Travellers' Impressions
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Tourism- to go all out
by Jonas Persson

It is not easy to describe the typical Madagascar tourist, but observing them sure is interesting; sometimes sad, disheartening, even repulsive, and sometimes awesome, refreshing and exiting. Granted a majority origin from France, given Madagascar was once a French colony, and that the most regular international connection is to Paris (Swedes, according to the park statistics, represent a stunning .01% of all tourism). Nevertheless, the tourists we met were different from one day to the next, as was Madagascar. Generalizations are hard to make, so instead, let me give some examples of the different types I’ve come across. However, first I would like to level with you all; Madagascar is not for everyone. It can be tough to travel on non-existing roads, hard to find food that is safe to eat, difficult to make yourself understood without knowing French, trying to deal with beggars and street vendors, and frustrating to view the destruction of the beautiful nature- especially the burning of the forests. That being said, here are my candidates for: (drums) Madagascar, tourist of the year award!

The French adventurer:
This French couple was impressive, to say the least, and made me feel like Katie and I had been taking the luxury route. For the past five years they have been coming back to Madagascar to spend a couple of months backpacking across the country. Their packing consists of a tent, sleeping bags, their transportable gas-kitchen, and a change of clothes. The regular trails and parks are not enough for these fellows. No, with their Malagasy guide, they set out on a hike to find villages where no one has ever seen a white person (vaza) before- and they succeed. Next, they hurry off to rent mountain-bikes to bike to the highest climbable summit of Madagascar, and, of course, climb it. When we met them they had another week left before they had to be on a plane back to France. However, instead of playing it safe, as Katie and I did, and make sure they were in Tana a few days early not to miss their flight, they rushed off to find a local pirogue owner to take them on a four day trip along the river, west, to the city of Morondava. From Morondava they would then take a 17-hour taxi-brousse ride to Tana to, hopefully, make their flight just in time. This couple strives to make fresh paths and follow no one. They go to village celebrations and they discover the Madagascar that is hidden to the regular tourists- and to most of the native Malagasy as well. I take my hat off to these two.

The wealthy British:
In the national park of Ankarana, by a gorgeous, natural swimming pool in the mouth of a cave, we bumped into a group of wealthy Brits in their 60s. The scenery was as taken from a fairy tale (except for the Brits). It was a burning hot day and the water was clear and green, consequently, there was no way to resist a swim, except being a British tourist, that is. As we swam we saw them looking at us, contemplating reckless youth, and their own chlorophyll pools back in the United Kingdom. Truth is that we had been somewhat skeptical to go for a dip ourselves, at first, but as the Brits’ tour-guide, a South African with British parents, ensured us that he had been swimming there for the past ten years, we figured it would be safe. The tour-guide later confided in us that he was “having a bit of a problem with this one”, meaning his current group of tourists. The Brits were living in the utmost luxury possible for a country like Madagascar. In the cities they stayed in the best suites at nice hotels with swimming pools, air conditioning, fancy lobbies and restaurants, and hoity-toity bellboys dressed up in traditional Malagasy outfits. The Brits didn’t even have to leave the hotel lobby to find the typical souvenirs to take home. For traveling, they used comfortable four-wheel drive trucks, unless, of course, flying was possible. I’m sure this was all to their liking, but to see some of the real sites of Madagascar you have to get out of the cities, and that’s when the problem begins. There is no four-wheel drive in the world that has shocks efficient enough to make the gravel roads to the national park of Ankarana enjoyable. No, you better hold on to your hat on those roads, and when the closest hotel is a good five hours of driving away, you have no choice but to stay in a tent. Even so, the British tourists had been given some rather fancy tents, which perhaps explains their eagerness to get back to the campsite as we met them again the next day. We were about 500 meters inside a cave with a high ceiling, walking on a firm sandbank with only our flashlights to light the way. Ahead, we knew, was a patch of sunken forest, and, eager to get there, Katie and I walked past our newly made friends. They were heading back to the campsite. “I’m sure it’s nice,” someone said, “but we have caves in Europe, too, and that is good enough for me.” With that said, they returned to the campsite, and we never saw them again. On my own behalf, I have to say that that cave, and the sunken forest it lead to, is one of my fondest memories of Madagascar. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The Canadian/American professors:
In the national park of Ranomafana we met a Canadian/American couple, he a professor of Entomology and she working with local conservation issues in Arizona. Their experiences reminded us a lot of own experiences. They were traveling the semi-budget way taking taxi-brousses and living at cheap hotels- with the irregular exception of the fancy hotel treatment every now and then- and visiting the sites listed in the lonely planet’s 2001 edition. Before they left the states they had searched the local library for books and nature videos, as to be prepared, in order to fully enjoy what was ahead. We instantly took a liking to these people, and started exchanging stories. It was almost scary how similar some of them where- especially regarding adventures in taxi-brousses. “From the smell of it, it seemed I was sitting right behind the exhaust pipe.” “We had to get out about five times to help push-start the van.” “Flat tire.” “We were fifty people and as many tons of fish, and can you believe it, they stop to load on some more. I can’t image what we smelled like after that, but, luckily I suppose, we are immune to our own smell by now.” “How many people can you cram into one little minivan? We thought we were close to the answer in South Africa, but boy were we wrong.” “Seats, that’s the key! Seats aren’t really necessary, are they? They just take up extra space.”

