Inside the Malagasy wallet

Imagine, if you will, that you’re shopping at your local food market. You stroll through the narrow aisles and inspect the produce, looking carefully for the plumpest tomatoes or the cleanest lettuce. You approach a vendor and ask the price of a small bunch of eggplants that caught your eye. She quickly and forcefully replies, “Cinq mille!” You pause and roll your eyes back to concentrate on remembering how to count in French. A few seconds later, you confidently conclude that cinq mille is five thousand. The next question, which usually only complicates matters, is to clarify if that price is quoted in francs or ariary. You suspect that the price is in francs, the former currency of Madagascar, so you mentally try to convert the price to ariary in order to put things in a perspective that you can more easily understand. The standard conversion is 5 francs to 1 ariary. You then fumble through the local language to ask the vendor if she really means to say the eggplants are arivo ariary (1,000 ariary) and she just blankly stares back at you. Maybe she also pauses to roll her eyes back. You see that she’s having just as much trouble converting ariary back to francs in her head as you did a few moments earlier! With a big smile and nod of her head, she confirms that you two are both on the same page. You hand her a crumpled and worn out purple bank note, she gives you the eggplants, and with an emphatic “misaotra betseka” (thank you very much) for her patience and help, you move on to the next stall and repeat the exercise again with the man selling onions.

This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Madagascar. The root of the confusion is the currency. Officially, the ariary is the sole currency of Madagascar. It replaced the Malagasy franc, a relic left over from French colonization, in January 2005. For various reasons, many people have held on to the idea of the franc in terms of both financial worth and the French numbers that come along with it. In the part of Madagascar where I live, there is still a strong French vazaha (foreigner) influence and most people mistake me for being French simply because of my appearance. When I buy things, most people make that assumption and give me the price of items in francs and they say it using French numbers. Delightful for someone like me who hates doing math in his head and doesn’t speak French very well. But I usually manage to turn the tables by using Malagasy to ask for the price in ariary and most people get a kick out of seeing a tall white guy like me haggling in Malagasy for a good price on a kilo of carrots. I will not be taken advantage of at the market!

In order to share a part of Malagasy culture that I come in contact with on a daily basis, I would like to present a brief summary and description of the money used in this country. The photos are of actual bank notes that have been in my possession and they are without a doubt the cleanest that they will ever be in these pictures. It’s hard to keep an ariary clean for a long time in Madagascar. At the time this post is being written, 1 US dollar is equivalent to about 3300 ariary. The conversion rate between Malagasy francs and ariary does not change; it remains constant at 5 francs to 1 ariary.

100 Ariary (approx. $0.03 USD)

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On one side of the bill is an image of Antsiranana Bay with it’s iconic island jutting out from the water. The bay is located near the very northern tip of the country and is considered one of the finest natural harbors in the world. It protects the city of Antsiranana (also known by it’s French colonial name Diego-Suarez) from the Indian Ocean. Today, Antsiranana is a popular destination for foreign tourists and French ex-pats looking to retire in Madagascar.

On the opposite side are two images of the natural wonders found in Madagascar. First, the famous ravinala tree found on the island. It is commonly know as the “traveler’s palm” because the various parts of the tree can be used to assist a wandering traveler. For example, the broad leaves make for an effective umbrella during a sudden rainstorm or they can be thatched together to make a roof for a house. Also, there is often water stored in the base of each leaf that can be used as an emergency source of drinking water. And behind the ravinala tree is an image of a karst limestone formation frequently found in Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. The area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 because of the unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, and wild bird and lemur populations.

This is the smallest denomination of paper money in Madagascar. Smaller denominations do exist in the form of coins, but those are almost never used in circulation. With 100 ariary, I can easily buy one small piece of fried dough or one decent-sized tomato.

