Simon Benson & Alison Edwards
Two Weeks in Madagascar
Our Plans

(Alison writes): For me, one of the most obvious outcomes of travel in other places is accentuating an appreciation of home. Third world countries certainly do this. Madagascar is probably the poorest country I have ever travelled in but any where where 50% of the population is under 15 years means plenty of children, mostly smiling and playing and curious . There has been some touting and begging but that is certainly in the minority. We elected to travel with Intrepid as I guessed the logistics of getting in and out of places here would be difficult. That is an understatement.

Bruno, our guide succeeded in making the trip flow smoothly and excelled at filling in the big gaps in our knowledge about this place. It also meant we shared our trip with eight others - two Canadians, one Englishman , an Irish lady , a Chinese documentary maker and his Australian boyfriend, and a father and daughter from Sydney. I think had we tried to travel on our own, in a hired car with a driver (as no other means would be feasible, here) we would have seen little and gained a completely different understanding of this place. We spent three days walking from village to village, another three days hiking in a beautiful wild national park and visited several other parks. Roads in Madagascar are generally poor, narrow, crowded and all credit to our bus driver for getting us across the countrt safely - he earned his tip.

Looking out the window is something that we did a lot of as getting from A to B always took hours, but we were entertained by villages, villagers, gold & sapphire mining, zebu carts, heavily laden public buses and taxis, pedicabs, impossible loads on bikes or carts or people's heads, From the vantage point of a bus, there seems little privacy or put another way, the activirties of daily life formed a constant back drop. I expected more birds and animals, more jungle and bush but the reality of a third world country with a burgeoning population is that there are people and their subsistence fields everywhere. For most of this trip, that meant terrace after terrace of rice paddies, sometimes growing other vegetables now that the dry season is here.

Lemurs and sifkas are indeed cute; and baobabs are as majestic and appealing as the Australian ones are up in the Kimberley but these two iconic symbols of Madagascar are found only in some places. I have never been to Africa but I think most of the sights I will remmber would count as being typically African. The size and style and building material for houses varied across the country, but the washing drying on bushes or fences, kids everywhere, dust everywhere, cooking on small fires on the street, crowds and little market stalls, vendors with deep fried bits and peanuts - these are found right across Madagascar.

Government by coup is the pattern here - but the pattern of popular uprising followed by increasing corruption and a disintegration of the system followed by anothr uprising doesn't actually make much progress. After independence in the 1960's, they are now into their 6th republic. I think every school we passed was closed . There were teacher strikes in April - for better conditions -and while some of their conditions were met, few schools have reopened.. Bruno's son is studying law at a private university ( the one where most of the countrries politicians, judiciary and churchmen were trained) but it seems the size of the bribe matters a lot more than the legal principles.

In 'Tana, we declined to visit the inside of the Queen's Palace as the real one burnt down in the coup before last and the Crown Jewels wee stolen shortly afterwards, leaving little to see. We did visit the judiciary building, an old monument but made sure not to stand underneath as it looks like it could fall down at any moment. We saw the railway station but no pasenger trains run from there. There is still one train from somwhere else in 'Tana down to the port area which runs but as the locals say " very slowly - the engine is too old" The timetable estimates the journey takes one day but could take 2 or more if it breaks down.

I started by saying travel makes me appreciate home. I am looking forward to water which is safe to drink, fruit and vegetables (the trekking days we had meals prepared by our cook and they were very good - in towns, we feed ourselves at local restaurants or hotels. These cater for tourists and visitors but consist of rice and meat. or rice and spinach / zebu stew or chips, often). I must be getting very soft but light you can read by at night, electricity which is not intermeittent or off, hot water consistently, and a coffee made with milk not served with a teaspoom of condensed milk - these are things I am looking forward to having again at home, but I fear they will be along time coming to here.


(Simon writes): This is a poor country. Bruno told us early on in the trip that 19% of homes here have an elecricity connection; but in rural areas the figure is 4%. This means long dark evenings and a lot of woodsmoke; most village homes are a single room with a firepit at on end, and no chimney. What woke me when staying in these places was the strong smell of woodsmoke as people started cooking in the mornings.




Along with not so much electricity, there was not so much window glass either. A lot of houses had only wooden shutters on their windows. In the villages we walked to, where there was no road access at all, everything had to be carried in and out; the people lived on subsistence farming. We walked over a concrete bridge made from carried-in cement, mixed with local sand, and built on wooden formwork.

There were children everywhere; how much this had to do with the teachers' strike I'm not sure, but there was little evidence here of education taking place.

One of the things we did which made us feel a bit uncomfortable was a rickshaw ride around one of the towns; sitting down and being pulled around by someone, when I could have just walked, sat badly with me. But these are a widely used form of transport, used mainly by the local populace - though not by the lady driving past in a shiny new Ferrari! There are many poor people here, but not all are.

And mostly the people seem happy.

Simon's Journal