8. A Country Market and a Bit of Culture

On our way to Perinet Reserve, we stopped to visit a local market and experience some local culture. Of course, we searched for birds in the fields, towns, and cities along the way. In spite of the denser population in the highlands of Madagascar, birds congregate in marshes, ponds, and fields close to towns.

About 100 miles north of Ranomafana, we stopped for a birding break just outside of Antanifotsy, the eighth largest city in Madagascar. The pleasantly cool weather felt lovely after the hot and humid tropical jungle at Ranomafana.


My Search for a Lamba

Our guide Rivo and I were chatting while we waited by the bus for the others to return after scanning a small marshy area for birds. Farmers were working in some terraced fields above the marsh and I spotted a curious teenager wrapped in one of the bright lambas. I poked my chin toward the boy’s lamba and said, “Rivo, I want one of those, where can I buy one?” reminding him of my previous request.

“You don’t want one of them,” said Rivo. “They are just a style, not traditional at all.”

“But I like it. I want one,” I insisted.


“Oh, no. Those people used to wear blankets here when it got cold. Then they started wearing towels. Yellow towels! “He paused so that would sink in and I’d get the point of how ridiculous I might look in a lamba. “Now, they like those colored lambas.”

“I want one.”

“Well, you can’t even wear it in Tana,” Rivo scoffed, as if that would matter to me.

He sounded a bit condescending and that’s when I remembered that he was probably a Merina, the tribe that occupied a privileged position in Madagascar. He had access to resources unavailable to the farmers we were watching. Rivo had a good sense of humor, so when he tried to discourage me I insisted on one of those lambas—and I wanted to wear it in Tana where Rivo could see.

The first time I saw one of the garish lambas, an ox cart driver on a dusty coastal road had wrapped it around his head and shoulders, which certainly set him apart from his companions, who wore more neutral clothing. In the highlands, even more people were wearing the bright wraps festooned with huge red, blue, and orange flowers on a red background. The colorful lambas were popular in this cooler climate because the fabric is an inexpensive, lightweight velvet that is heavier and warmer than lambas from other regions of Madagascar. I knew fashions changed and if these garish lambas had replaced the yellow towels, who knows what they were wearing more than fifteen years later?

I was in luck. Mark had planned a visit to a weekly Saturday market close by, set up behind the playing field of a large school. Maybe I can find a lamba there, I thought.

When we arrived at 11:00, the market activities were well under way. Items for purchase or trade overflowed the stalls or laid in neat piles on tarps on the ground. Customers examined the wares of hardware vendors, miscellaneous metal, bolts, pieces of motors, and other machine parts.


Nearby, a man had lined up new bicycles for inspection. Used bikes stood in another row. One vendor stood next to wheels, spokes, gears, and chains. All the scrap metal lay near to the car park and the vendors were mostly women. The gleaned metal included pipes, railings, wire, and bits of appliances.

The vendors hunched behind their displays, chatted among themselves, and watched for customers. People strolled the aisles and after fingering the goods, they made a few purchases but that did not really seem to be the focus of the gathering. This country market provided the opportunity for a social gathering and a little time to relax after a hard week of work.

I like to see what is for sale in hardware stores when I travel, alert for things people actually use in their daily lives. For instance, every time I lightly touch the cane wrapping around the shiny, brittle, heat-conserving core of a Chinese thermos bottle, I remember the trip I took with my mother to China. Though I don’t use the thermos, I still have it because the fond memories rekindle my delight in the trip.


In that Madagascar market, I lingered next to a tinker wearing a suit jacket and straw hat, busily cranking the fan for a tiny forge to heat his soldering iron. I’d seen this basic set up in Mexico. The iron is a square lump of heavy metal pointed at one end with a handle. The vendor heated it on a flame and soldered until the iron lost its heat. The man’s customer, also wearing a well-worn suit jacket and a fedora, watched the process with the same fascination as I did. The repairman patched a hole in an enamel bowl. I wondered if the men knew that solder contains lead and the bowl would be poisonous if they used it for food. In a poor economy where nothing goes to waste, I knew the bowl had many other uses, so I hoped they would be safe.

Up the hill, a pig squealed when the seller pinned the unhappy animal to the ground while the potential buyer pulled out the pig’s tongue for inspection. In the same area, a cheerful young fellow climbed on his bike and pedaled off with a squirming piglet under one arm. Vendors displayed small piles of charcoal next to the half-full charcoal bags similar to the ones we saw lining the road from the coast. Drivers had parked their decorative zebu carts next to brightly colored strands of nylon rope. I wondered why I didn’t see any sisal ropes since

Basket vendors

farmers grow sisal in the south for its fiber. There were a few woven sisal baskets for sale, but not many. I had seen a few sisal baskets where tourists visited, but this market was not for tourists. Later, I learned that sisal from Madagascar is an important export because of its high quality. Most commercial sisal is grown on plantations, not on small farms, so perhaps local farmers grew this market’s sisal for local use by the women who made the baskets.

Further up the slope, vendors clustered their rows of temporary stalls according to product areas. Attractive displays of local vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers drew potential customers in to test their freshness. Vendors piled beans and rice into mounds in the mouths of cloth bags, topped by enamel measuring pans. Nearby they displayed yellow, brown, and black spices in sealed plastic bags. Artful displays of beads, jewelry, makeup, bowls, candles, shoes, combs—just about anything a department store or grocery store might have—flowed into the aisles.

Off to the side, I watched a hopeful young man hover near a teenage girl selling hot beans and rice. A short distance away, two wizened women guffawed at something known only to them, a private joke or a rude comment. The market brimmed with life and all of its senses. I was exhilarated and grateful to be a part of this thriving marketplace in a land I had dreamt about for many years.

