Madagascar: East of Africa

I have this habit of never preparing adequately for trips. The tickets get booked, the bags get packed at the last moment, and I suddenly find myself about to touch down in a foreign place.

When I found out I was going to Madagascar for work, I did some brief Wikipedia and Wikitravel skimming: fourth largest island in the world…lots of plants and animals…used to be a French colony…etc…etc…but I really had no idea what to expect.

I hadn’t seen the famous animated movie, my French was mediocre at best, and I knew very little about the history of the country.A year prior I spent five months in Tanzania and one month going overland from Mombasa to Cape Town, and figured it couldn’t be that different…right? The shortest distance between the shore of Madagascar and Eastern Coast of Africa is just 250 miles. As far as I was concerned, it was practically still East Africa.

The plane touched down, and I stepped onto the tarmac. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was wrong, again. Madagascar was not East Africa. It was East of Africa.

In the first few days on the island, a lot of things surprised me. I hadn’t realized that the population was so racially diverse and had assumed that the majority of people would be African because of proximity. But the land was first colonized by Austronesian people, (think Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia) which has allowed Madagascar to develop an intriguing blend of language, skin tones, culture, and practices.

Another surprise was the apparent lack of tourists in the country’s capital, Antananarivo. The political unrest at the beginning of this year has put a big damper on the tourism industry; which survives because of Madagascar’s ecological attractions, animal life, and large national parks. And while a safari is a good reason to make the voyage out to Madagascar – it’s certainly not the only thing that the country has to offer.

I quickly came to appreciate the hospitality and sincerity of Malagasy people, the simplicity of the local food, the remarkably beautiful landscape, and the shreds of French charm scattered from the colonial period. On the contrary, I struggled to comprehend the strong presence of beggars in Antananarivo, the intricacies of the political disarray, and the reported corruption in business in the country.

Of course, there are things that Madagascar has in common with the African nations 250 miles to the West, but it’s clearly a place that has had a unique development, and will have a distinctive future.

For the rest of this month on Gadling, I’ll be sharing my observations from Madagascar through writing, photos, audio clips, and video. From the capital of Antananarivo to the southern coastal town of Toliara and back, I’ll be bringing you stories from the road, the beaten path, and everywhere in between. Tonga soa… welcome to Madagascar.

Starting this week, Gadling will be bringing you stories, photos, audio and video from the fourth largest island in the world: Madagascar. Check out all the posts in this series by following along here.