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.
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!