My Madagascar Ramble: Lemurs, Sorcerers, Pop Stars, and Relatives Who Won’t Stay Buried

Malagasy customs agents frisk the author. (Photos by George and Eamon Rush)

THANK YOU for reading this article about Madagascar. I’M SORRY it isn’t better. There are far superior accounts of the world’s oldest island. Eminent scholars have long tried to fathom how the Malagasy people reached this land off Africa’s southeast coast and why over 90 percent of its species are found nowhere else on earth. But, considering that you’ve waded this far into the story, please sit down, enjoy a drink, perhaps a snifter of the local pok pok-infused rhum, while I implore my dead family members to help me grapple with this nation’s intricate culture and dazzling biosphere.

I’ve started with this disclaimer because, in Madagascar, all public oratory, or kabary, demands that a speaker apologize in advance for any gaffe. A great orator, or mpikabary, will proclaim his utter worthlessness — then launch into a soliloquy that blows the crowd away with artfully braided proverbs, parables and poetry. Whether he’s speaking on behalf of a bride groom or a political candidate, the skilled mpikabary will also take care never to say exactly what he means, because that would be obvious and inelegant and, potentially, insulting.

Take Rereraky Makida. I could see he was a master of this discipline. Like most mpikabary, Reraraky was an older man. I met him in the southwestern village of Miary, where I’d come to see a sacred grove of banyan trees. I was told that the 87-year-old Rereraky must grant me entrance to the walled arboretum. While someone went to fetch him, I heard musket shots. It turned out that members of the Masikoro tribe were celebrating a circumcision by blasting a boy’s foreskin into the sky. Happily, the villagers had given up on the catering tradition of serving guests the foreskin on a brochette. They did invite me to join in some post-operative dancing. After being passed around by three or four ladies, I was relieved when the grey-bearded Rereraky appeared to let me into the sacred grove.

Unlocking the gate, he said, ‘If you come here on your own, the spirit of the ancestors will destroy you.’

I promised to remember that. Taking off my shoes, I asked about the history of the grove.

‘Many years ago, the river would flood the village,’ Rereraky began, his elocution as florid as the grove’s twisted branches. ‘They asked their king for help. He said they would need to change the course of the river. To do that, the king said, they must make a sacrifice.’

According to Rereraky, two parents from his clan offered their 12-year-old daughter, Pelavolo. She was buried alive in this grove. As promised, the river re-routed itself. From Pelavolo’s grave grew one of the largest banyans in Madagascar.

Red cloth, cow skulls and half-burned candles decorated its gnarled trunk, which was said to produce blood when you cut it. The villagers believed that the girl dwelled in the tree.

‘She answers prayers,’ Rereraky said.

I rolled my eyes behind my sunglasses. As I walked out of the grove, a low branch smacked me on the forehead, causing my own red sap to flow. I had new respect for that girl.

***

Unworthy as I am as a narrator, I do boast a long infatuation with the world’s fourth largest island. As a kid, years before Dreamworks made the lemurs ‘move it, move it,’ I fixated on that weird creature that flipped its long middle finger at me when I opened the dictionary — the aye-aye. My curiosity about the ‘eighth continent’ deepened as I read about the flora and fauna that got stranded on the island when it broke off from India 88 million years ago. I’d read that these unique castaways were now in grave danger. In the early ’90s, I also got into the island’s music, made with instruments that, like its wildlife, existed nowhere else. I became so smitten with a Malagasy singer named Hanitra Rasoanaivo that my wife called me ‘her New York groupie.’ Around the same time, I saw Jeremy Marre’s documentary, The Left-Handed Man of Madagascar, about roving theatrical troupes — called hiragasy — that perform during the annual season when families reconnect with their departed relatives by digging them up and inviting them to a party. The mortuary carnival was called a famadihana and I became determined to see one.

Considering that this three-week ramble across the 2,543-mile-long island might involve grisly disinterment, I asked my 13-year-old son, Eamon, if he’d like to join me. He said he was in. After flying over 20 hours from New York, we arrived in the capital of Antananarivo — Tana, for short — nestled in the country’s central highlands. This being August — the dead of winter — men and women along the airport road were wrapped in their lambas — the national shawl, woven of cotton or silk. Their headgear was a milliner’s fantasy of raffia fedoras, trilbies, and pork pies.

