Monday, June 6, 2011

Misadventures in Madagascar – Part II

In which the sisters learn they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

All we had to do was get some cash and change hotels. Aside from those chores, we thought, we’d have a pleasant, relaxing Sunday strolling around Antananarivo.  

Things didn’t turn out that way at all. But before I get into what happened, a quick aside to our mother: Don’t worry, Mom. Everything  turned out just fine in the end.

We left our bags at our first hotel—charming but unfortunately full that night—and walked a few blocks to the long rectangular plaza in the middle of town. Immediately we were set upon by young men selling drums and some kind of stringed instrument, kids selling postcards and vanilla beans, women with blanket-wrapped babies clamoring for change. On every side, poverty and desperation and cries of “Madame! Madame!”  

We didn’t want to buy anything, and we knew giving handouts doesn’t do any good. So we tried saying, “Non, merci.” We tried just ignoring the clamor and walking on. But people were persistent, and they were everywhere. As soon as we passed one group, another would approach. The area looked well worth a stroll—Eiffel’s train station at one end, a fountain in the middle, arched breezeways fronting the two- or three-story buildings along both long sides. There were balloons and ice cream carts, and the place had a festive air. But we couldn’t take all the attention, so we hid in a restaurant to drink sodas and map out our hotel search.

Then off we went up a long cobblestoned hill, back down it again because I’d gotten the directions wrong, and back up it again.
Many of the people in this part of town were in Sunday morning finery. There were girls in shiny, poufy dresses with serious lace, vendors with stalls of fruit and samosas, guys lounging near old Renaults asking if we needed a taxi, more young children with their hands out.

“Madame! Madame!”

The first hotel was only semi-dismal, the next marginally better. To see one that had sounded promising online, we had to take a taxi, and that meant bartering with one of the guys with the Renaults.

“Sept mille,” a young driver told us. Seven thousand.

“Quatre,” I countered. Four.

We settled on cinq (five), but—just to be sure—he said as we got in, “Cinq mille.” Five thousand, not five.

“Si,” I said, laughing. “I mean oui. Cinq mille.”

He drove us through streets jammed with people, past all kinds of stuff set out for sale on the sidewalks—luggage, purses, food, stacks of jeans, piles of sneakers. Later in the day we passed somebody’s laundry, including cloth sanitary pads, spread out flat on the pavement to dry.

When we got to the hotel, Rie handed him a 10,000 ariary note. He said he didn’t have change and handed it back. So I gave him a 5000 ariary bill.

“Don’t you have any . . . ?” He held up a 1000. He was forcing a substantial tip, though 5000 was already more than we should have paid. He was grinning and joking, but he wasn’t giving up. So I pulled out a 2000, took his 1000, and there we were, having paid 6000 for a ride that probably should have cost half that.

Ah well. This hotel was a haven, an old brick mansion with high ceilings, a flower-filled patio and a pleasantly ramshackle air. Our big attic room had casement windows with tall wooden shutters that opened onto wide views over the city. One mission accomplished.

Now all we needed was to find an ATM and to retrieve our bags from the first hotel. We wanted to head off to the rainforest early the next day, and the little town where we planned to stay had no bank. We walked back to the center of town, had a lunch of omelettes and frites, then decided to walk up the hill toward the palace before taking care of business.

More people selling, more people begging. One man followed us, holding his hat out upside down, asking for money.

“Madame! Madame!”

I was ignoring him until he suddenly turned the hat sideways and put it over my purse, which was strapped across my chest. Suddenly, begging was about to turn to purse-snatching. I had been walking with one hand around my purse strap and I clutched it tighter. Meanwhile, Rie turned to him and said “Vas!” in a threatening voice.  It did the trick and he went. Thank heavens for my big sister.

We steeled ourselves again—danger averted, after all—and climbed the long stone staircase to the upper town. More people begging, more people selling. One mother, toddler in tow, was so persistent that we stood by a security guard for a while until she gave up. We saw a beautiful red colonial structure—a government building? the president’s mansion?—and wandered over to have a look.  We heard someone whistling but we were in block-it-out mode and kept on ambling. Then the whistling grew somehow insistent and authoritative, and we realized a guard had come out of a sentry box and was yelling at us. Oops. Guess we weren’t supposed to be approaching this building.

