The sound of pousse-pousse

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October 5th 2009
Published: December 5th 2009
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After the chaos of our Tana departure, the trip to Antsirabe is fairly orderly. The road is in excellent condition and it's its constant meanderings around the hills of the Central Highlands that stretch out the journey time. Of course we have a totally unnecessary food break, but it's good to be reminded at times that I'm still in Africa.

We pass numerous examples of terracing, as well as the curiously square buildings that speak of Asia rather than the circular affairs I've been used to seeing over the last few months. I spot adverts for Baby Foot, which I guess must be the local expression for foosball. I'm surprised by the number of cyclists on the road, given some of the gradients, but the tarmac's so good that going by bike must be an attractive alternative for anyone with strong legs and weak finances.

The main form of transport in Antsirabe is the pousse-pousse, a brightly-painted rickshaw. Pousse-pousse conjures up images of trying to attract a small, cute, furry animal hence could hardly be less appropriate in this context. Even before the taxi-brousse has come to a halt, drivers abandon their rickshaws and run alongside, seeing the potential bounty of not one but two foreigners. However there's no jostling, and in fact one smiling guy comes up to me holding a card on which my name is written - clearly he's been sent by the hotel where I've booked. I'm hoping he's just a rep but unfortunately he's also a pousse-pousse driver, which puts me in the difficult situation of feeling morally obliged to use his services even though I know it will be uncomfortable and, frankly, I'd rather walk. This unease is exacerbated by him then trying to royally screw me on the price. We settle on half his initial quote and I mentally promise that this will be my last ever pousse-pousse journey. However one plus point is that I have no idea where the hotel is so at least he'll be taking me there.

Before we set off, another chap, B, introduces himself in English. He's a guide operating out of the hotel and he walks alongside us, making me feel even more self-conscious about this ludicrous mode of transport. I will constantly encounter B over my two days in Antsirabe, as he tries to lock me into the trip that I've come here to do. I find this irksome but it illustrates something I've noticed the world over in the tourist industry - people put in effort to learn a foreign language but then they assume that means they know the culture too whereas that's a whole new ballgame. And certainly when it comes to service expectations, Africa and England are totally different, with the mentality of "Don't call me, I'll call you" being alien here.

I had assumed that, outside of the capital, street hassle would be lower - and since there was little there, that boded well for the rest of the country. However Antsirabe gives the lie to that. If it's not pousse-pousse drivers, it's beggars, and if it's not beggars, it's street vendors. Whoever, I'm lucky if I can walk 50m unmolested. However I do see further empirical evidence that African driving school cars are legally obliged to have at least four occupants.

The most popular beer in Madagascar is Three Horses Beer, brewed in Antsirabe. It's name is commonly shortened to THB but pronounced in a French way, i.e. Tay Aitch Bay. Like with the Stop signs in Mozambique, I never get to the bottom of why this little outpost of the English language hasn't been swallowed up.

The other guests at my hotel, as in Tana, are predominantly French, so it's no surprise that the only available group for my intended trip is composed entirely of French people and has only a French-speaking guide. As a sop to me, a young chap who supposedly speaks English is thrown in as the guide's assistant, but my first encounter with him - before I know that he'll also be on the trip - goes badly as he constantly tries to sell me excursions to fill up my one full day in Antsirabe. And from that encounter, I also gather that his English isn't so great. The likelihood of the Latin names for various lemurs emerging from his lips seems low.

From Antsirabe, I do a seven day trip encompassing the Tsiribihina River, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, and the Avenue of Baobabs (blogged separately) before returning to Antsirabe for much-needed laundry and some unavoidable admin. The day before my trip is due to leave, I discover that my battery charger is no longer working. This poses a problem as I normally take a gazillion photos. Worse, Antsirabe seems unacquainted with robust 2500 mAh-rated batteries or chargers (though it's awash with no-name Chinese stuff), and even a pack of the most reputable brand I can find costs $10 and promises less than 200 photos. Like with the sunscreen and adaptor purchases I'd made in Tana, items not used much by locals cost well over the odds. I survive the trip by rationing my photo taking, but this is a problem that won't go away so I investigate further.

