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My Trip To Madagascar - Part One

Posted by Cecile Raley on

We arrived safely in Antanarivo, Madagascar, after a few hiccups: baggage not checked through, plane delay, long lines upon arrival and a nail in the tire on the way to Antsirabe.  We got to the airport at 2 a.m.  The airport is small and a big plane from Italy arrived before us - too much for the police to handle so it took a while to get through all the lines.  Our arrival party, Jochen's friend Irene and her cousin Gael had waited for us for two hours, which is rare in such a tiny airport.  They deposited us at a small a local hotel to catch a few hours of sleep because we had been traveling 8 hrs from Amsterdam, and 3 from Nairobi with a 5 hr layover.  I barely remember getting to sleep.

Immediately after breakfast, we set out on our trip to our final destination, Antsirabe, with Gael's uncle's jeep.  Antsirabe is about 100 miles south of Antaraive on a single lane paved road which is (somehow) shared with traffic in both directions.  It took an hour to cross Antanarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  My immediate impression of the country, I admit, was the poverty.  Dust everywhere, hundreds of people walking barefoot, carrying heavy goods on their heads, small overcrowded shops, and small huts for houses.  The countryside was beautiful, however.  Madagascar has very reddish looking dirt which is used for making bricks, and everywhere you see the terraces built for planting rice.  Bricks and rice are among the most important goods produced here.  I'm told there are over 10 different varieties of rice in Madagascar alone.  The trip was supposed to take 3 hrs but we took a road side pit stop after which the jeep decided to stall.  People are nice here - so another vehicle packed with people stopped to help (I didn't know this many people fit into a vehicle but few have their own cars so they pool or take overcrowded small buses).

Rice Fields in Antannrivo





After some helpful stares under the hood, much discussion in Malagasy, and a few phone calls the jeep decided to comply on its own and started up again.  We drove to the nearest gas station, where it was decided we need an oil change and water.  It was lucky we stopped because that's when we saw the giant nail in the rear tire.  So Irene, her six month old baby, Jochen and I set out to find a restaurant while Gael stayed behind to get the jeep into shape.  We found a place pretty much only white people could afford, and the three of us had duck with vanilla sauce, duck with pineapple sauce, as well as curry chicken for a whopping $22.

Refreshed, we set out for the other half of the trip and arrived, three hours late, but without further incident, at our hotel where we were greeted by a small group of women that had been eagerly waiting for us so they could show us their gems.  My visit had been announced weeks in advance and there was much anticipation about what I would buy or how much I would spend.  Despite the interesting collection of gems Madagascar has to offer, there are surprisingly few foreigners who come here to shop.  Perhaps this is because those without connections don't get good prices - approximately the same as in the US.  Luckily for us, Irene is a well known and respected broker, and she had placed dozens of calls ahead of time on our behalf.  All the selling would take place here at the hotel, and people lined up to see us all day.

After having seen the poverty on the ride to Antsirabe, I had lowered my expectations considerably as far as the hotel was concerned.  But I was in luck because Jochen had found one of the nicest spots in town on his first visit about 13 years ago.  Hotel Greenpark consists of a little more than a dozen individual round brick "huts", spacious and reasonably well equipped by American or European standards.  The huts are surrounded by a botanical garden planted by the owner of the hotel - it has a few ponds, bridges, shadowy seating areas and local trees and flowers.  You can hear the birds sing all day. 

 Our Hotel in Antsirabe







I didn't get much of a chance to enjoy the scenery, however.  The brokers, many of which have known Jochen for more than a decade, were eager to show their wares.  After throwing my bags into my hut and taking an extremely brief shower (I was so rushed I didn't realize that towels hadn't been brought to my room yet), I joined the group in the yard.  Irene had arranged a system by which each broker had received a number according to which they would be received.

After four hours of sleep, I was in less than perfect condition to think about prices but I gave it a try.  I was so curious what they had.  In fact, Irene had already provided me with samples during the ride and had arranged that I would get to see the things that interested me most.  From what I was able to learn so far, the system goes like this: in Madagascar, foreigners are not allowed near the mines.  Therefore, one has to go through a broker, who either borrows from a dealer or is a dealer him or herself.  Many dealers don't show their gems themselves because they don't want others to know what they have and where they live.  Getting robbed is always a distinct possibility.  So the broker, who gets a commission, is needed. 

Upon arrival, the brokers place their goods on the table, one by one (usually small boxes with one or many pieces).  They go slowly unless you insist to see everything more or less at once - that's usually the better idea because otherwise it takes too long.  Each person has maybe 20 boxes.  You look, you can open, you select what you like, you ask for a price.  You expect it to be a first offer intended to figure out how you react.  Less experienced brokers just read off prices and have to call the dealer to confirm.  Others know their prices and can negotiate.  You have to assume the first offer is too high, sometimes way out of whack and sometimes reasonable.  That depends on the broker and/or your relationship.  I had an idea of what items to expect and so I made sure I knew my stuff beforehand.

