Madagascar Is My Favorite Country (that I barely know)

People ask me all the time what my favorite country is. I really don’t know how to answer that; in particular: do they mean my favorite country that I’ve already been to, or the country that I most want to go to? So I usually split the difference, most attracted to countries I’ve seen a bit of, and like, but didn’t get enough time there, and want to go back! At the top of that list is Madagascar. It’s nothing like the movie. It’s not like most people’s conception of it, either. Most people assume that, because it’s so close to the African continent, that it must be predominantly African. No, not really.

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The Streeets of Madagascar

Guess again. Well, since it’s so close to the Swahili coast of Africa, then it must have been an Arab entrepot. Not exactly. Madagascar was settled first and foremost by Asians, of Indonesian origin, with linguistic connections to this day, but little or nothing else—except rice, and noodles, and a certain slimness of figure. Sure, some of that comes from a Vietnamese admixture via the French, but not most, and certainly not all.

Madagascar is also one of the most expensive countries to get to, so maybe its inaccessibility is part of its desirability. It also helps if you speak a little French, since that is the language that most people will use with you, as a foreigner, as the French were the colonizers. Strangely enough, English is one of the four official languages, even though hardly anyone—except hotel clerks—can speak it.

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What a view!

The capital Antananarivo is equal parts Asian, French, African, and… unique, its own style. The architecture is French, but not really, while the food is Asian, but not really, while the poverty is definitely African, even if it doesn’t really look like it. That was the biggest shock, that the country was as poor or poorer than most of Africa. Watch out for pickpockets.

But the strangest sight was the last one, catching an early morning flight, and catching a ride to the airport in total blackness, around 3 a.m., when I saw literally thousands of early morning runners, clogging the roads and jogging the highways. I guess they were beating the heat. But for my early flight, I’d have never known. I’ll get back one day.v

Hardie Karges has traveled to more than one hundred fifty countries over the course of forty years. He is the author of “Hypertravel” and the seven-part series “Backpackers and Flashpackers: Guides to World Hostels.” He expects to open his first backpackers’ hostel soon.

Arctic Daydreams to Whitehorse Alaska and Skagway

I went to Alaska in 2006 and liked it so much that I swore I’d go back, so in 2011 I went to Whitehorse, across the border in Canada’s Yukon Territory. From there I figured to go up to Dawson City, only a couple degrees south of the Arctic Circle. And Whitehorse seems nice, too, at first glance, but nothing spectacular, so I decide to press on to Dawson City the next day, leaving any intimate encounter with Whitehorse for the back end, since I’d already rented the car, and felt somewhat pressed to justify the expense.

Downtown Hotel in Dawson City

Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. Photo Hardie Karges

Dawson City is a bit of a disappointment, actually, though the drive up is very nice. Dawson City’s selling point is authenticity (dirt roads, plank sidewalks), and that’s a tough thing to sell. The minute you advertise it, it ain’t so authentic any more. What makes Dawson genuine, though, is the fact that what made it famous is still there, gold, and people still pan for it. It’s a bit pricey, though, in summer.

Sign posts

Sign posts. Photo Hardie Karges

So I get the big idea to go to Skagway, Alaska, in the opposite direction from Whitehorse, though not so far. The little towns unfold in reverse order from the way up, a little cluster of people wherever a river crosses or a road divides, anywhere a need might arise—Stewart’s Crossing, Pelly’s Crossing, Carmacks and Moose Creek, roads going places where until 1955 only a stern-wheeler could go. That’s 1955, mind you, NOT 1855.

Street view

Street view. Photo Hardie Karges

But I learned before in Alaska that the northern reaches were less spectacular than the southern coast, and the same holds true here. The drive from Whitehorse to Skagway starts off splendid and becomes spectacular approaching the US-Canadian border. The lakes here are a color that I’ve only seen previously in the Caribbean, due to the reflective shallow bottom, no doubt. And the border crossing itself is about as exotic as anything I’ve seen this side of Kosovo, too. I’m sure that in the wintertime it’d only be more so.

Skagway is nice, but more of a typical tourist trap, if that’s where the line of authenticity gets drawn. Ferries and cruise ships disgorge passengers here daily, leaving dollars in coffers and lives enriched along this little strip of America connected to itself only by water. This was one of THE prime places to be in the world not much more than a hundred years ago, as gold was discovered up around Dawson City and this was on the route there. So I find a nice hostel in Skagway—everything but the WiFi—and spend the night. Again, one day is about enough, especially since the meter’s ticking on the car.

Alaska views

Alaska views. Photo Hardie Karges

I get up early the next day hoping to find a bear up and at ‘em looking for breakfast, and sure enough, I find one, walking down the country highway as if it’s his own. The border’s no hassle on the return, either, out here in the long lost lonesome, one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings, no doubt. But it feels good to be back in Whitehorse, almost like home by now. I even keep the car, to explore the immediate environs, splayed out for miles in every direction. You can have the tourist traps. Whitehorse has few tourists, but many subtle pleasures. It even has Indian pawn. That’s authentic. I’m a lousy tourist, but a better traveler.

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