Indian Ocean - Tana

Antananarivo, almost universally referred to as Tana, is a fairly confronting city. On arrival at the airport we were rushed by very aggressive taxi drivers, porters and touts, all yelling in our faces as we tried to sort out our luggage and change money. It is really hard to negotiate your way out of the airport and sort out transport without losing your cool in the face of all that pushing and shoving.

From a distance Tana is quite enchanting, but up close and personal it is very very poor, crowded with both cars and people, extremely dirty and polluted, and quite heartbreaking. There are very large numbers of homeless people, many of them women with small children, just trying to survive in a country where there is no support and no money to spare from the few that do have a job. The touts and street-sellers have an air of desperation that makes them very aggressive, and there were few tourists, making us a magnet for beggars and anyone with anything to sell; in the central area of the lower town it could be really difficult to just walk up the street. Within ten minutes of setting off from our hotel Carmel had her chain snatched from her neck as we walked along. I'd never seen it suggested that that sort of theft was a danger, but other travelers told me later that violent theft had become more prevalent in recent times.

We were only spending two nights in Tana, but even that was too much time in the centre, so we hired a car and driver (arranged by the hotel) to go out to Lemur Park, which is an open zoo about 25km from the city. This was a sort-of 'insurance' trip, with guaranteed photos of lemurs, just in case we didn't get good photos out in the parks. Well, that turned out to be totally wrong, but a trip to the park is quite good anyway; we saw nine different species of lemurs, including ring-tails, which, as it happened, we didn't see anywhere else. The guide in the park spoke good English (useful for us, since Carmel speaks no French) and was quite informative about all the animals and plants at the park.

Back from the park, we had the driver drop us off at the top of the hill near the Rova. The palace was still being renovated and wasn't open to the public, but we had a good walk down to Lac Anosy, past the Museum (complete with marching band), the cathedral perched on the cliffs, and a wealth of interesting buildings.

Because of the difficulties in getting around Madagascar, we were to return to Tana twice more. The city never grew on us - we didn't look forward to further time there, and kept it to one-night stop-overs between trips to more rural areas.

Tana still has a central market, not far from the Avenue of independence. We spent quite some time exploring there, and also went up to the book market, a little further out of town, where we found quite a few novels in English. The book market was a real godsend for us, as we are both prolific readers and book stores in Madagascar don't carry light reading material in French, let alone English.

On one stop-over our hotel room (rabbit hutch!) overlooked an open-air theatre where a concert filled the air with song. We went and joined the crowd, the only white faces amongst a sea of singing people. It turned out to be a concert put on by a whole lot of different evangelical Christian groups to support families suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. Most of the singing was by choirs, all really good, and all in Malagasy. Our atheism and the lack of language didn't matter; we were welcomed into the crowd, who all joined in either by dancing or singing along or both. It was a great way to spend an afternoon in Tana.

We stayed in two different hotels - Hotel Isoraka and Hotel Sakamanga. Isoraka was fine when we had a reasonable room, but we also stayed there in a terrible, tiny room with double bunks and no space to turn around, with shared bathroom. Good thing it was only one night. Sakamanga is quite well known amongst travelers, and the suite we shared was just fine. Sakamanga is also one of the few places where your Visa card will be accepted.

Hotels will help you find guides and drivers should you want them. However, you need to be aware that any serious transport arrangements will require payment in euros - local currency isn't an option. This is because there is a black market in euros and your guide or driver will want to get as much as possible for his/her service. Hotel Isoraka arranged for M. Vevé to drive us to the Lemur Park and for our first trip out from Tana, and we found him to be a very good driver and enjoyable company. Sakamanga introduced us to 'Gaps' from Madagapscar; we used his services for two trips and were very happy with the arrangements he made for us.

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