For this Interview with an Expat entry, I had the opportunity to interview Valerie Wayson about her time living in the island nation of Madagascar as a Peace Corp volunteer. Needless to say, I definitely learned a lot of things about Madagascar that I would not have known otherwise. Even though Madagascar seems like it might be a challenge to visit and explore even for the intrepid traveler, I now want to visit this country off the southeastern coast of Africa sooner rather than later.
1. Could you please tell me a little about how you came to know Madagascar? Did you know anything about the country before?
I knew very little about Madagascar before I was offered a place in the Peace Corps program. I knew that it was part of French-speaking Africa, and it was an island, and that was about it. A friend also told me that it’s where hissing cockroaches come from.
2. When people choose a vacation destination, Madagascar doesn’t usually seem to be on the top tourist destination list. In your opinion, what are some of the must-see places and attractions in Madagascar?
There are some beautiful and fascinating places in Madagascar, but the problem with visiting is that there is not much infrastructure designed for tourism and the risk of disease is high. Malaria is common throughout the island, including a virulent strain that affects the brain and kills quickly. Accidents are also common, as is death, and many places don’t speak English, French (the colonial language), or accept credit cards (only Mastercard or Visa if they do).
You should also definitely research malaria drugs beforehand and either get on a prophylaxis or carry a cure with you, expect to take 24-hour taxi-brousse rides over rutted dirt roads, and know that you’re just not going to go to the Black Hole (the middle of the northern half of the island) in the rainy season unless you fly.
Despite those issues, there are some breathtaking places. For example, the Isle Ste. Marie, on the east side, is out of a movie. The water is warm and clear, and if you like scuba diving, there are old pirate shipwrecks you can dive in. Last time I was there, there was an Italian scuba instructor who had decent equipment, but I’m not sure if he’s there anymore though. There’s also another beautiful white sand beach island in the north, and I believe you can get direct flights there from Italy. The place is called Nosy Be, which means Big Island. It would be easier for a tourist to visit, and although it’s very expensive by Malagasy standards, it’s still very cheap compared to the rest of the world.
On the west side of the island, just outside of Morondava, is the alley of the baobabs, which is beautiful and worth seeing. It used to be on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide for Madagascar. Morondava is also on the beach and has an airport, but the taxi-brousse is long, the unpaved road is rutted, and not well-maintained.
In the south is the Spiny Forest, one of the habitats of the aye-aye, which is a lemur that is native to Madagascar. You can also whale watch in Tulear or in Maroantstetra.
On the plateau, you can see lemurs in Antsirabe, and you can visit the old palace in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.
3. Are there any places you can recommend that are maybe off the beaten path or not commonly visited that are unique?
Everything in Madagascar is off the beaten path, except for Nosy Be and Isle Ste. Marie. Generally, it’s a very remote place and will require some advanced planning.
4. What kind of weather can a traveler expect in the different seasons? In addition, what kind of physical or cultural activities can people do in Madagascar.
To be honest, everything is physical. Expect to camp even if you’re staying in a hotel. Expect to hike even if you hire a car. I went on a three-day hike in the mountains and carried my pack the whole way although we hired guides to cook for us and set up camp. I believe that was in Menamaty Iloto although I can’t remember exactly. It is extremely important to not do anything that may be considered dangerous, like bungee jumping because safety regulations are non-existent.
In terms of cultural activities, talk to people. People who live in Madagascar are very friendly, and they don’t see foreigners often.* If you get to know the people, you might be invited to a fahamadiana, which is a ceremony when they take their deceased relatives out of their tombs and rewrap them in new shrouds. That event happens in September.
* Please keep in mind when you’re being friendly that poverty is extremely dire...⅔ of the population lives below subsistence level. The people are nice, but they’re also literally starving to death, and some will try to take advantage of you to feed themselves and their families.
5. What are some traditional Malagasy dishes or drinks that a first-time visitor must try?
Malagasy food consists of vary (vah-ree), which is rice, and loaka (low-kah), which is everything else. Pretty much everything will be some version of this. If you’re on the coast, you can get fish but know that the shrimp will not be shelled or deveined. If you can, get rano mapongo with your meal. They burn the rice in the pot and boil water over the burnt rice to both clean the pot and have a tea-like drink with dinner. You also will know that the water has been boiled, so it will be safer to drink.
There’s also some Chinese influence. Miso soup and miso noodles are usually good.
Sugar is also grown in Madagascar, and pure rum is acquired easily. Locals take this rum and infuse it with different things, such as ginger or vanilla or mango. Try as many as you can--they’re good. Rum coco, which is a white milky drink made out of rum and coconut, is pretty good, too.
6. How safe is Madagascar? Are there any particular precautions a traveler should be aware of when traveling to Madagascar?
Madagascar is not safe. It’s extremely poor, and the most common crime you have to watch out for is theft. On top of that, there are no safety regulations and accidents happen all the time.
7. For people who maybe are thinking of moving to Madagascar in the future and becoming expats there, what advice would you give in order to have a relatively stress-free move?
Learn French (it was the colonial language and is spoken as the second language, but be aware that not everyone speaks it), be willing to learn Malagasy, and know that you’re never going to be safe from malaria no matter what precautions you take. You’ll also have to be careful with dirty water and accidents. Doctors and proper hospital equipment can be lacking, so it is important to take care of yourself and be careful. While I was there, I got giardia, which comes from drinking dirty water, and schistosomiasis, which comes from walking through dirty water, so even if you think you’re safe because you’re boiling your water, you’re not actually safe. Also, even though NGOs give out a product called Sur Eau, which like bleach you can add to your water, this does not work. It is always better to buy water in sealed bottles or boil it.
That being said, Madagascar is an absolutely beautiful country, and your money will go far unlike in many other places in the world.
8. What surprised you the most about Madagascar when you lived there?
How beautiful it is. The natural scenery is absolutely breathtaking and almost unreal in some ways.
9. How difficult would it be for a traveler who doesn’t know Malagasy or French to get around? Is English commonly spoken in Madagascar?
English is not commonly spoken in Madagascar, and if you don't know Malagasy or French, it will be even more challenging. Generally, Madagascar is not an easy country to get around in due to poorly-maintained roads and a lack of tourist infrastructure. You can hire guides in the capital, and you might meet people who speak English, but don’t expect to just hop on a taxi-brousse and go on your own without a knowledge of Malagasy or even French.
10. What are some key “Survival Malagasy” phrases that a first-time visitor should know?
Mana ohoana - Hello
Misaotra - thank you
Hoatrinona - How much
Veloma - goodbye
Aza fady - excuse me
A Little About Valerie:
In her adult life, Valerie Wayson has lived in Texas, Georgia (the state, not the country), Madagascar, and Iraq. While she loves to travel, she has a problem with transition. She is currently transitioning to a PhD in Creative Nonfiction at Texas Tech.