Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Madagascar, Chapter Ten

Here is Chapter Ten of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book at, at, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $6.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Madagascar Gallery at



Weeks-long rains had very nearly drowned the capital of Madagascar. Water filled the fields around Antananarivo, locally known as Tana, and giant sea birds crowded Lake Anosy. 

At the airport, Mr. Andriamanohy Rantoanison, Manou, showed us a laminated card with the prix fixée: 44000 FMG.

It was essential to speak some French here, and Manou the Malagasy (pronounce that “Malagash”) Francophone, Mirja and I did it well together, less from skill than from good will, patience and good humor.

Manou brought us to the Mad Hilton, where they served raisin juice for a welcome drink. You see the same picture of Tana in all of the few guidebooks. Now we saw it too. Your intrepid backpacking-guide author stayed at the Hilton.

Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Tana sprawled across several hilltops and the Hilton was set back from the town opposite Lake Anosy. In the middle of the lake stood a monument in commemoration of Le Premiere Guerre Mondiale, and along the shore floated leaves that couldn't have been more green. They fairly glowed. Glew?

The sun dropped behind clouds before sunset. New in town, we stayed in our room a few floors up, attacked the minibar and warily eyed the busy, dusking-up streets around the lake.

The Malagasy are not brewers. I spat out a Madagascar-brewed Golden-something. Spat it out. Golden left a wicked curl in your tongue and a sour aftertaste.


Zoma means Friday and it’s also the name for the positively teeming Friday market in Tana.

It's strange to prepare for theft, but that’s what they admonish. Fix your bag to minimize what they get if they slash it open. The Bradt Guide to Madagascar: "The Zoma is notorious for thieves. It is safest to bring only a small amount of money in a money belt or neck pouch. Enticingly bulging pockets will be slashed."

From a hill above Independence Avenue, a sea of white umbrellas washed out ahead in every direction, swallowing up the main square, flowing into busy little eddies beside stairways, up the hills as far as the eyes could see. Up one hill, down the next.

We paused. This was big, sprawling, daunting and dramatic. We clasped hands and dove in.


Flowers first, down on the right. Then a jumble of sundries, the multitudes and the advertised danger, rarefied by the dry hot sun.

Someone reached out and tugged at Mirja’s skirt. Beware the "voleurs," she warned.

Buy whatever you will. Locks and hinges. Grenadine drinks. Bright plastic jugs. Chicago Bulls caps. Greasy food rolls. Major motor parts. Michael Jackson T-shirts. A vast selection of wicker. Bon Bon Anglais Limonad. We bought a "Madagascar" ink-pad stamp that actually printed "Madagascap."

Must've been three or four hundred meters down one side. Too tight to turn, too close to walk two abreast, too tense to relax. Still, smiles from the stalls. Dignity, not desperation. Smiles, and lots of open looks of wonder.

All the way down and halfway back we didn’t spy anyone from our part of the world, probably for an hour.

Baby clothes. The tiniest shoes you've ever seen. Embroidery. Crocheting – napkins and table covers embroidered with lemurs and scenes from traditional life.

The Malagasy are a little smaller than me in general and I was forever bumping my head on the edges of their big white umbrellas, knocking my sunglasses off my head.

Mirja tried on mesh vests.

Down by the train station, the varnished wooden trunk section. Turning back, furniture. Circuit boards. Tiny piles of tacks. Stacks of feed bags.

There is a classic trap: there is a Malagasy 5000 Franc note. Then there is another that says 5000 also in numbers, but instead of reading merely "arivo ariary," it reads "dimy arivo ariary," which I believe means five times five thousand and in any event definitely means 25000 Malagasy Francs, even though in numbers it says 5000.

The feed bag guy wanted 1100 (27.5 cents) for a multicolored “Madagascar” bag. Realizing it just as the bill left my hand, I gave him not a proper 5000 but one of the 5000's that are really 25000. After a lot of consultation with a lot of people, I got the correct 23900 in change.

We walked up each side of the Zoma – past the train station, bureaux travel, the Library of Madagascar, and made it to the top of an adjoining hill unrobbed.

Here at the top of the hill stood the country’s symbols of power: the Central Bank, High Court, Ministry du Promotion de l'Industry. A band was set up to play on a flatbed but never did. There was hubbub, amplified music and lots and lots of people. Up here the kid beggars that you usually tolerate because objectively, their circumstance ain't like yours, swarmed so that they might have carried us away, so we turned aggressive and swatted 'em back.


Crowd at the Zoma, Tana.

By midday, unscathed and self-satisfied, we sat with our backs to the wall like in any good western, at the Hotel Colbert's terrace bar, already having seen a week’s worth in one morning. Hotel Colbert had a dubious five star rating, apparently not from any organization in particular.

