Last October, I had the pleasure of getting myself over to Madagascar again. As much as I love London, it's always a welcome break. The hustle and bustle remains but it feels different, a little more [as the Malagasy say] mora mora, which means taking life slow. As someone who can sometimes be impatient, this isn't always ideal but what it does allow me to do is absorb and understand my surroundings a lot better.
Wherever I travel, I tend to have two missions: try the local food and discover something new.
Whether you love shopping or not, there is something curious and mesmerising about shopping amongst the locals. Be it to buy regular weekly groceries, clothes or something unfamiliar. I think it really says a lot about not only the way of life but the way locals think in enterprise. Madagascar happens to be one of those places where shopping, or rather market life, is so diverse. You don't quite know whether you'll see the same thing twice and it's always good fun bantering with the vendors [for a good price or just for a good chat]. From the classic market to the roadside hustlers, read on to enter the wonderful world of Malagasy retail.
The classic market.
Easily recognisable, organised semi-chaos. There is even a sign at the entrance which says "market of town x" just to make sure everyone knows where the shopping party's at. Every relatively big town has one and it's where everyone goes to buy their groceries, browse for the latest fashion and have a good chin-wag with other residents. Essentially, imagine a big hypermarket with all your mini-departments under one roof - the main difference is there is no roof. Oh, and there might be live chickens, rabbits [for pets not eating] and cats running around. Also, forget prices - you'll be told your best price as you approach the stall, so try to look vaguely non-foreign or at least be prepared to have a good old haggle. The classic market is great for browsing as there's lots to see and choose from. If you are however not good with constant distractions, I'd recommend having an item or goal in mind and just going for it. Actually, just go for it anyway because it's fun!
1. browsing the latest fashion || 2. boombox for sales || 3. door security || 4. grains galore || 5. sandals for days
Every town has at least one corner shop. These are great for drinks, snacks and basic household items likes soaps, milk [condensed if there's no fridge] and candles. We actually borrowed a pack of cards for an evening from one super friendly corner shopkeeper. In return, we gave back our cola and Bonbon Anglais bottles to her for recycling. Good deeds equal more good deeds. Malagasy corner shops tend to be a haven for kids or those with a sweet-tooth, those with a penchant for beer and those who need an emergency candle because the electricity company has cut off the power off, again. Just outside, you can sometimes find the town technology-whizz selling MP3s, CDs and PS2 video games. You could even say the Malagasy corner shop is like the older brother/sister that's always there when you need them.
1. cola and beerz. || 2. rainbow of fizzies || 3. soap & co. || 4. MP3s and PS2 games
So how do the locals transport everything around you ask? Well, there is the classic taxi-brousses [mini buses which take people on long journeys across the country - think coaches but much much much smaller because they are basically vans] with their extremely usable roofs - you can strap almost anything onto this [luggage, produce, live animals, anything…]. However, if you don't have the luxury of a motorised vehicle then you have to get creative. It's amazing what can be created out of a few pieces of disused wood. Even better if you can find discarded steering wheels and old, unused tires. If there's a will, there's always a way. You just have to let those imagination juices flow and get a little creative with your available resources. Transportation: tick!
1. loading the taxi brousse || 2. basic durian chariot || 3. cus' chariots || 4. heavy duty mega-chariot
The open street vendors.
If you don't have a stall or you can't afford it, then you've got to get creative with where you sell and maximise all available selling space opportunity. The open street vendors in the cities, who perch on the edges of main roads to catch your attention, are some of my favourites. They clearly need to sell their goods, but you can also tell how proud they are of what they've managed to produce. Competition is healthy on the open street, there'll usually be a few vendors selling the same thing so it's all about quality and price. All of the vendors will be watching you - working out whether you're actually going to buy and what you think of their neighbour's goods. These guys are relatively quick on their feet and often come up with great prices on the spot just to win you over. Again, due to the likelihood of having to haggle, try and be as non-foreign as possible or you might get a not-so-great deal [just truths]!
1. green on greenz || 2. onions galore || 3. mmmokary || 4. beans and hubcaps || 5. Malagasy foam mattress
The stall vendors.
Taking roadside selling to a more organised level, you then have the stall vendors. Whenever you travel between bigger towns, there will be stalls along your route [guaranteed]. Particularly if you are passing through smaller towns that are part of a popular tourist / travel route. The locals will know this and they'll also know that people who travel like to stop, eat and browse. Dear Demand, meet Supply. On my last trip, we travelled from the capital to the east coast and along the way there were stalls galore selling seasonal fruit and veg and arts and crafts. I couldn't tell what they all were, particularly the fruits, but I tried a few new ones and let's just say nature is a force to be reckoned with. Unfamiliar flavours, smells, consistencies - all delicious and a good test for my taste buds! The arts and crafts is pretty impressive too - all made my hand [sometimes right in front of you] using plants and natural materials. These stalls are eye-catching and they need to be for visitors to consciously stop and browse. In very small towns, these stalls usually act as the main high street shops and your corner shop / marketplace become specialist stalls selling anything from spades and buckets to dolls and clothes to any type of nik-nak you can think of.
1. cute rainbow stools || 2. pretty hats and bags || 3. B&Q Malagasy style || 4. the ultimate shop of choice
The roadside hustlers.
Finally, my favourites - the roadside hustlers. Imagine you are driving along, open countryside, no real villages or people around, having a nice little chat or a sing song and then BOOM out the corner of your eye you spot the most yellow of yellow pineapples by the side of the road. You have to stop. All they are selling is pineapples, what a treat! First rule of buying from roadside hustlers: try before you buy. And now you understand why this is my favourite kind of retail. The number of times I have had car-fever, stopped at a roadside and eaten the most pineappley of pineapples [or whatever is in season] - it is genuinely life changing and never gets old. Sometimes you don't even need to get out of the car, the sellers just run at you with their bags of delicious litchis or bananas, but obviously it's more polite to. Stalls vary in shape and form - some are just a part of the vendor's house, others build temporary wooden tables [covered with a little banana-tree-leaf roof if the weather is boiling], some just use the floor and others actually cook their produce on the roadside in pots. Roadside hustling is all about strategy - though it may not seem it, competition is relatively high. Key places for cars to spot you are at cross-roads, after a bend in the road [cars have to slow down] and just after the last big village. The best strategy is flexibility - stay in one place too long and some local competition can get real hardcore [the pineapple stall below, 3rd pic, had to sell elsewhere as their last stall was burned down in the night]. Business is tough but if your produce is good quality you can shift a lot in a day. All you need thereafter is a little bit of patience, ingenuity and an approachable attitude. I have a lot of respect for road hustlers so if you're ever travelling in Madagascar make sure you stop and support!
1. drive-by pineapples || 2. three's a bunch || 3. it's a family affair || 4. sweetcorn pouches || 5. beet rad nips
Basically, markets rule.
Your options are endless. Whether it's the goods being sold or the innovative way the Malagasy set up shop, I can guarantee you'll find a surprise wherever you go. Now, may the pineapples be with you.
more Madagascar travel diaries || the red island and i love rice
happy sunday and first of the month!