Monday, 29 September 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 3: Tana

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

As I mentioned, I wanted an extra day on arrival because every now and then I get violently motion-sick (by which I don't mean that I throw up and live happily ever after; violently sick to the degree that knocks me out for days). But fortunately this didn't happen, and in the morning we were ready to explore, although our guidebook helpfully suggested that there wasn't much to see or do.

When we first made our plans, Anton said that one of his former classmates from San Diego lived in Antananarivo. What were the chances? But Anton's former classmates from San Diego seem to be spread all over the world. It turned out that Nick was stationed in Madagascar with Peace Corps, and he gave us the best imaginable introduction to Tana. Without him, I wouldn't have ventured out at all or turned back after two blocks. Although – and here I cannot say that it wasn't worse than Russia, because it was much, much better than Russia; it wasn't worse than Morocco or other Southern places I'd been to: hot, crammed, crowded, buzzing. An exciting city to walk around, with someone who knows it.

Tana has a population of two million, and not one single traffic light! But it wasn't worse than some East European cities with traffic lights, and there seemed to be no traffic accidents. It seemed to work just fine, for cars as well as for pedestrians. I guess when you have learned the rules it's not a problem.

Lots of street vendors to whom Nick spoke friendly, but firmly in Malagasy. He claimed that he had learned very little Malagasy during his three years, but he seemed quite conversant. We went to several markets, food markets and craft markets, which reminded me again of other places, most of all Old Town in Jerusalem. Everybody knew Nick and greeted him cheerfully in Malagasy and French: “Nicolas!” There were some nice things, carved wood, raw silk scarves that I might be prepared to buy, but I didn't know what was to come yet, and without Nick I wouldn't have known what the reasonable price was. So when I found a pretty set of dollhouse-size table and chairs, he bargained at length, which I would have done myself if I were good at maths to convert money into a familiar currency. Moreover, Nick pointed out that the set I initially fancied was rosewood, illegal to sell and export, which I didn't know – one of many, many things I hadn't known and learned during the trip.

Then we walked up a very long, steep street with pretty colonial architecture, in a area I definitely would not have entered on my own; and I was very proud of myself that I was so fit that I kept pace with the young men. The street brought us high up on a slope, with a grand view of the city; then we went down a thousand steps.

Nick had a Swedish friend who worked for an NGO and hadn't spoken Swedish for three months, so she was eager to meet us, and we had lunch at Cafe de la Gare, railway station now turned into a miniature shopping mall. Both talked enthusiastically about Madagascar and Tana and other places they had visited. I had a zebu steak, which felt wonderfully exotic, not knowing that it would be staple for the next ten days.

Among many other things, Nick told us about a friend from Peace Corps who went into a small, remote and very poor village, looked around, taught the people to make goat cheese, and the village is now thriving, selling their famous cheese all over the country. I hope it is a true story, because I like it, and it means that the utter poverty we would soon see can be overcome.

It was otherwise unclear, and still is, how the people are who sell things in a market can support themselves. During the whole day we saw no other white people. Selling souvenirs to almost non-existing tourists cannot be profitable. Or can it? This became all the more evident later. The pocket change I paid for the wooden dining set would apparently feed a family for a week.

On the other hand, we saw lots and lots of new expensive cars. They could not all belong to the very few rich people. It is hard to understand a country unless you have been there for a while, preferably with someone knowledgeable, like Nick. His introduction to Tana was the best that could happen to us on that first day, because, as I say, I would probably not have ventured beyond the main street.

By three we felt we have done enough and went back to the hotel, full of expectations. In the evening, we met our guide, Mami, and our travel companions, including Mike whose luggage hadn't turned up; Mark, from Washington DC, whose luggage had been lost and found; Joan, from Los Angeles, whose luggage got irretrievably lost; Lynn and Cathy from Australia, who had just met. All experienced travellers, sharing memories of Galapagos and Arctic, Borneo and Chile. We seemed all to be on the same wavelength.

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