East of Africa: Arrival

Adriaan and I are barreling down a small cobblestone street in a dusty 4×4. Several people narrowly miss the car’s bull bars as they dash across the road, yet hardly flinch when we brush past them. I look out into the mass of people; skin tones are a mix of brown and black. Moderately well dressed people walk next to beggars with torn shirts.

The market we’re passing feels as crowded and energetic as those that I left behind in Hong Kong 48 hours ago, except there are far fewer neon lights and far more visible indications of poverty.

I hang my arm out of the window; the air is noticeably chilly and thin. I mention this to Adriaan and he explains that Antananarivo sits at roughly 4,200 ft above sea level in Madagascar’s central highlands – not quite the hot, dry, barren desert I had somehow pictured.Adriaan is the co-founder of an enterprise called ToughStuff, a company that manufactures solar panels & LED lamps for people in developing nations. He speaks with an air of sincerity and conviction about the company, and tells me that he’s spent over 15 years working in Africa with various organizations, but this is by far the most exciting project he’s seen.

The excitement is infectious, and I realize that I have an interesting twelve days ahead of me as I document and gather promotional material for their launch.

He justifies why Madagascar is an appropriate location to begin ToughStuff’s rollout: it’s the fifteenth poorest country in the world, two thirds of the population live below the international poverty line, and some areas of the 226,597 sq mile island are so remote that they won’t be linked to the electricity grid until 2040 or 2050. I try to take all of this in as we approach the center of Antananarivo.

We pull into view of the tallest hill in the city, where the Queen’s Palace is perched high above the congested streets. Its inescapable presence on the hill feels like a permanent reminder to the masses of their lowly place in the world. The unattainable.

Ironically enough, the palace was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1995. Work has since been done in an effort to reconstruct the building, but today it’s still mostly a hollow stone shell. A grand work in progress; an appropriate symbol for a country undergoing so much political turmoil in recent years.

Beneath the palace, large letters hang onto the hillside in a strange attempt to mimic the famous Hollywood sign. A-N-T-A-N-A-N-A-R-I-V-O. An-tana-na-rivo. It’s an intimidating word if you don’t break it down. Adriaan tells me that most of the locals refer to it simply as “Tana”, but warns me that I’ll encounter plenty of trouble pronouncing other town names and people’s last names.

We exit the car on a main street in the hills of the city. My ears are filled with a buzz of strange language and commotion. Vendors anxious to sell me things call out a word I haven’t heard before. “Vazaa! Vazaa!” they call out.

Adriaan tells me that it will be my new name for the next two weeks; foreigner. After getting my attention, they begin speaking quickly in French – which immediately tests the boundaries of the 8am French courses I took in college.

I stumble through a few botched sentences, and they transition into broken English. We end up meeting somewhere in the middle, as my brain begins to recall the daunting conjugations, precious masculine and feminine assignments, and proper syntax.

It becomes clear that it’s possible to get by with English in Tana, but it certainly helps to know a bit of French if you’re going out on your own.

We make it to a hotel near the center of town called the Radama, named after the first King of Madagascar. It’s a clean, quiet place with a surprisingly reliable wireless internet connection and a hospitable staff.

The room I’m given has a balcony, and I spend a few moments staring out over the city as the sun begins its descent for the evening. It’s a beautiful scene, and I soak it up; anxious to scrub off the last traces of Hong Kong smog to make space for the red dirt of Madagascar.

Follow the East of Africa series, all throughout this month – here. If you missed the introduction to this series, check it out here.

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.