Essential attire for the Malagasy: hats and lambas.

About 2·1 million people live in sprawling Tana. Most are from the Merina tribe, the largest and most powerful of 18 officially recognized ethnic groups. The Merina’s Asiatic faces corroborated the prevailing theory that Madagascar’s first settlers sailed from Indonesia about 2,000 years ago. So did the terraced rice paddies they tended.

The country followed us into the city. Lumbering through the honking traffic was one of the revered zebu, its bovine dewlap flapping like a ’70s necktie. Jostling for space with the cattle and the rattling bullock carts were the sputtering remnants of French rule — cream-coloured Citroën 2CV taxis. They idled in front of the stately 1910 train station that still bore the city’s colonial name, Tananarive.

After tooling through the poorer warrens of the lower town, we ascended the switchback streets of Analamanga, a 4,819 ft hill clustered with nineteenth-century brick-and-terracotta houses. At the top stood the palace ruins of Queen Ranavalona I (1828–61), whose cruel inquisitions and military campaigns are estimated to have claimed the lives of three million of her subjects. Subsequent leaders have been comparatively kinder. But as recently as 2009, guards shot and killed at least 50 protestors outside the palace of then-president Marc Ravalomanana. A military coup followed. Many western nations slapped sanctions on the ‘caretaker’ régime, depriving the Malagasy of badly needed foreign aid. It wasn’t until 2013 that democratic elections put current president Hery Rajaonarimampianina in office. But Madagascar remains one the 13 poorest countries in the world.

***

Hoping to make a small effort to help, we flew the next morning to the southeast coast, where we were due to volunteer for the development agency Azafady.

We landed in Fort Dauphin and headed into the countryside with some other Azafady hands. It was a paradoxical terrain, decorated with Alpine conifers one minute and coconut palms the next. The roads nearly disemboweled us. But, moving from village to village over the next week, we did pick up a few skills.

We learned how to mix cement and build desks for a new school (the Azafady organization’s 17th). We learned how to make a stove out of sand, clay, and zebu poop — the stove’s beauty being that it needed 75 per cent less firewood. We also learned a bit about frogs. Taking part in a census of endemic species, we set out into the forest at night. Howls and shrieks and ribbets leapt out of the dark. A crab spider loomed on its six-foot web. The red eyes of a tree snake glowed overhead. It was a little harrowing at first. But biologist Sheila Funnell reminded us that there were no venomous reptiles in Madagascar. In fact, unless you went looking for the endangered Nile crocodile, nothing here wanted to hurt you.

Long before the conservationists arrived, many of Madagascar’s creatures came under the protection of a system of beliefs called fady. For instance, the people of Ambohimanga don’t harm geese because their honks once warned of thieves. But fadys can also bite. My childhood dictionary friend, the aye-aye, is seen as a harbinger of evil and therefore must be killed on sight. Foreigners, known as vazaha, could also be menacing. Parents long told their children that we’d steal their livers.

The Malagasy — 52 per cent of whom practice ‘indigenous beliefs’ — are enormously welcoming and forgiving of vazaha. Still, depending on where you are in the country, you can violate etiquette, or fomba, by pointing, singing at dinner, or handing someone an egg. ‘You can’t take a cat in a car,’ one veteran volunteer told us during our farewell work-site dinner of rice and beans. ‘Or a dead body. I have a friend whose car broke down. He discovered someone’s ashes in his trunk.’

‘You laugh,’ said our work team supervisor, Rachel MacLachlan. ‘But the longer you spend here, the more you believe in this stuff.’

***

Having contributed our smidgen of service, we boarded a flight over the country’s mountainous spine to Tulear on the southwest coast. On the plane, we hooked up with our guide, Vy Raharinosy, a puckish former sitcom actor. Waiting for us at the airport was Parson Ramiandrisoa, our brawny, genial driver. Together, we proceeded north, up the arid coast, to the Reniala Reserve in the village of Itafy. Its spiny forest was a surrealist gallery of thorny plants that scoffed at the notion of water. Radiated tortoises and long-tailed ground rollers gambolled around the succulent tentacles of the Octopus tree (Didierea madagascariensis). Along the trail, we found Botero-like baobabs striking poses — one doing a handstand, another taking a bow, still another sitting on a bidet. The biggest, more than 33 ft around, is believed to be over 1,000 years old.

