Madagascar Overview

Now with fancy pants images. Click on one of the pictures.

Last summer in Florence I was so disgusted and annoyed by the massive amounts of tourists that I made a promise to myself that I would try to visit the very interesting but less touristy places first before they turn into crowded, souvenir infested, unoriginal cesspools of white people. True to my promise, I went to Madagascar as my first long trip since then. Teeming with nature, Madagascar is an out of the way, poor, overlooked gem of a country with lots of character. It is home to the Malagasy people (with many different subgroups and tribes) as well as a huge array of plants and animals, 75% of which are endemic to the island. If there was ever a place for an adventure to be had, it would be here. I had 3.5 weeks from May 8 to May 29. The plan was to spend 1 week in the North, 1 in the West and 1 in the South. But you have to be willing to make compromises and change your plans on a whim in a place like this. There is public transportation in the form of taxi brousse all over the island but the people here don't even use watches, let alone a schedule of any sort. Cars just leave when they're full and like most poor countries (and many of the rich ones) public transportation is always slow and behind "schedule". My original plan was a bit too ambitious, so I never make it down to the South.

I have quite a bit to write about my trip and I grouped things in 3 installments over the next few days. This post is about the different areas I went to and the things I saw. Next are two stories about some things that happened to me. Last is a mix of all the things that are leftover that I wanted to mention.

Madagascar is broken up into 4 to 6 climatic regions, depending on what reference you use. If you want, you can read the very basic descriptions of them here or here. I saw most of these ecosystems during my trip and I focused on the animals to be found in each place. During my trip I went to 7 different national parks and saw lemurs, lizards and birds in each one. There were lots of interesting things all over the place really. And I was even there during the dry season. From what I hear, if you go in November, just before the rainy season, there are a lot more things to see. I could talk about all the animals, but the pictures speak for themselves.

The regions of Madagascar not only have varying landscapes and animals, but also varying cultures. In the North there are a lot more fruits and some kind of plant that people chew to get a sort of "high". I guess it has similar effects as nicotine or chewing coca leaves. The people in the other regions laugh at their green tongues. They also have quite a bit of tourism there, relative to the rest of the country. Madagascar gets only 500,000 tourists a year, so if you see more than a few white people in a single area then it's touristy. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the women, depending on how you look at it) the North has most of the sex tourism. There are lots of old French guys walking around the larger towns with young local girls at their sides. As you can imagine, this leads to a high degree of sexually transmitted diseases. Someone told me that roughly 30% of the locals (men and women) in Diego Suarez and Nosy Be have HIV. But it also brings in a lot of cash to very poor families. Many families are proud of the women for selling themselves. Some husbands willingly let their wives have sex for money because of the extra income.

Tulear, in the southwest, obviously gets a lot tourism too. The town seems relatively rich compared to other places. There are lots of hotels and the buildings and streets are relatively high quality. The streets are filled with rickshaws, which mostly locals use, which means people have a little money to blow. There are also a lot of homemade carts being pushed around. They're very simple, made from tree branches and various types of wheels, and I saw people pushing these as far as 100km from Tulear. I think that these are more prevalent in this area just because the roads are good enough that these carts can be easily pushed on them.

In contrast, the city of Morondava in the west is very poor. So poor that the main road through town is filled with so many potholes that it is very impracticable to have one of those push carts from Tulear. The beach next to town is filled with ruins from a once large port, but now it is mainly used as a public bathroom and filled with piles of poo during low tide. Kirindy village is a very small village near the Kirindy Special Reserve and it is here, in this poorest of villages that my cab driver was made to pay some kind of toll for passing through (more about this next time).

The main city in the center of the country is Tana (Antananarivo). Here and in the surrounding area you can find a lot of the same things as in the countryside, but it's much more modern. Instead of mud huts and rickshaws there are brick/cement multi story buildings and an endless mob of taxis. People here have a lot more money, but there is also more crime and a lot more people following the tourists around trying to sell them stuff. You also find some of those push carts in the surrounding countryside, but they're use more often as transportation. There are a lot of hills and it is not uncommon to be passed by an engineless go-cart screaming down the hill while you're going uphill on a main road. Usually the cart is steered by tilting the entire front axle with a stick. I don't know what they use for breaks.

Getting around to all the different areas is generally not easy without flying. However, it is inexpensive. You just have to wait, wait and wait some more. It's what I did for half of the trip. The planes are always late (my longest delay was 10 hours), the buses always make lots of stops or breakdown, and some businesses close for siesta. The locals say "mora mora", which means "slowly slowly". They say this in Tanzania too. It seems like it's just the culture here to take things slowly, but really the culture is to be a bit incompetent and lazy. At least this is true for Air Madagascar. There's no excuse for the planes to be so late, so often. It seems true in general.

My worst bus trip was from Ranomafana to Fianar, immediately followed by an even worse trip from Fianar to Tana. I started on a relatively good looking bus which went a third of the distance to Fianar before it broke down. There was some engine problem. The bus seemed to be working fine to me but the driver opened the hood and never left it. It takes some time before the driver determines the problem will take too long to fix before he tells the passengers that they're on their own. At which point I grabbed my stuff and waited the better part of 2 hours for the next one with a spare seat. Instead a Portuguese missionary came by and picked up half of the waiting crowd. We got another third of the way there before he was stopped at a police checkpoint (there are lots of these). Something was wrong with his license paperwork and he had to go back to some other town. It was supposed to take only 20 minutes, but I had been in Madagascar long enough to know that any amount of waiting time you're quoted you can safely multiply by 2. So I jumped out and waited on the road for 2 minutes before the next bus came by. We finally made it to Fianar 4 hours after I initially set out, a total distance of 40 km (25 miles). Next stop was to go to Tana, 400 km away. I immediately boarded the next bus to Tana. It was mostly full with members of a band who had guitars and were jamming in the back. I felt pretty good about this bus. I should have known better by then not to get my hopes up. 15 km of driving and the wheel starts smoking. The driver stops the car, removes the entire axel, and hops on the next bus in the opposite direction. Well shit. I already prepaid for the trip (I don't think I had another choice) so I stuck with the car. 4 hours later the driver came back, put the axel back on and we were off. 12 hours of sitting on a car seat with zero padding gives you bad ass cramps. We finally got to Tana at 4am. It was hard to find a hotel with an open reception, but I did, and immediately crashed on the bed.

More to come...

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