The sun is out this morning and it is quickly warming up in the capitol of Madagascar. I don’t have much time here as my plane for Mauritius leaves in five hours, but all through the night, even in my dreams, I played and replayed the events of my arrival.
There was a lesson I learned in school in fifth grade and that was never use red ink on anything but, since I was so tired yesterday, I used the red pen I had been using on my crossword puzzles for the visa entry and as I got in line I thought, “uh oh.” What’s the worst that could happen, though? Well, on that end not much but it put the elements in play for what would happen later.
When I got to the first of four mandatory stops in the customs section of the airport my fears came true and the lady said, “Blue only!” She was real nice about it and let me come to the officials’ side of the kiosk to fill it out and I did only to make one error so I had to start over. This, I feared, was the start of a miserable night.
Eventually I had success and got that little pamphlet stamped which meant I now had to go to the visa purchase line. I would have been far up in line but instead I now was in the back and the line moved at a pace akin to a motorless car going uphill. I was tired, a bit antsy, and I just wanted to go to sleep although there were a couple hundred other travelers in the same situation I was.
I arrived at the visa station and had exact change, that would be $27, but then I looked and I thought, “I don’t have any other small bills. This might just be an issue should an issue arise.” The rest of my money I had tucked away in my sock because one just doesn’t know what could happen here and I was going to take every precaution possible to avoid trouble.
After the final check of my passport at the police checkpoint I awaited my bag and when it came out I cleared customs and I went to the outer lobby of the airport where it looked as if a couple hundred or more people were waiting for the couple hundred that landed. I was a bit lost and I’m sure I looked it as trying to find my name on a sign in the midst of so many signs was difficult. Then, descended upon me a man in a florescent green vest and asked if I had a taxi waiting. I explained, “no, a hotel is picking me up” and he asked, “which one?” so I got my phone out to look it up and at this time two other people in equally shining green vests came and all of a sudden my bags were being handled by others. I should’ve said, “stop” but I wanted to know the name of my hotel and when I found it the first man said, “Ah yes, the driver is a friend of mine and he is over there.
Where was over there? The guy with my sign was actually behind the masses which would have made it impossible for me to see without walking outside. Now, my bags were a couple dozen paces in front of me and somehow I now had an escort of six people in green vests. This was not good and I knew no good deed here goes unrewarded and all I had were large bills. I knew what seemed to be the right way to prepare for this trip would turn out to be a comedy in over-preparation since, had I had a bunch of $5’s, I’d have looked rather generous, but now… now things were about to get expensive, I feared.
When we neared the hotel van one of the men said, “How’s this for security?” and I simply thought, “At what price?” After the Hammerfest incident I wanted to avoid anything remotely close to something resembling any event that could pose a threat. My goal is to neutralize any threat before it becomes one which sort of created this problem when I was so keen on telling the man of the name of my hotel. Had I just kept going I would’ve been okay and had he not stopped me I’d have gone to the currency exchange to get local money and when we got to the van I knew that they had a well-oiled game going on and I was the prize at the end.
Before my bags went into the van hands just started to be held out. Their due diligence in walking me the 1000ft from the airport to the van was to be rewarded and the only thing I could do was try and negotiate because I didn’t have a bill for each person. Would they be willing to share a 20 Euro note? I handed one person the only 5 Euro I had and this was all but scoffed at so I took out a 20 and asked if this would be good for everyone and they all agreed. So I said, “give me back the 5 and you’ll get the 20” but the 20 was taken from my hand so quickly that this vision I had of negotiating quickly turned into a free-for-all. I was reminded of the “security” they provided and the “dangers” that lurked. Were there other dangers or was the dangers he mentioned the dangers they posed if I didn’t pay?
All the while I was wondering, “Where on God’s green earth is the driver of this van? Shouldn’t he be saving me from this?” The 20 Euro was not good enough because the person that got it wasn’t going to share so then I was reminded of the dangers again with the constant pestering of these men saying, “please, baby, please, just a bit more.” Just a bit more but how much was enough?
The remaining two bank notes I had in my wallet were a 50 Euro and a 100 US Dollar and I thought back to that morning, well, my morning when I took out all my small bills and left them at home and when I did I thought “Aaron, you clever person you, keep a couple large bills in your wallet and the rest in your sock and should you be robbed they can’t take that much!” Oh, clever indeed, but I had the vision of being robbed at knifepoint or gunpoint, not by six men less than 5 minutes of leaving the airport.
Perhaps I looked the part of the sucker, but as their pleas for more money came and their tone intensified I had thoughts back to Hammerfest and how there was no prediction of that situation escalating and now, here in the dimly lit parking lot at 1AM, there were signs so I used my next to last note of the 50 Euro and I said, “is this good for everyone? This is my last note!” and the mass all agreed, but when the first person took it he wandered off and now the five said that person wouldn’t share… Of course he wouldn’t and their game continued.
My bags were still on the ground beside one guy and it wasn’t in the van showing me they had not thought they had been compensated yet. At this point what am I going to do? Demand they just leave? There’s five of them and one of me and I’m tired, exhausted, and scared out of my mind. I weighed my options and I kept a calm demeanor as to ‘try’ not and show fear but I deemed this to be a losing cause and I took out the final bill from my wallet and said, “This is it! Okay!? There’s nothing after this. You will split this. Who can I trust to give this to?” They all said the person that had already in their possession my 5 and 20 Euro note so I gave it to him and they all thanked me and left which at this very moment the hotel driver showed up and wanted a tip. “They took it all” I replied.
The entire ten minute ride to the hotel was filled with self-hate. In my preparations I played through scenarios where I only lose a bit thanks to my forethought, but this all but ambush was unexpected and was executed flawlessly. The second my bag was out of my hand their game was on and they were assured victory. I doubt things ever turn physical and if I simply refused to pay them they probably would have left. I mean, if tourists were constantly being beat up in the parking lot that would not look good for the tourism board of Madagascar but, what if it would turn physical? I had my computer which had the previous chapters to this trip on it, I had my iPad in my computer bag which had not left my possession, and I had my phone in my pocket along with my passport. I doubt they’d have found the money in my sock had they beat me up but at that point, had I lost my electronics and passport, what would it have mattered. Logically, even though I hated myself for it, paying them off was the only sure fire way to get out of that situation once it had started.
This will be a learning experience and as I got to the airport today to go to Mauritius on my way to Reunion I’ll be protecting my bags with a furor. I’m not playing that game again as I don’t know if I have enough self-hate to go through another episode of losing that much money in that type of situation, but in the least I hope those men treat themselves to a good meal today because they played a great game and I gave them what I have to think is the grand prize.