In the legends of the ancient Arabs, Madagascar lay in the Sea of Blacks and it was home of a 10-foot bird that could pick up a man and carry him away. That bird is long gone but, in many ways, the past still seems to roll over the present here as effortlessly as the tropical lushness mingles with the city.
Along the twisitng cobblestone streets, three-story, mock-Victorian row houses with hollow black holes as windows, and roofs covered in small circular wooden tiles, are stacked against the hills. Wild Malagasy orchids and luxuriant vines of bougainvillea drape over their 100-year-old peeling, unpainted walls and dainty, wrought-iron balconies.
Inside, television sets show Russian movies dubbed into French. "Russian cowboy movies," one American calls them.
Every Friday morning the streets down by La Place de la Liberte and the Hotel Isle de France look like they have sprouted a forest of six-foot mushrooms. They have become instant pedestrian malls as hundreds of white cotton umbrellas, stuck upright into the tubleless hubs of old truck wheels, gave shade to vendors in what is know as the zoma or market, its name taken from the Malagasy word for Friday.
The makeshift tables hold high piles of vegetables, vine-ripened and washed, sometimes so shiny they look polished. Shouthed conversations in French and Malagasy about vanilla, cloves, peppercorns, homemade potions for colds and arthritis, baskets, meat, clothes whizz through the air, vendor to vendor, vendor to buyer. "How much will you offer, madam?" they ask in French.
Madagascar is a country of shopkeepers. Doll-sized shops, barely big enough for the proprietor, his customer and his meagre inventory, line the narrow sidewalks.Where two streets meet is one Malagasy version of the mom-and-pop store. It is about the size of a closet. A rear door leads into living quarters and a window opening onto the sidewalk dispenses merchandise in dribs and drabs. Cigarettes are sold by one.
The owner and his wife pose for a snaphsot and he scolds his children for staring at the foreigner. "So impolite," he mumbles apologetically in French. When it is time to write down the address for mailing the photo, there is no need to find a pen and paper. The shopowner whips out his printed business card: "Daniel Ralantoarison, Commercant."
If you are not a commercant and you have a family to feed, you are probably a taxi driver. It seems every third car in Antananarivo is a taxi. Most are very old. One was literally just a shell of its former self, with no inside padding on the doors or roof, and feeling no sturdier than a sardine can attached to what feels like a mattress spring. The driver had stuffed a straw hassock under his seat because it sagged right down to the floorboard. I ventured to ask how old his taxi was. "19 years." I didn't disbelieve him.
Flitting in and about the motorized traffic of the city are oxcarts, horsedrawn, multicolored stagecoachs chock full of people and "les pousse-pousses." These are Madagascar's rickshaws pulled by barefoot men in ragged clothes and straw hats. Because of the colonialist connotations, they no longer carry passengers in Antananarivo, but this nuance has not reached most other towns where they are still an accepted mode of passenger travel.
Deeper into the countryside, other images of an Africa pushed back by moderan times can still be seen. Along the paved highway from the port of Tamatave to the resort beach of Foulpointe, once a playground for the French settlers, 10 black men walked in a procession. On their shoulders was a plaited grass stretcher on which lay an old woman, raised on her elbows, an impassive face beneath her straw hat. "Perhaps she is on her way to the hospital," a Malagasy friend suggested.
At Antananarivo's international airport you can have an elegant meal of marinated mushrooms, braised duck and potatoes, ice cream and coffee for about $6. But you cannot make a telephone call because there are no public phones.
Before independence in 1960 there were 50,000 French people living here. Now there are 18,000. France is Madagascar's biggest trading partner and gives it more aid than all other countries combined. This has left its mark on the island in a lot of little ways. In a open air restaurant in the countryside one can eat frogs' legs. Patisseries sell croissants for breakfast. Grocery shops advertise "champagne, biere, rhum," though there is a scarcity of the bubbly these days.
Most Malagasy whose polysyllabic surnames all seem to begin with R fall into two broad groups. Those from the coast are dark-skinned and their roots lay in Africa where their ancestors were captured by slavers. Those who live in the plateau are lighter skinned, with long straight hair and oriental eyes, testimony to their ancestors' origins in Polynesia.
The myth is that Malagasy sleep on a second floor because they believe that spirits walk about at night and might try to steal their souls. For the people here, death is not a final break and they take seriously the idea of keeping in touch with their dead relatives. They do it by exhuming the body of the dead person in a special ritual called "turing over the dead."
The remains are wraped in new silken shrouds and then taken around town so the dead ancestor can see the changes that have occured, before he is reburied.
No one can vouch for its authenticity, but it could have happened: It is said that an American missionary (there are about 150 Americans living in Madagascar, most of them missionaries) got into a taxi. The driver was engaged in animated conversation about all the changes going on in town with the other front-seat passenger, who despite the driver's enthusiasm, was not responding. Then the missionary realized why. The passenger was a dead relative back for a visit.
The morning newspaper, Madagascar Matin, is half in French and half in Malagasy. Editors must submit page proofs to the censors every day before it goes to press. It tends to give a lot of attention to what the Soviets do here.
For example, it was a front-page story when the Soviet sports committee recently gave athletic equipment worth $4,000, including a trampoline, to the armed forces of Madagascar. The caption under the pictures told how a Soviet gymnastic expert gave a small demonstration. The close-up shot showed two legs suspended in midair over the trampoline.
Fernando Rondon, the new U.S. ambassador to Madagascar, abruptly broke off a conversation in his office. "I've got to go," he said, "the president wants to see me."
"I'll take the big black car," he told his secretary as he rushed to put on his jacket, get some papers and make for the door.
"That car's not here," she replied.
"Well, I'll take the other one and Ignacio, the driver and oh, the flag, I've got to have the flag," Rondon said as he returned to his secretary's desk.
A check on the phone."That car's not here either and they can't find Ignacio."
"Where's you car?" the ambassador asked a staff member and ran out the door without waiting for an answer.
Next day Rondon said: "I had to use somebody else's car." Sans flag.The appraoch of an unflagged and unrecognized car provoked an immediate defensive posture by the presidential palace guards. "I had to jump out quickly and say , 'I'm the American ambassador."
In an interview a few days later, President Ratsiraka argued that disorganization was not endemic to socialist governments.