Archive for April, 2007

Express Delivery

April 2, 2007

Most packages that I receive in Nairobi are delivered directly to me at my work post office box. Recently, however, I had to go to the general post office in the Central Business District to claim a package that was being “detained” by customs.

After asking 3 people where to go, I was finally directed to a second floor desk called Counter Govt Depts Individual Parcels (A) and Detained Packets (DP). I handed my customs receipt to a very friendly young woman who then examined my passport to make sure I was indeed the recipient of the package I wanted to claim. She stamped my receipt and handed it to another woman who went to fetch the package from some dark and distant corridor – I imagine the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant as depicted at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. She returned with my package and directed me to open it a little further down the countertop under a sign that said Counter 3 Air Parcels (AM). As I was doing so a man, also friendly, came to inspect the contents. He scribbled on the back of my customs receipt “cake approx 500 grams” and “magazines (used) four” and under a column marked Customs Fee he wrote “no value.” He handed me the customs slip and said something that was obviously meant to be an instruction. After asking him to repeat it several times, I realized that I was supposed to go “mezzanine 4 room 223.” I was roundly scolded when I tried to take my parcel with me.

At Mezzanine 4 Room 223, I was shown into the office of a nasty little man behind a very large and important desk with nary a paper on it. He grumbled something, added a stamp to my customs receipt, and then changed the “no value” to “300.” He told me to return to the Counter Govt Depts Individual Parcels (A) and Detained Packets (DP) desk. There, another man, the fourth person so far that I had to see at that one desk, added yet another stamp and changed the “300” to “NIL.” He directed me to a counter on the far side of the room labeled Customs Cashier.

After waiting in line, a long time, the cashier, a not so friendly man, took my customs receipt and then went digging through a giant and messy mound of what looked to me like other identical receipts. Apparently I had the copy. The original was somewhere in this poor gentleman’s office. It was his unfortunate task to match them. When he did, he added the same stamp to both copies, kept the original, and returned to me my copy with its growing collection of stamps from throughout the post office. He waved me to an unmarked counter across the hall. Oddly, I paid the cashier nothing.

But the man across the hall, he analyzed the back of my customs receipt where it once said “no value” and then “300” and now “NIL,” and he charged me 70 shillings. He analyzed my passport once more before collecting my customs receipt and issuing me a payment receipt for 70 shillings.

Finally, I was able to return to the Counter 3 Air Parcels (AM) desk to collect my package. The friendly female clerk gave me a resigned and apologetic grin as she said “You are finished.”

An American in Madagascar

April 2, 2007

The first assumption about any given tourist in Madagascar is that he or she comes from France and therefore speaks French.  Any exception has to be explained.

From 1895 to 1960 Madagascar was a French colony.  Even now, more than forty years after independence, France remains the primary diplomatic link to the international community.  And most tourists do, in fact, come from France.

I, however, do not.  And that often caused a little confusion.

Bonjour monsieur,” I was often greeted on the streets of Antananarivo, the capitol.  In Madagascar, for many people French is a matter of pride.  They display it like a badge of honor, a skill that makes them just a little bit better than their uneducated compatriots.  Ça va?”

“I don’t speak French,” I would say in Malagasy because, for small talk exchanges, I do speak much better Malagasy.  Or at least I did at that time.

At this point, many of them would continue, in disbelief, to speak French to me.  Often they would persist with their French even as I would continue to respond in Malagasy.  And so it would go as we bounced the languages back and forth.

In the end, if they ever decided to believe me, then they would ask the inevitable next question.

“If not France, then where are you from?”

Etazonia,” I would say, still in Malagasy.

Etazonia…,” they would echo, slow and ponderous, and always as if a cartoon light bulb just lit above their heads.  They would nod, only once, as they said it, a very long and exaggerated nod.  The head lifts, slow and thoughtful, with a long and deep inhale.  Then it drops chin to chest as the speaker sighs “Etazonia” with the emphasis of someone who just comprehended something after a long mental struggle, someone saying, essentially, “Now I get it.”

Most people in the United States know nothing about Madagascar and most people there know nothing about Etazonia, the phonetic Malagasy rendition of the French Etats Unis.  We have no contact with them and they have no contact with us.  We hear nothing about them from our media and most of them have no access to media in order to learn about us.  We have forgotten each other, if we ever knew each other at all.

They know so little about the United States that I think they sometimes doubt its very existence.  Often, after that long sigh and nod of recognition, the conversation would pause as my new Malagasy friend looked away, looked inward, and seemed to wonder, “But I thought it was all just talk.” 

And that’s the light bulb, Etazonia as something more than Shangri La.

All over the world there are people who think of “America” as a legend, the vague and distant epitome of the good life.  In fact, the United States is so remote, so far removed from their lives that they rarely consider it until asked.  Then, however, the answers are frequently favorable.

“What do you think of the United States?  Good or bad?”

“Good,” people say.

“Why?” I then ask.


