Madagascar was easily the most fascinating country I’ve ever been to. Not only are there animals and plants that are endemic, like lemurs, there are also parts of the country that have yet to be discovered. In this day and age that's rare, to say the least. During my six weeks there, there were both moments that I loved it and hated it. And in my opinion, that’s part of what made traveling in Madagascar so memorable.
With a backpack on each of our backs we walked through customs. After more than a day of travel and three layovers later, we made it to Antananarivo. We took the airport shuttle into the city center and so the adventure began. I was mesmerized – rice fields surrounded us with the city as a back drop, I smelled lunch cooking over wood fires next to the streets and a minute later I’d smell the strong scents of diesel blow through the window as a truck passed. The streets were lined with colorful houses and storefronts filled with tires, food in windows and people sitting in the shade. All of it looked pieced together – plastic, metal, and wood were all nailed together. Doors were made of curtains. Fruit, vegetables and bags of rice were everywhere. I’d only been in Antananarivo, or Madagascar for that matter, for an hour and I was already amazed by everything I’d seen.
It was late afternoon by the time we made it to the city center; we’d spend an afternoon in Antananarivo (Tana, for short) before heading west the next day we decided. Originally, we were going to take a taxi-brousse to Miandrivazo, our first "destination" out West. (When traveling on a budget the price of a taxi-brousse is impossible to beat, but more on that later.) Instead, we decided to hire a driver so we could arrive before dark and march to the beat of our own drum instead of the taxi-brousse schedule. Hiring Mr. Fred was the best thing we did for our entire trip. Fred saw how excited we were about seeing the country, and instead of just driving, we made stops along the way. We would make quick stops to see the ever-changing landscape, to visit interesting villages, and see things unique to Madagascar. Like how the country’s scrap metal was turned into pots. After eight or nine hours of driving, we made it to Miandrivazo and found a hotel for the night.
We headed west in search of an adventure. We had read that we could take a pirogue (wooden canoe) down the Tsiribinha River, so we decided we’d do just that. Miandrivazo was the starting point for this adventure, and upon our arrival we met a few guides, hired Simon-Pierre and were on our way the next morning. Rainy season was just around the corner and the water level was low, so we couldn’t leave from Miandrivazo. Simon organized a taxi-brousse to bring us to a rural village a little further down the river. Our taxi-brousse was an old pickup with wooden benches in the back. It still had French license plates from when Madagascar was a territory. We were told to sit up front with the driver; he told us the car was more than 60 years old. The speedometer, lights and gas gage were all broken. I sat on top of the motor and buckets filled with diesel were at our feet. There were at least 15 people packed in the back of the pickup with baskets of vegetables, sacks of rice and chickens clucking. Slowly but surely we made our way through a few towns, dropping people off and picking people up. We were going to the last stop on the route. I remember turning onto a road with a sign that said “rural community.” It took us 45 minutes to get to the end of the road, if you want to call it that. Rocks bulging out of white sand with a three-foot drop in between the tires made up most of the road. I sat nervously on my hands hoping one of the tires wouldn’t fall into the gap in the middle of the road. We nearly made it to the rural village when the car came to an abrupt halt. It didn’t just stop; it broke down. I felt bad, the driver had gone to the end of the route for us and now his prized possession was broken. He had told us all of the stories about his father buying the car, him taking over the taxi-brousse route and places he dreamed of driving it. He laughed when I said I was sorry about his truck. He said it would be fixed within the hour and he’d be on his way, he was just sorry we’d have to walk the rest of the way. We parted ways and began walking through the rural village towards the river where we would find the pirogue we’d travel in for the next three days.
The three days we spent on the river we listened to nothing but Simon singing Malagasy tunes, the ripples of water as the canoe passed through, and the calls of birds and lemurs. We’d stop for lunch on the riverbanks, often next to small villages and camp on sand beaches at night. The first day on the river, we had lunch under a mango tree. When we were finished a young girl and her family arrived to pick a few mangos. She stood under the tree with a long stick and knocked the mangos out of the tree one by one. Her mother sat holding her younger sibling, her brother chased after the mangos and her father cut them open. They, too, sat under the mango tree and had mangos for lunch. I smiled at them and with a few charades asked the mother if it would be okay if I took a picture of her daughter. She smiled, giving me permission. She didn’t expect anything in return, which is why I wanted so much to give her something. It was clear that, like many, the family didn’t have much. We gave her what we could, saying it was for the kids to eat and she grew teary eyed. She squeezed my hand, quietly saying thank you. Soon enough, they were on their way back to their village and we continued in the opposite direction down the river. It’s incredible to think how much of an impact a short encounter can have on someone, but I’ll never forget the young girl and her family under the mango tree.
