Mentioning an upcoming trip to Madagascar in the majority of cases will elicit one response from people. “OH, like the movie?” They say, happy to have found some frame of reference, albeit one with a singing and dancing animal cast. To this, I have found, the best response is to find the closest map or National Geographic and proceed to start beating them over the head with it. Repeat one to ten times as necessary. Assault charges aside, Madagascar is so much MORE than you could ever imagine. The food is hearty and cheap, the forests are leaping with silly looking lemurs and the people are ever-willing to shake their African booties with you.
After a 3-Month stay in Madagascar’s south, here is a list for all you Madagascan bound budget adventurers on what you should know before you go.
1. Lemurs will steal your heart… and your lunch.
Lemurs are cheeky bastards. They will gladly snatch your baguette right out of your hand if they have even the slightest chance. Unfortunately, lemurs have become very used to the presence of humans in the touristy spots. Some guides will lure them out of the forest with tasty treats. This means that large populations of Lemurs are becoming dependent on humans and are no longer searching for their own food. Remember they are wild creatures and try to avoid touching or feeding them even if people around you are. Saying this, one of my fondest memories in Madagascar was of a kamikaze lemur throwing itself headfirst into the middle of our neatly laid out picnic.
2. You will eat rice and beans and enjoy it… the first two times.
The countries most popular dish is the humble rice and beans, or RnB as my travelling companions and I grew to calling it. Although it doesn’t go down as smooth as a Chet Faker beat, the meal is quite hardy and will fill you up. Outside of Tana, this meal will set you back around 2000-4000 Ariary (around $1.50). My trick: a cheeky bottle of Sriracha sauce in the backpack will make even the blandest meal taste like a fiesta in your mouth.
3. The deforestation of Madagascar WILL break your heart.
Over the last 10 years, Madagascar has lost 90% of its original forest. This figure becomes all the more devastating when you spend time in the remaining forest, be it on a trek through Isalo National Park or a two day trip to Andasibe Mantadia National park to see the rare Indri lemurs. If you are going to Madagascar with a conservation project or NGO, then good on you! They need all the help they can get.
4. You WILL drink “Three Horses” beer and dance to Shakira’s Waka Waka.
This is a country that loves dancing. Do yourself a favour and head down to the local joint for a night of sweaty, sleazy dancing with the locals. Watch out for the country’s musical pride and joy, Black Nadia, whose music is a delightful mix of Malagasy drum beats and smooth RnB. The local beer, Three Horses, goes down a treat in a hot smoky bar and will only set you back around 1500 Ariary (a little more in the bigger cities). For the single ladies, this activity should be enjoyed with a group, as Malagasy men can get a little frisky when they have been drinking.
5. Peeing in a ditch with twelve other strangers is unavoidable if going on a long bus ride.
Three things will make this better: Baby wipes, hand sanitizer and a maxi skirt, don’t go without them. Before getting on a bus in Mada, grab a bag of oranges from one of the many ladies selling them at the station. Handing these around the bus will break the ice between you and your bus-mates, and you might even avoid sitting on the “seat”, which is actually just a wafer thin pillow covering a rusty metal frame. Not fun when you’re flying down a bumpy dirt road.
6. You will do something “fady”.
The Malagasy believe that certain places, actions and words are fady or taboo. If you stay in Tana, you won’t come across the practice of fady as much as in the rural areas of Madagascar. In my time in Madagascar, I managed to condemn myself to death by pointing at a grave stone. Luckily I wasn’t struck down by the ancestors, and I live to pass on the warning. Always ask before taking photos of any tombs or gravestones out of respect for tradition. Interestingly enough, the concept of fady has aided conservation efforts. Most of Madagascar has declared the killing of lemurs to be fady and also the chopping down of certain trees and forests. So it’s not all hell fire and brimstone.
7. You WILL get over your fear of cockroaches.
As a budget traveler, I can guarantee that you will be faced with a cockroach infested bathroom or toilet during your time. Shoo them away and get on with your business. In fact, whilst I was there, a cockroach the size of a baby’s foot fell on me from the ceiling. Do yourself a favour and conquer your fear before you go.
8. You can almost guarantee food poisoning. Don’t let it ruin your trip.
Basically, as a backpacker you are almost guaranteed to get food poisoning anywhere you go, be it south-east Asia or Madagascar. Make sure your first aid kit has the necessary items to make this a bit more bearable. I suggest taking charcoal tablets with you as they soak up the toxins in your belly. Also take re hydration salts, some heavy duty painkillers and when all else fails, make sure you have some Imodium on hand. In a pinch, keep hydrated with Coke or the “black doctor” as I like to call it. Look on the bright side; you will have a great poop story to share among other travelers; a MUST on the backpacker trail.
9. Keep an authorized copy of your passport on you at all times- especially at night.
Always keep your passport on you at all times as the Malagasy police are very fond of police check-points. A better alternative to this is to have a laminated and authorized copy of your passport. When travelling on a bus through the country you will go through many check points, some more official than others. If you are found without your passport then you will be asked to go to the station. Try to avoid this! If all else fails, a couple thousand Ariary’s, carefully exchanged, will do the trick. It always helps at these checkpoints to keep a cheery demeanor. Feel free to have laugh but be respectful.
10. Above all, you will fall in LOVE with Madagascar.
I implore you to approach this majestic island with an open-mind and dancing feet. Feel free as you wander through the forests in search of new and exotic creatures. Feel light as your wooden canoe skips across the sparkling blue water of the Mozambique Channel and wave to the fishermen gathering their nets. Laugh at the children swarming around you; a tornado of energy and smiles. Madagascar is a place to feel truly ALIVE!
Have you been to Madgascar? What tips would you have liked to know before you went? Have you experienced any of these things elsewhere? Let us know in the comments below!
- Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 31 – The Indri (mungaiandthegoaconstrictor.me)
- New Study Reveals Complex Origins of the Malagasy (23andme.com)
- The Largest Cities in Madagascar (africa.answers.com)
- Morgan Freeman to Narrate ‘Island of Lemurs: Madagascar’ (livelyindepthmusicent.com)
- Lemur gives his best Sherlock impression (sott.net)