Monday, Dec. 22
On my way home

I’ve left Madagascar, but since I have a fabulous Internet connection in the Jo-Burg airport, I wanted to share a few last photos from Tana, the capital.

The Christmas season isn’t in your face there like it is at home, but every once in a while I noticed something that reminds me it’s gift and snow time in Albany.

Occasionally one of the cell-phone chain stores would blast Christmas music — the same tunes as chez moi but not in English. And I passed several Christmas-tree sellers in the market:

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Vendors selling Christmas trees in Tana.

Holiday flash.

Holiday flash.

Just for fun, here are two other photos:

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

The old-fashioned newspaper still reigns in Madagascar.

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

One of the last taxis I hailed in Tana was all-American!

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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.

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Wednesday, Nov. 5
“Tana,” Madagascar

I had hoped to have a good story to tell about local reaction to the American election.

But unlike the parts of western and central Africa I visited, who had all eyes on Obama, very few people here in Madagascar seem to care about the outcome.

In Tana, Madagascar’s capital, we’re a full eight hours ahead of America’s east coast, so it was in our wee hours of the morning that election results began coming in. I had asked around for a bar or restaurant where folks might be watching election news, but to no avail. Even the U.S. embassy said they weren’t aware of any American hangouts with televisions; they had organized only a private party.

So when I woke up this morning at 6 a.m., excited as a child waiting for Santa, I hailed a ca to the Carlton hotel, the most upscale accommodation in town. Surely they would have a television with international channels.

Inside the lobby, I posed as a guest and waited for the bar to open at 7 a.m.; I could see through the glass windows a beautiful television waiting for me.

The waitress and I flipped through channels looking for election news in English. None. So I settled on a French channel and hoisted myself up onto a bar stool — just in time to see them call the election! Obama had won! The anchors jabbered away in French — it took some concentration for me to understand when they spoke that fast — and I watched my fellow Americans celebrate in the streets. Their chanting was muted, but I could read the lips of the crowds who yelled, “Yes, we can!”

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Tuesday, Nov. 4
Antananarivo, Madagascar

I stayed in my hostel bed on my first morning in Madagascar long after I woke up, partly because my stomach was rumbling in the sorry way that usually foreshadows sickness. But I also had another reason to keep my eyes closed: someone was showering in my room.

It was a dorm room, with four beds, and a shower and sink just feet from the bunks, so it wasn’t unusual that I had a roommate. But I hadn’t met the traveler, since the person was already asleep in the top bunk when I climbed into my bed the night before. I only realized it was a man when I heard him clearing his throat that morning in the shower, and so I kept my position, facing the wall, to offer some privacy.

When I figured he had had enough time to dress himself, I turned, thinking I might meet a new friend, perhaps another 20-something backpacker who would explore the island with me. It’s in these hostel dorm rooms that I often meet other frugal travelers.

Instead, I was shocked to see a skinny old man, wearing only shorts, his wrinkled chest bare, rinsing his hands at the sink.

I smiled to myself, and asked where he was from.

“Born in Italy, but now living in Malaysia,” he responded. “You?”

“United States,” I said.

“Oh, well we can switch to English then,” he said, transitioning out of French.

The man, who had lived most of his life in various east African countries, had just returned to the capital after six weeks of traveling the country. Since that was similar to my time frame here, I inquired about his route. Looking at my guidebook earlier, I hadn’t noticed an obvious one, and I still wasn’t sure how I would go about seeing the island.

“They say you can’t do a loop around the country,” he said, “but I managed to do just that.”

We paged through my guidebook to find a map, and indeed, it looked impossible to loop around Madagascar. Most of the main roads start in the center of the country, in Antananarivo, the capital that goes by “Tana” for obvious reasons. The roads radiate outward, kind of like a subway station that has one center point and lots of lines that never connect.

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