It was a gorgeous day and the city was so picturesque, completely foreign. We ordered Heinekens in the haze. At Hotel Colbert smoking was still as big as it ever was. Yellow Benson and Hedges ashtrays as big as your head took up a quarter of each table, and flaccid, bibulous Frenchmen sat nursing their Three Horses Beers, and hacked and smoked too much.

Four ceiling fans, all whipping. Glass tabletops. No magasin (store) at this five star. The clerk unkindly suggested I go out to scrap with the local boys to find a newspaper. I wasn't successful, or grateful.


One night, at a restaurant across town, we sat working our way through the national dish, romazava, a meat and vegetable stew with ginger on the side containing "brèdes," which is pronounced "bread" and is in fact greens.

The lights dimmed for the floor show, an unself-conscious, barefoot, foot-stompin' celebration – white teeth behind brown faces. Boys pranced in costumes of yellow feed sacks and chubby girls all whirled and sang at the tops of their lungs.

Another night we watched a surging mob, malevolent like snakes writhing in a bag. Hoping it was the start of a coup maybe (Madagascar is good for a coup every five or six years), we rushed up to the second floor to see better. Probably 30 or 40 young toughs ran down the rue.

There in the dusk, in front of a big window in a Hilton conference room with no lights on, we quizzed a young security man.

His reply, "They are fighting," perfectly illuminated everything. In the end it turned out to be just some pedestrian rivalry among kids from the Lycée Ampefiloh down the street.


The most recent journal en Anglais in the Madagascar Hilton was the Wall Street Journal Europe from the fifteenth, ten days before. Just as we sat down to catch up on the news, Manou came driving up the ramp at 7:00 sharp, right on time.

Manou might have been a smidge younger than I first thought. He had English well worse than our combined rudimentary French, but we conveyed some really abstract ideas both ways in the course of the day – alongside the inevitable, "We eat corn. Do you?" "Yes yes! we eat corn too!!" type of linguistic breakthroughs.

Manou had two daughters, 15 and 13. He was trim and fit, with salt and pepper hair of the Merina, the interior people. The coastal people are descended from Africans and have coarser Negro hair. The Merina, including Manou, are fairer, almost olive-skinned, and said to be of Indonesian origin.

Manou’s eyes were expressive, crinkly. His only trip off the island was about as likely as a family of four from Des Moines vacationing in Macau: Once Manou had a patron who took him to be a croupier in Djibouti.


Our plan was to travel south down the spine of Madagascar just west of a line of hills called the Ankaratra range 160 kilometers, to the town of Antsirabe (Malagasy town names sound vaguely Sri Lankan, long, flouncy words full of both consonants and vowels, like the towns in Sri Lanka called Warakapola and Ambalangoda and Batticaloa). Antsirabe is home to hot springs and a hotel, and reasonably accessible via the improved road, Autoroute Nationale Numero Sept, the N 7. There's a lot you read about Madagascar that's not true, but they were right when they wrote that the N7 highway is flat and smooth.
Everything began spectacularly – cool in the highlands, with sun and cumulus and very blue skies. As we sped in and right back out of the first town, Tranombarotra, we established our communication ground rules: Speak slowly, and keep trying.

Manou wondered about the predictable driver’s concerns: What do we drive in the U.S.? How much is it? How much is gas?

He spent a little more time looking back at us than I might have preferred. Finally though, as he began a poorly understood synopsis of Malagasy politics, Manou turned back to regard the highway. First Republic, with the French, was "fantastic." Second Republic, starting in '73, "no good." Friends like Libye, Irak and Corée du Nord.

Manou had a special hate for the North Koreans, who would fly in and demand rides to the president's palace and not pay, an unhappy situation enforced by the presidential guard. The North Koreans built the palace for President Didier Ratsiraka on the other side of some hills south of Tana.

Manou stopped for us to take pictures of it (which would have been at our peril in the old days) framed in the foreground by mud-hut squalor. Massive and multi-level. Ratsiraka tried to be king, said Manou.


Didier Ratsiraka’s palace.

The Malagasy abhor conflict. Some 400,000 people organized and marched down here from Tana in August, 1991. Ratsiraka put machine gunners in the hills and lobbed grenades into the marchers, killing a hundred or so (the government said eleven). Even thus outraged, it took the consensus-building Malagasy another two years to oust the guy in elections, as, no fool he, Ratsiraka overnight became the world's best capitalist and most sincere promiser.

Ratsiraka had shot up his own people. But the Berlin wall had fallen and so had his income from the Soviets. He presented himself as a candidate in elections, lost but officially won, and finally lost for real. Now he lives in France.

