to come here for a few weeks at a time and get some peace and quiet, there is not a great deal going on, especially in winter. The nearest proper cinema, shops etc are a good 50 minute drive away in the big town of Angouleme, there is little in the way of public transport to get between villages, and few restaurants, cafes etc that open all days of the week, all year around. There just simply aren’t enough people to make it viable. The housing market is struggling in this part of the world, with prices falling and properties remaining on the market for long periods of time. At the moment, there are three or four local businesses for sale in our immediate surrounding area, evidence of the way people are finding it hard to make ends meet and attract consistent levels of visitors into their establishments week in, week out. This part of France is a good six-hour drive from the ferry ports like Caen and St Malo, though the improvement of the airport in nearby Bergerac and more regular services to Bordeaux are making access much easier.


Newly renovated square in Aubeterre sur Drone

We originally came on holiday here in 1995, to a local recently-opened gite complex with swimming pools, a golf course and tennis courts – a perfect holiday for an active family like us, with entertainment for children and adults alike. The Francophile that is my father brought us back over 20 times, before they finally decided it would be a better investment to buy a house down here! However, since 1995, the growth of the package holiday market and cheap flights to exotic destinations with guaranteed sun has made life difficult for the tourism industry down here. Whereas France and Spain used to be the main standard ports of call for British tourists (and they still do occupy 2nd and 1st place respectively in terms of destinations), we are now getting more adventurous and less willing to spend money, heading to warm destinations on package deals, where sun, sea and sand are the only pre-requisites. Granted, the tourist market down here has always been decidedly middle-class – the sort of people who would probably eschew such package deals – but there’s no doubt that business is not what it once was, meaning that tourism operations are either becoming creative, or sinking.

Typical view of Charentais countryside

Recent local innovations include the opening of an outdoor adventure centre in a nearby village, complete with high ropes, swings and other climbing apparatus. Kayaking and canoeing on the river is expanding, with companies offering more exciting trips from village to village. The original gite complex we came to for so many years has started offering their site to wedding parties, seeking a long weekend in a picturesque setting, which helps to fill ‘gaps’ between the school holidays. Ice cream shops have opened in the local village; the square in the historic village of Aubeterre has been beautifully renovated and many restaurants are now offering fixed-price ‘menu du jour’ to try and lure in money-conscious visitors. Despite all these improvements, it’s hard to say that the future of this tourism in this region is assured. Whilst business has always been steady in the time we’ve been coming here, the closures and prospective sales of local businesses has been noticeable in the last few years. In an intensely competitive market, everyone has to offer something that little bit ‘different’ – and if you can head to Turkey, Dubai, Florida or even further afield for the same price, the choice sometimes doesn’t fall in the Charente’s favour. As long as local tourism outlets are willing to try innovative approaches – and perhaps improve their marketing to remove the ‘black hole status’ of this area - there will always be a core of return visitors who love the tranquillity and beauty of the region, but it’s certain that hard times lie ahead for those trying to maintain or start businesses in this haven of rural France. 

Austria: Return to Vienna

I’ve always thought it must be really strange to come back to visit somewhere you once lived. Everything is so familiar, you know the place like the back of your hand, but it’s not really ‘yours’ anymore, in the same way it was when you were treading the same streets to work everyday, drinking in the same cafes, eating in the same restaurants. You forget small things, like the underground line intersections, or that drink you always used to have, or that little restaurant that you used to love, but can’t remember what it’s called…these have all been my experiences of returning a few weekends ago to Vienna, the city I lived in from September last year to February this year. I fell in love with the place and have missed it dearly whilst I’ve been away - coming back felt so right in many ways, but as previously mentioned, strange and disjointed in others.

Tourists flocking to the Christmas market at Schoenbrunn Palace

Coming back as a more of a ‘tourist’ was perhaps useful in what it revealed to me about the reasons behind my love of this city. In Vienna, quite simply, I feel able to breathe. The pace of life is slower than I’m used to and people in general seem less frantic. Shops are mostly closed on Sundays, and although I was by turn aghast and amused at this whilst I lived here, strolling around Vienna on a Sunday afternoon and seeing families out together reminded me of my wonderful weekends here, where the biggest decision to make was which café to go to for my Saturday afternoon coffee and book-reading session. The mere idea of a ‘Saturday afternoon coffee and book-reading session’ back home makes me laugh, mainly because the atmosphere in many city cafes in the UK is not conducive to hearing yourself think, let alone get immersed in a book. Taking up my usual table in a nook of Café Oberlaa, near Vienna’s Stadtpark, was an utterly calming and enjoyable way to spend an hour or two during what turned out to be an all-too-short weekend.

