National Geographic : 1981 Oct
448 - -- ------ I MADAGASCAR most beautiful, and perhaps the most baf fling, land in the area. I arrived on an Air Madagascar 747. Just a year earlier this same great plane had been welcomed to local use with a blood sacrifice: A zebu bull, its hooves tied, was ceremo niously killed at Ivato airport to ensure suc cessful voyages. The capital, Antananarivo-city of a thousand warriors-is a cubist arrangement of stairs and streets. This was the highland capital of the Merina people whose mon archs ruled Madagascar from a hilltop pal ace until the 1890s. French elegance dressed later facades, and through the years many a French colonial retired here. Today, though France still provides considerable foreign aid, there are changes: For example, there's the empty, scorched Hotel de Ville, the city hall wrecked in uprisings of 1972. Tree rimmed Lake Anosy reflects a French monument to the dead of World War I, but across the street, grounds of the Presidential Palace look besieged: girt by barbed wire, guard towers, and armed soldiers wearing jungle camouflage with red berets. Madagascar is now ruled by President Didier Ratsiraka, who characterizes his re gime as "Christian Marxist." The president, however, does not have time to attend Mass; he has been busy building socialism with the abundant help of Eastern-bloc nations. In the public rooms of the Hotel Hilton In ternational Madagascar, I met Cubans (they assisted the local television station), North Koreans (engaged in rice-farming education and excavations for government buildings), and Russians (doing everything). "Those Russians take their vodka into the sauna to drink," a hotel worker confided. "They don't lose much weight." On Antananarivo's streets people are cu rious and smile easily. The Malagasy remind me of Thais. Actually, the highland Merinas are kin to Malaysians and Polynesians, Slow as the economy, horses clop through the streets (above) of Antananarivo (be low), capital of Madagascar, a country that, despite infusions of foreign aid, has nearlycome to a standstill.