Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day One

We woke up and looked out our window at the street around us. The guidebooks had consistently said that Antananrivo (Tana for short) was congested, smoggy and dirty. It looked not a bit like that. The books also said that the houses and buildings were colorful and unique. They weren't that, either. Finally, the city was supposed to be crazily hilly. I've been in far steeper places.

Once we were able to switch our room to one a little less toxic, we went out for a late morning walk. I immediately noticed that the city was also a lot smaller than advertised. Places that were made to seem on the other side of town were actually a couple of blocks apart.

And where were the beggars and touts who were supposed to be constantly hectoring us? A few showed up, but they were also way too polite and gave up way too easily. The first impression was that almost all the Malagasy were really shy and friendly people. Not great for economic development a la New York City, but way pleasanter to be around.

We always need to compare things. The closest I could come right off the bat was that Madagascar was sort of like a really laid back Indonesia. In case you don't know, the Malagasy did not come from Africa, as you might expect, but from, indeed, Indonesia.

My Tajikistan friend Eric's parents were Indian, but were born in Madagascar. So when we found the Shalimar restaurant we were expecting real Indian food. But only about 10% of the menu was even quasi-Indian. Half decent, nonetheless.

Then we took a taxi to the highest point in town, the Rova, which was the home of all the 19th Century queens who ran central Madagascar. (They were kind of nuts, though, so the French marched in around 1885 and took over the place.) The grounds were closed and the building, not all that amazing to begin with, was just a husk of its former self, since it had burned down in 1995. Being on the top of everything, we did get some good views over the city and the close-in countryside. The geography was not quite like anywhere else: Rice paddies, reddish brown houses, light green rolling hills, reddish brown soil. At least today the sky had a clear luminescent, almost mystical quality like some of the skies in South Africa.

We walked back downhill into Haut-Ville, the older, higher part of Tana. Then down some stairs to Basse-Ville, the newer, crappier area of town. We cruised the open air market, where tiny stalls sold tiny bras, tiny shoes, avocados and tomatoes, and seemingly drugged chickens and ducks calmly waiting to be purchased and eaten.

Then along the wide Avenue de l'Independence. I was kind of expecting to find some modern buildings and economic activity here, but uh uh. Viantianne, Laos, had always been at the top of my list of sleepy, nothing happening capitals. But at least they have a phony Arc de Triumphe there. Here in Tana all there was was a presidential palace at the end of a very long block. And as I've already intimated, nobody is quite sure who the president is these days, so it's better for everyone to stay away from there.

Back to our hotel, which was beginning to look like the classiest place in town. Then dinner in their classy little restaurant. Then to sleep in our large, classy bed.

Thursday morning our guide and driver for the rest of the trip, Hasina, showed up, being a little tired from having just driven up the length of the island for the past two days. He showed me his air conditioned Audi, which will be our home for the next two weeks. We finalized the price: $50 a day for him and his car, plus gas, which is about $6 a gallon. We already know from our research that he is the best in the country, and knows everyone and everywhere. His English is much better than advertised, and he seems really friendly.

So at three this afternoon we're heading down to lemurland. Internet may or may not be happening in the rest of the country. Hopefully it is.


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