Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bitter Sweet

We left the idyllic island of Nosy Be to see the mainland. The Indian taxi drivers have a lot to learn from the Malagasy ones. The moment that we stepped out of the boat they stretched their hands to take our bags. We carried them on our backs. They started talking in French, English, Italian. Mihai told us not to speak with them, and hearing our language, they tried to figure out where we were coming from. Spain? 

Carts pulled by zebus, a normal way of life.

Though it is the season to visit Madagascar, there are few tourists, because of the questionable political situation (they have a new president, after a military coup, not recognized by the international community, but can’t have elections because they can’t agree on two points). That’s why the taxi drivers are eager to take us wherever we want to go. But we are on a budget too, we booked a half priced car (tourists are coming from Diego Suarez to go to Nosy Be, and they pay for their trip, but then the car has to return empty; we payed half the price, got a comfy ride, they got some money for the returnin trip) The driver is furious, he didn’t expect us, maybe he is tired, maybe we changed his plans. He drives without looking at us or talking.

The road is full of potholes, ranging from small ones, barely felt by the passengers, to huge ones, enough for an elephant to lye down. The cars are slowing down, almost stop, as they get in, crumbling a little bit more of the remaining asphalt. Between them are small stretches of good road, but not enough to go over 40 km/h (25 miles/h). 

We see villages, with houses made of palm branches tied to a skeleton made of poles. Some are leaning, like they would fall any second now.

 Around some of them are fences, made of different heights of branches, on which laundry is drying. 

...and a satelite dish...

People are sitting in the doorway or under some tree, with nothing to do. A woman is watching us as she is sitting next to some small tomatoes. In another village, people are in a circle, hammering down rocks. We’ve seen bags full of rocks sitting by the side of the road, waiting to be picked up, but we didn’t know they were “handmade.” 

She is caring charcoal...

Women wash their laundry in the river and then spread it on the dirt or grass to dry. 

The same river provides the drinking water. Skinny zebu cows are eating hungrily yellow dry grass. These people are poor.

We reach Diego Suarez, a crumbling town that has seen better days. The hotel has a nice terrace with “belle de jour” bougainvillea flowers and views of the sea. We are told that right now there is no electricity, but at 6 pm they will start the generator (for some reason the electricity couldn’t reach our rooms and we used the provided candles). The water is stopped too. And this happens every day! There is no electricity when you need it most, from 6 pm to 12 am. Every business has a generator, that fills the air with a sickly smell and noise.

We visit the main street, with its shops and restaurants. Old buildings, few renovated, many closed, an air of desolation. The tribunal has some chipped signs and overgrown bushes. The streets are swept but broken. An old hotel, damaged by a cyclone is left to crumble. The only beautiful view is the one of the golf.

People on the street wear practical clothes. The children walk as a group as they are going or getting out of the school, dressed in faded uniforms. Sometimes they are carried in a pousse-pousse, a cart pushed by a man. 

We don’t do much here, we take advantage of the sometimes working wi-fi internet and we visit the Tsingy Rouge. These are different from other tsingy (I’ll tell you in the next blogpost about them), because they are made of sand, as water erodes the red dirt and seeps through the layer of sandstone. 

Like other erosion formations (Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA) they are never the same, getting smaller every day, under the action of wind, rain, sun and tourists. In the beginning of our visit we got to see the canyon, a huge gap in the otherwise flat terrain, caused by the water. During the summer it rains so much that many raging rivers are formed. 

The beginning of the canyon

Tsingy Rouge Cathedral and the river

After that we walked through a valley to the Grand Tsingy under the scrutiny of a guardian. He lives in a small cottage and he makes sure no one touches the tsingy. They are beautiful from up close, with colors fading downwards.

To get back to the car we had to climb a hill made out of chromatic stones. The shards had one tip purple, the other yellow, and if we dipped them in water, they were bleeding color. I kept thinking that they could exploit this thing, but it would be the end for the tsingy.

It was time again to move on and after the last drive, we chose to fly to Antananarivo. Diego Suarez was the first airport in our trip that had no security whatsoever, no scanners for the handbags, no gates for screening people (actually, it had one, but it was not working). 

