Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Madagascar: An Introduction

Before we dive into our travels in Madagascar, we thought it would be helpful to briefly talk about the island, since it’s unique in many ways.  It is the 4th largest island in the world, and it split off from what is now India about 88 million years ago.  That long period of isolation led to some very interesting plant and animal life.  Roughly 90% of the organisms in Madagascar are endemic, and are found nowhere else in the world.  Lemurs are probably the most well-known of these, but chameleons are an exceptional example as well.

A plateau runs from north to south, in the center of the island, ranging from 2,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level.  This area is generally cooler and drier than the coasts.  The plateau extends fairly close to the east coast, where a relatively narrow band of the land is close to sea level; this area receives more rain, and has many forests (and more recently, farmland competing with forests).  A wider band of arid land tapers to sea level on the west coast.   Despite those three general categories, we found that the geography changes dramatically as you cross the country; in as little as 30 minutes, the view would be radically different (and almost always beautiful).  The weather is divided roughly into a warmer rainy season, November – April, and a cooler dry season, May – October.  We arrived at the transition between wet and dry, and while we only experience one rain storm, it was a doozy—more on that later.  For a sense of how large Madagascar is, this is a scale outline in comparison to the US.
Madagascar became a French colony fairly late, in 1897, and was only recognized as an independent country again in 1960—though there is still significant political influence from France, and both French and Malagasy are official languages (and in fact, schools teach all of their courses in French—as in Laos, very few books are available in Malagasy).  Unfortunately, when the French government withdrew, some French money and business also left, and we noticed that several of our guides used the phrase “after colonization” to describe changes instead of “since independence”   Generally they were talking about things that had declined, such as a large sugar factory that was abandoned, and has only recently started production again (the Malagasy government has leased the facility to a Chinese manufacturing company).  More recently, a 2009 coup overthrew the popular, but increasingly authoritarian president, and in the wake of that, public resources like schools and roads have deteriorated significantly.  It is one of the poorest countries in Africa; the national poverty level is 1 US dollar/day, and nearly 70% of the population lives below that level.
Finally, an overview of where we traveled on the island:
We had just four domestic flights—the long, straight lines on that map.  We started with a flight from Antananarivo (‘Tana, as the locals call it, and our usage after this too) to the north of the island; we flew to Morondava on the west coast, and then back to ‘Tana several days later; and on our last day, we flew from Tolaria to ‘Tana before flying out of the country entirely.  The rest of our travel was by car, with a few ferry crossings, or on foot.
We spent three weeks touring Madagascar, and we saw quite a bit.  We loved nearly every minute of our time there (there was a very bad 24 hour flu for Lana in there). There was much more to see that we weren’t able to shoehorn into our schedule, but we wouldn’t have wanted to travel any faster.  For once, it felt like the pace was just right.