Schloss Belvedere in the sunshine, home to one of the smaller Christmas markets

December is certainly a magical time to be in Vienna - there is no city that does Christmas quite like it. On every corner, little ‘punsch’ stands pop up – colleagues, friends and families gather in the evenings to drink a warming mug of punsch in almost any flavour (almond, cinnamon, apple, orange – you name it, they’ve got it!) and get in the Christmas spirit. After dumping my cases at my hotel, my first destination was for a mug of Apfelpunsch with some old friends, and a good chance to catch up after nearly a year of not having seen each other. Over the weekend, we took in as many of the beautiful Christmas markets as possible, battling our way through the hoards of tourists who flock to Vienna at this time of year – and who can blame them? With lots of unique gifts to be picked up in the markets, the chance of actual snow (though sadly not whilst I was there), plus the chance to take in the beautiful architecture and atmosphere, it’s a no-brainer. There are lights everywhere, Christmas concerts to go to (I was lucky enough to attend the lovely concert by the school I used to teach in, HIB Boerhaavegasse in the beautiful Rochuskirche), parties and people really seem to have a spring in their step. For me, there is nothing better than the sight of friends huddled round a table with their mugs of punsch, smiling, laughing and chattering away.

Beautiful decorations at one of the market stalls

It brought me back to this time last year, where many nights of the week you could find me drinking punch in some part of the city or other, or eating pizza in possibly the cheapest and best pizza restaurant ever, Mafiosi, where a pizza three times the size of my head costs around €5, or soaking up the waters of the Therme Wien, a complex of thermal baths just outside the city centre. As I revisited lots of our old ‘haunts’ with old friends and colleagues and went back to school to see some of my former students again, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Indeed, after drinks with colleagues one night, I instinctively turned right out of the bar, not in the direction of my hotel, but towards my old flat, which was only a few streets away. Old habits die hard, it seems, and whilst I may have forgotten where the U4 and U1 underground lines intersect, I certainly haven’t forgotten the familiar path to what was my home for five months.

Therme Wien - perfect way to relax after a morning’s shopping!

Four days is all too short a time to spend in your favourite city, but it was certainly lovely to be back. For now, I’m fairly certain that my life will lead me back to Vienna, one way or another, and content myself with knowing that it will probably be just the same, whenever it is I make it back there.

Madagascar: Children of Madagascar

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that Malagasy market stall holders are among the toughest, most resilient people on earth. Battling my way through countless markets in the past few weeks, I have been continually stunned at just how tenacious these men, and particularly the women are. No matter how many times I said no, I didn’t want that beautiful bag ‘de bonne qualité' or the overpriced buffalo horn earrings, I still found myself with a hoard of men on my tail, assuming (wrongly) that I was a tourist, and therefore just asking to be duped. Not so and the look of amazement on their faces when I replied in perfect Malagasy that I wasn't interested was always amusing, though sadly didn't succeed in shaking them off. I was after genuine Malagasy handicrafts, not tourist tat, and scouring the market stalls was part and parcel of my quest for the best. So why did I find myself buying 30 Malagasy animals mobiles for a babies room, or 20 multicoloured purses? All for a good cause - to be sold in the UK to fundraise for Children of Madagascar, a brilliant local NGO that I’ve stumbled across here and have decided to help.


The family we’re supporting, outside the tiny room they live in

I first heard about Children of Madagascar or ‘Ankizy Gasy' whilst riding through the beautiful Malagasy countryside with my Polish colleague, Kate. Having just arrived, I only really knew her in her capacity as Volunteer Co-ordinator at Akany Avoko, but didn’t know in fact that she and her friend Pati had set up their own organisation in Madagascar, with the aim of reaching out and helping some of the poorest children in the area around Ambohidratimo, the village we live in. At first glance, many Malagasy villages look like hubs of tranquility and comfort, but scratch below the service and it’s a different story. Madagascar features among the 10 poorest countries in the world and behind the nice houses in any town or village, there is always a row of tumbledown shacks, sometimes only 1m squared, housing families of up to 10 people. Life is hard, and although the Malagasy have an impressive pride and stoicism, it’s clear that some of these children in particular need a helping hand. That’s where Children of Madagascar comes in. Believing that education is the only really sustainable way to secure the future of the next Malagasy generation, Kate and Pati have set up a sponsorship programme in the local school, St Joseph’s. Run by a Polish nun, the school has excellent standards, and thanks to Children of Madagascar, around 50 children are now being sponsored to allow them to attend school. There is also a nutrition programme, reaching out to some 200 children who otherwise arrive at school without breakfast, and a house reparation programme for families living in cramped or difficult conditions. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s impressive how much Kate and Pati have achieved in a relatively short period of time. There are now plans to expand their reach to helping other schools in the region, and last week they received their first batch of volunteers from Poland, who are keen to get involved as soon as possible.


Smiley faces with their new clothes and ball!

