It’s About Damn Time
Was Madagascar really happening this time? Finally? I’d been so close on my last three trips to Africa, but no dice. Madagascar was one of the very last (if not the last) African countries to open back up after the pandemic. It absolutely tore me to pieces to be in Mauritius just months ago–a mere 90-minute flight from Madagascar–and not be able to visit, especially because Madagascar is just about the farthest destination from home. Being right there but not able to enter was maddening. But here we are, August 2022, and I was leaving Chicago for Antananarivo, via Toronto and Addis Ababa.
NERD STUFF: Madagascar is an (approximate) antipode of Los Angeles. An antipode of any place on the Earth is the place that is diametrically opposite it, so a line drawn from the one to the other passes through the center of Earth and forms a true diameter.
FLIGHT STUFF: Cost for this flight (one way) – 88,000 miles and $28.52 in taxes, booked via United.com.
I’d have three nights and two full days in Madagascar – just over 72 hours. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’d normally be more than content with three whole nights in a country, but even I was a little sour that I wouldn’t have more time in such an exotic and sought-after destination. I’m on a mission to finish all 193 countries by January and simply don’t have enough vacation time to spend more than a couple days here. My only solace was that I knew I’d be coming back – I knew this before I even got here. There’s just too much more I want to see in this region, including the French islands of Reunion and Mayotte and the North of Madagascar, including the white sand beaches of Nosy Be. But it would have to be a quick trip to the capital for now – an appetizer before the main course.
The Eagle Has Landed
I think I will always remember the very first thing I saw while stepping out of my taxi at the hotel: an old man approaching me, holding out a pile of the reddest strawberries you’d ever seen, laid on top of a white cloth. I’m no stranger to street hawkers on my travels, but something about this particular instance was just so pure. No aggressiveness, no shouting, no whistling, no “Mister, mister!” Just this old man holding his strawberries out to me. The image was seared into my brain and I will gladly hold on to it as long as I live. In hindsight I should’ve bought the strawberries.
I decided to splurge on this trip, booking a suite at Le Louvre Hotel and Spa. I’d learned the hard way not to go cheap when it comes to accommodations in Africa and wanted to treat myself to commemorate such a special destination and my last African nation. 54 nations in the hardest-to-travel continent in the world and I’d made it to number 54. The least I could do was book a great room.
Even with the expensive (for Africa) price and the great rating online, I still didn’t quite know what to expect – but upon arrival, I knew I’d chosen wisely. The hotel’s bright reception joined a casual eating area with high ceilings and big menus on the wall filled with tempting options. Palms surrounded the wide, open-air spiral staircase in the middle of the building. And my room was just perfect – a split-level suite with a lot of wood and stone everywhere. The best part: a balcony that looked right out onto all the action in the street. This trip was off to a great start.
Intro to Antananarivo
My guide, Aina, met me at 5PM and we were off for an introductory stroll – to see what we could see before the sun set. We didn’t have long, but it was quality over quantity, as we hiked up cobblestone roads to reach Queen’s Palace. The entire way I couldn’t help but ogle all that beautiful, French architecture – some buildings refurbished and immaculate, others crumbling as nature took over. We crisscrossed up the hill via stone stairways, passing the city’s main (and monstrous) old high school, churches and a public laundry station where women scrubbed and wrung out clothes by hand, while overlooking the city down below. The urban sprawl below us looked like it was on fire as the deep red, sinking sun set everything in its path ablaze. The title of this article is more than alliterative poetry – this place was indeed magic and just two hours in, I could feel it in my heart. I enjoyed using the pool and Jacuzzi at the hotel and a small plate of rigatoni before bedtime. It was time to rest after the long journey, and recharge for the coming two days in Madagascar.
It was a light breakfast at the hotel before my first activity. Aina and driver Christian took me about 45 minutes out of town to see Lemur’s Park. I truly enjoyed the drive out, staring at passersby on the street, the buildings, and then the suburbs before we lost sight of town. On the way out, we passed a parade of people, complete with musicians. I don’t know what they were celebrating, but I wanted to stop and party with them.
