Madagascar: Paradise lost?

by Betsy Herbert

A young Malagasy woman walks along the road from the Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar to the airport, through congested traffic and terrible air pollution.

A young Malagasy woman walks along the road from the Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar to the airport, through congested traffic and terrible air pollution.

I left Tanzania on September 15 bound for Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, where I would be on my own for 10 days. . . I was excited but wary. Why did I want to go to Madagascar? A popular travel guide describes Madagascar as follows:

Lemurs, baobabs, rainforests, beaches, desert, trekking and diving: Madagascar is a dream destination for nature and outdoor lovers...and half the fun is getting to all these incredible attractions.
— Lonely Planet travel guide to Madagascar

Madagascar is made to sound like a paradise. But I knew from my own reading that deforestation, erosion, and water and air pollution were big environmental problems in Madagascar. I had keen interest in these problems, since forest management was the focus of my academic research and publications. I wanted to see Madagascar’s deforestation with my own eyes.

I knew that Madagascar was a very poor country, that the roads were very bad, and that as a tourist, you have only two options for getting around. You either fly on the one-and-only domestic airline, Air Madagascar, or you hire a taxi or 4WD with a driver to take you where you want to go. The roads are notoriously bad, and the remote areas you travel through make driving a rental car a risk not worth taking.

When I planned my trip I booked a domestic flight to my destination, simply because hiring a taxi or 4WD would take too long and I had only about a week to explore outside the capital city of Antananarivo.

My destination of choice was Morondova, a fishing village on the west coast of Madagascar. I had reserved a room there at a beach resort, and from there I could easily take day trips to the Kirindy Forest Reserve to see two types of lemurs, and to the Avenue of the Baobabs, one of the most iconic photo ops in the country.

Bribes, etc.: As soon as I arrived at the airport in Antananarivo, I knew that Madagascar would be a challenge. I needed a visa and most tourists get them at the airport as they enter the country. As expected, the line was long. I waited 1/2 hour just to get inside the airport. The clerk who took my passport and disembarkation documents asked me to step aside while he finished processing about a dozen other passengers. Then he turned to me and whispered, “Do you have a little something for me?” Since I hadn’t yet changed any money, I told him “I don’t have currency yet,” to which he promptly responded, “A US dollar will be fine.” Luckily, I had one handy in my purse and I gave it to him as discreetly as possible, whereupon he handed me my passport and directed me to another line to get a 30-day visa.

After waiting another hour for the police to issue me the free 30-day visa, (thankfully, the police didn’t ask me for a bribe), I picked up my bag and proceeded to the money-changing window, where I exchanged $70 US for a boatload of Malagasy Ariary ($1 USD = 3,000 Ar). I needed cab fare (about $15 USD) to my hotel in the city, about 26 km from the airport.

The road to the hotel: The taxi to the hotel in town took 45 minutes. There is only one road connecting the airport to the city center. The two-way road is not quite two lanes wide, and it’s used by cars, trucks, vans (not enough room for buses) and pedestrians. There are no sidewalks and no traffic signals. The shoulder of the road on both sides is a strip-mall of sorts, with endless shanty-style shops selling everything from barbecued meat to used clothing and car batteries.

The road is strewn with garbage, plastic waste and animal excrement. The stench is overwhelming. You get a good view of city life because you move so slowly. People are working in rice paddies and brick-making operations along the river bed, which the road follows. Urban dwellings; i.e., tin-roofed shacks, sprawl along the river, which is edged with garbage dumps.

Houses and rice paddies along the road from the airport to Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo.

Houses and rice paddies along the road from the airport to Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo.

Clay for brick making is extracted from the river bed along the road to Antananarivo. The bricks are fired in kilns on site, fueled by wood burning.

Clay for brick making is extracted from the river bed along the road to Antananarivo. The bricks are fired in kilns on site, fueled by wood burning.

