I am sat on a flight from Antananarivo to Nairobi and I am gutted to be leaving Madagascar. We have spent the past 2 months exploring the island which has without doubt bagged itself number one spot on my list of favourite countries.
We spent the majority of our time travelling around with some of our best friends from home, Mark, Jo and Indya. This was awesome but only after Mark and I learnt never to play each other at Scrabble ever again. After 10 minutes of starting each game there was no chat, just a mutual distrust and a stubborn refusal to let the other one win. After 5 games and 5 arguments we decided to put the Scrabble board away permanently. Although to be fair of course USINGE and CLINGERS are words and I refuse to believe QI is in the dictionary.
Madagascar is an ex-French colony, so there as fromage aplenty and I had lots of opportunities to reel off my GCSE French oral exam which has been ingrained in my memory since the age of 15, informing any local who cared to listen that I play football for Thame Boys and that I normally spend my Summer holidays camping with my family. You can imagine my delight when I genuinely had to ask for directions to the syndicat d'initiaf although obviously I didn't understand a word of the needlessly quickly spoken reply. Better than all this though was the chance to see Mark communicating in a foreign language. Mark's French consisted of saying everything in English, slowly, in the present tense and without any semblance of a sentence structure. 'We would like to go to the port tomorrow so we can catch a boat to the other island' was translated into 'We. Go. Port. Tomorrow. Then boat. Island.' accompanied by some imaginitive hand gestures and lots of miming, even if the person we were talking to spoke perfect English. I must admit this approach was infinitely more successful than my dad's tactic, who speaks in normal English, but cunningly precedes the sentence with 'As we say in England......'. Also, Mark's mime when we explained to our guide that my brother and sister-in-law were expecting a baby girl any day was nothing short of inspired, if not a little graphic. Congratulations Simon and Denise by the way on the birth of Rosa, can't wait to meet her!
Getting around Madagascar was fairly easy as the roads are surprisngly good and taxi brousses ply all the routes between the major towns. Taxi brousses are essentially 12 seater people carriers which will normally carry up to about 30 people and will have anythiing from a crate of live animals to a 3 piece suite strapped to the roof. We went on loads of journeys up and down the country and I would normally spend my time sitting on a smelly Malagasy man's lap or having my legs pecked by random chickens. One taxi brousse journey was far worse than the others though. I was sat bang in the middle, nowhere near a window, and the driver had been playing a loop of 3 equally bad 90's pop songs for the last 4 hours. I was just thinking to myself how much I would like to punch Leanne Rimes when the driver pulled up to the side of the road. I wasn't quite sure what was going on but I could see that everyone near a window - in others words every except me - was leaning out and buying something. Then the smell hit me. Before I knew what was happening, I was locked in a baking hot moving vehicle with no chance of fresh air and at least 150 bananas. Everyone had bought a bunch each, the driver was clearly stocking up for the next month as he had piled the dashboard high with the stinking things and the guy next me, perhaps sensing my uneasiness, thought he would offer me a banana by waving it my face. I was trapped. This might seem a little melodramatic, but for someone who has a unnatural hatred, almost phobia, of bananas - to the point where his friend's mum has taunted him by chasing him round her kitchen with a wooden banana (it did look disturbingly real) and whose Uni friends smeared banana on his bedroom door knowing full well he would not be able to enter for at least a day - this was nothing short of a personal hell. Even a baby being sick on Mark couldn't cheer me up.
Madagascar's main tourist attractions are its abundance of National Parks, which encompass every terrain imaginable from primary rainforests to moonscapes, and its stunning beaches. We spent roughly half our time in the parks - trekking, mountain climbing and lemur spotting - and the other half on the beaches, sunbathing. On our way to Anakao, a beach resort on the Southern coast which is only reachable by boat, we were waiting for our pirogue (local fisherman's boat) as the sun rose. As it grew light it became apparent that what we had thought were rocks on the beach were in fact human poos and we were actually standing, in flip-flops, in the middle of what was the local community's very public toilets. We saw our boat and treading very carefully we started to wade out to climb aboard. About half way there, Sally called out to me and I turned round to see what she wanted. I was met with the sight of a local specimen that would have given Gillian McKeith nightmares floating 2 metres behind me and gaining fast, in my memory the Jaws theme-tune is playing in the background, however I think this is probably unlikely. I turned and ran as fast as you can in flip-flops in knee deep water, which is not very fast, but I am fairly certain there was skin to poo contact.
Although Madagascar is a ridiculously fun place to visit, there are things which you see that remind you there are still a lot of troubles here. The poos on the beach are more than just a hazard for snorkellers, they are in fact a real health issue and a lot of children die from the diseases spread by playing near them, sex tourism is rife here and there are a alarming amount of Chelsea shirts. However the most disturbing thing we saw was on our way to the Avenue de Baobabs. A guy was being dragged along a dirt road by two other men. As the car got nearer we saw he was unconscious, his face matted in blood, one of the two men had blood all over his tee-shirt. We instinctively opened the door to help, when the driver grabbed my arm, pulled me back in and drove off. Speaking to our guide later we learnt that the man had stolen a zebu (the main livestock in Madagascar) and the other men were exacting their revenge. Our guide said that one of the men had a weapon and that he would not be surprised if they had killed him. I wish we had got out to help, our guide was in doubt though and said that if we had intevened we could have been attacked too.
As I have already said, we are flying back to Nairobi now and will be heading to Tanzania in a couple of days to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, which incidentally we have just this second flown over. As most of you probably know we are trying to raise money for a charity called the Karibuni Trust who sponsor the most needy children in Kenya through their education. So, if you haven't already, please take a minute and donate to a great charity.