TraveLinkSites chats to Jessie of BeatNomad.com today. She’s bravely thrown herself into life on the island of Madagascar trying to squeeze in adventure in between teaching young sprogs English…
We’re loving her blog.
1. Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Madagascar?
Hey all! My name is Jessie and I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in rural Madagascar while blogging about it at beatnomad.com. BeatNomad, originally started as a more general travel blog about a year ago when I still lived in Seattle. However, since moving to here in July 2011 it has morphed into a Madagascar-focused blog.
In regards to travel, being a teacher means most of my travel opportunities come when school isn’t in session, but even an afternoon off is enough to hop on my bike and explore the area around my town, just outside of Antsirabe. Overall in my experiences traveling, I’ve found Malagasy welcoming and eager to just sit and chat (especially when they find out I speak Malagasy!), but the lack of development and rough roads can make some areas of Madagascar tediously difficult to reach, particularly if you’re doing it on the cheap with public transportation.
2. How does Madagascar compare to the rest of Africa in terms of things to see and do, its food and its culture? Is it very similar to other countries or very different?
Honestly, Madagascar is such its own world compared to the parts of mainland Africa I’ve seen. In fact, I’ve been told on several occasions by Malagasy (mostly from the Merina tribe, who are believed to be of Polynesian descent) that “Madagascar isn’t Africa; we are not African,” which is a perspective I’m still trying to understand. Although diversity between Madagascar’s 22 regions makes it difficult to generalize, Malagasy culture has a unique blend of African and Southeast Asian, and really reflects how Madagascar straddles two contients.
Rice is the main staple food, dishes are simple, never spicy, and a lot of their street foods such as fried egg rolls called “nem” are more influenced by Asia than Africa. However, once you branch out to the coast the music becomes more rhythmic, and food more tropical – like delicious coconut rice. The South, which is more gregarious and known for its spear culture, probably has the most resemblance to Africa but the rice paddy fields and boxy mud houses of the Merina-dominated highlands, where I live, shows its African-ness more subtly.
3. How much money can someone travel around Madagascar for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
To give you some idea, PCVs in Madagascar live off of $200 USD a month but when I travel for a couple of weeks, I like to splurge a little on nice food and activities. I generally budget about $400 for a two-week trip. As with most destinations, the biggest expenses are transportation and park fees. Foreigners are charged significantly more for park entry than Malagasy and it’s mandatory to hire a guide at most parks, which can add up if you’ve come here, like most, for Madagascar’s unique and varied wildlife.
All in all though, almost everything in Madagascar is super affordable, especially if you’re willing to forsake a pizza at a nice vahaza (foreigner) restaurant for a Malagasy style plate of rice and laoka (side dish) and avoid overly-touristy cities like Diego and Nosy Be. But even then, a gourmet steak dinner could run you only about $7 USD.
Be advised though, Malagasy won’t hesitate to charge extra for your luggage on a brousse ride – which is not okay – or on anything at a market. For better prices, it’s worth walking deeper into the maze.
4. What are your favourite destinations in Madagascar and why?
After having lived in Madagascar for eight months, I’m sort of ashamed to say I haven’t traveled too extensively throughout the country – working at a middle school kind of keeps me put between the capital, Antananarivo, and Antsirabe, a smaller highland city founded by Norwegians to the south of Antananarivo. While Antsirabe is pleasant, bikeable, and easy to get around, Antananarivo has a wider variety of things to do, such as Sunday movies at Café de la Gare, an incredible used clothes market on Thursdays near Lac Anosy, and microbrews at Hotel de France. However, Mahajunga has probably been my favorite destination so far, for its relaxed beach feel without the overwhelming amount of tourists of Nosy Be, the coconut rice and fresh seafood, and a gelato place run by an Italian expat.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Madagascar and why?
In the central part of Madagascar, where I live, the biggest cultural event is the fahmadihana, or turning of the bones, which mainly happens during the cold season from May to September. I have yet to see one myself but am told that the ceremony is intense, energetic, and often a little chaotic when family members gather to change the clothes on the bones of dead loved ones, sing, dance, and drink a strong home-brew liquor called “toka-gasy”.
If you can find a Malagasy person willing to invite you, it’s a great way to see a long-standing Malagasy tradition and a glimpse into family life. Otherwise, I hear there will be an international surf competition in Fort Dauphin the first week of this July 2012, which is hardly traditional, but should be a huge event.
6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
Undoubtedly, my favorite thing would have to be the landscapes. You don’t have to travel far for them to change dramatically, and every region of the country looks drastically different from the others. In the north, they have petrified wood forests known as tsingy forests, thick rainforests on the east coast, rolling hills and stacked rice paddy fields in the central highlands, the famous avenue of the baobabs on the dry, desert-like west coast, and of course lots of picturesque beaches.
My least favorite thing would have to be the overwhelming amount of attention for being a white woman. Sometimes leaving the house can be stressful because people shouting “bonjour vahaza” or other lewd come-ons is so constant and wears on me. The comments are harmless, but coming from America, where it’s considered rude to point out a persons differences, it sometimes gets to me.
7. What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
I enjoy writing more narrative style posts about my experiences traveling and living here, but also try to include practical information for people interested in visiting this incredible island. Mostly, I just want to paint an image of Madagascar that goes beyond cute lemurs and miniature chameleons, because there is so much more this country has to offer. People live here too, and I think writings about the human side of Madagascar are rather sparse and that needs to change.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around Madagascar without?
Patience, for when your taxi-brousse runs out of gas 60 kilometers from the nearest town, for when you stop for half an hour to load baskets of chickens on the roof, or for when you’ve been bombarded by vanilla vendors for the umpteenth time in one hour. Although physical items like headlamps, a quick-dry towel, and a really warm jacket if you’re going to be around Antsirabe in June shouldn’t be underestimated, the ability to be patient when things take loner than expected – and they almost always will – is indispensable.
9. If you could have lived anywhere else in the country where would it be and why?
As a rock climber, I wish I could live near Andringitra National Park, a little south of Fianaratsoa, which is known for its superb hiking and rock climbing. In fact, right now I’m working on spending a month or two this summer teaching English to the guides at the national park but I don’t want to jinx things by saying too much!
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone had told you before you started travelling in Madagascar what would it be?
Not to avoid the question, but since I came here with Peace Corps, I didn’t play a strong role in deciding what country I would volunteer in. I knew shamefully little about Madagascar, and in a lot of ways I liked arriving with absolutely no expectations or knowledge on what life here would be like. It’s rare that we travel to places without an image in our heads to match to the destination, and I think it makes the travel experience more genuine. Although, I guess it would have been nice to know that people still use the old currency, FMG, frequently and that it’s a good idea to ask “Ariary or Franc?” to avoid being overcharged.
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