The unit of currency in Madagascar today is the Ariary. One U.S. dollar is equal to approximately 2,000 Ariary, and the largest banknote in circulation is the 10,000 Ariary note, a sum deemed too large and flashy to be safe for everyday use. In fact, most Malagasy vendors don’t have the funds to provide change on such a note, anyway. Let me save you a bit of math and remind you that this impractical note is the equivalent of five U.S. dollars.
Poverty, then, is my first impression of Madagascar, but this, I suppose, is hardly surprising. As a Caucasian kid from the suburbs of California, when have I ever encountered lifestyles like these? There are dirty children who wander the streets begging, and when Sergio—our token soft-at-heart—hands one a cookie, there are ten more with scabby fingers and weepy eyes who materialize beside us.
We sit at a vendor’s stall in the deep dark of the evening and watch in wonder as Malagasy life unfolds around us. In the street, people group around small fires to cook food and find warmth, for at 4,186 feet, this highlands city is colder than one would expect for a tropical destination. In the daytime, the sun is fierce and close at this equatorial latitude, but at night, the air is cool, and the sky is dark beyond belief. There are no streetlights here. It is strange, indeed, for one like me, who has just departed from the endless daytime of late summer in southern Europe. Just a short trip over the center line, and the seasons are reversed. It is early spring here, and the chill of winter still hangs in the air.
My vegetarianism died on a stick strung with zebu meat grilled over the vendor’s barbecue. Now, I gobble vitamin C pills and hope I don’t get scurvy with this new diet of rice and multifarious meats—quite the antithesis of what I knew back home. I might get salmonella tomorrow, but tonight, we are eating like locals.
We’ve learned to walk like locals, too—across the street, through the street, down the street, no matter if a car is coming or going. Just stare the driver in the eyes, and he is sure to swerve to avoid you. We’re supposed to be talking like locals, also, but that seems a bit ambitious after only three days. Amongst ourselves, we speak a mélange of French and English—and sometimes a little Spanish, too—but in spite of it all, we seem to understand one another. “Let’s stop here for dinner parce que jái vraiment faim maintenant.”
“Qu’ést-ce que vous parlez, français or English?”asks a Malagasy man. “Tous les deux,” we reply. We don’t really know anymore—even our thoughts are confused.
And as for Malagasy, we are learning it in French.
“Manao ahoana” means “Bonjour”, and “Iza no anaranao?” means “Comment t’appelles-tu?”
--“Nathalie,”says the little girl with dirt in her hair and food on her face.
And “Misaotra” means “Merci”and that is about all I know right now. Tomorrow, I’ll look up more words in the Malagache-Français dictionary and then look up them up a second time in the Français-Anglais dictionary, and then maybe I will understand.
We leave for the field tomorrow, so today is a day of preparations. Cash to withdraw and the essential things to buy—phone cards, internet cards, chocolate, a soccer ball. I think we are set, and I am so excited to go to the jungle.