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Life in the slow lane in southern Madagascar


Boarding the plane from Paris to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, and from there to Tolanaro (Tolagnaro), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s hardly surprising. It’s a country you hear so little about, other than the not uncommon story of a new species of something having been found there.

The physical beauty of the land is unquestionable, even from 30,000 feet in the air. As you ferrociously eat up the horizon in the sky and hover over this relatively unknown land, it’s as if a giant hand were turning over the page of a pop-up book. Whether it be arid dessert or dense forest, there’s seems to be a different landscape every chance you get to peer out of the window. The central highlands are distinguished by organised, rice-growing valleys lying between sparse hills, which essentially looks like dessert. The red laterite soil that covers much of the island has been exposed by erosion, lending Madagascar the title of the “Red Island”. The most resplendent view is the descent into Tolanaro. Vast, green, lushious mountains of staggering beauty and mistique are there to greet you on your arrival – the chain of Anosy, as they’re formerely known. The turquoise seas of the Indian ocean are lapping and swirling at their feet.

Marillac airport of Tolanaro is small and charming, so much so that you could easily be forgiven for thinking that you’d landed in someone’s garden. The greetings by the local people are sincere enough for you to believe that you are in fact in their garden – all be it, a very large one. Kids hurtling onto the runway is one example of the over bubbling excitement and enthusiasm awaiting new arrivals.

The town feels peaceful, quiet and calm. Set to an incredible backdrop of sea and mountains, it’s hard to imagine feeling any other way. I say this in light of the recent political turmoil in Madagascar. Everywhere you look there’s a view worthy of putting one into aesthetic arrest. As you walk around the town, there was, in my experience, never a feeling that you shouldn’t be there. You are welcomed with open arms and harmless gazes of curiosity. Surrounded by people who make you feel at home in their home. Whether it be a waiter in a local restaurant, a small child pushing his brother down a slope, clinging to a hollowed out turtle shell, or a one-toothed man of eighty years of age seeing to his crops, there’s always a shared feeling of kinship, and never uneasiness.

Numerous constellations of sandy beaches are never bad things. If surfing is what you’re after, look no further. There’s even a place to hire boards from. Tolanaro is situated on a peninsula, so depending on which side you go, you can either surf, snorkel or simply sunbathe and admire the enchanted land that is the ground beneath your feet. A fisherman carrying a hammerhead shark over his shoulder is not an uncommon sight, so you may want to restrict your snorkeling to the shallower waters. But it’s there if you want it. In fact, 80% of Madagascar’s wildlife is endemic. You can believe it too. In one walk through a nearby rainforest, I saw a snake, a chameleon and a giant insect resembling something created from the imagination of Tolkien, of which I’ve never seen the likes of before, or since. And that was just one morning, in one small section of forest.

Tolanaro is easily navigable, and this is coming from someone who could barely find his way out of a paper bag, with the help of a GPS, and a homing pigeon. After a week or so, you’re aware of where you are in the city, even walking down an unlit pathway at night. The moon and stars light the way- quite literally at times. The air is clean and untarnished. Cars and other pollutants are a rarity compared to most western towns and cities. There are taxis. Not that you’d need one though. A gentle stroll through the local markets is an interesting way of experiencing local trading, especially the meat and fish sections and their respective traders. Theres a relaxed feeling, you aren’t pushed around and harassed like in other foreign markets. If you want something – no problem, if you don’t – no problem.

Infrastructure is on the rise, especially as mining for ilmenite is prevalent in the area. Roads had been laid even in the two and a half months that I was there. One gets the feeling that the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Starbucks will shortly follow, in anticipation for the ever descending miners and potential tourists. There was even a night club that had been built shortly before my arrival. However, in my opinion, in Tolarano, it’s not needed for an enjoyable stay. Simply allow the clean air to fill your lungs, gaze with wonder at an extraordinary landscape, and communicate with people in the universal language of kindness, curiosity and kinship.

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