Saturday, June 11, 2011

Market Day in Ambositra

Ambositra, a village two hours south of Antsirabe, is—according to the LP guidebook—"touted as the arts-and-crafts capital of Madagascar." And there's a Saturday market in Ambositra.

I was loath to leave my comfortable bungalow in Antsirabe, 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 brilliant reservation agent named Scott at Continental who had managed to wrangle my Star Alliance 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 with Roadhouse Tours, 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 the big in the photos I'd seen). I'd initially thought I'd take a GAP Adventures trip here, but when I'd called to book, I learned the trip had been cancelled due to lack of enrollment. GAP does this a lot, which makes me opt for competitor Intrepid when other factors are equal. I find this "throw them all out there and cancel half" to seem deliberate and mildly deceptive. (Sorry, GAP. You're less pricey than your competitors, for what that's worth, and your Cuba leader Rodolfo was excellent.)


But I didn't have a cozy outfitter 4WD or canoe to ferry me around, so 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 rumored, catch a taxi brousse to Ambositra. Irritatingly, there are multiple transportation centers in each town here, servicing the area in that direction. Except when it doesn't, and there are plenty of exceptions. There's not a lot of independent traveler 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 had to drag 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 gets 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, endeavor to put money into the local economy when possible.

"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.

"Amboosht?"

"Oui, oui! You sit here."

"Where are the other passengers?"

"They are getting breakfast."

My ass. Still, he gets points for ballsiness.

"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 center. It was busy, outstanding, frenetic, and had nothing I'd be even vaguely interested in buying. 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 crowd and basked in its energy.

In time, I became tired and searched for the souvenirs I'd read about. They weren't in the outdoor market, but were in clusters of shops. No one had a lemur lamp but there were some fantastic Tin Tin souvenirs that had nothing to do with any Tin Tin story that I'd ever heard of. My favorite one is en route to me in the States right now, and showed Tin Tin 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 asked me if I had a tattoo.

"No," I said. "Do you?"

"Yes, I have a scorpion."

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 problem from here on in.

I walked by signs advertising several videos being shown tonight, which is an old-school practice memorialized in "Video Night in Kathmandu." This sort of thing almost definitely doesn't happen in Kathmandu anymore, but video screenings are alive and well in rural Africa.

Back at Hotel Jonathan, while being serenaded by oinking pigs from the home next door, 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.

**more Ambositra market photos here.

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