Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Travel story by Sven, The Orange Sky Traveler
Hey there, I am Sven.
Some of you might know I traveled a lot the last half a year (my plan was to travel a whole year but a virus crossed my plans.) A childhood dream brought me to a magnificent island. I won’t throw you a spoiler at this point so you have to keep reading.
After I left South Africa, where I had a really good time, I was excited to see more amazing places. So I jumped on a plane and my journey continued.
I fell asleep during the flight and was woken up by the pilot himself telling us we’re about to land. I looked outside the window and saw… nothing. I was surprised that there was nothing else other than dry landscapes. A few minutes later a small building came in sight and the airplane touched the ground. Nothing much to see here: no big airport, no other planes, no people and no clouds. After leaving the airplane and entering the airport you have to pay for your visa-on-arrival. Just cash. This wasn’t much of an issue because I read about it before so I was prepared.
After I got my backpack I was ready to explore but first I had to search for an ATM to fill my pockets again. The visitor hall of the airport wasn’t more than a small room, so finding one wasn’t hard at all. The hard part was to get cash out of it. Some other tourists struggled in the queue in front of me so I didn’t expect much. It was my turn and the ATM runs out of money no cash for me. No cash at all.
The man who took the last cash saw I was alone and without any cash left with me. He was kind enough to offer me some of his money. Overwhelmed by this gesture I denied as I knew I’d never see him again. But lucky me, I found another machine where I finally received some cash.
Now, well equipped and excited to start exploring, I exited the airport where I was welcomed by hundreds of lovely taxi drivers who promised me the best price. Oh yes, for sure!
I had heard about the cheap busses on the island, but the problem was to find them. I chose to thankfully deny the offers of 40$ for a ride to my Airbnb. Google Maps told me there was a bus stop 300 meters from the airport. At this time I didn’t know that my journey has just begun!
After a walk of 300 meters and hundreds of “No Thank You, I Will Take the Bus.” I finally reach the bus stop with a big smile as I knew it’ll be an adventure to board.
Ah! A bus stop. No busses at all. A minivan came, 6 people exited 8 entered – gone. Okay, I’ll board the next one! 5 minutes later, and the same scene… I tried to ask the cashier if the bus stops near my place. No English. No answer but a smile and my mood didn’t change.
And as they say, a smile is a universal language, it worked wonders for me too.
Suddenly, the moment the next bus arrived, a guy with a suitcase told me to follow him. As they say, those who are drowning are happy holding even a twig, I happily followed him. Both of us entered the bus and the guy introduced himself as Anzo. He came from the north to visit his friends and family. This cashier too couldn’t understand me, I thought this couldn’t get any worse. Anzo told me not to worry and that he'll show me the place where I’ve to deboard and take the next one.
During our ride, we talked about my journey so far. After a while he offered me to accompany him to his grandpa, see his place and come home with him on his motorbike. As I had nothing much to lose and he seemed pretty friendly, I thankfully agreed.
The bus ride was much of an uncomfortable massage as it had no real seats. The back row was missing and 5 rows of wooden planks occupied the space. The road was made out of sand and stones and I felt every pothole as the minivan had no suspension either. I must say I enjoyed even this probably because I was excited and curious about what was in store for me next.
Our bus stopped somewhere in the market and we dismounted.
It smelled strange and there where chicken running through our legs and kids after them. Dogs were searching the garbage piles for food and cats were chasing rats.
Interesting. Thrilling. Exciting. Astounded by all these happenings I forgot to follow Anzo. I saw people preparing food, butcher selling their meat without any cooling, tailors cutting fabrics and sewing clothes and farmers selling their vegetables and fruits. Whoa!
In the midst of this unique mayhem, Anzo spotted to pick me up and we went on to his grandpa. A 98 years old man! We brought him some medicine and I met Anzo's mum. His grandpa lied in a hospital bed with a hurt ankle. The hospital wasn’t as you’d expect it to be. No windows. No doors. Just a building seemingly unfinished. Pleasantly, the room was clean, the staff friendly and policemen guarded the gates.