One of the things you’ll read about Madagascar that's just not true is that all the hills are clear cut and stripped, denuded down to the red earth. The hills are mostly bare, but they're green, rather like Hawaii in lushness, and rather like Scotland for the tree-free, rolling moor feel. Most of the land is under cultivation, terraced for rice, but with some corn and a little blé (wheat).

Boulders were strewn across fields and rounded hills for the first 45 kilometers south of Tana. Not breathtaking. Oddly pretty. Everybody, man, woman and child, wore a straw hat. The houses were long and lanky and thin, a peculiar tall style, concrete or brick, sunbaked red either way, most often thatch roofed but sometimes tin.

In Vietnam, the colonial French taxed houses based on their width, resulting in tall, thin buildings. These were like that.

Another thing you’ll read is how powerful is the animist belief system of taboos, or fadys. Now here was a tiny village of twelve or 15 red houses – and the two tallest buildings were Christian churches – the Protestant, then the Catholic.

Roads like the N 7 hold motorized traffic, of course, but with not so many cars, these roads are also used for walking. Since pedestrians share the road with cars, you're forever having nerve-rattling near misses, as cars won't slow down and walkers don't jump to the shoulder until the very last second.
Add pollution, the need to constantly pass broken down trucks, tiny kids, occasional zebus (a type of cattle), and constant horns, and you've got life on the N 7. A thigh-high clump of weeds in your lane serves as a notice that there's someone broken down beyond a curve ahead, usually with two or four bare legs underneath the vehicle, extending still further into the road.

The road had been curvy down to Ambatolampy, about halfway to Antsirabe. Zebu carts far outnumbered cars and refreshingly, there were almost no motorbikes or mopeds. At Ambatolampy, Manou knew of an American with a Malagasy wife who ran a horse stable. Did we want to stop?

So just on the other side of town we turned up a dirt track at a sign, "Manja Ranch 1 km." and spoke English with the man of the house. He'd just awakened (it wasn't yet 9:00), didn't offer his name, and drank tea without offering us any. Just another anti-establishmentarian who couldn't or didn't want to do it the American way – from St. Louis, posted here as an engineer eight years ago.

Quit, married locally, stayed. Goatee, a little wild-eyed intensity, and a 70's-mod orange and blue striped shirt. He'd started the horse farm, with a half dozen or so horses and more servants, and he was trying to entice groups from Tana down into the hills.

First, he needed to get into the guidebooks, of which there were then exactly two: Hilary Bradt's Guide to Madagascar ("I don't know why we're not in there.” He felt it personally. “We've written her. People have written her for us. But you know, she's getting lazy. She only comes to Madagascar three weeks a year anymore.") and the Lonely Planet guide, in which he'd got a mention ("They stole a lot of stuff from Hilary.").

He groused that the government counted every arrival as a tourist arrival and thus while there were 52,000 "tourists" last year, really there were only about 30 or 35,000. The government kept ticket prices too high, there was no reason this country should be as poor as it was.
He blamed Ratsiritka but also his predecessors for taking too long to jump start tourism. This would be the year that decided whether they would stay or sell and go. He muttered quite a bit.

It was a couple hundred meters higher than even the king's and queen's hilltop palaces in Tana out here, and when clouds covered the sun it got positively chilly. We bumped and rolled on back down toward Ambatolampy.

Manou said rice cost 2000 Mfr per kilo, or 50 cents for 2.2 pounds, and that was an outrageously high price he thought, given all the rice in all the fields.

When he'd ask something in French, we'd decipher and try to answer and he'd always reply with an endearing, "Aaahhhhhhhh!,”  the secrets of the universe being revealed, when really we told him things like the English word for vache is cow.

After Ambatolampy the N 7 straightened out and we really cruised. The town before Antsirabe, Ampitatafika, marked a transition. The landscape flattened and the crops changed from terraced rice paddies to fields of maize. From here on in, people squatted at the roadside over covered iron pots on wood fires – steaming ears of corn for sale.

We traced along a muddy brown river through little villages, all red brick, with the rail line to our left. We stopped on a bluff 27 kilometers out of Antsirabe and did a roll of film (we took rolls of film in the 1990s) of the kids in the fields far below. Manou asked about U.S. racial problems and confided Madagascar’s, between the highland Merina and coastal peoples – even though we're all brown, he smiled.

We drove right into and straight out of Antsirabe, straight on to Lac Andraikiba, a beautiful clean deep blue bowl free from crowds except for kids. We shook off the few kids begging for stylos and took a 30 minute stroll along the bank. Three or four girls washing clothes giggled. A canoe with two men paddled silently toward the center of the lake.


Rowing on Lac Andraikiba.

