Saturday, January 24, 2015

Orange Monet

I know... If you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny.

But at the comedy club inside my brain, Orange Monet is just such a satisfying play on words, I really want to give it a try.

So we all know who Monet was, right? Claude Monet. For God's sake, please tell me you already know who Monet was; the visually-impaired French painter whose blurry paintings make you think that you too have cataracts and partial color blindness.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant
"Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant" by Claude Monet -
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Orange is a big French multinational telecommunications corporation that has a respectable footprint in Africa as a provider of mobile telephone services. I will give my fellow Americans a pass if you haven't heard of Orange.

I bought a backup phone with Orange service for about $10 US, but I didn't really start using it until recently.

Orange finday nakà phone
My Orange phone, speaking its native language.
Orange Money is the mobile payment service provided by Orange, where you can transfer money and pay for goods and services using your phone, instead of using cash, check, or credit card.

Again, my fellow Americans, chances are you haven't heard of this kind of thing.

I thought I'd give Orange Money a try. I had a little misunderstanding with the woman accepting my deposit. She thought I was buying a ridiculous amount of Orange airtime. Undoing that misunderstanding — getting that airtime credit turned into Orange Money — took a week of pestering various Orange representatives.

On the seventh day of my customer service experience, I went to the shiny new office building that is the Madagascar headquarters of Orange. After a long wait in the lobby, which included a nap sitting upright in a plastic chair, a nice woman woke me with a gentle tap on the arm. She told me that I could leave and wait for her supervisor to call me in the afternoon.

To me that sounded like, Go away so we can better ignore you.

It pushed my Gandhi button. I decided to wage a one-man sit-in protest. I nicely told the nice woman that, at this point in my dealings with Orange, I had no confidence that anyone would call me. I told her that I would wait in the lobby until the problem was resolved.

Orange Madagascar Lobby
A symbol of my persistence was a forgotten piece of toilet paper stuck to a shaving cut on my Adam's apple. It was also there all day long.
She put me on the phone with her supervisor, Mrs. Beryl (not her real name), who told me I didn't have to stay. I said, "Yes, I know. But I'll be right here when you call me."

And after a few hours in the lobby, practicing French and Malagasy, and catching up on my reading, I received the call from Mrs. Beryl. I was told that I would have to go to another office where she would help me.

Orange is everywhere in Antananarivo; kiosks, boutiques, roadside vendors selling airtime. The other telecommunications companies are as well, but Orange is particularly visible, with bright orange iconography and cheerful cartoon characters.

Orange Kiosk
Like a cute stalker with jaundice.
So when I arrived at this other office building, I was a little confused. There was no indication that Orange was anywhere to be found. It was like Madagascar's only Orange-free zone.

I called back Mrs. Beryl and told her that I was there — or possibly lost. She said she'd be right down. Indeed she was, and she led me through an unmarked door, and through a series of serious security measures. I felt as though I was about to meet Dick Cheney, or be water boarded. But I repeat myself.

Get Smart Opening Screen Shot
Like this, but with biometric locks instead of the best TV theme music ever.
Once inside, we climbed a spiral staircase to a room with about a dozen people working at computers — Mrs. Beryl's elite staff: the Orange Berets.

I must have looked nervous. One smart ass guy assured me that they weren't Al Qaeda.

But the whole thing was resolved, more or less, by a young man who took my phone from me, punched in a bunch of numbers, and then handed the phone back.

Rather than having more Orange airtime than I would ever use, I finally had Orange Money to spend at participating merchants.

Mrs. Beryl escorted me out, and then disappeared again behind the nondescript, unmarked door.

WTF? Did all that really just happen?

I got on my bike and headed home just as it was starting to rain.

The very next day, I saw a funny sign on a bathroom door that said, "In Case of Emergency Keep Calm." I pulled out my Orange phone and took a photo.

Then I took a photo of a bike.

When I previewed the photos on the phone, the quality looked really bad.

Cookie Shop WC
Later, when I pulled photos off the phone to see them at full resolution, these photos were blurry alright, and high contrast. It was as though my Orange phone had cataracts and was slightly color blind — exaggerating colors and contrast so that the camera itself could see them in spite of its impairments.

Orange Monet Bike
The aforementioned bike.
Kind of like... Orange Monet!

That was totally worth it.

The effect was so impressive that I went into my phone to see if perhaps it had some kind of fancy filter effect turned on.

There are no fancy filters.

