We just landed at Ivato International airport, excited about what we are about to discover on this huge island located southeast of Africa. Madagascar won its popularity after the famous animation production with the same name and the unique species of Lemurs that populates the island which can be found nowhere else in the world. But despite all these, the tourism remains underdeveloped and soon we are about to find out why.
Day 1…landing in capital city, Tana
After we obtain the visa on arrival and finish other imigration formalities we are rushing to the exit in order to meet our driver. An airport worker is grabbing my luaggage and even before I have the chance to reject his offer, I am being charged 5 euro for his “kind” act. I m shocked and angry for this attempt of ripping me off right after I put my first step on malagasy land and I have the premature feeling that all this trip was a mistake. I am searching through the multitude of foreign coins that I always carry in my walled and I am handing him 3 euro, being well aware that the average salary in Madagascar is only 130.000 malagasy ariary which means aproximately 35 euro per month and my tip is more than enough to supply a copious dinner for his family tonight.
Outside of the airport, Eric our driver is waiting for us and after he introduce himself in a broken english with a strong french accent (which I will found cute during our trip), he is leading us through the parking lot, trying to find his car.
Outside I notice few white Dacia Logan, my country’s national car, used as “luxury” airport taxis and I blame myself for underestimating this car before, now when Eric opens for us the door of his old Peugeot with no AC nor automatically windows and I keep asking myself how we are going to survive at 30 degrees Celsium in those conditions.
But to be honest that is by far my last fear, what concernes me right now is our safety, either we can trust this man that we just met or not. In fact, the whole trip to Madagscar was planned in rush and after the most notorious travel agencies refused our request due to the short stay (6 days), we contacted DILANN tour on Facebook just the night prior to our arrival and they agreed to arrange an itinerary which meet our requirements.
“Worried for our safety”
I keep quiet during the 2h drive through the crowded capital city, Antananarivo, trying in the same time to silence my mind which is whispering me that everything is a scam and we are going to end up kidnaped, without the vital organs or…dead. Meanwhile Abdulla seems to be more communicative, trying to engage with Eric, even though I feel that he is not comfortable with the situation as well.
Looking through the car’s window make me feel even worse: raw meat displayed in the heat, a real playground for flies and mosquitoes, skinny men pulling weird carriages (rickshaw) stuffed with people and bags, elderly men fixing some dusty umbrellas in a street corner, as part of their job, two kids sharing same pair of slippers (one is wearing the right slipper while the other is wearing the left one) and then…the unbearable sweet and sour smell of the streets. I am waiting lethargic on the back seat of the car to reach our destination, while the true definition of Poverty is running right in front of me.
When we finally arrive to the agency, mister Dilann (an indian national born in Madagascar, the manager of Dilann tour) is greeting us together with two young girls who, I suppose are just his daughters, wearing their ceremonial clothes and a big, warm smile.
I must confess that my doubts didn’t disappear completely, still thinking that everything is a well planned scenario to kidnap two innocent tourists who are looking for a life time adventure in this exotic island but nevertheless meeting mister Dilan family brought a huge comfort to my overthinking brain.
After we paied the money for the trip (1200 euro) and we signed few papers including details about our nationality, job, passport number (which ms Dilan explained as being a legal requirement by the government), we jump in our old Pegeout ready for the 4 hours drive which will take us to the first destination on our list, Andasibe.
“Shopping from rich people supermarket”
One thing was sure so far…we wont eat anything in this country unless its packed, sealed and it has an expiry date. This being said we ask Eric to stop us to a supermarket in order to buy some treats for the long journey. This is how we end up in the supermarket for “rich people”, the place where the business men and politicians are the only costumers, while the majority of citizens are buying their groceries from dusty insalubrious stalls in the corner of the street.
We filled our bags with tuna cans, sardines, noodles, cheese and sweets, ready to survive a week in those austere conditions.
I am sharing some sweets with Eric (our driver) and I am almost brought to tears when he confess its the first time when he taste the chips and chocolate that I just handed to him. Its hard to believe that in 2017, an ordinary chocolate represent a luxury for some people and I direct my frustration towards my parents who always complain that we don’t have enough (money, houses, cars, furniture, clothes). Their next holiday should definitely be Madagascar.
“Piece of heaven in the middle of hell”
Abdulla seems to be very excited with the view, taking videos and pictures non stop through the open window (no AC, remember?) while I am getting tired and pissed off. Even though the landscape is green and beautiful and the sky is divine it doesn’t impress me and I am acting like a spoiled child, keep reminding my boyfriend that I have same mountains in my country, whenever he is trying to make me look outside of the window.