We continued down the river for a few more hours that before stopping to set up camp for the night. Wind gusts began to blow down the river as we were approaching the canyons when we crossed paths with zebu thieves. We knew traveling down the river in a boat could be dangerous, we’d heard the stories but we decided to go anyway. We knew our guide was well known, he was official and we were registered tourists to travel on the river. None-the-less when we had a run in with the zebu thieves I was still a little nervous. I’ve heard stories about tourists who have gotten shot at or had all of their belongings stolen. Simon was a good guide, told us to make sure not to take pictures and if we kept to ourselves, they’d keep to themselves too. They had a cookout on the beach that we were going to be camping on that night, one of Simon’s friends who didn’t live too far came away came and sat with us. The only real interaction I had with them was when they passed by our tents and said hello. I commented on the fact that one was wearing a “Minnesota beanie.” Simon translated, telling him I was from Minnesota. He asked me where that was and laughed when I told him it was a cold place in the north where it snows. Soon enough, they were on their way, heading up the river.
We woke up early the next morning to get back on the river and made our way through the gorges. It was impressive to watch how quickly the scenery changed along the red river – from mangroves, to sandy beaches, to gorges, back to sandy beaches. There seemed to be a little bit of everything. We stopped at a waterfall that afternoon where we were able to swim and rinse off… After two full days sitting in black pants in the sweltering sun, never has a cold waterfall felt so glorious! We spotted a lemur and climbed through the jungle with Simon and a few children who guard the waterfall with their family.
We kept going down the river… Simon started cooking lunch over his paddle on a small coal stove until we stopped in a village along the river.
It was quite the opposite of lunch the day before. Once again, we were under a mango tree, but immediately about 15 kids surrounded us. They asked us for money and candy. We didn’t have any candy and giving money to a child is very taboo. Then a few adults came by asking for money. Some people posed in hopes of a photo, since then we’d need to give them money. At first I was taken aback by the situation, then I gave myself a bit of a reality check. How could I possibly find myself annoyed in a situation like that? If I saw two foreigners come into a village and I knew they came from a much wealthier country, I’d probably ask too. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything that we could give away at that point… we had the clothes we wearing and a few other belongings. Then our guide brought us lunch, the kids moved to the side watching our every move. At that point we hardly had an appetite, so instead, we asked our guide how to explain to the 15 kids surrounding us that they could all have some, too. I’ve traveled to poor places before but never in my life have I seen a child so happy to receive a piece of bread. I split the pasta salad we had into two bowls – one for the girls and one for the boys – before I could get down low enough the bowls were knocked out of my hands, little hands dug into the bowl and picked the pasta up off the ground. They pushed each other out of the way. Forks were thrown and I didn’t know what to do. Minutes later little hands began picking up the forks and bowls and passing them back to me. We didn’t have any ariary (money) to give that day, but it seemed that food was more important there. It’s not something I wanted to see – no one wants to see hungry kids, but unfortunately it’s a sad reality. I wish I had more to give that day.
That night we slept on another riverbank and another sunset over the river. We cooked the chicken that had been traveling with us in the pirogue for a few days. It was the first chicken I ever learned to pluck. Two young girls from a village somewhere in the area came to say hello. Like most kids on the river they were asking for something. And I found myself once again in the same situation… kicking myself for not having more to share with people who have so little. They wanted a pen for school. Simon translated for me and told the girls that I only had one pen with me, so they would need to share it. The older girl, who was only nine, said that the younger girl could have it. I’ve never seen a Park Nicollet pen held with such pride. I had used it waitressing in the summer – a customer left 10 with me. If only I had the entire bundle that day. I gave my ponytail holder to the older girl. A pen and a pony holder… who knew how much happiness they could bring. We drew in the sand for a while until it was time for them to head home. We had dinner in the sand, turned in early for bed since, and set our 4:30 a.m. alarm clock.
The two young girls were back the next morning and watched as we rolled up the broken tent we had been sleeping in. They stared curiously at the mosquito net we had thrown over the top of the tent to keep the bugs out. They had been so sweet and once again we found ourselves with lots of extra food. They sat across the fire and ate some of the bread. When we said they could have the rest their eyes widened. Instead of eating it all they wrapped it in a napkin to take home and share with their families. I was amazed by the generosity of children, I was amazed by how polite and appreciative they were. It really is true that often times those who have less, in many ways have more.
We spent another half day on the river with Simon until we pulled up to another small village and climbed up a muddy hill and found ourselves under yet another mango tree. It was under that mango tree that we said our goodbyes. Simon has a friend who is handicapped and drives a zebu chariot in the village he dropped us off in. He has created work for him by dropping off all of the tourists he paddles down the river. Since the driver can’t walk, his 10-year-old son works with him. He ran along side the cart keeping the zebu in line when needed. His other son, who was three, rode in the back with us laughing the entire way.
When we arrived in the next village, where the zebu chariot dropped us off we had two options. One was to spend a night there, the other was to leave that afternoon and head to Belo-Sur-Tsiribinha. We opted to head out that afternoon, one because we had loads of things we wanted to do and two because we only had euros on us. However, the taxi-brousse did not come as planned and we had to take a 4x4 to get to the point where we could take a ferry to cross the river and get to Belo where we needed to spend a night before heading to the Tsingy de Bemaraha national park.
