Ambositra, a village two hours south of Antsirabe, is – according to the LP guidebook – "touted as the arts-and-crafts capital of Madagascar." And today was Saturday – there's a Saturday market in Ambositra.
I was loath to leave my comfortable bungalow in Antsirabe – I’d been there just a few days – but I had to get a move-on. I only had limited time in Madagascar – it was a miracle in itself that I'd found a Star Alliance reservation agent who had managed to wrangle my frequent flyer RTW ticket so that it would let me go from Cape Town to Madagascar and then back to Johannesburg to connect on to Bangkok. I wasn't going to mess around trying to change dates.
But now that I was here, I was learning lots. Like that I could have taken a local group tour, canoeing west from Antsirabe, eventually ending up where there are massive baobabs and giant jumping rats (though, as a former resident of Manhattan, I didn't think the rats looked all that big in the photos I'd seen).
But I hadn’t known that in time to sign up, so I didn't have a cosy outfitter 4WD or canoe to ferry me around. Instead, on Saturday morning, after first hunting with annoyance for the man with the key to the hotel restaurant, I caught a pousse-pousse (rickshaw) to a fork in the road where one could, it was rumoured, catch a taxi brousse to Ambositra. Every Madagascar town seemed to have multiple transportation centres, each servicing the area in that direction. But there also seemed to be plenty of exceptions, and not that much information available outside the country.
There's not a lot of independent traveller advice out there for Madagascar in spite of it being a relatively easy place to travel in, so often you end up averaging multiple answers from local sources and crossing your fingers.
My poor pousse-pousse guy dragged me and my luggage all the way down the road to the unofficial bus stop. I was having a hard time getting used to a man physically dragging me all over town, but I saw that this was how one got around here, and these men were anxious to work. I would have taken the local bus if he hadn't been touting for a fare. One should, of course, endeavour to put money into the local economy when possible. The day before, I’d hired a man to drag me all over town, looking at the studios of local crafts producers.
"Where to?" The touts were ready for me at the bus stop.
"Amboosht." Ambositra is pronounced in a way that bears little relation to its spelling.
My pousse-pousse was engulfed in a sea of bus touts. Poor man. He was steered into a lot with an empty minibus, where he glanced back at me with concern. I smiled and waved at the situation, trying to reassure him that I'd be okay. I paid him and sent him on his way.
Now, I turned to the empty minibus.
"Oui, oui! You sit here."
"Where are the other passengers?"
"They are getting breakfast."
I eyed the empty minibus with obvious skepticism. Still, the tout got points for sheer brashness.
"No. I will not go in this bus unless it has more passengers. I am leaving."
I walked back to the road. Now what? I paced up to the crossroads, then stood there, uncertainly. Surely the empty bus wasn't the right answer?
A different transportation coordinator sidled up alongside me now. He spoke quietly, as if he were trying to tell me a secret without anyone else noticing.
"Wait here," he said. Then he showed me why, using his hands to motion as if a bus were coming, then the hands/bus stopped, hands/I leapt on-board, and hands/we were off.
Excellent. I awaited my chariot.
Which arrived shortly, roaring to a halt. A few passengers tumbled off and I leapt on. Two hours later, we pulled up in Ambositra.
Where I promptly got completely confused by the circular layout of the town. I climbed a steep hill only to go down a hill again, where I found a decent budget hotel called Hotel Jonathan.
After dropping off my bag, I headed to the market, which sprawled across and closed-to-traffic major streets across the town centre. It was busy, outstanding, frenetic, but had nothing I wanted to buy. The Saturday market was a massive dollar-store and vegetable-market, with lots of rabbits, fish, chickens, and woven mats thrown in. I waded into the colorful crowd and basked in its energy.
In time, I became tired of jostling, and decided to search for the souvenirs I'd read about. They weren't in the outdoor market, but were in clusters of shops. No one had my current obsession on sale – the lemur lamp – but there were some fantastic Tintin souvenirs that had nothing to do with any Tintin story that I'd ever heard of. My favorite one was a plaque that showed Tintin feeding a banana to an oversized lemur.
Other than that, I tried to get online, which didn't work at all. David, a teen from the local Catholic High School tried to help me by showing me internet cafes, but they were all closed on Saturday. When we passed an open-air tattoo booth, he showed me his scorpion tattoo.
A hundred-or-so soldiers filled the town, most of them standing in line in the mobile phone office as they were sending remittances home at the booth in the back, so it took me a while to figure out how to buy a data SIM for my jailbroken iPhone (the answer was to stick my phone in front of the efficient, knowledgeable woman at the Orange counter), but that solved the getting-online problem for the rest of my time in Madagascar.
I walked by signs advertising several videos being shown tonight, which is an old-school practice memorialised in the Pico Iyer book Video Night in Kathmandu. This sort of thing happens a lot less in Kathmandu these days, but video screenings are alive and well in rural Africa.
Back at Hotel Jonathan, I asked around about how to get to my next intended stop, Ranomafana National Park.
"You have to transfer at Fianarantsoa," explained the owner. Then, "Wait. On Sundays, there is a direct taxi brousse. I know the driver. Isn't tomorrow Sunday?"
I was in business.
And in the morning, I awoke again to the sound of pigs.
Oink. Oink. Oink.
I looked out of the window of my room at the sun rising over Ambositra's green fields and the distant rolling hills.
No pigs there.
Then I looked out the side window. There they were, having their morning feeding right next door.
Pig sound, I thought, is gentler and nicer to wake up to than is a screeching rooster, which is like the world's most irritating snooze alarm. But then the rooster kicked in too. Oink-a-doodle-do.
I packed quickly, had yet-another-baguette-breakfast, and got out of my room for my day's trip to Ranomafana National Park. Time to see some more lemurs!
Wait, there's one now.
Oh no. That's not a lemur. That's a dog.
The streets were empty in Ambositra early on Sunday morning, aside from a few stray dog-lemurs. I didn't see any pousse-pousse rickshaws anywhere. The hotel owner stood next to me at the hotel gate and advised me to wait a minute while he called a pousse-pousse to take me to the taxi-brousse lot.
He turned right and emitted a piercing shrill whistle, followed by a loud call.
I remained dignified after his first call, but did not bother trying to contain my giggles when he repeated his shout.
Anyway, it worked. A pousse-pousse man scampered over to drag me and my backpack to the taxi brousse.
Which was in a lot below the main street, and getting there involved a worrying hike across tiny aisles between deserted market stalls. Could this really be right?
It was, and this time when I bought my ticket, I noticed that prices were posted. How many trips had I overpaid on due to being unaware that prices were posted at all the bus terminals in Madagascar?
My bag went up on top of the van, but as the seats filled up, some obscure negotiations between drivers occurred. The van was replaced by another. All the luggage was transferred by men standing atop the two aligned vans, then wrapped in a tarp.
We were loaded on. Onto the minibus. And we were off. Off to Ranomafana.
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