Hard to deny the beauty of Lake Kavitaha (especially at sunset)

I’ve wanted to visit this country for a long time. And not because I’ve seen the movie, Madagascar. I haven’t. I’ve wanted to come because islands have always fascinated me and this is the world’s fourth-largest one.

It turned out to be a great place to remind myself of the importance of gratitude since the vast majority of citizens here live in extreme poverty. Many live in wooden shacks and wear our discarded clothes for warmth. I saw people wearing shirts advertising everything from Notre Dame to Hooters, but my favorite was a “Vote for Pedro” shirt.

As a quick aside, it turns out that many of the clothes we give to charity eventually end up in markets throughout Africa. It’s a source of income for a lot of people. The best quality stuff (think “like new”) goes to the big cities, and the quality gets worse and worse as you move farther and farther out into the rural communities.

But back to the matter at hand, this has not exactly been an easy country for me to visit. And I’m glad about that. I’ve learned more about myself because it was hard.

I don’t speak the language (most everyone speaks Malagasy and a lot of folks speak French). And virtually nobody speaks my language.

Tana was a jam-packed city with 2 million residents, but the “real” Madagascar is well outside the city’s borders.

I hate to admit it, but I was constantly wondering what people were saying about me. In truth, probably nothing. We all make ourselves out to be far more important in the minds of others than we really are, but I couldn’t help it. I haven’t been to a country where I don’t speak the language in a long time (obviously, I’ve got English down and I can get by with Spanish). When Joe shared with me that the Malagasy word for light-skinned people was “Vazaha,” I listened even more intently.

But does it really matter what — if anything — other people are saying about me? Of course not. I never felt unsafe. Everyone here has been very kind and the crime rate in Madagascar is quite low. I want?to do a better job of not worrying about other people’s opinions.

The train station, built by the French Vazahas, is still used today.

This was also the first time I’ve been on the road and got really sick (honestly, I’m shocked it took this long). There was something quite disagreeable in my lunch one day and I spent more than 24 hours paying for it.

The rice paddies are beautiful and a vital source of income for many here.

It was also challenging because there’s very little in the way of tourist infrastructure. It’s not like Italy or Peru or Japan. Those places have been hosting tourists for a long time. Not true here. This was particularly noticeable in the hotels where I stayed.

I was one of four guests at this hotel with space for 25 people.

By way of example…

  • They didn’t clean the rooms during my stays
  • I was provided only one roll of toilet paper (a real exercise in budgeting for me on one particularly long night)
  • There was no phone in the room to call the front desk to ask for more toilet paper
  • WiFi was limited to reception areas and in some places limited to certain hours
  • Hot water was a gift I never received during my five days
  • And there was no shampoo provided in the rooms

Actually, a quick story about that last fact:

I’m heading to Nepal from here, which requires more than forty hours of traveling. I thought a good shower was in order. Since there was no shampoo in my room, I walked to the reception desk and asked for some (I couldn’t call!). The receptionist looked at me like I had two heads. She called someone else over, I made the same request and received the same response. Finally, a third person came over. He seemed to understand. He said something about a shop. I followed him. He went into the public bathroom and came out with a used piece of soap.

I thanked them for their help and used my own soap in place of shampoo. My hair now stands on end…

The fact of the matter is that there have been times during my visit to this country that I’ve regretted coming here. It’s been difficult. But then the good quickly outweighs the bad.

  • Seeing lemurs was unforgettable.
  • The landscape is unique.
  • My guides have all been fantastic.
  • There is no place on earth like this.
  • I’ve learned a great deal about myself here.

The geysers were really beautiful. And, unlike in many countries where they keep you away from them, here you’re encouraged to get in and roll around. I chose not to.

If Madagascar is on your list, keep it there. Just make sure you mind your expectations!