Intermission: Antananarivo the Capital

Monday, October 9, 2000

Tananarivo, meaning “City of Thousands”, is now a city of 1.2 million. Sounds little. But when everybody is in the streets, you wonder if it is 1.2 or 12 million people who live here. It virtually consists of its people, with some “houses” and cars inbetween. Everybody is outside doing something, going somewhere. Since a 50¢ cab ride is already expensive for many people, they walk and walk and walk.

The problem is, there are still many people who can afford cab rides (by driving your own car, you run the risk of killing somebody who’s walking). Hence, the streets are packed with cars, and 90% are taxis (refer to the entry about taxis and driving in Madagascar). In the last ten years, they have built a few roads (ten years ago, the only road was the one built for the pope’s visit). The number of roads may have tripled but the number of cars has increased six or seven times maybe. You do the math. My dad told me that we used to get to the airport in half an hour. Now it takes two hours. The cars themselves haven’t changed at all (remember? The gas tank is now on the passenger seat). There is so much smoke coming from the exhaust that the air is somewhere between blue and black. I have never breathed so much poison in my whole life - maybe I should start smoking, I’ll get lung cancer anyway.

I predict that the traffic will collaps at least once in the next five years. Unless the mayor does something about it. It seems he does but it’s very hard. How can you build more roads or widen existing ones where there are houses with people living in them? Well, you can. You take a big bulldozer and create as much space as you need. There is a street in Tana where all houses are cut in half and you can see what’s inside. It looks like a war zone but there is just road construction going on.

What do we have so far? Walking people and driving people. The third kind are the sales people. Everybody is selling something somewhere. Peanuts to the kids, samosas to old men, meat and vegetables to women, newspapers to the people on the bus, vanilla to tourists, and all kinds of useless stuff to anyone willing to pay for it. They are everywhere and if you are a vazaha, you won’t get rid of them (this was my dad’s job, hehe). If you really want to buy something, you go to the market, one of my favourite places in Tana. But you must bargain. Bargain hard, it’s worth it (and it’s expected). They make the first offer and then you answer with at least less than half of it. If you are persistent, you may be able to get a huge djembe for US$30 (retail price in the US: around $600). Ask “how much?” only if you intend to buy it. They will follow you back home to hear your counter-offer.

Now, long after my initial culture shock, I think Tana is a fun city - to travel, not necessarily to live in. The people have a certain oh-well-I-live-so-what’s-more-important attitude (it is really not among their strengths to do things thoroughly or even to finish them at all). But, on the other hand, they’re pretty relaxed. If it’s 30°C outside and they’ve been in a traffic jam for an hour, breathing blue exhaust smoke and keeping away the flies - well, that’s life, nothing to worry about. In some sense, I learn a lot about myself. My mom seems to have some of this why-worry-about-it attitude too. But I guess I got my finish-things-thoroughly side from the German part of the family tree (some people say I exaggerate with this but, oh well, why worry about it?).