Madagascar (2): Turn your dreams into memories

When it comes to the wonderful world of flavours, vanilla is my number one: unobtrusive but powerful, elegant but playful, frivolous and chic. No need to add much, it emphatically proves that the quality always beats the quantity. Think about it: vanilla-curry prawns, vanilla-raspberry cake, vanilla-caramel ice cream. Doesn’t it sound just like heaven? I’m sure it doewild-vanilla-bean-powder-extract-organic-fair-trade-sinlge-origin-vanillas, so have a bite and sing with me:

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh heaven is a place on Earth
They say in heaven love  comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on Earth
Ooh heaven is a place on Earth.

The discreet presence of vanilla is noticeable all over Madagascar. It can be a little, sweet girl following you like a shadow, pulling shyly the edge of your skirt, trying to sell few pods. Or a low-key, inconspicuous restaurant, which has at least three delicious, vanilla-based specialities on its menu. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world and its taste is second to none.… but around the island it’s offered almost for free (!) Why is that? Continue with my story.

Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of vanilla, responsible for more than 80 percent of the production worldwide. It brings lots of pleasure to many foreign taste buds. While treating ourselves with a yummy vanilla dishes we happily sing: heaven is a place of earth, but unfortunately for vanilla producers there is no heaven — instead — there is hell. It’s incredibly sad, how bitter the story behind vanilla crops is. Poverty in Madagascar is striking and cultivating vanilla beans doesn’t improve the situation much. The whole process of vanilla making is extremely demanding and time management needs to be impeccable. United Nation made a short (6 minutes only, no excuses: watch!) but moving documentary video highlighting the problem. The story is emotional and though-provoking. However, as sad as it is, there is a silver lining. Fortunately, there are companies, like Häagen-Dazs or General Milles, which invest in smallholder vanilla farmers and help them to survive in a competitive market. Next time you eat an ice cream, choose Häagen-Dazs, please.

THE EMERALD SEA

Coming back to our Madagascar journey, me and Andreas, decided to explore the extreme north part of the island. In several guidebooks we came across a place called The Emerald Sea (Mer d’Emeraude). To be honest the name itself was tempting enough to leave everything and go, but when we checked the google satellite image of this place — wow that was beyond temptation! The image was so irresistible and seductive, that there was no other choice, but to alter our plans and go. The next morning we boarded a cute, yellow taxi, which took us from downtown Diego Suarez, via petite baobabs, straight to the seaside. Once we got to Ramona, a small fishery village, we were just about an hour away by boat to reach our emerald Promised Land. The Emerald Sea is a sheltered bay, dotted with few small islets. The water is indeed exceptional: the most amazing, translucent, azure, turquoise and sometimes ultra aquamarine colour, all depending on a sun light. Cruising down the bay we stopped at an island with a white-powder beach, known by locals as… Ibiza. Don’t ask me why, it has nothing to do with the wild parties and crazy nightlife. Actually the piercing silence of the place is the exact opposite. Maybe they just enjoyed the exotic name. We haven’t stayed on Ibiza long, but the gorgeous water will remain in our memories for sure.

ANKARANA NATIONAL PARK

With razor-sharp limestone rocks, curious lemurs jumping between the trees, hidden chameleons, rope suspension bridge and crater lake, it is impossible not to fall in love with Ankara National Park. It’s a microcosmos of Madagascar’s beauty locked up in a one place. The most impressive part is an endless ocean of dark-grey, spiky stone pinnacles called Tsingy, a never-ending formation of striking beauty. The view is just overwhelming. Honesty, photos don’t do justice to this place, there are just a gentle indication of what the park is all about.

We had a rather doubtful pleasure of having a guide (it’s a must in all national parks across the country), who regaled us with his sexual jokes and continuous moaning about women (how nice). At the end of the trip we knew all the details about his life, including his ex marriage, no chance for future marriage, or future relationship at all. Hard to say what was more tiring: walking for hours in sun, through slippery and steep Tsingy (which adequately in Malagasy mean walking on tiptoes) or listening to that guy. Dear tour guides, please have mercy and focus on lemur-spotting only.

TAXI BROUSSE

Lemurs, baobabs, rainforest, beaches, desert, trekking and diving: Madagascar is a dream destination for nature and outdoor lovers — and half the fun is getting to all these incredible attractions. ~ Emilie Filou, Lonely Planet writer

Here we go, my favourite part is just about to begin. Ladies and gentlemen, as we all know, Madagascar is a huge country. It’s not a secret that Air Madagascar is one of the least reliable airlines in the world, so you want it or not, the road trips are simply unavoidable. We did a trip from Diego Suarez to Nosy Be (250km turned into many, many hours) and, believe me, it was an adventure. Taxi brousse are the local long-distance buses, which transport everything, I mean EVERYTHING, no matter the size, dead or alive, cheap or expensive. You name it: a fridge, a chicken, spare car parts, rice, animals, people inside, cargo outside, cargo outside, people inside — any constellation works. Traveling packed like sardines, it’s guaranteed you’ll find people sleeping on your shoulders, on your laps or leaning on your back. If you’r lucky it will be a small, sweet girl, if you’re not that lucky… well I will leave it to your imagination. 18 seats for 18 people? Forget about it, double the number, easily! The best seats are those in the front, but most dangerous too, as there’s no seatbelt at all. The front seats promise a reasonable comfort and a lot of photo opportunities. But be ready to pay extra, good seats don’t come easy (need to fight for it!) neither for free.

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That’s not the end of Madagascar adventures yet, last (3) part coming soon! We’ll relax on two stunning islands and marvel at the Malagasy wildlife. I’ll confess why my nose was beaten by chameleon and reveal stories about sex-tourism as well. I hope you enjoyed the journey with me so far, any questions or comments are most welcomed! Have a nice day! Bon chic, bon voyage.

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