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Mud huts, zebu and Lemurs

It seems a little bit of a contradiction – that, often, the less developed a country, the more organised is its tourism industry. In Cuba they have purpose-built holiday complexes which you need never leave. On the other hand, France has few of what we would term holiday resorts. Before my trip to Madagascar, I had not fully realised the extent of my aversion towards this organised brand of tourism.

I prefer buses to taxis and it is not really the cost which matters to me. A few years ago I travelled the whole length of Cuba in the backs of trucks, living like the Cubans. In general luxury is wasted on me. And anyway, on my travels, what is my objective? Is it not, invariably, to get to know the real country, the real people? And to do that, you have to get away from all this rather false tourism.

The towns and cities of Madagascar are noisy, busy and feel slightly threatening, if only because there are so many locals whose only aim in life seems to be to part the tourist from his money. During my time in the capital, Antananarivo, I never felt one hundred percent secure. I could never relax. And even in the other, smaller cities, I felt that I had to be vigilant at all times. So it was soon time to leave them all behind and head for greener spaces. In practically all countries these days I find that their true essence is to be found in the countryside. That is where you find the genuine people and a simpler, more natural way of life.

But the first country place which I found was a bit of a halfway house, owing to the close proximity of one of Madagascar’s many national parks. If you find yourself in such a spot, everyone automatically assumes that a trek through one of them is at the top of your list of priorities. And it is funny how, suddenly, every other person you meet turns out to be a guide, all too willing to offer their services. The more I thought about it, the more dubious I became about the validity of the whole idea. And later I spoke to a Czech family who had duly handed over their 100,000 Ariary (£30), to follow some local for a couple of hours and spot what they supposed to be, from a distance, a couple of the infamous lemurs.

Still I was not satisfied. Something inside me was still telling me that there were other layers to peel back, other more real places to discover. It would have been so easy at that point to stick, but I felt that I had to twist. So I closed my tourist guidebook, put it back in its brown paper bag and stuffed it to the bottom of my rucksack. I soon found myself heading for a place whose name was so long that I could barely pronounce it and about which I knew virtually nothing.

Out in the countryside not everyone speaks French, but, on the minibus I ventured to ask the woman sat next to me – ‘Is there any accommodation in Ambohimahamasina?’ She did not know but thought that there might be a campsite. I had no tent. For some reason, which I cannot fully explain, I was not in the least bit worried. In the middle of a city with a hundred hotels I probably would have been. Here, heading out into the wilds, strangely perhaps, I was not.

The minibus, which was definitely post-war, kept overheating and a one and a half hour journey took us three. It was getting towards the end of the afternoon. And then when we arrived, it dropped us at a junction a kilometre or so away from the village centre. I set off up the road. A young man was a few steps in front. We got talking. ‘Are you looking for somewhere to stay?’ In town I probably would have answered ‘Maybe’. Here I said ‘Yes’. We chatted and he led me to a house. The lady led me to a room. It was nice just to be able to sit down and put my pack down, although I was travelling light. Gradually it emerged that I could have the room. In fact, I suspect that I did not have much choice. But the lady was pleasant, spoke reasonable French and her terms were acceptable.

Even out here, in this tiny place, I was soon paid a visit by the head of tourism, Monsieur Georges, not a young man. He started to explain the trek which I would be going on the following day, with overnight stops en route. I was tired and told him that I would call to see him the following morning. I did and tried to explain, with difficulty, that I liked my newly found accommodation with Mme Flor, wanted to stay there for a number of nights and go for walks by myself in the countryside, not needing a guide. He expressed surprise. No-one had ever expressed a wish to do anything of the kind ever before. Reluctantly he shelved his trekking plans for me, finally accepted the situation graciously and shook my hand. I still had to pay a small ‘entry fee’, which I was more than happy to do. It seemed a small price to pay – for my freedom.

I had noticed the absence of a light bulb in my room and I mentioned it to Mme Flor, who replied by saying something about one hour’s electricity. And she turned out to be right. Each evening it went dark about 6:45. By 7 pm you were thinking about lighting the candles. Then around 7:10 the light would come on. If you had any important reading to do, then that was the time to do it. It was also when she brought me my evening meal. And then, round about 8:10, the light went out again. You fumbled for the torch and lit the candles.

