Madagascar is located off the the southern coast of Africa and is the 4th largest island in the world (around 229,000 square miles or a little smaller than the size of Texas). The very name conjures up images of exotic creatures and endless lush landscape. I had wanted to go for a long time, but the ridiculous cost to get there (at the time $3500 from the West Coast) and the 30+ hours enroute was prohibitive. So I tacked it on to a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, and it was a much more reasonable $650 six hour flight.
Once you are actually there, prices are very reasonable and it was not overcrowded with tourists….but there is a catch. Their infrastructure cannot support everyday life: less than 25% of the country has electricity and running water, some hotels and institutions have working toilets, but most residences do not, and the road system cannot handle the traffic.
I hired a private guide/driver (which I highly recommend if you are not on a group tour), and we spent most of our time sitting in traffic and waiting (and I mean for HOURS). And as we sat there not moving, poor young children would come and tap on the window to beg over and over and over, and simply would not go away. It was extremely uncomfortable having them stand right outside the car window and stare with sad hollow eyes, but if you give to one, the car will be swarmed, so my guide advised against it.
The poverty was overwhelming. And while I can’t fix the problem, I choose to contribute to the economy by investing in the whole: I visit the country (airline and taxi contribution), hire a tour guide, eat in their restaurants, stay in a hotel, and purchase souvenirs. To me, this is the best way to help them.
Speaking of souvenirs, they have some beautiful handicrafts at the Marche Artisanal de la Digne, a place for tourists (the shop owners speak English) with prices to match, so it is customary to bargain.
I saw a large painting in my colors that I expressed interest in, and when they quoted me $250, I turned to leave (not because that is too much money for a painting, but because it was marked sky high for a tourist). That was when the fun began! After several rounds of back and forth good-hearted haggling, I agreed to $40, and we both walked away happy. I was pleased that a family would be fed for 2+ months, even though the right price (based on their economy) would have been more like $10. They were delighted that they got more that they would have settled for: a win-win!
They also have woodcarvings, raffia (made into handbags, baskets, decor, wallets, etc.), embroidered tablecloths, spices, and probably the most well-known, vanilla (which I bought and can attest to its deliciousness!).
One of the places my guide took me was to a private home on a mountainside, with the idea to let me experience how the local people live. The hosts were warm and friendly, but I felt like an interloper in their humble space. There was no glass on the windows, the floor was packed down dirt, and they had no water or electricity or appliances (they cooked over a hole in the ground). It is seeing something so far removed from how we as Americans live that makes me appreciate all my blessings and be grateful for even the little things.
Because of the lack of development, a wide array of indigenous plants and animals thrive there, including 11,000 endemic plants and 615 recently discovered animal species. While my stay in Anatananarivo (the capital city of around 1.3 million) was one and a half days and it was plenty for me, if you are a nature lover, there are amazing mountains, lakes, plateaus, deserts, and beaches to see. And, it is the only place in the world where lemurs (over 30 species) are found in the wild.
Due to the poor sanitation and health standards, as well as a lack of refrigeration that tourists are not used to, there is a good chance visitors will experience stomach issues, and I was no exception. While waiting at the airport for my return flight to Nairobi, I had food poisoning and barely found a trash can in time to throw up in it. There were decent restrooms and I kept going back about every 15 minutes, much to my embarrassment in front of the stoic attendant. It couldn’t be helped 🙂
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time and am very glad I went! If you are considering going, you just need to be aware of some of the issues you will face. Tourism is a lifeblood for the Malagasy, so if you have the opportunity to visit, go for it!