28 d’octubre 2012

everything happens for better or nothing happens without learning something new

My trip around Madagascar has come to an end. And I say that in a mix of relief and sadness. Relief, because nearly 4 weeks dealing with the authorities in 3 different countries can weaken your moral. Specially if the authorities are the Malagasy and Spanish combined.

I was waiting for everything to be over to write about the incident. The after shock effects showed two weeks long. After that, as it happens, you slowly let go.

My passport got stolen in a road ambush. This is how I begin when someone asks me.

What happened? Time to write about it.

My next destination after Mahajanga was Nosy Be. I am a coast person and since I had made a 12 hour bus ride from Antananarivo to Mahajanga I didn't feel like going back there to head south west. Note there are a few roads connecting the main cities in Madagascar and from the west coast there was no option left but going through the interior via the capital, as there are no roads on the coast. A boat trip is not recommendable. The sea can get rough and boats (cars, buses or any mean of transport) in Madagascar differ greatly from our European standards.

I spent more days than wanted on Nosy Be waiting for possible travel buddies to make a 4x4 trip up to Diego Suarez. There aren't many independent tourists on Nosy Be, as the island itself doesn't offer the wonders you can see on the South route. In the meantime I rented a bike and rode around the island. I also booked a couple of dives with Richard from Coral Diving based on Ambodrona Beach. He is an amazing human being, the prices are reasonable, the equipment spotless and his expertise admirable. Thank you for making the dive my most unforgettable experience in the island. The 4x4 trip had to be cancelled, as I didn't find people heading northwards.

Saturday Sept 22 was my departure day from Nosy Be, southwards to Mahajanga and then down South.
I found a boat+transfer+bus to Mahajanga offer and jumped to it, happy and energised to leave the island behind.

There is a concept to learn while in Madagascar: "mora, mora", pronounced "moora". The bus was expected to leave at 12pm. This made me very happy, as my bus ride northwards had been overnight, and I wanted to take a glimpse at the landscape.

Of course the bus didn't leave until 4. I contacted my friends in Mahajanga to inform of the delay. They were not surprised, as they live in Madagascar.
Leaving at 4 to make around 500Km means you'll spend at least 12 hours on the road in a packed van, the so-called taxi-brousse or bush taxis.
Our van looked something like this. It could fit 10 people counting the driver and the co-pilot. They managed to fit 18 in. 4 people on a seat for 2, and 5 on each of the 2 other rows that fit 3. The rest were kids. Next to me I had a teenager boy and two young women. I was sitting next to the window, meaning that half my butt was on the gap and the other half on the teenager's leg. They still managed to fit in a guy who stopped us on the way and was carrying a sack the size of three suitcases, full of God knows what. The sack was placed on the ceiling making the whole van wobble. Behind him wife and 3 more kids.This is normal for Malagasy standards. We were packed and uncomfortable, kids spread on the floor, overloaded and a danger on the road. That meant we were ready to leave.

I was glad to see the driver was a middle aged man. That meant he had more experience, knew the holes of the road better (main roads are paved, but haven't been repaired since) and wouldn't drive madly and carelessly as young drivers do.
But he drove mora, mora. And stopped in every single village, every single one, asking for something. I found out it was some type of banana once he finally found a post in a village that sold the ones he was looking for.
Stopping on every village was delaying the ETA. 20 adults and overweight didn't allow the van to really perform at its best. I was hoping it didn't break down, as they usually do.
And it did, as it usually happens.
It didn't start. We managed to push start it. Then it broke down again.
Drivers are specialists in patch mechanics and the driver managed to hold something with a wire. It drove on.

ETA changing. Exhaustion. We made another stop in a town. Some people got off 1:00 AM. The weather was cooling down and we gained some space. Happy days. The town: Manarnerna.
I finally fell asleep.

around 2:00 AM, the bus stops in the middle of the road, did it break down again?

I hear noises and shouting from the back of my head as I am deeply asleep. The shouting woke me up whole I also hear noises of heavy hits and broken glass. The first thing that goes through my head is that we might have had an accident and it lead to a fight. Unrest. I see a bunch of guys around the bus, shouting. Note there is no light on the road, so what I could see were some figures around the front side of the taxi-brousse. I see them breaking the windows in the first row. I observe concerned and confused, WTF?

