High on my list of things to do during my final three days in Madagascar, hanging out in its largest city and capital, Antananarivo, was to have a cinema experience. Whether it was Bollywood or Hollywood, or at a multiplex or a stand-alone, I cared not, I just wanted to enjoy the comfort and escape and shared experience of watching a movie on a big screen in a large dark cavern and discover what more it might reveal about Madagascar and its people.
My movie experience may have been as telling as any of my experiences in my month here, as it further emphasized Madagascar's lack of development and minimal disposable income and how it is truly a place unto itself, as there isn't a single movie theater in this city of 1.4 million nor in the entire country. Maybe that's why the people seem so content and accepting of their limited incomes, not having been barraged by the rampant images of materialism by the kingdom of cinema. They don't know what to want other than their basic needs. The country is truly isolated. The people have little knowledge of how the rest of the world lives, so don't know what they are lacking. I didn't meet a single person who had been off the island, not even to Africa 250 miles away. There is no ferry service nor any transport to elsewhere within the means of the vast majority of the population who earn less than $200 a year.
During my final three days staying with Juerg and Gaby four miles from the city center I spent my time cycling to various sites and meandeirng the thronged neighborhoods and partaking of all the street food nibbling on fritters and noodles all the day long trying to regain some weight. My first priority was to scout out the route to the airport on a new back road that Juerg had recommended before I arrived, but was too obscure to find. My GPS didn't show the road as it was less than six months old, built for the Francophone conference of over fifty countries that have a link to France that convenes every two years and was held in Madagascar for the first time. The two-lane main highway into the city is so clogged with traffic, the president wanted to make it easier for the arrivals to get into the city and not to be immediately exposed to its poor roads and neighborhoods.
The country is in want of roads, or improved roads, from top to bottom, so this eight-million dollar expenditure on an eight-mile spur did not meet much favor, especially since the road is now closed except to bikes and motorbikes and is already producing potholes. For those in the know, it provides a speedy venue to the airport, free of cars and vans up until the last half-mile on a pre-existing road. I had hoped to confirm my flight and verify the cost of flying my bike, but Turkish Air does not fly into Madagascar every day, and this was one of fhose days without a flight. There were only six international departures this day, and just one to Europe via Air France to Paris. I thought the airport might be thronged by passengers who'd had their flights cancelled by the cyclone, but with so few people leaving the country, the airport couldn't be thronged.
After reaching the airport I continued on for three miles on a rough dirt road to the Croc Farm, one of the premier attractions of Antananarivo. It is a zoo of a sort, but it's chief feature is a huge lagoon teeming with over 150 crocodiles who are raised for commercial purposes. They grow to gargantuan proportions. At first sight they didn't seem real. Only their pulsing jowls proved there was life in these critters.
Many were cruising in the water.
Others were just partially submerged, some with mouths agape trying to catch a breeze.
After I made the rounds of the rest of the animals on display (snakes and birds and lemurs and chameleons and tortoises and reptiles and panthers) I noticed four keepers hauling wheelbarrows of dead chicks to the crocodiles. It was feeding time.
That brought them to life.
The bigger crocs, the males, pounced on the food first, while the smaller ones, mostly females, waited for them to get their fill. It took a while, as after they feasted, they lay plopped on the dead chicks for a while digesting their initial gluttony, before partaking of more. It was an extraordinary site to be in such close proximity to these creatures listening to their grunts and groans of satisfaction.
Throughout the "zoo" one was afforded close glimpses of its inhabitants, with only a few of the animals behind bars. The lemurs roamed freely in the trees. There was no concern of them escaping the park as they can't survive out of their natural habitat, which is confined to the small pocket of the Croc Farm in the midst of the sprawl of Antananarivo.
Three of the lemurs came scampering down from the tree tops for a banana from one of the keepers.
They were wild, but also tame.
Madagascar may be teeming with chameleons, it is thought to be their place of origin, but I had hardly glimpsed any until here, where I could better perceive their camouflage knowing they were contained in various pens.
One is also afforded a close vantage of tortoises, who were ambling about, some nudging others out of their way.
I had hoped to swing over to Ambohimanga Rova, a fortress palace sitting on a hilltop overlooking Antananarivo dating to 1788 that is one of Madagascar's three UNESCO World Heritage sites, nine miles away across the top of the airport, but it was on a dirt road that was a muddy quagmire from the cyclone, so I had to postpone my visit until the next day, making my approach on a paved road.