Having seen their work first hand, I was naturally also keen to get involved, such is my belief in the power of small, local organisations in Africa. Thanks to previous fundraising some years ago, I had some money left in a charity account and have decided to put some of it towards working with Children of Madagascar. Just as I arrived in Ambohidratimo, the nun in charge of St Joseph’s had heard of a local family of 6 children living in very difficult circumstances. None of the children, including the oldest girl of 16, had been to school since their father walked out on them four years ago, leaving their mother to cope alone. They all live in just one tiny, dark room, with 5 children in one bed and the mother and youngest child in the other, with a rotting lean-to for cooking. They have no electricity, no toilet except for communal latrines, and very little in the way of running water (the village pump is only turned on for 3 hours a day). Their mother takes in washing to scrape by a living, but it would never be enough to send the children to school. As of next year, the fundraising money will pay for the five girls to go to school, as well as for new sets of clothes, shoes, blankets and other essentials that I bought them in the local market. As they got their new things, the children’s faces said it all - I don’t think many British 16 year olds would think that a set of second hand clothes and a ball was much to get excited about, but for Albertine, Anita, Prisca, Rosina, Stephanie, Tahina and their mother, it meant everything. And at that moment, it becomes even more abundantly clear the difference that little gestures can make. We can’t improve the lives of every family in difficulty, not even in one village in Madagascar, but if everyone paired up to support a family in this way, the results would be incredible. Everyone talks about sustainable development in Africa and one of the most sustainable ways of securing a future for children like these is to give them an education, and thereby give them the tools to lift themselves out of poverty. At the risk of sounding like a World Vision TV advert, £100 a year can pay for a Malagasy child to go to school, giving them a shot at a better future for themselves and their family. When you consider that many people spend that a month on meals out, the value of the money looks disjointed. By all means carry on having meals out, and anything else you want to do (I don’t really subscribe to charity by guilt trip) but also maybe reflect on what that money could do for a family like the one in the village of Ambohidratimo, Madagascar. I will be fundraising for Children of Madagascar this year through a variety of events, including a talk about my trip to Africa and a charity equestrian event in September, as well as selling beautiful Malagasy handicrafts. Keep your eyes peeled for more details, and if you’re interested in finding out more about Children of Madagascar, log onto their website or get in touch

Madagascar: A walk on the wild side…

'There's our bus!' I joked, as a beaten pick-up truck pulled into the Gare Routiere at Moramanga. We all laughed, spirits high in anticipation of our weekend away, and then started looking around for our real bus. As we were making to head off, we suddenly heard 'Andasibe! Andasibe!' - and when we turned round, we saw the voice was coming from that same pick-up truck I had dismissed two seconds earlier. It was indeed our bus - and was leaving now. Elbowing our way on board, hoping to be able to sit on a bench at least, we found a space in the corner and watched with amazement as the tiny back of this truck filled up with more and more people. Every time we said 'That must be it', a few more people climbed in, until we were twenty four people. Plus 2 ducks and a chicken. Not comfortable, but functional - an hour later, no longer able to feel our legs, we arrived at our hotel, climbing over our fellow passengers to stumble out onto the road. Tired and hungry, we were not exactly in a good mood. But then suddenly, we saw something scuttering in the trees above us, and two yellow eyes peering out of the foliage. A lemur - the whole reason we had endured 4 minibus rides and had got up at 6am was to travel to Andasibe National Park and see one of Madagascar's little furry treasures. And suddenly our tiredness and hunger disappeared, as we stood there, transfixed by the monkey-like animal above us, who didn't seem remotely concerned that we were invading his forest. Madagascar is famous all over the world for its lemurs—primates that look something like a cross between a monkey, a squirrel and a dog. These animals are endemic to the island and display a range of interesting behaviours and characteristics, from their distinctive calls to their body markings. Every year hundreds of tourists flock to Andasibe National Park in Eastern Madagascar to see the rare Indri - a black and white lemur with a call that sounds unnerving like a whale. And we were there for the same reason, hoping to see as many lemurs as possible.

A bamboo lemur

Saturday morning dawned damp and cold - I suppose rain is expected in the middle of a rainforest, but it was rather depressing to reflect that the weather was probably better in England that day. Nonetheless, we set off for the 3km hike to Andasibe, with me giving everyone a rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ to keep our spirits up (much to the amusement of my French colleagues). Our first destination was not in fact the National Park itself, but a small private reserve of lemurs and crocodiles within the grounds of the nicest hotel in Andasibe, the Vakona Lodge. After drooling over the beautiful log fire and pristine lobby, we set off to meet the hotel’s group of tame lemurs, who all live on an island in the middle of a lake. Rescued from the illegal pet trade, these lemurs have become used to human contact (and the food they bring!) and are quite happy to jump on your arm, shoulder, head - whatever’s nearest really. As we arrived on the island, the lemurs started approaching but I figured I was safe for the moment. How wrong I was. They really can jump astonishingly far and I soon found myself being pounced upon. In my surprise, I stepped backwards - into the nearest bog. Being knee deep in muddy, leech-infested water is not a great start to anyone’s day, but I’m becoming very Malagasy in my philosophy and brushed it off with a ‘tsimanin’ - ‘it doesn’t matter’. Besides there was too much else to look at. Lemurs were jumping at us from all sides, wanting to play with our hair, stick their fingers in our eyes and generally inspect us for all traces of food. It really was an incredible experience to see these animals so close up, in all their beautiful detail and mannerisms. We spent a good hour laughing as they popped up in various places, making a series of clicking sounds which sounded more like a pig than anything else. We eventually dragged ourselves away, aware of the rain clouds closing in and spent the rest of the time admiring the reserve’s crocodiles (lazy creatures who hardly moved until a stray butterfly flew past - and sadly got snapped up in its razor-sharp teeth), as well an array of birds and the local predator - the fossa. This savage wild cat preys on lemurs and is one of the reasons that night walks are no longer allowed within the grounds of the National Park - these cats have been known to eat whole buffaloes, so humans would probably be a breeze…

