Having lived on an island at the edge of the world for over sixteen months, I feel more settled in Ankazambo, Madagascar than I have in any other place since moving out of my parents home at 18. Indeed, it occurred to me recently that I’ve lived at the same ‘address’—Ankazambo Atsimo, at the foot of rugged, windswept mountains—for a longer time than any other single place in my adult life. I love it here and, at times, the concept of a world beyond my six-hundred-person-community terrifies me. The sense of stability amongst friends is an enormous stroke of good luck and I’m happy to have found myself in a place that has so warmly embraced me. That said, the comfortable life, void of peculiar and difficult experiences is, by definition, monotonous and I regularly experience great internal conflict between my love of Ankazambo and the longing for travel and a constantly changing horizon.
At a time when my world was feeling just a bit too ordinary, my parents visited Madagascar, which gave me the opportunity to view my home through a different lens, that of someone new to the shores of this strange and beautiful place. Our trip, which took us from the hot, sandy northern shores to the damp, misty central highlands allowed me to see my life on this island with a new sense of appreciation. Life in the Peace Corps is defined by extended periods of uneventful frustration, punctuated by brief moments of unrivaled elation. Those fleeting few moments make the entire experience worth it. Traveling through Madagascar with my father, mother and girlfriend was the trip of a lifetime and it provided me with more euphoric moments than I could have possibly imagined. For purely selfish reasons, I wanted to document the trip—albeit three months too late—so that in tedious moments, I am reminded of how great this place really is.
After forty hours on the road, we found ourselves in Madagascar’s northern-most city of Diego Suarez. It was Samantha and myself; both of us country bumpkins, eager to experience an extended stay in the lap of luxury—after all, my parents were buying. We spent the three days before my parents arrived exploring the crumbling colonial facades and decaying hotels of one of Madagascar’s oldest and most unique cities before venturing off to secluded beach villages for freshly caught seafood, served beach-side for less than five dollars.
By the time my parents arrived, Sam and I had experienced the best of Diego—but we were also completely broke. Global socio-economic inequality is well demonstrated through the attempt to live like an American tourist on a Peace Corps budget: as a volunteer, I make just over $6 per day—that’s not enough to buy an appetizer at Diego’s nice hotel but its over 25% of my monthly rent in the village. At the risk of sounding victimized, it should be noted that volunteers have it too easy when you take into account the fact that 92% of Madagascar lives on less than $2 per day. By comparison, it costs $8 just to get through the doors of this particular hotel. Needless to say, for this particular trip, I would need to use some of my American savings.
Lucky for me, my parents were on their way to bail me out of my monetary woes and landed at Diego Suarez’s only airport the next day, unaware of my tenuous financial situation; Sam and I were there to greet them. Antsiranana Airport is a single runway with a two room terminal building, which serves as a good yet slightly overwhelming welcome to Madagascar’s northern most capital and is indicative of the Madagascar’s lack of development. Departure and arrival times are written (and periodically delayed) on a small chalkboard placed above the outdoor café where well-dressed foreigners sit at card tables sipping strong espresso and sleepy-eyed gendarme security officers look on impassively, drinking from huge bottles of THB. Before the plane even touches down there is a mass gathering of aggressive porters, taxi drivers, and outright thieves vying desperately for the business of naïve tourists. They are kept at bay by a rope barrier and a single fatigue-clad gendarme officer carrying a rusting AK-47.
I had been looking forward to the moment of my parents’ arrival since they dropped me off at the airport in Chicago on a misty February morning the previous year. Unfortunately, our Madagascar airport reunion was a bit rushed in an effort to avoid harassment by countless hordes of porters and drivers—we half-jogged to our prearranged taxi as if fleeing a hailstorm. Once safely inside the tiny yellow Volkswagen, we finally began to catch up while my dad held the back hatch closed to keep his bags from falling out.
We had a lot to catch up on and it was after nine in the morning so we went directly to the first empty table at the first open café that was serving beer. Almost immediately, I launched into the carefully constructed itinerary for the next eleven days that Samantha and I had painstakingly designed to give my parents the most enjoyable tour possible of the island. Never being much of a planner, I was taken aback by how seriously I took my role of tour guide, which, I’ve come to realize, is because I love this country and want nothing more than to impart the same sense of appreciation to my family.
Our first stop was Diego’s vibrant market, which sprawls out for blocks in every direction and one can find everything from Chinese electronics to fresh fish—often in neighboring stalls. Diego, a port city, has a market that is unrivaled in Madagascar both in terms of selection and atmosphere. It’s a place where a vendor’s demeanor seems inextricably linked to his or her products. Those that sell cheap manufactured goods are often soft-spoken but overeager. By contrast the half-naked fishmongers are aggressive and impatient and wiry; cleaver-wielding, young butchers are rowdy and fun loving. All the while, stout matronly women watch on stoically, frying fish and bananas that they sell for a quarter.
