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MADAGASCAR: IN THE SEARCH OF THE WEIRD AND WILD

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on July 06, 2011 with 2 Comments

It was 6:47pm when the plane landed in Madagascar.

Located 250 miles off Africa’s east coast, this tropical island is impoverished, but very rich in biodiversity. Equivalent in size with Texas or France, this landmass separated from Africa about 135 million years ago, making plants and animals evolve in complete isolation. I wanted to see and experience first hand the weird and the wild side of Madagascar!

The mere idea of visiting “a place like no other on earth” -as this island is usually described- fascinated me, but I was also curious to learn more about the challenges and dangers that these diverse ecosystems are facing nowadays due to human settlement and illegal extraction of resources.

Is it really that bad? I wondered.

I love nature without question, but this trip to Madagascar was also a very personal journey.

Going away into the wilderness always makes me feel reconnected with myself. It feels liberating. It fulfills me with peacefulness. It put priorities in perspective. It makes me slow down… breath… think.

Before leaving home, my body and my mind were just worn out, and yet I kept on pushing myself. It has been an intense year, actually more than intense… I am used to the adrenaline, to the multitasking, to perform my best under pressure, but… something feels off now. I have been doing three jobs at the same time, and the pressure to fulfill all those responsibilities has taken a toll on me.

I urgently needed to re-balance…and I was hoping to find that sense of reconnection and serenity in the remoteness of Madagascar.

My arrival in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, wasn’t precisely smooth though. But travel mishaps are part of any adventure. I know that well after 14 years of traveling solo.

I walked to the entrance of the terminal at Antananarivo’s airport. Passengers walked to different directions and stood in different lines. I was clueless which one was the line to get the visa, and which one for immigration. A counter had a sign that read “stamp”. Maybe that was the place to get the visa? I showed my documents to the sleeping Malagasy at the counter, who looked at my documents and sent me to another “line” -if a bunch of people waiting could be called that. An officer came to see my documents and sent me back to the “stamp” counter, which sent me back to the “line” where I was.
I was confused but I was quite sure that the Malagasy officers working at the airport were as clueless as me. Ignoring their instructions, I stayed in the “line” where other confused foreigners were. I breathed deeply, waited in line and did what I do when I am abroad, but especially in Africa: be patient!

After more than an hour, I finally got a visa and went out of the terminal.

A young thin boy with dark skin, fine facial features and white pearl smile held a sign with my name.

“Tonga Soa! (Welcome)” he said. “I take you to the driver’

A chubby dark man with flat rounded face and almond eyes smiled at me.

“My name is Mami! I will be your guide and driver” he said with a thick accent.

“Mami?” I repeated. “Like mom?”

“Yes,” he started laughing out loud.

His laugh was funny and contagious. Mami seemed like a good easy-going man.

Mami, my driver

Although I got good vibes from Mami, I prefer to travel independently. However, Africa is one of those places that you need time if you want to do it on your own, yet that is one thing I don’t have. Although two weeks may seem a lot time off for those back home, the well-traveled and those who have been in this continent know that it is not enough.

My only alternative to make it work in Africa has been to have a driver and an itinerary (always tailored to my interests), which I coordinate through a local tour operator. Fortunately, I have been always lucky to have the most amazing drivers because they become not only drivers and guides, but also my hosts, my friends and the people who help me immerse into their cultures.

I was hoping Mami to become more than just a paid-driver, but only time would tell.

“Mami, I am very excited to be in Madagascar. I know we have an itinerary to follow, but I also wanted you to know that I am slightly different for the average tourist. I am very much interested in learning about the Malagasy culture. I want to have as much contact with the locals and nature. We can skip all the shopping or touristy stuff,” I told him as we crossed Antananarivo at dark.

At first glance, the Malagasy capital looked quite spread out. It didn’t seem attractive either. Beggars lay on the sidewalks. The streets just outside the airport were dirty and busy with people and cars.

It took us almost one hour to reach the house of a friend of mine who works as a diplomatic in Antananarivo. His home was an oasis away from the chaos of the city.

“I will see you at 9am,” said Mami before leaving.

Mami was right on time the next morning at my friend’s house to kick off this adventure that would take us all the way to Toliara, in the south of Madagascar.

“Before we leave, we will visit a palace and a view point. It is very nice,” said Mami.

I had the image of Madagascar as a hot and sticky place, and its capital somehow small and slow. I was wrong.

Not only the capital is frantic and modern, it is winter in Madagascar! Although it doesn’t snow and temperatures are not below zero, it was chilly. The streets are packed with people and cars since early in the morning. Each corner bustles with activity. Locals sell anything in the streets, from fruits to precious gems.

With European colonial architecture and constructions, the influence of the French colonization is palpable in this hilly capital, but I couldn’t say that Tana has a “French air or charm”.

Having said that, compared to other African capitals, Antananarivo is not… that bad.

“This is the prime minister’s home,” Mami pointed a very beautiful French style building.

Nowadays Madagascar is “stable”, but its political future is still uncertain. Madagascar has made headlines due to the violent uprising in 2009 lead by Andry Rajoeline, the former mayor of Antananarivo, who took the power and still struggled to be recognized by the international community.

“How is the political situation Mami?” I asked.