We headed in another direction, still trying to get closer to the palace, though it was clear by then that it was further away than we thought. We came to an arbor looking out at the city’s hills, the square palace perched above us, lots of greenery all around. There were tree-sized poinsettias and some enormous yellow flowers.

But the beggars and touts were growing increasingly wearing, and it was hard to relax enough to enjoy the view. We decided we didn’t have enough energy for more sightseeing, not with the level of vigilance it seemed to require here. So we walked down the hill on another stone staircase. Maybe everything was just fine, maybe we’d be all right if we stayed alert, but without knowing our way around, without being familiar yet with local ways, we just weren’t sure how nervous we should be.

Especially when it came to withdrawing cash from an ATM. Since it was Sunday, the banks were closed, and though we’d seen quite a number of cash machines, they were all directly on the street. We saw one with a guard, but when we looked more closely we realized he was asleep.

At another one, the guard was awake and alert but nearby a man was leaning on a car, apparently just hanging out at the ATM. I realized later he may have been guarding the car, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. Speaking to each other in low voices, we agreed that even if we found a machine with an alert guard and no hangers-on, anybody passing by could watch us withdraw money and then follow us.

I’d read that the Antananarivo Hilton had an ATM inside its lobby. “Why don’t we get a taxi and go there?” I suggested. “We’ll go in, get our money and then get another cab. We’ll get our bags and go on to the new hotel.” It would mean a few cab fares, but it seemed the safer route.

Rie agreed, and seeing a yellow Renault right there, I went up to the driver’s window.

“Bonjour!” I said. I showed him the address for the Hilton and asked if he knew it.


Then we went through the fare haggling:

“C’est combien?”

“Sept mille.”

“Sept mille! C’est trop cher. Trois mille.” 

“Non.  Quatre mille.”

“Non, merci.” And we started to walk away.

“OK. Trois mille.”

It felt like a small victory until we got into the car. (Note to selves: always take a good look at the vehicle before you approach the driver!) The back door on the side we were on didn’t open and we had to go around.  Inside, the black seat was lumpy and battered, and when I leaned back I heard buckling sheet metal. There was no interior to speak of—any inside panels the doors may once have had were long gone, and the thin metal that remained was so warped that the door didn’t quite close at the bottom.

And when the driver got in, he reached under the dashboard—or where the dashboard would have been if the guts of the car’s controls weren’t all spilling free up there—and put two wires together to try and start the car. He tried again and again. Meanwhile, I noticed that strapped into the leg space for the front passenger seat was a small fire extinguisher.

Soon I began to worry that we might need to use it. The driver finally got the engine going and black exhaust puffed through the passenger compartment. The smoke cleared, but the car’s frame rattled loudly as we headed up the cobbled street, and the whole car lurched as the driver jerked us through the gear changes. The streets were full of people and cars and hand carts and motorcycles, and we had a number of near misses. I wondered if we should just get out next time the car stopped.

But I calmed down as we drove along the hillside and the city’s central lake and out onto a wide avenue marked “Ho Chi Minh.” The driver asked again for the brochure with the Hilton’s address. He peered at it as he drove, looked around, then stopped the car and said with a here-we-are tone, “L’Hilton.”

We looked. Nothing remotely Hilton-like to be seen, just a wide commercial street. Meat shops, car repair, that kind of thing.

“Je ne le peut pas voir,” I said, or tried to say. I can’t see it. And the Hilton wasn’t supposed to be on Ho Chi Minh Avenue—though wouldn’t that be ironic if it was?

He kept insisting it was right there. We kept peering around fruitlessly. He took the brochure again and read aloud emphatically, “Hilton Madagascar, cinq étoiles, rue Pierre Stibbe d’Anosy.”

He read the “cinq étoiles”—five stars—as if it was part of the address. Not reassuring.

