By Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack, Borderjumpers
People told us not to visit Madagascar, Africa — that political conflict made the country unsafe for tourists. But we decided to go anyway because the best and most eye-opening experiences always occur in places well off the beaten path. And wouldn’t you know, we fell in love with Anantanrivo, Madagascar’s capital city.
The narrow streets and alleyways to explore this mythical in Africa, with the cobblestone roads and beautiful historic buildings reminding you at times of parts of Western Europe. At the same time, the busy markets, the noise, the traffic, and the goats and livestock walking along the highways — these are all quintessentially African.
We didn’t see a lot of tourists and the country’s economy is hurting as a result. Empty bars, restaurants, and markets are everywhere. With that said, the people are not only friendly and welcoming, but extraordinarily kind, willing to go out of their way to share their culture, and excited for the chance to practice their English (while we practiced our pathetic French).
Agricultural alternatives in Africa
Our journey started with a field visit with the organization, Reggio Turzo Mundo (RTM). RTM is an Italian NGO, working with farmers to provide alternatives to slash and burn agriculture—which is practiced in many rural areas as a way to provide nutrients to the soil. Unfortunately, the nutrients don’t last more than a season or two, forcing farmers to burn more forest.
Later we met with a coordinator for the National Center of Applied Research for Rural Development, and organization that works with rural rice farmers, helping develop different breeds of rice to reduce the labor, fertilizer, and other inputs needed to cultivate this important agricultural staple.
Celebrating with Lemurs
We spent Danielle’s birthday trekking through the rainforest in search of lemurs in Antanarivo’s national rainforest. Lemurs are only found in Madagascar (and the island of Comoros) largely because their ancestors were displaced by monkeys and apes everywhere else.
In Madagascar, 90 percent of the country’s original forest has been destroyed and lemurs are presently endangered due to their loss of habitat and hunting. Several species of lemurs are already extinct, especially the larger species. The smaller lemurs are nocturnal and we could see were their amazing red eyes on the night trek. We also got up close and personal with some very large chamelons, turtles and giant snails.
During the day we saw lemurs traveling as families and eating flowers, leaves and fruits. In our video, you will see them playing. They’re pretty incredible animals with opposable thumbs and long tails that they use to balance themselves between trees.
Where to stay in Madagaskar
If you plan to visit Antananarivo, Madagascar, no matter the budget, we recommend strongly that you stay at Hotel Sakamanga. At only $25.00 USD per night, you’ll get a clean room with a fan, a well pressured shower with hot water, a safety box, a TV with a surprising number of movie channels (although all are in French), free Wi-Fi, and a room with great decor and atmosphere. But that is just the beginning: you’ll want to eat the $5.00 USD lunch buffet every day. The restaurant is affordable and delicious (but you should splurge on the desserts). And the front desk will help you with anything from a wake-up call to providing a trustworthy guide to take you on a multi-day trip to track lemurs.
The hotel is in the heart of the city and in walking distance from plenty of fun bars and places to eat, a DSL internet cafe, and lots of places to buy souvenirs. Whether your budget is $25.00 USD per night or $150.00 USD, we recommend staying at the Sakamanga Hotel.
Getting to Madagascar
It’s fairly straight-forward to get to Antanarivo from Johannesburg. You can choose between three airlines that are roughly the same price: Air Madagascar, Air Mauritius, and South African Airways (about $300.00 USD, roundtrip).
BorderJumpers Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack will be blogging here as part of a weekly series documenting their travels around the world. In every country starting with Africa, they’re highlighting innovations working to alleviate hunger and poverty.