Buying vanilla

The flight from Sambava to Antananarivo starts in Diego-Suarez.

It’s a short hop, 45 minutes or so, over the hills of the northern coast and then down to the rice paddies, vanilla plantations and the Indian Ocean, which seems to stretch out endlessly.

It’s hilly here too. Madagascar is a hilly country. 

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the flight to Antananarivo (Tana) from Diego-Suarez stops in Sambava, dropping off a few passengers and picking up a few more before continuing on to the capital.

The plane is late. 

They texted us the night before to say it would be late, but now it’s even later.

Mika (pronounced “Mike”), the taxi driver, picked us up at 7:35, another passenger in the front seat.

10,000 per person, he’d said the night before. The tuk-tuks in Sambava work like that too, picking up as many passengers as they can fit, charging by the rider, not the destination, as they wind their way through the thin coastal town. Though, in town it’s only 1,000. Steep price to pay to enter the airport parking lot.

Still, we’re talking in ariary, not dollars, not even rand.

Mika had been introduced to us by a tuk-tuk driver who gave us a good price at the airport a couple days earlier. 

“If you’re going to the national park, my friend has a small car, he can take you.”

We take down the number.

That evening Steph calls him. He gives her a price. 

“I’ll call you back,” she says, so we can calculate the conversion and figure out whether this impossibly high number is around US$40. 

He calls back ten seconds later with a lower offer.

He doesn’t talk, he drives fast, honking his horn at every blind turn, every pass, people walking in the road, chickens, dogs, cows.

He has a paper, saying something about him being an official taxi driver, stamped several times in official fashion, signed by one of us, that he shows to the gendarmes at the checkpoints (“controls” as they call them here). It gets us through fine, we don’t need to show our passports, no one has to be bribed, at least not in front of us.

It’s good to have a driver in a place like this. In Johannesburg, some people say “I have a guy, I’ll send him to pick you up.” But you don’t really need a guy there, you can find the nearest grocery store on Google maps, businesses have websites, you can look up their hours and their phone number. In Sambava, it’s good to have a guy. Need a raincoat? He knows a store. Want some cans of beer on the road (not bottles, because the deposit will cost you more than the beer), he knows a spot.

Is he getting a kickback? Who knows. And if you don’t know, because you don’t notice, then it doesn’t matter.

So we ask him if he knows where we can get some vanilla.

After all, this is the vanilla capital of the world.

Mika makes a couple calls as we drive back to town.

It’s being set up, he tells us. We speak with him in French, he makes the calls in Malagasy.

We drive to a back alley near a market. Mike gets out and talks to a couple men at a small outdoor bar.

And then we wait.

Nothing I have ever done in my life has felt more like a drug deal.

A couple days earlier, we bought some drugs. 

Khat, a relatively mild stimulant with some dissociative properties is incredibly popular in Madagascar, particularly in the north.

While it’s ostensibly illegal, it’s sold and consumed openly. Men walk around their cheeks bulging with khat leaves, twigs of khat in their hands.

Asking for a couple khat leaves was like asking someone for a stick of gum, we don’t even pay for it.

Buying vanilla feels like it’s illegal.

We wait.

And then a group of men come to the window.

A few with the bulging cheeks of khat eaters.

One with his glass of beer still in his hand.

They pass a handful of vanilla beans into the car.

“Do you know vanilla? Smell it, it’s the good stuff. It’s been processed, you don’t need to do anything to preserve it.”

We buy 50 grams, maybe a little more. Better price than we could have gotten anywhere else. Probably could have done better.

At the airport, the woman from the front seat sits at the bar, drinks a coffee or a tea and eats a pastry.

Then she sits in the waiting room with her hands folded on her lap. She looks nervous.

We eat ramen noodles with meatballs, egg and little bits of green onion.

When we flew in on this flight a few days before, many of the other passengers had coolers, we wonder what’s in them.

They come out on the small carousel, alongside boxes tied with string and two mannequin torsos. A man grabs his cooler and the handle breaks off, it spills open and a frozen chicken falls out.

We are not the only ones waiting. A group of gendarmes is hanging out in the airport restaurant, looking like something out of the colonial era in their kepis. Several of them wear white belts with empty flap holsters.

One of the senior gendarmes was staying at our hotel. At 6:30 am, two genderames in full uniform were washing his car. People are always washing cars in Africa, it’s the only thing I can think of that’s as true in Jozi as it is in Congo as it is in Madagascar.

Two others are in camouflage with black vests that say “gendarmerie” and assault rifles that also could be left over from the colonial era slung across their shoulders. 

Tsaradia, Madagascar’s domestic airline, is notorious for having its planes commandeered by government officials. It is the assumed reason for all aviation delays, it is a warning repeated to us. We have been lucky so far.

When the plane lands, the men with the guns go outside and look around while the others form-up a welcome party. We ask someone who they’re waiting for, a senior gendarme is on the plane, we’re told, had it held for him. We board as salutes are given on the tarmac and men in dress uniforms collect the baggage of their casually-dressed superiors.

The vanilla will never be used. Wrapped in a sheet of newsprint, it will be thrown out by accident as we clean out our apartment in Montreal. 

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