It was a short stay for us and we quickly said goodbye to continue our ride through the city. We jumped in a cab to reach Anzo’s home before dawn. To our luck, we hit the rush hour perfectly. A massive traffic jam.
We reached his house at dawn where I was introduced to his brother and his two nephews. After a nice coffee, I finally was happy to get my ride to my Airbnb. Or, that’s what I thought.
Meanwhile, it became dark and my new friend’s house was located 30 minutes from my room. I climbed on the back of Anzo’s motorbike with a 20kg backpack, clueless of the horror ride that was about to begin. No asphalted streets, no traffic lights, dangerous hills, and potholes. I was scared of falling back from the bike or get hit by another car, donkey or street dog.
After 30 minutes of fear, we reached the address but no one was there. We drove three times around the block and finally found the gate to my apartment. It was a pretty nice room with a balcony.
The next day Anzo picked me up on his bike again and showed me around the city. I think it was because of the darkness and the uncomfortable street condition that I was so frightened the previous night because the next day it was lovely to explore the city by motorbike.
We drove to beautiful places like the castle, church, university, old train station, markets and his brother’s restaurant. It was impressive to see how people live in this city. Self-made houses stood everywhere and it seemed like most of the people are just concerned about what they could eat tomorrow. Everyone tried to sell something: fish, meat, rice, beans, chicken, dugs, vegetables, fruit, etc. I heard of a high level of criminality here and it’s considered not safe to be outside after sunset. Pieces of Advice said to keep your valuables closer and be aware of pickpockets. If you hear a lot of stuff like this you kind of get nervous. So was I.
The next day I went to a local market to buy some food: beans, vegetables, rice, some spices, and fruits. These were my first holidays alone ever. The first time I’ve been to a country like this. I was so excited and just a little bit scared of what I may experience today. The market was crowded and really busy. I held to my mobile phone the whole time and sharpened my senses. I tried to feel every touch and bumping. I curiously looked at what the other people were doing, wearing and looking like. Although it was a mess, I liked it.
The next two days I needed for orientation and to figure out where to go next. I heard of a pretty nice looking town down south and decided to try to reach there. Yes, Tried to. Because the island I’d chosen to travel has literally no infrastructure at all. 415km. Puh…! Tough distance. But after a bit of research, I found a private bus going there. 5$. That’s fair I think. Google Maps said it’ll take around 8.5 hours to reach there.
Once again, the morning I left my Airbnb I didn’t know my journey had just begun.
8.5 hours, I saw the condition of the streets in the capital and I was sure it’ll take at least twice the time. And my expectations shouldn’t be belied.
The moment we left the city behind, the street literally disappeared. No asphalt. No signs. No nothing. Just beautiful nature! The private bus was a good choice for this long distance. I realized it as I saw a car broken down stranded off-road. Two sheep, rice bags, luggage and a basket full of chicken on its roof. 15-20 people around the car. I was relieved I wasn’t a part of this tour party. We just fought with half a meter deep potholes and disappearing roads sometimes. Besides that, I enjoyed the sights I got in the rice fields, small villages, and tiny brickworks. It was amazing and I felt so free after the smoggy and dirty city. Even though I’d never seen rice fields before everything was different from my expectations. I thought this island would be covered with rainforest. Instead, there was a steppe.
I think this would be the right time to reveal where I’ve been to: Madagascar!
Most of you may have seen the movie where animals from a zoo in New York escape to this island. I did too. As a kid and even nowadays I love watching documentaries about nature and animals. As you can imagine I must have watched a lot of movies about Madagascar but I can’t remember seeing the island as dry as I did on this road trip.
Even if it wasn’t as I expected it to be, I really liked it. The small villages we stopped in to have a break were so quiet and natural. It seemed as time traveling. The houses: made out of self-made bricks and roofs out of straw. Kids were playing with hay-balls on the streets and their mothers balancing carafes filled with water on their heads, their fathers drove yokes of oxen through their fields.
