Madagascar – we’re back

Well, here I am. Back in Madagascar. Or should I say ‘Here we are’ because, for the first time, I come back to Madagascar as a package that includes Fred. How will I adapt to life here after 11 months away and now that I have the mindset of a new Mum

Flying alone with a baby
The journey was harder than I expected physically but easier mentally. I was surprised how little help I received at any point as a sole adult travelling with a baby. I had to collect my 46 kilos of luggage at both Paris and Tana airports and check them back in at a different location. I was only just able to manage all the hand luggage. I had everything I needed for Fred in one bag and all my electrical items in another. Helpful strangers were vital but hard to come by. Fred got used to being held airport staff.

However, I am aware that my situation is self inflicted and privileged, both in being able to travel and being able to have so much stuff. Westerners have so much stuff.

I’ve seen Malagasy women travelling for hours squashed into the back of a bush taxi. They have the wisdom that only one item is really essential when you have a breastfed baby which is some kind of nappy change.

Racial kaleidoscope at check in
At Paris the queue at the Air Madagascar check in desks is my first contact with Madagascar. The beautiful and unmistakable Malagasy people. They are unmistakable not because of a single distinct set of characteristics but in their combination when in group. No other country on earth offers the same mix of Africa and South Asia. The range is from dark black African with tightly bound hair to the palest Indonesian with glossy straight hair. En masse they are a kaleidoscope of all the shades and combinations in between, with bits of white man, Chinese and Indian mixed in as well. Like a Benetton advert without the white or pure oriental people.

Complications at Tana airport
At Tana airport, I was generally last at everything. Last off the plane, last to join the visa stamp queue and last to join the visa queue. For the first time on the trip I got special treatment as one official spotted Fred slipping off my hip in a mound of blankets and waved me to the front. Somehow I was still the last one to pick up my baggage.

I’m sure I don’t have the right visa for Fred. I needed a transformable visa if we are to apply for his Malagasy nationality. The embassy in London told me to get this at the airport. But at the airport they could only give a 3 month tourist visa. When I discussed this he told me I should go to the embassy in Tana (which embassy I don’t know as they British one has closed. When I said I was going to Diego straight away he told me to try and sort it out there, looking at the floor knowing he was just batting away my problem. At this time, I wasn’t going to argue and just went to get my baggage.

For once, I paid people who carried my bag a euro, whereas normally I fight against anyone helping me. And if they force their help upon me, I give them a suitably small Malagasy amounts. In the check in queue a Malagasy woman was shouting at baggage carriers for all trying to help and her white husband for giving them money. I sympathised with both of them.

At Diego airport I was greeted by the new airport terminal. It’s still a simple one storey building and there’s no automatic luggage carousel but it’s newer. Luggage is wheeled in on trolleys and put on the bench of rollers by staff. Tickets are checked. By the exit, taxi men try to holler and catch everyone’s eye to grab that fare into town.

Has Diego changed?
The yellow taxis of Diego rattle back to town carrying their cargo of money spending tourists, to pump some blood into the local economy, and locals returned from exotic locations (usually Tana or France). Our driver, forewarned of his nervous new-Mum passenger, crawls into town at 20kmph, giving me ample time to absorb the sights of Diego life, at once familiar and strange.

Nothing has really changed – I notice that I am surprised to see hobbling stray dogs, whereas only 11 months before I was surprised to see white people being led round the park by their well fed, well groomed pooch chums.

However, as we near Place Kabary, my neighbourhood, I notice a new place for renting 4x4s and motorbikes which has replaced the lovely place that used to sell crafts far cheaper than any other store. Clearly no head for business.

Next to this is a café. I wonder why this little pocket of investment has happened and then spot another new addition, the Tourist Office, something Diego has sorely been lacking.

The roads look better too but there is still a metre square pile of mud and rubble in the middle of a main thoroughfare. Maybe blocking a hole of similar size.

As we pass the local square, men who hang out there discussing politics, life and women, watch the taxi go past. I am back in a land where I am something to be watched.

My new Vazaha flat
We arrive at the new apartment, just around the corner from Jean’s house in the Dordogne, where we lived before. My first impression is one of relief that’s it not worse and disappointment that it’s not better. It looks dirty and threadbare.

Ruth’s flat in Madagascar

A smiling young lady is there, Zakia, our home help ‘thrown in’ for the price.

Dino, one of Jean’s assistants, soon turns up with vegetables and starts preparing lunch.

The rest of the day is spent with me unpacking, me getting a delicious sleep in and Jean running backwards and forwards to the Dordogne to pick up bits and bobs. I’m aware that I have to sweep out mice droppings from the bed, and evidence of woodworm from the cupboard but know that these are small issues in Madagascar and that this house is a luxury.

I have a better night sleep than I’ve had in ages – mainly because Fred only wakes up for one feed which I think might be due to the smothering heat.

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