Thursday, November 18, 2010

These are the chronicles of an Ex-Pat in the Land of Lemurs (catchy eh?)

*Note: I wrote this last week, but still don't have internet at my apartment, so I am a bit behind on posting. Sorry for the old news!

I have been in Madagascar for about five days now, which means that I am still sleeping heavily one night and wide awake the next. Turns out, jet lag is not as glamorous as they tell you. The first few days I was put up in a hotel just a mere block and half away from my snazzy new office. I could see it from my window, especially because the hotel and the office are the only two buildings with modern architecture and taller than two storeys on this “highway.” Now, let’s just pause here for a point of order. Personally, anything with only two, very congested lanes filled with pousse-pousses (rickshaws) and walkers doesn’t qualify for highway class in my taxonomy of things. On the other hand, the government of BC has been calling Hwy 10 a ‘highway’ for years, despite the inordinate amount of stoplights, so who am I to argue? The proximity didn’t stop the company from providing me with a chauffeur for the new commute either, but I am not complaining. The hotel was a nice introduction – ease yourself in, go for a swim, watch some BBC, have a French buffet breakfast for the first few days so your stomach can become accustomed, don’t push yourself over the limit the first week, etc.

But Friday was a big day. I moved into an apartment AND was invited to happy hour put on by the American Embassy. I am a pretty big deal around here already! Let’s comment on the apartment first. I’d like to entitle this chapter:
“Why Won’t my Toilet Stop Running? And other tales of moving woe:”

Even when one is moving in Canada, where you know that you will be able to find and purchase toilet paper with relative ease. I forgot though that moving in a foreign country is twice the excitement. Not only are you not quite sure where your next roll will be coming from, but you also are met with bizarre configurations and unfamiliar technology. For instance, there are two plugs beside the normal plug that are, as of yet, unidentified. They fit no French, South African nor Canadian electrical plug. They don’t fit a phone or Internet jack. They are just two thin strips with a little tear drop on the end that are there to confound even those most experienced techie. My toilet, as I have already alluded, is another issue entirely. It runs constantly. CONSTANTLY. So I have to turn off the water at night because the sound drives me mad. Some might liken it to having your own soothing indoor Zen waterfall. Sure, if your idea of Zen is the deafening roar of Niagara. It’s also funny to me that the toilet is in a separate little room from the rest of the bathroom. It’s the definitive “water closet.” Who designs these things?

Answer: the French.

Yes, I’ve taken to abusing and praising the French for much here – mostly because I still don’t know the Malagasy way of doing things yet. Nevertheless, I feel certain that the Malagasy would never do something so absurd as separate the toilet from the sink, bathtub, towels and (more importantly) magazine rack. But, despite the disastrous experiment that was colonialism in Africa, we can be thankful to the French for a few things here. I have made a list:
- Daily fresh croissants
- Daily fresh baguettes
- Superb charcuterie
- Heated towel racks
- The availability of tampons in major grocery stores (don’t ever take that for granted)

So you see, it’s not entirely bad. On Friday, my driver Lala (yep, that’s his name) took me to Jumbo, the supermarket near work. I was astounded by the goodies that were to be had. I believe I have previously spoken about my love affair with third world grocery stores before. I could (and have) wander the cool, calming aisles of grocery stores throughout the developing world for hours. Jumbo is a real treat. It must be owned by Casino, the French grocery chain, because that is the main brand it sells for everything (including foie gras and ratatouille – add those to the list). But I will firmly say that any grocery store that carries tampons, however limited the selection, and two-week old Economists is all I need to survive. This place is fine - they have no need for development professionals like myself, which is worrisome, since I only just got here. Ah well, perhaps for the sake of the nationals I should be happy.

Don’t I wish it were so. Tana (short form for Tananarive or Antananarivo) is a city of about 3 million. It is beautiful with white houses with brightly coloured shutters cascading down the small mountains on which the city sits. Rice paddies fill the bottom and line the way out to the airport. Jacaranda trees are in full bloom as are the Sacuanjoche (Frangipane) trees. Hibiscus and bougainvillea line the gates in front of houses. You can buy flowers from every other corner – tall lilies and gladiolas of literally every colour – for pittance. It’s a gorgeous place, but, as more than one local has already said with varying degrees of scorn or sadness, “c’est pauve.”

On the other side from the Jacarandas etc, is a busy city: on the main “highway” there is a cluster of shacks lining each side. Sunday was apparently washing day, since the women were out beating the dirt out of their clothes in the run-off ditches lining the paddy on the right hand side. Some were working the stone piles also there.

Yesterday, a friend recommended to me a taxi driver to take me around to see some of the sights and do a bit of shopping. Gabbie the Cabbie was an excellent chauffeur, French tutor and local guide. I had a good laugh from him too. We were talking about how to get to the Palais du Roi, which sits on the highest point in Tana, overlooking the rest of the city. There had been protests so it wasn’t safe to go the one way. I asked him what the protests were about and got the run down on the political situation in the country – taxi drivers the world over are always the best source of that type of information, - they don’t hold back. The conversation was going on about how these protests have become regular, but they won’t make much difference:
Me: You know, where I lived before in Bolivia, they say there that protesting is their national sport.
Gabbie: Here in Africa, I would say that our national sport is making babies.
Me: (laughter)
Gabbie: it’s true! The people are so poor, that they need the children and it is all they can do.

It’s funny, but sad too. Children are current labour and old age pension payments at once. They help you with the kiosk or hawking now and then when you are old, they can care for you. There are a goodly lot of children around, I will give him that.

I thought about it later that night and decided that in Canada our national sport is apologizing. I’ve been a champ at it, much to the chagrin of foreign friends who were weary of the word. I went to the Embassy happy hour and got into a discussion with some Americans who thought our accent was “cute.” They wanted to brainstorm all the words that we Canadians say differently. ‘Sorry’ was a big hit. I think I made the very salient point that our pronunciation must be the correct one, since we have perfected it by using it so frequently.

So, this is my introduction to live in Madagascar. Turns out that it is not a cartoon and I have yet to see a lemur, but I have seen lemur bridges so that they can get across the road without getting hit – it’s cute. Stay tuned for my next edition: “My first coup.” That's bound to be exciting, isn't it?