Education is the key to development for a better life!

Dear reader,

I have safely arrieved at Antsirabe Madagascar. I am observing how life is here and will post my story soon. The speed of internet is even slower than a snail so writing lifetime is no option.


First impression


Part I


It started on Wednesday the 22nd of august by boarding a train at Rotterdam central station.  The first thing that I noticed was a remark on the departure board telling the people that they had to listen to the announcements.  Nothing was mentioned until 3 minutes before departure, telling us that the direct train to Brussels did not work and that we had to change trains in Roosendaal.  With my luggage, knowing how heavy it was, I hoped that this would not be a first sign of the entire journey.  Safely arriving in Brussels at 11:28, I had plenty of time to change platforms and find the TVG direction Marseille ready for departure at 12:20.  This ride went smooth without any delay and was right on schedule at Paris CDG.


Getting from the train platform to the check-in desk was not a very easy thing to accomplish.  The way that the aeroport CDG is constructed leaves no room for easily moving from one section to the other because the space between check-in desks and the outer wall is less then 5 meters wide.  When I finally got to my check-in desk, of course all the way at the end, there was already a line up of about forty people and all the desks where full.  While being in line I could already see the bureaucratic way of working and was sure that it would be even worse in Madagascar.  There was a sort of host bringing you to a desk but not without telling the other people in line to wait and not move an inch.  I my point of view I’m well capable of discovering an empty desk to do my check-in.  When I was asked to follow the host he brought me to the counter where I was told that my suitcase had some overweight (12 kg). I told the clerk that I was aware of this fact.  For this reason I told him that I had called Air Madagascar in Holland, explaining them that I would depart from Paris CDG, and asked them the price for the overweight.  I was politely told that every extra kilo was equal to € 5.00. So knowing this I took some extra cash with me to pay in Paris. Having the feeling that whatever they tell you on the phone is rarely 100% correct I took some extra cash.  The response of the clerk was sorry but we have to charge you € 30.00 per kilo overweight.  I tried to talk to him and see if there was perhaps a way to lower the amount, but unfortunately there was no such thing possible. But before I could continue the discussion he rapidly said I will make it 10kg overweight and that is it.  So in the end I paid € 300.00 to get everything onboard.


The security measures at CDG are hefty; I almost had to pass naked through the little portal.  I had to take off my shoes, my belt, had to empty my backpack of all electronic features and even after the check they searched the whole thing.

If you are used to take off from Amsterdam Schiphol then you know there is a “shit-load” of tax free shops and bars to have a drink.  I could find only seven shops and one bar and one restaurant.  Furthermore the whole place was under construction so noting was at its right place.  Well there will always be something to complain about so this was my little moment.

It was time to board the plane and when I looked around I thought a couple of different things:

1: the plane that we will take is very small…..;

2: the plane is not departing from CDG, but makes a hop;

3: the plane is not full;


Luckily it turned out to be the last one which meant that on average all passengers had 3 chairs to their disposition.  This made the night a quite comfortable one because I could lie down.  The service on board was standard and nothing out of the ordinary.  It was a petty that the movie onboard was of a quality that is not up to the standards.  So instead of watching I decided to go to sleep.

The arrival at Antananarivo International Airport (AIA) was on time but quite early, we arrived at 4:25.  My normal wake-up pattern was not in place because I’m not habitual to have my breakfast at 3:15 in the morning.  It did not make me grumpy but it took a long time for me to adjust.  When you arrive at the AIA no matter how big the airplane (I think they can accept Boeing 747) the only exit from the plane is on the tarmac with the old fashioned staircases.  Afterward you come to the dreadfully slow working customs desks.  I got in line for people who already have a visa (just four persons in front of me) handed my passport and the guy looked at it and went sour on me demanding for the paper that is necessary for the entry.  I told him that I did not have one and he just waved me back to waiting room.  After demanding several employees where to find the papers I finally found one of the guards friendly enough to find some.  Apparently the papers were handed out during the night, but if you where sleeping they did not leave one and did not offer them again during breakfast. After I obtained the paper everything was ok and we could wait for the luggage to arrive from the plain.  When exiting the arrival hall I was welcomed by Yolanda and Andre with a sign “Charles ESSVA“.  Instead of finding a lot of people there who come and pick-up friends or family, you are striped of luggage by a dozen porters.