24 hours after I left Antananarivo - the capital of Madagascar I reached this town called Fianarantsoa. And once again, the problem I faced: no one seems to speak English in this country. It took some time to explain to the receptionist that I needed a room for just one night. But we finally managed to understand each other with sign language.
Fianarantsoa is divided in three districts: a upper, middle and lower. As I had to leave the next morning to get a bus to Ambalavao (a small village where I was about to meet a friend) I didn’t have the time to take a closer look at this city at this point.
My journey was getting interesting day by day. Now I was on a 60km drive to Amabalavao sitting next to people who looked at me like I am an alien.
As I arrived in Ambalavao my mood was EXPLORING! My friend and I went to a close by national park where we saw lemurs, chameleons, and spiders. We had a great view from the top of a small hill and the lemurs we could literally touch, the spiders better not.
My friend and I traveled nine days through Madagascar together, always with those minivan-busses and a train. I got to know many people there and when you are traveling with locals you reach places you didn’t even know existed. I learned a lot, especially that fried bananas are awesome!
Even if the infrastructure isn’t good in Madagascar, the locals find their own ways to solve this problem with a network of these minivan-busses they have diligently created. I still don’t know how to find out their destinations or stops but that didn’t stop me from exploring the rustic beauty of this country.
During my whole trip I barely saw other tourists, sometimes none for days. It took me some time to figure out which dishes I like as they deep fried nearly everything.
Traveling Madagascar isn’t as easy as other countries but it’s definitely worth the vexations. In the middle part of the country, you find steppe and some small forests around lakes and rivers but no rainforest at all. Coastline close to the water is definitely exciting to explore..
On my train ride to Manakara – by the way, it is the only railway-line on this island – I drove through the rainforest for some parts. This train ride was an adventure itself. Roundabout 200km by train took me 25 hours… this was due to the enormous speed of the train. It was so fast, kids had to run to overtake it. But with bicycles, we couldn’t compete.
The train stopped every 1 to 2 hours in small villages where people hopped on and off. People inside the train were welcomed by many kids and women outside the windows who tried to sell their goods. Mostly food. Self-made. Of course, it is!
My compartment was quite empty as I shared it with 6 or 7 others. That meant I had enough space to build my hammock at night to sleep in.
As I arrived in Manakara the next day I went straight to the beach. A beautiful wide beach with no one there. Empty. Some crabs did their jobs and some seagulls screamed in the wind. Lovely. Magnificent.
I spent some days there exploring the mangroves by fisher boat, enjoying sunsets and eating coconuts. Later, I traveled along the coastline to Mananjary and back to Fianarantsoa from there. Back there I had time to take a closer look at the different districts. Especially the upper one with their churches and traditional buildings pleased me.
The middle part colonial-style shows the modern side of Fianarantsoa and in the lower part, you find colorful houses, markets, and the train station. Back there someone told me a quite nice fun fact about their train. It’s actually a railway bus and one of the last four in existence in the world. That explained its speed!
This island never fails to surprise you. A handful kilometer outside of the town is a small monastery that produces wine. Yes! Wine! Although it was interesting to watch the wine-making process, explore the vicinity with a beautiful walk, but the wine left my senses dissatisfied. It tasted very different from the usual taste wine lovers generally relish. I had to move on… so I did.
On my way back to the hotel I met some women and kids carrying goods back to their village and decided to follow them. They brought me to a tiny village of 5 houses surrounded by rice fields. No proper roads leading there but they had a car park whatever for. I drank a coffee with a way too much sugar but the woman sold it seemed so happy I couldn’t deny.
A reverend I met in one of these busses which brought me back to Fianarantsoa explained to me which busses I had to take to reach the airport when I’m back in the capital. Lucky me, otherwise I’d been lost.
I left Madagascar with two sides of my mood: on one hand, I was relieved to get proper food, better infrastructure, and English speaking people wherever it takes me next but on the other hand, I fell in love with this country and its simplicity. There are many more places on this island I’d like to see and the people (especially in small villages) treated me nicely and with pure happiness.
It may be the first time but for sure not the last time I’ve been there – Madagascar !