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Friday, March 7, 2008 / 7:00 PM – Shanghai, China
I’m having dinner with Lily at the Pizza Hut in JingAn Temple. It was my last night in Shanghai. A month earlier, I had decided to leave China and move back to Ericsson’s office in Montreal, Canada after 18 months of working as an expat in Shanghai, China. But during dinner, all I could think of was how much I did not want to leave. And although leaving was the right decision at that point in my career, I knew at that instant, with all certainty, what my next career move will be. I wasn’t going to stay away. I had to come back to Shanghai as an expat. And I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that. It seemed next to impossible at that point. But looking into Lily’s eyes, I knew I will find a way. I promised her I will be back soon. And realizing how much I wanted that, I knew that this was more of a promise to myself.
Five months later, August 2008, I find myself on a project with Ericsson in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo (a.k.a Tana).
Once I complete the project (it was supposed to last three weeks), my next destination was going to be Shanghai.
Set in Antananarivo, over three weeks. This is a story of survival, hope, and anticipation. A test of my determination set in the backdrop of one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
The Grand Antananarivo Hotel
Sakamanga is the most popular hotel in Tana. But there was no way for me to know that prior to my trip. I searched online and found that there was a Hilton. It was the only hotel name that I could recognize from the list of hotels that I found. So I booked the Hilton.
When I arrived at the hotel I discovered that it wasn’t a Hilton. Apparently, it used to be the Hilton. Now it changed management and it became The Grand Antananarivo Hotel. That wasn’t really the new name, but that’s what I decided to call it because it was so big and felt like a castle in the middle of a worn out African city. The girl at the reception assured me that it was just as good as the Hilton. I was so tired from the flight and seeing that most of the people that were on the plane are actually lined up to check into this hotel made me feel somewhat safe. And I had to admit, the pool was very nice. Just like in the pictures.
The Office And The Lake
The Ericsson office was nothing but a villa on top of a hill which overlooked the lake. The sight was breathtaking. They opened up the windows so the sun filled the room from many corners. And let in some air breeze. Outside the office, there was a big field where the people working there played soccer from time to time.
I never stayed at the Sakamanga hotel because it was always full. It seemed to be the only place people who visited Antananarivo wanted to stay. And for good reason. The place had a great restaurant (where they served some of the best Zebu in the city) and was full of life and energy. Yet, maintaining a true Madagascarian feel. I liked it.
The Character Cast
The Swede That Fell In The Hole
During my first day at work, the project manager invited me to lunch, so we went to an outdoor terrace and had a great meal. But during the meal, I realized that the PM was…somewhat slow. He reacted to everything a few seconds late. Later on, he told me that he fell in a hole while walking from the hotel to the office. He hit his head badly and had to be flown away back to Sweden where they operated on him and needed one month to recover. It sounded painful.
Zebu is not a person. It’s an animal. The closest known animal to a Zebu would be a cow. Zebu was an important part of my time in Madagascar because it was mainly what I ate almost every night (except the first night when I walked to a pizza place near the hotel and ordered a pizza and had stomach pain all night). The meat was served in the best and fanciest restaurants in the city. It became a habit that I looked forward to every evening, to find a good restaurant and try their Zebu steak. I never had stomach pain after eating Zebu steaks. Ever.
Anna, The Bloke With The Long Hair And The Young Man From Nairobi
They were the trio expats that came here before me. And for some reason, they wouldn’t let them leave. They looked like they had lost hope completely. Anna and the guy with the long hair were from Romania and I found out that they did not want to go back because there was not enough work for them to do back at their home office. Anna was very talkative and we became friends. The Kenyan guy looked like he had lost hope much more than the other two. He was completely hopeless. He’s been here for one year. And he desperately wanted to leave. He didn’t care whether there was work for him or not. He didn’t care if there was a war back in his country. He just wanted to leave. He asked me how long I was going to stay. I said three weeks. He had a blank face for a few seconds then he started to laugh hysterically.
The Irish That Hated The Swede
After the Swede came back to Madagascar, he started to resume his activities as a project manager at the office despite being slow. Everyone seemed OK with it. Nobody complained. Except for the Irish bloke. He was a skinny one with somewhat of a blondish hair. His role was a solution architect. Let’s make something clear, this guy was no Hemingway, he was scrawny and lacked style. There was nothing manly about him. Except that he had a temper problem. I thought it was because he’s been in Madagascar for a long time. I can understand that. But he could not tolerate the new “slow” version of The Swede. He would scream at him constantly and complain that he had to do most of his work because he was so slow and absentminded.
The Seven Damsels
Apart from me, the Irish guy, the Nigerian and the Swede. There were seven women in the office. All locals from Madagascar. I could identify that one of them made the coffee so she was the coffee girl. One of them was the secretary or some kind of admin. The five others I could not tell what they did exactly. They just seemed to be talking a lot on the phone and I could tell it wasn’t related to work. Later on, I found out that the Irish bloke had a relationship with each and every one of them. I could just not figure out in which order…and some other logistics.
He sat in front of me at the office. The Irish and the Swede sat behind him at the far end of the office causing some kind of a 3D effect everytime I looked at the three of them together. He was always surrounded by flies, which made him a real-life version of Lord Of The Flies. Later on, I promised to buy him an electric fly zapper and mail it to him after I got back home. I did not keep my promise.