'Are you looking at me?' A black and white lemur.

Sunday morning dawned early - 5am to be precise, as we were woken up by the calls of the Indri in the forest behind us. We had deliberately chosen our hotel - the Feon’ny Ala - because of it’s location right in the forest and we weren’t disappointed. It really is an incredible experience to be taking a shower and see a lemur peering at you from the forest below, or sit eating dinner on the terrace and hear the night mating calls of the nocturnal lemurs, like the Aye Aye, a mouse-like creature. But hearing lemurs is one thing - we wanted to see them in the forest, and so found ourselves at 7:30am at the National Park gates with our guide, José, ready to see the lemurs in their natural habitat. Within a matter of minutes, we had spotted some nocturnal mouse lemurs sleeping, and from that point on, we were led expertly through the dense forest, climbing over fallen trees and down steep ledges, tracking the multitude of lemur families that inhabit this part of the forest. We stood routed to the spot as Indri in the trees above us made their whale-like call, marking out their territory in the forest (some 20km!); we marvelled as the agile Diadems sprung from branch to branch, babies tucked neatly into their pouches; we puffed and panted as we ran through the forest, following the lemurs on the move (much easier for them than us!). Our guide was a mine of information about everything, from the medicinal plants of the forest, to the myriad of chameleon species you can find there - including the beautiful Parson’s chameleon, who climbed right onto my colleagues arm and obliging posed for photos. A remedy for stomachache, a form of cannabis and an anti-malaria serum were among some of the more interesting things we discovered on this walk - though we politely declined our guide’s offer to smoke a joint of cannabis with him after the tour…

A Parson’s Chameleon

It turns out that José grew up in the forest and has been a guide for some 30 years - as we walked around, he lamented the current political situation in Madagascar, which is driving tourists away and putting people like him out of work. A coup in 2009 has left the country in a state of perpetually limbo. It’s actually very hard to see the concrete, visible effects of this crisis in everyday life here, mainly thanks to the stoicism of the Malagasy people - they’re just getting on with it. But log on to the Foreign Office website of any Western government and the advice for Madagascar is extremely cautious, especially with elections forecast for this year (they’ve been cancelled more than 10 times so far, so nobody know whether they’ll actually go ahead). Personally, I’ve found Madagascar the safest of all the countries I’ve been to on this trip, but tourists are easily scared away. Hotels in Andasibe that are usually filling up at this time of year are half-empty; we struggled to find a taxi in the village, because there’s simply not enough demand at the moment. José told us that he’s retiring from his guide job at the end of the year, to concentrate on farming, which guarantees him a steady, if menial income. It’s a shame, because we passed a fascinating morning with him, learning about a forest that has one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Caution is advisable wherever you’re travelling, but it strikes me that people are missing out by avoiding Madagascar, simply because of what might happen. Deforestation is becoming an increasing problem on this island, driving species like the Indri to the edge of extinction - who knows whether they’ll still be here in 20 years time? By my reckoning, the small risk is infinitely worth it - I will never forget my weekend in the wilds of Madagascar, spent in the company of one of the most fascinating creatures on earth: the lemur.

Diadems in the treetops

Looking for the next piece of banana…

The beautiful forests of Madagascar

Madagascar: Giving people a chance

'They say in Madagascar you either learn your patience or lose your patience - I think I'm losing it!' said my Polish colleague, as we sat in the minibus, desperately trying to plough our way through the typical Tana traffic jams. Endless rows of red brake lights and hopeful street traders trying to sell stuff through the window were the only things to emerge from the darkness of the evening, and it was clear we weren't going anywhere fast. Tana is famous for its traffic jams - a population explosion in the past 30 years has left the road system totally unable to cope, so most Malagasy resign themselves to very long journeys in, out and around the city. There are no back routes, no short cuts - just rows of endless cars, minibuses and lorries, fighting for every last inch of road. Boring and tedious for us, but not so for our passengers. We were in the minibus with a group of girls from the orphanage, and despite being tired and hungry, they kept up our spirits by singing Malagasy songs (and even Hey Jude!) at the top of their voices and generally enjoying the rare chance to leave the centre for an afternoon. The reason for the trip? To attend the culmination of some months' work by my two German colleagues, Lina and Greta, with a rather interesting group of Malagasy: young offenders from the local prison in Tana.