We could not go directly to Antsirabe because we had to wait and pick-up Jeff who had a problem with his motorbike and was forced to take the plane back to Antananarivo.  His arrival was planned for 9:30 and since I arrived very early (4:25) the airport restaurant was still closed.  Therefore we went for coffee in the city centre of Antananarivo.  Getting around by car was an experience that I had seen before in Asia.  You get the feeling that you are trapped in a big anthill and that you can move from left to right by just pushing the other person of the road.  There is no road marking and the directions are given very poorly.  In the end it is fine as long as you do not encounter a bus or truck, because then you can push everybody to the side of the road to get your passage.  I still need to go back there once and sit beside the road all day and take pictures of all the different vehicles that come by.  One is fully overloaded and about to break its axels the other one is nearly falling apart completely but is kept together by pieces of string that in the end can bring you far if you take it slowly.  And between all these homemade creations you find the latest models of all the different brands.


So we went down to Antananarivo for some coffee, pastries and a quick visit to the Swiss embassy.  After picking up Jeff at the airport we headed out to Antsirabe. The road has just been fixed and it is of a good quality.  When driving you have to be very careful because the road twists and turns.  Knowing what kind of vehicles roam the road there is always a surprise awaiting you.  One good thing here is that every 50km there is a police or military control.  There is naturally a disadvantage in having so many controlling entities, it stimulates and there is a lot possible with paying the officer.  So you have to be aware of corruption.  Being a Vazah (foreigner) they don’t stop you and pass them at full speed.  Just to be polite towards them you wave and smile and act as if you are not afraid to pass them at “high” speed.  Half way on the journey we stopped for lunch.  Not to sound decadent we all had foie-gras at a restaurant which is called “Coin du Foie-gras”.  I think it was about 125gr per person, and here you only pay 8000 Ariary per portion (= € 3.31).  It is of very good quality but still you don’t eat this every day. 


We continued towards Antsirabe what took another Hour.


End of Part I


Part II


We arrived at the school where I met Jo Monney.  Jo is one of the “permanent” people who lives on the school grounds and helps the school but also works on other projects in the neighbourhood.  He gave me the key to my apartment which is perfect for the time that I’m here.  If you would take out the bathroom facilities it is nothing more than a classroom.  It is about 32m2 and includes two beds a table with four chairs, a closet and a bathroom that in comparison is big, about 10m2.  Because it is build like a classroom it’s not really cosy, but it’s enough because we live outside most of the time anyway (I’m only there at night to sleep, take my shower in the morning and have a cup of coffee).  After bringing my stuff upstairs we went downtown together to grab a bite to eat.  There are a lot of little bars run by Vazah’s (foreigners) who have no real idea about the hospitality (they where soldier, mechanic or whatever before and don’t know the business).  They serve food that is not of high standards but since the tourists here don’t have any other choice they run their little bar.  With this in mind the formation that we give our student here at the school is good and will give a better choice in the long run.


The first day has passed and now I can start to slowly integrate in the local society (school and city).  What I notice by looking at the people it gives me the feeling to be in an Asian country like Cambodia or Indonesia.  This is due to the fact that they have their roots in that area.  Also everybody seems to do something and they are moving all the time or sit in little groups huddled together waiting for things to happen.  There are not too many beggars on the street but all the locals come running to you to see if you want to buy something or of course see if you are willing to give some money.  Although being a Vazah means that you have money, it does not automatically means that you are rich.  It is hard to explain that there are some that live on a tight budget.  Sure with € 350 a month a local can live like a king, you can live very well and do a lot but they do not take into account that we do not pay the same prices for the same products.  You can easily say that our prices are almost double.  To give an idea of the prices that we pay here, I’ll give a short list of my daily habits:


                                                Ariary                           Euro


Croissant                                   800                             0.33

Pain au chocolate                       900                             0.37

Cup of coffee                             2000                            0.83

Bottle of beer (65cl)                    2500                            1.03

Lunch                                       6500                            2.69

Dinner                                       8000                            3.31

Pack of cigarettes                      1600                            0.66


Average per day                     22300                              9.23


If you look at these prices than life here seems not too expensive, but some of the Items that we regularly buy in Europe have the same price here and then you hesitate to buy it because in comparison it’s really expensive. For example:


                                                Ariary                           Euro


A jar of Nescafe (200g)          17990                            7.45

Palmolive shower gel             11000                            4.55

Pack of 3 BIQ raisers              9000                            3.72


Luckily you don’t buy this every day but looking at the other prices you start to look for cheaper options.  It’s a strange feeling.


