Maddening Madagascar

12°3’S, 49°28’E

Dispatch: Antsiranana, Madagascar

Why visit Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world? This remnant of the French colonial empire has a population of 22 million, 90% of whom live on less than $2 per day.

Madagascar’s riches lie in the biodiversity of endemic species. That means 11,000 plants including seven species of baobab trees live no where else. An amazing 250,000 different animals live here, of which 175,000 live no where else. Two-thirds of all Chameleons live here, and it’s the only place where you can see lemurs in the wild. This island nation is like no other and deserves attention to protect these diverse species.

The people of Madagascar migrated across the ocean from Southeast Asia and East Africa. Half practice Christianity, and the remainder follow their own traditional religion, a form of ancestor worship.

Antsiranana (formerly Diego Suarez) at the northern tip of Madagascar, represents a stopping point for vessels crossing the Indian Ocean. The town of 83,000 is a gathering point for supplies bound for Northern Madagascar. The island nation has a thousand mile long mountain chain with a single-lane semi-paved road running up its spine. It’s slow going with ruts, washed out bridges and unpredictable conditions of fog and rain. A couple reported taking 25 hours to drive 660 miles from the capital of Antanarivo.

With these transportation limitations, commerce is local. The lively marketplace, while lacking in hygiene standards, does provide a rich variety of fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and poultry, both live or dead.

The beaches at Ramena are 18 kilometers and one whole hour from Antsiranana. This fishing village and tourist destination is on the most popular beach in Diego Suarez. Crowds of souvenir vendors, children, and young people parade animals (lemurs, chameleons, and parrots), which they charge $1 for you to photograph. The beach is lined with shacks offering food, cold beverages (the beer was very refreshing), and a number of fishing boats. On the drive back, a few baobab trees, not as impressive as the ones in Southern Madagascar, line the roads.

Rickshaws squeeze between buses in front of a modern-looking town hall. Soldiers with impressive clubs sit in the park nearby and everyone else struggles to have enough to survive. Biodiversity brings some tourist trade but for now, the monetization of the natural resources here makes slow progress at $1 per lemur photo.

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