Phone camera effects
Ooh! Sepia! Watch out Instagram!
Until I am convinced otherwise, I'm going to believe that the photographs from this camera are an accidental artifact of cheap hardware, low-grade firmware, and probably a plastic lens.

And I'm kind of obsessed with it. I'm building an entire online gallery of photos taken with this phone.

Here it is:

The Orange Monet Gallery

I will continue to add photos to this gallery for as long as I continue to be fascinated by this effect. If you want to know when I've added new ones, you'll need to +1 this album in Google Plus.

Just kidding. I know you're not on Google Plus, but that would work.

Full Disclosure:

I run a GIMP "white balance" adjustment on nearly every photograph I share online, no matter what camera.

Sometimes I run a "color enhance" filter to heighten the effect of these photos, also in GIMP.

And then, after I upload the photos to Picasa/Google+, they get an Auto-Enhance that I don't ask for, but I rarely undo it.

Photo Tweaks
  1. Raw image - straight from the phone
  2. White Balance
  3. Color Enhance
  4. Google+ Auto-Enhance

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Christmas, New Years, Poseidon, and Lemurs (Finally)

So... I had two-weeks off over Christmas and New Years. It took me a long time to decide what to do, and there was the little problem of not having my credit and debit cards, which meant that I'd have to travel on what meager savings I'd accumulated over only three months in my Madagascar bank account.

Ted Underwater at Petite Plage, Mahajanga, Madagascar
Lest I go underwater in debt.

What's that? You don't give a shit?
You just want to see lemurs? 
Then click here right now.

On Christmas Day I still didn't have a plan. I went to check my mail box. No packages, no Christmas cards; just a hollow rectangular prism looking infinitely deep and empty.

At the house where I get my mail, there is a "free shelf" – a small bookshelf like the "free box" at a garage sale, loaded with junk that people want to shed but don't want to throw away.

The free shelf presented me with an Olympus foam float strap. It's just the thing for someone heading to the ocean to go snorkeling or scuba diving with a waterproof camera.

...or a life preserver for a hamster.
An Olympus foam strap? And which of Olympus' gods do we praise and honor in December and January? Obviously Poseidon was inviting me to go visit the ocean, nay commanding me.

Lego Poseidon by  Andrew Becraft
And people think I'm not religious.
Photo: Andrew Becraft (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But where to go?

At home the answer came from some eco porn on my living room couch – a "Special Issue" of Newsweek that I bought at a Walgreen's in Flagstaff, way back in September.

Newsweek: 100 Places to Explore Before They Disappear
A.K.A 100 Places to Exploit to Sell Magazines
It lists Mahajamba Bay, in northwest Madagascar as one of "100 Places to Explore Before They Disappear" – i.e. because of climate change.

Absolutely! I'm going!

Looking at the map of Madagascar, it wasn't evident how exactly I would get to Mahajamba Bay. But if I would just put on my pith helmet and go as far as the map would take me, I reckoned that I could improvise from there.

As far as the map would take me turned out to be Mahajanga, a tourist town.

Google Map of Mahajanga
I made up The Cthulu Delta. But seriously: Look at that thing.
If these exotic names are little confusing, look for the last three letters.

Mahaja-NGA is the town. Just think, Not Going Anywhere,

Mahaja-MBA is my eco-touristic destination. So think, MayBe Another time.

(That there was a fancy literary device known as foreshadowing.)

So I took a taxi brousse (bush taxi) from Tana to Mahajanga. Google Maps said it would be seven hours. The travel guide book said it would be ten hours. Reality said it was 14 hours. Not a bad trip, really. Not at all like the sardine express trips I've had in the past.

The only thing I kept thinking was that I had no lodging reservation in Mahajanga. I had tried to make reservations by phone and by text, but never received an affirmative response. Still, I had a lot of faith in my ability to wing it once I arrived.

And it was about 11:30 PM when I arrived. I collected my suitcase, and a taxi driver was standing by eagerly waiting for me to decide what I would do. I called the hotel I'd been trying to reach, and was told they were full. They recommended a place called Les Roches Rouges (which means "The Red Rocks," not "The Red Roaches)."

When I arrived, I thought, Oh shit. This is a nice hotel, the kind of hotel for someone with a credit card. The price was 139,000 MGA per night – $53 US. A bargain by American standards. But I couldn't afford American standards.

I stayed two nights, just to give myself some breathing room while I found a cheaper place. What I found was Chez Nono, for 20,000 MGA per night – $7.58 US per night. Now we're talking! On the beach even. Take that, Les Roches Rouges!

