Friday, October 29, 2010

Pretzels in Madagascar!

After my succesful pinhata story two weeks ago, I thought I'd continue with my mission to introduce foreign objects in Madagascar. The American Marines were organizing an October Fest last week, and you know - we're always in for beer drinking parties. So I was going to contribute by making pretzels. Can't get more German than that!

What you may not know, is that Pretzels have a secret ingredient that is very hard to come by. It's called caustic soda, it's a chemical also used for unclogging toilets and killing insects. Before baking the pretzels, you have to dip them into caustic soda to make them brown, shiny and crispy. Believe me, egg yolk won't do!!

So I am asking around for this stuff at a pharmacy in Tana, not knowing even what it is in French. The pharmacist doesn't understand anything of my story -can't blame him, - and I am about to step out until an old man asks me if I am looking for Soude Castique. And then he popped the question that almost made me faint with surprise: "Are you going to make pretzels??"  How the #$%$% did he know? Nobody knows this stuff even exists, let alone that it's used for pretzels.

As it turns out, he's German who ran a German restaurants for many years in Tana. He kindly explained to me that caustic soda is really hard to find here, but why don't I come by his house to get some. I couldn't believe my luck!

When you read the instruction on how to use this stuff, you'll get scared. It's a poison, and it's recommended to use gloves and even goggles when dipping the pretzels in it. Seriously!

Dipping pretzels in their poison - scary stuff

The German man, his name his Horst, tells me to dilute the powder in hot water before dipping the unbaked pretzels. But the recipe I am following on internet mentions cold water. I choose the latter. Very very bad choice! After two hours of hard work, I dip them and put them in the oven, but they come out as bread sticks. Not crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Just hard pieces of  baked dough.

I should have listened better to Horst. Not to the internet!

Two valuable lessons I learned that day:

1. Never think you know better than the locals

2. People will eat anything after a few beers!


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Island of the Unpronounceable Names

The city of Tana is actually one big market. Wherever you go, you'll find stalls, vendors, sellers, you name it. You can find anything and everything on these markets, from Made-in-China plastic sneakers to beautifully crafted furniture, from home-made rat traps to crocodile meat.

There is also a cute second hand book market, where you can buy French Marie Claire magazines from the nineties, and all kinds of second (third, fourth who knows?)-hand books. Some time ago I came across an old history book published in the fifties, for usage in primary schools. I paid, after stern negotiation, 5,000 Ar for it - two Euro.

Super-contented with my purchase, I started reading it immediately, a chapter about the demography of the then four million Malasy.  The school book described the division of the people among at least ten tribes, with adventurous names that translate like: the Invincibles, the Inseparables, the Warriors, and They who are tempted by commandments.

After a few pages however, I began to lose my reading appetite. A chapter about the royal history read as follows: "And when Andianampoinimerina had become the king of Ambohimanagan, he appeased his parents Andrianamabotsimarofy and Ravorombatodambohidratimo, who was also called 'the wild boar'. He ordered a department of more than a thousand soldiers from Tsimanahotsy andTsimiamboholahy to protect Antananarivo. He then prepared himself to defeat Andrianamanalinorivo and Ravoekamabahoaka at which he succeeded at Kiririokafisakana’.

I kid you not. These poor, poor Malgasy primary school kids who have to memorize this! They must be very smart!

Of course the people here have found a way to handle these names, only one out of every so many syllables is pronounced. Hence Tana. I bet you the above two names are Raz and Andj. Or something.
Nevertheless, to me Madagascar is the Island of the Unpronounceable Names.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Does Antananarivo Have Any Highlights?