A baobab tree in the Reniala Reserve’s spiny forest.

At the end of the day, we settled into a bougainvillea-hedged beach resort, La Mira de Madio Rano, run by French-born Dr. Marcel Tonnenx, his Malagasy wife, Voahangy, and their two fearless Coton de Tuléar pooches (the national dog).

Holding court in the dining room, the 89-year-old Dr. Tonnenx informed us that, since he’d arrived in Madagascar 20 years ago, ‘I’ve made love to no more than four women.’

‘Madagascar is like a drug,’ the Chevalieresque physician went on. ‘Everything is beautiful. You think everything is possible. But nothing is possible. Everything is run by a few families. Charles de Gaulle supposedly said, ‘Madagascar is a country full of hope for the future.’ It seemed like this was the last place in the world that could still be a sanctuary of biodiversity. But now you have this industrial threat. The US, France, China, Korea — they all want oil, titanium, nickel, lumber.’

Pithy French administrators, Ft. Dauphin, Madagascar.

The Malagasy have an ambivalent relationship with the colonists who ‘protected’ the country from 1896 until 1960. At least 30,000 people are estimated to have died during the 1947 Malagasy Uprising. Yet, despite France’s brutal repression, the republic’s first president, Philibert Tsiranana, continued to take cues from Paris, quoting the Malagasy proverb that advised, ‘You do not kick away the canoe that helped you to cross the river.’ Driving through the countryside, I saw older Malagasy men still wearing berets and playing pétanque. Cops at the ‘gendarmerie’ wore kepis. Wood-shack salons advertised coiffeur. Though the Malagasy eat more rice per capita than any people on earth, their boulangeries bake sublime baguettes. Whatever lingering resentment the Malagasy feel toward the French is mingled with a fondness for their euros and their culture. ‘When I go to Tana,’ one expat told me, ‘wealthy people speak French even at home!’

***

And yet, when it came to colonizing Madagascar, the French were arrivistes. Looking for some truly “old families”, we set out the next morning in search of some of the island’s first immigrants, the Vezo. For much of the past 2,000 years, the Vezo have been fishing the waters between Madagascar and mainland Africa in hand-carved wooden pirogues. About an hour up the coast, we found the Vezo village of Fitsitika — several hundred thatched huts sprawled across a vast sand dune. The Vezo looked much more African than the Merina. Sitting on the beach, sorting sea cucumbers, was 47-year-old Niriva Christine. Her face was coated with yellow kolimba sap, which, she explained, ‘keeps the wind from drying out my skin.’

Vezo women protect their skin with farafatry sap.

Niriva gazed out at the Mozambique Channel, where the masts of 100 or so pirogues bobbed on the horizon. Because commercial fishing boats have encroached on the Channel, the Vezo must sail farther into dangerous waters, sometimes camping on sand bars hundreds of miles away. Niriva saw one pirogue coming ashore. Together, we helped Tovondraina Calibin haul his gaily-painted outrigger onto the beach. Tovondraina had gone out at 5 a.m. Ten hours later, all he had was a small bucket of octopus. Niriva bought it for 5000 ariary — about US$2·50.

‘It is disappointing,’ Tovondraina, 24, told us. ‘But I will go out tomorrow. I have four children.’

We asked an older fisherman, Antoine Kakalahy, when the Vezo had settled here. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I was born here and I am 70 or 80 years old.’

Did he think the Vezo had over-fished this coast?

‘No,’ said the white-haired man in a Kung Fu Kid T-shirt. ‘The fish were meant for us to eat. But life has changed. Young men are starting to leave for Tulear if there’s a job there.’

In the foam of the waves, some little boys floated a toy pirogue. Did they still want to be fishermen?

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ they said at once.

***

It was time for us to set out on our own grand voyage north. Making our way back to Tulear, we found the southern end of National Route 7. Only about 11 per cent of Madagascar’s roads are paved. The 600-mile Route 7 is the nation’s main thoroughfare, but it too was pockmarked and had only two lanes, which were often obstructed by herds of zebu or sleeping dogs. Rolling north, we paused at some Mahafaly tombs in Andranovory. The intricacy of the wooden totems and the number of zebu skulls testified to the prominence of the deceased. The paintings on the six-foot walls paid tribute to their exploits — though I had a hard time imagining the plotline that connected pictures of mermaids, horsemen, and Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Night had fallen when we pulled into the Satrana Lodge — 40 safari tents arranged around a pool. Above us glistened the southern constellations that Dutch explorer Pieter Keyser had charted during his 1595 stay here. Eamon clicked on his Ipad app that connected the points of the Chameleon, the Bird of Paradise, the Toucan, and the Flying Fish.

