Anytime i talk about my trip to Antananarivo Madagascar, people assume the Maldives, Seychelles or Fiji. Those exotic islands where you just spend the better part of your day either sunbathing, taking photographs of random people, or just sipping on a Pina Colada or Mogido on a clean exotic beach bar wearing those ugly colourful tropical shirts.
My trip started when i was selected to travel to Antananarivo, Madagascar as part of a huge delegation from the SADC region. We were close to 200 young people in total. The conference was about Investment in Young People and potential for African growth. Ticket and flight times confirmed, i went for the kill and went shopping a day before my trip. I bought shorts, vests and even one hideous tropical shirt to make sure i could fit in when it was time to hit the beach. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime and i wanted all the pictures to show me having FUN as i had seen on TV and the internet. The conference YES, but most importantly was the beach, long blonde women in lovely bikinis, plenty of cocktails, pictures of me snorkeling, pictures of me swimming in the ocean and pictures of me taking photos with exotic Malagasy people laughing and enjoying myself……
Sun sets with Pina Coladas in my hand,you know the whole nine yards. The reality was quite different. It meant spending the better part of the day in conferences and dialogues with limited or no time to enjoy the beach. Or even see one in my case. Ibis hotel where we were accomodated and conferenced was a 4 hour drive away from the nearest beach called Batou beach as i later discovered.
Left Swaziland, landed at OR Tambo on a Thursday afternoon. We would arrive the following day in Magadascar at Avito International airport and since the conference started on the following Monday, i would have plenty of time for beach and cocktails over the weekends.
I slept at a B&B in Kempton Park as i had a lay over at OR Tambo International before we could connect to Madagascar. My life long dream of visiting an island was coming to life and my excitement levels shot through the roof. The excitement made me forget to do my homework and understand Madagascar much better. I didnt google anything about Madagascar. I had received my travel advisory note and concluded that was sufficient information for my purposes. In my head, i had images of the ocean with clean blue waters, unspoiled views of surrounding buildings with glossy small sized shopping complexes and exotic hotels brand names like the Radison Blue chain.
As we left left OR Tambo late afternoon on a SAA chartered flight to Madagascar, i wanted to jump up and down. This dream of visiting an exotic islands was finally coming to life. I had settled for a window seat to secure unspoiled views of the exotic islands as we approached Ivato International airport. There were no unspoiled views to be had as we appraoched the international airport and to console myself, I thought maybe it was the approach the aircraft had taken. Dissapointment was real.
We landed at Ivato International Airport and what a suprise. The airport was in bad shape and this was in 2015. Second shock factor was that Malagasy people are seriously stunted and have Asian features. For some strange reason, i had imagined an exotic breed of people that had features i had never seen before. Moving along, after securing our VISAs we headed for Ibis Hotel. The name Ibis hotel conjured images of my hotel with unspoiled views of the Indian ocean paralelled by views of a huge infinity pool on the hotel terrace. I had created a fictional world in my head and noone should tamper with, not even reality.
From the airport to the hotel, we were escorted by two policemen motorcycle who carved their way through the narrow streets of Antananarivo ensuring that we are not delayed by traffic. Antananarivo is a conjested city with narrow streets. The roads are tiny and do not leave much room for mistakes. Grid lock traffic jams are common and are notorious in the morning and afternoon.
My heart sank when we reached Ibis hotel. Till now, all i had seen was the following; no beach side views, conjested narrow streets, no ocean breeze blazing through the windows as we travelled the city, seemingly no nearby ocean. Just an old capital city with run down buildings and dirt everywhere.
I was dissapointed not defeated. Back to my fictional world of Madagascar. I still had my hopes high. It was at night when we reached the hotel and i concluded that i might have missed a few finer details about the country as we drove at night. Tomorrow, in broad daylight Madagascar will finally redeem herself and show me her true colors. I will be a happy man and order will be restored on planet earth.
The weekend went by in a blaze due to a hive of activity. The following day after our arrival, we were taken on a guided tour at the Rova of Antananarivo, a royal palace complex in Madagascar that served as the home of the sovereigns of the Kingdom of Imerina in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as of the rulers of the Kingdom of Madagascar in the 19th century.
The guide spoke very inaudible English and his narration left a lot to be desired. The history of the Rova of Antananarivo is very rich and interesting but the tour guide did injustice and left us very bitter about the whole experience. The building itself was empty and no attempt has been made to finish it. Its now also used by trained con artists acting as tour guides trying to make a quick buck by asking unsuspecting tourists to enter and exit the palace at a small fee. The site is full of compromised tour guides who are dressed shabbily and dont resemble anybody about to guide a tour.
The Rova of Antananarivo palace is just an empty building with nothing inside it. Refurbishment of the site was completely halted due to misuse of resources. The palace itself could benefit with an upgrade to make the tour much more exciting. Paying to see an empty building is not logical and will impact on tourism as word spreads around that its an empty building. Wikipedia has much detailed information about the palace than the tour guides themeselves.
However at the Rova of Antanananrivo, there is limited hassling by hawkers unlike the Geza pyramids in Egypt. And the place has magnificent views of the capital city. Location is ideal for taking those exotic Istangram photos.
Back to my stay, the rest of the week was spent between conferences, side events at night, cocktail dinners and tours of government buildings. My dream was shattered as i never visited any beach in Madagascar. In between the events, i had promised myself to visit the Batou beach. Finding time to go there proved to be a huge stumbling block. The drive was too long and the roads not in the best of shapes.
When we left Antananarivo back to mainland Africa, i promised to come back to Madagascar on a personal visit and finally fullfill that dream. That dream was quickly shatered by Fiji Islands and Seychelles. Those two places make a quality offer you cant ignore. Their beaches are what heaven is made of…..
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in Africa with more than 75% of its population falling below the poverty level of $50 a year. When we were visiting various places in the city, the poverty confronted you. Grim realities of dirty shops with no health codes, meat sold unrefrigerated in dingy backside streets, rail track running across the city full of dirty mini ponds and rubble, piles of dirt everywhere, conjested housing with narrow roads and streets, and a dirty green looking Lake Anosy in central Antananarivo. Lake Anosy is a potential goldmine as it is central located, could be cleaned up and turned into a tourist attraction.
Would i like to visit Madagascar again? Yes, i would love to, but only to see the improvements made in the country. Madagascar is that abusive boyfriend or girlfriend that keeps promising to change. The place has so much potential and i see tourism being the main contributor to the GDP in the future. Madagascar has a population of 22 Million people and i believe if the Malagasy people can pull their heads together, deal with deforestation, protect the natural forests and its diverse vegetation, they would reap the benefits of economic growth (Economy growth is much more complex than my simple suggestion)…..