East of Africa: Departure

The boiling hot shower is streaked with trails of reddish-brown dirt that’s been bonded to my skin for the past several days. I take a series deep breaths in the therapeutic warmth of the water, thankful to be back at the cozy, quiet, and hospitable Radama hotel.

The day’s journey was a sudden reminder of just how dangerous a two-lane road winding through the hills of rural Madagascar can be. Outside of Fianarantsoa we passed an overturned semi truck belonging to the biggest brewery in Madagascar (Star Brasseries), quickly being picked apart by an excited crowd. Men, women, and even a few children stuffed liter-sized bottles of Three Horses Beer into their shirts and bicycle baskets while stray dogs sheepishly lapped at the containers that had shattered in the crash.

Further down the road, we arrived moments after a motorcycle was struck by an overcrowded taxi-be, or minivan taxi. Pieces of plastic and glass were strewn about the road; fuel from the motorcycle spilling everywhere. The rider was dazed, but lucky to come out of the accident with only one broken leg. The ToughStuff crew quickly taped the leg up and made space for the man in our overcrowded truck, so that we could take him to the nearest hospital in Fianarantsoa.

As the number of kilometers on the signs to Tana began to wind down, I realized just how close I had become to the rest of the ToughStuff team over the course of the trip, despite our language barriers and upbringings on opposite sides of the Earth. Some of them promised to start Facebook accounts to keep in touch, others wrote down Malagasy phrases in my notebook so that I could practice before my next trip to Madagascar.

The most meaningful gesture came from our genial driver, Ivan. He promised that as soon as we made it back to town that he would have me over to his house to meet his wife and week-old baby daughter…

I dry off from the shower and head out into the streets of Tana to find his house; Ivan is waiting for me on the cobblestone street with cell phone in hand. Before we walk through a small wooden gate that leads to a row of concrete buildings, he pauses and hesitates before saying “My house is not very big; but I hope you don’t mind – you’re very welcome here.” It’s a humble and sincere reception.

We work our way up a narrow spiral staircase to a third story apartment that has a kitchen, a bedroom, and a rooftop balcony. It’s nice by Malagasy standards – the furnishings are minimal, but there is a beautiful view over the city. Ivan’s wife emerges from the bedroom with their newborn daughter wrapped in thick cotton. She apologizes that there is no food to eat, but instead offers me a selection of Coke, Fanta, and Sprite that’s been tucked away for the arrival of a guest.

I sit and soak up Ivan’s surroundings over our conversation and drinks. He’s an extremely hard working and proud man; he left for a week of work only two days after his daughter was born (much to his wife’s disapproval). He acknowledges his fortune to have such a beautiful family and a good job that he loves – although his salary still requires his wife to run a cooking business out of their apartment for extra income.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of world his daughter is entering in to. Her country now stands at a political crossroads, with every move being monitored by the global community. A place once considered to be an isolated island that is now more connected than ever (digitally and through commerce). A place that will hopefully be advanced by the success of social enterprises like the company that her father works for.

I think of the children that weren’t as lucky to be born into good families; riding on their mother’s backs, in search of a vazaa that will hand out money for medicine. Was I wrong to keep walking? Would it have made a difference anyway?

We finish our soft drinks, say our goodbyes, and I leave Ivan and his family to enjoy the rest of their Sunday. As I walk out of the apartment, I consider myself one of the luckiest travelers in Antananarivo. An invitation into a new friend’s home is always special, but the afternoon spent in Ivan’s home was the perfect end to the warmth and hospitality I’ve felt from day one in Madagascar.

I came knowing nothing, with bags haphazardly packed – touching down in a foreign place… I’m leaving with a few friends and a distinct sense of a place that’s no longer very foreign after all.

If you missed any previous posts in the East of Africa series, be sure to check them out
here!

East of Africa: Sounds from the Red Island

Belltowers can be heard from the top of a hillside on a warm Sunday morning in Antananarivo.

After returning from Tuléar, I had a few remaining days in Antananarivo to explore the city and capture some additional photo and video. I’ve started getting in the habit of keeping an ear out for interesting sounds and pulling out my audio recorder to capture the moment. Below are a few of those experiences – and I hope they’re able to transport you to the beautiful and exotic world of Madagascar, even for a split second.

If you have headphones I’d suggest using them so you can pick up the small details in the audio. Enjoy!



A classical guitarist plays a solo in a rural village outside of
Antananarivo.

Two roosters spar in a local competition. Both roosters wheeze heavily with exhaustion, while the owners splash water on their feet to aggravate them.

