Madagascar is the 2nd largest Island country and the 4th largest island in the world. It has a population of about 26 million, French and Malagasy are the official languages and it is one of the poorest countries on earth. Since the arrival of humans about 2,350 years ago, Madagascar has lost approximately 90% of its original forest cover with a conservative estimate of 40% since the 1950’s to 2000. Madagascar rates as one of the unhappiest places on earth with almost 70% living under the poverty line of $1.00 per day. The official minimum wage is 160,000 Ariary/month which works out to approximately $2.00 CAD/day.
The two largest cities are first, Antananarivo, the capital, and second, Antsirabe. We drove (inched our way) through both. As mentioned several times, when you drive through a town big or small, you drive through chaos. All towns generally have very narrow pot holed streets and markets line both sides. There are rarely any sidewalks and the roads are filled with pedestrians, tuk tuks, trucks of every imaginable size, motorcycles and bicycles loaded to the hilt with death defying bundles of everything under the sun. What we did observe the vast majority of the time was the lack of garbage. We think the Malagasy people take pride in cleanliness and this was very obvious in comparison to countries such as India, Jordon, Zambia, Tanzania etc. etc. We especially noticed the lack of plastic bag garbage. There was essentially none and it is probably due to fact that practically everyone uses reusable straw or cloth bags. There is a lesson to be learned here for the many countries choking on plastic bag waste.
Most, if not all of the lodges we stayed at were french run and/or owned and we found that if you didn’t speak french, then be prepared to be seriously frustrated. It seemed if you didn’t speak french, you were almost invisible. This experience harkens back to the late 70’s when I first visited France. If you don’t speak the language then you are shit out of luck, period. We found this to be very challenging and maddening. Even if I spoke the little french I know and explained I spoke very little french I would be met with blank stares and/or a rapid reply in french. This was especially true when trying to order lunch or dinner from a menu. To be fair there were a couple of places where, if the servers weren’t sure of what you wanted they would go and ask for help from someone who spoke a little english but this was rare. Interestingly I would say the language challenge was next to being on par with the challenges we faced driving. It really was that difficult. Maybe everyone else in the world who travels to Madagascar speaks some french but I seriously doubt it.
Although we know that most of the forests of Madagascar have disappeared, the scenery was still spectacular and one can only imagine how it was, like most places in the world one can assume, way back when. What was quite striking though was the amount of erosion happening throughout the country. The primary surface cover is a clay/sand mixture and vast gorges of every size dot the landscape. This has led to serious siltification in many of the seaside areas with the rain washing tonnes of clay and sand down the barren hillsides into swollen rivers and then on to the Indian Ocean.
Vast areas of hillside have been terraced to allow for the growing of rice and other foodstuffs. If you didn’t know you were in Madagascar you would be excused for thinking you were in Bali, China or some other eastern/southeastern country. Rice is a main staple here and they can’t grow enough. Madagascar leads by far the major rice growing countries in terms of volume. The average person consumes about 120kg/year compared to china at 77kg/year. Only Vietnam eats more rice at 144 kg per inhabitant. Some of the first people who came to Madagascar were from Indonesia and Malaysia more than 1,000 years ago with rice cultivation starting around 1540.
The facial features of the Malagasy people are distinctly different than mainland Africa and reflects the asian influence although the food didn’t tend to reflect the spices you would associate with this influence. Breakfast is heavily french influenced so be prepared to eat primarily bread, croissants, butter and jam and occasionally a half brown banana or over ripe mango and if you were really lucky, a few pieces of soft pineapple. Of course there are eggs but an omelette is essentially eggs beaten in a bowl and then fried. If you are lucky to have them “avec fromage” then you will have a small thin slice or two melted on top of the fried eggs. Don’t even bother asking for over easy and the eggs were usually fried in a heavy oil so they tended to be oily/greasy. We never saw any bacon. There was the odd time you could order sausage and it was okay but you couldn’t help wonder in the back of your mind how old they were. Lunches tended to be cheese or omelette sandwiches served on a foot long or longer loaf of french bread. No butter, no mayonnaise, just bread and cheese or bread and fried egg. Sometimes the bread was fresh. Of course we had the occasional decent lunch but not very often. Dinners weren’t too bad and the odd pizza or pasta dish were a nice change from the tough zebu meat served throughout the country. Through our travels and the many cases of the “cramps and trots” we’ve experienced we have become a little less daring in our food adventures so I am certain we missed out on some very delicious and local roadside stall food so I will not criticize what I don’t know. I’m only speaking of what was available at the average mid-priced accommodation that we stayed at most of the time with the exception of a few lodges mentioned in previous posts. We used to have stomachs of steel, me more so than Joyce so I guess our gut biome is a little less resistant to all of the stuff we’ve thrown at it over the years and sometimes it rebels.
The roads…What roads? My guess is probably 10% of the roads we drove were good enough to hit 70-80 km/hr without the risk of surprise potholes. Otherwise they are bad, very bad and you are lucky to average 40 km/hr. Most seem like the government has just given up on maintaining them and they are rapidly turning into treacherous, dangerous and next to un-drivable routes that the people have no choice but to use. The roads are also very narrow and in many areas very winding with tight steep curves where I found myself straining to look to either see what is coming up and over a hill or around a hairpin curve. Most vehicles travel in the middle of the road, large trucks especially so you are often gripping the wheel and trying not to go off of the side of the road while trying to avoid collisions and the gaping holes and cracks that line the roadside. The roads are full of pedestrians, bicycles, zebu carts, and flatbed carts loaded with whatever you can imagine being pushed and pulled by boys and men of all ages. The bottom line is they are very hazardous and require your complete attention and concentration.
The Malagasy people…The people are generally warm and smiling but often there seemed to be an undertone of sadness or the recognition of a life they have little or no opportunity to escape. This seemed to be somewhat regional however I can only guess why. Some areas seemed more prosperous and were generally developed farming areas or on the tourist routes and the people seemed happier although through many of the poorest rural villages we drove through we were met with smiles and waves. Maybe the poorest villages way off the beaten track with no cell phones and little outside influence are more content than those being influenced by social media. Thats my guess.
Madagascar’s tourism is developing and the forecast was for 500,000 visitors in 2019. We’re not sure if they’ll hit that number but without a doubt, tourism is helping the locals, their wellbeing and the economy however we think that without fairly substantial infrastructure investment, the current situation will definitely become more strained and could act as a deterrent to further growth.
Madagascar is a fascinating country with wide regional variations and we think the best way to see the country is by either a self drive 4×4 or with a hired driver and guide. We chose to self drive and loved every minute of it (almost). Yes it was challenging but we, at 61 and 63 years old are not quite ready to give up the freedom to self drive in countries where it is possible to so.
We had time on our hands to self drive where many didn’t so our hats are off to them for at least getting into a 4×4 and traversing whatever parts of the country they could. The rides they had were just as bumpy and thrilling as ours!