“Hum, there were some riots in 2009, but it is OK now,” said Mami doubly. I sensed he didn’t want to talk about politics so I changed the conversation.

Mami drove me around the town, pointing out other landmarks of the city including Antananarivo’s lake, Lac Anosy and taking me to a view point, from where I could see vast rice fields covering the valley and the pollution blocking the sky.

I didn’t mind to drive around the town, but the reality was that I just wanted to be away from the urban life.

“Now we will stop by the Rova, the royal palace. It is open now to public,” said Mami.

Rova Palace

The huge palace sat on the highest hill overlooking the city, and it was one of the few things I wanted to see in Tana. It was built under the rule of the infamous Queen Ranavalona II of the Merina Dynasty –the dynasty that unified the tribes in Madagascar. The queen was a widow with radical views. She would order to kill anyone who refused to abandon Christianity – which was brought by missionaries of the countries her husband made relationships. During over 30 years, this bloody queen would torture and kill her subjects in various and unimaginable ways: from chopping her victim’s legs and arms to pouring boiling water over them and forcing suspects to drink poison.

The palace was caught under fire in 1995, and was closed for restoration for a long time. I was excited we were going to chance to see it inside.

Yet, at our arrival, the guard was “having coffee’ somewhere in the neighborhood. One of the locals went to look for him, but couldn’t find it. After more than half and hour waiting, we decided to go. It was pointless. The guard could show up a second later, after lunch time or maybe not for the rest of the day.

“Let’s go. I want to see it, but I also prefer to leave the city to explore the countryside,” I told Mami.

As we drove around, I also realized that Madagascar wasn’t only unique in biodiversity. This country is a true melting pot. Indians, Blacks, Arabs, Asians, Europeans, have come to this land throughout the centuries and left their imprints in here. The faces of the Malagasy people are so… unique to say the least. Sometimes I didn’t even know how to even describe a person. Because it doesn’t seem like a full black, but also is not entirely a full Asian for instance! I was really intrigued and amazed by Madagascar’s “racial-diversity”.

Although it is considered part of Africa, Malagasy people don’t like to be referred as Africans. They considered themselves as the people of the Big Island, and probably the resentment has to do with the fact that France used troops from Senegal to colonize the island, and Malagasy people still think of black Africans as dangerous and primitive.

With every minute I spent in Madagascar, I was more and more fascinating by the contrasts, contradictions, uniqueness and rarity of the country.

Since Mami and I were about to spend the next ten days together, I wanted to get to know more about him and I asked him some questions as we left the busy Antananarivo and followed a zigzagging road that would take us to Antsirabe, the third largest city of Madagascar.

Mami was 33-years-old. Although we were the same age, he looked older than me. He had been married for eight years, and his first baby was finally on the way. For Malagasy people, family and children are very important. I didn’t dare to ask, but I imagined Mami and his wife had struggled to conceive the baby. He used to be a guide in a Ranomafana park -the first reserve we would visit- but decided to become a driver and a guide because it was better business.

Maybe it was the jet-lagged or the rocking sensation on the zigzagging road, but I struggled to keep my eyes open as Mami talked and explained our surroundings.

“Mami, I think I am going to take a nap. It was the long flight to come to Madagascar,” I apologized and surrendered to the exhaustion.

“Daniela, we are arriving,” I suddenly woke it without knowing how much time had passed.

The pouse pouse

Antsirabe wasn’t a charming city either. It was dirty, poor and chaotic. Hundreds of colorful painted rickshaws -known as pousse-pousse- invaded the roads. Barefoot men ran the streets up and down with passengers. It wasn’t only the rough paved roads their feet had to deal with, but also the cold of the highlands.

“Norwegians were here, and then the Chinese. That’s why there are so many pousse-pousse,” explained Mami.

Mami showed me some beautiful buildings constructed by Norwegians missionaries in the 1800s, but I wasn’t really blown away by the city.

Mami drove me to the main avenue, showed me a park, the historical hotel, and other sites, yet my only desire at that moment was to get into a bed and sleep. When we finally made it to the hotel, I thought I had the night to relax and catch up with my sleep.

“Danielle, I will make a reservation at the restaurant at 7pm,” said Mami before I went to my room.

It was 4:30pm and I didn’t even feel like going out for dinner, but I didn’t want to be rude to Mami, so I said OK.

At 7pm I was right at the lobby and Mami waited for me. We drove to a very nice French restaurant. I noticed that the other customers were couples with the same pattern: old French men accompanied by young Malagasy girls, so young that could be their daughters or even grandchildren!

I knew there was a tourism prostitution problem in Madagascar, but mostly in the coastal areas. Would this be it as well? I wondered.

I wasn’t as direct as to mention the word prostitution to Mami, but I asked him about it.

“A lot of retired French men marry Malagasy women Daniela so they can stay and live in Madagascar,” he said.

Poverty is such a big problem in Madagascar that for many of these girls having these French lovers may be the only hope for a better life, yet it still grossed me out.

We left the “love birds” behind at the restaurant and headed back to the hotel where I passed out as soon as I put my head on the pillow.

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2 Comments

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  1. The best report as always… i missed you Dani!!!

  2. Appreciate it for helping out, superb info.

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