The Mercenary Who Was Sitting Next To Me On The Plane
He was the guy sitting next to me on the plane on the flight from Paris to Antananarivo. A 10-hour flight. Now here’s the thing. Normally on long flights like this, the last thing I want is to strike a conversation with the person next to me. I want to think about things, plan stuff in my head, read, watch a movie or two. etc.
Nine hours into the flight, the guy looks at me and asks why I was traveling to Madagascar. I explain to him it was for work, then go into talking about what I do for work because I anticipate that this will be the next question he will ask and I want him to run out of questions so he stops talking to me.
I also ask him what he does for a living? And he says something about importing “stuff” to Madagascar. I deduce that he’s either dealing in Arms, or he is a Mercenary. Not good either way. I look out the airplane window, then pretend to be dosing off and falling asleep.
It is true. In the novel by Joseph Heller, Catch 22, the protagonist Yossarian has only one goal and that is to escape from the small island of Pianosa located west off the Italian mainland. But during the time he spent on Pianosa, he had to maintain his sanity and prevent himself from going crazy surrounded by the wacky characters that he had to work with on the island.
During my time in Madagascar, I was Yossarian:
- I was surrounded by wacky people and tried to maintain my sanity while performing my duties.
- My only goal was to escape from Antananarivo and travel to China.
- I had three weeks to make it happen.
Act 1 – I Had To Go Back To Shanghai
That morning sitting in the hotel Lobby, I receive a text message from Lily.
L: Where are you?
A: I’m in Africa. Madagascar : )
L: That is too cool. When will I see u?
That’s all it took. I had to go back to Shanghai. I had to see her again.
Act 2 – Captured, Cannot Escape
They told me there is no way I could leave by August 22nd. And I had to stay in Madagascar for another month until the CTO of Telma came back from his trip to France. Nobody knew when he was going to come back and I was sure he was not there for business either.
Act 3 – The Visa Issue
At this point my priorities were clear:
- Leave Madagascar by the 3rd week of August.
- Have my Visa ready.
I get one of the seven damsels to call the embassy and tell them that it’s a priority for Ericsson to send me to China for an urgent business trip and therefore I need a be able to apply for the visa from Antananarivo. It doesn’t work. The man at the embassy doesn’t want to budge.
I call Amber (a Chinese colleague) from my Montreal office and ask her to call the Embassy in Antananarivo and speak to them in Chinese. Maybe that would somehow help (I was getting desperate). She agrees to help. Calls the embassy and talks to the guy for almost an hour on the phone. Looks like it’s going really well I think to myself. After she hangs up, she starts to tell me about the Chinese population in Madagascar, what they do and how the guy in the embassy was so interested in Canada and thinking to move there and asking Amber about all kinds of information to help him go there. Then she says oh, and for the visa he says there is no way you can get it from Antananarivo, you have to go back to Canada and apply from there.
I have no choice now. I have to go back to Canada to apply. Luckily, they have the 24hr accelerated option which costs triple the normal cost (but hey, you get it in 1 day). This means also that every day counts, and I have to leave Madagascar by Friday at any cost. ANY COST!
Act 4 – Fighting Over The Baobab Tree Paintings
Anna and I finally came to a confrontation. And I realized that our friendship for the past two weeks was totally superficial, shallow and weak. The friendship ended over a silly fight over a painting of a baobab tree. We both wanted the painting. There was only one at the store. Only one of us could have it. We never spoke again.
Act 5 – Escape
Friday, 22 August 2008 / 1:00 PM – Antananarivo, Madagascar
I’m sitting in the Ericsson office and feeling very nervous. I’m running out of time. My departure date was the next day, Saturday evening, the 23rd. I knew that they will find a reason to call me up on Saturday morning and make me extend my stay. I had to prepare my excuse. Actually, forget excuses. I must prevent this situation from happening in the first place. I had to act fast. I called Air France and asked if I can change my flight. Turns out I can and there is no penalty. Fantastic. Fifteen minutes later, I had my flight changed to this evening’s flight at 10 pm. Now I need to slowly go back to the hotel to check out without causing any suspicions. I successfully leave the office at 4 PM and head back to the Grand Antananarivo Hotel and go straight to the reception. I check out, ask for a driver from the hotel and head straight to the airport. On the way, I turn off my cell phone. I don’t want to take any chances. I don’t trust these people. We arrive at the airport. There is one huge Airbus 340. Clearly, it cannot fit all the people in the airport. I look around, some of these people aren’t getting on that plane. They all had hope though. I can tell I wasn’t the only one trying to escape. There were many in my situation. Some of these people will get caught and sent back before they can get on the plane. I see the desperation in their eyes and that knowing look that they aren’t going to make it. That cannot be me. I am getting out tonight. Nobody can stop me. Nobody.
I walk around the Duty-Free area and look for some souvenirs to buy…
Epilogue – The DJ Revolution
Right after I got out of Madagascar, a revolution started. A local and popular music DJ proclaimed himself as the next president and took over the presidential palace in a standoff against the current government. He had control of the army so it was only a matter of time before he was going to win.
The Swede and Irish bloke are now stuck in paradise. But I also knew they were going to survive…somehow. And I wasn’t sure if I felt sorry for them. After all, they were not on my side when all I wanted was to get out. They only put obstacles in my way. They deserved each other.
I did find Lemurs and Baobab trees. But there was no Komodo Dragon in Madagascar, my friend Juan was wrong.
On another note, later that year, I found a new perfume by Kenzo, called “5:40 PM In Madagascar”. Now it is discontinued. I never got a chance to buy one. It would have been nice.