It is our final day here in Madagascar, and I am sitting at the desk in my hotel room staring out over the rooftops of Antananarivo.

I remember first hearing that my team was going to Madagascar and being excited with disbelief. The name, for me, always carried the sense of a remote land, someplace I never dreamt of going. Really, the only things I knew about Madagascar were 1. It was that island lying off the African continent 2. It had a Disney movie named after it, and 3. It was where lemurs live.

This island is actually the 4th largest in the world (5th if you count Australia) and despite what many might think, is larger than the state of California. The people look neither African nor Asian nor Middle Eastern. Like the country itself, the people are unique but nearly all incredibly friendly.

Tana, as the locals call the capital, is one sprawling mess of narrow streets winding up and down the many hillsides. Traffic is a problem, especially considering there is not a single streetlight in the whole city. Quite unlike Berkeley, crosswalks mean absolutely nothing and sidewalks are often parking spots. Outside the center, the city quickly turns into slipshod shacks of metal, wood and brick. From these, storefronts open onto the narrow shoulders of the road; everyone selling something. There is not exactly a lot for visitors to see or do. To ensure we got the full city experience, Danilo and I got shaken down by two cops not a block from our hotel. But nobody talking about Madagascar ever does so for the capital, and we found out why on our weekend trips.

In stark contrast to Tana, the surrounding areas are beautiful. Rice paddies blanket the valley floors and step after step of cultivated terraces adorn the hills as far as the eye can see. The vistas were made all the more striking by knowing we had survived another of our driver’s harrowing passes on a blind mountain curve. On our first trip 3 hours east to Andasibe, we hiked through rainforest, watched the largest lemurs, the Indri, fly through the trees overhead, and then saw a tiny mouse lemur curled up at night.

The highlight of the trip was easily the private reserve where we got to feed ringtails by hand, have brown lemurs use us as jungle gyms and marvel at a golden-crowned sifaka, which might be my favorite animal ever.

Our second trip was south to Ansirabe, which was a nice, relaxing counterpoint to Tana with its wide streets and languid pace. An hour further on, local kids from a small village led us on an incredible walk through rice paddies to a waterfall.

Everyone we met along the way was genuinely curious to see the group of vasas (strangers). With just a simple ‘Salam’ from one of us, every person would smile and return that greeting. That was the last bright spot of the trip, and I have been violently ill ever since.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this place. There is so much natural wealth in the form of biodiversity that it makes the poverty all the more stark in contrast. And it’s hard not to let my week of horrendous sickness taint my view of the experience. That said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It has certainly been an adventure.

—Sam Mathias

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