200 Ariary (approx. $0.06 USD)

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The 200 ariary bill features an image of various styles of aloalo, which are intricately carved wooden poles placed on the graves of prominent people. These funerary sculptures, along with the skulls and horns of slaughtered zebu, often tell a story about the person’s life and why they were important to the community. This is a practice done primarily in the south-west regions of Madagascar, especially by the Mahafaly people.

On the reverse side of the 200 ariary note is a depiction of one of the large stone gates that were used to protect many villages in the central Highlands. The entryway to the village could be sealed each night by a huge stone disk, called a vavahady, and reopened again in the mornings. The practice of building fortified walls and gates in the Highlands spread quickly in the region and allowed the Merina royal families to maintain their positions of power until French colonization in the late 1800’s.

With 200 ariary, I can buy 3-4 small tomatoes, three large bananas, or a small cup of coffee.

500 Ariary (approx. $0.15 USD)

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One side of the 500 ariary bill shows a group of zebu, which are a sub-species of domestic cattle that originate in South Asia. The breed is extremely resistant to high temperatures and commonly found in tropical countries. The zebu’s defining characteristic is a large fatty hump on the shoulders. In Madagascar, zebu are almost exclusively farmed as work animals in agriculture and for beef. When beef is served in Madagascar, it is almost always meat from the zebu. The animal is so well integrated into Malagasy culture that it is prominently featured on the country’s official seal.

On the other side of the bill, a Malagasy artisan is seen weaving a traditional basket. The material, known as tsihy, is a natural fiber that can be used to create all types of items. The most common types of items made are hats, bags, baskets, and floor mats. Malagasy people all over the island use this material in their everyday life.

With 500 ariary, I can buy a cup of dry beans, two small bars of soap, or sometimes I can get a one-way taxi ride in the larger cities.

1000 Ariary (approx. $0.30 USD)

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The 1000 ariary note celebrates the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar. On one side, the sword-shaped leaves of the sisal plant are seen together with cactus. Sisal is a species of agave plants and is widely used for it’s strong natural fibers. Both the sisal and cactus represent the dry desert areas of Madagascar.

On the reverse, two species of gidrö (lemur) are proudly displayed along with a turtle. Madagascar is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot because approximately 90% of all plant and animal species on the island are endemic. Lemurs are arguably the most famous animals from Madagascar and there are more than 100 species of lemurs.

With 1000 ariary, I can buy two eggs, two baguette-style loaves of bread, or a small glass of natural fruit juice.

2000 Ariary (approx. $0.61 USD)

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On the 2000 ariary note, a typical landscape of terraced rice fields is depicted. Rice is a staple food in Madagascar and typically eaten at every meal of the day. For most Malagasy people, rice is the primary focus of the meal and any meat or vegetable dishes are considered to be side dishes eaten in smaller quantities. Madagascar is among the top 20 rice producing countries in the world.

On the reverse side of the bill, the mighty baobab tree is shown. The baobab is endemic to Madagascar and there are six species on the island. The tree is another one of Madagascar’s popular icons. In some parts of the country, baobab trees are greatly revered and seen as a link between the living and their tribal ancestors.

With 2000 ariary, I can buy a plate of rice and side dish at a local Malagasy restaurant or a half kilogram of onions.

5000 Ariary (approx. $1.52 USD)

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The 5000 ariary bill is designed with a scenic beach view from the southern coast of the island. The location is near the town of Fort Dauphin, which is another very popular tourist destination. It gracefully shows the complexity of the Malagasy landscape, from beaches to mountains and a variety of plants.

Continuing with this oceanic theme, the other side of the bill shows a traditional Malagasy boat. The style of boat, general known as a “dhow”, is believed to have roots in the Indian culture. Because the Malagasy people come from a mixture of Indian and Micronesian decent, this style of vessel has been a part of Malagasy tradition for many generations. In many coastal parts of the island, fishermen still use these boats to sail out to sea.

With 5000 ariary, I can buy two beers, enough telephone credit to last me for about a week, or a decent shirt at one of the many secondhand clothing markets.

