Getting in and out of anywhere in Madagascar, even flying, is not without its hazards. First, you’re never actually sure the plane is going to show up. Or that they will tell you the plane isn’t coming today. This is more true when leaving Toliara, but still true trying to go to Toliara. Second, Air Madagascar, the only airlines in Madagascar, is owned by the government (remember the coup in 2009?) at the moment, and only has nine planes all almost 25 years old. To make you feel even better, in 2011 Air Madagascar was on the list of banned carriers in Europe due to ‘safety concerns’, and only were removed because last year they leased two ‘newer’ 15 year old planes from Air France. Nevertheless, our plane was on time and we landed safely in the Toliara airport, which has exactly 3 rooms.
Toliara is an interesting place. It’s a coastal town on the coast of the Mozambique Channel, with a beachy, relaxed flavor. The beach, however, is about 10 feet wide and hidden by buildings, which is actually good because it is nasty with trash washing up from the Channel and you’re actually not allowed on the beach due to the hazards. But the breeze constantly comes off the Channel and everyone has that relaxed coastal town feel. It does have a darker side, however, as many of the French ex-patriots who live there enjoy the company of the many VERY young girls available on the street at night. There are so many underage prostitutes, in fact, that the hotels make the girls surrender their drivers license when they arrive, to prove they are not underage, and on the list of 20 hotel rules, about 5 relate prostitution and pedophlia.
Initially, we stayed in the nicest hotel, Hotel L’Amazone, in Toliara, as nowhere else had enough rooms for enough days – literally, it was THE fanciest. It’s brand new, right across from the beach (and Club TamTam, good for meeting prostitutes), with a pool, workout room, and sundeck. Tres Western. To give you perspective, Jackie’s monthly rent in Toliara is 45,000 Ar (the Madagascar currency is Ariary-ariary, and the exchange rate is roughly 2,000 Ar to 1 USD). One night at Hotel L’Amazone was 220,000 Ar.
Our second morning in Toliara was Sunday, June 3rd, and we were awoken at 7:30 am to the EAR-splitting sounds of Michael Jackson! Like shaking the walls loud. Potentially the best, or worst, way to wake up, you decide. Turns out, it was Mother’s Day and there was a big concert planned for that night in the park across from our hotel. The music went on ALL day as they ‘worked with the sound equipment’, with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and other American pop singers, and in the afternoon, people began streaming towards the concert. Cora, Anthony, and I decided to go listen and it was tons of fun! The park was packed with people, and the Malagasy are NOT at all shy about staring at the Vaza. Every single person we passed STARED at us, and nudged their friends. People walking past did 180 degree turns to keep looking at us, swiveling their heads all the way around or even walking backwards. You have to laugh, because otherwise it’s super awkward. They all laugh and stare, and comment on the Vaza. The brave ones touch your arm or poke you, and then laugh at their own bravery, or if it’s a kid, they shriek with excitement and run away.
My favorite moment, however, was the guy who tried to buy me. We were standing there listening to the music, and this older man walks past and deliberately pokes me in the hip with his forefinger, stares, and then walks away. Weird, but no big. At dinner, I mentioned it, and Anthony says “Oh yeah, he came back later and started talking to me and gesturing at you! I didn’t know what he wanted so I just smiled and laughed, and he eventually went away.” That was when Frank informed us that the man was trying to buy me, and he would “naturally approach the man in our party since clearly he must own me”. Wonder what I was worth!
We spent our days in Toliara wandering the streets of the city, hanging out in the hotel, shopping for touristy things, and gathering the final supplies. We were supposed to be in Toliara for four days, giving Andrina and Jackie time to go from Tana to Beza to Toliara. In fact, we were there for almost 7 days, from our arrival the night of June 2nd, to the morning of June 9th. Toliara is pretty great, but definitely not THAT great. Our stay was extended due to car trouble. Apparently, someone at the University in Tana decided they needed new tires for their car, and “borrowed” the tires from Frank and Michelle’s car. They were nice enough to replace our tires with more used models…that were the wrong size. Thus, halfway through their trip, Jackie and Andrina were forced to turn back to Fianarantsoa, and wait for the right size tires to be driven down from Tana. You can’t just buy things in Madagascar, they always need to be shipped from Tana or Fort Dauphin. Thus, we were in Toliara several extra days, and definitely going stir-crazy, when Jackie and Andrina finally arrived and we were able to head to Beza! Next post, the drive to Beza and all about the reserve and the camp!
Lessons learned in Toliara –
1) Don’t drink from the glass bottles when you order a soft drink. In Madagascar, glass is very precious, and so everyone returns their glass bottles to the plant, where they are refilled and capped. Thus, every bottle has the labels rubbed off a bit, and under the rim there is usually a very dark ring of dirt and crud from its multiple uses and washes.
2) Hoard food. You never know when you won’t get a meal and hoarding food will definitely save you from starving to death.