“Mais où?” Rie asked. But where?

He gestured vaguely down the street.

“We should go back where we started,” Rie said to me.

“Or to the Sakamanga,” I said. That was our first hotel, where our bags were, about two blocks from where we’d started this ride.

We asked him to take us there and he claimed to know where it was. And it seemed better to take our chances with him than to get out on Ho Chi Minh.

“Quatre milles,” he said. Four thousand more? We ignored this.

We rattled and swerved our way back. At one point, so much black smoke puffed up in front of the driver that I thought there really was going to be an engine fire.

But we got there. He did know where the Sakamanga was. And the little lever in the battered back door worked. We got out and gave him 4000, plenty for a round trip to nowhere.

“Non!” he said when he looked at the bills. It was two trips! It should be two fares!

“Non!” I said right back through the window, my exasperation overcoming my awareness that I really didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in French. (And those of you who can actually speak French may want to avert your eyes for a moment.) “Vous nous disez que vous savez où est l’Hilton. Mais vous ne le savez pas!” Probably what I actually said was even more jumbled than that, but he got what I was saying and started to protest.

“Let’s just go,” said Rie.

We did. We were still rattled and annoyed, so we sat on the pleasant little wooden bench in front of the Sakamanga for a few minutes to calm ourselves.

“We went through this in Chachapoyas,” I said, knowing Rie would know what I meant. There too we both felt anxious and fearful at first. There too we blundered around stupidly until we got our bearings.

“I know,” said Rie. “And it turned out we really didn’t need to worry there.” She paused. “And Cape Town is probably more dangerous than here, but I feel more scared here.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Why is that?”

“Part of it’s that we just got here.”

“And we don’t know the language.”

“Yeah. Being able to speak English was nice.”

“And there are more beggars here. The poverty is more in your face. People coming up to you and asking for money and not going away. That didn’t happen in Cape Town.”


We sat a bit more. We decided it really wasn’t essential to go to an ATM that day. We could go the next morning and just set out for the rainforest a little later.

We took some deep breaths, retrieved our bags and came back out on the street again, ready for one last round of vendor avoidance and taxi negotiation. And without further incident we got back to our new hotel, utterly wiped out. So much for the relaxing Sunday! We decided we’d stay put one more day, gather our energy, then get out of town and go find those lemurs. 

The next afternoon, rested enough to give it one more try, we set out again for centre-ville. We still weren’t entirely at ease. We were still unsure what was safe and what was not. But we were a little better prepared and so a little less tense.

And all went well. In the pharmacy, two staff members smiled at my primitive French and cheerfully used no fewer than four keys to open up glass cabinets and get us bug spray, a toothbrush, ibuprofen, sunscreen. True, they sold us sunscreen tinted for brown skin, but then again we should have realized what “couleur de peau” means here.

Later we managed our ATM withdrawal without incident. And at a little restaurant near the street market, we bought some food for the next day’s bus trip and fell into conversation with the two friendly men working there.

You are from the United States? one asked in French while the other went off to get change. Really? It’s so far! He paused. And the people there, they’re all very intelligent?

We laughed. It’s a big country, I said. Some people are intelligent. Others, no.

His co-worker came back with our change. You are very beautiful, he told us.

And you are very nice, I said as we left.

It was a small exchange, but it cheered me up enormously. Sometimes all you need is some benign interaction. The scene on the street seemed much more vibrant than threatening, the bustling street market fascinating. I started noticing the piles of tiny fish, the mandarin oranges stacked in piles of five, the people eating at stools at little counters, the people playing dominoes on the dusty sidewalk.

Antananarivo market. In the foreground, one of the ubiquitous Renault taxis--this one in pretty good shape.

In Cape Town and in some of the places we visited in Argentina, much of daily life was hidden away behind walls, even at times behind high locked gates. Here, everything is out in the open. Yes, there’s peeing on the street, but there’s also music. The occasional attempted purse-snatching, but also laughter and give and take and conversation. We have to be careful—and we will be careful, Mom!—but we might just be able to have a good time too.


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