Air pollution: Since there is apparently no air quality control whatsoever in Madagascar, all the vehicles spew black clouds of diesel fumes or foul-smelling petrol. The smog around the city is so thick you can’t see the surrounding hills, and the fumes are suffocating for anyone driving or walking on the road. By the time I got to my hotel I was wheezing and my eyes were watering. In fact, several studies made of this region warn that the smog and fine particulates from both diesel fumes and wood burning are a serious health risk.

My hotel in Antananarivo: My hotel was very inexpensive, about $30 per night, but was acceptably clean, and the staff was friendly and helpful. My room had no AC. It had a balcony overlooking the smog-filled city. There were no screens on the double-doors. My room was right next to the stairwell, so it was noisy with people clomping up and down the narrow, teak stairs all night long.

Great tasting food, but where does it come from? The best thing about the hotel was the restaurant. The food was wonderful and the service was very friendly and fairly efficient. E.g., a gourmet French-style shrimp pasta, salad and two wonderful glasses of wine was 46,000 AR (about $15). I did have my doubts about where the food came from and what kind of agricultural practices were used.

Walking in the capital city: Since I was traveling solo and on foot, I found the streets to be somewhat intimidating. Many people approached me to sell me something or ask me for money. Pedestrians have no rights that I observed, and the streets are cobbled, which makes it easy to loose your footing.

Nevertheless, I needed to kill some time before my flight the next day to Morondava, so I did a half day walk/taxi tour of the old part of the city.

View of Antananarivo from the Queen's Palace.

View of Antananarivo from the Queen's Palace.

When flights leave early. I arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning at the airport, leaving plenty of time for my 11:05 a.. flight to Morondava. But when I got to the Air Madagascar check-in desk, the agent informed me that the flight had left at 8 a.m. I was dumbfounded! How could a flight leave 3 hours early?

The agent told me that they had sent me an email the night before notifying me that the flight had been re-scheduled to leave three hours early.

I had checked my email twice the night before and once in the morning, but never received that notification. The agent said I could take the next flight out at 9 the next morning, but it would cost me $25 to reschedule. I explained that because of their last minute rescheduling that I would lose my pre-paid hotel reservation that night in Morondava, at cost $175. She was entirely unsympathetic.

At that point, I realized that I could get really indignant or I could just accept that Air Madagascar has a monopoly on domestic flights in the country, so they could just do whatever they liked, customers be damned.

Last minute travel change: I remembered from my travel research that you can hire taxi drivers to take you almost anywhere in the country for reasonable rates.

I went outside to find a bevy of taxi cab drivers. They all wore red shirts with “Agreeable Taxi” embroidered on the lapels. I asked them, “How far is it to Morondava and how long would it take to drive me there?” They gave me their complete attention and then huddled.

Their spokesman then emerged and said it was 750 km away and would take 10 hours. He said they could do it for 500 euros (about 550 USD). After a few minutes of haggling, they came down to 250 euros (about 280 USD).

I had to decide then and there. If I took the flight the next day, it would cost me at least $200, and I would wake up the next day still in Antananarivo. Who knows if the next flight would even depart then?

On the other hand, if I took the taxi maybe it would break down in some remote area and then what would I do? Lonely Planet specifically warned tourists not to travel on this stretch of road at night because of bandits. Yet, we would be traveling at least 3 hours after dark.

I asked some more questions. Does the taxi driver speak English? Does he have a good taxi that won’t break down? They huddled again. In a few moments, a very clean cut cabby emerged and said, “I will drive you to Morondava in my taxi and we will arrive by ten o’clock tonight”

Something about the way he asserted himself made me believe him and I accepted. So I went inside the airport, got a huge wad of AR from the ATM (850,000 AR or $283 USD) and then went outside to meet my cabbie, who was named Levay.

Levay loaded my bag into the trunk of the cab, a late model Renault that looked well maintained and clean. I noticed a spare tire and a jack in the trunk. He told me he needed to stop at his house on the way out of town so he could get a change of clothes. (He would spend the night in Morondava and then drive back the next day).