Money has to be in local currency, Ariay, cash only, or cash at the end of the journey if you have a good helper like Irene who is respected.  Or, if you really have "street cred", money wired via Western Union after you leave (bank accounts are not common here).  But no credit card, no foreign currency - credit cards are virtually unknown.  The problem this creates is that currency is 1 to 3000, so there are literally plastic bags with bills changing hands.  You need a calculator at all times and some initial help so you don't miscalculate.

The first offers I was made were way too high.  I counter offered, the dealer was called. I was honest (too much money, not nice, window, no clients, etc - whatever reason belongs to the set of true answers), but I also made some smaller good faith purchases, for more or less the right price. That way people didn't think I was just "eye shopping" or had no money or didn't like the merchandise.  French being the language most people share except for the local Malagasy, I had to dig out all my high school French to be able to communicate.  After a day or two, I was doing ok with that.

At sundown, the selling ended - for the obvious reason, no light.   

Of course you want to know what kinds of gems I saw and what they have here.  So here goes:

Beryl -  lots, blue, clear, greenish, some pinkish (no heat, just about all of it).  Even some emerald, but the price for that is too high because the thinking is, it's emerald and so that's very special.  The emeralds I saw were included and small, and I passed.  There was some nice big size aqua though.  

Sapphire - Madagascar is famous for those, but I saw fewer purple ones than I expected.  I bought a small lot (parcel) of pinks to be nice.  I asked if there were larger purple ones.  Most of what I saw was blue, blue green, yellow, bi color blue and yellow.

Was offered some kornerupine but that wasn't kornerupine but diopside according to Jochen.  Not that people are dishonest.  But not everyone knows and not everything's obvious.  Anyway I passed.  Sphene - nice but included, not very green. 
Chrysoberyl - very little available but I got some. 
Demantoid - got one super nice piece, am hunting for more because that stuff is rare here and interesting, not like the Namibian or the Russian.
Ruby - mostly small stuff or included but I got one that has to go to the lab.
Apatite - galore, some green stuff too, some nice stuff at a reasonable price.
Sanidine - pretty.
Danburite -  looks identical to brown topaz, very strange.  Not like the yellow Tanzanian stuff at all. Tourmaline - lots available also but not necessarily pretty.  Lots of yellow stuff, or yellow green, windowed or included like mad.  Lots of cats eye but UGLY.  A lot depends on what is available or found that particular week or month.  And of course they all know that sapphires, rubies, emeralds, are what all the world buys.  Tourmaline is also popular.  Cat's eye sapphire here is interesting but I didn't really like it, neither did I like the stars.
Garnets - there was tons of regular red but I passed on all.  The Malaya was more interesting.  Tsavorite - rare here but not that nice.  Passing.
Unusual stuff - grandidierite, phenakite, moonstone that's local (most moonstone comes from Tanzania or India). 

Tourmaline and Morganite


On the second day in the morning, all the women and some new ones returned.  There was essentially an all day picnic in the yard, with people waiting their turns, several kids, grand kids, other friends, people hanging out on blankets and bringing their lunch.  Even though Jochen was also shopping (for tourmaline slices, rough stones, and crystals), most of the brokers had been waiting for me, as it turned out, some of them since 7 a.m.  I was shown much of the same merchandise but also new stuff.  One woman whose stuff I had rejected told me that the owner of the gems was willing to come down in price of the merchandise - by half.  Standard procedure.  The trick is - I've learned this the hard way with the old time dealers in New York - to get the buyer to make an offer.  Because if the offer is accepted, that's a deal.  Since there are no returns or exchanges, the offer is binding (unless the stone was a fake or something but even then it can be tricky - more likely you won't buy there again).  Therefore conversation goes back and forth.  After initial offers are made, one has "une discussion", or the price is "a discuter."  The broker keeps asking what I am willing to pay, I ask what a more serious price is.  I decide if I am going to make a low ball offer because I don't like the piece or the price is way off (low ball meaning maybe 20% of asking).  Or if I offer half, which is more serious - in one case, where the seller really wanted to make a little money - my offer of half was accepted immediately.  That meant I bid too high.  But that was that, the deal was made.  Luckily it was just $50.  Other goods get put aside because I say I will think about it, "je vais reflechir".  I can ask if I can choose from a lot but that rarely pays.  Mostly lots are cheaper, sometimes they are 1/4 of the price.  Those always include "dogs", stones you don't want.  And per carat prices are not on the box.  So you have to count and estimate, or weigh the contents (I did both), count out the "dogs", subtract them as a loss, and then reprice the lot price into carats, compare to what you pay at home and decide if you want it.  If you take nothing the seller won't be happy and might get pushy.  One should not take offense though because this area is so economically depressed that a sale of a few hundred dollars is a really big deal.  Even $50 is good.  At 3-5% commission for the broker, it will make a day's wages and the trip won't have been in vain. 

Goods are often shared between brokers, or one owner uses several brokers, so you can't be surprised if you see the same stuff more than once or in someone else's hands.  And don't expect them not to share with each other what you bought and for how much.  That's important information, and it has to be treated as public.

