I got a couple rough hours of sleep and woke up drenched in sweat.
After mopping myself up, I went downstairs bleary-eyed and puffy, to meet my new guide.
Lionel was waiting for me wearing a turtlenecked sweater, straightlegged jeans and brand new black Converse tennis shoes. I bet I’m older than his mother.
Actually, once a person reaches 50, she is old enough to be all sorts of people’s mothers.
“Hello. Kristie?” he said cautiously, making my name 3 syllables: Ka Ris Tee. “Malala called me last night, she said you are cool. Cool.”
He looked me over, doubtful.
“Oh,” I said, equally doubtful and in general, feeling like shit.
As we drove out of town, Lionel began to investigate what, exactly, Malala had found appealing about me.
“What is your dream for this trip?” he asked. “What are your hopes?”
“Um, I really want to come home again when it’s over,” I said, which was a lot better than the scenarios I had come put with last night when the world had ended in multiple ways include earthquake, asteroid and tidal wave.
“Hmmm,” he said, and laughed.
Lionel has a laugh that starts and stays in his throat. “Haw haw,” he laughs. “Haw haw HAW.”
“No seriously,” I said. “Can you help make sure that happens? I just want to see my husband and children again.”
“Your husband?” he asked doubtfully. “Where is he? Why isn’t he here with you?”
“I don’tknowIdon’tremember,” I said.
“You should call him tonight from the hotel,” he said. “You should tell him how you are. I can’t believe he allowed you to come here by yourself.”
We drove for a while in silence while we each wondered what the hell I was doing here.
Then I confessed that I have never seen a real life chameleon.
“WHAT?!” he said. “My god.”
Lionel drove us up and out of the city and east, past rice fields and denuded forests and miles and miles of people doing whatever they can to live day to day. In the fields where rice isn’t growing, people hack clay out of the ground and make into bricks to sell. In areas where trees grow, they chop them up for firewood and charcoal to on the side of the road. In the hills that are too rocky for crops, people of all ages pry stone of the ground, chisel it into squares and sell it.
Lionel said that Madagascar has only 20% of its forestland left. The rest has been slashed and burned for farming.
“What’s going to happen when there is no forest left?” I asked, hoping for a plan.
“The land will dry up and blow away and everyone will die,” he answered.
We drove on.
A few hours later, Lionel deposited me at the Peyrieras Reptile Park where he introduced me to my reluctant guide, Nono.
Nono showed me to an enclosure filled with chameleons of different sizes, shapes and colors and I tagged along behind a British family who was enjoying the experience as much as I was, except louder.
At first I thought that Nono no longer finds reptiles as captivating as he once did, or that he was up late celebrating the night before because he kept yawning huge, noisy yawns.
“Do you want some coffee?” I asked once, to be nice.
“No, not coffee. They eat insects,” he replied.
But then after watching the chameleons for a while I realized that Nono had probably spent so much time with chameleons that he was become chameleon-like. Because chameleons are slow, too. Super slow. Like slower than a cartoon cat burglar.
I made the most of my visit with Nono and my first chameleons and the sleeping fruit bat and the tiny boa shedding its skin and the fingernail sized orange frog that Nono poked with a stick until it hopped, but I was in and out of the Peyriaras Reptile Park in about twenty minutes.
Lionel was in the car, just hunkering down for a nap, when I reappeared.
“What!” he said. “What did you DO?”
I reassured him that I had been a good tourist and after he quizzed me on what I had seen, he reluctantly believed me. He was clearly disappointed so he shifted the blame from me to Nono.
“Some people just shouldn’t be guides,” he said and clucked his tongue like an old woman.
Lionel clucks his tongue at truck accidents and children begging and at the poor quality of the photos I take with my expensive phone.
Also at my language skills (Stand in line, Lionel, you’re not the first).
I asked Lionel if he would help me with my French while we were driving.
“You don’t need French,” he said. “I will teach you Malagasy.”
He taught me to say, “Hello, how much are the bananas,” and then pulled over to a roadside stand where two women and a baby were selling bananas. Then he poked me in the side and whispered loudly until I made my needs known to the women, who smiled widely, then handed over a tiny bunch of tightly knit yellow bananas.
When we got back in the car Lionel said, “Did you see how happy you made those women?”
“They were laughing at me,” I said.
We ate bananas together while he drove. They were firm and flavorful. I didn’t see a trash bag in the car, so I dropped my peel on the floor and put my backpack on top of it.
After a few more hours we reached the Vakona Reserve, a private splotch of land in Andisibe that includes the Vakona Forest Lodge, golf course, a crocodile farm and Lemur Island, a series of five islands, each with its own species of lemurs.
It sounds grander than it is. Don’t picture Central Park. Picture Madagascar.
Lionel walked me into the Vakona Lodge Restaurant for lunch, though he couldn’t stay because guides are not allowed. I ate my tasteless, expensive lunch and enjoyed the excellent wifi and then we headed off to Lemur Island.
Which was full of French tourists. More French tourists stood on the shore waiting their turn.
We got back in the car and headed to the Crocodile Farm.
I don’t know anything about the wild crocodiles in this country, but I’m willing to be that the ones that live in the Crocodile Farm at Vakona Reserve are probably the only creatures in Madagascar, humans included, who don’t work 12 hours a day just to put a meal on the table. The crocodiles at the farm are long and lazy and wide as coffins. Three days a week they open their enormous mouths to receive chunks of raw zebu meat before they go back to sleep.
We were running late after the Croc farm, so we hurried back to Lemur Island where the French tourists had disappeared and all but one of the guides were packed up and heading for home.
The one remaining guide grabbed a tomato, packed me into a canoe and cheerfully rowed me to the first of the islands.
I was expecting my guide to be resentful about having to take me around when he could be on his way home for a well-earned dinner, but he was delightful. He called the lemurs down from the trees and let me feed them tomato while they sat on my shoulders and my head. One of the ran after us like a cat as we moved on.
The guide rowed us around the islands through the fading afternoon light. Some lemurs jumped on the boat for a ride, their red tails waving gleefully. The air was green and silent and we were the only two people anywhere in the world.
After it started getting cold, we headed back to the dock where Lionel was waiting.
“That was LONG,” he grumbled. “What did you DO?”
So I guess you can’t win.