10000 Ariary (approx. $3.03 USD)

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On the 10000 ariary bill, the past and present are brought together to celebrate the progress of Malagasy society. First, a scene of road construction is pictured. As with many developing countries in the world, the current infrastructure of Madagascar is a constant project of national concern. Between building and maintaining roads, schools, hospitals, and other social services, the Malagasy people have their collective plate very full. Without getting into any of the politics surrounding infrastructure development, it’s fair to say that some places on the island are more developed than others and many of the Malagasy people I’ve talked to have lamented about how this road or that power plant could be better. In general, however, people seem to be hopeful about the future development plans of this island nation.

Secondly, the other side of the bill is a reminder of the former Kingdom of Madagascar. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the seat of power in the kingdom was in the central highland city of Antananarivo (also the current national capitol). The Rova (royal palace complex) has been the home of several kings and queens and it sits on top of one of the highest points in the region. The building depicted on the currency is known as the Queen’s Palace, which is part of the greater Rova. The original palace, as seen on the bill, was built by French colonial officials for Queen Ranavalona I around 1840 and then it was reinforced with a stone casing in 1867. In 1995, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the Rova, including the original wooden structure of the Queen’s Palace. Today, only the stone casing remains and it is still prominently displayed as part of the growing skyline of Antananarivo.

With 10000 ariary, I can buy an unusually nice meal at a “fancy” restaurant or a live chicken in the market.

The Easter adventure

In Madagascar, schools usually close for two weeks during the Easter holiday. What better excuse to plan a vacation and travel with some friends? During the past month or so, I made arrangements with some other PCVs to visit the city of Fianarantsoa (AKA “Fianar”) and the surrounding area. The Fianar area is located in the highlands of Madagascar, a couple hundred kilometers south of the capital, Antananarivo (AKA “Tana”). We made a smart decision by dividing the long car journey from Tana to Fianar into a few days, stopping at a couple other places along the way.

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Our first stop was Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar. We had all been here before during PST, but at that time we were pretty much herded through the city according to the tight schedule laid out by Peace Corps staff. So this time around, we got to explore the city on our own terms and rediscover Antsirabe. It has all the signs of an up-and-coming Malagasy city with a mix of traditional highlands culture and modern commercial outlets. As one of our travel companions noted, Antsirabe is what happened after people realized how big of an urban mess Tana was and they got a chance to start over with a new city. It’s more organized, friendlier, and prettier than the capital. After adjusting to the noticeably cooler weather of the highlands, we mostly walked around parts of Antsirabe that we hadn’t seen before and even sang karaoke one night. Karaoke is a very popular activity here in Madagascar and we had a blast belting out English classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, and struggling through “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. It was a fun way to get the vacation started and have a few laughs.

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

Next, we stopped for about half a day in Ambositra. This town is known as being a place for artisans and craftspeople to show and sell their work. There’s not much else to do in the town, so we figured a few hours there would be sufficient. We grabbed a bite to eat after arriving in the late morning, then spent most of the afternoon wandering through the shops filled with wooden sculptures, silk cloths, and other hand crafted items. I didn’t see anything that caught my attention, so I ultimately walked away empty handed. Much like Antsirabe, Ambositra is surrounded by stunning scenery and picturesque countryside, so that was good enough for me. We made arrangements to travel onward to Fianar that afternoon, which took about 4 hours over sometimes less-than desirable road conditions.

Finally, we arrived at our main destination in Fianar. Weary from the constant travel of the preceding days, our first full day in Fianar started with a lazy morning of sleeping in and making waffles for brunch. In the afternoon, we ventured to a nearby village and took a tour of a tea plantation. It was really interesting to see the processing facility and taste some of the different varieties of tea.