Morning revealed that our planetarium was an escarpment-rimmed savanna whose sky seemed to dwarf Montana’s. After a café au lait, we set off into 315-square-mile Isalo National Park, one of Madagascar’s 48 reserves. Centuries before Isalo became a park, these canyons were cathedrals for the Bara people, who continue to come here to give birth and bury their dead.

The trail took us into a dry canyon where wind had carved weird shapes into the sandstone massif. We came to a cairn. Our guide, Jean Toussaint Razafimampionona, suggested we each add a stone on it.

‘If you are new here, you must pay respect to the ancestors,’ Jean explained. ‘Now they can see you.’

Though smaller tribes resent the continued dominance of their Merina conquerors, the shared language and beliefs of Madagascar’s clans have averted the ethnic bloodshed that stains much of Africa. But the island isn’t free of tribalism. The pastoral Bara, who number about 520,000 (3·3 per cent of the population), are often reviled for their “belief” in cattle rustling.

‘At 16, before he can marry,’ Jean said, ‘a Bara boy must go with others to steal a zebu from other tribes. If he is caught, the police will put him in jail, but this only makes him more popular among the Bara.’

“Frankenstein Rock” in the burial cliffs of Isalo National Park

Even their critics acknowledge the Bara’s bravery when it comes to funeral customs.

Jean pointed to caves high in the cliffs.

‘That is where the bones of the deceased are moved. Courageous men will climb up there with the remains on their backs and place them in a decorated coffin. The climbers must drink toaka gasy [rum] right before they climb. Yes, sometimes the climbers themselves die. That is why it is important to ask an astrologer to pick a burial day. If a climber falls, people say, ‘The wrong day was chosen.’

The sun rose higher as we trekked through the canyon. We were dripping sweat when, like a mirage, a palm-fringed natural pool appeared. Fed by a small waterfall, it was a bona fide Eden. And yet, Jean said, ‘The Bara leave the pools to the tourists. Even Bara who can swim will avoid dark water. People believe that spirits live there and will pull you down.’

Taking our chances, we plunged in, paddling around a divine little grotto. We encountered no spirits.

So we went looking for some. Jean had heard about a bilo ceremony — a kind of exorcism — taking place in the Bara village of Sakamaningy. There, in a thatched mud house, about 50 people had packed into a dimly lit room. Everyone was staring at a tall, dreadlocked woman dressed in a purple print dress. Her name was Nina Rasoamandrainy. Three days earlier, the villagers said, a helo, or nature spirit, moved into Nina’s body, making her sick.

Ministering to the 34-year-old woman was an ombiasa, or shaman, a handsome, 20-something man who wore a LeBron James T-shirt and clutched a zebu horn stuffed with talismans, herbs, and a barber’s scissors.

He puffed a hand-rolled cigar and poured a potion over Nina’s head.

Men played drums and a kabosy, a box-shaped guitar, as Nina swayed back and forth. Women in the room chanted, ‘What do you want, helo?’

Nina whispered into the ombiasa’s ear. The helo wanted an orange Fanta.

Older members of the village started shouting at the young ombiasa — second-guessing him on his handling of the ritual.

‘I am not an expert!’ the ombiasa-in-training told them. ‘This power is given to me by the ancestors. You who know more, please let me finish.’

All the bickering may have annoyed the helo. Just then, Nina went to the window, turned around with a smile, and started chatting, as though nothing had happened. The ombiasa announced that the helo had just left.

My son, Eamon, smelled hokum. ‘I don’t believe there was a spirit, or that she was even in a trance,’ said the young sceptic.

All the same, the helo may have slipped into my subconscious. The Bara believe their ancestors speak to them during sleep. That night I had a dream in which my late mother guilt-tripped me about signing a Do Not Resuscitate order.

