The ships dock in the port of Toamasina (old name is Tamatave), located about one mile from the center of town. Taxis and pousse-pousse (rickshaws) pick up customers only at the port's main gate. Walking to town is not recommended. Do not carry large amounts of cash on you or wear expensive jewelry as thievery is common in this busy port town.
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Today the town of about 70,000 is home to the country's largest port. Its once-fine colonial houses lend Toamasina a somewhat shabby elegance. It is a busy place with sailors and tourists, offering a variety of bars, restaurants and hotels. Most visitors spend only a day or two in town as the attractions are really found outside in the country. While in town, visit the colorful market, where vendors display a wide array of produce, seafood and spices such as vanilla, cloves and black pepper, and locally made quality straw goods.
A get-acquainted tour by pousse-pousse (rickshaw), the common local transportation, is a fun way to explore the town and get a glimpse into the daily life and activities of its people. Be prepared to bargain with the driver when establishing the fare.
Although Toamasina has beaches, frequent shark sightings discourage swimming. A better choice is the pool at one of the hotels.
Visit the market for local color and an amazing display of produce and spices. Cloves are cultivated in large quantities and exported to India as food spices. A good selection of locally made straw articles is also available at the market. There are a few shops along Boulevard Joffre, Toamasina's main street, that are worth checking out.
The unit of money is the ariary. This unit preceded the French rule, and Malagasy franc notes had the value in ariary printed on them too (50000 francs = iray alina ariary = one million ariary). The ariary is worth about half a U.S. cent.
The remarkable thing about Madagascar is that the entire island speaks one language: Malagasy, (pronounced 'Malagash' or even 'Malgash', not as the spelling suggests) an Austronesian language. Because the island is so large there are many different dialects. The Merina dialect is the "Official Malagasy" of the island and is spoken around highlands of Antananarivo. Most Madagascans, however, speak Merina across the island.
French is the second official language of Madagascar. The government and large corporations use French in everyday business, but 75-85% of Malagasies only have limited proficiency in this language. Madagascans assume that all foreigners are French speakers and therefore can speak several different phrases. Attempts by foreigners to learn and speak Malagasy are liked and even encouraged by the Malagasy people.
The third offical language is English, though very few people speak English. It became an offical language in 2007.
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