Wednesday, Nov. 3
I beat my South African comrades to the lobby of our hotel, the place we had planned to meet to share a taxi to the airport.
While I waited, I made small talk with two female hotel employees behind the bar.
“You’re leaving?” one asked.
“Yes,” I said. “To the airport. I have a flight.”
“You’re going to Sambava?”
I thought it was odd they would guess my destination on the first try, since I could have been going anywhere in Madagascar or even home to the States. It wasn’t until later, after I saw the small Diego airport, that I realized Sambava was one of only two flights out each Wednesday.
“Yes, Sambava,” I replied.
“Will you take this with you?” one of the women asked, holding up a thin plastic bag stuffed with what appeared to be fabric.
I didn’t understand right away what she wanted, mostly because I didn’t expect such a request.
“You want me to take the bag to Sambava?” I asked suspiciously.
“Yes,” the woman replied, and her friend was already on the phone, looking at me and talking in Malagasy, I think describing my appearance, my blond hair and maroon t-shirt. While she spoke into her mobile, she slipped 20,000 Ariary — about 10 bucks — into the bag.
“What’s in it?” I asked as she tied it closed.
“Dresses for girls,” she said simply.
“And how will I know who to give it to?”
“He’ll find you,” she said.
So I took the sack. In the States, I never would have done such a thing, taken a bag from a stranger to transport on a plane. But I’d spent enough time in Madagascar to know that’s how people get packages from place to place, not via the postal service, but by an informal courier system, sending parcels or letters with whomever was traveling that way. I’d seen many a bush taxi driver pull over to the side of the road during a long trip, yell at a house, and give a letter or box to whomever came out to answer his call. Often, I knew, that recipient wasn’t even the person for whom the letter was intended, but another middle-man who helped the communication system to function.
I had all this in mind when I climbed into the taxi with two South Africans I had met the night before. I mentioned the errand.
“That’s dodgy,” the woman said.
I didn’t entirely disagree with her, so I opened the bag and examined the contents, just to be sure I wasn’t about to become an unknowing drug courier.
As I untied the knots that kept the plastic closed, scenes from a movie flashed in my head, that film — I can’t remember the name even though I’ve seen it several times — where Claire Danes (One of my all-time faves — What happened to her, anyways?) and a friend wind up in a nasty Thai prison after someone plants drugs on them before a flight. That movie really haunted me… Danes looked likely to spend the rest of her life in the foreign jail.
I found no drugs in the bags, just two beautiful white little-girl dresses, perhaps for a wedding, I guessed. Plus the money, and a note. I looked carefully, even checking the seams to make sure drugs hadn’t been cleverly sewn in.
I was doing the locals a favor, I reassured myself. It did make sense that someone in Sambava, a small town, would look to relatives in Diego, more of a hub where a variety of goods were available, for specialty dresses.
The flight was delayed all day. All day, for a 30-minute trip! When we finally arrived in Sambava, in the rain, I occupied myself by photographing the smallest luggage conveyor belt I’d ever seen. (I would post that photo here, but I think I left my photo card reader in Diego. Bummer. No photos for a while.)
Men who wanted me to hire them as taxi drivers were gesturing to me even before I had collected my bag. One in particular kept trying to catch my attention, but I ignored him; I would get a taxi when I was ready.
Eventually a man inside the luggage area tapped my arm. “That man is asking for you,” he said.
I must have rolled my eyes. I didn’t know him and I didn’t know what he wanted, I was about to explain.
“You come from a hotel in Diego?” he asked. “You brought him something?”
Oh! The dresses! I had forgotten all about my delivery. I hurried to shake hands with the hopeful recipient, apologizing for ignoring him.
He was the brother of the woman who worked at the hotel, he told me. So I pulled the plastic bag out of my backpack and handed it over. For baptism, he told me. Later this month.
“Your girls?” I asked him with a friendly smile, trying to make up for my initial rudeness.
He nodded in the affirmative and smiled back, helping my guilt to subside.
After thanking me again, he left, presumably to take the dresses home to his family. I imagined his little girls dressed in the bright white fabric, standing on chubby dark legs in a church, waiting to be baptized.