I have had my best day since arriving in Madagascar. It started early. I got up and showered at 6.15 because a taxi driver was booked for 7 to take me to the busiest taxi-brousse stand in Tana. A taxi-brousse is a way of getting 27 people plus all of their luggage including animals into a 15-seater school bus and taking you a long way for not a lot of money in no comfort at all. You sit 5 across and they go the length and breadth of the country. Surprisingly the driver arrived not only on time but early and Pacurette knocked on my door at 6.30 to say he had arrived but looked and sai "But eat your breakfast first."
We set off at 6.45 at an agreed price of 10,000Ar because it was so early. He surprised me for a second time by speaking English then, in French, he offered to take me the 20+km to Amboimanga, where I was headed, and wait around all day if necessary and bring me back for 50,000Ar or £15, I did think about it but decided I wanted to see how I managed on a proper taxi-brousse rather than just the ordinary Tana buses. But the driver did find the right taxi-brousse and checked the price: 700Ar or about 26p. Pal had invited me to Amboimaga to see the Queen's Palace there and to attend a 'ceremony'. He had told me to get off at 'le pont avant Amboimangs' which I said to the guy who takes they money and he nodded. We arrived in Amboimanga village at 7.50 and I asked the guy where the bridge was and he nodded up the hill. No choice, walk up the hill. Fortunately at 8 Pal phoned and asked if I was on the bus. I explained and he said the 'pont' was 2km before the village. I told him I would walk. "I must pick you up. I will find a car."
"I like walking."
I met him 2km later and he said "This is the bridge. I do not know why they did not tell you."
The 'bridge' was about a stride and a half long with no sides. You would have to jump off it into a centimetre of water to recognise that it was a bridge. It was now about 8.40 and Pal said with some anxiety that we had to hurry because the ceremony started at 9 exactly. Right on queue his sister and mother turned up in a Berlingo type van and we hopped in and drove about half a mile into a big open area. I asked Pal what the ceremony 3km from the palace in the middle of nowhere was. He explained that this was the auspicious day to start digging the foundations to his brothers new house and it was his brother and his wife who had invited me.
I had met Lalaine and Julia when they gave us a lift to the riotous rugby match last weekend and they were both really lovely. Lalaine came up and thanked me for coming and we got into a comic chat about the exact time. He said it was 5 to, his mum said it was 10 to His wife said it was 5 to so they asked me. My watch said 4 and a half to so I told them and they all fell around laughing, saying, "So precise. Big Ben time. It must be right."
Lalaine is a lawyer who spent 4 months in Dallas and who specialises in international law. Julie is a Madagscan spokesperson on the environment who will be attending a UN conference in Cancun this year. They are both lovely and very bright. His parents live in Amboimanga and they have spent a year choosing this site then designing a beautiful hacienda style house with a wooden terrace under a columned mezzanine. What they were doing was a traditional ceremony to invite their ancestors and friends to share the dedication of the site with the first dig of a spade. We all gathered as first Lalaine then Julie then everyone else present who had two living parents dug and put the dirt inside where the house will be. We all then went off for a chat while the construction team set about digging the outline shape of the house which was marked with rope. Frighteningly the labourers were using straight shafted French style spade which were obviously very sharp but were wearing nothing at all on their feet. They worked in pairs and how no-one lost their toes I will never know. I could not watch. I got into some heated political discussion with Pal's relative who spoke very good English and spent quite a long time talking to Emma, Julie's sister, and her husband Chris who looks European but was born in Tana and worked in Battersea and Clapham for almost a year and said he really misses London. After about an hour it was time to return the most north-westerly point of the sit where the best digger had be set to work and he had dug a perfectly square hole about a meter and a half deep. Lalaine jumped into this hole and Julie passed him a number of this which he carefully placed standing upright between 'dead' stones of granite. In went: milk, coins, living stones (crystal), honey, symbolic stones made into a bracelet and, standing upright, a long piece of rope to tie all the ancestors and the friends who were there to the health of the site and the people who would live there. It was very simple and very compelling and moving. Back to the shade and Lalaine made a speech which prompted lots of nods of support and emotion which a girl I had spoken to translated for me. He then thanked me specifically in English for being there and said that I would always be a part of their home. I raised my glass of wine and wished them 'Health and Happiness' which someone repeated and then a lunch was served. It has to be said that Malagasy cuisine is about the same level as German but I ate red rice, white rice, beans and pork (bean soup), mushrooms and something(?) and two shorts of chilli: yellow chilli (mild) and green chilli which looked like avocado paste and took my head off. It was a really lovely day and I spoke to half a dozen people I had never seen before in total relaxation and pleasure.
At about12.30 Pal said we could go either to the Queen's Palace or the zoological cultural centre but if I didn't mind he would like to take the children to the latter. Without thinking I said I was happy to do whatever he wanted which is why 10 minutes later I was sat in the front seat of the Berlingo sized van alongside the driver and Pal was in the back with eleven children. 14 of us in a small van with 2 seats and a road that was not made for any car.
Just before we arrived, Pal whispered in my ear as Pal does "David, the entrance for everyone will be 12,000Ar. Is it all right for you to pay?" I know to bring money with Pal and at £4 for 14 it's a steal. I gave him 20,000 and got no change. The cultural centre was a zoo built like a central highland village. There are 4 walls in concentric circles with deep ditches cut after the first two walls as protection. The walls are made out of red earth into which eggs are stamped for, apparently 3 months. These walls have been there for 60 years so it certainly works. Almost the first animals we were introduced to were 3 large, brown-fronted creamy lemurs, one of which had a very thin, long-limbed baby on her back. The excellent guide who showed us round gave us all a few peanuts to feed the lemurs and that was an extraordinary experience. You hold the peanuts on a flat hand and offer them to the lemurs. They look, then very quickly but with absolute delicacy they grab your hand and hold it still in between thumb and four fingers while they slowly eat the peanuts off your hand. It has the delicacy and sureness of a temple dancer combined with the smoothness and warmth of a baby's hand and it was truly wonderful.
We were very lucky to have the guide who found the bright red poisonous frog by getting into its cage and bringing it out to show us. He also entered the cages of the world's smallest lemur which looked like a mouse and a huge snake which eats the rats that are tempted into its cage by opened egg shells left their by the wardens. Pal told me that there are no poisonous snakes in Madagascar although there are poisonous frogs and scorpions.
I have written too much. I got home around 6 after another taxi-brousse and taxi, had a shower and now I'm going to have a beer. A good day.