Though that is not a road, you can see the contrast between the red dirt and the vegetation.

As we get closer, I see red strings on top of the brown terraced hills. These are dirt roads. We are picked up from the airport by the hotel staff. Here is colder, as we are at an altitude of 1300 m (4000 ft). We drive through the outskirts of Tana (the short name of the capital) and see people making bricks out of mud. They spread them on the ground to dry, then stack them to be burned on site. We learn that this is the winter activity, in the summer the same plot will grow rice. After tasting their rice, I think they don’t know that the top soil is more fertile than the clay, and they shouldn’t remove it.

The main business here is selling, and it doesn’t matter that they are imitations of brand names, or that their neighbor sells the same stuff. They spread the merchandise on a tarp, on a stall or on a tree, or right from the bicycle and wait for a customer. In the evening they gather everything and go home. And then I realize that here, on the outskirts of the capital, people are dirty, ragged looking, with torn clothes. Grimy children are sitting on the ground, in front of the stall, playing with stones by themselves. There are men who run barefoot pulling behind them a platform stacked high with bags of grass or charcoal. 

At the hotel we meet with a Swiss nurse that works 8 months a year and travels the other four. She had two months in Madagascar and traveled in many parts of it, but everywhere is the same: people are poor, military and police control the roads, and they all eat three meals of white rice. In the name of the tourism, all the rules are broken she told us. We had to see for ourselves.

The view from our hotel: the square pinkish building on the right side is the palace.

We start with the Royal Palace, built on top of the hill. In the beginning it was a rectangular hut with a steeple-like shingled roof (in which the king would climb to hide from his unwanted visitors, leaving it to his wife to hear their problems and communicating his agreement by throwing pebbles in her hair). 

The three seats on the right are for royalty.

The first king was a visionary, he wanted just one big country and one neighbor: the sea. For this he fought and subjugated the other 17 tribes. What goes around, comes around...the French and the British wanted this territory, and with inside help, the French got it. The last queen ruled for her son and eventually tricked him out of it. She had a three floor palace built with stained windows and other beautiful things. Unfortunately it burnt in 1995 (and everything else that was around) and though they reconstructed the stairs, the floors, the columns (now of concrete made to look like the original trees) it is still open to the elements. From there we had a royal view of the capital: just another palace, the monument for the Unknown Soldier and a few other big buildings were visible, the rest and their problems, are hidden by the distance.

The lake is artificial to look like a heart and in the middle there is the Unknown Soldier Monument.

In a different building there were the royal tombs that people still revere and bring offerings. We were attentioned not to indicate toward them with our forefinger, this being an insulting gesture (we could use the whole hand, or the fist). There was a school for girls, with dorian columns, another for boys, with a pool and a marble boat.

The Royal Tombs

And because this place is under construction, it means is not open to the public, it is closed and guarded and we had to bribe our way in. We were the only ones up there, we saw trees full of spider webs and their societies (from their silk derives Kevlar, the bullet proof material)

 and learned that Poinsettia became a national flower (it has red flowers and green leaves that ooze a white liquid when bruised, the same colors as in the flag; AND when the leaf is folded in half, it makes the map of Madagascar!).

From here we make our way down, onto the streets. We pass the only museum that we know of, we are not interested in royal memorabilia. We pass two churches, and I am still puzzled, if they are Christians, why do they revere the bones of their ancestors? We pass stores of Italian shoes or appliances in which there is no other person beside the vendor. We pass a woman crouched in a corner between two streets selling peanuts, boys pushing uphill huge metal jars on a bicycle, people dressed in numerous layers, because it’s cold.

Waiting for clients ...

 We pass the former presidential palace, that has the guards houses painted in red and green, the same colors as in the flag, but we are not allowed to take pictures. We go down a stepped street, where it looks like a bazar.

 And eventually we arrive on the main boulevard, with French and Italian restaurants, with large walksides where people have more room to spread their wares. One part of the street is closed with tarps for a motorcycle event, that people are watching from the outside, perched on their own motorcycles. On this street I’ve seen the only well dressed Malagasies.

