So here we are in Madagascar, which definitely feels off the beaten track. I missed the great African safari adventure we’d planned to be with my family when both an adult nephew and a young great-nephew died within just a couple days of each other. Obviously a difficult time for my family. But after 10 days or so it was time to move on so I flew back to Africa to meet Mark in Nairobi for the last meal with our friends from DC. Sadly, after all the great meals Mark had on the Safari our final meal was in some forgettable place that served massive portions of meat that was all … OK. Late that night Dan & Lorraine and the kids started their flight back to the States and the next morning we flew down to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital.
We have three weeks planned here and we’re pretty excited about it. After the luxury of Mark’s safari this will be a change; Madagascar isn’t exactly a major luxury tourist destination. It does seem to be interesting though. Here’s one thing I learned since arriving: although the island is just a little off the coast of Africa it actually split off from the Indian subcontinent some 88 million years ago and until quite recently (in the context of the history of the earth) was not occupied by humans. The earliest archeological evidence of any human activity (probably transient foragers who did not stay) dates to about 4,000 years ago while the earliest settlements are barely 2,000 year old. In other words, Madagascar is one of the last land masses on earth to have been settled.
And then to my surprise I learned it was not settled by Africans. Instead the first humans here were from Borneo and the surrounding islands traveling in outrigger canoes. Africans, though obviously a lot closer, didn’t arrive here until just a thousand years ago. There are a couple of implications from this.
First, Madagascar has an almost utterly unique biosphere; because it evolved so completely isolated over millions of years, some 90 percent of the animals here exist nowhere else on earth. And second, while this is certainly part of Africa, the people here clearly have features that remind us of being in Malaysia or Indonesia more than the rest of Africa. I just wasn’t expecting that.
And what of Madagascar today? Well, a few things to know: it is the fourth largest island in the world, after Greenland, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo. It is a deeply poor country, where the 25 million inhabitants have an average per capita income of under $1,600. And – one more thing I didn’t know – it had been colonized in the late 19th century by the French. One thing I’ve learned about that is that it suggests they’re going to have good food here. And so far that’s really true. (The other important part about that French history is that I am again grateful that Mark studied French so hard: there’s just not a lot of English spoken here.)
Our first stop, then, was in Antananarivo, the capital that is known to all as Tana (thank God I didn’t have to struggle pronouncing the name all the time). A city of 1.6 million people, there is no question about the poverty here. This is a big city full of poor people. And yet there was a lot to like. Our hotel, the Sakamanga, was charming and quite comfortable. The restaurant in the hotel was nothing short of outstanding, absolutely full both nights we were there. Absolutely top quality food with shockingly low prices: we would have a cocktail, two appetizers, two main courses, and a bottle of South African wine all for $50. Having recently been in New York City, that was almost unbelievable.
For the first time ever in this five-year-and-some-change adventure we’ve hired a car and driver to take us around the island; public transportation is just too limited and the thought of driving ourselves in some of the places we want to go too intimidating. So we made use of the driver on our one full day in Tana to take us first up to the Queen’s castle (the Rova) on the highest point above the city and then out to the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, a UNESCO World Heritage site recognizing its spiritual and historic importance as the one-time home of Madagascar’s royalty. The roads out there were pretty awful but both sites were worth doing.
The next day it was up early and off south to Antsirabe. Though it is Madagascar’s second city we didn’t have any real need to go there except that it would break up an otherwise too-long drive to Ranomafano National Park, our actual destination. First I should note that we both loved the drive down here; the hills and scenery were beautiful and to our delight the road was in pretty good shape, at least compared to our expectations. Lots of terraced rice fields (shades of ancient Asian roots!) and people out working in the fields and all that quaint stuff you see in the countryside.
And then we were charmed by the city itself. Our hotel had an old and definitely aged colonial feel to it, but with lovely gardens. And again we found a great restaurant, Chez Jenny, where the drinks were cheap, the food was great, and the service was delightfully friendly. With three days in Madagascar under our belts now, we’re pretty happy.