He drove a few kilometers to his house near the main road. He went inside and a few minutes later emerged with a small bundle of clothes, accompanied with his wife and his daughter who was about 12 years old. He introduced me to them. They were very sweet and friendly and seemed pleased that I was giving Levay the business.

500 miles of bad road to Morondava. By 10:30 a.m., we were off, back through the squalid outskirts of Antananarivo, beginning our long arduous journey southwest to the town of Morondava. I was glad to be leaving.

One of the advantages of driving that long distance was that I would be able to see the country, starting with the mountains south of Antananarivo to Andsirabe, and then west through the foothills and down into the river valleys and the coastal plains into Morondava.

We made a stop to get food and water and gas up. Then I paid Levay the first half of the taxi fare, counting out piles of AR in the back seat. The agreement was that I’d pay him the first half on departure, and the second half when we arrived.

The first 4 hours of the drive were sickening due to the stench and fumes on the road out of Antananarivo. Levay realized, probably because I was turning green, that I had a low tolerance for these fumes. I’m sure he didn’t want me barfing in the backseat of his cab, so he overtook every stinky, spewing truck and car as soon as safely possible.

He kept assuring me that as soon as we got away from the city, the traffic would subside and so would the fumes.

Early in the trip, I told Levay that it was OK if he needed a rest or a cup of coffee at any time, that we could stop. He was very appreciative, but only stopped once for a 15 minute break for coffee during the entire trip.

Once we got to Antsirabe, we headed west to Miandrivazo, the river valley where tourists will board boats to cruise the big rivers west out to sea. This area was home to lots of crocodiles.

We made our first pit stop on the open road. LeVay got out of the car first. When he returned, I got out and walked about 25 feet to find a bush to hide behind. I took my purse with me thinking, “What would I do if he left me out here in the middle of Madagascar with no money, no passport and no cell phone?” I dismissed the thought, but I still took my purse with me.

As we drove, we passed through endless poor villages where pedestrians carried water and firewood on their heads. Often we had to slow or stop for herds of cattle (zebu) or ox-carts along the road. In several villages, it was market day, so the street was also mobbed with vendors and shoppers. Roadside cooking, burning in the fields, and brick kilns all contributed to the smoke filled air.

As traffic subsided in the remote rural areas, fuel exhaust fumes decreased. But the smoke from cooking fires and brick kilns increased; the air was still full of smoke, just from a different source.

The road was relatively well paved until we got about half way, when all of a sudden there were huge ruts and unpaved patches that could destroy a vehicle if you hit them too fast. Levay was quite adept at dodging these potholes. Yet, he was also driving as fast as he could because he knew I was anxious to get to my hotel, and he had promised to get me there by 10 p.m.

Accident from hell. After about 8 hours, as we approached a bridge on the road, Levay exclaimed, “There’s a bad accident!” A huge truck had overturned and was lying below the bridge. Both lanes of traffic across the bridge were stopped. A young man completely covered in black oil approached Levay through the car window and they spoke in Malagasy. Evidently, he was part of the clean-up crew of a dozen men at the scene wearing only shorts and flip-flops, who were also completely covered in oil. As our lane cleared, we slowly passed the accident. There were 15 - 20 large oil barrels that had been pulled from the creek below. The truck had apparently been hauling full oil drums when it overturned. I shuddered. We drove on.

Deforestation and water pollution. During the drive, I had been taking photos of the severe deforestation, erosion, and red, sediment-laden rivers. I had read about the terrible deforestation problem in Madagascar. Most of the forests reserves of ebony, teak and palisander (a type of rosewood endemic to Madagascar) have been plundered and depleted over the past two centuries. Now, farmers and villagers cut any available wood they can for cooking, heating and for firing huge kilns full of bricks, which they form from clay cut from the hillsides.

Deep gullies on eroding hillsides on denuded hillsides along the road from Antananarivo to Morondava. The sediment is carried downward into the rivers.

Deep gullies on eroding hillsides on denuded hillsides along the road from Antananarivo to Morondava. The sediment is carried downward into the rivers.