Eric is over excited whenever he sees a Zebu on the street and he explains us that the weird “cow” with fatty hump on its shoulders is not only the main source of food in Madagascar but its also considered a signed of wealth for their owners. Again, Abdulla is interested in the subject, probably planning to open a zebu farm in the nearest future. Luckily enough, we dont own a farm just yet but a large collection of photos and videos with zebu specimens in different situations.
Its late in the night when the driver announces that we reach our destination: Antisarabe national park. A flashlight is piercing through the dark and a man with crossed eyes and a light attached to his head is knocking on the window. I get out of the car and I cant see anything else beside a barn and the weird short man which stand in front of me. He introduce himself as being our tour guide for the next day but I suspect he is a retired doctor ready to take the kidneys out of our body. After Abdulla arrange with him the timings for the next morning, we continue our trip through the dark forest, devastated by the recent cyclone which hit the island just few days prior our arrival. Black thoughts are crossing my mind: I should have bought a knife, I should have bring a pepper spray, we can’t hide anywhere the locals know those forests better than anyone…we have no chance.
When I start giving up on all my hopes about survival, a sign indicates our arrival at Grace Lodge hotel, just in the middle of Zagamena national park. We are safe and I was so dumb doubting all those people.
Its time for our humble dinner (noodles and tuna cans) and a well deserved sleep in this pretty bungalow, surrounded by the nature and its noisy creatures.
Day 2…Andasibe national park
I open the main door early in the morning and I can’t believe my eyes…everything is wrapped in a mystically veil of fog and I have the feeling that the nature is going to open a new and interesting chapter for us today.
“The lemur island”
The sky clears up soon enough and we are heading enthusiastic towards the Lemur island, where few cute species are living in peace together. And we don’t come empty handed but with their favorite treat: banana.
Once we step on their land, few daring lemurs are jumping on my back, messing up my hair with their little, soft hands. Stuffed with the daily menu of guava, they are using their cuteness to win a well deserved reward…banana.
However, after the dessert is over, my smart lemur seems to be very intersted in…technology.
While some of them are studying the new features of Iphone 7, others are preoccupied with more artistic hobbies such as….dancing. These cute lemurs are not only talented dancers but also the most colorful animals of their kind.
Meanwhile my baby found a new job, carrying a lemur up and down on his shoulder through the thick forest. The animal seems to be very attached to Abdulla and doesn’t want to let him go or maybe it just found a more convenient way of transportation and a good opportunity to take some selfies.
Just when I thought that I’ve lost him for forever, we are informed that its time to leave and boarding a small green boat we are now sailing in search of other undiscovered Malagasy treasures.
“A walk through the national park”
Chris, the guide that I mistaken for a malefic doctor the night before, is waiting for us and I am pleased to discover a man with a high level of knowledge, carrying for the nature and its habitants and even more surprising in this region…with an almost perfect english (or at least better than mine).
Right on the park entrance I find a new friend, a baby chameleon who doesnt bother to camouflage himself, feeling probably safe in my company.
Its the first time when I step up into a rain forest and I am so greatfull that Abdulla bought me proper equipment (shoes and shirts) fighting against my will.
After a long chase on difficult terrain we finally found the Idri, which is basically the biggest specie of lemur alive. Unfortunately all the lemurs are endangered, after 90% of their community was eaten by the locals in times of famine. In present, the lemurs are protected by law and the local authorities take desperate measures to save the emblem of the wildlife which attract hundred thousands tourists in Madagascar every year.
God of the forest
Across the river, in a private area of the park, few locals are bringing offerings in the name of Zanahary (Creator) which consist of chicken, zebu or other animals depending on their social status and wealth. The blood of the sacrificed animals is drained into an old tree and pieces of clothes are hanged around the forest. After their request/wish was accomplished the malagasy will return to retrieve the old rag which will be worn for life time. Special permit is required for the sacred ceremony to be performed and the tourists are totally prohibited in the respective area. We keep quiet and continue our walk through the forest with no intention to infuriate the forest’s God.
After we encounter some weird species of mushrooms, plants and animals, we leave Zahamena national park behind and we continue our long journey towards the center south of the island.
Day 3…handicraft in Antsirabe
On third day I am already tired, hungry and restless. My face is invaded by nasty pimples and mosquito bites and I would kill for a proper bath but all I can get is a small shower and limited hot water access.
My stomach on the other side, is craving for some proper food and realizing that our survival snacks are almost over, we ask Eric to take us to a new “rich people supermarket” to refill our supplies and right after we continue our journey through the city of Antsirabe.
Pressed by starvation, people are surrounding our car, begging for a piece of bread or trying to sell beautiful handicraft for just few ariary. A lady is knocking on my window “Please give me a pen, my kids are going to school, they need a pen to study”…..she leave me with no words. I give her my pen and some sweets for the baby she was carrying in her arms. I see tears in her eyes, she notice same in mine.
