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Africa » Madagascar » Fianarantsoa
May 1st 2009
Published: April 1st 2012
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Landing in Madagascar was really exciting because the soil there is
very red from all the iron, so it looked like mars. We had braced
ourselves for a lot of hassle and danger the second we came out of the
airport, but our initial impression was that everyone was calm and
kind. The poverty is extreme, and everywhere, but the people don't
seem sad. Tana is full of slums and dirty, unaccompanied toddlers, but
there is a good atmosphere. People wanted to say hello (bonzour or
salam) and smile and wave at us. It was actually a break from the
hassle of sleazy Reunion men. We took clothes and books and pens and
sweets to an orphanage which was very sad, but we spoke for a long
time to the lady in charge who was great. We can understand the
heavily accented African-sounding French the educated people speak to
us, but the dialect Malagasy people speak to each other is totally
impenetrable.

Everyone works so hard in Madagascar. The building sites are full of
12 year old boys building with wooden scaffolding and every woman and
child is carrying a big basket or bucket on their head with at least
one infant strapped to their back. The oldest child in every family
looks after all the little ones. There are literally toddlers looking
after several tiny babies. They are so kind to each other and always
smiley.

We only stayed in Tana for one night then left early on the red mud
roads heading south, driving past the ladies washing clothes in the
very red rivers. We drove through beautiful bright green paddy fields
and round scary corners and past tiny tin or red clay houses. Our
first stop was in a tiny "village" (8 thatched stalls) which
specialised in pineapples. We bought lots of pineapples and played
with the very cute kids before continuing on the road. We passed
through more minute villages selling red-clay vases and flowers. We
stopped at a village where the big metal pots called "marmites" are
made. We played with lovely kids and chickens and pigs. The little
brothers and sisters were so sweet with each other. We watched the
marmites being made in a little hut, melting old metal down and
setting beautiful new hot pots in the sand. Nothing is wasted and
nothing taken for granted there.

Our next stop was an incredible market. The people there laughed
hysterically at us – they had never seen "vazahas" (white people)
before. They loved us taking photos and showing them on the camera.
The mothers were really proud if you wanted to take a photo of their
child. We walked about a mile through the market, followed all the way
by the same group of tiny kids. We were watched by many little
children as we watched men having their haircut in the middle of the
market.

We drove further south before stopping to sit and watch zebu whilst we
ate our pineapples. As we approached the town of Antsirabe the zebu
and carts on the road were joined by many pousse-pousses. We watched a
man draw beautiful designs of zebu and rice pickers onto big white
table cloths which the women beside him then sewed over in bright
colours. The street kids in Antsirabe are very persistant beggars and
seem to have a harder life than those in the countryside. I talked to
some for a long time in broken French and mime and felt very sad for
them. We were followed for a long time through the town. It's awful
not being able to help starving mothers and tiny, dirty babies.

We took a pousse-pousse through the town as it got dark. I felt pretty
weird about someone having to carry mine and Anna's weight, but he was
a lovely guy and seemed pleased with the money we gave him.

The next day we saw some sweeties being made by some really nice
people in Antsirabe. We nervously sampled them, having seen how
unhygienically they had been made, but they were yummy. We bought
loads to give to kids and then drove up and out of the city over an
incredibly rocky path. Families of smiley children waved to us and
shouted "bonzour les vazahas" as we drove. When we got out of the car
we were mobbed by kids trying to sell us stuff, but they were very
sweet and accompanied us all the way round a big lake. We felt very
white and stared at as we stopped to apply deet and suncream. The kids
were really funny – my face ached from smiling so much. Not something
I'd have expected from a third world country.