By: Charlotte Cook, guest-writer
I received a request from a writer to post on my blog. No problem, I said, and here's the article. I agree with her. Tana is not exactly bursting with touristy highlights. Probably the only reason worth visiting Tana for, We are the highlight of Antanananarivo ( ha ha).
Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, has a reputation and it’s not particularly good. Not exactly known for its up-market package holidays, the majority of people travel to the African island to sample its unique wildlife and this can seem like a prospect far removed from the bustling city. Most tourists land at the capital city's airport (with some cheap flights available at certain times of year) before heading off on their travels but you can not visit a country without visiting its capital.
If you want to get the best out of Antananarivo, you have to be prepared to do some walking, and a lot of this is up and down hills. The highest point is 2643m above sea level, making the city one of the highest capitals in the world, but even at an average height of 1400m means that packing some decent walking shoes is advisable. The effects of altitude also need to be considered, whilst it is wise to prepare for a temperate, rather than an equatorial, climate due to the height of the city. The rainy season is between November and April, which is something else for tourists to bear in mind.
Rova Queen's Palace
If you accept the need to climb hundreds of stone steps if you wish to see the main sights, you will discover a city rich in cultural, historical and architectural attractions, albeit one which is quietly crumbling. The highlights are definitely the Queen’s Palace (Rova), which is a long walk from the hotel district and the nearby Prime Minister’s Palace. However, the former was destroyed by fire some fifteen years ago and is merely a shell.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Antananarivo was the capital of the Merina monarchs and they conquered the rest of Madagascar from here. Buildings from this era were typically made out of wood or rushes before the introduction of stone in 1869, so few survive. Some of the timber palaces from the pre-stone era still sit atop the ridge on which the capital is built and provide an Indonesian influence to the city. Since then, buildings from the French colonial era have been dominant. These include more palaces, Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals, and civil buildings including hospitals and colleges.
The pastel terracotta of the buildings blends seamlessly with the rice paddies, which are prevalent throughout the capital. Visiting the markets is definitely worth it, particularly The Lemur Park, which is 45 minutes out of the city and has a good restaurant. 
Walking is definitely the best way to see the city but the poverty is endemic. Beggars will hassle tourists for money, so remember to keep your guard but a forceful ‘Non, merci’ should see them leave you alone.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Pinhata in Madagascar

With our stuff arriving last week, came a real pinhata made in Mexico (I believe). Our good friend Margarita Mena, party queen of Belmopan, had smuggled it into our container, which arrived - oh good fortune - just days before Soleine's 6ht birthday. What a pleasure to discover!

This may have been the first ever real pinhata in Antanananarivo, who knows?

For those who have known me in Belize, they may chuckle...because the very first time I used a pinhata - in Belize- I forgot to put candy in it. I did not know, I thought I had bought the damn thing full of sweets.

Anyway, this time I knew and I filled it up with sweets, colourful little hair clips, crayons, plastic wild animals and marbles. The latter not the best idea because they look just like sweets...image ooouch your teeth - another learning curve for me.

All in all, it was a great success last Sunday, at my little big girl's birthday party. Long live multicultural habits, a true exchange of cultures across the globe!

After - with contents this time!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Difference

One thing worth mentioning...when we received our stuff, I immediately started attacking the boxes with a kitchen knife, ripping off pieces of scotch tape, tearing the wrapping paper into shreds...a bit like a crazy deprived person. It felt therapeutic to 'mutilate' those boxes that had kept us waiting so long.
When our housekeeper started to help us, the difference between her and my working mode became immediately clear. She carefully took off every piece of wrapping paper, then ironed it with her hands. Boxes were not ripped but opened with care, and the larger pieces of carton were nicely stacked. The 'loot' was later on divided among our three house staff. Of course I followed the good example.

Everything piece of trash in gets recycled Madagascar. 
There is not a piece of garbage that is wasted. Some people live in the garbage containers. Bottle tops, yogurt cups, newspapers, straws, you name it, it's all collected. A lot of it goes into new products. People are very creative here.

On the one hand I feel it's quite reassuring, you know that most of your waste will find a new purpose. On the other hand... you really have to think twice before chucking something in the bin. I am kind of suspecting that there's a business of selling full trash bags going on here. In our previous apartment the concierge insisted on taking out our bags herself, and she would not let anyone come near them. Could it be that she was selling them on? Surely a good full Vazaha trashbag is worth something, in the country where everything is recycled...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Call

...Oh yes! It happened...finally!

Last night, at 1.30 AM, Michel (thank God not me) received a phone call. A truck driver, speaking in loud Malagasy,asked  if he could deliver a container? Well, yes sir! After three months of traveling the big oceans, eight weeks of waiting for paper work in the port of Tamatave, followed by 20 days of strike, our container finally found its way to our house. We got the call. Can we deliver? Yes you can. Even at two in the morning.

Apparently, and rightly so, container-truck drivers are not allowed to enter Antanananarivo during the day, that's why he came at two AM, and had to be out before four in the morning. So in less than two hours, Michel and our night guard Nirine, had to unload a 20-foot container. Unloading was the easy part, as gravity helps, but after that all the stuff had to be carried inside the house. And they did it!
And I? I was asleep, soundly, only to wake up in the morning with Soleine, and to find that Father Christmas had passed int he night.