We took the ferry with cars across; the only problem was we still only had euros with us. Somehow we ended up on a ferry and someone figured out that we were going to stay at the hotel of the owner of the ferry so they let us cross anyways. There always seems to be a solution. We made it to Belo and walked into the village and found the hotel where we sat down for lunch and were going to have a shower for the first time in four days. However, we also learned that taxi-brousses weren’t heading to Bekopaka, the city closest to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, anymore (or they left once every four days) because it was rainy season. We exchanged some of our euros and kept going after lunch because there was a 4x4 heading back that way. We ended up going with them. A few people had told us the drive took 6 hours, but two men who drove us had family in Bekopaka and "knew the road well" so we ended up making it in three hours. We had been told we could go to a bank in Bekopaka, but it turns out there wasn’t anything in that area except the Tsingy. We had just enough ariary ($$) to see the Tsingy, pay for two nights in the hotel, and eat our meals in a hotely (the local restaurants where a meal costs one dollar). So we had two options, we could skip it, or we could do it if we skipped breakfasts and skipped meals on the last day. We had to see the Tsingy. We had traveled down the river for days, taken a zebu chariot, a very sketchy 4x4 from the town that we still don’t know the name of, crossed the river on the ferry for free, made it to Belo and found another random ride to Bekopaka. The Tsingy were what brought us out West in the first place. So, we decided to do it and we'd figure out the rest later. (We also got lucky, again, when the hotel offered us a complimentary breakfast since they didn’t want us passing out while climbing the Tsingy.)
The Tsingy were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Translated, the Tsingy literally means to “tip toe,” discouraging people from walking quickly and hurting themselves. Fossil imprints were everywhere and the rocks were sharp as razors. There were a few different circuits to take. We took the more “challenging circuit” and found ourselves on our hands and knees crawling through caves, turning sideways to squeeze through narrow passageways and propelling down ropes that were secured in place. At one point, we crossed suspension bridges hanging 300 feet from the ground, connecting two different parts of the Tsingy. It was tiring to climb the confusing landscape, but so worth it. Standing in the middle of the Tsingy offered one of the most picturesque views I could ever imagine.
Leaving Bekopaka turned out to be more complicated than we had anticipated. There weren’t many tourists left, which was a major plus while visiting the Tsingy, but it also made it very difficult to find a ride out of town. There weren’t any more taxi-brousses running in that region and it was hard to find a driver who was willing to drop us off without us paying up front. Lesson learned. Never travel without extra cash in Madagascar. Debit cards, credit cards and money transfers will do you no good.
Making our way into Morondava we visited the famous Avenue de Baobabs. The giant trees were incredible. I’ve never felt so small, or seen a tree so large. They’re about 800 years old and are the legacy of tropical forests that once covered the region. The baobabs weren’t cut down because of religious beliefs, or that’s one of the many myths. Deforestation is still a huge problem in Madagascar today, but as many of the forests have disappeared, the issue is finally being addressed.
After dropping our backpacks off at a cute beachfront hotel/guesthouse, Les Bougainvilliers, we walked around town, admiring the old colonial buildings in ruins. We made our way to the taxi-brousse station to get tickets and on our way we passed through narrow dirt roads that were extremely dirty, but so colorful and full of life. Roadside stands were filled with everything from rice and meat to noodles to fruit to baguettes – flies were everywhere and naked kids were running around behind the stalls. In minutes we had tickets for a taxi-brousse from Morondava to Antananarivo and as the sunset we made our way back to the guesthouse, stopping along the way to have a homemade punch-coco at a reggae bar down the street.
Like most nights in Madagascar, we went to bed early that night. We had learned to live with the rhythm of the sun. That night, however, I was awake well before the sun rose. By 4:30 a.m. it was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The electricity was cut for the night, which meant the fan was too and sleep just wasn’t an option. So instead, we watched the sunrise on the beach and drank a lot of water to cool down.
Soon enough, we headed to the taxi-brousse station where we were about to experience how most locals travel around the country. Now, there are a few things you need to know to imagine our 15-hour journey in the taxi-brousse. Taxi-brousses never leave on time, you should always pack a few snacks because sometimes you won’t understand that you need to order food through the window in a busy market, and you should drink as little water as possible because let’s face it… after 15 hours and 2.5 liters of water, one is literally ready to wet their shorts. I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with the taxi-brousses. I loved that we could get from point A to point B and across half the country for about $10, I hated how cramped I felt after, and I loved stopping for lunch in the tiny hotelys and getting to know the locals traveling in the buses. It’s also an opportunity to listen to Celine Dion, Bruno Mars, and a few random French and Malagasy tunes on repeat for a good 15 hours. I was always impressed by how they managed to fit 15 suitcases, a few bikes, chickens, and crabs on top of the buses, but less impressed when my entire backpack smelled like crabs for a week after the juice leaked all over my clothes. All in all, taking the taxi-brousse was an experience – and one that I recommend having sooner rather than later, because I can’t say I’d appreciate it in the same way 15 years from now.
Soon enough, we made it back to Tana where Fred, (who had dropped us off in Miandrivazo) picked us up. We also arranged to head East with him the next day. While there is always something else to see, and another city to go to we did what we could with the time we had and had wonderful time exploring Western Madagascar.