Saturday, June 4, 2011

Misadventures in Madagascar – Part I

In which the two traveling sisters discover they still have a lot to learn.

The plane door opened onto a black, humid night and a smoky, vegetative smell I couldn’t identify. Our flight to Madagascar had landed on Nosy Bé, a small resort island off the northwestern coast of the country. Some passengers were headed for the Nosy Bé beaches. The rest of us would go through customs here and then continue on to the capital, Antananarivo.

Inside the little terminal were rafts of officials with rubber stamps. Then we were motioned through an x-ray machine that wasn’t on and into a hot waiting room with wooden-shuttered windows and rows of blue plastic chairs bolted to the floor. In the ladies room, the toilet paper was blue and the toilet didn’t flush.

As we sat in the waiting room, a bulky white man, white-haired and bearded, approached us, smiling.

“I thought you were getting off here,” he said.

“No, we’re going to Antananarivo,” we said. People call it Tana, but having finally learned how to pronounce it, I said the whole thing.

“First time in Madagascar?”


“You’ll love it.”

“Yes, I think we will. And you?”

“Oh, I live here. Been here 17 years.” He was traveling on business and was headed back to see his family, he said. “I’d like to retire, but they want me to keep working. Don’t want me around, I guess.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said.

“Are you with a tour group?”


“Making your own arrangements?”


“Save a lot of money that way. A lot of money.” Pause. “Are you planning to go down the river?” Pirogue trips down the Tsiribihina River are a big thing here.

“Maybe. We aren’t sure yet.”

“You’d enjoy it. And you’ll enjoy Tana. It’s very poor—don’t be surprised. And don’t feel bad. Because of the color of your skin, people will ask you for things.”

“Mmmm.” Changing the subject, I asked what we should pay for a taxi from Tana’s airport into town. We hoped our hotel would send a driver, but it’s always good to have a back-up plan. We knew we’d have to haggle, and we’d heard wildly varying rates.

“40,000 to 50,000 ariaries,” he said. “That’s if you take the yellow taxis, the Deux Chevaux or the Renault 4s. The white taxis are much more expensive.” Pause. “What hotel are you booked into?”

“Oh,” I said with a smile, “we make it a practice not to say. I don’t mean to be unfriendly.”

But without another word, he stalked off.  

“What do you suppose was up with that?” I asked Rie. I thought he might be a tour operator hoping to sell us a river trip.

“Who knows?” she said.

Whatever he was up to, we evaded one scrape and went straight into the next. At least I did. When it was time to board the plane again, I looked up at the Air Madagascar logo on the tail—a stylized traveler’s palm, very pretty—and without really thinking about it snapped a picture.  

An official immediately loomed before me, tall and stern, in a white, short-sleeved uniform.

“No photos!”

“I’m sorry!” I said, picturing being taken back into the terminal by the ear. “I won’t do it again!”

The guard smiled then and that was it. No confiscation of my camera, no troublesome interrogation. Whew.

“We just got here,” Rie said quietly, grinning. “Don’t get us arrested.” We got back on the plane for the last leg.

Antananarivo is a city of several million, but aside from a few pinpricks of light, it was all but totally dark from the air. On the tarmac, several trucks shone their headlights so passengers could make their way to the terminal. At baggage claim, where the one clunking belt looked like it dated from the 70s, a huge iridescent insect with whirring wings flew around, bumping into the rails of people’s baggage carts.

We got our bags, squared our shoulders, and headed for the arrivals hall, where we expected a horde of taxi drivers to clamor for our business. There were only a few, but one round-faced guy latched onto us right away.

“Taxi? Taxi? Speak English? Hotel?”

“Non, merci.”

What we wanted was a phone to call the hotel and see about our ride. In the best of all possible worlds, we would have made certain in advance that they’d send a driver, but we’d finalized our Madagascar plans in a bit of a hurry and hadn’t gotten to confirm that detail.

We scanned the little room. Nothing. Not just no phone—nothing. No little shops, no restaurant, no information booth, no ATM. No sign for ground transportation. There was a guy sitting in a little window changing money, but that was it. It started to look like we might be at the mercy of the round-faced driver who had accosted us. He knew it too.

“Taxi?” he said again, smiling hopefully, holding out a card and pointing to a figure. “40,000 pour centre ville.”

“Non, merci.” The price was right, but the more persistent he was, the more wary we felt. And now he had a friend with him and the two of them were grinning away at us. By then we had found the lone payphone just outside the arrivals hall, but it only took phone cards and there was nowhere to buy one.

Naturally, Round Face had followed us. He held out his cell phone. “Call hotel. Free!”

“Non, merci,” we said again, a little more emphatically. We retreated to the ladies room to regroup. We hadn’t seen any sign of a taxi stand, but the guidebook said there was one. Maybe it would have one of those put-you-in-a-cab guys that airports often have and he could fend off our pursuer. We went out to look further, Round Face and his friend close behind.

“30,000,” he said when he saw we’d located the stand. We ignored him. The stand wasn’t far, but there were only white taxis, which River Trip Guy had said were really expensive. And the parking lot was too dark for us to go exploring for yellow cabs. Shoot.

