Thursday, Nov. 6
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Madagascar’s capital city, “Tana,” is marked by a beautiful lake surrounded by purple-flowered trees. This time of year, the trees’ flowers are in full bloom, and the vibrant petals are just starting to fall, scattering across the sidewalk as though a flower girl claimed it as her wedding aisle.

Unfortunately, the place smells like a public toilet.

“The putrid lake,” an Australian who lives in the city called it. An American study abroad student told me the city’s sewage is pumped into the water — an assertion I never bothered to verify with locals.

But I knew nothing of that when I walked around the lake for the first — and last — time, drawn in from afar by its deceiving beauty. When I realized the smell wasn’t isolated to one section of the perimeter, I figured it was due to all the squatters on the property, those who sent their children toward me to beg as I strolled by.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The odor was so strong that I couldn’t help but imagine that what dripped on me now and then, presumably from the trees since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, was urine. And so, my walk ruined by such stupid thoughts, I turned away from the lake as soon as I came upon a street I recognized.

My guidebook, a Bradt this time, warned I might not like Tana once I got a closer look. That proved true for the lake. But the rest of the city, aside from the hoards of street beggers, suits me.

The culture here feels partly African, partly Asian. Sure, Madagascar is in Africa; the island, about the size of Texas (shout out!), is off the southeastern coast of the continent. But it was originally settled by immigrants from Indonesia — Africans arrived later from the mainland — so the country has a distinct Asian flavor.

View outside my hotel.

View outside my hotel.

The hostel where I’m staying, which hosts nearly as many prostitutes as clients, is in the middle of a never-ending staircase that descends into the city’s main drag. The stairs are always crowded with locals going up and down and vendors lined up along the sides, so entering the busy world of Madagascar’s capital is easy: I just step outside the hotel lobby.

The first time I ventured out, I couldn’t put my finger on what made the place so different from western and central Africa. Of course, lots of things were different — the people, the food, the weather. But something was odd, and it wasn’t until hours later that it hit me: I could hear myself think!

Had I been in a place this crowded in west Africa, the noise would have been nearly unbearable, with eight stereos blasting upbeat African music, a religious tout making announcements through a bullhorn, groups of people having animated conversations at the tops of their lungs.

Here, perhaps because of the Asian influence, locals walk quietly in the streets and talk at normal decibels; even the come-ons from men are more like a whisper in my ear rather than a blunt, loud invitation to bed. It’s a lovely change, one I imagine will help me voyage here without the migraines I suffered elsewhere in Africa.

Another welcome difference: the prices. Madagascar is cheap! My hostel, where meals are significantly more expensive than on the streets, charges as little as $2 for dinner. My dorm bed costs $5 a night.

The only downside of this hotel, it seems, is that descending into the city requires passing the meat section of the market, and the stench there makes me sick to my stomach. The preferred type of meat appears to be sausage, but there are always plenty of whole chickens, carcasses of large animals I wouldn’t want to try to identify and, as one foreigner here said to me, “everything but the quack and the moo.”

Meat market in Tana.

Meat market in Tana.

I’ve spent three days here already, mostly to give myself time to work on a few news stories before I move to an area with an even slower Internet connection. But if I’m going to see most of this island in just seven weeks, I had best get moving tomorrow. The roads here are poor in some places, so it could be a bumpy ride.