Another late arrival sees us haggling yet again over a taxi fare, this time in French outside Antananarivo's Ivato airport. We settle on 30,000. Sound a little expensive? Fortunately we're dealing in Ariary and 10,000Ar is about NZ$7. At this time of night its a fair price to the central city.
We're staying in the slightly seedy part of Haute-Ville and apart from a few girls of the night on the street its pretty quiet. Madagascar was a French colony and along with the language it has obviously retained various other aspects of French life. Old Renault taxis and baguettes are everywhere. We catch one (taxi that is) to the Rova, an old Royal palace on a hilltop overlooking the city. Unfortunately its closed for renovations but we get an informative guided tour of the local village and museum and we even spot our first chameleon. He's bright green, perfectly camouflaged in the foliage and his big goggly eye watches me watching him. Chameleon's eyes can move independently of each other, so while he looks down at me on one side, on the other he can be looking up and around for any danger and tasty insects. Very clever!
We take our time walking down the hill through the winding streets to Lake Anosy, which looked picturesque from our taxi last night with its floodlit central memorial statue. Daylight, however, reveals its true state. The flowering Jacaranda trees on the banks are its best feature. We don't linger.
In the central city we discover that we're an obvious target for the many street hawkers. Everything is on offer, plastic bags, vanilla pods, musical instruments, christmas decorations and fresh lychees. Most accept a couple of firm "non"s, but often we are trailed down the street and on one occasion we even leap into a taxi to shake off one very persistent and irritating street boy.
We hear tourism in this country has slowed with the recent political unrest, so perhaps this has added an edge of desperation to some of the sellers. We're hoping we attract less unwanted attention outside the capital.
We head out to le Marché Artisanal de la Digue to check out some local arts and crafts. The stalls lining the road appear to stretch to the horizon, with lots of nice creations in a reasonably relaxed setting. I find myself a natty hat
that fits me perfectly and manage to barter in my halting froggy French to get it for 300 Ariary - about NZ 20 cents. Keith, meanwhile finds the other side of the road more interesting, watching people by the red stained river washing clothes, playing cards and fishing.
There are important cultural sites just outside the city, so we hire a driver to visit some. Also it seems timely to get out of the city centre as the controversial president is making a speech today in the stadium. The diversions in place force us to take long circuitous routes but provide the opportunity to see more of the city and the way of life of the people. Its pretty frenetic on the streets and its nice to slowly exchange this for the greener rice paddies and the fresher air of the outskirts.
We bump our way to Ilafy, on a sacred hilltop, only to find the museum closed for lunch. However we still take the time to visit the tombs, look at the simple dark wooden 17th century residence of the Merina royal family and take in the sweeping views of the capital. As we walk around we
keep our eyes peeled for chameleons in the vegetation, but no luck here.
Our next stop is a spot we really enjoy. Ambohimanga, on another sacred hilltop, was the original capital of the Merina royal family. Our diminutive guide, Emma, provides lots of useful background information and fascinating stories about the royal habits. The fortress has thick walls, apparently cemented together with millions of egg whites, sacrificial stones and royal bathing pools as well as the basic hut-like King's residence and the more recent elegant wooden Queen's palace.
The large trees provide welcome shade and as we wander through the gardens we spot another species of chameleon. These guys are bigger and stick around in their shrubs so we have plenty of time to observe them closely while they do the same with us.
This is the highest of the twelve sacred hilltops surrounding Antananarivo, so it provides excellent viewpoints. We linger until closing time and on our way out pass a group of locals engrossed in a game of petanque and two disabled musicians playing for money on the steps.
The gastronomic discovery of the day is some delicious local food in a wayside eatery.
With some trepidation we duck into the dingy interior and follow our driver through a side alley and up a very narrow staircase to a surprisingly light and pleasant eating area. Simple tasty food is just what we need and we even get a bonus dessert scoop of icecream. On our way back to our hotel in Ivato near the airport we find it difficult to pass by without stopping again.
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