Personally, I have always wondered if the World Challenge Expeditions people slipped us hallucinogenic drugs along with the spectacular PowerPoint presentation when they came to visit our school. I don’t know why else thirteen sophomores would agree to take one year to raise about $5,000 and spend a month trekking through Madagascar.
As an organization, World Challenge provided an experience trip leader, a translator, access to their contacts in whatever country we decided to visit, and that’s it. Everything else, the funding, the trip itinerary, it was all up to us. We chose Madagascar easily enough. The chance to explore an island with some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet was a huge attraction. We also wanted to travel somewhere that many people never go. Also, nobody wanted to go anywhere freezing cold, so an island practically centered over the equator was an easy choice.
We decided that we wanted three main things out of this trip; a chance to visit a part of the world practically untouched by outsiders; a chance to see wildlife not found anywhere else, and a chance to give back to the country. With these main goals in mind we planned our trip.
We flew Air Madagascar, which apparently does not have non-smoking flights, and landed in Madagascar’s capital Antanarivo (or Tana to us world travelers) on July 11th. Customs was no problem, and we quickly found a taxibrousse outside the airport. We crammed all 16 of us (13 students a translator, 2 teachers, and our expedition leader) as well as our people-sized backpacks into an 8-seater minivan. We then had to argue with the driver to take us to the hotel because he didn’t want to leave until he was completely full. When we were finely underway we were quickly pulled over by a police officer wanting us to pay a bribe, excuse me – pay a fine – for having too many people on a taxi. As we were haggling over the price cars drove past us in a steady stream so overstuffed that people were riding on the back steps and clinging to the luggage racks. We had been warned that corruption was ripe in the capital – after all, the average yearly wage is about $100.
We stayed in the Hotel Raphia, which, other than the oddly tiny toilets was pretty nice. We all remembered to use iodinated water to brush our teeth. Our translator, Lenu, told us that Madagascar had been alternately taken over by the French and the British before becoming its own country and that if we wanted anything good to eat for dinner we needed to stay away from the British half. We went for dinner at Caf’art, where I enjoyed the Zebu a la rosse, which was surprisingly good if chewy. Zebus are the Madagascan cattle, looking like a small bull-buffalo hybrid with a camel hump. We made sure to exchange our cash for local currency as there would not be many chances anywhere else.
After another bribe filled Taxibrousse ride (we were stopped on various pretexes 4 times before getting out of Tana) to Antsirabe we started our acclimatization trek. The red dusty sand and boabo trees were our only companions at first, until we came across a group of huts that made up a small village. Little children were playing pat-a-cake outside. We tried to play with the children but they were shy. Finally Lenu (our translator) told us that they didn’t want to play with us because we were so clean, and they were so dirty. In one perfectly synchronized moment we all squatted down and thrust our hands into the sand.
Our next major stop would be our biggest challenge of the trip; a difficult trek through the Zafiminiry villages. We hired a guide, stocked up on supplies, and left on the 15th. Our guide wore flip-flops and pranced along with mountain goat-like surefootedness. We trudged along in our high-tech gear trying not to break our ankles in the ruts that made up our “path”. They were the exact width of one foot, making it ridiculously easy to twist an ankle. It was a surreal 5 days. First we discovered that our guide had no concept of time, as he routinely told us that we would arrive at the next village in 1 hour, and 4 hours later we would finely stumble in. The villages were kind enough to put us up in their best buildings, usually a medium sized wood hut with a leaky roof that served as their school, meeting hall, and main public building. We were constantly surrounded by the children of the village. They often thought we were ill, because we were so pale. The youngest children had never seen white people before. We had brought gifts of pens and paper to donate to the schools in the village, which we were careful to present directly to the village Chief in front of the whole village. World Challenge had warned us that we must never randomly hand out gifts. Madagascar is a fascinating country, but it is very poor, and indiscriminately handing out gifts is a sure way to be overrun with beggars.
After walking out of the last village of Sandrakely we visited the truly spectacular thermal baths in the Ranomafana National Park. It was a paradise after the hard travelling through the jungle we had been doing, although it was a culture shock to be back out in a world with other tourists in it. On our day trek through the Park we were lucky enough to see a whole group of golden bamboo lemurs, our guide told us there were only about 50 in the world, and we saw 12 of them.
Our next stop was our chance to give back to this strange and fascinating country we had travelled to. We had been asked to spend some time teaching English at one of the largest schools in the region; it had 2 entire rooms! The teachers told us that even though we could not stay more than a few days, and chance to speak with and learn English from a native speaker would be tremendously helpful. As we arrived in the village the schoolchildren had arranged a concert for us. As they started singing and clapping we all had to laugh. Apparently that old childhood standby is world renowned, the children were singing “If you’re happy and you know it (clap your hands)” in Malagasy. These children had such a desire to learn it made me ashamed of all the times I wanted to stay home from school. I can only hope we were some help.
Next, we travelled through Isalo National Park. It was a hot and dusty desert-like area, especially compared to the jungle of the Zafiminary Villages. Our guides cut us real sugarcane and we chewed as we walked. He also gave us rum he was fermenting in giant oil drums made with the sugarcane. I recommend avoiding that if you are ever offered. If I hadn’t known it was rum, I would have sworn it was lighter fluid.
Our final stop was Ifati. A gorgeous stretch of beach with fantastic snorkeling and, more importantly at this stage, beds. We stayed in bungalows about 50 steps from the ocean, and about 100 yards from the resorts swimming pool. For a very reasonable price, breakfast and dinner was included with the cost of the rooms. On our last day the resort roasted a goat for us as a special treat. The woman who ran the place told us that eating the eyeballs would make us smarter, but we all agreed that it would be rude of us to take such a treat from our hostess, who thanked us for our kindness.
The flight back felt less like travelling home, and more like leaving an alternate dimension to come back to the real world. Madagascar was strange and wonderful, and our time there was life changing. It may have not always been easy, or the most luxurious trip I have ever been on, but I believe it was the most rewarding trip I have ever made. I would go back in a heartbeat, no fancy PowerPoint presentations or hallucinogenic drugs required.
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