Only few spindly trees are visible on the ridges of these hills. Rural people are dependent on firewood for cooking and heating needs. Note the burned fields in the foreground.

Only few spindly trees are visible on the ridges of these hills. Rural people are dependent on firewood for cooking and heating needs. Note the burned fields in the foreground.

I saw almost no mature trees on our drive through hundreds of kilometers of mountains. Sometimes a few silhouettes of trees were visible along a ridge top. Sometimes there were tall, spindly trees where all the lower branches had been stripped for fire wood. But mostly, there were no trees...anywhere. Sad, so sad.

Bigger questions. The more I saw on this drive, the more I felt that Madagascar was ruined to the point of no return. Is this the future of the world? A government that does nothing to regulate air quality or prevent deforestation and the resulting erosion and sedimentation of its fresh waters? Where people struggling to survive have no choice but to continue stripping away natural resources and polluting the air and water? Yet, the people seem to accept it, probably because that’s all they’ve ever known.

I guessed that most tourists in Madagascar avoid having to ask these questions. They fly into the Anatananarivo airport and stay at a nearby air-conditioned hotel just long enough to get on a domestic flight to whatever tourist destination they want to visit. That way, they don’t have to look at the environmental degradation and terrible poverty that plague much of the country. And if you did that, maybe you would still think that Madagascar is paradise.

Car trouble. About an hour later, Levay stopped the car, got out and checked the tires. He said the brakes were overheating. He poured some water on the rear driver side wheel and it steamed and hissed. “No problem,” he said. “We just wait a few minutes.”

Again, I wondered what we would do if the car broke down. Up to this point on our journey, I saw no other tourists. But by then, I had a fair bit of confidence in Levay. He had good reception on his cell phone and he seemed to be unfazed by this latest development.

After a few minutes, we continued on or way.

Are you OK? Every hour or so, LeVay would look in the rearview mirror and ask me, “Are you OK?” I would always respond with a thumbs up and a smile, “I’m OK; are you OK?” He would always smile and say, “Yes, I’m OK.”

Somehow, that was all that needed to be said.

As our drive continued past Miandrivago, nightfall descended. Levay helped me to telephone my hotel in Morondava to let them know I would be arriving late.

A grateful arrival. At about 9:30 p.m., after 11 hours, we pulled into Morondava and LeVay drove me directly to my hotel. We were a half an hour early! I was elated as I headed directly for a toilet near the lobby. I hadn’t wanted to pull over to the side of the road in the dark where we might be attacked by bandits or crocodiles lurking in the grass!

I then paid LeVay the rest of his fare and gave him a $10 tip (USD), for which he was very appreciative. He gave me a receipt and made sure I got his name right. We shook hands and said goodbye.

I checked into my room, at the upscale Palisander Hotel, and was shown to my thatched-roof cabana right on the beach. I had a great dinner at the hotel and took a hot shower. I slept like a baby. Next morning, as I awoke, I was grateful that I was here at the beach rather than still in Antananarivo.

My decision to hire Levay to drive me to Morondava turned out to be a good one. I saw so much of this country that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Despite some initial fears and misgivings, I had trusted my intuition. Levay turned out to be a terrific driver who made every effort to get me where I wanted to go.

It would take me a couple of days to recover from that journey.

R & R in Morandava. My beach cabana was a perfect place to relax. But I noticed that it was almost entirely constructed of palisander wood. (The palisander tree, also known as Madagascar rosewood, is now rare because of its value as export lumber.)

The king-sized bed was entirely enclosed with a mosquito-net canopy. I spent lots of time lolling about the covered porch in the front watching the waves roll in.

One day I walked into town to see the local market. I saw almost no other tourists there. I managed to buy some toiletries I needed and found the local ATM. An armed security guard ordered me to remove my hat and sunglasses as I used the ATM, so my image could be captured by the security camera.

Day tours around Morondava.

On Day 3 in Morondava, I took a canoe paddle through the mangroves along the river in Morondava that drains out to sea. My guide pointed out the four different kinds of mangrove trees and explained how the local people use them for medicinal purposes (e.g., to treat malaria).

