With the weather getting colder and talk of below-freezing temperatures soon to come near the Antsirabe area, a friend and I took advantage of our Easter break from teaching and headed to the east coast, where the bulk of Madagascar’s rainforests grow. Even with the school holiday, Ile Sainte Marie felt relaxed and empty of tourists as most tend to come for the whale-watching season around July/August. However, this worked to our advantage since it made it easier to haggle down prices and we never worried about hotel reservations. As one hotel owner admitted “it’s 40 euros for a room here, but I’ll take just about anything now since we’re seeing so few tourists.”
So what did this mean for two broke backpackers trying to forget about our unruly middle-school students and take in one of the most cliche-ishly beautiful (but expensive) areas of Madagascar? It meant we were able to haggle down our bike rentals from 15,000 AR to 8,000 AR a day at Randonne VTT, hotel and restaurant staff were more relaxed and willing to chat, and the beaches were totally ours. The more relaxed atmosphere of the island at low-season made it feel less like a travel destination and more like a place where people live.
Our first day. 5:30am. While the air was still cool and the sun was just beginning to come up over the harbor, we set out on our bikes. Rolling south towards the airport, we passed women crossing the road in towels, coming from their morning shower in the sea and families starting their breakfast fires. Small children crouched in rows behind their ravenala-leaf huts, pooping on the beach, and reminding us to be careful of where we swam. The further we traveled, the more life began to wake from the road-side huts, and concrete homes with satellite dishes, reminding us that we were in a more prosperous area of the country. We passed long wooden benches under USAID-donated tarp where old women wrapped in colorful lambas (sarongs) served fresh coconut bread and coffee, until finally deciding to stop at one.
“You live in Antsirabe?” one of the women exclaimed in the usual oh-you-speak-Malagasy-what-are-you-doing-here slew of questions. “How wonderful, there’s lots of fruit there!”
“What about here? Aren’t there coconuts, pineapple, and papaya?”
The woman shrugged. Although the markets of Tamatave and other coastal, mainland towns have an abundance of cheap, tropical fruit, Ile Sainte Marie seemed to produce little itself and import most fruits and veggies by boat from the mainland except for spattering of oranges, bananas, coconut, and a lumpy, green fruit the size of a head known as soanambo. A plant prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, soanambo, or breadfruit, has a starchy, potato-like flavor. Throughout the island, it was used widely in snack breads sold along the road, and even fried up like plantain chips as a bar snack for the gourmet taste buds of guests staying at the upscale Princess Bora resort.
Popping Over to Ile Aux Nattes
Towards the end of our journey, we biked to the smaller island just south of Ile Sainte Marie, known as Ile Aux Nattes. Ile Aux Nattes feels like a more condensed, but less populated version of Ile Sainte Marie, preferring dirt cow paths and wooden bridges to paved roads and concrete. Although the two islands are situated close enough to swim between the two, a quick ride on a lakana, or canoe, only costs 1,000 – 1,500 AR (depending on how good your haggling skills are) per person.
“We wish we had come here first!” we gushed to the South African owner of La Petite Traversee and Lucky Dube Cocktail Bar one afternoon at lunch.
“You know, most people say that,” he said, “and because its so beautiful here, the folks on the mainland don’t like us very much. They’re afraid that if everyone knows how great Ile Aux Nattes is, everyone will be coming here! They’ll lose all their business.”
We understood fully. With a population of roughly 1,500, Ile Aux Nattes felt like we were at the edge of the world, as though nothing else existed beyond this dot on the map. Sitting under the umbrellas at Lucky Dube and watching tourists come pull up to the bar in wooden lakanas (“the lakana guys know to bring anyone who doesn’t speak French straight here — Russian, Australian, whatever” he proudly stated) we plotted ways to stay forever, but eventually relinquished our daydreams to hop the boat back to Tamatave and start the trek home to teach.
Photos: (1) lakana to Ile Aux Nattes (2) child fishing at low tide (3) beach-side fair in Tamatave (4) pile of oranges at the market (voasary = oranges) (5) fresh shrimp at the market (6) wine bottle garden on Ile Aux Nattes