The international bachelor biologist:
The international bachelor biologist spends about six months out of the year in Madagascar, hence, certain measures must be taken. He has a network of Malagasy assistants around the country, and in the capital he has his own flat, which he sublets the parts of the year he is not there. He has his own car, tent and equipment. Compared to the backpacking tourists he lives a life of luxury, and compared to the richer tourists he leads a rough life. A characteristic feature I have discovered in him (and it is surprisingly often a he) is his ability to make the best of the situation. He has a remarkable endurance, and when an opportunity for “fun times” arises, he quickly seizes it. No one seems to know better where to find the best concerts, parties, new species, most picturesque waterfalls and other sources of entertainment than the international bachelor biologist. These types have the most amazing stories to tell, and are working hard to catalogue the myriad of species in Madagascar- which seems to be a rewarding task if you are looking to get a new species named after you.

The American undergrad students:
By Ranomafana national park lays a stone mansion that seems as foreign to the surrounding landscape as a Martian on Pluto (what do I know, there just might be). The mansion is a research center containing mainly American undergrad students. All of them have really fascinating projects, studying Uroplatus and lemurs, trying out the life of a researcher. Possibly these students, with their newfound love and appreciation for nature, will return to Madagascar one day to really make a difference in conservation issues. The students we met were all very different, and some were impressive. However, what really stuck in my mind was one girl that we met out in the park as she was studying the social behavior of the greater bamboo lemur. She looked bored to tears about most subjects, until she remembered a party they had had a few weeks back. With passion, and her eyes glowing, she explained how much everyone had been drinking and how “piss-ass drunk” everyone had gotten. She ended it by stating, sitting in the middle of the lemur family of four, that “Nothing much interesting ever happens here.”.
Sadly, it seems, college kids will be college kids, no matter where in the world they are.

The permanent tourist:
The permanent tourist is a man who came to Madagascar and married a Malagasy woman (we’ve seen only one case of the opposite, i.e. female tourist marrying a Malagasy man). He’s bought a quite big and fancy house and has made part of into a hotel. Since living is cheap in Madagascar, the permanent tourist lives like a king. However, for some reason- I still can’t quite put my finger on it- his breath seems to have a permanent and unpleasant smell of alcohol.

Not nominated:

The Italian pizza lovers:
The Italians seem to have built a reputation in Madagascar of being stylish snobs, and the first Italians we sat down to talk to don’t seem to contradict this rumor. They had been planning to visit Madagascar for three whole months, but after barely one month had decided to change their tickets and go home. The people, the food, the roads- they had hated every minute of it, they said.

The lonely sex tourist:
The most tragic tourist must be the sexual tourist. They tend to focus on the north parts of Madagascar, particularly at the paradise island of Nosy Be, but are well represented all over the country. Sexual tourism is so common in Madagascar that no one raises eyebrows seeing an older French man accompanied by one or two teenage women. And it’s everywhere. In Ramena, Katie and I stuck out as a couple because we were both in the same age group- and Katie is not a Malagasy woman. Confused, Katie and I tried to get some better understanding for the phenomenon. Everyone seemed happy. Lonesome men had the artificial love of a young and beautiful companion, and the once poor Malagasy woman gets taken to fancy restaurants and most likely earns more money in a week than she would working a regular job for a full year. Furthermore, she has the possible chance of seeing Europe and being financially cared for the rest of her life, i.e. marriage. One night we discussed the matter with a Malagasy guide, father of three girls, and his opinion was clear: sexual tourism is bad. He explained the importance of true love and how the girls that sell themselves to tourists might get money, but lose their souls. “They are not happy, the money will not make them happy in the end”. I decided that this was a satisfactory explanation, as it would also explain the lonely souls of the men purchasing.

So, who is our winner? Who is going to be “tourist of the year”? The French adventurers certainly get their money’s worth, but what do they contribute to the local community? Their plane ticket was expensive, as all plane fares to Madagascar, but it was bought through Air France, not Air Madagascar, and finally in Madagascar they barely spend any money at all. No, if a tourist’s job is to spend money our winner is more likely to be the wealthy British. The only problem with the Brit’s is that their money never reaches the Malagasy people (at least not the major part of it) since the hotels they live at, the restaurants they eat at, and the four-wheel drives they rent are owned by foreigners, such as the permanent tourist. So perhaps the permanent tourist is our winner? But no, if you look at it from Malagasy eyes the permanent tourist is nothing but a competitor, with far more means and connections. However, perhaps this is an unfair way to judge. If it’s only a matter of spending money, Katie and I, in order to be good tourists, should have taken the tourist taxi for $20 to the airport, instead of walking one street further to grab an in every bit similar taxi, charging the regular price of $5. Money does not automatically mean salvation. In order not to burn the forests to give room for rice paddies, people need to understand that there are other ways to farm the land. In order for the people to respect nature and its wildlife they need to understand how unique and beautiful it is. The Malagasy people, as well as the rest of the world, need to be educated in order to recognize the problems and to deal with them. And who is better to do this than the international bachelor biologist, and the American undergrad students?

Seeing the poverty and the destruction of nature in Madagascar undoubtedly gives a guilty conscience. Katie and I have tried to spend our money wisely, and to make sure it goes to the local communities. We have traveled in taxi-brousses, lived at Malagasy hotels and eaten at Malagasy restaurants. But, truly, I feel like we haven’t made a dent, neither good nor bad.

The categories listed represent the people we have met here in Madagascar. They represent the current players in Madagascar, and because they have so much more resources than the Malagasy, I believe these people will shape the future Madagascar. The money and the time they spend here give them a certain responsibility to Madagascar. That is, tourists should be aware of the consequences of their choices: Eco-tourism, research and education versus sexual tourism and exploitation of resources; the future of Madagascar is uncertain and we all play a part in it. Even if we are not Malagasy, we are still responsible for the world we all share.

Article & Images Copyright © Jonas Persson 2005