This was our first full day in Madgascar and we spent a chunk of it out in the old city. Tana as a city is probably more reminiscent of a European city than an American one. Signs everywhere are as likely to be in French as in Malagasy, though many folks speak passable English as well.
Driving seems like a heckuva a challenge, with lots of narrow cobbled streets (not all one-way) and occasional 160-degree left turns. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way and you may be just as likely to run over a chicken crossing the road as a dog. The car horn is used more liberally than turn signals as a way of indicating you will be doing something interesting. We’re feeling pretty glad we took the advice that we shouldn’t drive ourselves.
For a metropolis, there isn’t much in the way of skyscrapers. The population of 2+ million residents lives in buildings from 1-4 stories, from what we can see, with an occasional hotel that might go as high as 8 or 10 stories.
Any time we stepped out of our hotel or vehicle, we were immediately recognized as vazaha (strangers) and therefore likely targets for either sales or begging. And, boy, can people be persistent in these circumstances. As we wandered the few blocks around our hotel, we had one enterprising woman follow us for some 3 blocks or so, sure that we needed to purchase her lovely cards or some of her vanilla. We were not so sure.
The middle of our day today was consumed with a driving tour of some of the old city, including a visit to the site of the king's and queen's palaces, at one of the highest points in the city. Technically, the site is closed to the public but our guide made appropriate arrangements with the guards and hooked us up with some local guides specializing in the history of the palaces and the site. Unfortunately, much of the palaces had been burned and pillaged during the unrest in the early 90’s so we were looking at partial or complete reconstructions.
The palace of the king seemed complete, either spared or completely rebuilt. It was actually quite small, given our image of a palace. In terms of actual area, it was something smaller than our living/dining room area at home, though it was a fairly tall building, comparable to two or three stories, though it was really mostly vaulted ceilings. As explained to us, it was a very prescribed space. On entering the building, we were instructed that we should step in first with our right foot, on the rock just inside the door. Exiting is done in the same way, but stepping out backwards, with that right foot the last in the building. The building is built very specifically to match the cardinal directions. We entered through the west wall, the only wall with door or window. The opposite corner from where we entered was the sacred ancestors’ corner, with its own distinct wooden boundaries. The king had a lofted sleeping space directly above the ancestors corner and his primary wife had a bed on the ground floor, in the southeast corner. The other major ground floor “furnishing” was a cook fire/reception area where the king would entertain guests and could listen to petitioners. To add a bit of spice and intrigue, there is a ladder leading all the way to a spot directly under the peak of the roof, for the king to retreat to. When petitioners would come, the queen would receive them down below while the king hid upstairs and listened for their request. If he would hear their petition, he would drop a stone from above to indicate “the king is in.” If no stone dropped, the petitioner would have to leave since the king wasn't present to hear them. A bit like the queen acted as receptionist to indicate whether the king was around to take calls.
Next to the king’s palace is the unfinished skeleton of the much larger queen’s palace, built by one of the kings for his queen in a pre-colonial era. The original structure was all wooden, as was traditional (stone was reserved for the tombs of the dead). That wooden structure was later supplemented with a stone structure when the queen converted to Christianity. The stone edifice is essentially still standing though the wooden one was burned down and has been partially re-built. Repairs and re-construction attempts have gone on hold as the political situation continues to be unsure. The implication is that if/when there is another recognized legitimate government, the repairs would continue.
On the same grounds as the palaces are the stone tombs of the last 14 regents of Madagascar since it had been united as one kingdom, separated into two sets of seven (the greater and lesser monarchs). There is also a small chapel, from when the monarch was converted, as well as cannons gifted from Napoleon and other European leaders rewarding the monarchs for their service. Respectful as he was, Napoleon also gifted the sovereigns with some stone monuments to flank the main gate, a stone eagle to represent the strength of the nation and a stone phallus to honor the tradition of male circumcision as a ritual to recognize the growth to adulthood. We’ll save the gory details but the tradition is still maintained in many households around Tana.
The gate we entered and exited through was known as the execution gate. Those condemned by the monarch would be marched out this way to their death (to be thrown off an impressive nearby cliff). In the early days of the kingdom (with one particular queen), this was the usual method of greeting the foreign missionaries.
After returning from our tour, we hung out a bit at the hotel and made a minor foray into the open market near us in search of bottled water (the local brand we have come to know and love is called Eau Vive). Our hotel was at the top of a long set of stairs through many streets and down to the main old town market. We went down a few flights of stairs to see what we might find. In addition to the water and mandarin oranges we brought back, we were sorely tempted to buy a lemur stamp from one of the many rubber stamp stands we saw along the way. Given how much of the rest of the stuff there were necessities, rubber stamps? Really?
If you are wondering why the only pictures from today were of our hotel and environs, we can offer a bit of explanation. At the beginning of our day, our Malagasy guide, Patrick, was discussing our day and things we could do. Through some multi-lingual communication challenges (Patrick is definitely more practiced in French than English), we mistakenly thought we’d been cautioned not to bring a camera with us while out in the city. We later realized that was a caution if out on our own in certain areas but had missed the chance for some fine photos in the city by that point. :-(
The hotel room itself was worthy of some pictures. It’s a hotel aimed at French travelers. At least, that's my theory as to why it was so odd. The room itself was quite comfortable and spacious, as you can probably tell from the photos. A low king size bed next to tall French doors leading out onto a balcony. A nice comfy reading chair in the corner. A lofted area containing a little desk and chair and a reclining chaise (okay, that might be a bit weird). The loft area, reached by some lovely wooden stairs, was a bit reminiscent of the ancestors corner area at the king's palace.
The odd part of the room was mostly in the area under the loft, a shiny stone bathroom in many pieces. As you come into the room, you can take a left down a couple of steps into this area. Christy has provided one photo from that angle into the bathroom area. There's a lovely sink area and you can see at the left edge a bit of the toilette area. The toilet area has it's own closing door and there is a nice stone shower along that wall, also with it's own door. On the opposite side of the sink, near the bedroom itself, is a nice full-size tub. All of the doors just mentioned, as well as the walls between the bathroom and bedroom, are clear glass. The bathroom area seems strangely exposed, for not much reason we could see, and there is a huge amount of room in the middle of the bathroom that is just wasted space.
The room does have a lovely balcony with table and chairs, which we availed ourselves of for a bit, enjoying some tasty mandarin oranges while we observed the street from a safe distance. Among other things, we observed a group of men huddled on a sidewalk outside our window, focused on something they were intensely interested in. We originally surmised that maybe they were gambling with dice (looked very much like a huddle from Guys and Dolls) but further investigation proved that theory false as there were no dice to be seen. It turns out they were playing a street-side game of fanorona, the “national game of Madagascar.” It's normally played on a wooden board (the shape of a standard cribbage board) with marble of 2 colors. It's said to be based on an early iteration of checkers but with the strategic complexity of chess (so they say) for professional players.
We’ve since seen it played a number of other places and picked up a board for ourselves. One of our goals is to learn the game before returning home. Patrick indicated he could teach it but we have not yet had the opportunity.