Except... It was kind of seedy. The kind of dingy place you'd see in a movie where the protagonist is alone, slumped forward on the edge of the bed with a gun in his mouth or a needle in his arm.

Chez Nono Room
Bare lightbulb: Check
Moldy walls: Check
Non-locking window: Check

If I wanted to make my money last, this was going to be the place. Besides, I intended to get out to Mahajamba Bay, and Poseidon only knows how much that would cost.

Chez Nono Room
Threadbare sheets: Check
Rickety fan: Check
Complementary condoms: Check
The door mat at the foot of the bed is kind of brilliant. Why sweep and mop the floors when your hotel guests can just wipe their feet before they climb into bed?

I'm not kidding about the complimentary condoms. But things like soap, shampoo, and toilet paper? You had to buy that from the bar, or bring your own.

I did mention that it was $7.58 US per night.

With my lodging taken care of, I started asking around about how to get to Mahajamba Bay. What I discovered is that there are no tours there. To get there, I would have to charter a boat. Newsweek didn't mention that.

My trusty M.O. of getting there and then winging it was utterly failing. I ended up at a tour company pleading for options.

"Do you have any of those tours where you hit Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve on the way back to Antananarivo?"

"No, but we have tours to Anjohibe with caves, and waterfalls, and the smallest known species of lemur."

"Great! I'll do that!"

"We don't have anyone else going on that tour."

"Okay. What if I went by myself?"

He punched at a calculator. "Just you would be 1,100,000 Ariary."

I punched at the calculator on my phone. "That's $450 US.  Eeesh. How about free WiFi? Can you help me with that?"

This was late afternoon on New Years Eve. Apparently the worst time of the year to leverage economies of scale in eco-tourism.

I went back to Chez Nono and slumped forward on the edge of the bed. Instead of a gun in my mouth, I flipped through the travel guide book.

There's a nightclub called Shakira. Sounds like the kind of place I'd hate. That's where I went for New Years Eve.

Shakira Nightclub, Mahajunga
Because... I love the nightlife. I love to boogie. Ask anyone.

But it wasn't that bad. I danced. I kissed a real, live, human, consenting, Malagasy woman at midnight. I had fun.

I explained my predicament to said woman who recommended some low-cost ways of salvaging my trip – having fun the way the locals do.

Thumbs Up: Petite Plage, Mahajunga, Madagascar
Hail Poseidon!

On New Years Day I went swimming at Petite Plage (Little Beach) and took some underwater photos that all came out like crap. (See the photo at the top.)

And on January 2, I went to Mangatsa, a little reserve just 30 minutes north of Mahajanga.

Which is a long way of saying...

I finally got to see some damn lemurs!

I hope to take a second run at Mahajamba Bay, but with planning, a group, and a hopefully a research biologist to say smart things. Let me know if you are interested.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

 <-- is watching you.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Santa Claus is Coming to Tana

This will be my first Christmas in ten years without Nasty Santa--a plush-toy, bare-chested Santa in boxer shorts with a grumpy face.

When you squeeze him, he says things like, "Screw milk and cookies. Where's the whiskey?" and "Squeeze me any harder, I'll drop a yule log."

Nasty Santa is the merchandization of one of JibJab's early characters, back when JibJab was pure, crude, and edgy; back before they had a viral hit during the 2004 Presidential campaign with a video called "This Land." JibJab subsequently pulled back all of their most offensive content and recalibrated instead for mere Simpsons-level irreverence.

It's pretty hard to find Nasty Santa online anymore. Gone are the classics "Who's Your Papua?," "Dr. Pecker: Proctologist," "Miracle on 234th Street" and of course, "Silent (But Deadly) Night."

Dr. Pecker: Proctologist - Screen Shot
Unless you are bold enough to click through to Russian hacker websites.
Screen shot from "Dr. Pecker: Proctologist"

Yes, JibJab still features a Santa character, but he has toned it way, way down.

And my Nasty Santa toy is packed away in my storage unit half a world away. He is my only personal Christmas tradition, and I miss him.

The other day I was on my commute home from work in Antananarivo, when what to my wondering eyes did appear...

Nasty "Salto" Santa
"Crack the holidays with all your teeth." It's not funny in French either.

It's Nasty Santa! In all his bare-chested glory, and peddling snack crackers. I had some Salto crackers today, and just like the Nasty Santa I fondly remember, they were tasteless.

But if JibJab is going to sanitize you and sweep your crude, but funnier, past under the rug, you could do worse than retiring in Madagascar.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.