Paddling in the mangroves in Morondava.

Paddling in the mangroves in Morondava.

My guide beached the canoe at a small village across the lagoon, where they build boats.

We walked through the village where I noticed solar panels at some of the tin and thatch-roofed huts.

The only source of electricity in this tiny fishing village outside of Morondava is solar panels. But only the richest people can afford them, so most people burn charcoal or wood.

The only source of electricity in this tiny fishing village outside of Morondava is solar panels. But only the richest people can afford them, so most people burn charcoal or wood.

My guide explained that only the wealthiest people could afford solar panels. He said that the government does not subsidize the purchase of solar panels, even though there is no other source of electricity. So most people continue to burn charcoal and fire wood for cooking. The smell of smoke is strong, even here in this coastal village.

On Day 4 in Morondava, my guide drove me to the Kirindy Forest in his 4WD. The 90 minute journey is entirely on a bumpy dirt road. The road is a little better maintained as it passes through the spectacular baobab trees known as the Avenue of the Baobabs. People use the baobab bark as thatch for their roofs.

Avenue of the Baobabs in early morning, about 5 km outside of Morondava.

Avenue of the Baobabs in early morning, about 5 km outside of Morondava.

Then we proceeded to the Kirindy Forest Reserve, a very dry and brushy deciduous forest where “sustainable forestry” used to be practiced. Now, its primary purpose is to protect two species of lemurs and other endemic species for tourism. Tourists are guided a short distance into the forest, where guides fill sea-shells with water and call to the lemurs to come down and drink.

Brown lemur in the Kirindy Forest Reserve.

Brown lemur in the Kirindy Forest Reserve.

This encounter is obviously a well-practiced routine. The lemurs are very tame. One brown lemur drank water from my hand. The white lemurs are a little less sociable with humans. But my guide spotted one in a tree and I took a video.

Looking back on Morondava. Though I was glad that I could see and experience the tourist attractions and this nice hotel, I couldn’t help but think about the big picture of environmental degradation through overuse of natural resources and lack of government regulation. How long could these rare species survive in these relatively small oases of protection? How long could the Malagasy people survive when they lived their entire lives in the midst of air and water pollution that would only continue to get worse? Education is not compulsory in Madagascar and school is not free. Most people can’t afford to sent their children to school, so there are few avenues of escape from existing ways of life.

Weird last days in Madagascar.  On Day 6 I had to catch my flight back to Antananarivo (which I had the hotel repeatedly check to be sure that it wasn't leaving early!).

I would spend my last two nights in Madagascar at a hotel near the airport, where I would catch up on my writing and get ready for my flight to Mumbai, India.

But my hotel airport pickup didn’t show and the power went out as I was standing outside in the dark waiting in front of the airport. I called the hotel on my cellphone and they said a car would be there in 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, I ran into the taxi driver who had arranged my trip to Morondava. He offered to drive me to the hotel for a reasonable fare if my hotel pickup didn’t arrive soon.

After 20 minutes I took him up on his offer and we soon arrived at my hotel, the Paon d’Oro, which turned out to be the weirdest place I have ever stayed. (See my Trip Advisor review).

The hotel is a walled compound edged entirely with razor wire. Armed guards patrol all the roads inside the compound. My room was in a 5,000 sq. ft. villa where I was the only guest. The service was terrible, but the concierge kept reminding me how fancy the hotel was and how lucky I was to be there.

Razor wire topped every wall enclosing the compound that is named Hotel Paon d'or in Antananarivo.

Razor wire topped every wall enclosing the compound that is named Hotel Paon d'or in Antananarivo.

The best thing about the hotel was the wifi. It was the best I have experienced in a hotel since I started my trip almost 6 months ago. There was a huge telecommunications complex right next to the compound. All very strange.

On Sept. 24 I left Madagascar. My trip would take almost 24 hours and I would arrive exhausted and ill in Goa on Sept. 25. I was ready for more R&R.