A man with a basket on his head tried to sell me something to either eat, chew or smoke. Whatever it was I told him "non, merci," and we walked back.

Screaming bright blue and red tiny flowers. Eucalyptus trees. The path thick with grasshoppers. They "thp-thp-thpped" by.

Manou dropped us for Heinekens at the Hotel des Thermes in Antsirabe, which is this mad colonial pink and white bemehoth hulk. It ain't pretty but it did have cold beer.

That's important because the Star brewery is right here in town and when it comes to Malagasy superlatives there is only one: the worst alcohol award. Golden Beer is just pucker-up-and-spit awful. Three Horses is likewise pucker-up awful and it was awarded the Monde Medal d'Or at Bruxelles in 1992, which unquestionably undermines that award forevermore.

But here were Heinekens – and brown Malagasy kids swimming in the pool, and a gaggle of Scandinavians, all mixed with a Japanese bus tour. Mirja had Malagasy wine, "vin gris," or gray wine – Gris de Manamisoa, from Ambalavao and it tasted about as good as its name.

But this was truly a beautiful, gorgeous day. Unusual evergreens and billowing white, clean clouds.

Then it was time for the pousse-pousse ride. As far as I can tell, Antsirabe is pretty clearly the pousse-pousse capital of the world. A pousse-pousse is a cyclo without the pedals – literally a push-push – because the driver is inside a little wood frame with a bar, attached to the seat over 16 inch wheels, and he has to push-push the bar to move. It’s a Malagasy rickshaw.

They were absolutely everywhere, hand painted, individually named carriages named after girlfriends, movies, towns, rock stars. So we sat with a tiny old man pulling us along, bare feet slapping the pavement, getting going faster down hills, laboring up the other sides. Up the road to the Antsirabe train station, then a turn and a promenade down the grand avenue to the Hotel des Thermes and back. 2000 plus a 500 tip was 60 cents and he was delighted.

It's hard to imagine the life of a guy who can't afford shoes but still has to haul a cart full of people around on pavement – then it starts to rain and he has to just keep on hauling.


The pousse-pousses of Antsirabe.

Women washed clothes in a canal down by the thermal bathhouse you can't use anymore, and laid them on the ground to dry.

Blue gray clouds scudded in, kicked up a breeze and dumped a little rain on Antsirabe as we stopped at the Hotel Diamand restaurant. The stable man back in Ambatolampy told us it was the only place in town to eat, believe him, so we asked Manou to drive us by for lunch before heading out.

On the plus side it had a color TV and a bar, "Nightclub Tahiti." The most expensive thing on the menu was Camembert cheese at $5 a kilo. Crab meat was not quite $2. Hygiene was the only factor on the other side of the ledger, and it was enough to keep us from eating.

Manou, though, could as good as taste the zebu as we left Antsirabe, I guess, because he laid on the gas and got us back to Tana in just over two and a half hours,  compared to something like four hours on the way down. And at these prices, ol' Manou and Madame Manou would be wadin' in zebu for weeks.

I'm not sure what makes a zebu, really. How or if it's different from a steer. But one man's bullock is another man's zebu, I always say.

Grapes, corn and green apples, offered for sale on the roadside. Blé in the fields.

Manou was probably a pretty good businessman. Didn't much claim to like his Peugeot 504, but he still had it souped up with Pioneer woofers and tweeters cut into the back.

We were just rollin' along at the 39 kilometer marker outside Tana when BAM!!!!!!

Glass splintered, we swerved and Mirja and I jerked awake. I whirled to see a cock flying into the grass behind us.

We stopped. The left headlight was busted away.

Already a man was approaching the cock in the high grass. We had our second glass-breaking ride, after Burma, Manou had a repair bill and somebody had an unexpected dinner behind us.
Soon enough the scramble of stalls, like "Poissonerie," down at the paddies signaled the edge of Tana. Twenty-plus year old metallic Renaults. Tatas, polluting as usual. But to be fair, in Madagascar, so did all the other buses – Mitsubishis, Mercedes and Izusus, too.


They wouldn't buy back your local money when you left Madagascar. Since we had maybe $80 worth we were tipping fools that last day, ordering onion soup, bread with goat cheese, entrecôte with sauce, all we could eat at lunch, and being forced into Three Horses Beer, endured in the 65 centilitre size, because the Heinekens ran out.

We had evaded theft our entire stay, but we pressed our luck with one last trip to Avenue de l'Independence. Our luck ran out.

The idea was to spend a couple hundred thousand Francs. So we bought some art and a musical instrument we only mildly wanted, beat away the vending crowd and climbed into a taxi, where a kid reached in the window and pulled Mirja's gold bracelet right from her wrist. He bolted around the corner, into the crowd and away.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s