After thoroughly exploring the market we hopped in tuk-tuks (scooter taxis), which took us to my parents’ hotel, on the shores of Diego Bay, to rest up and prepare for our next stop in Ramena, a beach town a few kilometers around the curve of the bay. Having spent the previous two weeks in Botswana, my mom wasn’t combating the same kind of jetlag as my dad who passed out in the back of taxi before I had even finished bargaining the fare. I’ve since been told that the first day is still haze for my dad who had just passed through nine time zones in a matter of twenty four hours. I can only imagine the sensory overload caused by experiencing a Malagasy market day on 2 hours of sleep.
Upon arriving at the beach village we headed directly for the nearest restaurant, Chez Martha, a wooden, open-air hut with a thatched roof and no floor, located right on the beach. I had been here twice before and I don’t think that I’ll ever find a more enjoyable dining experience. We sank our toes into the sand and sipped cocktails while waiting for our first course: heaping portions of salad, fresh vegetables and loaves of French bread. This was followed by another round of drinks and steaming plates of freshly caught calamari in curry sauce served along side coconut rice. For dessert, our waitress brought us fresh fruit and an entire bottle of punch coco, a rum-based aperitif. The entire meal including drinks cost about six dollars per person. Once again, I was reminded of my first days in Madagascar when such cheap prices would have astounded me but now, thanks to my parents, my world was made anew.
The next morning we rose before the sun, eager to get to our next destination: Ankarana National Park, about 60 km south of Diego. Our driver for the week was to be Abdou, an affable and soft-spoken guy in his early thirties. Having worked as a private driver for years, his French was good but he only spoke a little bit of English. During the trip, he and I discussed the week’s program in Malagasy while Sam translated from the back seat to my parents. In the following encounters with Malagasy people I tended to forget to translate important conversations. Luckily, Sam was there and did a better job about keeping my parents in the loop than I ever did.
The drive would have taken upwards of three hours if we had gone by taxi brousse but Abdou got us there in under an hour, adeptly dodging all potholes and all but two chickens at incredible speeds. I was as excited as a dog experiencing his first car ride—the greatest luxury of the entire trip for me because I wasn’t forced to share my seat with two chickens and no one vomited on me like in previous rides.
Immediately upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by a friendly Malagasy man speaking in perfect English who introduced himself as our guide, as if he had been expecting us. I admired his confidence and within an hour of arriving at the park, we were off exploring Ankarana’s otherworldly sights including the entrance to a massive underground river system and three distinctly different ecosystems. We began our hike in dense jungle, craning our necks to the canopy to see jumping lemurs and panning down to the trunks to observe timid chameleons and leaf-tailed geckos. Within two hours we might as well have been on a different planet, baking under a merciless sun, scrambling over Ankarana’s famous ‘Tsingy.’ The word is suitably derived from the Malagasy word meaning to tiptoe and true to this moniker, we proceeded carefully over vast fields of razor sharp rock and steep crevasses. The highlight of this trek is the 60-foot suspended cable bridge, hanging precariously above the canopy of the crevasse below. What I appreciated most about our guide was his reckless abandon, actively encouraging me to use the bridge as a personal trampoline. He even helped double bounce me from the other end.
In many ways, the trip was beginning to reminded me of my childhood summer vacations when my mom and dad would take us all hiking in Door County, the Smoky Mountains or Colorado. Hiking trips were always my favorite and they imparted upon me a love of nature and adventure; but my parents never sensed how hard I had to work to keep up with the rest of the group on longer hikes—it didn’t help that I was a chubby little guy with mild asthma. Pre-adolescent arrogance prevented me from ever letting on to them or my brothers how tired I was and I often insisted on leading the group. Of course they patronized me but, even if I was leading the hike, I always knew that I wasn’t really in charge. As we teetered over the rock fields, it slowly dawned on me that for the first family vacation in my lifetime, I was actually in charge. I wasn’t just the plump, wheezing twelve year-old at the front of the line—I had actual responsibilities! In a country where my parents didn’t speak the language, know the culture, or even know parts of the itinerary, it was up to Sam and me to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for my folks, payback for the countless trips they had led throughout my younger years.
Following a nearly five-hour hike we were all exhausted and collapsed into our bungalows to spend the rest of the hot day napping or playing soccer with the camp guard’s kids until evening when we sat under the stars catching up on the past year while sipping massive bottles of beer and rhum arrangé (flavored rum).
We rose the next morning before five and packed the car by flashlight because the camp electricity was still not up and running. We piled into the 4×4 with Abdou and began the short drive to the port village of Ankify where we were to board a speedboat to Nosy Be, a small island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. I warned my parents about Ankify’s aggressive porters and boat captains and about how, on a previous trip, two over-zealous porters had literally pulled me in opposite directions towards their boats until I was able to squirm free. Having braced myself for the worst, the insanity of Ankify seemed relatively tame. My habit of planning for the absolute worst makes every trip feel like a breeze.