For lunch, we took a 2 hr break and went to both of the local markets (Le Circle and Hotel Diamand) to show our faces and let everyone know we were here.  Insofar as they didn't, because there are probably only about 50 booths total between both markets.  Both Jochen and I made sure to go inside each and every booth so as not to offend and show willingness to look at everything.  I arranged with Irene that if I said I liked something, she would speak to the seller, get a price, and borrow the merchandise for me to look at in the hotel.  That is common practice, and it worked well.  It saved us a lot of back and forth, and it reduced the selection down to what I was interested in.  Each booth only has 50 lots or so, which makes it fairly easy to scan.  And it helps when you know what you are looking for.  Also since the stones are all local, there isn't anywhere near as much stuff as at a gem show.

After the gem markets we went to the local farmer's market to have lunch.  There are several large "kitchens" - areas with a tiled huge table and wooden benches where someone makes a few dishes that can be served over rice.  We had (a tiny) pork chop, rice and peas, and some tomato.  There were several kids hanging about, looking at our plates, and I was wondering if they wanted money.  That wasn't the case, after I was about 3/4 done with lunch, a little boy I had photographed earlier tugged on my shirt.  Jochen explained he wanted to know if I was finished because he would pour the left over rice and the pork bone into a tiny used plastic bag.  "They bring it home" he said, it gets cooked in a big bowl of water to flavor it and cook out the fat.  I felt bad, ordered a little more food, gave it to the boy, and added one of the bananas Gael had gotten for us while we were eating. 


The Gem Markets






The food, by the way, was surprisingly tasty.  Simple but well prepared. I shared my moist napkins after the meal - Irene who had one of her favorite foods, deep fried fish head, really needed it.  Gael was intrigued but also challenged by the packaging.  He pulled out several wipes at once but then shared with Maria, Irene's 16 year old daughter, and her child.  The wipes were definitely a hit.
Food is generally excellent here.  There's not a huge selection, and the wines are hit or miss (mostly miss), but you can have your zebu meat (the local cows which have really big horns) with freshly cut fries, fresh and well prepared veggies, or rice.  The food is French inspired (i.e. you can get foie gras) with a local touch (curries are common, or vanilla sauce or something similar).  Breakfast can be local - something called Vary Marainy - rice with a little veggies and dried pork - or French inspired continental with a Baguette,  butter and jam, coffee or tea, fresh pressed juice of local fruits (had courassol this morning but don't know what it is), and an omelet or eggs sunny side up.  The local bakery has a small selection of cheeses that can be bought separately and some sweets that look French inspired.  Croissants are available too.  Didn't try any of that yet.

On the first morning, Irene joined us for breakfast.  She looked for us at the hotel but didn't find us there since we were up early.  So she came over to the bakery - it's Jochen's local spot.  A discussion over local and chain food ensued and I explained that in America, no matter how far you drive, you can always eat the same food at a chain like McDonald's.  (That's not the case just about anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in Madagascar). Irene politely listened but I realized quickly that she wasn't understanding something.  Jochen caught on faster than me.  "Do you know what McDonald's is?" he asked Irene.  "No."  That explained it.

I don't think I have words to express how refreshing this was to hear.  Fast food has NOT taken over the universe.  Irene has a TV (though no fridge) and has finished school.  She uses the internet all the time - you have to buy it in data units though so it's expensive.  Yet McDonald's had somehow escaped her.  I was thrilled.

 So yes, not everyone has a fridge.  Since not everyone has shoes this is not a surprise.  Not everyone has a house, and most houses do not have glass windows.  This is not terrible since the climate is mild - in the winter it's about 40 at night and 80 during the day.  Heating and air conditioning are unknown.  Life generally takes place outside.  Rooms are tiny indoors, and used for sleeping, protecting from the summer rains, or watching TV if that exists.  Cooking is done outside in general, on big pots on top of charcoal.  Hence the rice with stew or vegetables.  That makes the most sense and can be consumed immediately.

I got a better sense of local living on my third day here, when I was invited to an exhumation.  This will take some explaining.  Let's see.  So in America and most places you and I know, the dead are buried or burned and then it's done and over with, save for photos and mementos. Not all places have photos or mementos though because not all countries have cameras or things.  How would you remember your family member if you didn't?  Here's a thought.  You remove them from the mausoleum in which the bodies are kept every few years, i.e. every seven in this case, seven being an important number.  You take the body of the ancestor out of the mausoleum - wrapped in a white sheet of course - and bring them outside with the accompaniment of a lot of music, speeches, and, in this case, beer.

You let the dead participate, in other words, in your world and your daily life for a day.  You then "dress them" in a new sheet which is wrapped around the old one, and after a few hours of daylight which they get to spend among the festivities - in a manner of speaking - you bring them back home into the tomb, again with a lot of spectacle, and put them back to sleep.  Many tears can be shed and the dead are kept in close company, including hugs and tears, for a few hours.

More about the exhumation and the rest of my trip in the next entry...







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