We were collected in the morning by our driver Fahley and the man who was to be our guide for the rest of our time in Madagascar Bruno. Bruno was Malagasy. Young, knowledgeable, good looking, and as an Angophile he was the perfect guide. He didn't seem to mind us gently teasing him either. We were going to enjoy his company. Only what we didn't quite realise was we were going to enjoy so much of it so soon. We had an 11-hour drive south in 4 x 4 in his company ahead of us that day. Even my small talk had started to run low by the end.
Ostensibly driving on Madag's best kept National road these were like UK B-roads at best. The Malagasy infrastructure is pretty dire. So as we dodged pot hole after pot hole Bruno had time to candidly tell us of his country's strengths and more obvious weaknesses. Corruption, low tax compliance and political turmoil have all starved the country of the solid transportation links it is crying out for. The roads are rubbish. The trains don't run. The national airline is iffy at best.
As we drove through villages and towns the abject poverty was clear. We saw kids with guns and there were police check points aplenty.
However at every turn the children were waving at us and the adults smiling. Despite the terrible poverty people genuinely seemed happy. The markets we saw were humming with commerce, the farmers chewing on straw as they watched their herds of zebu cascade down the roads and women with oversized plastic shopping bags perched upon their heads balancing their way home waved like loons.
We stopped for lunch at the faded Imperial Hotel in the faded colonial town of Antsirabe.
It was like a step back in time by 60 years. A once posh hotel with no guests. No one could afford it. A broken down hotel in a broken down town. When they departed the French left their mark. And their scars.
We continued our long drive south only stopping off at an aluminium recycling foundry to watch how cooking pots were made - Malagasy style. It was basically run out of someone's back yard with barefoot workers hammering chunks of aluminum off scrap metal, putting it into crucibles, and melting it down on small brick walled charcoal fires. More barefoot workers were in sheds making reverse molds of existing pots out of ash and sand that the molten aluminum got tipped into to make new cooking pots. Hair-raising work with no goggles, no safely equipment and many burn scars on show. These scars were ones from necessity of course. We saw these handmade cooking pots all over the west coast of Madagascar. So these guys had quite a business going here.
As afternoon turned towards evening we saw the most beautiful sunset. Which was quickly replaced by a fresh danger. Nightfall. Nightfall meant no light, no signposts and only the car headlights to warn us of the ever increasing number and size of the potholes. It made for slow going.
Happily we arrived just in time for dinner and before the power was shut off. The Princess Tsiribihina hotel in keeping with many places in Madagascar only has power for a few hours a day.
The lodge was fairly basic but what it lacked in ammenaties it more than made up for in great service.
So our first full day in Madagascar was done and our take-home message was... it's big, it's poor, it's in dire need of investment but the people are really nice and seem really quite happy.