“The best.”

“Very developed.”


“Number one,” that one always said in English with a grin.

In very few places throughout the world is there such a unanimous and unequivocal fondness and admiration for the United States.  Our enemies hate us as meddlers, an unwanted worldwide authority figure.  Even our allies, our brothers, patronize us as the rich, arrogant, and ignorant spoiled child in the family.  Those that know us at all tend to dislike us.  Only in forgotten places like Madagascar, places that consider us neither an enemy nor an ally, do people revere the United States as the land of freedom and plenty.

Flight Trouble

April 2, 2007

One Tuesday afternoon in Madagascar, I waited with a small handful of other passengers on a dirt runway cleared from the spiny forest a few kilometers outside of town. We all huddled in the patchy shade of the rotten shack that, maybe years ago, once served as a very small and informal terminal. Now, with no other building in the vicinity and no local Air Madagascar employees to organize the process, our bags lay strewn across the runway in no particular order. Dozens of children from town rode old rusty bicycles up and down the dirt strip while they waited to watch the event that is the arrival of the plane from the capital.

I lived in Belo Tsiribihina, one of the blessed few towns in Madagascar with semiregular air service. Every Sunday and Tuesday, a small Twin Otter propeller aircraft with a maximum of eighteen seats came with our mail, a dozen copies of the national newspaper, Midi Madagasikara, and a very small number of arriving passengers. Shortly thereafter, it left with our outgoing mail and an invariably larger number of departing passengers.

The plane arrived on time that day, circled once to allow the kids to clear the runway, then landed and taxied to a stop right at our feet. It took only a few minutes for the copilot to disembark and load our scattered luggage into the seats of those few passengers that got off in Belo. We boarded a moment later and I claimed an open seat just behind the cockpit.

The copilot returned to his seat in the back with us and the pilot started the plane. Everything sounded normal to my novice ear, but for some reason they hesitated. After another moment or two the pilot cursed, loudly, and punched the controls. He got off the plane and the rest of us followed.

The pilots hitched a ride into town to radio Air Madagascar in Antananarivo. We, once again, swatted flies in the dusty heat of the dirt runway.

When they returned the pilots grabbed the plane manual from, essentially, the glove compartment, and then opened the engine case on the left wing. They stared at a diagram in the book, then the engine, then back and forth several more times as a look of sheer confusion settled on their faces. They turned the diagram to the left, to the right, even upside down, but they never managed to make it match whatever they saw in the engine. Still they proceeded to dismantle the plane one part at a time.

Yellow sweat stains soaked through the underarms of their shirts. Doubt stretched across their faces. I imagined their conversation with the mechanics on the radio.

Mechanics: “Whatever you do, do not cut the…!” Garbled static.

Pilots: “What?”

Mechanics: “I repeat, do not cut the…!” More untimely static, then a dead line.

An hour later, the pilots looked more confused by the random plane parts scattered across the runway than they ever did by the intact engine. Thankfully, we had a savior among us. The very same chauffeur that an hour before drove the pilots to town to use the radio now stepped forward to help with the repairs. Now off duty, the copilot excused himself, stepped just a few feet away, and urinated on the runway in plain view of all.

The chauffeur and the other pilot now commiserated in a technical Malagasy well beyond my language abilities and, assuredly, just as beyond the pilot’s technical abilities. The chauffeur, very obviously frustrated with the pilot’s ineptitude, started to repair the engine himself. The pilot reclined in some nearby shade where, like his partner, he seemed happy to be off the hook.

A short while later the chauffeur declared the plane fit to fly so we all boarded again. I reclaimed my privileged seat just behind the cockpit. From there, I was able to see clearly the pilot when he pulled one last engine part from his shirt pocket. I think the gentleman next to me noticed too. He held a bilingual French and Malagasy Bible in one hand and a rosary in the other. A nervous sweat lined his upper lip as he prayed.

Someone declared the leftover part inconsequential and the pilot started the plane. Fluid sprayed from the repaired engine. Once again, the pilot cursed and we all got off, this time for good. After telling us to return at six o’clock the next morning, the pilots hitched a ride into town with the chauffeur mechanic. The rest of us walked home. The plane was left alone and unguarded on the open runway.


At six the following morning, I locked my house and waited outside for my ride to come get me. I paced and worried until seven when he finally arrived, with the pilots in his back seat. The driver, the one and only important businessman in town, then ran several errands with me and the pilots in tow. We collected several coolers of fresh shrimp to be sold in Tana. We visited a shop owner to talk business and a friend of his for no reason at all. We even stopped for coffee, the pilot’s idea. Then, at last, we went to the airport.

Another hour passed before a small private plane arrived with two genuine mechanics. A few hours after that, now a full day late for departure, a full day spent there on that runway, in that comedy of errors, we boarded a third time.

And then we waited some more. The mechanics, their chartered plane long departed without them, had to go into town to the Air Mad office to buy tickets for the return flight to Tana.