I walked out of university with a Bachelors degree in Environmental Sciences, a head filled with dreams of working with animals in some far corner of the planet, and absolutely no idea what to do with either of them.
I knew if I didn’t do something soon, I’d end up on the path to ordinary; full-time job, someone to love, life, and the inevitable death. I knew my life was becoming tame and terrified by the prospects of a settled life, I thought the only solution was to run wild. So when the opportunity to live and work in Madagascar came up, I jumped on it.
The internship I signed up for was based on a small island called Nosy-Be, located off the northern coast of the mainland Madagascar. My plan was to spend a few days in Tana (as Antananarivo is affectionately referred to by the locals) before catching a domestic flight to Hell-Ville, Nosy-Be’s capital, where I would meet the others.
But I had never been that alone before. In between walking down to the Analakely market and Lake Anosy, at the centre of which stood a tall monument to the French soldiers fallen during WWI, there were many hours of solitary hours I did not know how to fill. The country boasts a great degree of racial diversity, having been settled by peoples from Austronesian, African, Arab and North Indian heritage over the last three millennia, and I used that to my advantage, blending into the chaotic street life as best I could.
That fact, however, did nothing to alleviate my sense of alienation which steps in my lack of understanding of the local tongues, Malagasy and French. In my search for companionship, I frequented a restaurant with a half-Italian, half Malagasy owner, partly because she was one of the few people I met who spoke some English, and partly because her modern, minimalist place looked as out of place in Tana as I did.
In my aimless wanderings, I also came across a bookshop with a friendly owner who kindly traded his only two English books for the one I had.
Still, I spent most of my time by myself, and with few people to talk to, life began to take on a surreal quality. As days passed without words, it sometimes felt as if I was in a silent dream; watching life all around me without being really part of it.
But then, on my last night in Tana, I got all the action that I had wanted, and some more…
It all happened in a flash; the man’s huge bulk crashed into me, sending me reeling and struggling to keep my balance. I instinctively knew there was something wron since he had almost aimedatr me on purpose. But I turned around nonetheless, palms up, in a gesture of apology, but it was too late. He had dropped his plastic shopping bag on the impact and was already advancing toward me in a menacing manner, shouting wildly at me. Within seconds, a road of people had gathered around us, closing all my exit routes. I stood my ground, but the teardrop tattoos on his face and the large knife he had tucked under his shirt reminded me starkly of how out of my depth I was.
The guy began poking me, spit flying out of his mouth as he rubbed his thumb against his forefinger, leaving no doubt as to what his demands were. I looked at the people around us, and although some seemed sympathetic, nobody seemed too keen on taking my side.
The whole thing must have lasted less than a few minutes, but to me, it felt like an eternity. As the giant grew more animated and the crowd grew larger, and I sensed that the situation was getting out of hand. It was just then that I heard a taxi screech to a stop across the street. The driver jumped out, forced his way through the ring of the spectators and stopped by my side. Lowering his voice, he whispered in my ear; ‘Mister, you pay the man. He very dangerous. Many criminals in the area, not safe. You must go to your hotel now!’
I knew exactly what he meant; it was time to go. I pulled out my wallet, took everything I had in it (which amounted to no more than $30 in local Ariary) and put it on the ground in front of me. The giant watched me suspiciously, but before he had had the chance to pick it up and count the money, the driver pulled my arm, pushed me toward his car and we were out of there just in the nick of time.
I returned to my hostel room shocked and angry at the world and Madagascar in particular, somehow completely forgetting about how a stranger had put himself between me and the world to get me out of there. But Madagascar was not done with me yet.
The next morning, I flew out of Tana and into yet another unknown world.
Please don’t forget to check out part III of this series here.