The lake was bright turquoise and the walk round it was stunning. We
asked if there were crocodiles and they said no. We asked if we could
swim and they said no, because of the crocodiles. The little kids were
massively knowledgeable about all the plants and history of the lake –
especially considering they were talking to us in French, their 2nd
language. They told us it's a sacred lake so you can't eat pork there
and we saw some sacrifices and a baptism. We had a picnic lunch at
another lake underneath trees filled with the biggest spiders I've
ever seen. We drove further away from Antsirabe towards some
waterfalls and talked to family who were drying rice on the floor. We
played with some puppies then all of us, including toothless grannies,
heavily pregnant women and toddlers with babies strapped to their
backs climbed down through the paddy fields. Some of it was really
steep and we were massively impressed at how tough these people are,
and embarrassed at how lame by comparison we were with our hiking
boots and deet instead of barefoot like them. The waterfalls were
beautiful and we all sat by them eating pineapple together. The kids
played and sang with each other more happily than I've ever seen
western kids. Julie asked to take a photo of one of the crazy
grannies, who immediately sprinted into the croc-infested water to
pose.

The climb back to the village was hard work and we were touched that
they all chose to come just to be with us. It was sad saying goodbye
to such lovely people. The whole village, including a pregnant zebu
and a little boy who is terrified of white people came to wave us off.
(They tell their kids scary stories about how the vazaha will take
them away if they are bad).

The next day we saw a bridge which had been blown up during the
political crisis in 2006. As we drove further south, the people began
to look different and speak a different dialect. We went to another
market where everyone just stared and stared at us with their mouths
open. Julie tried to buy some safety pins with a 1000ariary note
(about 30p) and they just laughed in her face because it was far too
much money. We watched men make beautiful carvings out of rosewood.
Even when there is no one to sell things to, they sculpt all day. No
one sits about unemployed in Madagascar, unlike the 40% of able bodied
men in La Reunion who literally do nothing.

The next day we were in Ambositra where we saw an exhumed body being
carried thought the streets with lots of kids following and singing.
We drove up into a very remote village 2 hours outside of Ambositra.
From there we hiked the long, steep path to the next village called
Ifasina. At the summit of the first steep hill we found a shrine with
zebu horns. The people here strongly believe in witchcraft. A witch a
few centuries ago cast a protective spell which means only vazahas
will get eaten by the crocodiles, which is nice. The hike was hard and
took 3 hours – no wonder people rarely leave Ifasina! The village was
beautiful from above, but as we descended into it, it became very sad.
The inhabitants are totally incestuous and as a result are not well at
all. It was here that we saw a little boy who had had his eyeballs
removed. They have no contact with the outside world and were hard to
relate to. They wanted to take all of our clothes and bags and
belongings. I gave some kids my empty water bottles and a bandana but
it only caused them to fight over them. We all felt like our visit
only damaged the village and felt very sad. The hike back seemed extra
long as we could hear a thunderstorm approaching. It didn't actually
hit until we were back in Ambositra. The lightening bolts on the hill
were stunning, but the streets turned to red rivers. There was no
electricity that night.

The next day we continued south, heading for Fianarantsoa. We stopped
at a tiny village where they were making biscuits. We sat in the
"kitchen" (a mud hut with a fire), while the 12 year old son kneaded
dough and cut the biscuits. His dad then put them in the fire and 5
minutes later we were all eating hot, yummy biscuits. We bought lots
of biscuits to give to other kids and were about to leave when they
insisted we come to see a lady who had just given birth. We climbed
through the tiniest doorway into a dark spidery room. The baby was
lovely and everyone was very happy and peaceful.

Our next stop was another market which was big and colourful. We saw
chickens being loaded onto taxi-brousses and live pigs being
wheelbarrowed off to people's houses. We arrived in Fianar in the
afternoon and did the walk up to the old town accompanied by many
beggar children. We went to an artist's house at the top of the hill
and bought some paintings of Madagascan countryside for the equivalent
of a few Euros. Outside his house we saw some seriously huge spiders.
The local kids told us not to be scared of them – they mix them into
water and then drink the water as pain relief. I'm sticking with
nurofen.

