The “Retrouvailles” Scene

The picture of Madagascar he was carrying in his mind was somewhat out of date

It was already Saturday morning when Ernest Andriamonjy stepped out of the Boeing 737 of Air Madagascar that he took from Paris. The time was 1:07 AM. The first thing that caught his attention was the crowd. Although it had recently been expanded and renovated, the Ivato International Airport felt smaller and definitely more crowded than he remembered. The place was crammed with a large number of airport workers moving about waving their flashlights and running around in their orange glow-in-the-dark jackets looking like dancing fireflies. The full moon and the starry southern sky added a natural mystic to this strange spectacle.

The last time he was at the airport was ten years ago — things were much calmer and more orderly back then. Ernest had been looking forward to this moment ever since that time, when he left for America. In his mind, he had even conceived a rather detailed script of how his return would happen — how he would nonchalantly but excitedly go through the administrative formalities; how his parents, his sister and her husband (the same group that saw him off) would greet him in the airport’s main hall, just outside the baggage claim area; how they would wear the same clothes they were in the day of his departure (an elegant green blouse for Mom, and a navy jacket for Dad, …); how after all the hugs, the kisses, the laughters, and the tears, they would all try to squeeze into his sister’s black Peugeot 505; how, once they got home, he would offer a little “voan-dalana” or keepsake to each of them, and so on.

Initially, Ernest’s stay abroad was only supposed to last three months. But a sequence of unforeseen events has extended his stay to ten months, and then to ten years. Ten years during which he has gone through an unusual career path: from being a visiting junior scientist at the Texas Tropical Medicine Research Center, to a barista at a local Coffee House, to a sous-chef at the Texas Rose Fine Dining Restaurant, and finally to a Registered Nurse at the El Paso Medical Clinic. For five of those ten years, he was married to a beautiful blonde Texan — a real Texas belle. Over those same ten years and on the other side of the globe, Madagascar has been through four heads of state, three non-conventional regime changes, countless general strikes, and a devastating economic recession.

Things have changed. But the well-scripted homecoming scene has remained pretty much the same in his mind, with some details added or slightly adjusted as needed. (For instances, it had to be adapted to account for the births of his sister’s three children.) Whenever he felt a bit depressed or homesick, or whenever he ran out of Malagasy folk songs to sing while strumming his guitar, he would play the “retrouvailles” scene to himself in a continuous loop. During the loneliest nights in El Paso, Texas, especially after his wife left him for a Mexican dentist, he would battle melancholy by mentally rehearsing the scene where his parents — with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes — warmly welcomed their only son back home at the airport.

As Ernest entered the airport’s brand new International Arrivals concourse, an attractive female agent, wearing a nice uniform but a bit too much make-up, directed him to the area where Malagasy citizens should go to get their passports stamped. She eyed him in a strange way when he told her that his Malagasy passport has expired and that he would be using his US passport instead. “Citoyen Americain, huh! Efa tsy Malagasy intsony an!” she murmured while rolling her eyes. Then, she pointed him to the queuing area for foreigners. There was in fact no clearly defined queue, it was more like a random pattern in which everyone pushed ahead and by some miracle eventually ended up in front of one of three wooden desks where their forms and passports would be examined by a droopy eyed customs officer, and then stamped by another one. After about thirty-five minutes of vigorous pushing and shoving, Ernest completed all the required formalities and was on his way to go and claim his two suitcases.

The small “Grand Hall” of the new airport concourse was even more crowded and more chaotic than the Customs vestibule. As Ernest emerged from the Baggage Claim area and walked through the opaque automatic glass doors, he was immediately greeted, not by his parent’s smiles as he had anticipated, but by a hoard of vendors touting their goods or their services. They were selling virtually everything from taxi rides, foreign currencies, phone cards, tour guides, hotel rooms, and even marijuana and girls. Ernest panicked when a couple of diminutive uniformed porters grabbed his huge suitcases and told him (in English) “Let us carry your bags, Vazaha!” He had to brutally wrestle his bags away from them using the most vulgar curse words he could come up with (in Malagasy). Those ten years spent in Texas has made him keenly aware and very protective of his own personal space and forget the Malagasy propensity for close physical proximity. While he was thrilled to be back home after such a long absence, the chaotic ambiance and the tight space were so unfamiliar to him that they made him feel rather unsafe and uncomfortable.