***

In the morning, we hit Route 7 again, blazing across the flat grasslands of the Horombe Plateau. The road climbed into the central highlands, through a landscape that seemed to fuse Toscana with Bali. Yellow brick houses with terracotta roofs crowned hills layered with rice paddies. Ochre paths slashed through a patchwork of tan and verdure fields. Plumes of smoke rose from stacks of baking bricks. Two men pushed their hand truck trolley up a hill; on the other side, two more rode theirs down. A stone marker on a dangerous curve bore a skull and the warning, ‘Attencion! Mort!’

In the afternoon, we reached Fianarantsoa. Founded in 1830, the university town had a wealth of renovated buildings. Its most memorable structure, for me, was its vaguely Bavarian train station, where we embarked on the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est (FCE) Railway. Between 1926 and 1936, the French forced the Malagasy to build the line to the Indian Ocean — across 101 miles of mountains and jungle. Traversing 67 bridges and passing through 48 tunnels, it is said to be one of the steepest rail journeys in the world. Adding to its thrill was the equipment. FCE’s one train, built in 1981, was a hand-me-down from some European railway. It traveled on rails made in 1893. Vy, who’d taken this journey before, looked nervous. Yet, as our battered yellow and green carriage rolled out of Fianara, I felt presidential. Kids ran along side us. Cars honked. Farmers waved.

More excitement greeted us when we pulled into the next station. Young women appeared beneath our window, their heads propping up baskets of fried bread, oranges, bananas, custard apples, and hard-boiled eggs.

Vendors offered a trinity of peppercorns — black, pink and green. As we chugged though the forest, the cabin filled with scents of eucalyptus, ginger, cloves, basil-like clidenia, and jasmine-sweet coffee blossoms. Branches slapped the train’s flanks. I worried that a vine might reach through an open window and snatch a baby.

At every station, the train disgorged and ingested passengers and cargo. No stop took less than 45 minutes. And there were 18 stops. We reached the end of the line — the seaside town of Manakara — at around 7 p.m., 11 hours after leaving Fianarantsoa. Our wheelman, Parson, was waiting for us. If I did it over, I would have had him meet us at a station halfway to the coast. In any case, it was good to be masters of our own transport again. It was also good to be heading back into nature.

After getting some sleep, we drove inland to Ranomafana National Park, a mountainous rainforest stretching over 160 square miles. It was drizzling as we headed into the woods. The 14 ft of annual rain certainly had made things grow. The foliage was so lush you couldn’t see more than 12 ft ahead. Bamboo shoots flew at us like kendo warriors. The moss was deeper than the shag carpet in Elvis’s Jungle Room.

Our stocky guide, Rafidison-Jean Emilien, got a cellphone call from one of his trackers, beckoning us to a distant section of the forest. We set off through the mud. Soon we had a bead on a pair of Milne-Edwards sifakas, covered with dark brown fur except where they seemed to have sat on some white paint. Though pregnant, the female leaped 15 ft or more to another tree, twisting her body 180 degrees in mid-air. The male did the same. It was like watching Peter Martins and Heather Watts doing grands jetés. We tried to keep up with the sifakas, slogging through the muck and falling on our asses. I must have been amusing to the male. He slid down a tree to study me. I gazed back at his persimmon eyes, his delicate fingers, his shiny, leathery face trimmed with dark chocolate fluff. I could have stared at my sifaka soulmate for hours. But, after a few minutes, he grew bored with me and moved on.

Later, Eamon and I shared sandwiches with some guides who said lemurs could be polygamous or monogamous. ‘They have many partners,’ chuckled one guide. ‘Just like I love my wife. And my four girlfriends!’

Another guide observed that, like some lemurs, the Malagasy are furtive lovers. ‘You rarely see a couple showing affection in public. But they’re actually very amorous.’ Apparently — Madagascar is the world’s 18th fastest baby-maker. The country’s median age is just over 18.

***

Having made a three-day detour from Route 7, we headed back to the main road. Once again, we were in the Highlands, where the Betsileo and Merina people “turned the bones” of their ancestors. But finding a re-burial — a famadihana — was tricky. Astrologers often waited till the last minute to advise a family on the most propitious date for the ceremony. There were no posted announcements. You had to ask around.

Hoping for the best, we pulled into Antsirabe. European settlers helped turn Antsirabe into Madagascar’s third largest city (population 226,000). Norwegian missionaries loved its alpine climate. The French dove into its hot springs — building the stately and still-operating Hôtel des Thermes.

The French also introduced the rickshaw, known here as a pousse-pousse. Antsirabe is said to have well over a thousand pousse-pousse drivers, who haul everything from grannies to cinderblocks.

