Tonga Soa!

I came to Madagascar with a completely open mind, with no expectations except to see lemurs and chameleons. I was intrigued by the idea of new wildlife and a new culture.

Like many, I had watched the animated feature, “Madagascar,” where African animals in a New York City zoo want to go to “the Wild.” They, a hippo, zebra, lion, giraffe, and four delusional penguins, end up in Madagascar. The irony, of course, is that none of those animals exist in Madagascar, nor are there any elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, or antelope, or any other animals that we know from Africa, not even monkeys or apes. The animal life on Madagascar is unique, and so is much of the plant life. The reason lies in the geology of long ago.

Madagascar, like much of the dry land on Earth, was once part of the “supercontinent” of Gondwana. There was another supercontinent called Euroamerica, and they were once part of Pangaea. Geology is a very long story, so I am skipping to the “good parts,” but the rest of the story, at least what we know so far, is easily discoverable through books, videos, or online, if you’re interested.

Gondwana was formed by the collision of smaller land masses millions and millions of years ago. Madagascar, a separate land mass from Africa or India, was sandwiched between them as the African and Indian land masses collided. Africa, part of West Gondwana, began to separate from East Gondwana, which was comprised of Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia, and then East Gondwana began to break up. All of this was unfolding between 165 – 96 million years ago, depending on what one reads, but we can safely say it happened a long, long time ago.

When Africa pulled away, it formed the west coast of Madagascar, and then Madagascar broke away from India about 88 million years ago, forming the east coast. The Seychelles and Reunion were part of the disintegration of East Gondwana. Even though we usually associate Madagascar with Africa, geologically, it is more closely related to India.

Today, most of Madagascar is tropical. A thin strip along the eastern coast is tropical rainforest. The tropical rainforest is bordered on the west by mountains, where the weather is more temperate in temperature and rainfall due to the higher elevation. On the western side of the mountains lies the tropical savannah that takes up about half of the island. In the very south-southwestern portion of Madagascar, it is a steppe area, arid and hot. All of it is beautiful.

I had reserved a room at a guesthouse, Tanana Maeya, in Antananarivo, and Nyhasy, the young man in charge, met me at the airport to bring me there.

I appreciated Nyhasy meeting me. The plane was so late that it was getting dark by the time we landed, plus, I do not enjoy negotiating taxis. I had not been able to get any cash at the airport – the only ATM there was not working – and so my next task for Nyhasy was to help me find an ATM.

But it wasn’t just the airport. None of the ATMs that we visited were working. Ultimately, as it grew later, Nyhasy lent me some money by buying me a pizza (which I thought was pretty decent since he didn’t really know me) before he dropped me at the guesthouse.

The next morning, Nyhasy walked with me around his neighborhood. We continued searching for a working ATM between sightseeing. His aunt, who owned the guesthouse, did not accept credit cards, so I was concerned, not just about eating, but also paying my bill at the guesthouse. No ATMs were working on Sunday, either, and I ended up borrowing cash from Nyhasy so I could eat.

As my experience grew, it became clear that Madagascar runs on cash. This is because the internet infrastructure is so weak that processing is not reliable. In the capital, Antananarivo, I found that hotels could process, and the banks’ ATMs – when I found one that accepted Mastercard – were reliable, but hotels were not reliable outside of the capital, and the banks’ ATMs were not always working. ATMs often ran out of money or the system was down. If I was going to need more cash, it was important to visit an ATM in the morning, and don’t wait until Friday.

I had arrived in Madagascar just a day after Pope Francis arrived. There were banners everywhere, welcoming him to Madagascar, and especially Antananarivo, the capital city, often referred to as “Tana.” I thought I might see him go by in the “Pope-mobile,” or in a secure SUV caravan with heavily tinted windows. I never saw him at all, except on the TV news. They showed scenes of the Pope waving at crowds, but it was all in Malagasy (no English station, not even the BBC,) so I have no idea why he was there or what he did or when he left.

“Tonga Soa” means “Welcome” in Malagasy.
Alternating flags of Madagascar and the Vatican City, in front of one of the government buildings in Ville-Basse.

Where we walked is called the Ville-Basse, and it is where some of the region’s administrative offices are. These were built by the French, who had absorbed Madagascar into their colonial empire in 1897. French is still an official language, along with Malagasy, one of the native languages. English is not an official language, but in the cities many people know at least some English. Before the French built the roads and buildings here, the area was reclaimed swamp land, a place used first for growing rice, then drained further and used to garrison soldiers for the kings and queens.

