Patricia C. Wright, Special to CNN • Updated 15th May 2015
"Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" travels to Madagascar, Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook. Patricia C. Wright is an anthropology professor at Stony Brook University, and the founder and international director of Centre ValBio in Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar.
(CNN) — Despite being the fourth largest island in the world, the island of Madagascar appears to be off the radar for many tourists seeking a wildlife adventure.
Like a shy orphan, it has been sitting in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa for more than 100 million years. That's a long time to be an incubator for new species of plants and animals, and the slow-cooking of evolution created recipes beyond our wildest dreams.
Wheels down in Madagascar
It's always a shock to arrive. The tedium of waiting and the sadness of the poverty is a bit grim, especially if your plane arrives in the middle of the night. But by the next day, the charm and excitement of Madagascar seeps inside your soul: The smiles of the children, the hustle and bustle and the architecture of the city catch your attention. Houses in adobe, beige and yellow are jumbled onto the hills like a Cezanne painting.
Down below, one gets caught up in the traffic. Brightly painted rickshaws (pousse-pousse), Zebu-pulled carts (Zebus are an ancient breed of humped cattle) with wooden wagon wheels, bicycles, motorbikes, shiny 4x4 Land Cruisers, blue Mazda minivans and thousands of brisk walkers all compete for a piece of the road.
Anthony Bourdain explores Madagascar with acclaimed film director Darren Aronofsky.
There are no traffic lights in Madagascar -- not a one. The winding roads up to the Queen's Palace were built for walking, not for vehicles.
Most shops have brightly colored fruits and vegetables neatly stacked: mangoes, onions, potatoes, peas, apples, strawberries, carrots, cabbages are on display alongside broad, shallow baskets of red, white and long-grained brown rice. The butchers hang legs of zebu and strings of sausages in the shop front, while live chickens squawk in rattan cages inside.
The tiny, family-owned shops are crowded with customers, ignorant of that other world full of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.
Anthony Bourdain stops for his first meal in Madagascar with vegetarian companion Darren Aronofsky. "Parts Unknown" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
In Antananarivo (Tana for short), the old town is filled with charming restaurants nestled along cobblestone streets. Outdoor cafes are possible because of the mild climate and it's easy to be reminded a bit of Provence. There is a cornucopia of cuisine: Italian, Thai, French, Indian and Japanese. My favorite is L'Orion, a quirky Malagasy-Thai restaurant.
There is also a restaurant that overlooks Tana called the Grill du Rova that serves true Malagasy dishes, such as chopped manioc leaves with pork (ravitoto) or zebu stew with spices (romazava). Top it off with the local beverage, burnt rice water, a kind of tea with a delicious smoky flavor.
The soul of Madagascar is rice. Terraced rice paddies create a patchwork of brilliant greens as you leave the city. Rice is eaten morning, noon and night -- huge mounds of rice on each plate.
Anthony Bourdain visits the sleepy beach town of Manakara for a seafood feast with the local villagers. "Parts Unknown" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Digging up the past
In Malagasy culture, the boundary between the living and the dead is blurred. The ancestors, those spirits of the Malagasy who are deceased, are said to live in the east -- logical, since the earliest Malagasy did arrive from Borneo about 2,000 years ago, the last major region uninhabited by humans. We know this origin because of genes shared and language similarities between Malay and Malagasy, although later African immigrants added Bantu words.
In Madagascar, there are 18 ethnic groups, but one language, Malagasy, is spoken throughout the island. The king of Madagascar brought the different regions together by demanding they all speak one language. To further cement his empire he took a wife from each of the different groups -- 12 wives in all. This political ploy worked because Madagascar has remained one country since the 1700s.
Three queens ruled the country during the 1800s, each in turn. Ranavalona II was particularly fierce and ruled with an iron fist. She was against missionaries and ordered each offender to be pushed off the cliff of the palace to their death.
Patricia C. Wright with Anthony Bourdain
Culture and religion still unites the Malagasy even after 60 years of French rule. Culture includes belief in the divine creator Zanahary, the journeying of the ancestors' spirits to the east after death and reading the future with astrological cues.
Although there are variations in culture throughout the island, burial services are universal. When a Malagasy dies, the relatives arrive from all over the island.
Most deceased Malagasy are wrapped in a white or red silk shroud. After sacrificing a zebu cattle and feeding the hundreds of relatives, the body is carried to the top of a hill and buried in a windowless stone or cement family tomb.
Two or more years after the burial, the most popular ancestors are brought back from the tomb. The bones of this "favorite" are unwrapped and washed carefully in a stream, before being rewrapped in a second silk shroud. This "turning of the bones" is usually a three-day celebration of drinking, dancing and very little sleeping, while the wrapped body is carried on the shoulders of the relatives.
Every village has a local band with handmade bamboo instruments like rattles, drums, guitars, lyres or valihas, a stringed tube zither. There's plenty of strong, homemade "toaka gasy" rum. At the end of the three days, the "bones" are returned to the tomb and the celebration is over.
A world of its own
I personally love the island of Madagascar, not only for its warm and wonderful people, but for the amazing plants and animals -- the baobabs, the chameleons, the 103 kinds of lemurs, the tenrecs, the fox-like fossas, the bats and more.
There are fossils of 80-million-year-old dinosaurs in the west. The giant sub-fossil bones remind us that only 500 years ago there was a megafauna that included 17 species of lemurs (some big as bears), giant tortoises, two species of hippopotamus and the world's largest bird -- 10 feet tall -- that laid the world's largest egg.
These large animals are extinct now because of slash-and-burn farming and hunting by humans, but the species that remain in Madagascar are magnificent and quirky.
Madagascar is a world of its own, an extraordinary place that you cannot miss. During the past 30 years, I -- with the help of many colleagues -- studied the fauna and flora in their rainforest habitat. We built a modern research station, Centre ValBio, to act as a hub for protecting wildlife and improving the lives of the people that surround the forest.
Put Madagascar on your radar next time you are planning a unique wildlife adventure. You won't be disappointed.
Train travel done right: Darren Aronofsky makes Anthony Bourdain a cocktail on a shaky train in Madagascar. "Parts Unknown" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.