Madagascar is where Africa meets Asia. It is unclear who colonized the island first, but the amalgamation of the two cultures is undeniable. The Malagasy people, at least the ones we’ve seen thus far in the highlands, are swarthy but with the rounded facial features more common to Pacific Islanders. They are also friendly to a fault. Our ability to communicate is limited to S’s high-school French classes and the handful of Malagasy words taught to us by Roland, our driver/guide, but there is no mistaking the good cheer behind the smiles and excited exclamations that greet us at every turn.
The airport is located about 20min from the capital of Antananarivo, but we had to cross a good part of the city to access the route nationale that would take us north to our first destination. Antananarivo evoked memories of other cities we’ve visited in the developing world, with new buildings abutting shacks and vendor stalls cobbled together from scraps of wood and tin, and new vehicles sharing the tortuous, narrow streets with ancient cars and zebu-drawn carts. Yet, there was something distinctly unique about Antananarivo as well, its many hills surrounded by rice paddies and the colorful houses clustered together on its ledges.
As we left the capital, we were greeted with vistas of undulating green hills and rice paddies. The houses in the highlands were made out of bricks and had thatched roofs. The landscape reminded D of the game board of Carcassonne, with little hamlets and townships dotting the hillsides. The Malagasy language is not given to brevity, at least in its written form, and the names of the villages we passed barely fit on the signs erected by the roadside. We later learned that each town name told a story. Antananarivo, for example, comes from two words – antanana, which means “the city where” and arive, which translates to “thousand.” Roland explained that the city had a different name, but was renamed after the first king of Madagascar created an army of over a thousand warriors to unify and protect the country.
The paved road ended after 100km at Anjozorobe and we bounced along a narrow, bumpy dirt road for the better part of an hour before arriving at Mananara lodge, where we would spend our first two nights in Madagascar. In planning our itinerary, we had debated between visiting the tourist hotspots, where the lemurs are more accustomed to people, and seeking out places that were a bit more off the beaten path. Situated at the edge of a dense strand of virgin primary forest, the Mananara lodge definitely fell into the latter category.