Happy Independence Day, Madagascar!
I arrived back in Antananarivo just in time for Independence Day - July 26. The festivities actually started on the 25th with the longest fireworks show I have ever seen. It be honest, after about 45 minutes I got cold and went inside! But it was great to get to watch it from the balcony of my hotel which is very close to the lake where they were setting them off. After the show, the owners of my hotel invited everyone staying there to enjoy a traditional Malagasy meal with them for free! There was quite a bit of zebu meat involved but they also made some great potato patties and a traditional rice soup that was delicious.
In the morning I started off early to get to the stadium where there was going to be a free parade and concert. Getting there was a bit of an adventure as the road around the lake leading to the stadium from my hotel was blocked off by army vehicles, presumably because the president was going to be coming that way. So I ended up following a group of Malagasy people that were also trying to figure out a detour through some side streets and eventually made it. There was a huge crowd and hundreds of street stalls set up selling everything from fried doughnuts to baguettes filled with pasta salad (a favorite here).
I soon realized that there was actually a line forming to get into the stadium. It was hard to tell because it snaked up and down the street several times because it was getting so long. I got in line and was patiently moving forward slowly when some people decided to cut across the rows of people in line and chaos erupted. Everyone was pushing and trying to get ahead. The police didn't really have any control of the situation either but eventually things calmed back down and I made it through the "security" check where they barely looked in my backpack. I did notice however, that there was only one narrow doorway where people were being allowed into the stadium grounds. This was going to prove to be an issue when I was ready to leave later on.
I made my way into the stands with my flimsy Malagasy flag everyone was given and found a seat. It was only about 9am at this point but the sun was already pretty strong so I wasn't sure how long I was going to last. I tried to use the flag as a visor but I was very envious of most of the other people around me... everyone was wearing a hat. I've noticed that in general, Malagasy people seem to never be without a hat - whether it's a wide brimmed straw hat with a frilly bow (quite popular) or a beret or a baseball cap. And now I really understood why. Even though it's winter, sitting in the direct sun was torture. I hoped things would start to move along since I was told the parade was to begin at 9am but who was I kidding? Nothing happened for a good 90 minutes as more and more people filed into the stadium. Looking above and below me, I soon realized if there was any kind of emergency, we were toast. There were people everywhere and no room to move.
Finally some music started to play but that just got my hopes up. The same tune played over and over for about 40 minutes when finally the president arrived standing in a souped-up army vehicle that drove around the field. I was surprised that everyone enthusiatically cheered for him because he forcefully took office, refuses to hold elections and the economy is in the gutter. But, I guess it was Independence Day so people cheered anyway. He took his seat in the first class shaded section of the stadium and I expected something to finally start. After about 15 more minutes a couple of marching bands came onto the field and did a few maneuvers before settling in a generic formation in front of the president's area. Then the army started coming in...
For the next hour (actually much longer than that but I only lasted an hour) countless groups of armed soldiers - some groups in black, some in blue, some with hats, some with berets - began marching Nazi style along the straightaway in front of the president. The band played the same song over and over and over. At one point there was a delay between two groups and I optimistically thought perhaps this part of the parade was over but no. Next, a smaller group of soldiers began to march in but in slow motion while the band played the same song, just at a snail's pace. I thought I was going to die. I actually started to think that the groups of soldiers were coming through the stadium multiple times because from the far side of the field where I was sitting, they all looked the same. But when I finally extricated myself from my seat (after a lot of pushing and stepping on people) and got to the grounds right outside the stands, I could see the long line of soldiers still waiting their turn to go in. The groups were starting to get a bit more elaborate at least though... a few soldiers were on horseback, and then a few military boats and tank-like trucks were driven in but the poor band kept playing the same tune over and over. I really felt for them in their heavy uniforms out on the field. Flashbacks to high school marching band! Argh! ;-)
One somewhat interesting thing did happen while I was wandering around the grounds outside the stadium. A handful of helicopters (circa 1963) flew overhead dragging a huge Malagasy flag. A couple more came a few minutes later and hovered over the crowd but I couldn't really tell if they were doing anything. I sincerely doubted that I was going to miss out on any impressive floats or stunts so I decided to head for the exit. Unfortunately, as I was afraid would happen, a lot of other people were also looking to leave and there were still quite a lot of people making their way IN so... mayhem. Pushing, shoving, kids screaming, old ladies falling over, it was chaos. And for someone who doesn't get claustrophobic, it was still very intense and pretty scary. I made it out unscathed but I could only imagine if there was some kind of fire or something... jeez.
I roamed the streets around the stadium a bit and this was actually when I saw the most interesting part of the celebration. A make-shift carnival was set up along the lake and it was the saddest (yet uplifting at the same time) thing I have ever seen. It was really incredible to see people with nothing have so much fun with so little. There were a few scary looking rides that must have been put together in someone's junk yard. Thankfully, the ferris wheel wasn't too big because I really thought it was going to collapse. The little compartments for people to sit in were partially made of tarp. There were also a lot of game stalls - also put together from scraps. There was a kind of ring toss game where you tried to get a plastic ring around a glass bottle of Coke. Your prize was the soda but you had to drink it right there because the bottle wasn't included. There was a bingo type game where the prizes were all filthy, used items. In particular, I remember quite a few eerie Chucky-esque dolls with matted hair and no clothing. There were a few skinny horses being used for "professional" family photos and quite a few gambling type games to help you lose the little money you had. And in the middle of it all there were a dozen kids playing soccer with a plastic bag that was filled with countless other plastic bags in order to create a ball. But my favorite thing was the public toilet... I won't describe it. Just wait till I post the photo. :-)
Lesson of the day... everyone was having a blast even though they had nothing. Seeing life in countries like Madagascar shifts your perspective. It has to or else you haven't really seen it. That perspective shift is one of the main reasons I love traveling to developing countries. It really makes you realize how lucky we are and how we take most of what we have for granted. Then again, one thing I don't think I can get at home that I will certainly miss are the tiny, sweet Malagasy guavas. Those of you who know my obsession with fruit, well, I would pick those guavas over pineapple or papayas anyday! :-)
Sadly, I am leaving Madagascar tomorrow. While I didn't have enough time to visit the north of the island (it's really big!), I do think like I got a good feel for the place and it's definitely been a highlight of this journey. And Tana is by far the prettiest "African" city I was been to, even if the people here don't want to be classified as African. It's certainly expensive to get here but, definitely worth the trip. One other thing that I learned the hard way is very pricey... shipping! I spontaneously bought a cute, but bulky woven bag for $1.50 and when I went to send it home with another very light souvenir I got... $27!! The package didn't even weigh much more than a pound. I should have just given the bag away but at that point I had grown a bit attached to it. ;-) I had initially thought I would send a few extraneous other things I wasn't using home in the bag as well but that would have cost $72 so I decided to just keep shlepping that stuff around.