On the Road Again

May 07, 2007. Stairs

Tana is a city in three dimensions. Once, long ago, I wrote of Hong Kong in the same way, but I imagine the residents of impoverished, backwater Tana would be surprised to see their town compared with one of the greatest – and wealthiest - urban centers of the world. Indeed, Tana’s three dimensions are modest compared with Hong Kong’s towering heights, both natural and manufactured. But Tana’s verticality has a charm that humanizes the city, makes it a fascinating puzzle of streets, stairs, and tunnels winding around, over, and through the small steep hills over which the city has grown.

In a car, the center of Tana is a slow place to maneuver. Streets are one way, and traffic flow is tightly controlled by restricted right and left turns. To drive from my hotel to a meeting, we crawled for fifteen minutes through rush hour traffic on tiny winding streets, turning left

and circling whole blocks where we couldn’t turn right, gliding slowly down long streets skirting the hillsides, and making switchbacks to reach the bottom of the hill.

But when we arrived, I started in surprise; the office was just a few flights of stairs below my hotel. On foot we would have been there in an instant, cutting straight down the hill that we spent a quarter of an hour circling in the WWF car.

I bought a street map my first day, so I could find my way around this streets of streets and stairs. The map was good, on the whole, but I literally couldn’t tell which end was up on the staircases that criss-cross the city. So I wasn’t always sure which side of the hill I was on, or whether I was facing a steep climb or a relaxing descent. While this could be confusing, it made the city a bit like a maze in a funhouse. I’d head out on the streets in one direction and then, tempted by a staircase, suddenly find myself emerging in a completely different part of town that I’d had no idea was just below me or above me.

The tunnels added to the enjoyable confusion. The direct route to the office from my hotel took me

down a flight of stairs and to the right up a major street packed with cars waiting to file into one of the two tunnels that run under the hills. The sidewalks, too, were crowded with people heading through the tunnel, despite breathing the thick car exhaust that was the price for taking this convenient shortcut through town. Emerging in the bright sunlight on the far side of the short tunnel, I was five minutes on foot from work, a quick right turn and a short half-block walk.

By car, though, it was a long drive. From the hotel we took a series of switchbacked streets to get to Independence Avenue, the main route from the train station to a big liberation memorial, halfway to the tunnel. This was a slow ride, down a cobble stoned street and through a thicket of markets and shops. Many lanes converged as we inched our way towards the tunnel, the walls of the hillsides towering over us, glowing with orange flowers and brilliant red poinsettia leaves. Once through the tunnel, instead of a short walk we had another mile or two to drive,

down a one-way street that hugged the hillside above the office. Far below, that flowed into a larger street, the Route Circulaire, from which the car could return up the hill and turn into the driveway where the WWF vehicles crowded the garden.

The staircases of Tana affect how people live in the city. On the broad sweeping steps that ended near the tunnel entrance, vendors of all kinds set up shop in the mornings, to ply their wares to the people climbing up and down. Rubber stamps, fruit, batteries, candies, used (maybe stolen?) wristwatches, small carved wooden cars, leather wallets, raffia bags that Malgache women brought to the markets and tourists brought home as gifts. In residential neighborhoods schoolgirls lingered climbing up the stairs, the exertion encouraging them to tarry and gossip instead of rushing home. Boys played on the stormwater drains, sliding down the hill instead of walking sedately on the

adjacent steps. On one landing with a sweeping view of the city a well-dressed woman waited to meet a friend; when she arrived, the two women kissed in greeting and continued along a narrow staircase that wound further into the neighborhood. And I, the tourist exploring the maze that is this city, stopped everywhere to take pictures, of the stairs themselves and of the unexpected views as I climbed higher and higher above the city.

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