Juerg was absolutely right, if I kept trying I'd eventually find an ATM that wouldn't decline me. Its just like playing the slots, one isn't going to win very often, but occasionally one hits pay dirt. I wasn't so sure though, as I had three more reject me in Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar. After being turned town by the Africa Bank, the largest bank in the country and the only one with billboards promoting how caring it is, I ventured inside to see if that caring extended to overriding their ATM and advancing me some cash. It's friendly manager accompanied me to the ATM machine to give it another try. He was baffled, but he declined to accept either my debit or credit card, as I found a bank to do in China when I suffered similar ATM rejection. He just gave me the Juerg advice to keep trying other ATMs.
Just around the corner two blocks from the grand Catholic cathedral was a Lonely Planet recommended hotel with bungalows and camping for $2. Even though it was just mid-afternoon and this city had no charm whatsoever, I had been contemplating pitching my tent there, if only for the opportunity of a shower. I stopped in to see if they'd bill my credit card for an extra amount and refund me the difference. As nice as they were, that wasn't something they were willing to do. They advertised WIFI but it wasn't working, otherwise I would have tried to contact Janina and have her call my bank, even though I had alerted it of my travel before I left.
The hotel had had other travelers with similar difficulties and recommended the nearby BNI bank. As I slipped my debit card in the slot of this glorified slot machine I had a premonition that this one would pay off and it did. I felt a combination of relief and happiness as the bills were dispensed. There were no flashing lights or ringing bells, but I could distinctly imagine them. I celebrated by going to the nearby Shop Right supermarket and buying a liter-and-a-half bottle of cold water for thirty cents, my first purchase of water or a cold drink, having relied upon my filter up until now to purify water from communal town faucets. It was my first foray into a supermarket. Each of its four aisles was monitored by a security guard, as I had only previously witnessed in South Africa. Crime is much less of an issue here than there, but evidently still a concern.
I've had an occasional small child pester me with out-stretched hand, but the general populace is devoid of menacing or sullen looks, unlike elsewhere I've traveled in Africa. The masses may be barefoot poor, but they are not downtrodde or demoralized. There is no sense of hostility. I am continually greeted with a warm and welcoming "Bonjour" from those I pass on the road. Madagascar was a French colony up until gaining independence in 1960 and many of its vestiges remain, including relic Citroen Deux Chevaux, more than one sees in France. All the travelogues I've read of Madagascar, dating back to Dervla Murphy's visit in 1983 and Gerald Durrell's expedition more than a decade later in search of the rare Aye-Aye lemur with an extra-long middle digital, comment on how gentle and kindly the people are, especially in contrast with the rest of Africa. I can attest to that myself. It can almost challenge Thailand as the "Land of Smiles." The people do have a genuine cordial nature.
After the pleasure of cool water gracing my gullet I could only make myself feel better by getting on my bike and heading down the road and camping in the countryside rather than the heart of a bustling city. Though the traffic had been minimal on the main highway following the spine of the country, it evaporated to almost none at all when I turned off it on highway 34 to the coast. On the way out of the city I stopped at a small cafe with bowls of several types of pasta in its glass display case facing the road and filled my Tupperware bowl.
I just needed to find a village water faucet in the next couple of hours before dark to fill the now empty liter-and-half bottle to go along with my already full four bottles. I'd been sweating a lot and wanted as much water in reserve as possible. Town faucets aren't as evident or common as I would like. After half an hour I came upon one but the water was turned off. As I turned to go, a woman across the road told me I could help myself to the filled jugs in front of the faucet. I had noticed rows of the ubiquitous yellow jugs at other pumps, but didn't realize they were already filled and available for taking advantage of, a valuable lesson learned.
A little while later I was joined by a teenaged boy who was pedaling home from school, an eight mile commute. He was a rarity, someone who spoke some English. I was the first native-born English-speaker he had had a chance to try out his English on. "I am intelligent," he said, "but I still have a lot to learn." We pedaled side-by-side for nearly twenty minutes, unhindered by anything but bicycle traffic and pot holes, and covered a range of topics from family life to his ambitions. He'd like to become president and improve the conditions in Madagascar. He doesn't like the current president, saying he has kept the country poor. His refreshing sincerity just might lead to a political career that could take him to the country's highest office.
After we parted ways the terrain suddenly dealt up a series of killer hills for the next thirty miles. I stopped to camp just off the road behind a bushy thicket before I was done with them, saving the rest for the next day. It was much more demanding than the first fifty miles of ups and downs out of the capital. I had to limit my speed on the descents, wary of pot holes and the danger of a rift in the road preceding a bridge that was often at the bottom of a hill. I had been saved by a couple of cyclists on the main highway on a long steep descent. They were a ways ahead of me and I was surprised when I suddenly starting gaining on them as they knew to start braking before a bridge that had a virtual speed bump preceding it.
In the smaller villages along my route I was occasionally finding town faucets with no one around. The temperature was creeping into the high eighties as I began my descent to the coast. I was beginning to bake, especially from the strenuous climbing. For the first time I was able to put my head under a faucet and to soak my shirt, at least before a crowd had gathered.
The culture here has an abundance of taboos, known as fady. They include pointing at the royal tombs, eating pork on certain occasions, swimming in certain places, touching certain baobab trees and many others. I no doubt was violating some taboo by my faucet behavior, but no one reprimanded me. Juerg says in his year here no one has ever told him he has done something unapproved of, though he is certain he has. The people are too polite and understanding of our ignorance to make an issue of it.
In one small town I passed through I came upon a guy with a cart who I thought was selling ice cream. When I stopped he immediately handed me a glass of cold juice. It was a nectar of the gods, just what I needed. At six cents a glass, I had two more, sipping the last two plopped on the ground sitting in the shade eating some left-over pasta I had acquired a couple villages back. I had fully immersed myself in the life around me, as traveling by bicycle so easily facilitates.