My hour tour through Lemur’s Park was a blast. Our park guide, Hery, was extremely knowledgeable and knew all there was to know about lemurs. After showing us through the botanical garden, we stopped at five or six areas to spend time with different groups of lemurs – each stop was home to a different species and/or family of lemurs. I loved that they weren’t in cages. Hery would call them down with his voice or by tapping on wood, and within 60 seconds, here they’d come, jumping down through the trees to greet us. I was able to get pretty close. They were absolutely beautiful. This was such a special experience – if only I could take one home, however, once I saw them poop and pee, I knew life with a lemur was not meant to be.
Back in town, it was lunch at a nearby restaurant that was right out of a movie. La Petite Brasserie had all the charm of an old-timey Paris café. I enjoyed a croquet monsieur and some sparkling water with passion fruit syrup. It was all so very French.
I said goodbye to Ania for now – we’d meet up later to walk the city – but I couldn’t resist the urge to leave the hotel and explore on my own. There was no way I could sit still for even a moment in Madagascar, so it was out the door I went, to walk the streets of Antananarivo solo-dolo.
Cómo Se Dice Antananarivo
Here’s where we should talk about the pronunciation of the capital – a name I wouldn’t master saying until my third day here. Aahntaana-Nah-Ree-Vo. Aahntaana-Nah-Ree-Vo. I had to repeat it several times to memorize it. Now you try it: Aahntaana-Nah-Ree-Vo. There’s something so fun about visiting a city you can’t even pronounce. No wonder they call it Tana for short.
The hotel’s location was just about perfect. Immediately across the street was a little park and monument that looked out over the city. At the end, a long staircase that takes you right down to Avenue de l’Indépedence, but not before passing vendors on each side of you, selling trinkets, leather goods and sticks of that famous Madagascar vanilla.
I hung a left on Independence Avenue and headed for the train station, which was sadly, closed and completely fenced off. Right outside of the station’s grounds were the beginnings of a mile-long market, and if you know me, I’m a sucker for a good market. The next hour consisted of getting purposely lost in that street-side market – walking among the masses, letting myself just get caught up in the crowd like a minnow in a school of hundreds (or thousands of) fish. I was judicious about when and where I took my phone out, and snapped away where I could. My senses were on overload and the hairs on my arms were standing at attention. The warmth of the setting sun and the rhythm of the market and its people gave me life. This was the exact moment I knew I loved Madagascar.
Oh, and the taxis! The old cars were everywhere: old cream-colored Renaults, Peugeots and oh how I just adored those old Citroëns with the headlights perched upon their rounded hoods. I just love how so many cities have their own brand of taxis and Antananarivo’s had landed first place in my book. How could you not love these cute little coffee-colored jalopies?
I met Aina for our evening city tour and she was impressed I’d seen so much on my own already. We headed back down to see my favorite taxi – this time she’d take the photo of me with the driver. Then, it was back up the hill to have a drink at The Belvedere Hotel and watch the sun set. The church bells clanged down below as I watched my second Tana sunset.
For dinner, it was over to the Radama Hotel to try the local, Malagasy specialty: Royal Romazava. The traditional dish is a stew made of chicken, meat and vegetables and served with red rice.
My second full (and last) day in Tana would be spent exploring the city. I started with a light breakfast back at La Petit Brasserie before hitting the pavement. This time, I’d gain entry into the train station, but sadly, there was very little “train stuff” to see. No ticket windows, no timetables, and no trains. Aina mentioned there were indeed train services, but they were infrequent. The whole station was a ghost town except for one vendor selling souvenirs. Still, I enjoyed seeing that gorgeous structure up close.
Next stop, Parc de Tsarasaotra. I’d need a taxi to get there and didn’t want to ride in anything but a classic Citroën 2CV – this was the real old school looking cab. There was old, older and oldest, and that would be the 2CV. We located one, negotiated the fare and we were off. These things are lot more fun to look at than actually ride. By the end of the trip I had a cramp in my neck from sitting with my head titled to the side – at 6’ tall, there was not enough clearance for me. I sat up front with the driver, a little guy that fit just perfectly in the car. The seat belt did not work and there were certainly no airbags in this thing. It was great fun for about 15 seconds and after that I couldn’t wait to get outta that death trap. It was a real-life Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I just kept thinking, “please don’t let us get hit by a big truck” – I’d certainly get mauled (and stuck) once this sardine can of a car crumpled. But happily, I arrived unscathed!
