We landed in Antananarivo (often shortened to Tana), the capital of Madagascar. This is a city of about 1.5 million people, but it is not very developed. We are now going to stay here long, especially as it can be a tad dangerous, but we’re interested to see it for at least a day.
We walked down the steps and across the hot tarmac- it was in the 90’s but it was not totally unbearable. Before going in, we quickly donned our face masks. No one else had them on, but we inspired a trend as many Europeans followed suit. Someone (who apparently lived there and spoke English) came by and told one of them that the plague was hours away and contained, so we didn’t need the masks, but no one took them off. Really, once you are prepared and have something in your mind like that, anything but seems foolish. Why risk it?
The first booth we stopped at was to buy our visas. Before we left, we had tried to exchange our money for Malagasy Ariary, but no one carried it. We also didn’t bring much in US dollars because we didn’t think we’d have a need for it. We became a bit worried as everyone seemed to be paying in currency other than US- would they take it? We had exchanged some South African rand, so we hoped that would work if not.
The people working at the desk were in plain clothes- a tshirt and pants- and young. There was a guy who couldn’t have been more than 18 and one girl was playing on her phone, as though Facebook was her job, not guarding the country. It was a little alarming, though I guess a lot less alarming than someone in machine guns- although that would have been much more expected! Thankfully they took US dollars so we handed over $60 total for both of us.
The next station is where where the police/ immigration agents in uniforms TAKE your passport from you and put them in a big pile. This seems very wrong- especially when you then have to move over to a waiting area and just watch them go through the stacks, relatively haphazardly. Eventually, they call out names and hand your passports back, but it was really unnerving. It seemed to be less for real security than for just the sake of saying they looked at your passport, but whatever- we were just glad when our passports were back in hand! We were sweating it a bit (both literally and figuratively) until then. While we were waiting for our passports, shockingly, both of our bags came off the conveyor! Now we could really breathe a sigh of relief: we would not starve- nor be wearing the same outfit for 5 weeks!
We left the customs are and entered the main part of the airport, which seemed a lot like a building you’d see in Hawaii. There were large wood timbers and it seemed very “South Pacific”. We exited the terminal and there were a ton of people milling about- many of them rushing up and asking if you need a taxi.
One man seemed to be blocking the door and had his hand out as though I needed to show him something. I thought we needed to present some documents and that he’d said “vaccines”? So I showed him my yellow fever card and he just looked at it quizzically, then me and handed it back and shook his head. I realized then he had asked me if we needed a taxi- not to show him our vaccines!
Thankfully, we saw our guide holding the sign with our names. He introduced himself as Armand as he offered to help with our bags. I was instantly surprised that most of the people seemed South Pacific (or even South American) in origin than African. Armand was very friendly and spoke English quite well, though Lima did not know much English. Thankfully Armand asked if we had exchanged our money for Ariary yet before leaving- and since we hadn’t, we went back in to do it.
This was another painful line- although more so a real line- where the lady in front of us must have had thousands of dollars of a few different type of currency to exchange and it took forever. The room was quite small and it was getting HOT- and again, rather than the 2 people with two computers each work on different customers, they decided to stop helping whoever they were to help each other on the same computer. And when I say computer, I mean calculator. This was old school paper and calculator tabulation! However, finally it was our turn.
We really didn’t plan it out well, because normally we don’t have cash and neither of us really thought while getting the foreign currencies, we should have also had a stash of US. Between us both, somehow we had $300 USD to convert, which was actually a shockingly large amount for us to have on hand. Even more surprising, this comically turned into 900,000 Ariary- we were almost millionaires!
After this we were ushered outside to our van where our driver, Lima, was introduced. I of course thought Armand said “lemur” was his name, so I had to ask to be sure. Turned out I just had lemurs on the brain! Lima didn’t speak much English but waited anyway, as Armand went to the nearby gas station to get some cold bottled water for us- a much needed refreshment.
As we had been walking to the car, a young boy, about 10, started following us and after we’d gotten in just stood nearby asking for money. We didn’t give him any because we were still a bit shell shocked and we didn’t even know what the money was worth…we could have given him as little as 10 cents or as much as $200 and we’d not have known the difference. Through gestures we determined he wanted to eat, and we shook our heads- but we didn’t think about our food supply until after he’d left. Hopefully he found a meal that day…we felt really bad, but this was surely just the beginning of these types of interactions and we’d be more prepared next time.