The Malagasy judicial system is based on a concept that is perhaps unfamiliar to many of us, in that suspects are guilty until proven innocent. This bias towards a guilty verdict therefore means that many young Malagasy find themselves spending years in so-called ‘correction institutions’ without a trial, or having been convicted for a crime they didn’t commit. Conditions vary, but are usually cramped and unhygienic - many of the prisoners live perpetually with worms, lice or fleas - or all 3 at the same time. Recent efforts by French NGOs have improved the living conditions but there is still very little hope or vision for these young men; the concept of rehabilitation is only just catching on here, so they are mostly just left on the street when they are released from prison, with no clear guidance or direction. So back to our outing. We were at an arts centre near the prison to see a performing arts display based around the theme ‘Dreams of life after prison’. My German colleagues have been working for the past few months using art and drama to encourage one group of prisoners to consider their hopes and dreams once they are free. The results were beautiful ‘life spirals’ on the wall, with different colours representing different emotions, as well as an interpretive dance about their dreams for the future. Other projects put on singing and dancing displays, as well as little sketches and ‘slam’, a type of rap-poetry. It was uplifting to see that there are a group of people trying to look after these men, whose society has given up on them. We met and talked to some of them, who had mostly committed theft-related crimes in the past - they seemed like totally normal teenage boys - chatty, lively, full of vitality. You would never guess that they spent large parts of their days locked up in tiny cells, with little entertainment except the mosquitoes swirling around the four grey walls.

Boys on stage at the show - the sign behind them translates ‘Our dreams light the way through the darkness

When asked why she had got involved with this project, Greta explained, ‘We felt that prisoners are a category of Malagasy society that are overlooked. There are lots of volunteers in Madagascar, but they usually end up working with cute children - it’s not very glamorous to work with criminals. People automatically assume they are bad people, but in fact most of them have been driven into petty crime by poverty, or are even innocent.’ Lina nods in agreement and continues, ‘Perhaps another problem is that people are afraid of working in such an environment, but in fact, these boys are just children who took a wrong turn somewhere, and what they need most is support and encouragement. It’s very difficult to get them to believe that there is hope for them after prison.’ They give up their Saturdays to make the long trek into town to work with these boys (remember the traffic jams?) and it’s clear that the boys adore them - the barriers that can sometimes exist here between the locals and ‘vazas’ seemed to disappear when I saw my colleagues interacting with their charges. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed - and above all, they seemed grateful that someone was finally giving them a chance.

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’s the little things that make a difference in Africa. Politicians can grandstand all they like about ‘making poverty history’, but what are they actually achieving? Small organisations and projects have umpteen benefits in comparison to large-scale ambitious schemes: the people running them usually know the area they are working in well; money can be better controlled, and it’s much easier to see whether what you’re doing is working or not. I’ve been lucky enough to see several smaller projects like this during my time - one that I went to visit some weeks ago is ‘La Source’, a centre for children with learning difficulties. Malagasy culture is still not very accepting of children with any sort of disability and difficulty, and with zero government provision of any kind, families with autistic or Down’s syndrome children can struggle to find good quality care and education for their children. ‘La Source’ is a family-run centre, that has a crèche for children aged 10 and under, and a school-type programme for teenagers. Whilst mainstream education is a step too far for many of the children at ‘La Source’, a qualified teacher comes in to do lessons in the basics such as reading and writing. The children spend the rest of their time learning practical skills, such as gardening and cooking, both to help their co-ordination and also equip them with skills for later life. From talking to some of the staff and families, it was clear how much of a lifeline centres like these offer people here. Charitable donations mean that fees are kept affordable - and for parents who can’t pay the fees, they get reduced rate in exchange for helping at the centre a few hours a week. Access to training is perhaps the biggest challenge the staff here face. Whilst in Europe there is now a plethora of information and training courses about how to help children with learning difficulties, in Madagascar this is virtually impossible to come by. The daughter of the founder is trying to create links with French organisations who can support her, and recently travelled to nearby Reunion for a conference, but it’s an uphill struggle. I was touched by how she, her father and mother had really formed a unit to help these children, making do with limited space and facilities. I’m seeing all the time how it really doesn’t take much to make such a big difference to the lives of people from all walks of life - it just takes courage, generosity and the energy to see it through. I keep meeting incredible people, Malagasy and foreign, who have all these qualities in abundance. In countries like Madagascar, where there are still so many big struggles, it’s lucky such people are here to fight the smaller, daily battles, in the hope that one day, they’ll win the war.

Madagascar: Life goes on…

I always used to think that talking about the weather was the British national obsession. We’re certainly renowned for our endless commentary on the weather (usually because it’s so dire), but I’ve found a group of people that can rival even us: the Malagasy. This week has seen an unusually cold spell here in Central Madagascar, even by the standards of the somewhat chilly Malagasy winter - temperatures have been dropping down as low as five degrees at night, which is distinctly unamusing in a house without so much as a fire, let alone central heating. But beyond my ability to survive such cold depths in my fridge of a room, was my surprise at just how many people commented on the weather. With most of my Malagasy colleagues here at Akany Avoko, we go through a little routine every morning, as I try and spill out my best pigeon Malagasy. It goes something like this:

Me: Manao ahoana! (Hello!)