I didn’t spend much time in the park, which consisted of a big lake with tons of ducks and some other cool birds. Two minutes into the trail the giant spider webs (home of giant spiders) hung just a little too low for comfort. So it was back in the tin can with wheels and a return to the town’s center.
Head for the Hills
This time, instead of turning right to head up the big flight of stairs to the hotel, we look a left and meandered around a place that might or might not be called China Town. At least, that was my nickname for it, as we passed a couple really big Chinese hotels and casinos. The street was bustling with all the city action that I’ve come to adore and the only thing that would make it better would be the flight of stairs we soon came upon., near the sign that told us we were in the Anjomakely neighborhood.
These steps were full of more captivating sights and sounds: lots of umbrellas and produce, whole chickens hanging from a wooden rail, a man with typewriters and sewing machines stacked onto the stairs and a lady selling old records and primary school books. I should’ve bought one of her 45s, just to bring it home and put it on the platter to discover what played. Like the strawberries, I woefully regret not making this purchase.
It was up, up and up into the hills. The stairs finally ended and a street with big, black, shiny rectangular pavers took over. We spent an hour winding around the neighborhood up here. We passed schools, government buildings, tiny snack shacks and lots of neat houses and apartments. It was quieter up here – a peaceful respite from the chaos down below. Occasionally a 2CV would come rattling around the bend and I’d struggle to get my phone out in time to snap a pic. As we wound around the city and eventually made our descent back into town, we passed a beauty of a restaurant that looked too good not to stop into.
The Grand Urban Hotel‘s restaurant was just what I needed. The strawberry milkshake and pizza hit the spot and was the perfect lunch after such a long and strenuous trek. It also helped to lull me into the much-needed coma once back at the hotel. Still jet lagged, I’d woke that morning at 3AM without going back to sleep, so it was time to play catch up. I enjoyed a glorious afternoon nap, not getting back out until dinnertime.
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Children of the Street
I wasn’t quite sure where to mention the sadder side of Madagascar and that is, the poverty – specifically all the street children – so I’ll just start here. At 183 countries, it’s safe to say that I’ve been to a lot of impoverished places and seen some pretty tough things. But it was the street kids in Tana that really got to me, more than usual.
My first interaction was on my first afternoon, after immediately stepping out of the hotel. There were three kids – almost young enough to be classified as toddlers – singing on the sidewalk for change. They actually sounded adorable and the whole thing would’ve been awesome if it wasn’t for their appearance, dirty and wearing rags. How could I not throw ‘em some cash? They stole my heart. But once the rest of the street kids (and their mothers) spot you giving away money to anyone, then they know – and will not leave you alone. For the next 72 hours, every time I would leave or return to the hotel, I faced a constant bombardment of these sweet children, who not only would approach me for money, but would follow me for what seemed like half a mile.
“Monsieur, monsieur,” they would call out, walking right next to me, speaking French. I might not have understood the words, but certainly knew what they were asking for. I rode the line between completely ignoring the kids (which was hard to do), and somewhat acknowledging them, as to not come off as a complete uncaring tourist. I did care. But I knew if I gave anyone any more money, it would just intensify the scrutiny every time I left or got near the hotel. Word would get around that I was the faza passing out money and a mob would accumulate. I stuck to my guns almost the entire two days, each time experiencing immense sadness once I’d freed myself of the trailing children. How could I not give them a dollar for some food? I felt awful but knew the consequences of handing out money outside of the hotel one stays at. There was one encounter with a little girl holding her baby brother – I tried all I could to just keep walking, but in the end I reached in my pocket to hand her a 20,000 ariary bill (about $5).
