In a classic Malagasy moment that no longer makes me think twice, I’m sitting in a wooden stall on a street corner, waiting for my scooter to be fixed. Not half-way to work this morning, trusty Black Scooter sputtered and lost its will to live. We limped into the nearest moto repairers and have been here for almost two hours watching various people pull apart carburetors. It’s not looking good.
The stall beside our mechanic happens to be a movie theatre – or at least a tiny shop with a TV and a daily viewing program. A painted board with hand-chalked prices displays the day’s offerings: “My Kung-fu 12 Kicks” (1.30pm), “Underworld 5” (3pm), “Les Monstres du Kung fu” (4.30), and “The Condemned” (6pm). For a generally friendly and pleasant people, the Malagasy have lurid taste in entertainment. A steady stream of small boys has already been along to check it out and discuss the relative merits of the flicks on offer. 100 ariary per adult – if the scooter takes much longer I may be tempted.
As I type, my laptop screen is collecting a complex film of dust, which in my boredom I am tempted to swab, NCIS style, and analyse. Charcoal smoke, car fumes, ash, frying oil, dust, chicken feathers – possibly with traces of various toxic chemicals outlawed in other countries, but here mixed cheerfully into children’s food and other aspects of daily life. This is the coating in which I arrive home each evening, and the self-same that settles over the roadside food stalls and worse, the fresh rice grains spread to dry on the roadsides. I try not to think too hard about it.
Street life, meanwhile, is endlessly fascinating. Long-legged chickens peck through the nameless muck, children jostle on their way to school. The mobile vendors of peanuts and cigarettes tap out catchy rhythms on their tin trays, so that I live in constant expectation of a flash mob or surprise Broadway musical scene, right here amongst the piles of second-hand shoes. The other day on just such a street corner, I witnessed a live face-off between two forces of nature: a taxi driver and an auntie with a broom, both laying claim to the same patch of cobbles. I don’t need to tell you who won.
Cheap plastic toys, bling hair accessories, “used” cell-phones, and underwear. An inexplicably successful brand of toothpaste called “Angola”. A blind man with an accordion, a pavement electronics expert with a soldering iron, a beggar with withered legs seated serenely on his mat amongst the pedestrian traffic (I’m very tempted to shoot a portrait series here in support of polio vaccines).
Because the Malagasy are mostly dirt-poor and import tax ridiculously high, many things prove, on close inspection, to be hand-made rather than shipped in from China. The umbrellas and awnings of street vendors, the ingenious push-carts on which they transport their goods (complete with sprung suspension and a steering system for downhills), the tin watering-cans and wheelbarrows. There is always something new to notice.
Eventually Black Scooter’s carburetor is deemed good to go, and my Kung fu education must wait for another day. The mechanic writes us a receipt for a spark plug for his two hours of labour which comes to less than Colcacchio’s cheapest pizza, and we are back on the road. The scooter breaks down again just before our destination, and we make friends with another roadside moto mechanic across the road from where the students are practical-ing this week. The third breakdown happens on the way home in the evening, and I push Black Scooter as far as the office and catch a bus. Turns out our local petrol station had water in its tanks, and the following day Red Scooter meets the same fate (fortunately this time I at least get home). Our team is down to Blue and Green until we can source a trustworthy mechanic (apparently the shop we have used until now has joined in the common practice of “borrowing” its clients’ vehicles for personal use and occasionally dropping or crashing them, so time to take our business elsewhere).
Oh yes. It’s another standard week in Lemurland…