Colleague/person in shop/random stranger: Manao ahoana! (Hello!)

Me: Inona no vaovao? (What’s new?)

Colleague: Tsy misy vaovao - inona no vaovao? (Nothing new, what’s new?)

Me: Tsy misy vaovao. (Nothing new)

Colleague: Mangatsiaka/Mafana! (With a appropriate hand gestures) (It’s cold/warm!)

Me: Mangatsiaka/Mafana be! (It’s very cold/warm)

All this lasts about three minutes but always makes me chuckle - I never imagined I would find a people who talk about weather more than the British, but literally every Malagasy I know says the same thing every day. As for me, I’m just grateful because at least it forms part of the small amount of Malagasy I understand….

Life goes on here despite the somewhat unseasonal weather. A new arrival at the orphanage has caused excitement and sadness in equal measure. A tiny, picture perfect baby arrived here last week, and was immediately smothered in love and attention by the volunteers, who all assumed he was a newborn from his tiny size (he weighs just 5kg). So imagine our shock and astonishment when we unpicked the rapid Malagasy of the social worker to discover that he is in fact 18 months old. It transpires that his mother is an alcoholic who hasn’t fed him properly since birth - his tiny fragile limbs and general weakness are obvious - he can’t even hold his head up without help. Stories like this are not unusual here - at least half of the babies under 2 at Akany have been taken from alcoholic parents - but what is perhaps particularly tragic in this little boy’s case is that a lot of damage has already been done. The effects of severe malnutrition in babies vary but according to the doctor, he will never reach normal size and may have all sorts of learning delays and difficulties that are impossible to detect until he is older. For now, he is at least in a safe place, and already looking much healthier for a bit of food and TLC. Akany Avoko is one of the best orphanages in Madagascar - children who are sent to other facilities are not always as lucky or happy as the ones we have here. A good system of development and funding has meant that Akany now has facilities to cope with the volume of children coming through here. EU funding alone has paid for two new buildings in the last few years, and many local embassies have contributed to refurbishment and renovation projects, creating clean, bright spaces for the children.

The new arrival at Akany this week

Thanks to the generosity of two Irish volunteers, we were even able to take the babies and pre-school children to the zoo on Friday. Limited staff means that the children do not often get a chance to leave the centre, so even the bus journey across Tana was an exciting event. Tsimbazaza Zoo is more of a huge park than a zoo, dotted with a few animals here and there. The exhibits include giant tortoises donated by Queen Victoria (!) and camels that were apparently a gift from Colonel Gaddafi (though funnily enough, the sign saying this has now been removed). It’s not exactly an amazing zoological display but absolutely perfect for the children, who delighted at tearing around after each, rolling around in the sunshine and trying to tempt the lemurs with scraps of biscuit. The most heart stopping moment of the day was arguably when one of the camels lunged for a two years olds fingers. The Malagasy mentality is definitely one of relaxation and you can even see this in the children, who pass everything off with ‘tsimanin’ - ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I’m not sure I’d be saying that if a camel had nearly bitten my fingers off, but little Inaya ran merrily off to see the ostriches without a second thought. If only children back home did the same…

Group at the zoo

The big event this week were the sad goodbyes to the centre’s American development manager, Chad, who has contributed greatly to the development and progress of Akany, truly leaving an incredible legacy here. One thing I am rapidly learning is that the Malagasy really know how to throw a party. First came the obligatory ‘veloma’ dinner - a visit to the local Malagasy hotely (roadside restaurant). The evening went something like a scene from a comedy - every time we thought we had finished eating, another plate of food was produced, all of which was delicious and therefore irresistible. The walk uphill back home was incredibly welcome, simply to allow us to digest our food! To give the children a chance to say goodbye to Chad, the next evening there was a late night extravaganza of singing, dancing and eating round the campfire. The Malagasy seem to have a genetic disposition towards musical talent - all the children here can sing for hours on end, and did so, resulting in a great send-off and opportunity for us foreigners to try and learn some Malagasy songs (though my attempts at dancing were rather pathetic, it has to be said). All the children sang in their best voices, without a hint of embarrassment or awkwardness - on the contrary, they were proud to show off their significant talents and abilities. Sitting under the stars by the dying embers of the campfire, I found myself thinking how unbelievably lucky I’ve been to have nights just like this one, which I’m sure will stay with me for a long time to come. As a tourist in countries like Madagascar, you don’t often get to share in real cultural experiences, but I feel incredibly privileged to be able to share in the joy and spirit of such an important event. Life is hard for many people here, especially for these children who face such uncertain futures, but the Malagasy have an amazing ability to shelve their problems for just an evening and bask in their wonderful music and culture. This is something I fear we have lost somewhat in the West, and certainly something I will miss from my time in Africa.

