The morning after the night I arrived a day earlier than I should have, I woke up to sunshine and a text from Brett asking when I wanted to leave my temporary hotel to head to the center of the city and my real hotel.
I suggested after lunch.
“A perfect plan!” Brett responded because anything at this point was an improvement over yesterday.
I lunched on the hotel’s quiet restaurant patio, next to a soft blue pool draped with palm trees.
Everyone but me was speaking French, so I broke out my DuoLingo app and studied it in that intense way you do when you are alone in a public place and no one else is, while I ate five pieces of fresh bread and butter and drank three cups of strong sweet coffee.
I took three years of French in high school but apparently that means nothing because my brain is swiss cheese. Please make a note that it is easier to travel in Madagascar if you speak French. Not only could you speak to the Malagasy’s themselves, most of them, you could also speak to the oodles of French tourists smugly inhabiting every hotel and tour site in the country.
As I ate my bread, an enormously be-muscled man in an elegant, immaculate suit and perfectly shined pointy toed shoes entered the patio without looking at any of us. I wanted him to be a President, or at least an assassin, but instead he put in ear buds and lay down in the chaise lounge alongside the pool and closed his eyes and sunbathed like he was in a speedo on the beach in Key West.
My guide came right on time after lunch, an energetic young woman with braids named Malala. Malala sat in the backseat with me while we drove into the city. I’d heard that Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, is a dirty, unpleasant, dangerous city, but it didn’t feel that way with Malala showing it to me.
“Sometimes it can take up to an hour to reach the center,” she said, “because of traffic. But that’s ok because we have plenty to look at.”
And we did.
I saw rickety houses and a market and rice fields and a cock fight and a great black zebu crossing the road because he felt like it. Our car was surrounded with motorbikes and wobbling bicycles and people walking with great stacks of wood on their backs and baskets on their heads.
None of them gave a shit about me. It was sunny, but not hot, and our driver was relaxed and cheerful, with his arm resting on his open window and I was so so glad not to be alone and worried any more.
I didn’t take any pictures, even though it was beautiful and I wanted to. If you take a photo of something because it’s different from anything you’ve seen before but it’s everyday life for some…is that exploitation? Do I have the right to take photographs of a community of people who can’t afford shoes or measles vaccines, even though they are beautiful? Is that fair?
“We have hard times,” Malala said. “But we are hopeful that tomorrow will be better so we keep our heads up.” That’s beautiful. But not fair.
I can’t tell you exactly where the Sakamanga Hotel is located in the city because I can’t tell left from right around here. It lies somewhere in between the bottom of town where you shouldn’t walk around at night, and the top of town where there are casinos and jewelry stores and a couple super markets.
The hotel doesn’t have a parking lot but if you pull your car up outside the entrance and honk, then some of the guys hanging around outside it will start yelling at people to move their motorbikes and souvenier stands and children out of the way and then they will yell and wave their arms to direct you into the parking place that miraculously appears along the narrow cobblestone road.
Malala helped me check in to the hotel, which I appreciated because I’m not going to pretend competency past my pay grade anymore.
“We thought you would be here later tonight,” the manager said, with a glint, “but I see you are here now.” Then he went back to speaking Malagasy with Malala.
My room was down a twisted narrow corridor lined with artifacts like a museum, then outside, past the spa and the lazy black parrot, inside another building and up some dark stairs and right when I thought I had been banished to the garret I opened the door and saw a great big bed and a couch and windows opening onto a cheerful patio. As big as my first apartment. Lovely.
Malala took me out right away to change my Euros for Madagascar Ariary. 4000 Ariary make about 1 Euro, so there are a lot of zeros involved, no matter how you shake it.
The roads in the city were as crowded as the roads outside of it, narrow without any sort of stop signs or street lights or even street names and filled with more people than cars. Everyone had somewhere to go and something to say and something to smile at and they dodged around the chaos gracefully. I followed Malala closely while we wound through the crowds, stopping occasionally while Malala explained bits of Malagasy life.
“We don’t need stores,” she said. “We can buy everything on the street. It’s more fun that way.”
And seriously. She was right.
She showed me a stand selling herbs and leaves for medicine and stones for deodorant, a woman sitting with an old fashion sewing machine who could tailor your clothes in twenty minutes and, my favorite, a skinny-legged man selling coffee from a heavy metal container.
Give him money and he fills a tin cup with coffee. He offers you milk or sugar and you stand and talk with him while you drink. When you are finished, give him back the cup so he can rinse it out and use it for his next customer. When he runs out of coffee, he is finished for the day. Even though it was afternoon, his coffee container was still too heavy for Malala to lift.
The money changer was a man behind a table in a skinny alley off a main road in a market. No sign or anything, just a man behind a table who took my money, handed it to his assistant who took a wad of cash out of a box and counted it out without saying a word.
Meanwhile, the first man punched some numbers into a large calculator and thrust at me. Malala checked and double checked his math, then nodded and he handed me a pile of bills about five inches high. Two hundred Euros turned into about 750000 Ariary. Or something.
The whole interaction was oddly easy and strangely silent. As soon as we walked away, someone else took our place and the transaction began again.,
I folded up the wad and shoved it into my skinny wallet bag and hung the bag around my neck and under my shirt. It hung like a softball just above my belly and for the rest of the day the first thing anyone looked at was not my white sweaty face, but the strange round protrusion on my front side.
“Maybe in 9 months you’ll give birth to a lot more money,” Malala said.
One can only hope.