I wondered what the life of a driver was like, so I struck up conversation with 22-year-old Bernard Rafanomezantsoa. He told me that he pulled his pousse-pousse from 6 a.m. till 9 p.m., that his father had pulled a pousse-pousse, that he wished he had a pair of shoes, and that ‘I pray to the Virgin Mary for another job.’ Just to see what his job was like, I told Bernard to get in his canopied jalopy and I pulled him down Grande Avenue. Bernard’s fellow drivers did double-takes, especially when I paid my passenger for the work-out. I was dripping sweat — hauling a pousse-pousse is not for pussies.

Bernard tipped me with some valuable information: the location of a famadihana! He pointed us to a field where a couple hundred people were gathered around a blue-and-white stone tomb that two families had built back in the 1960s. Men were digging at its base.

Everyone quieted down as Gilles Rakoto, an elder family member in a green suit, climbed atop the tomb to speak. Respecting the kabary tradition, he told the crowd: ‘I apologize for taking the stage when there are so many distinguished officials and family members present.’ He gave elaborate thanks to God, adding, ‘I pray this political crisis will be over because the Malagasy people have always been brothers.’

A rag tag quartet of musicians launched into a kind of swinging beguine as the diggers went into the tomb. People crowded around the mortuary’s opening, waiting for their loved ones to arrive, as though they were at an airport. Several men hoisted the first pine coffin on their hands. When they set it down, a man poured a little Three Horse Beer on it and then took a swig himself. Without exposing the skeletons, families wrapped the old shroud in a new white one. Coffins and bone-filled raffia mats sailed above the crowd like missiles.

Amidst the gaiety, Guinieve Razafindratsimba, wept for her sister, Melanie, who’d died of bronchitis in 1998, when she was 25.

‘Melanie’s children are here.’ Guinieve, 67, told me. ‘It’s a party, but it still makes me sad.’

It had been an unforgettable spectacle. And yet … I wasn’t satisfied. I still hadn’t seen a hiragasy — the quintessential Malagasy performance. Descended from royal court entertainers and later used by the French as town-criers, the hiragasy performers were now influential in political campaigns. But their main gigs were famadihanas.

Our eternally patient guide and driver, Vy and Parson, agreed to go on another goose-chase in the countryside.

We’d bounced around on cratered roads for an hour, querying strangers, before we found a grassy hollow ringed with people under yellow, pink and blue parasols. In the centre of this natural amphitheatre were about two dozen hiragasy performers, ranging in age from 12 to 70 years. The men wore straw boaters, patterned sashes and long coats modelled after nineteenth-century French military uniforms. Women wore satin and chiffon gowns in the style of the imperial court.

Competing today were two troupes — Tarika Anosiarivo and Tarika Ambatoharana. Anosiarivo’s performers, dressed in forest green, went first. Fiddlers played a bluegrassy number as their cast-mates circled in front of the audience, singing and gesturing in unison. They warned their audience about city slickers who cruised through the country in their cars: ‘Once girls see these boys, they run after them. And you boys, before you take a wife, be careful of those girls from the cities, in their mini-skirts. If you marry her, you’ll be the housemaid.’

They turned to religion. ‘The preacher talks about what’s bad for you,’ they all sang. ‘But when he’s finished preaching, he’s looking at all the girls in the church!’

It was one of the best shows I’d ever seen — folkloric but topical, and full of more homegrown energy than a season of Glee. And, despite the shade each troupe threw at the other, they never veered into overt insult.

I wanted to stay to see which troupe collected the most money. But we had a date with another entertainer in Tana.

Eighteen years earlier, in New York, I’d heard a four-person band from Madagascar called Tarika Sammy. They played bizarre instruments like the valiha (tube harp) and the marovany (box zither). Most riveting was their lithe, gamine singer, Hanitra Rasoanalvo. After the show, I went out to dinner with Hanitra, her bandmates, and the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax.

Hanitra went on to become Madagascar’s most successful musical export and an important voice in the country’s cultural and political dialogue. In 2002, she opened a hilltop compound in Tana called Antshow, a combination performance space, recording studio, restaurant, and boutique hotel. Now, three weeks after leaving the capital, we pulled up to Hanitra’s door.

