Arrival in Antananarivo ("Tana") the Capital of Madagascar
As a frequent traveller, it can sometimes be a little hard to really be impressed by a new town. While far from being jaded or world-weary, it’s just not that often that a city distinguishes itself from the rest.
Not so with Antananarivo, or Tana, the capital city of Madagascar. It has been a while since we have been agog while travelling through a town. But agog we were in this chaotic, charismatic, kaleidoscopic destination, our senses assaulted and assailed by the sights and sounds and smells of this bustling metropolis.
We had heard little but negativity about Tana before our arrival. A recent outbreak of plague in the city was making news headlines around the world, and plague is rarely good publicity. But even before it had elevated Antananarivo into the collective consciousness of the west, most sources of information had been less than effusive about Madagascar’s first city. “A dive”, was a common consensus. “Get in and get out” was another. “Don’t even bother going into Tana from the airport, you’ll be stuck in traffic for hours” was further sage advice.
Heeding this collective wisdom, we did like many Madagascar visitors and spent just one night in Tana before venturing further afield. But what we saw of Tana was beguiling. Yes, the traffic is terrible, but this avails endless opportunities for people watching. And what a people-watching mecca this is – Madagascar is an ethnic melting pot of African and Asian origins, and the genetic diversity evident in the people of Tana is fascinating. So too is the daily life – the streets are a cacophony of sights and sounds, an exuberant mishmash of African and southeast Asian, bustling with energy, bursting with colour, overflowing with raucous activity. Swarming market streets are interspersed with rice-paddies and incongruously placed brickworks. Food is on display everywhere from the butcher stalls with chains of fat sausages hanging from above, to the fish stands with bright buckets of pungent produce, to the vegetable stalls piled high with tomatoes and aubergines and leafy green vegetables and to the massive sacks of rice being carried on the heads of passing women.
SUVs and motorcycles vie for road-space alongside drays pulled by zebu and piled-high carts pulled by energetic young (and some not so young) men. Taxi-brousse are everywhere, passengers packed in tight by the “goalkeeper”, the death-defying conductor hanging off the back door. We pass streams and canals where Malagasy are washing their clothes, their cattle, their cooking utensils and themselves. Traffic is slow but orderly, as is the Malagasy way, kept in check by the gendarme who patrol the intersections in their pale blue French-era attire. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the roads become less crowded and the densely packed city gives way to suburbs and then surrounding villages, as the RN2 winds its way through the Malagasy hills to the east of Tana towards our destination of Andasibe.
In retrospect, would we recommend spending more time in Tana? Not necessarily – we were in Madagascar predominantly for the wildlife. But our brief time in Tana certainly far exceeded our expectations, and we can certainly reassure other visitors that transit time in Tana is not as terrible as envisaged. As long as you have time and patience, it is nice to be agog…