On the Road Again

May 07, 2007. Arriving in Antananarivo

I’ve heard a lot about Madagascar, but I haven’t been here before. So arriving this evening had a spark of excitement about a new place that I don’t know. The plane landed and the passengers applauded, perhaps with relief that after eleven hours in the air we were finally back on earth. We jumped to our feet, crowded each other in our eagerness to disembark, and then – nothing. We stood, and stood, and stood. No calls for the flight crew to “disarm the toboggans,” as they say in French, or signs of stairs arriving outside our windows, no thump of doors opening.

And then after a seemingly endless wait we were suddenly invited to exit from the rear, and we made a dash for the back door.

And for that first breath of fresh air that says something about what it feels like to be in a new place. I remember it distinctly, from the first time I landed in Africa almost twenty years ago. That was in Senegal, where the airport is at precisely the westernmost point of the continent, and the air smells of the sea that swells and dips just beyond the runway. This time I’m thousands of miles to the southeast, and in the highlands far from the sea. But the air is still fresh and moist. It smells like a good place to be, I think I’m going to like it.

The lines at the airport were endless, but I found my bag at once, and passed through customs to peer at the crowd of men holding up the names of the visitors whom they were to pick up. I scanned the signs waving over heads to my left and to the right, but didn’t see my name. People called out offering taxi services, and I shook my head. Finally off in the back, straining to reach above the heads of the others, I saw myself, “Joy Hecht WWF.” I headed that way, finally catching the eye of George, the WWF driver.

The road was dark heading into town. Hard to tell what Antananarivo will really be like from that drive. But dark enough that I saw the Milky Way, and picked out the Southern Cross above me. At least I think it was the Southern Cross, it certainly jumped out among the thicket of stars for its clear shape. I saw it once before, in Capetown. I’m not much for the constellations, but there’s a mystique about the Southern Cross, something that tells me I’m really on the other side of the world.

A policeman passed us on a motorcycle, lights flashing, siren wailing. George said something that I didn’t catch, and another policeman waved him over. For a moment I was afraid it was us, we’d done something wrong, until I saw the procession of long black cars with flashing lights heading in the other direction. And then I realized that what George had said was “le président de la république,” heading to the airport in his motorcade to travel abroad, or perhaps to meet someone far important than us. They were gone in a sparkle of blue and white lights, and we continued into town.

As we entered the city we were greeted by a horde of barking dogs. Perhaps they are harmless in the daylight, but they had taken over the streets in the darkness. I think I’ll do my best to avoid them. At one corner a group of young men headed the other direction, but for the most part the streets were deserted. George headed up a winding street to what I guess must be the upper part of the city, the old part that my guidebook said was the Greenwich Village of the city, and pulled up in front of a snug hotel. My home for tonight. Tomorrow I switch to a different place, larger, with internet and more modern conveniences. But for tonight the Radama seems like a fine place to be. And tomorrow I’ll find out what Madagascar is like when the sun rises behind the spires of the city.

Return home.
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