With her soaring cheekbones and fiercely chopped locks, she still looked hot. A make-up artist was getting her ready for that evening’s performance art piece, in which Hanitra and Antshow artists-in-residence would dramatize the destruction of Madagascar’s environment.

Hanitra Rasoanalvo

‘It’s getting worse and worse,’ she said over coffee. ‘There is the so-called Ministry of the Environment. But there are almost no regulations. People are doing whatever they want.’

This was not artistic embellishment. The 2009 military coup had set off a panic that saw unpaid park rangers and gun-shy conservationists leave the national preserves largely unguarded. According to environmental activists, armed gangs, bankrolled by foreign timber traders, began to plunder the forests, paying off officials and hiring impoverished locals to fell precious hardwoods. The “transitional” government even lifted the ban on exporting rosewood, whose pink tint and dense grain make it a favorite of Chinese furniture-makers who mimic Ming antiques.

Hanitra contended that villagers, who received the financial sawdust, ‘don’t want to cut the rosewood. But they say, ‘We need to eat.’

‘We used to call the forest the land of the ancestors,’ she went on. ‘The fadys helped preserve species. When the Christians came, they said you are not supposed to believe in these taboos.’

***

About 90 per cent of Madagascar’s original forest has disappeared since man’s arrival thanks to logging, charcoal production, and slash-and-burn agriculture (known as tavy). Worldwide outcry shamed many shipping companies into refusing to transport hardwood. The crushing loss of tourist income due to the 2009–13 political crisis made some locals appreciate the importance of protecting their natural attractions. President Hery Rajaonarimampianina has promised to fight the “rosewood mafia” but conservationists doubt his determination.

The day after seeing Hanitra, we headed to one of the most popular national parks, Andasibe-Mantadia, about two-and-a-half hours east of Tana. There, we ventured into the forest, searching for the park’s star — the indri. A recent study reported that 94 of Madagascar’s 103 lemur species are now at risk of extinction because of habitat destruction and poaching. Some people come to Madagascar just to hear the song of indri, a creature that cannot survive in captivity. Some visitors never find an indri or, if they do, lose patience waiting for its song.

Our guide, Patrice Rabearisoa, led us to a grove where, high above, an entire indri family was lounging around. We watched as the green-eyed mother licked her black and white fur. When she moved to a different branch, one of her young tried to follow. Just when it looked like the infant was about to fall, she grabbed it.

The indris have long been sacred to the Malagasy. Forest tribes saw themselves in these long-legged, upright, sunbathing creatures whose complex vocabulary included public assembly roars, civil defence honks and courtship kisses. What’s more, the indri is monogamous. Okay, maybe that’s where the comparison breaks down. Anyway, long before Darwin, the Malagasy believed they were related to these prosimians. The Malagasy name for them is babakoto, translated as ‘father of a little boy’ or ‘ancestor’.

All this ancestor worship made me laugh when I first got to Madagascar. I could think of a few uncles whose dinner antics didn’t exactly inspire my faith. Never mind all the abusive Moms and deadbeat Dads. But which of us — even the atheists — don’t commune with our departed parents, even if we hate them? Think of the offerings we make to our own ombiasas (be they priests, rabbis or shrinks) — trying to make peace with our creators. If they’re lingering somewhere, you have to figure they’ll have some advice, as they did in life, even if we didn’t want it then.

The indri Mom suddenly called out — whooooeeeh! Her song gave me a chill. It was as though I’d heard my own late mother shouting up the stairs of our house, telling me to get into the car. Walking back through the forest, I thought of all those family road trips. I felt grateful, as a future ancestor, that I’d reached Madagascar with my son, who one day will surely tell this story better than I have. •


Madagascar Advice

A travel specialist is a huge help in navigating this arcane country brimming with microclimates, subspecies, unwritten taboos, and fluid flight schedules. I relied on California-based Cortez Travel (1 800–854–1029), which only does Madagascar trips (for all budgets). The staff can arrange your invitation to seasonal rituals, including the sometimes tricky-to-find “turning of the bones” ceremonies, which enliven the eastern highlands between June and September. Wildlife, cycling, rafting, and surfing are also on the menu. 
 The FCE train between the highland city of Fianarantsoa and port city of Manakara runs three times each week in both directions. (One way is about US$10. Email fce@blueline.mg seven days before departure, or call 261 20 75–513–55.) When travelling toward the coast, try to grab a seat on the left side for better views. If you have a driver, consider having him pick you at a train station halfway there; the full trip can take as long as 12 hours. For a shorter trip back into time, check out the Micheline Viko Viko — one of the last surviving rubber-wheeled trains built by the French in the 1930s. It runs (sporadically) between Antananarivo and Antsirabe, to the south, and Andasibe, to the east. (Schedules at Madarail.mg or by calling 261 20 22–345–99 or emailing tourisme@madarail.mg.)

