Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Desolation... Madagascar?

by Ben S.
[The complete set of photographs from Ben's trip to Madagascar can be seen by
CLICKING HERE.]

Trying to work the desolation angle into an article about Madagascar was never going to be easy. The ‘D word’ is the last thing you’d usually think of when pondering this vast lemur and vanilla-pod filled, rum-soaked island fringed by swaying palms and white sand beaches. And, despite being a relatively devoted desolationist, I did not actively seek desolation in Madagascar. Truth be told, I wanted to kick back for a few days and relax in a sunny tropical paradise. In short, I wanted a vacation. It could be said that I went due to desolation rather than in search of more.

Somehow, my plan to spend a cheap week relaxing on the beach in the Spanish Canary Islands crumbled into dust when I saw that Kenya Airways were having a promotion for under 26s only. Being 25 is a privilege that does not last a lifetime, and I decided to capitalise on it while I still could. And, being a sucker for a silly name, when I saw that Antananarivo was on the list of discounted destinations there was really no other choice – a reservation was made for a flight leaving in one month’s time to be kept on hold for 24 hours pending payment (although I actually held out for an impressive 5 days before eventually succumbing and passing on my credit card details...and this after plenty of pestering from my increasingly more desperate travel agent). Undoubtedly the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased on a whim.

Madagascar is not a place that people usually visit without months of pre-planning and then for a mere 10 days. The expense of flights, lack of reliable public transport and shocking state of many of the roads means that this is very much a destination for those with time on their hands (and more often than not, a private car and driver). Travelling for 10 days on a medium budget is far from the tourism norm there; Madagascar is an ideal destination for penny-pinching backpackers and for high-rolling dedicated ornithologists and herpetologists with their impressive zoom lenses and associated length-based envy and competitiveness. Deciding on an itinerary can be heartbreaking when you have so little time and so many things to see, so expectations have to be lowered. I quickly determined that my trip would be worthwhile provided I could see at least one rice paddy, one lemur, and one beach.
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All of this was thrown into disarray a mere week before departure when, on election day, a group of disaffected military officers decided to stage a coup. News of this development was initially warmly received, but worry ensued once it became clear that the first stated aim of the junta was to close the airport. A few anxious days later and it turned out that the coup leaders didn’t really have much drive or ambition and the whole sorry affair fizzled out...which while disappointing, also meant that at least my holiday plans weren’t ruined.

So, in any case, I came, saw and came back relatively unscathed. In brief, Madagascar proved itself to be a safe, welcoming destination full of friendly, hospitable and endearing people, filled with one-of-a-kind wildlife, with an ample supply of rice paddies and beautiful white sand beaches (and yes, scores of gambolling lemurs of all shapes and sizes). The relentless multicoloured tropicality of the place hardly lends itself to thoughts of the gloomy grey desolation that often springs to mind (in a nice way) when thoughts turn (as they inevitably do) to the Former Soviet Union, but that is not to say that none can be found.
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I expected to encounter hideous, shocking poverty at every turn in this, one of Africa’s poorest nations; however, while undeniably poor, with the exception of a few emaciated urban child beggars, most of the poverty is of that charmingly photogenic type that attracts the camera lens without tugging at the heartstrings. The decaying remnants of French colonial infrastructure stand as a beautiful testament to history rather than a representation of economic stagnation. The relative lack of tourists is a bonus rather than a sad reflection of political scaremongering by unfriendly governments needlessly putting people off visiting this safe and friendly nation; its bounty of completely unique attractions that deserve to be visited by camera-toting hordes rather than a few die-hards and wildlife fanatics. I even wandered around the mean streets of Antananarivo under cover of darkness despite the stern warnings of my government not to do so, but all my encounters with Malagasy (and foreigners as well) were notable for the warmth and kindness encountered. While undoubtedly a destination for the more adventurous traveller (due to the terrible local transport and road conditions rather than any great discomfort), this is one of the most hassle-free places imaginable. Corruption and personal safety issues barely register on the consciousness, and stern travel warnings issued by faraway governments fade into a murmur.
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And yet, despite all that has been mentioned above, I couldn’t help but think of Kyrgyzstan while in Madagascar. On paper, the two countries are worlds apart but the similarities are there nonetheless. Both have a great deal to offer the traveller who wants an ‘authentic’ experience in a spectacular natural environment and to get up close and personal with local cultures. Both were plundered by a larger colonial power and have been left to stagnate ever since. Both are difficult to travel in unless you are willing to put up with a great deal of discomfort or to shell out for private transport (this being much more the case on the Red Island than in Central Asia). But above all, when leaving, one is left with the feeling that the current downturn in tourists due to the combination of political crisis and unreasonably high airfares is absolutely criminal for countries which have so much to offer and for whose citizens deserve to reap the benefits of a bit of extra hard currency. I can’t say that I’d recommend Madagascar for everyone – you do need at least some interest in the highly-specialised local wildlife and culture in order to truly appreciate the place – but nonetheless I for one would feel happy if the tourist industry picked up and a few more planeloads of tourists arrived each week.
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So, while I have undoubtedly failed to introduce a desolation angle here despite shameless and misguidedly obvious attempts to do so, if nothing else I hope that the message comes across loud and clear: GO!

To see the complete set of photos from Ben's trip, CLICK HERE.

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