It was thirteen miles on a road as clogged with traffic as the other had been with mud, at least the first few miles leaving the city. The motorized traffic was inching along at a snail's pace, while the few of us pedalling passed them by. Eventually the traffic cleared and when I took the fork from the main road for the final three miles it was like being back out in the peace of rural Madagascar, one of the allures of the location of this hilltop palace.
It isn't particularly impressive other than in contrast to the standard habitations of the people. A large heart-shaped rock is embedded outside the entry with cannons peaking out from the walls. It was a place of sacrifice.
Within are several large wooden buildings with original furniture. One had to pay an extra 600 Ariary (eighteen cents) to the admission fee to take photographs, but it was forbidden to take photographs of the royal beds and some of the other interiors. It was okay to take a photo though of the royal bath, whose water was considered sacred after the king bathed. It was distributed to his supplicants.
The palace is much revered by the Malagasy. It was the only site I visited in all my time in Madagascar that I didn't have to myself. When I showed up at the Croc Farm I feared it was closed, as there wasn't a car or any vehicle in the parking lot, not even of the employees.
In my wanderings around the city the next day I came upon a soccer game on a dirt pitch with makeshift goals, surrounded by a crowd of fans.
I also swung by the US embassy ten miles out of the city. It was one of the more impressive buildings in the country. As large as it is, there is no dentist on the premises. There are only 57 in the entire country and not a one that the embassy trusts. When some one needs dental work they are flown to South Africa. Just as happened the day before when I took a picture of the nondescript French embassy in the city center, a guard came after me. I was already on my bike, so could pretend I couldn't hear his shouts of "Monsieur." I knew the traffic was too thick for anyone in a motorized vehicle, siren or not, to catch up to me.
On my return to the city I passed a stadium with fans streaming in. I didn't know what they were going to until I bought my ticket and saw it was for a rugby match. Vendors were walking around with tubs of noodles on their heads, my meal two or three times a day for the past month.
I was even more thrilled to see small packets of frozen coconut milk that saved my day more than once in the heat. One can't imagine the pleasure they gave for a mere three cents.
Back in the city by the lake at its center were vendors selling another of those items that pleased me beyond measure--glasses of cold pineapple juice for all of six cents.
My eyes eagerly searched for these small thermos when I passed through villages knowing that they contained a hunk of two of ice and juice.
My best bargain came in the bicycle mart of one of the many street markets that turned side streets into pedestrian ways. It was a pack of 48 patches and a tube of glue for three dollars. I bought two and am now set for patches for at least the rest of the decade.
My search for vanilla, the country's most prominent product, came up empty other than a small pack of sticks I bought from a street vendor. How authentic it may be Janina will have to decide. Even though Madagascar is the leading producer of vanilla in the world, most is immediately sold abroad. I was told time and again that it was very hard to find vanilla and if I did find any its quality would be very suspect.
I returned to Juerg and Gabi each night by dark and recounted my invigorating explorations as we had dinner with Julien. They could provide explanation to my every query. Gabi was in the thick of dealing with the cyclone aftermath, even being called in on Sunday for a special meeting with the UNICEF team. One of her colleagues was flying in from Dubai with a plane load of food from a UN warehouse. Gabi wasn't certain that food was the best solution, as recipients are known to sell it so they can have money to buy other needs. She thinks it might be preferable to simply distribute money to those in need, saving the expense of flying in food, when it can be trucked in locally and putting money in the pockets of those with the food.
Juerg and I could lapse into our varied travel experiences at any moment. Besides biking, Juerg also paraglides. It was a large part of his life when they lived in Lima, but not so much here. Now he is getting his flight fix from his drone that he uses for his award-winning photography.
A vital part of travel is the people one meets. I don't know if I'm met any as extraordinary as Juerg and Gabi, greatly enhancing this travel experience. I'll be eager to know where they will be posted next, as I'll have to make it a destination.
Juerg sent me off by helping me try a new method of transporting my bike box, strapping it to my back, rather than carrying it under my arm. It was nice to have two hands on the brakes and hands available to switch gears. If only getting the bike on the plane had been as easy, but that is another story.