I decided to go to Madagascar 24 hours before my flight left. Originally, I’d purchased a ticket for a month in South Africa, but after several months in Europe, I decided that I needed something more unusual, something raw. So, the next day I found myself on a non-stop flight from Barcelona to Antananarivo, or “Tana.”
As soon as we landed, I could feel the heat. Even though it was close to midnight, the humidity crept through the open plane doors like a fog: Welcome to Africa. After getting my visa (U.S. citizens receive a visa on arrival), I headed outside where a driver was waiting to take me to my hostel. It was overwhelming to step into this totally foreign world; a world where I could not hide, where my light-brown hair and muddy green eyes were exotic. People flood the airport, grabbing your bag and offering to carry it, asking if you need a ride (mostly in French, which I’m fortunate to have 7 years under my belt), doing anything to make a tip – anything. The car we rode in was literally the oldest car I have ever seen. The interior was completely metal and the manual gear shift was in the dashboard. We drove down winding roads, brick roads, dirt roads, until we reached the hostel gates. The hostel owner, Sarindra, greeted me and showed me to my room; a modest dorm-like setting where each bed had its own mosquito net.
In the morning I met my roommate, who was a friendly girl from Taiwan. She took me to the local market where we bought some vegetables and strange fruits that I had never seen before, like lychee, a deliciously sweet and juicy fruit resembling a strawberry covered in porcupine quills. After the market, I set out to explore the city by myself and sketch. I must warn you that not all sights are pleasant in Tana. There is no trash collection, so citizens must haul their waste to designated dumpsters along the streets. Some people dig through these dumpsters looking for anything they can salvage, while others walk down the street and discard waste wherever it falls. There are many people in the streets, some without clothes and most without shoes. It was Tana where I saw the aftermath of colonization; the damage done by forcing culture onto foreign societies. I became good friends with Sarindra, and we spent many hours walking through the city, her showing me the ancient palaces, gardens, and graveyards, while we chatted about life in Africa. Sari was one of the kindest, most intelligent, and giving people I met on my journey, and I will never forget her.
After a few days, I decided to travel to Moramanga to see the rainforest and the lemurs. I took a taxi-brousse, or a bush-taxi, which is the local form of transportation. To say the least, it was a crazy experience. Sari told me the normal price of a ticket, since everything in Madagascar is negotiable. After bargaining to face value, I found my seat in the old 15 passenger van. Packed with passengers, I stopped counting at 20 and was thankful for my window seat. I sat next to an elderly woman named Claudine, who made small talk and helped me practice my French by naming things that we saw outside the window on our 7-hour car ride. Finally, I arrived at my stop and walked 2 miles down a dirt road to the edge of the rainforest, where I found a small cluster of huts which would serve as my accommodation.
The following days, I spent hours with a guide looking for lemurs, snakes, and exotic birds. Luckily, we did not have to look very hard and I saw four different types of lemurs, two kinds of snakes, and too many birds to count. Hearing the lemur calls was incredible: so powerful and beautiful for such a small creature. Did you know that each type of lemur has its own language, yet there are universal commands that all understand to alert of danger? These calls are specific enough to identify whether it is danger by air or ground, and they are not sure how every type learns and understands these calls. Quite impressive!
I returned to Tana and spent the next few days exploring waterfalls, countryside, and more. My one regret was that I did not have enough time to travel west to see the Baobab trees. If you take away one piece of advice from this article, plan this in advance. You will need a private driver, or else getting there by other means can take upward of three days, and that is not a guarantee. Like the country itself, travel in Africa is wild and unpredictable.
Madagascar simultaneously broke and stole my heart; around each corner a scene of beauty and tragedy. I am often asked which country is my favorite of all that I’ve visited and, without wavering, I always choose Madagascar. Adventurous, resilient, exotic, and humbling, it will show you the world through a different lens; something that I believe is essential to becoming human.