Madagascar- is great Disney cartoon film, and it’s code word for anything “far away” unknown. It is also a strange island off the African coast, but is it worth going down there?
If you’ve hit the bottom of your bucket list, already seen gay Paris, Rome, Cairo and other top 40 destinations, then Madagascar holds some attractions. There are cuddly Ring Tailed Lemurs, exotic shaped Baobab trees and rock formations like nowhere else. It’s also a country with a weird origin and if any of that turns you on, this destination just might be your place.
My wife and I were looking for a unique destination that says “Look at me! I’m not your father’s old trip to Niagara Falls.” We wanted something rich with ideas we’d never thought about, and an ambience that defied expectations. Madagascar did the job.
The country offers little by way of landscape since much of the island has been clear-cut and burned for real estate tax benefits. Culinary arts were less than you’d expect from a former French colony, but the place was different! Our plane arrived after midnight. The first impression out the taxi window was nothing like Niagara. Mud colored, rickety buildings crammed together evoked Afghanistan war zone more than an African island. Dingy street lamps illuminated a poor city with a hint of ominous. Maybe that trip to the Falls would have been better we thought. But we’d flown 15 hours in cattle class seats, so no time to turn back. To hell with the mud buildings so long as one of them had a quiet bed when the taxi stopped.
Minako and I think ourselves international, but in truth we see the world through European/Asian chauvinist eyes. When we finally did open our eyes the next morning in the nation’s capital, Antananirivo, the view was disorienting. What we saw was a spotless, mahogany, clean western hotel room that looked out on flocks of white herons feasting on acres of rice fields. The few red brick buildings were nondescript. We hadn’t a clue what we were seeing. Nothing said Africa. The brick structures were landscaped with exotic plant material and the racially ambiguous pedestrians defied the preconceptions we held. What kind of place was this?
Madagascar doesn’t cry out “Africa”. The island’s original settlers arrived around 200 A.D. They came from…can you believe this… Borneo, Indonesia. I can’t imagine a trans Indian Ocean migration during the time of the Roman Empire, but these were relatives of the Polynesians who roamed the Pacific islands at that time. Archeology and genetic testing verifies the migration that Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel author) called “the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world.”
Looking out the hotel window at the herons eating in the paddy suggested the early Asians settlers arrived with bags of rice. Later centuries brought East African, French and Arabic settlers for a Polynesian/African/French/ Arab mix. The result of such a mix? Fun loving, raucous and polite people with a sophisticated culinary palate was what I could see.
The country offers few cultural icons like the Eiffel Tower, Grand Canyon or exotic temples, so we arrive not knowing what to think. There’s a UN World Heritage site palace/cultural preserve outside of town called the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga. This 15th century complex represents the cradle of the kingdom and the dynasty that made Madagascar a modern state. The site is worthy of a visit because of the Malagasy historical influence from Indonesia. It was almost as interesting as the cute Lemurs and Baobab Trees.
The country is worth visiting because it offers a though provoking and unique venue from which to view your world. You won’t find such a venue from any angle Niagara Falls nor other familiar sites at home.