That night, Madagascar greeted me at the airport with a thick, smoky darkness, a gruff one-toothed driver and a taxi with a door that flew open around corners.
I had arrived in south-west Madagascar to live and work amongst the Vezo fisher folk who subsisted entirely off the spoils of the Toliara reef system. Taking a break from university, I was drawn to this country that had a little bit of everything: rain forests that teemed with cheeky lemurs in the north to parched baobab deserts in the south.
Yet, as I was bustled by my dentally challenged friend into his taxi, the beauty of Madagascar was cloaked by darkness. Figures hunched over fires that illuminated the wooden-wheeled rickshaws, the only other traffic on the road. It was at this point, one hand gripping the broken door and the other clutching a fragment of seat belt that was poking up through the seat, that I finally understood the allure of a Contiki tour.
We arrived at the guesthouse and although the taxi was about as comfortable as perching in a bear trap, I was reluctant to get out. The light from a sickly yellow streetlamp revealed peeling concrete walls, tumbling bougainvillea, and a courtyard of cracked checkerboard tiles. Nearby, a man lurched in my direction, dropped his pants, and started to pee.
With a strong desire to be rid of the peeing man, I allowed myself to be hustled inside by the proprietor. My room featured a wooden four poster bed bedecked in colonial style lace curtains, a picture of some radioactive fruit, and a tiled corner that could loosely be described as a bathroom. Glass doors led out onto a balcony where, from above, I could see the little fires amongst the darkness, making the town look like it was slowly smouldering to the ground. The noises of the city, the twang of the bicycle bell, the crackle of a radio, and the hiss of Malagasy, played around in my ears.
As I stood on the balcony, I realized I was completely alone in a country that was about as familiar to me as the depths of the Mariana trench. It was scary, unknown, and made me want to call my mum.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, standing on that balcony, I was learning two travel lessons that would stick with me on every trip to come.
The first night is always the hardest.
First impressions aren’t always right.
I headed inside. The cockroaches that coated the toilet seat twitched their approval at my new found maturity and scurried away when I switched off the light.
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