Friday, June 3, 2011

Landing in Tana

4 a.m. taxi to Cape Town Airport, heading to a connecting flight in Johannesburg.


As soon as I got to the airport and checked my bag, I headed straight to Mugg & Bean for a "bottomless" coffee.

I hadn't managed to get to sleep early last night, between packing and remotely working at the comic book factory. I'd slept a few hours, then dragged myself out of bed at 3. I'd thought I was doing pretty well until I left my room, crossed the street, and tried to buzz myself into the main building at Cape Town Backpackers.

I couldn't get in. What? Oh hell. The gate was bolted from the inside. I could see the security guard's chair and folded-up newspaper. But where was the guard?

"I bet it's Richard," I thought. He's a real chatterbox, not like the former mercenary fighter who barely spoke above a whisper.

I pounded on the door. Surely Richard couldn't be far.

A minute later, I'd realized that I had to get to the front door of the lodge and that meant walking around the block.

In Cape Town. At four in the morning. Carrying heavy luggage.

Carrying my passport, several hundred dollars, a MacBook, and an iPhone.


Swearing at Richard (it had to be him), I hurried up the block, trying not to look like I was struggling with my bag. All the muggers are asleep by now.

Either they really were or I got lucky, because I made it to the front door in one piece. I punched in the code and went to the front desk.

"Who is the guard on duty tonight? Is it Richard?"

"Yes. Why did you come in the front door?"

I gave the clerk an earful to pass on to Richard, and got my security deposit back just as the pre-booked taxi driver rang the bell. At four in the morning, the airport trip was fast and easy.

Above Johannesburg, South African Airways encouraged us to "turn off our iPod players." And down we went into a modern, high-tech airport, almost perfect as far as airports go, aside from having none-to-worthless maps.

Turns out Johannesburg airport isn't a great place to shop for socks either. I'd been on a warm clothes buying binge since getting to chilly Cape Town and I didn't want to be caught off-guard if Madagascar was cold too. But in the end, I found no socks worth buying, and had to hurry onto the small jet that was bound for Antananarivo (abbreviated locally as "Tana"). It's one of those jets that doesn't bother with an emergency exit, instead instructing potential rescuers to "cut here" on a dotted line.

I surreptitiously studied my fellow travelers, trying to identify their purpose in going to Madagascar. Some were definitely NGO workers. The young hippy-ish guy to my left had a Lonely Planet—tourist. The older guy to my right was dressed for business but also had a guidebook. NGO or business.

I wondered if the boyfriend of the Jersey City native from my wine tour was on my plane. He'd been heading to Madagascar around now.

But mostly I wondered if Guy was on this flight. Could the hippy be Guy? The business suit man?

I didn't know Guy, but when I'd been scouring the Lonely Planet boards for information on Madagascar—did you know that there are leeches in Madagascar? And that a friend of mine once read an article that started with "I think I have a leech in my eye?" And that Malagasy people dig up the bones of their ancestors and party with them for three days before putting the bones back into the ground? —I'd noticed he was flying in on the same day that I was and he was looking for someone to travel with.

But I'm wary of agreeing to travel with strangers before first meeting them and sussing them out, plus I can't remember my sign-in password, so I hadn't written back. And now I found myself in the rear of a small jet, trying to identify Guy without having to admit I was also traveling alone to Madagascar.

"That must be Guy," I decided, glancing again at the young hippy with the Lonely Planet. I didn't say anything. If that's Guy then he's on his own, I decided, before promptly forgetting I'd ever read the LP post and going back to reading about Madagascar citizens digging up the bones of their ancestors.

On arrival in Tana, everyone offloaded by walking down the stairs from the plane and heading into the terminal. Bags arrived and I headed over to the line for visas on arrival.

Current information on Madagascar is sketchy. Guidebooks are old, tourism sites are only partially maintained, and not that many tourists go to Madagascar and then post online about it. So I asked the tall, thin 40ish man in line in front of me a question.

"Do you know if the visas are free or how much they cost?"

"Which passport do you have?"

I flashed my US one.

"Yes, free for thirty days."

I glanced at his passport, its identifying marks obscured by a plastic cover decorated by an elephant.

"And what country are you from? Elephant-land?"

I got a laugh and learned that it was an Israeli passport inside the cover, and that he had to pay for his visa since he was staying for more than 30 days.

I got through passport control quickly since my visa was free. A taxi driver held up a sign with my name on it after baggage claim. I got as far as putting my bags into the taxi when I remembered I was going to need some local money. The taxi driver pointed me to the ATM, where I got my cash and again left the airport, passing a taxi driver with a sign with Guy's name on it.

"Hey, that's the guy from the Lonely Planet forum," I thought even as I realized I'd just been telling him he was from Elephant-Land. But I didn't go looking for him. I was pretty sure he was going to the same hotel I was going to, because part of that thread I'd been reading on the LP Thorntree had been another traveler recommending a well-priced downtown guesthouse. I'd see Elephant-Land Man soon enough. But I'd have to keep my mouth shut that I knew who he was. People get nervous when you know things about them but they know nothing about you.

This plan lasted all of 30 seconds when I did see Guy again at check-in at the Tana Jacaranda Guesthouse. We hit it off and I blurted out that I knew who he was from the message board, but still I didn't offer to travel with him or tell him my itinerary. I hate to be cornered, and for all I knew, he had some impossible habits that he had not yet revealed. And anyway, I didn't now my itinerary yet. I knew I wanted to see lemurs and avoid leeches (particularly in the eye). Guy was a student in Cape Town and was here to go to the beach.

I hate the beach. Hot. Sunny. Sandy. You have to slather yourself in greasy stuff.

We both ordered some food and took a quick walk around the area. Tana was pleasant, with some cobblestone streets and chocolate shops, but we were both paranoid from all the warnings we'd heard about muggers and pickpockets. I hesitantly asked if he remember anything from his army service. We headed back to the hotel as soon as it got dark, and turned in early, both exhausted and headache-y from our 3 a.m. wake-ups in Cape Town.

But first, I asked Guy if he wanted to go to see some lemurs with me.

He warily said maybe. He was still sizing me up.

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