Matters of the Heart in Madagascar

Angela Dansby

Madagascar is as colorful and animated as DreamWorks, creator of the namesake film and TV series “All Hail King Julien,” depicts. In real life, the island country is indeed wild and alive with wildlife and lemurs are just as clever and playful.

Madagascar is the world’s second largest island country by area after Indonesia and its fourth largest island with several smaller islands surrounding it like the beach-combing paradise of Nosy Be. Given that Madagascar split from the Indian subcontinent about 88 million years ago and stayed an island that today is 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the East African coast, native plants and animals there evolved in relative isolation. Consequently, more than 90 percent of Madagascar’s wildlife is found nowhere else on the planet. Lemurs of all shapes and sizes are primary examples.

Such rare and exotic wildlife put Madagascar on my dream trip list as well as that of my world-traveling friend Lauren. We separately vowed to take our honeymoons there but when neither of us had wedding plans as of 2017, we decided to realize this adventure together to kick off the new year. It proved to be a much better trip for friends than honeymooners.

The day before I left for the trip, I had tingling in my left arm – a typical warning sign of an impending heart attack – that I dismissed as fatigue given that I had absolutely no risk factors otherwise. Besides, I had been late-night dancing three evenings in a row due to friends’ wedding events and New Year’s Eve, when I was spun around like a helicopter by a dance partner.

So off I went via Paris to meet Lauren in the Malagasy capitol of Antananarivo. From there we traveled to several lemur sanctuaries, staying in a jungle lodge in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by dense rainforest that could only be navigated with local guides. They took us by day and night on jungle walks to observe all kinds of wildlife in their natural habitat. Lemurs played in our hair and at our feet in the light and exotic eyes shined in flashlights in the dark.

Meanwhile, the tingling in my left arm continued and moved into my chin and left chest. These symptoms intensified our last evening in the jungle during a guided walk with headlamps. Not even large, nocturnal lizards distracted me from my perceived, impending doom.

Miraculously, I made it back to the lodge without dying and called my sister from the spotty Wi-Fi zone to research heart attack symptoms online. This only increased my anxiety before bedtime. My heart raced to the point that I thought I would die in the jungle with my last words spoken to Lauren and a gang of lemurs.

“Laur, I seriously think I’m going to have a heart attack,” I declared back in our room through mosquito bed netting. My claim started rising in panic as I realized my insurance did not cover medical evacuation.

Half awake, Lauren tried to reassure me: “Ang, it’s probably anxiety and fatigue. Try to get some sleep.”

While my symptoms made no sense physiologically, sleep I could not as I feared I would never wake up again. Bleary-eyed, I counted the minutes until the sun rose. As early as possible, our driver took us back to Antananarivo – a half day affair given the bumpy backroads we had to take to link to one of the few paved highways in the country. En route, my symptoms worsened, with a vice-like grip clenching on my left arm that extended into my chest and chin. We kept our eyes peeled for a health clinic.

Finding none, we went to a supermarket to buy food for an orphanage with which our driver’s wife was involved and delivered it. Meeting the orphanage staff and adorable children temporarily masked my pain and paranoia. Meanwhile, our driver told the staff about my dire circumstances and asked where I could get help.

“She’s helping our children, so we are going to help her,” the orphanage director exclaimed. “There is a clinic within walking distance. We will take her.”

Suddenly, I was escorted by this kind lady and a male staff member to their village clinic. I checked in and sat for 30 minutes that seemed like 30 hours to see the head doctor. The orphanage staff calmed me in the waiting room, temporarily turning my heart-attacking moment into a heart-warming one. I dubbed my new friends in French “mes anges” (my angels).

Finally, I was called to see the doctor. While his office was humble, he seemed astute and determined that my heart was racing with a slight arrhythmia. He immediately ordered an EKG and prescribed liquid B vitamins and magnesium to quell my anxiety. Ironically, the EKG cost less ($8) than the vitamins ($20)!

How was this EKG so inexpensive? It was done with 1950s equipment. But it was good enough to do the job. Lauren escorted me to the examination room where a trained-on-the-job technician asked me to get topless to attach electrodes. I lay there on the table strapped up like a car battery thinking how laughable it would be if this was how my life ended. Lauren couldn’t help but snicker at the scene, assuming I would survive.

A rudimentary paper spit out of the ancient machine depicting my heartbeats. Thank goodness, the technician was not alarmed when he looked at it. He calmly took me back to the doctor.

“You’re going to be okay,” the doctor said sweetly in French after scrutinizing my scrappy EKG. “You should go to your doctor at home for more tests upon return, but you will not die in Madagascar. Try to enjoy the rest of your trip.”

I sighed with massive relief. While still symptomatic the remaining days in Madagascar, at least I was able to take in Nosy Be and other islands without a feeling of impending doom. I literally leapt for joy.

After that, nothing phased me: neon lizards, a fusa (not nearly as big in real life as DreamWorks), crocodiles, chameleons, funky insects, poisonous frogs, lemurs jumping on my shoulders and putting banana in my hair … wildlife is always amazing but particularly when you are thankful for your own life!

Ultimately, the most impressive living beings I encountered in Madagascar were “mes anges” who saved my life, at least my psychological well-being, in a far away land. Human kindness exists around the world and sometimes the direst of circumstances are changed by it.

Note this rugged and wild developing country is not for the faint-hearted (or trouble-hearted) – and I would not recommend a honeymoon there – but it is for the warm-hearted and wildly adventurous. “All hail mes anges!” and long live the kind people and biodiversity of Madagascar.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).