By Allie Almario

“I’m going to Madagascar!” I’d tell people gleefully.”The movie?””No, THE COUNTRY.”

And people would scratch their head, not quite knowing where Madagascar is on the map. So let me help you. Just wander over 12,000 miles by plane (approximately 26 hours of flying and 10 hours of layovers in Dallas and Paris), through 3 continents and enough time zones to screw up your sleeping patterns for at least a week. Madagascar is a country just east of South Africa, separated by the Mozambique Channel on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, an island that floats peacefully isolated and is blissfully ignorant of the rest of the world.

I was honored to be invited to travel there by Conservation International and the Madagascar Tourism Board as one of only 10 international tour operators that best represent responsible tourism practices in the world. The 10-day itinerary was designed for us to hit the ground running from Day 1, and for the next nine days, we scoured the country testing standards for hotels, guiding practices, infrastructure, etc, often with schedules that got us up and running from 5:30 am and had us straggling into our hotel rooms well after 10 pm. The final verdict: it is in desperate need of reformation, but is making the right strides to get there…eventually.

The fourth largest island in the world boasts that 80% of its plant and wildlife species are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. Some scientists call it the “Eighth Continent.” There are more than 60 “taxa” of lemurs found here, which makes Madagascar one of the most important primate strongholds in the world. Ancient baobab trees, many estimated to be 600 or more years old, tower sphinx-like among devastated deforested fields, some still sadly smoldering from slash and burn practices. There are no stoplights – anywhere. The language, known for its indescribably frustrating long string of consonants, has a vocabulary that strangely evolved from Borneo. Yet many of the people speak French fluently, an influence of its French colonization from the mid-century.

So Madagascar, in sum, is one crazy, beautiful, mixed up place to go.

The Malagasy people are unwaveringly beautiful and kind, with generous smiles and an overwhelming desire to improve their country. As a Filipina, many assumed I was from Madagascar, and when I opened my mouth, my American accent would leave them open-jawed with amazement that someone who looked like them could actually be an American. It was a source of continuing entertainment. As we were leaving, a group of airport porters asked about me, and when told by our guide that I was an American, all four of them let out a simultaneous yelp of disbelief. One of them pulled on my sleeve to make me talk, and when I greeted them in English, they began giggling helplessly. Jeez.

The lemurs were fascinating to watch, especially since November is when most babies are born. The indri calls out with haunting calls throughout the forest, curiously reminiscent of whales singing. The sifaka dances awkwardly across the forest on two legs. Nocturnal lemurs have the biggest, brownest, most beautiful eyes. The crowned lemur is adorable, their facial markings distinctive from other species. We saw a ton of gorgeous chameleons and geckos in lurid rainbow colors and watched in morbid fascination as a ground boa swallowed a frog (hard to identify, since we only saw its two legs waving frantically from its mouth).

We spent hours on dirt roads, bumping our way across the country. In Menabe, the main highway has been ignored for so long that only a narrow, tattered ribbon of asphalt remains. Our drivers made it an art form to speed by in a zig zag pattern dodging zebu carts, people and massive potholes, often preferring to drive on sidewalks, honking madly as we brushed by angry pedestrians. One of our cars crossing a river gully on two steel planks popped a tire and as the driver slammed on the brakes, the car ended up with its two right wheels and half the car hanging precariously over the edge of the gully. Passengers were rescued just fine, thank you very much, and the local villagers kindly donated the use of their zebus and horses to haul the car off the bridge.

And it was hot. One day in the Kirindy Forest, our car’s outside thermometer claimed it was 54 centigrade (roughly 138 degrees). Our driver explained that the thermometer wasn’t working correctly, it was only probably 45 centigrade (120 degrees). Unfortunately, that was the same day that I was with two other guys in the group who got lost in the forest, and had to spend an hour wandering around in that awful heat until we were rescued, just minutes before I spotted another boa slithering towards us. Survivor Madagascar, anyone?

The leeches, surprisingly, weren’t too bad or scary. I thought they were inch worms until I pulled up my pants leg and found my entire left sock soaked in blood. Our guide shrugged. “That means they are already full and fell off. Not to worry – we use them for medicinal healing.” So I didn’t worry, threw away the bloody sock, slapped on anti-biotic cream and scratched my itchy leech bites.

Nonetheless, we were all intrepid travelers, so we brushed off the bad and the ugly, and tried to concentrate on the good. Go to Madagascar, see things you’ll never see anywhere else in the world, and enjoy the smiles of the people. It’s a worthwhile destination – for the true wildlife adventure enthusiast.