These buses run regular routes and are very inexpensive – they serve commuters, mainly.

The young men on the outside run along with the minibus, shouting their route (not everyone reads) and looking for customers. Having gotten everyone who is interested, he then jumps on board and the bus speeds up to the next stop. There is a route, but no schedule. Experienced riders know that the bus arrives about every half hour during rush hour (yes, there is one,) and forty-five minutes to an hour in off-peak times. Frequency is dictated by how fast the bus fills up and the amount of vehicle traffic.

People with something to sell congregate in the areas around public squares.
The Carlton Hotel, one of the places where I tried an ATM. No luck, plus the staff was singularly uninterested in helping me find one.

Football, as we Americans know it, is played only in the United States. In the rest of the world, soccer, called football by everyone else, is the most popular sport. Madagascar has had a football team since about 1974. They built “Stade Municipal de Mahamasina” in 1986 to house their team, and Madagascar hosted the seventh Ocean Island Games in 2007. In 2019, Madagascar played in the quarter finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, but they haven’t made it into the World Cup playoffs yet. The stadium seats about 22,000 people, and regularly hosts rugby games as well as football, plus the occasional live music event.

Madagascar’s stadium, used to host football and rugby games, and live music events. “Mahamasina” is the name of an ointment-yielding plant that grew in the wetlands.

Lac Anosy was created in the mid-1800s during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I, no doubt to help drain the land as she had ordered the reclaiming the area to station soldiers. Today, the artificial lake has an island in the middle, with a causeway that connects it to the southern shore. A large stele was raised in 1927, constructed to honor the Malagasy soldiers who died fighting for France during WWI. The angel was added in 1935, designed by a famous French sculptor. The guidebook describes it as a “black-winged angel,” but it looked to me as if the angel and her wings were gold-colored.

The WWI Memorial on its island in Lac Anosy, Ville-Basse, in Antananarivo.
Soroptomists International’s emblem is displayed in the park surrounding Lac Anosy. I found there were also Rotary and Lions clubs in Madagascar.
People with something to sell set up shop wherever there is room.

Nyhasy was a very nice young man who worked as an accountant and managed his aunt’s guest house. His aunt was a flight attendant and was frequently gone. The guesthouse was on a side road, and had the advantage of being quiet, but it turned out (which was not clear in the listing) that I had rented one of three bedrooms (en-suite) in the lower apartment unit. The kitchenette, dining area, and lounge area were common use areas. While I was there, two couples and a couple of young men traveling together came and went, guests in the other two bedrooms. My room didn’t feel very private, and I wanted to be closer to downtown, so I ended up moving to a hotel called the “Saka Manga.”

The Saka Manga, which means “Blue Cat” in Malagasy, was a boutique hotel, with a variety of differently styled rooms and twisty passages through the hotel area. It had a pool that no one swam in and a pool side cafe, in addition to a full-service restaurant, so living was easier. It was two blocks from a working ATM. And, it was not very much more expensive than the Tanana Maeya.

My room in Saka Manga. The thing that looks like it has eyes is a chair, and the eyes serve as night lights. I stayed in their smallest room, which was really small, but it worked fine for me.

Saka Manga did not have any immediate contacts for city tours, so they directed me to a public park, sort of a city square, where the tourist office was located. It was a not very long walk along very narrow streets filled with one-way traffic bouncing over cobblestone pavement.

By this time, I had been in Africa for about six months, and had grown accustomed to walking in streets, right next to moving cars, watching both the traffic and where I put my feet. There are occasional accidents, but surprisingly few, considering the tight quarters we all maneuvered through.

At the tourist center, there were maps and brochures about Tana, and they had organized tour itineraries for the city, with fixed prices, although guides always welcome gratuities. I hired a guide to meet me here at the park in the morning. The afternoon was very hot, and I preferred to walk in the morning.

I needed a break from the hot sun before walking back to the hotel. I found a small cafe and sat, drinking a Coke and looking through the brochure for the tour and watching life go on around me. Five streets all came together here, ending at the park. Lacking any clear direction, cars were bumper to bumper, and building security guards made tips by reserving parking spaces in front of hotels, banks, and businesses. Selling parking spaces was a developed cottage industry in Tana.

The cafe I went to was in the white building on the left, which was a small hotel. This park is where we started our city tour the next day.

I had one more task before heading back, I remembered – replacing my phone. I found a promotional offer at the bank with a viable ATM. It wasn’t great, frankly, but it would carry me through Madagascar and it was cheap. Now, re-armed with mobile communication, I set off to relax with a drink and dinner by the pool.

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