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

The following day, we ventured out yet again to go paragliding in a village called Ambalavao. There, we met up with our pilot (not sure how else to call a person who operates a paragliding apparatus) and followed him up a pretty big mountain that was to serve as our launching point. From the top, the views of the surrounding Betsileo (one of the many ethnic groups of Malagasy people) countryside were simply breathtaking. I felt like this was the version of Madagascar I was meant to see. One by one, we each donned a harness and strapped in for a ride through the quiet and peaceful air. After each flight, the pilot would fold up the parachute, hike back up the mountain, and the next person would go. The pilot and his assistant didn’t speak much English, but we had fun speaking Malagasy and sharing stories. The weather was perfect, the views were amazing, and it was certainly something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Strapped up and ready to fly

Strapped up and ready to fly

We also spent a couple of nights outside of Fianar visiting Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana is a Malagasy word that means “hot water” and the town and the national park are both named for the natural hot springs located there. It’s one of the most popular national parks in Madagascar and the terrain really reminded me of Andapa – tall mountains, thick green forest, and freely flowing rivers and streams. On Easter Sunday, we hiked through the national park for about 5 hours. Some of the highlights included seeing five different species of lemurs, a huge waterfall, and a few other animals along the way. The hike was challenging, going up and down the mountains certainly took a lot of energy and my calves are still sore, but it was very much worth it in the end. The town of Ranomafana is a small town, but it was lively during Easter.

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

We left Ranomafana in the morning on Easter Monday, headed back to Fianar and spent most of the day there, then took an overnight taxi-brousse to Tana and arrived there around 4am on Tuesday. Talk about a whirlwind of travel! But one day of rest in Tana was enough before I hopped on an airplane and flew back to the SAVA region. Everyone that I travelled with agreed that we did so much in a relatively short amount of time. We made some great new memories, had a lot of fun together, and certainly tapped into our more adventurous natures. I can say that traveling through the highlands of Madagascar was refreshing for me because the scenery and the people are very different from what I am used to in Andapa. I really enjoyed spending time in Fianarantsoa and the surrounding areas. Until the next adventure, I’ll have some pretty great memories.

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” amateur film review

I did it. And I’m really glad that I did.

In an effort to get more of a taste for the biodiversity and culture of Madagascar, my dad and I went to see the new documentary film “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” at the California Science Center this past weekend. Plus, who doesn’t love a movie about cute fuzzy ancient primates?

Here’s the official trailer for the film, in case you’re not familiar with it:

The film was really well put together and did a fantastic job of showcasing the story of the lemurs. Despite the stunning visual images and landscapes, this documentary presented the evolutionary path of lemurs in a simple and easy to understand way. The filmmakers chose to focus on only a handful of the many species of lemurs, which brought more depth and emotion to the storyline. Issues such as habitat conservation and species survival were highlighted to emphasis the notion that these animals are such a strong part of the Malagasy story.

As a (very!) soon-to-be PCV in Madagascar, seeing this film was a great way for me to get more familiar with the country that will be my home for the next 27 months. I’ve seen some pictures, heard some stories, but I have never seen the country come alive like I saw in this film. To see a glimpse of the villages, the markets, the people, the landscape, this was a real treat for me. The film definitely focused on the lemurs and their natural habitats, but the short scenes in towns and on public transportation was of extra special interest to me. It was a way for me to further imagine myself immersed in that culture. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little choked up as I took in the opening scenes of large wafting views of the Malagasy landscapes. The expansive valleys, the lush forests, and the pronounced rock formations sent chills down my spine and reminded me that I will soon be a part of that beautiful culture.

I would definitely recommend seeing this film if you have the chance. It seems to be in limited release right now at some IMAX theaters, but it’s worth a shot if it’s in your area. I really enjoyed the experience to learn more about lemurs as a close evolutionary relative of humans and to see the nation of Madagascar in a new light. It was another experience that did not frighten me, but helped reaffirm my excitement and willingness to immerse myself in this opportunity. One more step toward my so-called Malagasy life.

Can you believe it took me this long to use that reference?!