It is indeed a Third World country, but that doesn’t mean that it is an inexpensive place to visit. As I found!
The government of Madagascar realises that tourism is a good revenue-earner and a dual economy has emerged – one for the locals and one for tourists.
My first experience of the high prices for tourists was at the airport where I discovered on arrival that the fee for a visa had risen that year from 13 Euros to 60 Euros.
Thus began a series of encounters that I had never anticipated.
My first personal encounter on the night I arrived in Madagascar from Mauritius, was with the Passport Controller. Not having anticipated such a high price for an entry visa, I had insufficient cash to pay for it.
The officious-looking Passport Controller lent me the money for the balance so I could go to the ATM. He held on to my passport.
A man was watching me at the ATM. He said that the machine wouldn’t accept MasterCard, that he was a taxi driver and that he’d lend me the money and take me to a hotel. He introduced himself as Raymond.
What’s a gal to do without a passport and money?!
Well, I said OK and paid the Passport Controller back with a tip. I did have a little cash, but it was just not enough for the visa.
So I got into the car with Raymond. By the end of this trip, I would owe him for my entry visa, my taxi fare and my hotel for the first night!
I am happy to say that Raymond was true to his word, took me to a suitable hotel and came back the next day for his repayment. What could I do but hire the car plus driver for the whole of the next day!
Thus began my rather expensive visit to Madagascar and the trials of a credit-card dependent traveller from Australia.
My MasterCard was now “history” for the duration of my stay in Madagascar. I did have a new Visa Card but some mishaps at home meant that I had no PIN. For the rest of my stay I was going to have to queue in banks any time I needed cash, so I could be verified by signature and passport.
With high prices for tourists, the apparent assumption that travellers earn their money in Euros and the very low rate of acceptance of credit cards, I was going through cash at a much faster rate than I ever expected.
So I spent a lot of my time in bank queues in Madagascar – where there was a bank!
Once, in a bank queue for foreigners, I waited for almost an hour. As I was moving closer, a “closed” sign was put up.
Elsewhere, after queuing for what seemed like hours, it took a day to get money from a bank with my signed Visa Card and identification as a validation request had to go from Madagascar to Mauritius.
During week one I was travelling solo. It was OK when I was in the capital to replenish my cash supply, albeit with time spent in queues. However, as soon as I left Antananarivo for say Andasibe, I was at the mercy of the unpredictable pricing decisions of the services providers – hotels, restaurants, transport providers and tour guides. My decisions to move on were frequently based on my unexpected rate of “cash burn”.
By week two, I was in a tour group. Thankfully! I relied on the patience of my tour guide, Andry, to find me a bank and at times, trusting fellow travellers who let me pay them back later.
One of the advantages for a Developing Country, is that they can “leap-frog” some of the cumbersome fixed line technologies that the Western World has had since the last century. Madagascar is no exception.
Take the example of my day in Ifaty, on the south west coast of Madagascar. I had hired a zebu cart and driver, and was touring an area of Baobab trees, along a sandy track. I was holding on to the sides of a cart made of Baobab wood, and sitting on a woven raffia mat covering a cushiony bed of grass. The cart was drawn by a couple of zebu, the hump back cattle variety of Madagascar, under the tutelage of Robert, their less-than-loving owner. The area was remote and desolate.
But Robert, the cart driver, was happily talking on his mobile phone!
In Madagascar, expect roads with potholes, enterprising village road gangs claiming a stipend for roads they have fixed – since the government tends not to fix them. Expect to dodge landslides, rock falls and trees. Even a short distance can take a very long time.
If you catch public transport, expect a “cosy” ride. If it’s a Public Motor Vehicle (PMV), expect to be crowded in by a low hung roof, a baby or three, and luggage of all shapes and sizes. On the PMV I caught from Andasibe to Antananarivo, there were planks of wood between the seats being used as a “bench” by some passengers. I thought they were part of the furniture until a fellow passenger alighted and took them with him!
An 18 seater taxi-brousse (mini bus) is a good option for inter-town travel – if you can find the bus station. And there is always the pousse-pousse (meaning “push-push”) in some locations. Similar to a rickshaw, it is pulled by a man on foot. But all this is luxury compared to what most locals can afford.
All this was worthwhile of course! I saw lemurs and chameleons and saw sights I had never seen anywhere else. But it’s a place of the unexpected. You can expect Bank and Road Encounters of the Third World Kind, and Mobile Phone Encounters of the First World Kind.
Continued from Part II – Madagascar – Follow the Lemur
Starts with Part I – Madagascar – No Ordinary Island