A beautiful sunset from the balcony of the Radama hotel, accompanied by the sounds of local broadcast on a wind-up radio.

A small, roadside Malagasy cafe bustles with early morning customers eating rice, fried bread, and oatmeal out of noisy tin bowls.

Two teenagers from Tuléar, Melson & Titina, play guitar on a homemade wooden instrument.

The haunting voices of two street children (kat-mis), begging for money on a late night walk in Antananarivo.

A wildfire burns through brush outside of Ilakaka.

A youth choir performs a song in a local church to commemorate a secondary school graduation.

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series here!

East of Africa: Toliara (Tuléar)

Our driver has a big smile on his face. He points ahead at the landscape which has become increasingly flat in the past hour or so. I follow his finger up to see the road dramatically disappearing into a vast, clear, blue horizon.

After two days and 1,000km, we’ve made it to Madagascar’s southwestern coast – to the small, sleepy town of Toliara.

Within moments of driving into the town, it’s clear that Toliara has little in common with the other places that we’ve been to so far. It’s quiet; there are no taxis jamming the roads or honking their horns. Instead, an abundance of rickshaw drivers stand idly next to empty carts, sweating profusely in the harsh southern sunlight.

As we navigate between dusty paved and unpaved streets, there are signs for both Toliara and Tuléar – which can be confusing for new guests. Although both names are pronounced the same, the official title was changed to Toliara in the 1970′s to better reflect the spelling found in the Malagasy language. The two are basically interchangeable and both are found on maps and in guidebooks.

Much to the contrast of Antananarivo or Fianarantsoa, there are no two-story mud, wood and brick homes. The houses are mostly one-room wood structures with palm-thatched roofs, surrounded by tall scraggly sticks, nailed together to form a sturdy fence. There are a few western-style cafés and restaurants along the main streets, but most of the eateries are local Malagasy-rice-and-beans type of places.

Technically, Toliara and the neighboring beach community of Ifaty are considered tourist desinations – but they would be best described as places for a simple, quiet getaway rather than a luxurious, exotic adventure. I can’t imagine it every being overrun by tourist activity, but at the same time it’s apparent that the drop in tourism this year has hurt Toliara’s livelihood.

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The people milling about in the streets have darker skin than in the highlands, and faces topped with curly hair. The primary inhabitants are three of Madgascar’s eighteen ethnic groups; the Vezo, Mahafaly, and Antandroy (“People of the thorn bush”).

Of these three groups, the Vezo are the most well-known for their semi-nomadic migratory habits and practices as a fishing population. Using large dugout canoes with sails, they are the only Malagasy ethnicity to survive solely on fishing or other marine products like seaweed farms. They migrate during the long dry seasons and set up camps in family groups – often using the sails and masts from their canoes as shelter.

Surprisingly enough, the Vezo dialect suggests that their ancestry comes from Asia; probably via trade routes from Thailand and Sri Lanka. Just another prime example of Madagascar’s complicated ethnic mélange.

After settling into a modest guesthouse with a nice garden, we head out to the night markets so that the team can generate interest in the LED lamps. The streets are lined with vegetable-covered tarps lit by improvised wicks poking out of the tops of small cans of kerosene. Many of the women who operate these stalls have pulled out micro-finance loans from organizations like CECAM to fund their investment, and rely on a network of personal friends and loyal customers to keep their business afloat.

They are stunned by the lamps and thrilled that they might be able to purchase something that would easily eliminate one of their major daily costs (kerosene).

We drift towards a row of beachfront clubs as darkness settles in and make our way into a place with simple open-air dance floor. There’s a cover charge of 4,000 Ariary ($2 USD) – a trend that seems to be catching on quickly in African clubs where tourists are expected.

Inside, tracks from David Guetta and Bob Sinclar breathe life into dozens of young Malagasy girls in bright dresses and heels. They wait for the prospect of an old, lonely vazaa to dance with, and drink cosmopolitans – giggling with shy glances in our group’s direction. I pass on the dancing for now and lean back in a red plastic Coca-Cola chair to admire the sky.

The stars above are easily visible and comforting to look at from such a remote location. I muse to myself how strange it is to be sitting on the shore of one of the world’s largest islands, listening to a track that I danced to barely a month earlier at Ko Phan Ngan’s full moon party. In some ways it feels a world apart, but at the same time, it’s amazing how un-foreign it actually is. Something I’m sure the nomadic Vezo would agree with.

I soak up the scene around me and begin to look forward to the next few days in Toliara. It’s a perfect place to recoup from the lengthy trek down – before doing the whole thing again in reverse…

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!