As an insular nation, Madagascar has various homegrown industries, making this country a veritable paradise for those who like to supplement their travels with souvenir shopping. Antsirabe, where we spent the next night after leaving Anjozorobe, is the industrial capital of Madagascar and we visited various workshops before heading further south the following day. Some, like the candy-making and the precious stones ones, we could have done without, but a handful of the workshops were quite noteworthy, either for the skill of the artisans or their ingenuity.
The Malagasy are an industrious people. In village markets, we saw oil lamps made out of recycled tins and electric lamps made out of recycled light-bulbs, which had been equipped with LED lights and hooked up to batteries. The spirit of recycling has infused some of the country’s artwork as well. The first workshop we visited the night of our arrival was a combination embroidery/miniature art place. The embroidery was top-notch and we purchased a gorgeous tablecloth that was inlaid with tiny figures depicting everyday scenes of Malagasy life. The other half of the workshop was run by a man whose voice was as diminutive as the artwork he produced. We could barely keep a straight face through the whole demonstration as he maintained a deadpan expression while squeaking out an explanation of how he makes bicycle wheels out of recycled tins of condensed milk. The spokes were fashioned out of fishing line and the tires out of a tube extracted from a package of expired pharmaceutical equipment. He also crafted vehicles out of recycled beer cans. The final products were ingenious and eco-friendly but also looked somewhat trashy and too tacky to contemplate buying.
Our favorite workshop was run by six brothers who fashioned all sorts of ornaments out of zebu horn. These long-horned cattle are as emblematic of Madagascar as the lemurs. Their horns are heated over a flame to remove the bone, cut with a small saw, placed once again into the fire to be shaped, sanded to remove the soot, and then polished for days to give it them a beautiful, pearly gloss. From shiny birds to soap dishes, salt shakers, and game dice, it is quite remarkable what can be crafted out of the horn of a zebu. D was struck by a domino set, which quickly joined our trove of purchased goodies, along with an aluminum wall hanging, and a few items woven out of sisal and raffia.
After touring the workshops in the morning, we departed for Ranomafana, stopping in Ambositra for lunch. The villages around Ambositra are known for their woodcarving, even earning a UNESCO World Heritage stamp of approval. We entered a few shops, but the carvings were all uniformly tacky and uninteresting. The overpowering smell of lacquer and complete dearth of artistic distinction made us want to leave as soon as we had entered a shop so we did not linger in Ambositra. Equally disappointing was the silk production in Ambalavao. The shop we visited was also family-run and the guide book had sung its praises, but the finished products were coarse and unappealing.
Driving south of Antananarivo (Tana), we had undeniably joined the tourist circuit. Until one gets to Ranomafana, the various workshops are the only places worth visiting, and Roland urged us to get an early start to our day to avoid the hordes of foreigners that spilled from tour buses in front of every workshop, even during low season. Rampant tourism engenders an unfortunate attitude change. We don’t know enough to comment on the relative poverty levels of the people we encountered; we can only say that the friendly smiles that were the hallmark of our interactions with the Malagasy in the highlands north of Tana gave way to aggressive vendors and the outstretched hands of beggars south of the capital.
The peace and quiet we enjoyed in Anjozorobe was not to be had on the tourist circuit. The restaurant where we had lunch in Ambositra served delicious food and was ornately decorated with intricate wood carvings, but we could not abandon it fast enough. A troupe of dancers readied themselves in the courtyard and as soon as we sat down to eat they started dancing, singing a monotonously maddening chant while one of their companions banged on a drum and another clanged away on a keyboard. We thought they would do a few dances and stop, but they merely took a brief pause before launching into another routine. They performed the entire time we were there, making conversation all but impossible. While they pranced around, rival performers – one with a guitar and another toting a tall, slender, cylindrical stringed instrument – arrived and set up shop inside the restaurant to await their turn. It is with a sigh of relief that we entered Ranomafana that night. The same tourists we had seen making the rounds of the workshops followed us there as well, but at least the forest was dense enough to restore the serenity we had missed over the two previous days.