Finally, we’re ready to leave the airport and it very quickly becomes clear why foreigners are not allowed to rent cars and drive in Madagascar. Imagine you’re backing out of a space and someone coming towards you, doesn’t stop at all and drives around your still moving car- and then another person takes the opportunity to get by you from the other direction (basically going through the parking spaces)…and then once you finally start moving forward, people are literally resting their bumpers on yours and everyone is honking. It’s like trying to leave a concert late at night when no one is directing traffic and it’s a free for all…it was crazy and I was really glad we were not driving- especially for Bryan. He is so courteous even when he needs to just gun it and get in, we’d not have made it very far! Not like I’d be much better because I probably would have been so worried about the car and how close everyone was- literally a breath away…it was just a huge relief that this one thing we thought seemed kind of annoying- not having our freedom to control our trip and drive ourselves- was actually liberating. We didn’t have to worry about anything, we just got to watch the excitement in awe.
We get on the road for the approximate 15 minute drive to our hotel. This was definitely not the first world anymore. Most of the places we have been could be somewhere in the US- maybe a desolate Texas town, but still US-like…but definitely not here.
There are people walking and biking, carrying large amounts on the back. There are 3 lanes and everyone drives with the dotted line down the middle of the car, spanning the middle lane- so frequently you have a car coming at you straight on. And they go fast- there is no slowing down to pass bikes or people, or stopped buses- it’s pedal to the metal the entire time. Whizzing by pedestrians and bicyclists was definitely unnerving and not something we’d ever get used to.
The area we’re driving through is pretty run down; clay brick and falling down buildings. We see a couple really nice, put together houses. Armand tells us this is the “rich area” of the city, which is a huge surprise as they are nice enough but pretty modest…and while there were a few, most houses did not seem rich area nice by any means. This disparity is part of why we were told not to leave our hotel compound to walk around, especially after dark. I am sure we would have been fine, but 1. we didn’t need to expose ourselves to the population and get sick and 2. we would not have known what to look for or go to anyway. It’s not like there are normal restaurants and grocery stores…
Our hotel has a large metal gate and a guard- and it is one of the nicer hotels in Antananarivo. But it is not nice the way you think of swanky in the States at all. Mostly, it hardly seemed like a hotel- it seemed more like a motel and a condo complex combined…and it was a compound, not just “the grounds”. The people at reception are very nice and we get a “welcome” drink- which seems to be a tradition in Madagascar. We hesitated for a minute, wondering if the juice had water in it (like from concentrate) but we were thirsty and it looked enticing- and was indeed, quite tasty. I think it was guava, or something along those lines. Armand helped arrange for our key and for the porters to bring our bags.
On the walk over to the room, we quietly asked Armand what an appropriate tip would be for the porters. He suggested 5,000 Ariary or perhaps 10,000- which was actually the smallest bill we had. At the time we still really had no idea what that was actually coming out to in US dollars, but the guys seemed thrilled as we appeared to be big tippers…but when we realized later that 10,000 is about $3, we felt cheap actually since they had to split that between the two of them.
The inside of the room was boutique style and modern- which actually must have been quite a feat, as there are no Home Depots here. Not even a McDonald’s I don’t think; certainly no Starbucks! I don’t think I could conceive of there being a place where there really just isn’t one of these staple establishments…not that I care either, but really, where have you been where there ISN’T there one of those either?
Armand said he’d be back to get us in the morning- about 530- so we could make our flight to the south to see the ring tails! We are pretty tired now and I had to lay down for a nap before dinner in an hour…but there is no clock. We had this problem in Australia where we thought we could use our phones as the clock (or the car’s clock), but when you have no idea what time it is to start, it’s a problem…and when you’re worried you will rack up thousands in roaming fees, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have the phone on at all, even to check the time. On the second day in NZ, we found a grocery store and got a little wind up clock- which I had thought about bringing, but have no idea if we still have it. Considering we still have not unpacked after the year of home renovations, have NO idea where it could be, but I will make a mental note to look for it when I get back and put it with the “travel” stuff. I am a bit worried, but with the phone in airplane mode and connected to wifi (which was free here) it should be ok (and not rack up any charges), so I set the alarm so we can wake up for dinner, which we’re hoping will be good and meatless!
We walked over to the restaurant for dinner, which is 3 courses, all included- except drinks (though alcohol is cheap). This is totally a new thing for us because we don’t usually eat 3 courses, ever- but it was delicious and sans meat!
With very full bellies and minds ready to explode with excitement, we rolled back to our room and hit the hay…knowing 5am would come quite quickly!