We got to Fianar train station for 6.30am the next morning and waited
on the tiny steam train for a couple of hours while the guards
hammered the wheels on with a stone. There were no doors, just
doorways, but at least there were benches in 1st class. People in 2nd
class were crammed in with nothing but floor. We finally got going
very slowly, stopping at villages where people sold us mangos and tiny
little bananas. The train continued through beautiful hills, banana
trees and waterfalls. The views were stunning, and soon we were in
thick, humid rainforest and we had to avoid being attacked by vicious
branches of jungle which came through the window as well as the
dragonflies the size of bats. As we came out of the lush rainforest
the villages we stopped at became more and more desperately poor.
There was less and less fruit for people to survive on and we saw some
seriously malnourished kids for the first time which was really tough.
We stopped for up to an hour in 6 or 7 villages like this. The begging
was intense and very, very sad. We all felt like tourists were making
these places worse which was grim. Just before reaching Manakara the
train line actually went straight across a run-way. Very Madagascan
planning. It was after 7pm and already getting dark when we finally
disembarked in Manakara. The pousse-pousse men were aggressive
fighting for our custom and we were exhausted and dirty from the smoky
train, but it was great to have made it to the coast and to see sea.
We had local crevettes for supper and watched the beautiful moon over
the water.

The morning was wet and stormy but we pulled on our rain macs and
climbed into a tiny wooden boat on the Pangalanes canal along with our
bags, four Malagasy rowers, our guide Ri and two live chickens. The
boat was a piroque, which is really just a wooden canoe. The rowers
were really strong and speedy and got us to a vanilla plantation very
quickly. We went for a walk and Ri showed us wild lemongrass, venus
fly traps and the plants the locals use as anti-inflammatories. Soon
the sun came out and we were back on the boat in the very warm water.
Whilst still on the water Ri started cooking us all lunch on the
continuously burning charcoals in the middle of the boat. He grilled
fresh river fish with onions and tomatoes and made a lemon juice,
vanilla and rum drink that was just delicious. He even made rice on
the boat. We stopped at an idyllic bank under a shady tree to eat. We
had mango for dessert and then a siesta on the grass.

We continued south on the canal for another few hours until we arrived
in absolute paradise – an incredible remote village with the canal on
one side and the sea on the other. There was nothing but a handful of
huts on stilts, some animals and very kind people. No electricity,
nothing brought in, all very real. I can't describe how beautiful it
was. We watched zebu swim across from a perfect desert island which
you can walk out to at low tide. There is no school there so no one
speaks French but we played with kids for hours singing, dancing and
mimicking each other. I felt like a stupid vazaha when the kids
watched me brush my teeth by my torch light next to a tree. But since
no one in the village had more than a couple of teeth I decided
brushing was the way forward. There were no other lights so we had a
wonderful sky of stars. Just before going to bed in tents with BIG
holes in the sides we saw a land crab the size of a dinner plate
scuttle next to us. There was a big storm in the night, so everything
got very wet and the wind sounded a lot like a crocodile attacking the
tent, but we survived. I got up at sunrise and watched the fishermen
go out to sea. We felt very far away from western society – we had no
idea what the time was and didn't share a language with the people
there, but felt incredibly content. We said thank you and goodbye and
got back on the water very early to continue south along the very
crocodile-infested canal. The rowers were genuinely a bit scared, so
we kept our hands and feet inside the boat, but it was beautiful
nonetheless. It was bright and sunny again as we rowed through the
rushes hearing snakes and cicadas around us. We saw kingfishers and
more swimming zebu and stopped at little villages where kids and
adults could only stare open mouthed at us because we were so foreign.
An amazing bright orange, black and yellow spotted frog jumped onto
the boat and then onto Rhian's face which was quite funny. Our guide
Ri made us another rum punch, this time with fresh passion fruit. We
have a theory that if you drink enough rum with every Malagasy meal
the bacteria will be killed by the alcohol so you won't get food
poisoning. This worked pretty well for all of us. Ri cooked another
incredible lunch for us, still on the boat. We had curry with cinnamon
and beans and pineapple. We had to stay on the boat to eat because
there were too many crocs (up to 8 metres long!) on the shore. Ri told
us he saw a crocodile eat a dog recently.