Singing goodbye round the campfire

Madagascar: A welcome change

'Africa is not really famed for its beautiful cities' said the Ghanaian man I had the pleasure of sitting next to on my flight from Dubai to Accra, 'You have Rome, Paris, London - and what do we have? Endless masses of tin shacks and people trying to sell you things - I sometimes think I'd have been better staying in my village.' At that point, I couldn't really respond in an informed way, having only seen a handful of African cities myself, but as I approach the end of my trip, I'm not so sure. Africa is a continent of generalisations - people like to make sweeping statements about the entire continent, as if you could compare the problems of say, Mali, with those of Rwanda, and neatly put them into one box labelled 'Africa.' Easier for news journalists perhaps, but representative? I think not. And so I return to the question of Africa's cities. Granted Kampala and Accra are not exactly highlights of aesthetic town planning; and Lomé represents more of an overgrown village that has sprung out of the sand and is not really sure what to do next. But on my travels, I've seen a category of pleasant African cities, places I thought I could actually live in long term. Cape Town is arguably the best of these, but Yaoundé also wrestles into the mix with its rolling hills and well thought-out town centre. And now I feel that I can certainly add Madagascar's capital, Tana, to this category.

Getting to Tana from our little village is something of a traumatic experience, so trips into the capital are strictly special occasions. For those of you who have been following my blog throughout this trip, you’ll know that less-than-comfortable bus trips have been something of a common feature and it seems that Madagascar is no different. A defining aspect of the Malagasy landscape and highways are the taxi-bes and taxi-brousses that ferry people between the villages, towns and cities of this island. It’s incredibly cheap (less than 20p a journey around Tana) but the downside is wrestling your way into the sweaty crowds, finding a space and trying not to get your bag nicked at the same time. If you’re particularly unlucky, you can even find yourself hanging out the back of the minibus, praying that the driver doesn’t brake suddenly and dump you unceremoniously on the road. So yes, we tend to avoid journeys into Tana - it takes a good 90 minutes in the heaving traffic and after a week of running around after children, it can seem like a bit too much energy expenditure…

However, last weekend we decided to summon our strength and trek into Madagascar’s ‘big smoke.’ I was curious to see how Madagascar’s capital would compare to the others I’d seen on my trip and also to have the chance to buy some souvenirs and beautiful Malagasy handicrafts. After tumbling gratefully out of the taxi-be and picking our way through the mass of market stalls on the side of the road, we arrived at Tana’s main artisanal market, crammed full of eager vendors trying to selling you anything from vanilla pods to hanging picture frames. I was pleased to note that my Malagasy is progressing to the extent that I can successfully bargain with even the hardiest sellers - I found myself using the phrase ‘tsi mety’ (that’s not ok) on many an occasion - in general, the rule seems to be that 20% of the quoted price is a good deal. I came away with a good haul of presents and souvenirs, mostly for less than a pound each - life really is cheap in Madagascar. As we approached the centre of town, the bustling crowds became more and more difficult to negotiate - everyone else seemed to have had the same idea as us. However, eventually we made it to the Avenue d’Independence, Tana’s artery if you like. A long straight road running from the old railway station (which could easily be in Paris, rather than Madagascar) all the way down to the myriad shops and cafés towards the end of the road. There’s something rather civilised about Tana’s town centre - unlike many other African cities I’ve seen on my trip thus far, much of the original architecture from the 19th and 20th century remains, giving it a pleasant, historical sense. Scores of Deux Chevaux cars line up, trying to entice customers in - these would be prized collectors items in Europe, but here they’re just the local taxi! There are small parks with fountains in the middle of the street, and everywhere French-style restaurants, cafés and ice cream shops. The cynic in me is not overly keen on the overbearing French colonial hangover, but after two and a half months of trekking round bits of Africa, an ice cream in the sunshine was a welcome luxury. As was the chance to simply have a stroll with friends, grab some lunch and wander a bit. As in most big cities, you have to be careful, especially at night, but in general I feel much less hassled in Madagascar than I did in either Togo or Cameroon. Endless shouts on the street of ‘yovo!’ or ‘la blanche!’ were somewhat wearing when all you were trying to do was a bit of shopping, but here people seem to keep a respectful distance. I’ve heard the odd shout of ‘vaza!’ (Malagasy for white person), but a combination of the tourist trade and the natural reserve of the Malagasy means that this is a rare exception. I continue to terrify very small children on the taxi-be, but apart from that, I feel more ‘invisible’ here than I did in West Africa - a welcome change.