As Ernest desperately looked around the crowded hall for familiar friendly faces, he could not help noticing something quite different about the people he saw there. They did not look like the crowd he was used to hang out with in El Paso, in Dallas, or in Abilene, Texas. Nor did they look like the Malagasy he remembered from ten years ago. They were for the most part better dressed, but they were much skinnier; most had emaciated faces and rheumy eyes. Fewer of them were smiling, and those who smiled often revealed one or two missing front teeth. They looked tired. The picture of the Malagasy he was carrying in his mind was somewhat out of date: the Malagasy had gone through a lot during his absence, and it clearly showed.

So much for that romanticized homecoming scene that had kept him going so many times in El Paso, Texas. Once he got over his initial disappointment, Ernest did what any other sane person in his place would do: he started to freak out. He looked everywhere but neither his parents, nor his sister and her hubby were anywhere to be seen. So, there he was, all alone and pacing nervously like an idiot in a place that felt vaguely familiar but at the same time strangely foreign. He never imagined that he would feel this way about his own country. “Has this place changed that much?” he told himself. “Or, was it me who have changed?” It never occurred to him that one day one of his fellow Malagasy would call him “vazaha.”

The very fact that he did not feel safe in his own country was starting to seriously irritate the hell out of him. He tried to call his parents, but his stupid smart phone had run out of battery. So, Ernest went and converted some US dollars into Ariarys with a dynamic young vendor outside the airport. He had no idea what the official Ariary/Dollar exchange rate was at the time, but he was certain that the vendor has taken advantage of him — he was too tired and too nervous to make a fuss. He was about to start looking for a taxi when someone called out: “Nesta! Nesta!” He looked around and saw a tall skinny man wearing a fancy suit and dark Ray Ban glasses gesturing excitedly towards him.

“Welcome back, Nesta!” Ernest hated that nickname. Only his high school friends called him that. “Good to see you again after so many years!”

“Hey, my friend! Thanks!” He pretended to recognize the guy. “How are you? You have not changed at all!” he said with the best fake-enthusiasm that he had learned from his friends in Texas. The man in the dark glasses was wearing an official badge that says “Protocol” and bears a name. Ernest read the name but it did not ring a bell. “Are you working here at the airport now?”

“Sort of! Among other things,” the guy responded evasively. “Looks like you need a ride. Can I drop you off somewhere?“

“That would be awesome, man! I would really appreciate that. Thanks!”

Five minutes later, Ernest was relaxing comfortably on the leather backseat of a spacious fancy black SUV. His friend was in the passenger seat giving the directions to his parent’s house to a handsome driver. The radio was blaring some Evangelical rock and pop songs. Ernest was looking around and impressed by the number of new buildings and new shops that he did not recognize. “Did you think that everything in Madagascar would come to a halt once you left?” He was not sure whether Mister Ray Ban was just teasing or reprimanding him. “Life goes on, Nesta! Most of the new constructions belong to foreigners and Chinese and Indians — they now control much of the Malagasy economy.”

But what struck Ernest the most was how quiet and how empty the streets of Antananarivo were at 2:34 AM in the morning, especially on a Friday night. As they drove by one of his favorite all-night restaurants, he was shocked to hear that it was now closing at eleven every night. “It is too dangerous to go out at this time,” his friend told him. “Too many criminals are running around. People no longer go out after ten o’clock.” There was not a single honest soul out and about as they drove through the streets of the once-lively neighborhood of Antanimandry. Things have definitely changed during his decade-long absence.

They got to his parents’ place at 2:56 AM. The groundskeeper, who also worked as the security guard at night, opened the iron gate before the driver even had to honk. Ernest warmly thanked his friend and the driver. They exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers and promised to call each other soon. He still had no idea who that guy was, but it was too late to ask. After the good samaritan in Ray Bans left in his big SUV, Ernest walked inside the house dragging his heavy suitcases. His sister met him at the door. “We were all set and ready to go and pick you up from the airport, but then the old stupid 505 refused to move, something about a blown head gasket,” she apologized profusely. “We tried to call you. Did you get the message?”

They were all there, anxious and nervous, waiting for Ernest in the living room: his mother in a green blouse, his father in a navy jacket, his sister and her husband (plus their three children). His mother kept fussing around, running to the kitchen to check the vary amin’anana, the kitoza and the saosisy, and to the bathroom to wipe her eyes. His father and his brother-in-law were half way through a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, pretending to ignore the dirty looks from the women. They kept telling each other silly jokes to hide their emotions. His nephew and nieces, whom he has never met before, were fast asleep on the sofa. Everything was there — the hugs, the kisses, the tears, the smiles, the conversations, and the laughter — all set to perform Ernest Andriamonjy’s much-rehearsed “retrouvailles” scene. Having finally found his bearings in these familiar surroundings, Ernest breathed a sigh of relief. He was home at last.