What drove me to the brink of breaking down and sobbing was the walk to dinner on my final night. I passed a mother and her two young children huddled around a little fire. It was a scene out of a movie. They spotted the foreigner and immediately ran up to me, trailing me for two minutes asking for money to eat. Minutes later I’d walk into one of the most opulent restaurants in the country to spend over $100 on an absolutely exquisite dinner of beef medallions and fancy hors d’oeuvres. I know the word guilt is not appropriate here (guilt is what you feel when doing something morally wrong or illegal), so let’s just say sadness. Here I am, absolutely living the definition of the “high-life,” and just feet away, a mother and her children are huddling around a flame to keep warm, without knowing where their next meal would come from. I know this problem is centuries old and is happening everywhere, but it just felt a little more real here.
While I enjoyed La Varangue, I purposely ate less than half of my meal. I couldn’t wait to have it boxed up and give it to those kids. Unfortunately, by the time I left the restaurant they were already gone – they’d disappeared into the night. I was relieved that before I could enter the hotel—just a couple hundred feet away—a young boy ran up to me. He was thrilled to take the dinner and I was so happy it wouldn’t go to waste.
I spent my final morning in Antananarivo strolling down Independence Avenue soaking in the fabulous weather (70 and sunny) and doing my last round of people-watching. I’ve not enjoyed people-watching anywhere in the world as much as in Madagascar. As island off the east coast of Africa, the country was first settled by Austronesians (Indonesians, Polynesians, etc.) The Bantu tribe from Africa later crossed the Moçambique channel to join them. The Arabs came. And of course French colonization. What you have today is one of the most beautiful mixes of people on the planet. I spent 95% of my time just staring at all the people, incessantly. I couldn’t help it—it became an addiction—a drug that I needed more and more of the longer I was in town. I took in giant, over dramatic breathes as I floated down the street on this final walk. I wanted to absorb the air, the smells, the everything of Tana before it was time to head to the airport. I didn’t want to go.
I enjoyed my last breakfast at a café called Blanche Neige, or, Snow White. Somehow I doubted Disney licensed this name to the small strip-mall restaurant. I had a waffle sandwich and exercised my right as an adult to order ice cream for breakfast. After the meal I took one last stroll through the market to pick up some of that famous Madagascar vanilla and some baobab seeds (I thought it would be cool to try and grow a baobab tree at home…my HOA, on the other hand, would probably go bat-shit.) No seeds, but I did succeed in my hunt for the vanilla.
I took a different route on my walk back to the hotel, discovering a whole new little neighborhood for the first time. This was for a sure a very “well-off” borough (Labomary was the name, I think) home of fancy apartments, banks and embassies lining the sidewalks. I pretended I was on an episode of House Hunters as I strolled on, imagining which place I’d pick if I ever decided to live here.
My last stop was the local grocery store, across the street from the hotel. I enjoyed perusing the aisles and taking snaps of interesting products at LeaderPrice until security told me to knock it off. So many places don’t give you the freedom to take photos at will like in the USA. I remember once being told I couldn’t take photos inside a cell phone store in Bulgaria – that sells camera phones…you’re literally a camera store and you’re telling me I can’t use a camera. Weirdos.
It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye
My cab ride to the airport was one of the few times in my life I was glad to be stuck in traffic. Windows down, I savored every last second of people-watching as we crept down the street, block by block. I stared at the faces of people working, carrying things on their head and laughing among each other. Some of the best smiles exist in Antananarivo, that’s for sure. Two young boys approached each side of the cab to ask for money and must’ve jogged alongside me for a half-mile, not giving up until they couldn’t keep up.
For my traveling friends, I should note that one of the nicest lounge experiences I’ve ever had was at Ivato International Airport. Maybe I just got there at a good time – it wasn’t crowded at all. Beautiful jazz music played as the sadness that was building inside me all morning came to its apex. I hadn’t felt this way since leaving Brasil for the first time, so many years ago – nearly two decades really. There’s been so many countries in Africa that I was happy to be leaving, but I was extremely melancholy to be exiting this one. There is something truly special about Madagascar and like Brasil, I’ll be back.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t hip you to one of my favorite movies of all time. This independent film, produced and filmed by one person, is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, and I promise you, if you commit to it, it will make your life richer. Please make a point to watch The Madagascar Journals. You can watch it now, on Youtube – best viewed on a real TV. You will thank me.