When we finally got off the boat we had to scramble up a vertical
cliff face with our backpacks on and with a whole village laughing at
us. We hung around trying not to get sunburnt while we waited for a
taxi-brousse. We got on one within 20 minutes but then it drove round
the same village looking for more people for two whole hours. While
they stacked everyone's luggage plus 12x200kg sacks of rice on top of
the small vehicle the local kids went wild for us vazahas, practising
their French and having a good stare at us. Once all the rice was on
top we kept driving round until the small people carrier had a driver,
17 adults and 2 babies on board. Seriously. We finally got going -
very, very fast, until, predictably, a tyre burst. Everyone piled out
and helped jack the car up using rocks and somehow got a spare tyre
on. Eventually we were hurtling along again, but then we saw a big
lorry accident which was very sad. As the only vazahas in the
taxi-brousse we drew a lot of attention. The police flagged the
taxi-brousse down purely to check our 4 visas and to have a good stare
at us. We eventually made it back up to Manakara and then took the
windey route back inland towards Fianar. We found a beautiful hut on
top of a hill in Ranomfana with a stunning view of the rainforest.
Julie and I did some good outdoor yoga, before we all headed down the
hill to the natural hot springs. Rhian and I swum with the locals – it
was wonderful, like a massive, hot bath. It started raining while we
were still in the hot water, which was a weird sensation. We hurried
back up to our lovely hut, across a very scary bridge (built just
under a blown down similar bridge) to wait out the storm. We know now
that the storm was the very outskirts of the cyclone that was hitting
the east coast at the same time. We missed being stranded in the
seaside village by 24 hours. Despite the locusts, praying mantises and
massive spiders jumping on us from every wall and bush, Ranomafana is
probably my favourite town I've seen in Madagascar.

We woke up at sunrise to a stunning view of the rainforest from our
hilltop hut. We met our guide, "Diamond" at 7am and set off on our 6
hour hike through Ranomafana National Park. It was absolutely amazing.
We saw giant snails, mini chameleons, lots of leeches, an incredible
leaf-tailed lizard, a bright red millipede and wonderful lemurs. A
family of brown lemurs walked right in front of our path. Later, we
were watching lots of bamboo lemurs up in a tree, when one came right
down to our feet. I held out a stick of bamboo for him which he took
off me and then held my hand with his! It was absolutely wonderful to
have such intimate contact with a totally wild animal in his own
environment. We all sat quietly, inches away from him, as he ate his
bamboo lunch. He made eye contact with us and seemed so calm about our
presence. It made me incredibly happy. When we finally left him I
realised I had hundreds of splinters in my hand from weird rainforest
moss on the bamboo. Our guide bent forward and insisted that I rub my
hand vigorously on his afro to get the splinters out. It worked really
well, but I was worried the splinters would transfer onto Diamond's
head. We continued the hike, which was hard work in the 90% humidity
with steep climbs and slippery descents. The bugs were massive, and as
we fought through bushes giant black praying mantises, cicadas and
enormous rainforest spiders fell on us as well as the leeches.

The next day was Obama's inauguration, although we couldn't access any
news, being in a very obscure place called Ambalavao. This was the
furthest south we travelled. We did a shorter walk outside Ambalavao
looking for ring-tailed lemurs, which involved scaling some scary
rockfaces and hiding from another big storm in a cave. We got metres
away from several families of wild ring-tailed lemurs. They are lovely
animals. We also saw tombs of important tribesmen guarded by zebu
heads.

The next morning we went to a big produce market. Everything was laid
out so beautifully on the red earth. We kept being warned about the
cyclones. It was already very windy, and on the road back up to
Ambositra we saw lots of branches and mud on the road. That night the
wind howled and howled which was quite scary, and this was still only
the very outskirts of the cyclone. We did the long drive back up to
Tana, stopping for a picnic where a green spider bit my leg.

Our final morning was blue and sunny. We went to the outskirts of Tana
where they were making beautiful things from iron, and then had a
final look round Tana market before flying back to Reunion.

It was an amazing time. Some of it was really, really hard, but mostly
I got the impression that Madagascar is a wonderful country. The
people say "mora-mora" to everything, which is like "no worries". They
were so kind to us and taught us a lot, I definitely want to return at
some point.

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