Our plans require to move again, to Antsirabe (Antsee-rub-beh), south of the capital. We rent a car and drive on a good road. There are many hills and serpentines, the views are beautiful. We see people fishing with a basket in the inundated rice terraces. 

Others are just tilling the ground. 

Others are still making bricks. 

On the side of the road there is a ditch and people are sitting on its sides. There they talk, eat, wait for the taxi-brousse (the van that transports people). In the same place the garbage and the dirty water are emptied.

In Antsirabe we drive around until we find our hotel “Chez Billy” and we see many pousse-pousse. These are rickshaw-like vehicles, pushed by muscle power, no machines involved. It is a normal way of transport here. The drivers are barely dressed and the majority have no shoes. I see some running uphill. I can’t look anymore, it stresses me too much. Mihai asks us if we could consider a ride. It’s an unanimous NO! Just the idea of exploiting a human being and it makes me nauseous.

We go and visit the market. It’s just Mihai and I and we’re the only tourists. I watch his back while he takes pictures, not because we feel watched, but because we don’t want to be sorry. People around us are ragged and dirty and this time they are selling second hand things on wooden cases set on the dirt.

 Some children are playing train with discarded plastic pieces on tracks made with charcoal. They are happy to see their faces on the camera’s screen.

 One boy is collecting yellow 30 liter canisters from different houses and puts them on his wheeled cart. He takes a ride too, going downhill. He goes to fill them with water and he gets paid for his service. 

One man carries on a wooden cart a butchered cow. 

Some stalls sell food, some clothes, some groceries [one kilogram (2.2 lb) of rice costs 1000 ariaris, less then 50 cents; a portion of food for tourists costs between 8 000 and 20 000]. I didn’t see any toys. Everywhere pousse-pousse, with a name painted on the back. Some people smile at us, some ask to take their picture. The daylight fades away rapidly, and we hurry back to our hotel, we don’t want to be outside in the night time.

We rent another car to go to Miandrivazo (Me-an-dree-vah-zoo) and again we pass people, many people, walking on the side of the road, some carrying goods on their heads (men and women), on their backs, and rarely, on the bicycle. I see a family, two small children strapped on the backs of the not much older siblings, parents carrying tools, and grandma a big basket on her back. I don’t know why there were so many, I presumed either it was a market day or they didn’t have money to take the taxi brousse.
Arrived at our hotel (this is a too fancy name for our accomodation) I don’t even get out, I don’t want to see anything.

From here we go down the Tsiribihina river for another blog’s adventure. As we return from there in another car, on another horible road, I see an enclosure with sculpted wooden decorations and I realize that these people’s life is so hard, that they don’t have the possibility of making art! Their houses, their tools, their clothes, their fences, their everyday objects are practical, but not beautified. And I am sad, because I know that they could live better, and furious on all the politicians, and frustrated because I don’t have a solution. Then I remember a poem by Adrian Paunescu, a Romanian poet, “The Earth For Now”

On Earth we have everything,
And some good and some bad,
Good, bad,
And jails and liberty
And could and couldn’t
And ruins and fortresses
Great geniuses and idiot foreheads,
Wind that died and wind that blows
And martirs and good for nothings
Unfairness and fairness
And mud and stars.

It helps me accepting the way of business here, the foreigner, that has the money, is the boss and the Malagasy, that makes the business legal, is just an employee and has no chances of becoming a boss on his own. The fact that police and military are controling everything, each with their own check-points, where they stop any car to verify their papers, the people’s papers and luggage, to ask you to take passangers that don’t pay. You know which ones take bribe because they shake hands, while the others are holding them high and open. That it takes time and effort to bring information, to convince people that there is a better way than the one they know, to apply it.

I was prepared to see the poverty in India, the Malagasy one took me by surprize. In a country with so many riches and unique flora and fauna, the people work very hard for basic things. 

Still, they smile and they are happy to see tourists.

P.S. Siefting through the pictures and looking for representative ones I found myself thinking that maybe they were not that poor, or dirty, or ragged, or unhappy, or so thin of too much work and too little food. For sure this is a subjective vision, the rest of the family didn’t see things like me. The truth is somewhere in the middle. 

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