The early-morning waters were placid and we silently admired the white beaches, and lush, forested islands amidst the loud drone of the outboard motor. The crossing from Ankify to Nosy Be ranks amongst my favorite places in Madagascar. It’s a close second to Nosy Be itself. Nosy Be literally means ‘Big Island’ but the term is relative; one can drive around the entire ‘Big Island’ in less than two hours.
Nosy Be is also home to a higher density of foreigners than any other place in Madagascar—mostly European expatriates and tourists. Despite a predisposition to dismiss Nosy Be as some sort of neocolonial tourist trap, I’ve come to love it in spite of myself as it exhibits a nice blend of Malagasy and Western cultures. In the island’s port city, the slow, sleepy pace of coastal Malagasy life plays out in front of decrepit French colonial administration offices and, down the road, beach villages are home to Italian-owned resorts interspersed amongst rusty, tin-roofed shanties and beach houses.
After the frantic pace of the first two days, our goal was to take things as slow as possible for our three days on the island. We stayed at a guesthouse on the island’s isolated northwest coast that is owned by an eccentric and excitable Frenchman from Mauritius—his eagerness to please, and infatuation with his newly opened property bordered on fanatical.
We spent the first day relaxing, swimming and drinking cocktails on Andilana Beach, world-renowned for its picturesque white sand and blue waters. While Madagascar has turned both Sam and myself into discerning beach snobs, Andilana lived up to its impressive reputation. That night we went to my favorite restaurant in Nosy Be, an Italian-owned place in the tourist town of Ambatoloaka that serves cheap specialty drinks and some of the best zebu burgers in Madagascar. After our meal we sat on the restaurant’s balcony observing Ambatoloaka’s nightlife and my parents couldn’t help but remark at the unusually large number of old European men with young Malagasy women.
It’s a sad reality that despite the continuing global economic crisis, national political instability, and economic stagnation, one of the few remaining strong sectors of the Malagasy economy is the sex tourism industry. While international tourism has certainly decreased since the beginning of the political crisis in 2009, sex tourists, typically older men, continue to visit Madagascar and solicit young, typically poor, Malagasy prostitutes. The proof is on the streets, bars and beaches of cities like Ambatoloaka, Mahajanga and Diego Suarez, so blatantly that I no longer take note of it; however, seeing the thriving sex tourism industry from the eyes of a visitor (my parents, no less) forced me to again confront the painful reality: as long as this world is home to underprivileged people, there will always be a segment of the upper class all too eager to take advantage of their desperation.
We woke late the next morning and spent it exploring the west coast of this island, stopping for drinks at my favorite bar in Madagascar, Nandipo, owned by an expatriate from Barcelona. It caters blatantly to expatriates and the food is overpriced but it’s one of the few places on the island that has a fully stocked bar and more than three kinds of beer. It also blows your mind to sit at the bar and hear four different languages—French, Malagasy, English and Spanish being spoken simultaneously by the patrons.
We spent the rest of the next day at a new and ridiculously lavish beachside resort that allows passing by tourists to lounge by the pool for an entire day for the price of a cup of coffee. (It also helped that I had exchanged English lessons with the wait staff for a few free drinks on a trip during the previous year). Reflecting upon the extravagance of our surroundings I couldn’t help but feel guilty that my home of Ankazambo, a village without running water or electricity, exists just a few hundred kilometers from this resort with a heated pool, specialty cocktails and beach cabanas. Our guilt must have compelled Sam and myself to continually remind my parents that only on very rare occasions do Peace Corps volunteers live like this, which, I’m sure, they were already aware.
The next day we went took a boat trip to another tiny island (Nosy Tanikely which literally means “Tiny Island”) for snorkeling. The reef was impeccably preserved and the snorkeling was incredible. The beautiful reef butted right up to the white sand beach so in order to reach the island for a walk we had to let the waves wash us in, floating inches above the sea urchins and vibrant coral, sucking in our stomachs in order to avoid brushing up against the fragile reef. I stalked a massive sea turtle and was in such a trance that it wasn’t long before I had lost everyone in our party, hundreds of yards from the boat. By the time we regrouped I was exhausted and had to rest on the boat—I’ve never been the strongest swimmer. Unfortunately, the boat was rocked by rough seas and, for the rest of the trip, everyone except my mom became incapacitated by horrible seasickness. I took to vomiting off of the back of the boat, but, not wanting to waste a trip, I’d hop in the water every few minutes and float on my stomach, holding onto the back of the boat, letting the lazy and pitching boat tow me over the deep-water reef.
By the time we returned to Nosy Be, I had seen enough of the sea for a few lifetimes. We returned to the same beach resort where we spent the rest of the day recovering before returning to our own hotel for an unbelievable dinner prepared by our jittery host and his wife. We turned in early because the next day we were to leave Nosy Be for the junction city of Antsohihy, our last stop before visiting my home in Ankazambo. It had already been an incredible trip and we were only five days in. The highlight of the entire trip awaited us in my tiny community and I couldn’t wait to show my home off to my family.
To be continued…