Madagascar is probably what most third-world countries used to be like before the millionth sunburned tourist demonstrated the locals what fat cash-cows first world travelers can be, thus ruining it for the rest of us who just want to see the world the way it is (or rather was). I’m fortunate enough to be here while the inhabitants of the big island are still innocent and unaware to the various milking options of the cash cow. I could wish with all my heart it wasn’t so, but there is no doubt in my mind the African preferred greeting of a vazah (white person) — “Give me money”, will find its way here as well.
So far the only ones to figure out a vazah will pay three times the price without even the slightest objection, are the ones to deal with the foreigners directly. Hotel owners and tour operators are the ones making the big bucks here, and as word gets around, anybody who has heard of vazah’s bottomless pockets latches on and demands their cut one way or another. My last taxi-brousse ride showed me what travelers venturing to Madagascar, with hopes of an authentic and independent journey, are most likely to get.
The procedure is more or less the same every time. As you arrive at the taxi-brousse station a mob of “helpers” directs you to one or another stall where a man with a moldy notebook sells tickets. He points to the fare chart and you wave it off letting the man know you haven’t just got off your international flight – you know the chart means squat. Five minutes of haggling, and you are still grossly overpaying, but at least you are within your own budget, and after all, you are more than happy to support the developing economy of this beautiful country, right? So what if they are going to stick you in the most uncomfortable seat and will not even bother covering your luggage with a tarp, you’ll gladly share your row for three with another seven for the next twenty hours and even get out and push the car out of the mud when needed – you are here for the experience!
“Chauffer… Um, chauffer? Arrêt! s’il vous plaît…” this is where I get off. Again, usually all you have to worry about at this stage is that nothing is forgotten behind as you emerge from the car struggling for fresh air free of chicken shit and sweat stink. Everything is here, now you can pay the driver and stretch, unless… Unless the driver doesn’t see you, all he sees are dollar signs…
I pulled out the 5,000 Ariary we agreed on before, and handed the money to the driver. I picked up the backpack and began walking to the Ankarana NP office. The driver followed. The amount was not enough he said. Apparently he felt he was entitled to 30,000. “You must be joking” I said, “a ride twice as long has cost me 10,000 just yesterday!” but the driver didn’t let go. When I simply turned away and dropped my bag in the park office, he grabbed it as collateral. A fight was about to break out, and a crowd gathered to watch. They munched on mangoes and waited for the show. The park manager, a gentle old man, knew some English and tried to help, but the driver and his assistant wouldn’t hear of it. Before I knew it, four pairs of hands were tearing up my backpack. They pulled, I pulled, I bit, everybody screamed, and then, as if by command, the driver and his assistant let go. It turned out the park manager paid the driver to go away and let go of his tourists. “Some people in Madagascar,” he said shaking, “see vazah and think ‘money’. It is a problem here, in Madagascar.” Of course, I have reimbursed the manager with the money he has bailed me out with.
All that being said, I really hope you haven’t returned your tickets and abandoned all hope of visiting the big island. It’s experiences like this that make a trip real – because they are. I’ve I had my expectations from my adventure, however, I also hoped to learn something I haven’t even thought of, and I have (even though I did resent this lesson at first). I suspected I’d leave Africa mesmerized by its wildlife and taken by the simple yet difficult life of its people, but somehow I never thought I’d be given a hard lesson about my own impact on the world. Like any experienced independent traveler might tell you – this might be the price of adventure, but it is sure worth it.