Captain Mamie   A GLIMPSE OF TANA

Antananarivo – hardly pronounceable, the capital of Madagascar, a country I had  yearned to explore, yet one that had alluded me over many years of travel.

On arrival you are met with a landscape of pink brick houses, muddy waterways, and smoking kilns and an expectation that this place is very different!

Although Madagascar is off the coast of East Africa, the people are not Africans, nor Indians, but a mix of original Indo Malays who arrived there roughly 2000 years ago, their genes historically mixed withTana's Poorest those of early Bantu visitors and Arab traders.

Our guest house was comfortable but in a poor, working suburb, not in the centre of Tana as we had thought. It was just us and the local Malagasys, no other foreigners in sight!   We dumped our bags and set off down the dusty road to explore and our immediate surroundings did not disappoint!  Skinny, barefoot, rickshaw runners ran through the streets carrying people and goods while they deftly dodged cars and the lumbering zebu carts.  The only country I have visited where rickshaws were still powered only by feet…  Often the rickshaw-wallers had to run all day to pay off their hire fees, for some, it was their bed at night.

Our adopted suburb had an energy and vibrancy – streets lined with bicycle repairers, joinery workshops, small rickety stalls and tiny shops.  Walls of hubcaps glinted in the sun.   Rice gruel bubbled on small braziers, large aluminium pots emanated unrecognisable aromas, while further along at the butcher’s, lumps of yellow fat and huge hunks of dark red meat swung from hooks, the shapes of the poor beasts, all too evident.  We avoided the sweet, fly blown delicacies displayed in glass cases and those exposed to the dust and the black belching smoke from coughing vehicles, chugging three abreast, across the narrow, main road.

Curious locals peered at us through the glass-less, shuttered windows of their homes. At a blackened fence,two small children waited, a woman as black and sooty as her merchandise, Coal Sellersold them a couple of lumps of charcoal, only enough to take home to cook the day’s meal.    Zebu, the gentle Malagasy oxen, pulled old, wooden carts, un-phased by the chaotic traffic, while women and children, balanced cumbersome, colourful loads on their heads, avoiding the potholes and the swinging timber planks of enthusiastic labourers.  Everyone jostled for space on the overcrowded road edges.

We realised for the next few days, we would be part of this daily adventure of life on the edge, of what was to be an even more amazing city centre.

We sighted a small taxi brousse, (mini bus), with a prominent ‘Cite’ sign against the windscreen, waved it down and clambered aboard.  The taxi tout took a pitiful amount of our newly changed ‘ariarys’, while our fellow passengers, with nods of acceptance, swiftly made room for us.  Our little bus dodged the manic traffic and snaked its way through roads congested with people, the many beasts of burden plodding through the streets and the odd old French ‘deux chevaux’, (cars once favoured by French farmers). We crossed a river and on an island were smoking brick kilns surrounded by activity. Girls and young women balanced stacks of bricks on their heads and shoulders as they struggled backwards and forwards up the steep river banks with their oppressive loads.  They would have a dull, constant ache in their necks, backs and limbs and earn practically nothing.  Further along the river, a two kilometre line of women, pounded, rinsed and wrung out their laundry befBrickieore scattering it along the bank to dry in the warm sun.

We arrived in ‘Centre Ville’ and lured by the smells of vanilla, coffee, cinnamon and anise we delved inside the municipal market.  The locals called out to us in French and to each other in Malagasy and instantly charmed us with their wide, warm, interested smiles.  We stopped and examined strange roots, and small mountains of spices.  We gently refused their offers of indignant ducks and flapping chickens, but bought bananas and not the tiny kittens in cages….

We were now in the heart of ‘Tana’- an architectural mix of colonial French, mid European and just a touch of the Central Americas.   Vast stone staircases led up to the three distinct levels of the city, and over these stairs, vendors had spread their items. We were gently persuaded to look at their woven baskets, order personalised rubber stamps, try- on fake designer sunglasses or a leather belt.  Red and yellow sun umbrellas sheltered mounds of fruit and vegetables and cans of soft drink. Piles of second hand clothes draped the steps.

As we scaled the stairs, the views across the city were mesmerising – terracotta coloured houses with tiled, turreted roofs, small balconies hung below faceted windows and painted wooden shutters, an almost medieval sight.   These odd shapes were pieced together like a fantastic jigsaw.  White spires of catholic churches and the odd onion shaped dome of a mosque, could be made out above the narrow alleys and flowering gardens.  Little corner shops were on every level, kids played in the streets with homemade toys, a card board box pulled with string or a wire car with coke-can wheels.  We followed the stairs up and above the city with directions willingly given by friendly residents.  Once at the top, in the once affluent area of ‘Rova’ we followed the signs to the old royal palace, not much of it left except a few stones, a memory to a once powerful dynasty. Turning back, we rested in the rambling garden of a charming café, gazing at the spectacular views across this sprawling city. Back at the bottom, along the main Ave de l’independance, young children, in filthy rags, with matted hair and bare feet, ran up, begging us to buy their cards made from recycled paper and pressed flowers, or a bunch of vanilla sticks, tied with a scrap of ribbon.   These youngsters often had an even younger sibling, perched on their tiny hips, they were shy, polite and hard to resist.  Therebest friends are a lot of street kids in Tana some, so malnourished, they sleep during the day, curled up on the street, huddled together for comfort and warmth, sharing a putrid piece of blanket.

Poverty is everywhere and we coped by giving a little here and there and when it became a little overpowering, we found respite for a while, in the city’s patisseries, terraced cafes and in the old colonial hotels with their adjacent ‘salons du the’s. Tana has smart hotels, lively bars, music venues and fabulous French restaurants, which you can retreat into when and if, you feel the need.

There are amazing experiences to be had in this wonderful city with gentle people who do not let their sometimes, frightful living conditions take away their humanity. Amidst the poverty, there is an unnerving friendliness, a generosity of spirit, a gracious hospitality and an uncompromised dignity that goes with utter honesty.

In Tana, it is its inhabitants, poor or otherwise, who dictate its character, make you unconditionally welcome and give the city its life.

An extraordinary place to spend a few days, but it is just the first step to exploring the richness of a country which will leave you spellbound.  A place where exotic lemurs leap through forest canopies and where leisurely canal trips end at remote fishing villages.  Where mist enshrouded mountain villages beckon, and sailing piroques whisk you along a fascinating coast, to white sand beaches dotted with small cafes –  serving lobster straight from the sea.

Lemur Face

Hayley Anderson aka Goatshiteambulance.