But just past the taxi line, we discovered, there was another doorway into the terminal, and in there, a slightly more familiar airport scene—shops, a restaurant, people milling about.
“Est-ce qu’il y a un téléphon près d’ici?”
I asked a woman with an ID card strung around her neck. And asked again, when my shaky French didn’t get the message across. Is there a phone nearby?

But no, there wasn’t, only the one we’d seen outside the other door.

Is there somewhere we could buy a phone card?

Unfortunately no, because the shop that sells them is closed.

Round Face saw his moment and tried again. It may have been paranoia, it may have been instinct, but something kept telling me “Don’t ride with this guy.” And I could see from Rie’s expression that she felt the same.

“Non!” I said, looking him straight in the face this time. “Laissez-nous tranquille!”  Not sure those were the words I was after, but surely he’d get the point.

He didn’t.

The woman with the ID card, who had spoken only French till now, suddenly looked sympathetic and said in English, “Maybe you want to try the information booth.” She indicated where it was.

“Maybe we do,” I said, smiling. “Thank you.”

The woman at the booth said unfortunately she couldn’t let us use her phone. But, she said, there was an airport shuttle that would take us to our hotel for 10,000 ariaries each. She called the shuttle driver and he walked us out to the van.

Apparently we were the only passengers, and he had several chuckling conversations with friends in the dark parking lot. Then another man joined him, grinning at us, and our tattered danger antennae went up again. But this time instinct said all would be well, and it was.

After one last transaction, that is.

A young guy standing by the van wanted to load our bags for us, the bags we’ve carried through six or seven countries now and could probably haul another six feet.

“Je l’ai,” I said and put mine on the luggage rack in the van. But he got one of Rie’s, went up the van steps and put it on the baggage rack. Then he stood just outside the door, smiling.

We had no change and no small bills.

“Gracias,” I said. “Pero . . .” Oops, wrong language.

“Just a little something?” he said in French. Still grinning, he held out his hand in case we hadn’t understood.

It was late, we were tired, it had taken so much effort to get ourselves into a conveyance for a rate we could afford in a currency we weren’t used to. French just wasn’t surfacing for either of us. We smiled and shrugged sheepishly. We should have gotten some small change at the exchange window. But what could we do now?

He held out some rolled-up small bills. “Comme ça.”

“Si, si, si—I mean oui. Mais. . . .”

Neither Rie nor I could remember how to say “I’m sorry?” Finally she dug out some South African change. “OK?”

He smiled, thanked her and went away. Then he came back, holding out the rands.

“Ne marche pas,” he said, smiling again. They don’t work.

Finally the driver spoke to him and he handed back the rands and gave up.
And with the driver and the other man up front, we were off. There were no streetlights along the narrow road, and the people walking in and alongside it popped out of the darkness when the van’s headlights hit them.

“Reminds me of the Huancas road,” I said to Rie. But there were many more people on this road, and it was lined with low buildings built cheek-by-jowl from a jumble of materials—wood, concrete, corrugated metal, old billboards. We were both a little nervous, but we were excited too, each in our own way.

“I just saw a traveler’s palm!” Rie said, looking happy. Me, I was energized by all the people on the street and the newness of our surroundings. It’s been a while since we’ve been somewhere so very different from home.

We drove through a more crowded section, with dark sidewalks full of people sitting on folding chairs near small, smoking grills. Others were milling about, smoking and talking. I could see small speakers set up but I couldn’t hear the music from inside the van. Saturday night in Tana.

Two officers with a flashlight manned a police checkpoint, but they waved us on. The streets were rough and many of the oncoming cars used only their parking lights. Some didn’t have headlights on at all. After about half an hour, I saw a big square building up on a hill, lit up with orange lights.

“I think that’s the Rove,” I said to Rie. “Sort of a palace.” I’d read that it was within walking distance of the city center, so the sight was reassuring. There were some streetlights now too, though they were widely spaced and dim. And the streets were now cobbled. Good—that meant we were in the colonial part of the city, where our hotel was.

We passed a floodlit train station, a grand building, and more guidebook reading kicked in. “I think that was designed by . . .”

“Eiffel,” Rie finished.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was about to say ‘designed by the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower.’ I guess I’m pretty tired.”

But we were almost there. A fountain lit by colored lights, more cobbled streets, busy with people. Then out of the van and into a lobby with panels of elaborately carved dark wood, an orchid on the reception desk, tiny candles all around. A smiling desk clerk, a room key, a porter who took us down a maze of narrow hallways lined with artifacts we were too tired to take in. An outdoor passageway with a stone floor, a brick wall with hanging vines, a dark courtyard full of drooping tropical shrubbery and . . . our room! I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to arrive somewhere.

The next morning, we fortified ourselves from a wooden breakfast tray of coffee and croissants, with a malaria pill for dessert. Everything seemed manageable. We were here! We were in Madagascar! Getting into the city had been a bit of a challenge, true, but now we were ready for anything.

Or so we thought at the time.

[To be continued.]


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