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Nerves of Steel…

Back on the road and there is a change of plan which I hadn’t anticipated. I would be heading to Mahajanga with a brief unplanned stop to the region of Vakinankaratra and then Fianarantsoa. My driver was still on the driving like a bat out of hell mission and the journey on the way to the lunch stop over in Antsirabe the capital of Vakinankaratra region was nothing short of hairy. I was to experience more terror in the following hours and days.

Arriving in Antsirabe, around 8 hours after we departed Andasibe and not without more drama. I was determined I would at least enjoy the food and take in as much of the local culture as possible. Lunch was at a local shed cafe and was fresh caught Tilapia in a Malagasy style tomato sauce with brown rice and it was truly delicious. Malagasy cuisine is simplistic, unique and the food is really good. The food is mostly fresh produce, harvested fresh from the land. They use a lot of multicultural techniques inherited from centuries of invasions but spice plays a big part and this isn’t a surprise as Madagascar is a spice trade country.

The spice trade in Madagascar is mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo, however, the first European believed to have visited the island was Diogo Dias, a Portuguese navigator, in 1500.  The story goes that Dios’ ship was bound for India but blew off course, which explains how he arrived in Madagascar. The Portuguese initially named Madagascar the “Isle of St. Lawrence”, and they regularly raided the island during the 16th century in an attempt to destroy the Muslim settlements there. The Europeans who began settling in Madagascar, desired to gain control of the spice trade from the Muslims. Spices such as cinnamon, cassia (check your cinnamon Schwartz jar as cassia bark aka Chinese cinnamon is a cheap substitute used for cinnamon spice), cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric were highly valued and used for commerce between the desiring nations. The Portuguese requirement to obtain Madagascar was so that they would have easier access to India in order to trade and gather spices.

In 1642 the French established Fort Dauphin in the southeast until 1674. Madagascar was also frequented by a variety of European pirates mainly between 1650 and 1725. The pirates would steal silks, cloth, spices, and jewels. They targeted Indian cargo ships that traded between ports in the Indian Ocean. Captain William Kidd was one of the most powerful pirates who may have dwelt in or near Madagascar as he preyed on cargo ships in the Ocean.

Fever, dysentery, hostile Malagasy natives, and arid climates caused many European settlers to return to their native countries. Despite the Europeans desire to obtain control of Madagascar for mainly trading purposes, they were unable to maintain continuous control of the land as many of the settlements failed. Eventually larger settlements and increased trade helped to promote the development of Madagascar which has shaped how the country is today.

Aside from learning more history of Madagascar, in the hour break I had to stretch my legs, I’d done a little more exploring of this city and came across one local who was disabled but he was keen for me to photograph him in exchange for a little money as he was trying to earn a living entertaining any passersby.

After my break it was back on the road and I would be taken to Fianarantsoa, whereby barricading myself in my hotel room was very much an option. Unfortunately the risk of robbery in this city is greater. I was advised by the concierge to lock myself in my room and I did.

The route the following morning to Ampijoroa was a tad peculiar and did not follow the itinerary as originally laid out. The routes taken were not direct and whilst I was able to stop along some of the route so I could photograph some of the country and its culture, my driver was still hell bent on driving what can only be described as a total maniac.

As you travel through Madagascar, a common sight you will see on the roads, is the farming culture and local sellers. You see women carrying produce, materials or walking miles with their babies. Then you see men and women selling produce at the side of the road. I sampled one local sellers stall and it was fresh cooked peanuts in a spiced sugar and another was sesame seeds which is not that dissimilar to what we can purchase here in our shops from the “ethnic aisle”, it’s just organic, fresh and tastes a lot better.

The countryside in Madagascar is rugged and fertile. Large amounts of the land is farmland with scattered trees. This is part of what is driving the destruction of habitats and pushing many species to extinction.

The drive from Fianarantsoa to Ampijoroa, took approximately 14 hours. However, this trip took slightly longer and this was because the following events took place. As we continued through, my driver is picking up speed to the point it was so dangerous as we passed through one village the first near miss is a pet puppy, as we pass through the next village he almost hits a child. I am by this point yelling at him to slow down and he just turns the music up and ignores me. He ploughs on.

Upon arrival early evening in Ampijoroa after hours of being absolutely petrified and it really takes extreme to unnerve me, by this point I have lost it and I am really yelling at him about being totally irresponsible and reckless. He and my guide then barricaded themselves in their hotel room with me left on my own to go to mine and that is where they remained holed up until I emerged the following morning.

My night in Ampijoroa was horrific, already on edge, cortisol levels through the roof and a bag of nerves, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. All I could feel all night, were things literally crawling on me and despite using a flashlight to check what it was, I saw nothing. That was until the next morning… I wake and I have been bitten from the waist down there is blood on the sheets and I am bleeding down my legs. I had become a rather tasty feast for bed bugs!

It is at this point I have a breakdown and just cannot stop crying whilst itching like mad in the heat. I had been put through a week of sleep deprivation, near miss car collisions and whilst I saw some pretty amazing things, my guide and the driver had successful stamped the first leg of my trip with a big black mark. This really was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What happened next involved 2 French Tourists and their responsible driver helping me make an escape to safety.

My driver and guide refused to come out and this French couple, horrified by what had happened to me and my physical state which I have never had happen to me on any trip, instructed their driver to take me to Mahajanga and to a Arab Parisian hotel. He did exactly this and the owner of the hotel made sure I was taken care of and I was able to arrange an emergency flight back to Antananarivo to confront the local tour rep.

The taxi driver of the French couple photographed here with his little yellow taxi, was incredibly caring and kind. He explained that what happened to me was not uncommon by tour companies from abroad using reps in Madagascar and not checking their reps properly and he explained this in broken English and French. He also showed me some redeeming features of the country to help remedy the appalling situation. I had missed out on seeing the rainforest in Ampijoroa but I did get to enjoy a little of the country and coastline.

The following day I would fly back to Antananarivo, have some very strong words with the rep and pick up Vula my new and improved guide and it is thanks to Vula who worked with me to put together the revised trip, I was able to make more discoveries and finally enjoy the last few days I had left in a truly remarkable country…

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4 thoughts on “Nerves of Steel…

  1. Wow, I felt stressed just reading this Sharon, what an awful experience! I’m glad you got to salvage something from the trip though x

    1. All part the joys of adventure I guess. Needless to say, I am not up for sharing a bed with bed bugs again. First and last experience there.

  2. The food sounds lovely but I certainly would not appreciate a driver ignoring my requests to slow down.

    1. The food is fantastic, thankfully not all Malagasy people are like the one I had for a driver. Thank goodness for my rescue by the French couple and their Malagasy driver who was absolutely brilliant.

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