Ambalavao, the “Door to the South”
Ambalavao is a very attractive small town, the "Door to the South”, is situated south of Fianarantsoa. Set amid beautiful mountainous countryside with numerous boulder-like peaks, Ambalavao is like a charming French village. Here the temperature is considerably warmer as the place is located far away the mountainous regions where Fianarantsoa is set. Its cosy brightly painted buildings with their steeply tiled roofs and wooden balconies with elaborate carvings invite for a slow-paced stroll. The peaks of the Massif d’Iandrambaky poking up dramatically on the horizon.
Historically, Ambalavao was scene of act of wars between the tribes of Bara, Betsileo and later Merina, too. From those older times Ambalavao grew as a mixed Merina and Betsileo center of trading and crafts, powering the Merina empire’s economy with zebu, silk and of course rice – and then under French colonial rule with tea and wine.
Town’s crafts workshops is worthwhile to visit. The town is known for its paper making and is the home of the Malagasy paper "Antaimoro" which is papyrus based paper with wild flowers in. The zebu is an emblem of the town, which points at the biggest cattle market of the country.
The Antaimoro Paper Factory is well worth a visit. Similar to papyrus, this paper is impregnated with flowers and leaves and then used for albums, lamp shades or simply for mural display. You can see how women produce paper by hand from bark of the Avoha tree displaying a centenary tradition that goes back to the times of the first immigrants who reached Madagascar’s eastern coast. Nowadays sisal paste is also used sometimes. The bark is first boiled, sorted and then crushed to form a pulp. The paste resulting from this process is then left in the sun to dry in a cotton strainer. Before the sheets of paper completely dry each sheet is decorated by hand with fresh flowers and leaves to beautiful designs, each different according to the manufacturers taste. Dried flowers are then brushed over with a thin solution of the liquid bark to fix them in place.
Wednesdays the laidback atmosphere suddenly transforms, as the town fills with cattle holders from the whole country, some people especially from the South of the country walk hundreds of kilometers to attend the biggest zebu market in Madagascar and to get better prices for their cattle.
Thousands of zebu and people gather for this big event. Everyone brings the zebu, let a man register them and then puts all his zebu in a line. From time to time, an animal escapes and will be catched again cheered by the surrounding people. The chosen bulls will be brought into a big gate. A narrow aisle made of tree trunks leads to the next truck which should be loaded. Young men try to catch the bulls with a thin rope which makes a great show for the market’s visitors. The used lassos easily rupture. And of course it is part of the show to let the bulls – there are hardly cows among the sold animals – run a little before they will be finally loaded on the trucks. Sometimes, the young man of the town prove their courage in zebu rodeos right between trade and barter business. Those who stay longest at the bull’s back, earns most honour by the others.
On Wednesday, can also visit the biggest spice market of Madagascar. Here you can find nearly everything Madagascar offers, from bizarre medicinal herbs to aromatic spices. If you are looking for something against a special disease, you will be urged to visit a shaman first. He has to choose the right procedure with the appropriate medicine for the sick person or one who lucks for more luck in love. For sure, you will find what the shaman is telling you on Ambalavao’s markets: May it be buttons, nuts, bark, some cut branches or pieces of shells.
Watch more photos about Ambalavao here.