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Don't miss magnificent Madagascar

         Date: 2015-06-17

           Tag: Travel Africa Madagascar

Summary: Madagascar is a world of its own, an extraordinary place that you cannot miss.

Despite being the fourth largest island in the world, the island of Madagascar appears to be off the radar for many tourists seeking a wildlife adventure.

Like a shy orphan, it has been sitting in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa for more than 100 million years. That's a long time to be an incubator for new species of plants and animals, and the slow-cooking of evolution created recipes beyond our wildest dreams.

Wheels down in Madagascar

It's always a shock to arrive. The tedium of waiting and the sadness of the poverty is a bit grim, especially if your plane arrives in the middle of the night. But by the next day, the charm and excitement of Madagascar seeps inside your soul: The smiles of the children, the hustle and bustle and the architecture of the city catch your attention. Houses in adobe, beige and yellow are jumbled onto the hills like a Cezanne painting.

Down below, one gets caught up in the traffic. Brightly painted rickshaws (pousse-pousse), Zebu-pulled carts (Zebus are an ancient breed of humped cattle) with wooden wagon wheels, bicycles, motorbikes, shiny 4x4 Land Cruisers, blue Mazda minivans and thousands of brisk walkers all compete for a piece of the road.

There are no traffic lights in Madagascar -- not a one. The winding roads up to the Queen's Palace were built for walking, not for vehicles.

Most shops have brightly colored fruits and vegetables neatly stacked: mangoes, onions, potatoes, peas, apples, strawberries, carrots, cabbages are on display alongside broad, shallow baskets of red, white and long-grained brown rice. The butchers hang legs of zebu and strings of sausages in the shop front, while live chickens squawk in rattan cages inside.

The tiny, family-owned shops are crowded with customers, ignorant of that other world full of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.

In Antananarivo (Tana for short), the old town is filled with charming restaurants nestled along cobblestone streets. Outdoor cafes are possible because of the mild climate and it's easy to be reminded a bit of Provence. There is a cornucopia of cuisine: Italian, Thai, French, Indian and Japanese. My favorite is L'Orion, a quirky Malagasy-Thai restaurant.

There is also a restaurant that overlooks Tana called the Grill du Rova that serves true Malagasy dishes, such as chopped manioc leaves with pork (ravitoto) or zebu stew with spices (romazava). Top it off with the local beverage, burnt rice water, a kind of tea with a delicious smoky flavor.

The soul of Madagascar is rice. Terraced rice paddies create a patchwork of brilliant greens as you leave the city. Rice is eaten morning, noon and night -- huge mounds of rice on each plate.

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