I know it’s a cliché, and I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but Madagascar really is like no other place I’ve visited. In the short time that I’ve been here, this island has baffled me, astounded me, frustrated me and charmed me. But I’ve fallen in love with it.
Madagascar is of course famous for its unique wildlife. However, I also found the differing communities just as memorable. My trip started in the chaos of Antananarivo, the capital, an intriguing mixture of architectural styles and eras. Consisting almost entirely of narrow roads, and often filled with traffic, Tana has something about it that I’ve not seen in any other African city. Two storey houses with wooden balconies, trailing with tropical flowers, conjure up visions of mediaeval Europe which are shattered when the ever present taxi-brousses drive past, tooting horns and touting for customers. Wizened old ladies sit behind tiny market stalls which spring up absolutely everywhere, selling just a few tomatoes, shallots and courgettes while boys ride past on antiquated bicycles with a basket full of quacking ducks behind. Carts pulled by Zebu carry impossible loads that look like they would fall in the slightest breeze, and the afternoon sun casts a glorious light on faded colonial grandeur in the upper city. Tana is short on conventional ‘sights’ but excels in experience and difference – an Africa that few are aware of.
The highlands of Madagascar, south of Tana, host a huge number of small communities who seldom see foreign travellers. We stop at a local market where women sell magic charms and amulets to protect against illness and ensure good luck. Nothing is wasted here – empty jam jars and water bottles are also for sale, featuring on stalls with random selections of goods including fishing hooks, reels of cotton and spare machinery parts. I have trouble even grasping what some of the products are. I buy a small cake, which is dry and unpleasant, and when I try to give it to a nearby child he runs away in terror. Our guide tells us that up in the highlands the inhabitants are still very wary of the vazaha – the European – memories of their colonial past still haunting them.
Our final step of the journey takes us south through the spiny forest, an impenetrable tangle of cacti, thorn trees and agaves. The architecture changes and becomes noticeably more African – gone are the two storey houses, to be replaced by mud huts similar to Kenya, The people too look different – they have lost their Indonesian features and look more like their neighbours across the sea to the west. We arrive at Ifaty in time for sundowners over the Indian Ocean and a pure feeling of tranquillity that I always experience on the beach with a cold drink in hand.
The next day a couple of us walk a mile or so down the beach and meet some fishermen, who offer to take us back in their pirogue. It wasn’t fast, but it was at least faster than walking, and they also offer to take us out snorkelling to the reef later. While the others head off in their motor boats, we drift gently with the winds until we are about a mile out from shore, the fishermen calling cheerily to other boats as we sail. Dropping off the boat we explore the reef beneath, full of technicolour fish that dart off when they see us coming, and lazy jellyfish that reflect the colours of the sun when they get too close to the surface.
In the afternoon we walk along the beach collecting shells, local children keen to help and pressing more into our hands than we could ever possibly carry. The tide comes in and we start to walk back, the children following us and singing to each other in words we don’t understand. The sun starts to set again, sizzling into the ocean, and I think that life could not be any more perfect at this moment in time.
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