They proceed to our row. I am sitting next to the window. I can see them now. I look at them, their faces are covered in white clay and they shout at us. I think: what kind of brutality is this? Why this anger, what have we done? They break the glass next to my seat, some bits of glass make a cut on my hand, the teenager next to me holds me tight and protects his head on my lap. They are all armed with sticks double the size of a baseball bat. They mean business and they  are trying to hit me! Panic ensues. The guys in the front rows immediately jump back to protect the women. They cry for mercy, they get hit, they shout! Women shout. I can't shout, I am protecting the guy on my lap and I observe the image of the guy protecting the row in front of me, I hear him shout loudly, desperately. He is shaking and suddenly I realise that I am the only female foreigner on the bus, next to the window, an easy target. I see them reaching to me with the sticks, but I have grabbed my bag to stop the impact. There is no way out, the van is destroyed and there are 10 of them. I see no weapons, which makes me feel less scared for my life. I try to protect my head with my body sideways towards the teenager, leaving my side exposed, using my rucksack as shield.
And then this dahalu, this road bandit reaches out for me and pulls my bag. It becomes clear to me that their main purpose is stealing, so I let go of the bag and I ask them to please let us be! They don't stop. I have a body bag they don't see, I realise. I pull a couple of bills while ducking. I hand them to them and ask them to please leave.

They leave. Silence on the road. The vans behind us stop to assist us. The lady behind me is crying disconsolately. I look around and say: let's leave this place, they might come back with more!
Then somebody points at the road. The driver is lying in the middle of the road, unconscious. He's been repeatedly hit until they knocked him out. I start crying, too. I go outside and carefully come his way. I don't think anymore of any bandits coming around.
He gets up. His leg has been cut, as they pulled him out of the seat through broken glass. He is in pain and dazzled but recovering fine. He grabs a piece of his t-shirt and wraps the bleeding cut with it.
The police comes shortly after, we give our  testimony and then is when I realise that my passport was in the bag they pulled from me. SHIIIIIIIT!
The driver got us fine to destination. We were all like mute, holding on to each other, the cold night wind was penetrating our skin, as there were no windows. The seats were full of glass, so we only had each other to hold on to.

Madagascar: one of the worse countries in the world to lose your passport. At the moment there is only a transitional government with little hopes of elections making their way. The reason? The lucrative business of selling wood to China, the achievement of wiping out the middle class and the confirmation that keeping the poor below minimum with no access to jobs or education will ensure the wealth of the wealthy.

source: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/MGSummary2011-2012.aspx

The instability of Madagascar’s political situation has resulted in an economic downturn in the country and international donors have been reluctant to continue with development aid, amid insecurities of how the money will be spent. However, the `Feuille de route` or ‘the roadmap’, was signed on 16 September 2012, essentially an agreement between parties to the political dispute, to work towards the holding of democratic elections in 2012. OHCHR will offer support to the Government in re-establishing a democratic system of governance and ensuring that the human rights of the Malagasy people are observed.

Extreme poverty levels have been worsened in Madagascar by the instability in the country’s governance. 70 per cent of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line. As a result of the events of 2009, the Malagasy people have been denied their basic economic, social and cultural rights. There are high unemployment rates amongst the country’s population. People, particularly children, are suffering malnutrition. Homelessness is also on the increase in the country and homeless people are more prone, amongst other things, to experiencing violence. 

Part two of this this incident gets worse. Dealing with the levels of corruption of the Malagasy government, trying to find a way to leave the country without a consulate that could issue a passport for me kept me 3 weeks at their mercy, subject to constant blackmail and threateaning (my visa expired OCT 5 and from there my situation in the country was irregular, thus illegal, a great chance for the authorities to make a great lucrative opportunity out of that.)

Luckily there is a honorary consul in Antananarivo who got me in touch with the South African consulate. This is really a story apart.

I insist Madagascar is a gorgeous, lovely country and I have made my best to keep enjoying my time.
The area where the incident took place is a very safe route, with hardly any attacks recorded... I got unlucky. But it made me become concerned of a situation possibly worsening...

This made me aware and conscious of the situation of this country. I've witnessed an obvious attack for money (we don't discard the fact that the police could have been involved somehow) and the more than obvious corruption of the government which, to me, was worse than the attack.

Being a tourist in a country where many don't have the basics is morally confronting. It felt terrible, frivolous to watch that from the other side. After the attack my interest in the country's situation grew as well as the situation in other undeveloped countries.

The bit that makes me sad and angry is that a solution, is very far away indeed.
Charity gets nowhere, as the core structures are broken. As a "greeny", one of my main concerns regarding sustainability is overpopulation. Try to explain that to Malagasys...

I don't want to go back to a developing country unless it is to contribute in some sort of a community project. And still then I am aware I would be just doing a 0,05% of the huge amount of work ahead.

Reach your own conclusions. And if able to help, your means are often more valued than your money.
Ain't it Mr Geldof?