Monday, May 17, 2010

Nosy Be, Madagascar

Nosy Be, Madagascar
Thursday, April 29, 2010

The poverty was shocking from the first step on land. This island reminds me of St. Lucia in the Caribbean, or perhaps Nicaragua. There is no pier, and the ship anchored in the bay, with tenders ashore. I took the “highlights” tour from the ship, and the tour was made in a non-air conditioned, 12 passenger van rather than in a bus. I sat up front with the driver to take photos. Van tours are much better than bus tours. Even before the ship stopped moving, small boats rushed to the ship from the shore, with men begging passengers to throw money to them from the ship. The captain announced that passengers should refrain from throwing money, or anything else (like bath soap or shampoo) to them; however, some passengers tossed both money and other items. Once ashore, beggars and people selling souvenirs, embroidered scarves and tablecloths, and many other items pestered passengers incessantly. I quickly got into the van and set off on the tour.

The tour guide pointed out a dilapidated building and said it was the “governor’s house”; another dilapidated building was the mayor’s house, and still another was the town administrative building. Everything was old, shabby, and run down, although some of the souvenir sales people were well dressed, in brightly colored clothes. As the van proceeded, we saw people walking everywhere and few cars or even motor bikes. Small, old Renault cars were ubiquitous and used as taxis. The island was controlled by France for a number of years, and a version of French is the language and Catholicism is the principal religion.

The first stop on the tour was the town food market, a large building in the town center where locals purchased fresh fruits, vegetables and fish. Few houses had electricity and almost none had a refrigerator; therefore, people had to buy food every day. The main street in town was lined with small shops selling items to be purchased by locals, although some souvenir shops also appeared. Nothing on the island was modern; everything was old and shabby. The tour guide said that the Somali pirates had reduced the number of cruise ships visiting the island, and the island had also lost income when the sugar cane processing plant closed three years ago. The tour guide said that the island is now really struggling economically, with no sources of income. Many of the men seemed to fish for survival.

After touring the town market, the tour van drove inland into the countryside. The road was well paved and smooth. All along the route were shanty houses built of wooden limbs and small trees; many had thatched roofs or wooden planks laid together with wide gaps. A few houses had tin roofs, often with large stones laid on top to hold the tin in place. The tour guide said that most houses had two rooms. The weather is always warm, so houses used only cloth sheets for doors. There were a few schools, and children went to school at least for a few years. The guide said most classes were large because few teachers would come to the island to teach.

The van driver stopped at one point to show us the yellow flowers from ylang-ylang trees; these trees are grown on the island and the flowers sold to perfume factories in Paris. Nosy Be is also famous for its vanilla, and I bought a small packet from a little girl as a souvenir. Later, the driver stopped the van to show us a chameleon, which was pretty and quite interesting. He then stopped at a “typical village”, and we got out for a walk. The tour guide told us about the shanty houses, made of thin trees, like a log cabin only with the “logs” in vertical rather than horizontal positions. Souvenir sellers immediately swarmed around the van, and later we saw the same sellers, who followed the tour vans from stop to stop.

At lunchtime, the vans gathered at a beautiful beach, where the ship had arranged a spread of snacks of fruit and fried shrimp, along with soft drinks and beer. A group of women did a folk dance to entertain the passengers, and I walked around taking a few photos of the beach area.

After the lunch stop, the tour vans returned to the town center for a final stop before returning to the tenders and the ship. Several of us left our van at that point and walked along main street past all the tiny shops. By that time, most of the shops had closed for the mid-afternoon siesta time, and many of the shop owners were seen sleeping in their shops or in front of their shops on the sidewalks. Small children were sleeping along with parents at the shops. We walked back to the tenders, a walk of an hour or so, stopping to take photos along, and returned to the ship.

I’m glad to have visited Nosy Be, but like St. Lucia, I would not be inclined to return.

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