Madagascar: First Impressions

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After living in rural Uganda for a few months, arriving in Tana (Antananarivo) can only be described as a beautiful, chaotic, polluted assault.

Madagascar is still a place people visit and travel with caution.  Following their independence in 1960 they have struggled with their economy following corrupt politics and a coup d’e’ta as recently as 2009.  In fact due to the recent elections it is harder to get a visa on arrival and I had to get a 60 day visa with the hope of extending it to 90 at the embassy in the next few weeks (fingers crossed).

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The population of Madagascar is around 25 million and the average GDP per capita is $450, making it the 8th poorest country in the world.  Poor sanitation and access to clean water continues to be a battle and dysentery is still the leading cause of death.  Madagascar has also had 2 outbreaks of the pneumonic and bubonic plague within the last 10 years.  Unsurprisingly, although still slightly off the tourist trail, Madagascar is a popular place for NGOs and there are multiple organisations, both grass roots and more global operations that operate from Tana.

Although politically Madagascar is more stable than recent years it is still inadvisable to travel around at night without a passport or without expecting to pay a police bride.  I will consider myself exceptionally lucky if I have not been robbed or pick-pocketed at the end of 3 months, having already witnessed it in my first two days.

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Yet despite this, I have already fallen a little bit in love with this amazing country.  Having been a former French colony their influences are everywhere.  Besides the obvious French language and chateaus on the hill, you can find baguettes on every corner, good coffee and old French cars on every street, painted cream and serving as ‘le petit taxi’.

The area I am staying in has markets the length of the street.  The quickest route to the hospital is through a tunnel of markets providing everything you can imagine, the strong smell of meat offering an alternative wake up call.

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Walking the streets of Tana you need to keep alert (definitely not my strong point), as open manholes and gaps in paving drop straight to the rubbish or sewage below.  The smells can be particularly strong at times and only just mask the fumes of the cars which due to the old, cheap models and poor quality of petrol are what I have found most difficult to adjust to.  (I should point out at this stage, that I live on perhaps one of the busiest streets in the city) As soon as you step out of your room, you are confronted by a lung full of emissions, along with the noises and endless calls that last until night, when the streets become unsettlingly deserted.

It is at these times when I miss the beautiful Ugandan hills and being woken by the cockadoodling of Allan and the beat of the school drums.

The rains, when they come, which is often in this season, are short but unrelenting.  Within 5 minutes you can be ankle deep in gushing water; it pools in the roads and streams of roofs in torrents.

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Every day stalls line both sides of the streets which makes navigating a route difficult but Thursday is particularly busy.  Markets upon markets flow through the heart of the city, rendering it virtually impossible to walk on pavements.  They offer everything from clothes to food and electricals.  Although hectic, I’ve already become accustomed at weaving my way through and marvelling at the scenes…

Broken down cars that won’t start.  Disabled people crawling down the street on their hands and knees.  Pousse-pousse being pulled by men through the streets, contributing to the winding queues of traffic.  Children following you like a shadow, then counting and pocketing someone else’s money.

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I am staying near the hospital at a centre recommended by the Dean of their Medical School and it is only a short taxi ride into the main city or a 30 minute walk.  I was taken aback by how hilly Tana is, although only a short walk it is a predominantly vertical one!  Madagascar is still an under-visited country and the tourists and workers that come here are generally European, predominantly French.

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Tana appears a city you need to discover for yourself.  The Lonely Planet is outdated and inaccurate and although the Bradt guide has greater depth it doesn’t appear to give perhaps the content that you would expect of most guidebooks for a capital city.  The only way to get to know the city is to find it for yourself or mix with true ex-patriots who understand its workings.

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In earnest, I was a little taken aback by Madagascar.  Having travelled to Egypt during the Arab Spring, the year of their revolution, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m travel first, research later.  But in truth, I can’t think of any country I’ve visited where I have been restricted after dark.  Perhaps it is this that makes me feel slightly uneasy, or the fact that limiting movement in the evenings I feel far more claustrophobic than I have ever felt travelling before.

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Tana is intriguing and daunting, beautiful yet crumbling.  A city of contradictions.  Of all the many places I have travelled, it is the place I feel most unease.  The place I am least likely to let my guard down.  Behind the characterful facade lies an ingrained poverty, one where the police are so underpaid they live off brides and corruption and many people cannot afford medical care or reach basic standards of education.

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The capital, Antananarivo has the potential to be one of the most beautiful cities.  It appears to have good infrastructure, built by the French with grand villas, roads and hospitals.  It is a city devoid of skyscrapers, with panoramic views that span over a plethora of architectural styles to the paddy fields and hills beyond.  In fact, for a country that has been one of the poorest in the world for many years, the capital appears incredibly developed and the health care system run effectively with the hospitals appearing in far better conditions than the ones I have been to in Uganda.  However, with the current political situation as it is I’m not sure the city is ready to embrace all that it has to offer.  Most of the beautiful villas appear crumbling and disused, with many reluctant to show wealth for fear of robbery, which is common.

I feel that Madagascar will be the country that surprises me the most out of the places I’ve visited and I’m curious to see what the next few months have in store… Here’s to Tana!

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