Whilst it’s nice to have an outing occasionally, I don’t find myself feeling an overwhelming urge to leave our village a great deal. In the week, our work with the children means that we normally collapse in a heap of exhaustion in the evenings, and weekends can be spent relaxing in the nearby forest, visiting the local swimming pool for the day or wandering into the market in the village. I’m enjoying the somewhat less hectic pace of life here - whilst it can make going anywhere incredibly frustrating (nothing is ever urgent), I love the peace and tranquility of the valley we’re in. I’m starting to be known by all the little stall holders in the village who always greet me with a smile and congratulate me on my stilted Malagasy (perhaps not merited…) Sitting watching the stunning sunsets over the valley, I often can’t help but think to myself every evening, ‘Life is good’. Really it is.

Life in Ambohidratimo

Madagascar: Living up to expectations

My immediate thought as I craned out of the airplane window to get my first glimpse of Madagascar was ‘wow.’ My Malagasy aunt had told me many a time how beautiful her country is, but even from the plane, I could tell that ‘beautiful’ is an understatement - big time. Now that I’ve been here a week, I can feel myself falling in love with the rolling hills, stunning sunsets and beautiful forests of the village I’m living in - and apparently this is the most ugly part of the country…

It’s strange to be at my final destination already - this trip has gone by so quickly, in a whirl of fascination, awe and at times, stress and homesickness as well. But here I am, at my last project - working as a volunteer at Akany Avoko, an orphanage just outside Antananarivo (yes, there are really that many syllables), Madagascar’s capital. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from an orphanage in a country as poor as Madagascar, but Akany Avoko is really something special. Perched on a hill in the small village of Ambohidratimo, this collection of neatly painted buildings and well organised gardens is home to some 120 children, all with different stories and backgrounds, but with one thing in common: the courts have placed them here as their home situation is not considered suitable for them. Some come from abusive families, others were found on the street; some are orphans, whilst many have parents who simply can’t afford to take care of them. However, these details are very much in the background of the work done here by the 40 full-time carers and the 5 or so international volunteers. The main focus is on happiness and fun, and giving these children as much love and affection as possible. And this is not difficult.

From my very first day, I have felt immediately at home here - scores of children have been continually running up to greet me and ask my name, age and where I come from. It was there, in fact, that I ran into my first problem: language. Thus far this has not been a problem for me on my trip, because in Togo and Cameroon, everyone I met spoke French. However, political upheaval in recent years (a coup in 2009 devastated much of the stability in the country) has left Madagascar’s education policy in tatters and with it, the teaching of French in schools. Whilst it is understandable that the Malagasy want to shake off the shackles of colonialism, it is a shame that French is being progressively phased out, because it is always useful to know a second language, especially in a country that relies so heavily on tourism. So back to my problem. Whilst the staff and many adults here at least understand French, many of the children, especially the younger ones, do not. So Saturday night found me at the kitchen table, poring over a Malagasy phrase book, desperately trying to commit essential phrases to memory. Malagasy is closely related to the Polynesian group of languages, and therefore resembles nothing I’ve ever seen before. Helpful. Over the week, I’ve been learning more and more, with the help of the children, who have been laughing generously at my mistakes and screaming delightedly ‘tsara be!’ (very good!) when I get something right. Now, a week later, I’m quite proud that I can ask simple questions, bargain in the market and even count to 100. For a languages freak like me, it’s proving a fun and rewarding experience.

The work itself has also been a welcome change from the more serious and depressing work I was doing in Togo and Cameroon. You can’t help but feel happy to be at work when greeted by rows of smiling faces in morning, jumping up and down and asking if we’re going ‘tsanga tsanga’ (for a walk). Whilst the full-time carers take care of the day to day running of the centre, international volunteers offer them some welcome relief and also the chance for the children to do something a bit different. The centre’s children are divided into groups, with babies and pre-school children being housed together in one building; girls aged 8-15 in another; boys in another and finally older girls live together in a ‘halfway house’ where they learn to live independently before leaving the centre. There is a pre-school and primary school on-site, whilst older children attend the local lycée. For some of the girls who arrive with virtually no formal schooling, they are directed into a pioneering project entitled CAM, which teaches them practical employment skills, such as cooking, dressmaking, hairdressing and even massage techniques. As volunteers, we split our time between the age groups, helping in as many ways as we can. This can involve helping to feed the babies, teaching French and English, taking the children on walks or even horse riding at the local stables, who offer free lessons for the older girls. It’s tiring work, but infinitely worth it, especially because of the stunning setting. The view from the centre is the open plains and hills of the area around Antananarivo, with little villages dotted in between and buffalo grazing contentedly in the sunshine. The village we live in is small, but perfectly formed, with narrow winding cobble streets and little market stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to the local version of spring rolls, which are delicious and betray Madagascar’s Asian roots - many of the locals look much more Asiatic than black African, as centuries ago the majority of the original Malagasy came on longboats from Indonesia and Malaysia. Over time, more black Africans have immigrated as well, leaving a vibrant mix of cultures and traditions.

So at the end of my first week, I’m beginning to see why everyone I’ve met whose been to Madagascar fell in love with it. It’s stunningly beautiful, with incredibly friendly people and a temperate climate. I’m waiting for the catch, but I’m not convinced there is one…