I have been in Madagascar for just over three weeks now, and I’m really starting to settle in to the rhythm of life here. On my first few days, having been thrown into deep, rural Madagascar, with a group of schoolchildren, I had to learn very fast, which was fun but not easy. I have been back for just over a week now, working in the office, and I have now had time to reflect on my experiences of the general everyday life of everyone here, and go on some epic mini trips, mostly mountain biking.
In terms of safety here, I feel very comfortable, and never threatened. I obviously still take care of my belongings, just in case, but I have seen people leaving their bikes unlocked outside the supermarket, without anybody taking any interest. The general culture of the Malagasy people is not to steal and to be nice to each other. Although there is occasional bartering, it is does not even get close to the bartering in Morocco, where the real price is often a quarter of that stated. The price stated is often the price you pay, however in areas built more for tourists this is less the case. On the pirogue tour, on several occasions, the schoolchildren would leave items of varying value in the boats, from 10p coins to their phones. The boatmen would always return these items, and pocketing them never even occurred to them.
On the way back from Tana, I did however get to experience the infamous taxi brousse ride. Starting from the particularly intimidating taxi brousse station, where there were genuine fights going on for who would get each individual customer, this is the only way to get around in Madagascar if you cannot afford private taxis or flights, and consists of cramming as many people as physically possible (not practically) into a small Mercedes minivan. On mine I counted over thirty people squeezed into a van that normally would seat 15 maximum. In Madagascar, I am above average in size, which means that I had particular problems fitting my head and legs into the bus. With my ear stuck to the speaker, a kind of overcharged tinnier and painfully loud phone speaker, that happened to be blasting out something you would be likely to find on a young teenagers ipod, who happened to be slightly obsessed with bad reggaeton (if there is any other type of reggaeton) and dubstep, I felt like I had been subjected to some sort of deafening torture method. In addition to this, I had a perfectly charming fellow, who couldn’t remember the last time he had washed anything remotely close to his clothes or body, sat on my now completely numb, contorted legs, that I’d somehow managed to twist into the 5cm of legroom provided. With one welcomed pause in the middle, to stop for a brief lunch, the total journey took over five hours to cover the 200km. And to summarise the whole experience, just on leaving the bus, my lunch decided to come and say hello to the pavement, the first time I had been vaguely unwell on my whole trip.
Normally you would have thought that I would have vowed to never step into one of those devilish minivans ever again, but no, I’ve decided that the last experience was so great, that I shall be going to the west coast in another taxi brousse, a journey that can take between 15 hours and three days, depending on how the driver is feeling that day.
Life back in Antsirabe has been much more settled, and have been put to work in the office. My role in the office is pretty varied: I am trying to keep up with the blog, sharpening all the English on the itineraries to make it more professional, and am also an English teacher, for one of the trainee guides.
The highlight of this time in Antsirabe has definitely been the mountain biking. Although some would complain about the lack of roads and of their quality, this is the hidden jewel of the country. At 1600m we have the opportunity to go in almost any direction and find a variety of epic downhills, down perfect tight winding dirt roads. Some have been really technical, and I’m still nursing a few scrapes and bruises, and others have just been fast, easy, and enjoyable runs. There is a particularly great circuit, that we often use as a test ride for clients, from antsirabe to lake tritriva and then back again. This lake is spectacular, set in a deep crater at the top of a mountain, with its green chilly water, and to top it off, 1 km down the road is an amazing downhill run. There is a neat diving spot, perfect for cooling off after a pretty steep uphill to get there, and also a zip line across the lake. The ride is about 65km in total, and I can’t wait to do it again.
To give a few examples of some everyday cultural experiences in the city:
One day we visited the local public swimming pool, with its geothermally heated water. This was nothing like I’d ever seen with around 50 people squeezed into a 10x5m swimming pool. Some people were trying to give swimming lessons, but they would be interrupted every two seconds by someone crossing the pool, or bizarrely trying to swim butterfly in the small space. I’m not sure I managed to get in more than 3 strokes all session, but it was warm and weirdly relaxing.
There are several instances of typical Malagasy behaviour, and one that sticks especially in my mind was when, on the way back from town, there was a group of around five lads, who were moving an entire fully packed vegetable stand down the road, without anyone noticing anything out of the ordinary.
In general it is really nice to notice that whatever job the local people have, they always are smiling, and have a ‘joie de vivre’ that puts everyone in Europe to shame. They will be working all day, doing an awful job, from 6 til 6, and will still manage to maintain a consistent smile. They are extremely chilled out, and the time might as well mean nothing here. This does sometimes have its downsides, and it is an art to gather a straight answer from a Malagasy local. If you ask how long something will take, how far away, or even just whether they will be able to get something done, you must ask at least three times before you receive an answer in the vicinity of the truth.
The powercuts continue, with around one every two days.
I don’t think I will ever get used to being the centre of attention whenever I leave the house. Leaving the city is even more intense, with the cry of ‘vaza’ from the children almost constant in the villages. This can be tiring after a while, and it can sometimes be hard to find peace in the beautiful countryside because of this incessant interest in the foreigner. One time I was the subject of extreme hilarity when I decided to go for a run along the abandoned train tracks outside of the city, anyone that saw me couldn’t hold in their laughter at such a ridiculous thing to do.