How Not To Arrive In A Foreign Country
“This one sounds good,” joked my friend Elaine as she searched my Lonely Planet’s Madagascar for hotels in Antananarivo, also known as Tana. ‘Hôtel Le Glacier, in a noisy location, may be worth a look if everything else is full (though it is not suitable for women alone). Dingy rooms with private bathroom but the ones in the annex are unsafe,’ explained the book.
Since I was arriving at night, I wanted to book ahead for the first night. I decided on something a little more upscale, and booked in at Hotel Mellis, right downtown.
The flights from Geneva to Paris and Paris to Antananarivo were comfortable and uneventful – the way I like it. I watched some French movie – about money and relationships, but aren’t they all – followed by The Matrix Reloaded. The French movie was better even though I don’t remember much of the plot or even what it was called.
After we landed in Tana, the humidity and the smell of earth struck me as I walked from the plane to the terminal. I was excited. It was a new country with new experiences, I thought. I took a quick look around, and, happy that I was one of the first from my flight, got in the ‘No Visa’ line. When it was my turn, the passport control woman told me I had to get in a different line first to pay for stamps in my passport. So I went to the back of the long queue and waited and waited, and waited some more. After I paid my dinero and got my stamps, I went back to passport control woman.
“Where’s your return ticket?” she asked after leafing through my passport and tickets.
“Well, it’s right there – Johannesburg to Paris to Geneva.”
“You need to have a ticket out of Madagascar.”
Thinking I’d already taken care of this detail, I passed her a printout of the correspondence I had with the Madagascar Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. “The embassy told me I could do it this way and just buy my ticket out of Madagascar while I’m here.”
“Ah, but they are there, not here in Madagascar. That’s not how it works here. Maybe they need to come here sometime.”
Shit. I’m going to be refused entry and have to board the plane for the twelve-hour trip back to Paris.
“Hold on,” she said, and went off to confer with her colleagues. After a couple of minutes, while I was considering my options, she came back with a solution for me – buy a ticket to Johannesburg right now before I officially enter the country. It sounded fine with me. So one of the policemen escorted me to the Air France desk in the terminal. His presence produced a kind of bubble around us of ‘not-really-in-the-country-ness’, which made me feel a little strange.
“I’m sorry, but we can’t sell you a ticket to Johannesburg. We don’t fly there,” said the woman at the Air France desk.
My escort reminds me that if I can’t get a ticket, I’ll be deported. I can see people lining up and checking in for the return flight to Paris. I don’t want to join them.
I asked the Air France woman where they do fly, apart from Paris.
“How about Réunion?”
Brief pause. “I’ll take one return ticket to Réunion – and please make it refundable.” My ‘escort’ nodded his approval. That would work just fine.
After waiting around for an hour or so – they don’t have computers at the airport and they were checking in the flight to Paris – I paid for my ticket to Réunion, went back to passport control woman, and got my passport stamped. Relief. I’d made it.
My first priority was to get some Malagasy Francs. I couldn’t get them before I left because it’s a non-convertible currency. I headed to the money changing place which was, thankfully, still open at this late hour. With that taken care of, I stepped outside to find that there weren’t any taxis left to take me into the city – it was already midnight. There were, however, a couple of ‘security’ guys and a group of others hanging around.
“Taxi?” asked one of the security guys.
I nodded – I didn’t really have any choice. We negotiated as we walked towards the car – an aging blue Citroen. “How much?” I asked. “40,000?”
The head guy laughed at me with a “No, no”. “80,000,” he said.
“Huh. My friends told me that it should only be about 60.”
Done. I hopped in the ‘car’ and, to my surprise the guy I just negotiated with didn’t get in, though two others did. After a couple of failed attempts, the car finally started and we got going – my new friends in the front and me in the back. They explained to me that they must pay off those other guys because they aren’t officially a taxi. Great. Headlines tomorrow would read “White Boy Dragged into Dark Alley, Mugged, and Left for Dead.”
As we drove quickly along the dark streets, the co-driver insisted several times “Quatre billets” – meaning four 25,000 notes. “No,” I insisted, “we agreed on 70,000.” Eventually, I let him convince me to keep an extra 5,000 to split with the driver.
After an interesting bit of night driving, sometimes without the benefit of lights, we arrived at the Hotel Mellis. It was closed up tight – without a night porter in sight. Fantastic. My new friends offered to drive me around to find another hotel. Unless I really wanted to wander the streets of Tana at night looking for a hotel or an ‘official’ taxi, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. We drove around to various hotels, which were all full. Finally, we found one up the street from the Hotel Mellis with vacancies for 130,000 MGF. I was really tired at this point, so I wasn’t too picky. I gave my new friends 25,000 MGF bonus for going above and beyond the call of duty. Quatre billets indeed!
I went up the stairs and registered, then headed to my room, which was next to the front desk. “A little dingy,” I thought as I started to settle in. There was a knock at my door. The hotel clerk wanted me to pay tonight so I went with him back to the front desk.
“That’ll be 140,000 please monsieur.”
“But I was told 130,000 by the security guy downstairs.”
“Ah, but you’re in the annex, monsieur,” he said as he presented me with the price list.
There were all of a sudden bells ringing in my head. Dingy. Annex. Unsafe. I looked up and sure enough I was staying in the annex at Hôtel Le Glacier.