The Eighth Continent – Madagascar – Part 1 : Prelude

The Eighth Continent – Madagascar – Part 1 : Prelude

My choice to travel to Madagascar was an odd one. As a Sri Lankan, my passport ranks quite low in the power to travel to countries without a visa or obtain visa on arrival. When I had some flight miles expiring in July 2018, I decided to make most of it by travelling to “Somewhere in Africa”. As I tried to find out places that I could get in relatively easily, Madagascar also popped up. A long story short, what was supposed to be a short distraction from a mainland Africa trip became a full 8-day trip to Madagascar.

When I landed in Ivato International Airport, my first impressions of it was that it looked very much like a regional internal airport in Sri Lanka. This however doesn’t mean much as this is how exactly the Velana International Airport in Maldives also looks like. When I got in to the airport building, it was already overcrowded. There were only two officers to handle the first line of immigration which did the basic document checks. The second line of immigration where you get your visa, wasn’t any better. There were about two or three counters to serve all the passengers.

While the airport is in complete disarray, Madagascar has progressed in their tourist screening and recording by employing biometrics. I know that some (perhaps a majority) do have a concern on collecting biometric data such as fingerprints unless you know how exactly it is being used. While the EU and the US would have quite stringent usage and control policies, you couldn’t say the same for every part of the world. I know that there were some serious concerns back in Sri Lanka when there was a proposal to combine biometrics with the government issued identity cards. However, when you are at a border of a country, and they say “We need your fingerprints”, I don’t see much point of protesting against it, or worrying over it.

The most interesting incident to take place while I was getting the visa was the purpose of travel. It took a few rounds of the same repeated set of sentences to explain to them that I was indeed in Madagascar as a tourist. While there are some Sri Lankans who travel to Madagascar on business, I don’t think anyone has ever travelled there as a tourist. “You must be the first Sri Lankan tourist in Madagascar,” were the last words they said before they stamped the passport.

Clearing the immigration and moving on to the baggage belt, I was quite sure that I had actually lost my luggage. The belt was running baggage from a different airline altogether and it had taken me over two hours to clear through the immigration. Trying my luck with Google Translate, I asked some of the baggage assistants which airline it was. Unfortunately I was not able to take that conversation any further.

I had no expectation that the luggage could be found again if it was actually lost. While I tried quite unsuccessfully to flag down an airport official who was obviously having his hands full with another string of passengers, a girl who was on the same flight as me came over asking me if I could help her to get the luggage off the belt. Guess what? Either Ivato has the most amazing synchronisation system that the luggage comes out only when the passengers clear the immigration, or….  In any case, at the end, I managed to get my luggage out without a major incident.

Ivato airport is also the first airport I visited where the baggage is scanned on arrival. While I expected a long line here as well, it was quite swift. The officials, who I believe are from the Customs Department, seem to be quite adamant on disposing any fruits and seeds that the passengers brought with them, but otherwise unconcerned. Given Madagascar’s biodiversity (which is the reason that prompted me to travel there in the first place), I can see why they are adamant that foreign plant material are disposed.

Clearing out from the airport, I stepped in to the lobby which hosts a number of vendors selling mobile packages, taxi services and of course the money changers. One of the local guides were quick to spot that I didn’t speak French at all and was more than happy to volunteer himself to help me with the taxis, of course for a fee.

As I got in to the cab and rode the hour long drive to my hotel, the one thing that kept coming in to my mind over and over again was if I could really survive in this French speaking country, knowing only the very basic greetings in French. Hopefully, my Google Translate app would be able to rescue me out of any mess I would get in to.

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