Lodging
The top business-class hotels in Antananarivo (a.k.a. Tana) are the Carlton (101, rue Pierre Stibbe Anosy; 261 20 22–260–60; double US$146), near the town centre; and the Colbert (29, rue Prince Ratsimamanga; 261 20 22–202–02; double US$146), situated in the more picturesque upper town. Also uptown is la Varangue, (17, rue Printsy Ratsimamanga; 261 20 22–273–97; doubles US$93), a gated colonial villa where a 1940 Peugot 202 is parked in the cobblestone driveway and its many vintage clocks all give different times.

Near the royal palace ruins, the antique-chocked Lakonga Boutique Hotel (Lot VW 115 Ambohimitsimbina; double US$105) affords spectacular views. Antshow Madagascar, founded by music star Hanitra Rasoanaivo, is a hilltop cultural scene–hotel where artists, musicians and dancers perform (rue Ramilijaona, Androndra; email antshowmadagasikara@gmail.com; 261 34 19–027–52).
 Travellers typically flee Tana (walking at night is risky) after a day and wing their way to eco-lodges or beach resorts. Berenty Lodge (261 20 92–212–38; double US$55), founded in 1937, sits inside Madagascar’s most famous private preserve. Though it still teams with lemurs, some are put off by the rough drive to get there. Vakona Forest Lodge (double US$83), a smooth two-and-half hours by car from Tana, is near Andasibe–Mantadia National Park, home of the indri. The Mandrare River Camp provides six luxury tents as a base for walking safaris and cultural encounters with the Antandroy people (double US$550). Its sister resort, the Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge (double US$450), offers game fishing, whale-watching and littoral forest strolls. (Info on both at www.manafiafy.com.) Satrana Lodge (double US$88) makes an exquisite recovery ward after treks into the canyons of Isalo National Park. Scuba divers and sun-worshippers will find beaches and reefs worth the trip at the Constance Tsarabanjina (double US$476), Anjajavy l’Hôtel (double US$657), the Princesse Bora Lodge & Spa (261 20 57–04–003; double US$243), and Tsara Komba (261 33 148–2320; double US$316).

Dining
Tana’s premier gastronomic event is dinner at la Varangue’s restaurant. Lalaina Ravelomanana, the first African chef admitted to France’s Académie Culinaire, wows even the snootiest Gauls with his foie gras napoléon, medallion of zebu, fanciful desserts, and perfumed rums.

Chez Mariette (11, rue Joel Rakotomalala; 261 20 22–216–02) is a tiny dining room in the nineteenth-century home of renowned chef Mariette Andrianjaka, who prepares six-course meals inspired by the banquets once served to Merina royalty. Villa Vanille (24, rue Radama Place; 261 20 22–205–15) boasts the longest list of Malagasy wines and features nightly live music. Café de la Gare (261 20 22–611–12), in Tana’s colonial train station, is a jazzy brasserie with a cute loo in an old caboose.

Madagascar’s hat possibilities are endless

Shopping
Freshly harvested sapphires and citrines can be compared in the row of Indian-owned bijoux dealers near the Colbert. You can find wood carving, musical instruments and handicrafts from around the country at the Digue market (RN4 on the way from the city centre to the airport) or at the Centre National de l’Artisan at Malagasy (67, rue Agosthino Neto; 261 20 22–630–35). The quintessential souvenir is a lamba woven from the cocoons of wild silkworms. Rakotomalala & Fils’ Lambamena (Lot IVZ 3 G Ilanivato, 261 20 22–636–84) is a venerable family establishment with a great variety of the shawls.

Reading
Bradt Guide to Madagascar, first published in 1984, remains the definitive road bible. Hilary Bradt keeps her information fresh via hilarybradt.com/madagascar-updates. Another treasury of logistics, forest facts, and tribal lore is travelmadagascar.org.


Originally published at lucire.com.

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