Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Back To Tana

Saturday morning around 10 am we were gassed up (@ $5 a gallon) and heading north again. Most tourists fly back to Tana. But I was paying for Hasina's time and his gas already, and anyway I always prefer to see the scenery go by.

Go by it did. Slowly upward past the decrepit little shacks and settlements until we reached the haut plateau. Then through the sapphire towns and back to the Isalo National Park, where we had lunch at the only decent restaurant for anywhere in every direction. As night was falling we were still about an hour away from our destination of Ambalao, the scene of the zebu market three days earlier. Then the oil light came on.

Let's just say that when I know more about cars than some other guy, it's a pretty pathetic situation. But Hasina had already demonstrated a lack of automotive knowledge that was very disturbing for someone with a car in a third world country. In the gathering gloam he pulled out the dipstick. Nothing on it. When he undid the oil cap the level of gunkly sludge that he exposed made me almost gasp in astonishment. How did the engine get us even this far?

The tropics don't do twilight. Within a few minutes it was pitch dark. Some locals who had ambled over told Hasina that there was a small town about 10 km further along. I convinced him that if the light had just come on he probably had enough oil left to go 10 km. Besides, what were his other options. Off we went.

When we got to the remnants of a town he talked to a lady at a little food stall, who called her husband on his cell phone, who came over and assured Hasina that he had some oil. It took him about 20 minutes to produce it, and then about 10 more to pour it into the car.

In the meantime Maureen and I were able to gaze at the night sky. Finally, no moon. So that even with the occasional cloud passing over, it was the clearest so far on the trip. As a very occasional astronomy geek, I had been aware that the southern hemisphere had all the brightest stars. Now I could experience that. It also has by far the brightest part of the Milky Way backing up those brightest stars. Way cool. Especially because the Southern Cross was smack dab in the middle of it all.

When we finally made it to Ambalao we were glad that the hotel still had plenty of rooms. We were also glad that we had hit upon the idea of ordering some grated cheese to put upon the otherwise tasteless spaghetti and/or noodles which is served everywhere. It was also so cool outside that for once Maureen didn't have to hyperventilate over mosquitos.

Sunday morning was Easter. So when we got to Fiana, Hasina's home town, I had him take us to the 10 am Mass. Reflecting the national character, all the hymns were happy. People held hands. I reflected upon the fact that the main reason most people go to church every Sunday was for a small chance at personal and communal purity. Why are people who are so against organized religion so offended by the hope of purity?

Business in Madagascar shuts up pretty tight on Sundays. We were lucky to find a little pastry shop right before it closed. Then we were up the road for a couple of hours, where we stopped for a small picnic of bread and little triangles of processed cheese. Around 4 we made it to Ambasatavo, the woodworking town where we had stopped on Monday night. This time the nice hotel in town had one room available for us.

The reason that space was tight was that tomorrow was the day of the big zebu fights. Hasina had noticed that they were being held here on the way down south, and he was eager to have us see them. He was also eager to see them himself.

He had told us to be ready at 9 am for a chance at some good seats. But when we got to the arena entrance, it turned out that they didn't open until after 10. When we came back and entered at 10:20 there were still many, many seats in the amphitheater. Just not that many in the small sliver of shaded area. We went over and snagged some pretty good seats.

In front of us was a circular paddock about 30 feet in diameter. After about 30 minutes they opened a gate and two very confused zebu came out and stood in the hot sun. And that was about it for the longest time as the stands filled.

To the right of us a band went through endless sound checks on a stage. Hasina explained that they were the 4th best band in Madagascar. When pressed on the specificity, he said that there was a complicated point system based on crowd popularity, airplay, etc., etc. Last year they had been the 2nd best band. His band, by the way, of which he is the manager, was #2 this year. But had been #1 last year.

At 12:20, after much impatient whistling from the crowd, the master of ceremonies came out and introduced all of this year's zebu fighters. There were about 25 of them, each in a numbered sackcloth tunic. Then they all trooped off the stage and over to the paddock, where they climbed to the highest rung and waited.

Now the band started up. Pretty tight, actually. Good harmonies from the three singers, good drumming and a very loud, throbbing bass. Malagasy acoustic music is very plinky and Appalachian sounding. But their 'rock' is very Latin/African. And repetitive. Finally, as the pulse got really pulsing, out came the trio of Lemur Gold Dancers, who frugged away with energetic African step dancing.

The zebu were now extremely confused.

Back at the paddock one of the zebu fighters stepped into the ring, away from the zebus, and quickly walked across. Then another did in a different direction. It quickly got more and more intense until all 25 of them were in the ring, dancing right in front of the zebus, running in 25 different directions. Said zebus did a few futile lunges. Then at some point one of the fighters grabbed on to one of the zebu's hump and held on for dear life. If the fighter was successful, after about 15 seconds the zebu gave up and stopped trying to buck him off. At this point the other paddock door was opened and the zebu was let out.

Meanwhile the band kept throbbing, the singers kept singing, and the dancers kept swaying and high stepping in unison. After 5 minutes or so another zebu was let in and the whole zebu fighting process was repeated. And so forth and so on. So far as I could tell, no zebus were harmed in the process.

Although most of them were probably eaten shortly thereafter.

After about an hour or so of this Maureen started getting nervous about getting back to Tana that night. Especially since now we knew that Easter Monday was one of the biggest holidays in Madagascar. And since Hasina had told us that, what with everyone going out to the country for the weekend, the traffic tonight would be horrendous.

Before the fights had actually started, we, being honored guests, had been moved to actual front row seats. As in actual chairs. Hasina had scored even better, and was right up at the paddock looking in. With rapt wonder. When we finally got his attention, he expressed bittersweet disappointment, since the fights would go on until 6 pm. But leave we had to.

Several towns that we drove through were jam packed with joyful throngs attending the local events. When we got to the city of Antsirabe there were even carnival rides going on. We hadn't eaten all day, so we had to stop 45 minutes for pizza.

It's usually 3 hours back to Tana. About 40 minutes along we came upon the unusual sight of snow in the tropics. A freak storm had just passed through, and there were significant piles of hail or whatever all around. Still, traffic and weather were relatively normal for about the next hour.

Then the traffic stalled to a dead stop. Then the rain started coming down in cold torrents. Then Hasina's window started to fog up. But if you opened the window you got drenched. Then the traffic started up a little. Then it came to a dead stop again. Brilliant lightning flashes split the sky. And it continued to pour.

Hasina's band was playing in Tana tonight, and we had been hoping to be able to see it. But it took at least three hours to cover the last hour. When we reached the Chalet des Roses Hotel it was 9:40 and still raining profusely. Happily, they had reserved one of their best rooms for us. One with a high tech shower and an actual French bathtub.

We settled up with Hasina and settled in for a very comfortable last night in Madagascar.


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