To bring the good mood back, Eric decided to take us to the oldest hotel of Antsirabe “Les thermes” where the marrocan king himself, Mohammed V was spending his forced exile in 1954. The place is like a well deserved breath of fresh air; we take plenty of pictures enjoying the beautiful sunny day, far away from the crowd and agitation of the city.
We don’t want to leave Antsirabe before we see with our own eyes the art which made the city famous….zebu handicraft.
A family of artists redesigned their back yard in a live workshop, where curious tourists can watch the whole process of transforming zebu horns in cutleries, jewelries, souvenirs, basically in everything that your imagination leads to. The mother is boiling the horns until the bone is removed completely and then she hands the horn over to the father which gives it the final shape under the close supervision of their sons who inherited their parents talent.
Next door, another artist is trying to win his living, painting with ability beautiful landmarks of Madagscar.
Once we reach the hotel I start feeling sick and depressed with everything what is happening around us while Abdulla tries to find an explanation for the poverty which hit a country with real potential. The answer is coming from Google and in just few seconds we find out that Madagascar has the worse economy on the Planet due to the high level of corruption and their political past.
Day 4 & 5….Ranomafana national park, the paradise on earth
After few more hours spent on the road, here we are finally in Ranomafana, ready to explore a beautiful national park which host a rain forest and several species of rare fauna and flora.
Armed with the proper equipment we make our way thtough the tropical forest in search of golden bamboo lemur under the close supervision of our new tour guide, Jimmy.
Jimmy was born in this part of the island and even if the faith (or doctors) let him with an incapacitated leg after an wrong injection which touched his sciatic nerve he is still able to roam the forests like nobody else.
A cute bamboo lemur is approaching us fearless and he seems to be tempt by the fresh bamboo that I am holding on my hand, his favorite meal. Unfortunately the lemurs are endangered not only because of starving locals but also because of their loyalty. The majority species of lemurs are monogamous and once their loved ones disappear, they refuse to find another match.
Jimmy is calling for my attention, excited to discover a new type of lemur, hanging in a bamboo. But…wait, that is not a lemur! Its Abdulla, exploring what he calls “his natural habitat”.
We have a competition in progress: who would be able to work with Jimmy and even if I am not totally fit to wander the rain forest every day, I prove my baby that I have a good eye, spotting a baby hedgehog playing around a tree.
Last stop…a beautiful oasis of relaxation, a perfect scenario to end our morning walk. Just a wrong step and Abdulla would blackmail me for life. I cant give him this satisfaction.
Jimmy is waiting for us, probably bored of the same places and the same “dumb” tourists but we take our time reading this page that life had wrote for us.
We have the afternoon off and we are planning to rest properly for what is yet to come…a night hunt.
“The night hunt”
We are along the main road of Ranomafana, taking the last pictures before the dark will wrap his arms around the island.
Jimmy brought with him few bananas and now is placing it strategically on the trees. The wind is spreading its aroma everywhere and soon we will have the first guest on the dinner table…the mouse lemur which is considered to be the smallest primate in the world, weighing only 30 grams.
Its completely dark, a night how I never seen before with no stars or moon and a silence broken only by few drops of rain hitting on the leaves. The night predators and out for hunting, camouflaging their appearance in a desperate attempt to win a delicious meal. But nobody can escape from Jimmy’s agile eye.
Day 6…saying goodbye to Madagascar
After an endless 11 hours drive we are finally safe in Tana, the capital city of Madagascar but we cant say goodbye before we pay a visit to a place considered magical by many travelers.
We are invaded by a mix of feelings: excitement to go home, regret of leaving the island which kindly hosted as for almost a week, happiness for the memories captured here and frustration that…we didnt meet the King Julien yet, the animation character which inspired our whole trip to Madagascar. Unfortunately this type of lemur can be found only south of the island but also in…captivity.
Its an off day in Madagascar (The independence day) and hundred kids wearing their best outfits are roomig excited the Tana zoo, laughing and playing their childish games. Among them, me and Abdulla we are on a very precise mission.
We found King Julien behind the bars and after bribing few workers we gain close access to the maka-lemur and not only. This time their favorite meal consist of honey and Abdulla manage to win a kiss in exchange for the sweet elixir.
The whole zoo is in fact an sanctuary of peace and quiet, a real blessing located in the middle of a polluted city.
What amused but attracted me in the same time about Antananarivo are the old cars, left behind by the french colonists more than 60 years ago and used now as taxies by the wealthy population of the capital.
Beside that, if you didnt have the chance to visit the Hollywood sign yet, mind yourself because Antananarivo has its own. Located on a hill, between the ruins of the Queen palace and “rich people” villas, the long emblem is guarding over the city, being one of the most important attraction of the capital.