Antananarivo’s Ivato international airport is everything you would expect an airport in Madagascar to be; a congested, one-storey building, with a handful of glitzy souvenir shops and mobs of passive-aggressive taxi drivers on the lookout for potential prey. To me, however, it looks like the most sophisticated place I have seen in eons.
I feel like I’m in an alternate reality; the duty-free stores selling pre-packaged Malagasy dark chocolate instead of the old, sprawling Indian supermarkets selling everything from rice to clothing and everything in between. The well dressed women in their traditional headscarves and the mobile-toting businessmen in their tailor-made, attention-demanding suits instead of the camp people with their ragged shorts and tops which bore marks of permanent sweat stains from the long walks under the sun.
The adrenaline that has been pumping through my veins for the last hour or so is slowly beginning to subside, but it only adds to my general sense of bewilderment. I’m exhilarated to be on the move again, yet I’m gripped by a vague mixture of fear and melancholy. My flight out of Madagascar’s capital to Nairobi is scheduled to depart in minutes, from where a second flight will finally take me out of Africa and back into the relative familiarity and comfort of Bangkok, Thailand.
And as I sit here, looking through the glass panels at Air Kenya’s aircraft, it’s finally dawning on me that my time in Madagascar, perhaps the greatest adventure I have ever embarked on, is drawing to a close. It is also dawning on me that I could have so easily ended up stranded here.
* * *
What brings you here, Mr Saturday?’ Asked the customs officer with a wide smile which puts his magnificent, white teeth on full display. He was sporting a nice little pot-belly, a bald patch and my instincts screamed at me not to trust him. It took me a few seconds to realise what he was on about; he was referring to my last name; Samedi, French for Saturday.
‘Oh!’ I smiled.‘Well, I had always wanted to see Madagascar, and this year I finally have the chance to backpack around the world so I thought why not?’
‘Ah, Welcome!’ He paused for a short moment. ‘But, this is a poor country. Maybe you have some spare dollars for your friend?’ He asked, nonchalantly. ‘A gift, maybe?’
Was this really happening? I looked at his chubby hand holding my passport and I knew I had to play nice.
‘I’m sorry, but I spent the last of my cash in Nairobi. I only have a credit card on me on me.’
He didn’t flinch. He had played this game before. ‘My friend! There is ATM outside. You go get some money while I check your passport.’
‘Look, my friend,’ I retorted –I knew my way around the game too– ‘I’m coming back here tomorrow to meet someone. And I will bring you 20 dollars. Okay?’ I reached over the desk and snatched my passport before he could respond.
Ten minutes later, a man with a commanding moustache, whom I took to be a taxi driver, had snatched my bag, shepherd me into the back of his car, and was speeding down the highway toward Madagascar’s Capital, Antananarivo.
Dilapidated shantytowns stood on either side of the highway. The buildings looked like random jumbles of bricks, mortar, plywood and corrugated metal sheets slapped together ingeniously. There were empty blocks of land, some used as farming plots, some ad garbage dumpsters and some as soccer fields.
What I noticed was that despite the squalor and poverty, these empty fields, coupled with the wide blue expanse of early morning skies, seemed to offer a degree of openness; neutralising the suffocation and congestion that comes with such impoverished townships.
My taxi driver dutifully dropped me off at a downtown hostel. The desk clerk did not speak English. The attic room is the just large enough to fit a single bed.
I tore my backpack off my sweaty back, threw open the window shutters, and found myself startled by a sweeping view of the city, haphazardly strewn all over the place in a thousand faded colours.
There was a bare-chested guy on the roof of the house across the street hanging up his clothes. He saw me looking at him and his face contorted in suspicion. I smiled at him and suddenly felt overwhelmed with fear and ecstasy. Just what the fuck was I doing in Madagascar?
Please don’t forget to check out part II of this series here.