During the month of October I will keep a daily cash registry to see how much I spend per month. If I make a quick calculation now, I spend 27000 Ar per day and this ad’ up to 810.000 Ar per month (€ 335.40).  This is the estimate for now when because the school is closed but as of the 8th of October I don’t pay for my daily lunch.  This means that I can save up to 130.000 Ar (€ 53.83).

Talking in Ariary is already something to get used to, because in euros I never spend 22300 on a daily basis.  But when you bargain for prices you have to be even more careful.  The old currency of Madagascar was the Malagasy franc, which is 5 times less the value of the Ariary.  Almost every time on the street you first have to ask what currency you’re talking about?  If you forget to ask you will pay five times the value because they will say in the end that they were talking in Ariary.  For many of the tourist that will not be too bad for their budget, but if you try to live in Madagascar on a tight budget every euro cent counts.


There is one thing that would be nice to change.  In Madagascar there are three kinds of people.  First you have of course the Malagasy, secondly the Vazah and as third party the volunteers.  It would be nice if the Vazah’ that have a business here would not charge the tourist prices to the volunteers but let’s say give a 30% to 40% discount.  This way we save some money and therefore we can stay longer and continue our work here, which means help the people who need it and not spend our money as profit for the Vazah’.




Now that I’ve arrived safely in Antsirabé and ready to start socializing with the team that I will support here I need to arrange my visa extension.  To get every document necessary you need to make a grand tour of the city.  In total you need to make a file consisting of 10 different documents or photocopies:


1) certificate of residence;

2) proof of partnership with the church who donated the grounds for the school;

3) certificate of lodging and financial support if necessary;

4) copy of the bishops passport;

5) a request by the school to the minister homeland affairs;

6) copy of the first page of my passport;

7) copy of the second page of my passport;

8) copy of my temporary visa

9) copy of my return ticket (which is dated 16-09-2007 and also cancelled);

10) three envelopes stamped


Then if you have the file complete you make 2 copies.  This means that you have everything in threefold, but not all documents can be handed in as original so you make a photocopy.  To make sure that the bureaucratic system can function properly every copy that you make needs to be certified by the authorities.  Certifying means that you go to city hall and have an employee stamp all papers.  One stamp will cost you 600 Ar (€ 0.25).  You can regard this as a form of tax, but there might also be another explanation.  The Malagasy have a fetish for stamps, no matter what kind of paper you ask it will contain a minimum of 3 stamps.  They serve no use but it will give the document an official look.

After waiting 45 min inline to get my document certified we went to the district and handed in the papers.  There they told me that the procedures have changed and that you only need two copies of everything instead of the three.  So I was overtaxed by € 1.25 (3000 Ar) but you cannot go back and ask for a refund, nor can you reuse them because they are dated.  I now have too wait for them to use one of the envelopes which is addressed for me containing the permit to stay for a year.


End of Part II


 Part III


The terrain on which the school is build belongs to the church of Antsirabe.  On the 16th of September it was the jubilee of the Diocese.  We organised a banquet for 35 persons.  We started the day before in the kitchen preparing the lunch which had 4 courses and in our restaurant setting up the tables and polishing the glasses and cutlery.  Since we had never used the glasses and plates that where stored inside the container we started with the stewarding part.  As this was my “old profession” when I worked for the Hilton in Amsterdam I had the feeling of being home.  We had a couple of students helping out with the setup.  When they saw me, a Vazah; doing the dishes they looked startled.  I explained to them that if I would not be willing to do the stewarding, how could I expect them too?

The next day we made some final adjustments and we where ready for the party of exclusively invited people.  As Chef the Filiere ad interim they told me that I had to take parting the festivity.  Due to the large amount of preparations that had to be done here in our restaurant I politely declined my participation in the mess, but I assured them that I would take part in luncheon.  Fifteen minutes before the official arrival I went to my room and changed my stewarding uniform for a dress shirt and tie.  I positioned myself on the terrace where would have the cocktail and waited for the guests to arrive.  At that moment it started to rain and we all had the idea of s**t.  That it rained outside was not the worst part, but it also started to “rain” inside the restaurant.  As we where all there the only thing we could say was “let’s hope that He will stop this for the sake of the jubilee”.  Luckily it stopped raining before all the guests where there and due to the high temperature the wall dried quickly and you could see nothing from the water traces along the wall. 