My Lamba

Suddenly, something red caught my eye. I quickened my step, briskly moving past the children’s clothes waving gently in the breeze and past the customers picking over heaps of used T-shirts. At last, I found lengths of the lamba cloth displayed, one or two to a vendor, among sedate fabric for dresses and skirts. I asked one vendor his price, and then some others. Each time I asked, the price went up, so I returned to the first vendor and bought one of his lambas. It was made of stretchy synthetic cloth, fuzzy on one side with a blood red background and the garish red, blue, and yellow flowers. This was so unlike what I normally buy, which usually consisted of natural fabrics and muted colors.

Back at the bus, I wrapped my new lamba around me, jauntily tossing one end over my shoulder, and modeled my find for Rivo. I loved my lamba. My friends snapped my photo, Rivo smiled, and then he quietly stepped back to disassociate himself from my display. This made my smile even bigger.

Food, Music & Dance

After our visit to the market, we drove into Antanifotsy, a city of 70,000 people, for our lunch and some unusual and delightful entertainment. A bamboo fence surrounded a small outdoor stage for an entertainment venue, built in a rather steep bowl. We sat at two picnic tables sheltered by grass roofs on the only flat spot in the venue.

When we arrived the food was ready for us. Servers brought heaping bowls of rice and smaller bowls of a tasty beef stew, along with lovely vegetables on the side. This was the only meal during our trip that might approximate what the local Malagasy eat since we ate at places that catered to tourists.

As I ate, I mused about the food we had been served during the trip. Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet, brought from Borneo by the first settlers. I doubt we did justice to the heaps of white rice served everywhere in Madagascar. A typical Malagasy eats a kilo (2.2 lbs.) of rice per day—a big heap of rice with every meal— and small portions of meat and vegetables as a side to the rice. As tourists, we did the opposite, eating big portions of meat or seafood and a small helping of rice.

In the coastal area of Ifaty, we had eaten delicious seafood, including everything from the charred, whole, snapper-like fish to shrimp, prawns, and mangrove crabs. In the rainforest at Ranomafana, we saw sleek zebus, well fed on the fast growing tropical plants. I suspected the rainforest zebus were a meat source for our meals in other parts of the country. The occasional bits of free-range chicken and even some pork, were always tough but flavorful. We ate a good variety of the highland-grown vegetables that were usually found in local markets.

For desserts, we had every restaurant’s version of bananas flambé and even a pineapple flambé. Occasionally, the dessert choices included fresh tropical fruit, crepes, or flan. I am not familiar enough with French cuisine to know how much it influenced the food we ate, but the French-trained staff took a long time to prepare the food and serve it. Throughout our travels, our guides did their best to hasten the service because after an early breakfast, followed by a long day of birding, we needed a quick dinner and then off to bed. Most nights there wasn’t time for a leisurely meal.

We always drank bottled water and a few people drank tea with meals, while many more drank coffee at breakfast. The Malagasy also drink tea and coffee, but their favorite drink is ranonapongo, also called ranovola, or burnt rice water. They pour boiled water in the rice-encrusted pan used for cooking rice for the meal and let it cool a bit. It’s an acquired taste, they say, and I never saw it on any of our menus. I doubt the places where we ate would have had ranovola even if I had wanted to try some.


The Local Entertainment

In line for the facilities.

At our quaint restaurant in Antanifotsy, we finished our simple meal and waited for the next phase of our cultural experience. While the singers prepared the stage, we had time to use the bathroom facilities, such as they were. While on the road, we sometimes used Asian-style outhouses, which are basically holes in the floor of a tiny, often airy, outhouse. This situation was similar, maybe worse. The outhouse was uphill from the picnic tables, which caused me to wonder about the drainage—a rude question guests should not ask the host. Two other women from our group waited at the outhouse door when I approached. A voice from inside said, ”I don’t know about this. It feels rather risky.” The other two laughed, but did not leave. When my turn came, I discovered why it seemed risky. The wooden floor felt quite spongy, sagging noticeably when I placed my feet beside the open slot in the middle of the floor. I weighed my need against the possibility of plunging into the dark below. I unbuckled my pants and thought, Travel has its risks.

Once we all regrouped at the picnic tables, the entertainment began. Two lively older men with stubbly beards and big smiles stepped to the front of the small stage. Both men wore garish, red, sarong-like lambdas, a lot like mine, draped around their shoulders. The bright lambdas framed their dark leathered faces, topped by small straw hats. A round-faced man put his simple homemade violin to his shoulder, while his friend adjusted on his right shoulder a banjo-like instrument that had a large gourd for its sound box. To play this fascinating instrument, he plucked the two strings with his right hand, and changed between two notes with his left hand by pressing the strings against pegs that protruded from the instrument’s neck.

The toothless men gummed the words to lively local songs, delighting each other with their apparent improvisation. They sang with gusto and raced to the finish, laughing as they lowered their instruments to our applause. Their uninhibited performance inspired good tips from our grateful audience. Rivo told us later that the songs they sang were adapted from ones that would have lasted much longer had they been part of a traditional ceremony to communicate with the ancestors.

The dancers were small women who wore light green cotton skirts, white blouses, and straw hats. When the dancers invited us to partner with them, the last woman in the dance troupe grabbed me.


She lined us up for a couple of circuits around the stage, which was basically a shuffling step to the beat of the music. I smiled graciously, but was grateful when we stopped. As soon as my dance partner allowed me to escape, I hurried back to my table. That group participation felt just too contrived for my taste and seemed to be a cultural stretch in order to please the tourists, many of whom I’m sure loved it. I’m an introvert and am always a reluctant participant in these touristy events.

However, I appreciated the presentation for its small slice of Malagasy culture and local flavor. There was lots of potential for tourism to grow and increase local economic development, and I was glad to be a part of this local tourist venue.