The toilet was a very primitive shack somewhere outside. Don’t ask! And the shower was a large bucket with a large plastic cup floating on the water, for you to pour it over you. I must say that it worked remarkably well. I was spotless all week. I went for walks each day, setting off in the morning, often before 8 am. One day I chose North, another West and so on. Sometimes it was a climb upwards, sometimes it was a descent, down into the valleys, following paths, raised ones, separating the paddy fields.

I seemed to cause surprise and amusement wherever I went, particularly amongst the children. In the end I began to think that I must resemble a clown, I attracted so much laughter. But I did not mind. I would rather be laughed at than scowled at. And the people out here were clearly good-natured and reasonably content.

Sometimes the paths and tracks ran out, stopping at a village, going no further. I was told that in some of these small settlements, more hamlets than villages, I might be the first white man that many of them, especially the young, had ever seen in the flesh. I truly was off the tourist beat.

In one such place, I was immediately the centre of attention, although, for once, communication was a bit difficult. No-one spoke French. I can only assume that education out in the countryside was a bit hit and miss. But smiles are universal. I took their photographs and managed to show them, albeit in miniature, the results. They seemed pleased enough, or rather very amused again.

On my rambles I got talking to all sorts of people, including cattle drivers. They keep ‘Zebu’, these skinny looking cattle with humps on their backs. Despite their sharp horns, they all appear very docile. Another man was tending his paddy fields. He ran over and we chatted for a while. Later I came back the same way and he invited me inside his home. This was a true mud hut, with a roof of thatch. There was no running water of course, no electricity. But there was matting on the floor – I took my shoes off – and he had proper beds. His first wife had bore him ten children. He was now on his second, half his age. She brought us some food, inevitably rice, but I left the water. Two days later I met him again at the local market. I have his address. Maybe I will write to him.

There were no means of communication out here. I had managed to acquire a Malagasy mobile phone, but out here, deep in the countryside, there was no signal. I managed to find out that there was only one way of getting one – to climb a nearby 2000 metre mountain. Fortunately, that day, there was a bit of cloud cover. The rainy season was supposed to have started, but it was late. But, in the course of a morning, I managed to climb to the top and, indeed, when I switched my phone on, messages started rolling in, from both within Madagascar and from the UK. In the course of the next hour I sent a good many of my own. And soon after I started my descent, once again the signal disappeared. The boy who had told me about the mountain later told me that I was the first Vazaha (foreigner) he knew to have climbed it.

Where I was in Madagascar – up in the Southern Highlands – I was just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. In December the sun is directly overhead. It is quite weird as you look down and see your little shadow just beneath yourself. I spent one day at a swimming pool and stayed submerged nearly the whole time. I was only exposed fully to the sun for the short time it took to walk to a little shelter and back, probably less than 10 minutes, yet that evening my not normally exposed bits were quite pink. But in general I did not find the heat oppressive, or unbearable.

I had told Mme Flor that I was not that keen on rice – to me it is rather tasteless unaccompanied – which I am sure presented her with a bit of a problem. She certainly did her best for me. Out of six nights, she only gave me rice twice. On the other nights it was pasta and on one French fries. Nor was I that keen on zebu, or shrimps. I think that I ate quite a few eggs that week.

I had thought that I would have to spend my last night back in the capital. I explained to her husband that I wanted to prolong my stay with them as long as at all possible. Rightly, he took it as a compliment. And he explained that there was an overnight minibus, all the way from the nearest town, back to the capital, a distance of over 500 km. He offered to book the ticket for me. I gave him the money. And in the event it was the best minibus ride I had, a surprisingly modern vehicle and – uniquely within Madagascar – not overcrowded to bursting, where usually 25 people are squeezed into the places of a dozen. Amazingly I even had some leg-room and a place to put my pack, other than on my knees.

On arrival, early morning, in Antananarivo, I was duly jumped upon by a hundred taxi drivers, but managed to evade them all and find my way to the bus stop. I made my way to the house of the friend who had lent me the mobile, to return it, where I also ordered my minibus to the airport. The adventure was nearly over. I was back home in the UK for New Year’s Eve.

Since my return I have written to Mme Flor and her husband, Ema. They will no doubt be surprised to hear from me. But I wanted to tell them that during my brief stay with them I had wanted for nothing. More than that, I had found, during that last week, the peace and relaxation which even I did not know completely that I was looking for.

All countries have a heart, if you are prepared to go and look for it. Every nation has its genuine people, who are not always on the make. I am so pleased that I made the effort to find them and then get to know them, albeit only slightly. That is why I travel. That is why I get off the beaten track. It is always rewarding. Always.

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