So far it’s been a tale of two Islands. In the past few hours I’ve already visited two tropical destinations in the Indian Ocean. But I’ve recently learnt that I won’t be visiting a third. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
First, some disclaimers that ought to save me from being taken to the cleaners for a hopelessly superficial and naïve analysis!
I won’t be able to plumb the complexities of these two Island economies. Not even my hugely impressive (and some would say, unexpected) Grade A in A Level Economics is able to help me do that. I’ll just fire from the hip. Neither Island will get a second chance to make a first impression. But I’m fine with that. It’s all I’m dealing with at this stage. So far I’ve not seen a whole load of either Island. But I don’t think I’ll need to. They are poles apart and that’s what’s been so surprising.
First up is St Denis de la Reunion. To all intents and purposes it was like being in France, because that’s what it is. It’s a French Department. And it shows. It was just like being in the South of France but with more palm trees. The plane out of Charles de Gaulle was full of French holiday makers heading off for a few weeks in the sun. I’d never heard of it much to the surprise of the Air France customer services lady who rearranged my flights after missing the plane out of Paris. But a few conversations with my neighbours on the flight filled in the significant holes in my knowledge. From what I saw in the hours I was allowed out of the airport, it’s an ordered, well governed tropical island paradise. It demonstrates what’s possible when a country is well run and allowed to flourish.
The second island is Madagascar. It’s the fourth biggest Island in the world. It’s also one of the poorest countries in the world. One website had it at 35th. I thought it was poorer than that; someone told me it was the fourth poorest country but I’ve not been able to find any statistics to verify that. But nevertheless, even at 35th that’s poorer than Kenya, Ghana, Bangladesh and Cameroon.
Arriving in Antananarivo, the capital brings you face to face with urban poverty straight from the off. I’m happy to use the word ‘squalor’ to describe much of what I saw. In the bus depot, bare footed kids walked through roads littered with discarded animals’ entrails. The place was filthy. And I’m not sure how it could be otherwise. The volume of traffic, the huge numbers of people, the chaos of the inadequate road system and the absence of urban planning brings everything to a predictably noisy grid lock. And in the midst of that traffic jam, life was nevertheless hectic. It was a complete chaotic mess. But you should have seen our taxi driver. The man would excel on the starting grid at any Formula 1 Grand Prix. And he could teach Felipe Massa a thing or two about avoiding collisions. I never feared for my life. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be a epdestrian.
Of course, it may be different out in the rural areas but I’m not expecting it. I’m going to need to ditch all my Pixar influenced notions of a lush green tropical paradise. It may have a whole load of wildlife that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. But this is a country where 90% of the rainforests have been systematically plundered. I’m expecting rice fields, small villages and rural poverty. It’s the dry season at the moment and so it’s perhaps a little unfair to judge it on that. But I’ll let you know what I find on my 900kms taxi ride to Mandritsara. It may grow on me. But it’s not really got under my skin yet; just on my nerves!
The third island was supposed to be Isle Ste Marie. It’s where the missionaries were due to be taking themselves and their families for their long weekend spiritual retreat. That’sw hy I’m here. But it’s not happening. There’s something wrong with the Missionary Aviation Fellowship plane and so it’s been grounded. They must be gutted. I’m not. Not in the same way, at least. Coming to Madagascar is an adventure anyway. Ste Marie would have been the icing on the cake. What’s not to love about swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. But not this time. I suspect that they missionaries are putting a brave face on it. They’ll be looking forward to welcoming me and hearing God speak to them in 1 Corinthians. But I bet they’d have much preferred to be doing that near the beach. I’ll be with them sometime tomorrow, after the world’s longest taxi ride.