Welcome to Madagascar

Hello all, I will be blogging my journey through Madagascar this summer. Thank you for reading!

Before leaving on my trip I often heard things like “it’s going to be incredible!” or “you’re so lucky.” Everyone was so upbeat and positive, it felt like it was going to be easy. But international travel is far from easy, as I have learned these last few days. Two days before beginning my travels I started taking my malaria prophylaxis medication that made me severely ill. The morning of my first flight to D.C., I was in urgent care getting an IV because I was so severely dehydrated. I was convinced I wouldn’t be making it to Madagascar at all. Luckily, a medication switch and the IV got me on the plane to D.C.

I was lucky to spend the night in D.C. with one of my aunt’s friends, who picked me up at the airport, let me stay the night at her house and took me back to the airport in the morning for no cost. I am incredibly grateful for this hospitality from a complete stranger.

My second flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was 13 hours long. The first half was great, until I ate the food provided by the airline, which promptly made me sick again for the remainder of the flight. Once in Ethiopia, I met a girl at the airport named Liz who was also traveling to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo (Tana). She would be staying at the same research station I will be at, except she won’t be there until July. She told me the airline food made her ill as well, but reminded me to drink water and it will pass.

A view of the trip from DC to Ethiopia on a map.

Traversing the Ethiopian airport was beyond confusing. I went up and down stairs and on a couple of buses before finally getting to our plane. The only way to make it through was to somewhat follow the crowd. We boarded our final flight to Madagascar, a 5-hour long journey. This time I declined the food that was offered to me for fear of being ill again and I managed to sleep most of the flight.

Finally, we arrive in Tana, and another incredibly confusing process begins. First, we were given exit papers for Nambia. Where is Nambia? Did we get on the wrong flight? Turns out the flight attendant erroneously passed out the wrong paperwork. We make our way into the airport where we are given the correct form for entry. We must have ended up showing our passport to at least 20 people. The first booth was “santé” which I remembered means “health” because in French you say “a votre santé!” or “to your health!” when you cheers for a drink. Next was the visa booth, which was surprisingly cheap at $45. Then we followed the crowd to a line where there was another booth with a sign that said “police.” An officer took my passport, looked at it, and put it in a pile with 20 other passports. Having the most important form of identification you can have taken from you and not returned for a period of time. Scary, right? I was simultaneously waiting for my luggage to pass by on the belt and my passport to be called. I was glad to have met Liz because I didn’t feel so alone in this process. We went through another line where they looked at our passport and asked why we were in town. Then we went through another door where someone else looked at our passport. It seemed like a never-ending process.

We finally made it to the airport lobby area where there are a series of booths and a big open door where a crowd of people were waiting to greet the new arrivals. Liz’s pickup came and helped us find a good booth for exchanging U.S. Dollars for Malagasy Ariary (MGA). One USD is equal to about 3,000 MGA. So, when I exchanged $500 USD for MGA, I ended up with the biggest stack of bills I’ve ever seen in my life (~1,500,000 MGA). I had brought three separate money pouches, and I could hardly fit the bills in all my pockets. We were supposed to bring all the cash we would need for the entire summer, since once we go to Ranomafana it won’t be as easy to exchange money.

At this point, I had met up with my native Malagasy Master’s student, Mirana, who will be working with me on my project for the remainder of my trip. We spoke some form of “franglais” because her English was okay and my French was okay. The great thing about us being paired is she wants to get better at English, and I want to get better at French, so we are patient with each other’s attempts at translation. Mirana leads us to our ride, and four little boys follow us the entire way. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, until I realized they were begging for money. I looked down and noticed none of them had on shoes. This was my first time travelling to a third-world country, and it was a stark awakening. I looked at Mirana and said “je ne comprend pas” or “I don’t understand.” She waves her handing saying “laisser tomber” or “let it go/don’t worry about it.” I had been warned not to flash big wads of cash, and I was afraid pulling out bills to give to the boys would draw the wrong kind of attention. I especially didn’t fully understand the value of the bills I was holding.

On our way to the hotel we passed hundreds of these little stores

We hopped in the van to head to the hotel. This was the first time I realized how different things in another country could be. The seats had no seatbelts and the driving was insane. The streets are incredibly narrow and people are within inches of moving vehicles with no fear of getting hit. Tana is flourishing with people, absolutely everywhere, on every street and on every corner. We turned down a narrow alleyway that could only barely fit the width of one vehicle. Along every street was booth after booth, where people were selling something. Usually street food or rice and grains. Our driver honks at the gate to our hotel, Meva Guesthouse, and we are led to our room. We don’t formally check in with any office or anything, just get shown the room. The room did not have air conditioning or a fan and I was by definition, “hot and bothered” at this point. I cried. I am nervous. I will probably cry again tomorrow, and the day after that. Mirana hugged me and said in her best English “you are safe here.” I am so thankful that I won’t be going on this journey alone.

A sign leading the way down a very narrow alley to our hotel, Meva Guesthouse.

Mirana and I spoke to hotel staff who told us we could order pizza for dinner. I had no idea how to pay, and Mirana helped me with the Ariary bills. I could barely eat a full slice of pizza, so I basically wasted the whole thing. I needed to take a nap to calm down, and Mirana needed to run home to grab some things to stay the night. She lives nearby, but I said there is no way I could stay here alone. I gave Mirana some of the Ariary cash and she brought me back some bottled water, bread and a SIM card for my phone to make calls in Madagascar.

A malagasy street store advertising Colgate toothpaste, vitamins, and fruit

At this point, I’m still completely sick to my stomach and haven’t eaten more than a few grapes, a few pretzels and one bite of a protein bar. But I made it. I’m here. For at least seven years I’ve tried to get to Madagascar, and I’m finally fulfilling this dream. I had no idea how hard I would have to work to get here, but I did it. Thanks to Duke, my family, my roommate, my friends and my entire support structure. I couldn’t have made it through the anxiety attacks, the stomach aches and the fear without the love and support of everyone I know, even sincerely kind strangers. And for this, I am incredibly grateful.

One thought on “Welcome to Madagascar

  1. You’re doing fine, Caitlyn. Everybody gets sick the first couple of days. Ask any astronaut! I’m proud of you, and this an adventure you’ll have for a lifetime. Cherish it! Mirana is a treasure. I’ve enjoyed the pictures. Love, Cathy

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