I visit a backstreet electronics repair store, essentially a room filled with the innards of numerous items from TVs to DVD players. It's staffed by a dapper gentleman sporting a beret, goatee, and what appears to be a dress coat. He turns the charger over slowly in his large, sure hands, expressionless, as though it's the first time he's seen such a thing, but then he gets to work on the screws and opens it up. The circuitry inside looks predictably complex but he conducts a thorough investigation with a potentiometer and a powerful magnifying glass, even resoldering a couple of the contacts. He says nothing until he is done, then states quietly that two of the transistors are broken. I ask how much I should pay for the investigation and he says it's up to me. The $1 that I offer is apparently enough.

With the only vaguely name-brand chargers I can find here coming in at over $50, I have the dilemma of paying a lot of money for something that isn't ideal but will probably work, or paying much less for something that claims it will work but probably won't. The latter is in the shape of a charger whose instructions are all in Chinese. The only English on the box indicates that it's dual voltage and that it can charge up to 3000 mAh batteries. It's also only $20. I buy it and it seems to do the trick, the only downer being it takes half a day to charge anything.

My last evening in Antsirabe, I have the pleasant surprise of encountering my French tripmates again, with them having come back earlier from Morondava than originally planned. It's also slightly awkward, as mentally I'm back in lone wolf mode, and the goodbyes that were made just two days ago have to be broken up and remade again. It's incidents like this that confirm to me that my natural state is to be on my own. I need other human interaction, and in fact it's made my travels far more enriching than the many sights I've seen, but only for short bursts in between longer periods of reflection. I hope the four of them don't hold that against me too much.

I lose a little of my early affection for Madagascar in Antsirabe. The constant hassle in the streets combines with the hard-sell in the hotel to augment my general dissatisfaction with my river trip and make me disinclined to spend more time/money there. Which means I turn down the chance to attend a bone-turning ceremony. This is a special Malagasy ritual in which the bones of the deceased are unwrapped from their tomb, brought outside to "have a look" at the world and catch up on the latest news, then be returned to the tomb while the living have a big party.

Other aspects of Malagasy cultural behaviour are governed by a belief system called fady. Though often defined as meaning tabu, fady is more a set of requirements as well as proscriptions, though they differ between tribes.

Chez Billy
Examples include that if you sing while you're eating then you'll get elongated teeth, funerals on a Tuesday will cause another death, and twins should be killed at birth (a practice that nowadays can still extend to separating them).

Having sworn never to take a pousse-pousse journey again, I find myself unavoidably in one negotiating the two or three kilometres to Antsirabe's taxi-brousse station. My driver is Prosper, who had accosted me the previous day having heard I'd be leaving today. Against my better judgement, I'd agreed a time for him to meet me (hardly necessary when there are so many pousse-pousses everywhere), but he's as good as his word and half-jogs/half-walks to our destination for his $1. The taxi-brousse station is sedate compared with Tana's, though I'm the only whitie there and hence become a focal point for idle staring. I see one pousse-pousse driver being pulled in every which direction by touts who want the custom of his passengers. But I only wait for 45 minutes and then we leave.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. I paid Ar8K for a taxi with Justin to the southern taxi-brousse station. I'd guess the normal rate is maybe Ar5K, but he helped find a good vehicle for me and took the flak from all the touts.
ii. A taxi-brousse from Tana to Antsirabe is Ar8K. Like with any taxi-brousse, make sure you see the seat you're getting, and ask how many people they're lacking. The journey took ~3 hours 45 minutes.
iii. A pousse-pousse from Antsirabe taxi-brousse station to Chez Billy (in the main part of town) should cost Ar2K. It will take ~20 minutes.
iv. Stayed at Chez Billy twice, the first time staying in a double room for Ar19K - bathroom facilities are shared, with good hot showers. It's very popular with French tourists. I also shared a much larger triple room with a nice balcony for Ar30K.
v. See my Tsiribihina River entry for general trip information. I would NOT recommend you use guides from Chez Billy. My specific criticisms are as follows:
1) Promised me an English-speaking guide, who pulled out at the last minute.
2) The guide had little interaction with us and told us the bare minimum about what we saw.
3) The staff disturbed wildlife in order to create better photo opportunities.
4) By giving left-over food straight from our table to local kids, the staff encouraged the kids to pester tourists for food/money.
5) For the group size, we should've had 2 4WDs. Comfort levels were low even without considering that. Plus the vehicles we ended up having clearly hadn't been maintained at all. There was also no back-up plan for when things went wrong (as they did - read my blogs about the trip).
6) Ludicrous penny-pinching, e.g. I had to photocopy the tour contract at my own expense, the guide would only pay for 2 rooms for all 7 of us when we had to stay an extra night in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, etc.

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My pousse-pousse driver

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