During the banquet for the jubilee of the Diocese I met several ministers of Madagascar.  In particular I had a nice conversation with the minister of foreign affairs, general Ranjeva.  When I told him that I was Dutch the conversation took a rapid, positive turn.  He told me that he has a brother who is a judge in Holland for over 18 year.  Just to emphasise that we live in a small world after all, a neighbour (mr W.A.J. Wevers) of my father is best friends with this judge, Son Excellence R. Ranjeva.  Just the next day, I received a letter from Mister Wevers explaining a little bit about his relation with Son Excellence and some background information about him.  For the conversation with the Minister it would have been nice to have received this information two days before.

The luncheon went very well although the Malagasy are not used to a meal that has 4 or 5 small dishes, they like to have one plate that is overflowing.  This meant for the service that there was no time to rest.  When they finished serving all 35 people they could start immediately collecting the first plates.  The menu that we served contained the following:


Amuse bouche :            Brochette de poulet avec une chutney de mange

Premier entrée :            Crème de Courge

Deuxième entrée :         Tartare de thon sur son mesclun de jeunes pousses

Plat principale :             Rôti de zébu, sauce foie gras et madère

                                   Risotto Mantecato, Bouquetière de légumes

Dessert :                       Le chocolat Jubilé et sa mousse de coco

                                    Mignardises et café


In the end the banquet was a great success, they all loved the food but for now they could not appreciate the way it was presented (small portions).  But in a couple of years they will get used to this system of restaurant.


It was almost time for us to meet Clara Blanc (responsible for the project) on the magnificent isle St Marie.  She had booked tickets for us in Switzerland, so we went to the airport to catch our flight.  When we arrived we were kindly told that the computer system cancelled our reservation, because there was no ticket number confirmed.  The only option for us was to take the next airplane, which was scheduled for the next day.  So we ended up spending a night in Tana (Antananarivo).  But the story is not over yet.  While being in the hotel I received a SMS from Clara that she would probably not make it on time due to a technical problem of the airplane in Milan.  The estimated delay was 5 hours, and with the scheduled stopover in Nairobi this would certainly cause her to miss the connecting flight to Isle St Marie.  Well no worries we had a schedule for three days and we would just loose one.  This was wishful thinking because her flight was cancelled.  She had to take a plane from Milan to Paris and there her connexion to Tana, in total she was 38 hours delayed.

Just to be sure that we would not have the same problem with our tickets for the return flight we tried to confirm them in Tana, but since we live in a very bureaucratic system here that was not possible.  You can only confirm a ticket at the office of air Madagascar where the plane is departing.

Well we decided with Clara that we would go anyway and have a sort of short vacation.  Jeff really wanted to go because he had a classmate there who was working there for his internship.  The first day we did nothing but a little swimming (for me just to cool off).  That evening we were contacted by our general manager who offered to confirm our flight (as a hotel service) that the return flight had no space for us.  There where two options: take the morning flight or be put on the waiting list for the evening and for the next day.  After a shot contact with Clara we decided to take the morning flight back and that she would spend the day alone on the Island.  This solution gave her the chance to talk to the other EHL student.

So with one more day to spend we decided to go out in search of the magnificent sea mammal: the whale.  It was the end of the season for spotting whales, so it was not sure if we would find them.  It took us almost 2 hours at sea to finally spot them.  We hooked up with 3 whales (mother, child and father).  I got a couple of nice pictures but the real jumping out of the water was already over, this you see far more often in august (mid season). she blows and dives.MPG.flv kid whale.MPG.flv

I think that seeing whales is just as impressing as seeing the giant elephants in Africa.  There is an environment of serenity around these animals, the way that they glide through the water with a average weight of 15 ton.  I will certainly try to book a trip next year during the whale season.

Just to finish our little vacation in St Marie we met with Clara for 10 min at the airport before we had to take off.  But later that day we picked her up at the Airport in Tana.  She had a wonderful experience and it was also a medicine against the stress and tiredness of her journey to Madagascar.


Now that it is two weeks before the starting of the school, the time for vacation is over and we start with the real work here in Madagascar.  Up till now my tasks have kept growing with more and more little things to make sure that we have an excellent year with no problems in order of money spend for the wrong reasons.  I have to check it all.

Tot snel, A+, Regards,