A glance at my watch showed 9:25. I was running severely late for an appointment I’d made the night before.
Soon after checking into my hotel on the side of a crowded hill overlooking Lake Anosy, I had requested to use the phone sitting next to reception’s bulky computer, circa 1998. Pulling a slip of paper from my pocket, I had carefully dialed the phone number which had been scribbled down several days prior. “Doctor Madagascar” it said in chicken scratch below the numbers.
“Bonjour” came a voice on the line.
“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Anika. English?” I replied. The minimal French I had picked up wasn’t going to get me far.
There was a long silence on the other end.
“Anika from Mauritius,” I said in an attempt to introduce him to a story I assumed him to be previously aware of : the story of who’d sent me to him and why.
“Little English. Tomorrow, 9am. Bring French friend”
I had no friends in Madagascar, let alone a French friend.
“Okay. Merci! Bonne nuit!”
The next morning I woke early and shoveled down a breakfast of toast and jam, baguette and butter, fresh lychee juice, and a half pot of coffee. Not particularly the breakfast of champions, but it made no difference. My stomach was full and the caffeine did everything it could to enhance my overly excited mind and body.
With directions and camera in hand, I rushed outside, took a sharp left and another, and leaned back to balance myself as I soared down the hill toward city center.
Careful not to kick up dust from the road and further dirty their merchandise, I crossed through markets and past street vendors selling batteries, phone chargers and purses. A dark tunnel traveled under a leaking overpass and I followed along. Young children squatted in dry corners, their feet bare and clothing minimal. Not a single one held out an open hand in hopes that I’d fill it with change or goodies. Instead a piece of my heart stay with each one as I passed, held in place by their kind smiles.
I held up my right wrist and took a look at the time. I was twenty-five minutes late.
Just ahead, a pregnant woman stood on the side of the road next to a row of taxis.
“Hello,” she called out, catching me staring at the tattered dress stretched over her round belly. Shaken from thoughts of wonder and sympathy, I looked up and smiled. How was it that she could stand in this heat while with child and keep such a poppy attitude?
It must not be easy, but seeing the amount of young teenagers caring babies on their backs, I predicted it was nothing new to her.
“Hello,” I responded. “Taxi?”
I knew I was nearly to my destination, but also knew I wanted to send money her way more than I wanted to walk those final blocks.
She quickly turned and opened the door to the car behind her. I entered just as a man dressed head to toe in khaki stepped out. Both feet on the ground, he waited until I was settled inside before taking off the brake, turning the ignition, and pulling his workhorse into the street. After a running start, he jumped back into the driver’s seat and slammed his door.
Thick rusted springs jutted out from the cloth seat beside me and I positioned myself to avoid becoming their next victim. We were to go less than a mile along the same road, but instead went not two blocks before pulling off. Two teenage boys attacked the front window and the space behind my own doorframe. The sound of a click and a swoosh was followed by that of running water. A stop for petrol is needed to get from Point A to Point B, whether with a client or not.
After the tank was filled, we continued another minute to our final destination.
The taxi stopped and its driver pointed at a two-story shop to our left. This was the place! I payed him double and slipped out. Across the road a young boy stood in front of a pink and red building, enthusiastically waving in my direction. The caboose-sized shop was not selling pizza and burgers as its sign S&W Burger Pizza suggested, but instead had an array of mens jackets and pants for sale. I waved back, then ducked into the shadow of the pharmacy. Nervous but excited, I pulled out the piece of paper with name and number of my intended visitee. Showing it to a young man dressed in slacks and a white overcoat, I waited while customers came and went with pills and bandages in hand.
After the crowd had died down, he slipped from behind the counter, took my arm, and together we returned to the busy street. He pointed at a group of buildings on the opposite side of a star-shaped intersection and motioned for me to follow. Once across, narrow alleys led us past women washing clothes in colorful plastic buckets and children skipping through shadows of dominating buildings. We continued until we spotted a tarnished tin sign on a wall ahead.
“Doctor” it showed with an arrow pointing right.
My suited guide pointed up the walkway to suggest I lead the way up a set of concrete steps while he return to work. After a knock and a moment’s wait, the door opened. In the entryway, a small man in jeans worked on the buttons of his crisp linen shirt free from color or stain.
“Bonjour!” I exclaimed, ready to hug him and begin a morning of sharing stories and touring the city.
“Stomach?” he asked holding his now covered belly. “Head?” he asked placing a palm on his bare forehead.
“No, no. I’m okay. I am here from Mauritius.”
Clearly confused, he hesitated to let me inside and for a third time reiterated the lack of English skills he’d acquired through his sixty-plus years on earth. I’d realized also that he knew not who I was nor why I’d come to see him.
I was unsure how to relay the story of my time in Mauritius; of staying with a family and meeting the wife’s best friend; of the friend’s concern for my well-being when leaving Mauritius for nearby Madagascar; of her husband and mother-in-law’s offering to connect me to their close family friend working in Antananarivo, ‘Mada’s capital city; of how I’d looked forward to the previous night’s phone call and come to him that morning expecting he spoke better English than he’d let on; or of how I had a slew of questions about life in Madagascar lined up to set off whenever he was ready.
Outside the Doctor’s office in ‘Tana’, words failed me. Rather, French words failed me.
Instead I took out my camera and showed him a picture taken in a sunny kitchen hundreds of miles away just a few days earlier. Four of us had gathered in front of my camera while its set timer allowed us to take a group shot : Mother, Friend, Friend’s Mother-in-Law, and Visitor. The three Mauritians had invited me in to their homes so warmly I felt as if I’d known them for a lifetime.
The worried look on his face disappeared at the small image on Canon’s screen.
“Mother!” he exclaimed.
He grabbed my camera from my hands, cradling it as if he was holding the face of a loved one. Bending his arms he continued to lovingly watch the screen until finally it was too close to allow his eyes to focus properly.
Then he leaned forward and planted his lips onto the colored surface and kissed it!
“Oh, Mother. Oh, Michele!” he repeated.
He set down the camera and held my face in the same manner he’d held its black body.
“Thank you! Thank you,” then, “Moment,” and he disappeared inside.
With a smile as broad as a baobab tree he returned outside with his arms wrapped around a woman, his wife. Gradually his English improved, inhibitions lost both in delight and in practice. He soon understood how I’d come to find him and was delighted more than words could express to see the family of his best friend in a photo more recent than the one which sat on his own desk from their last visit together.
No more than a half hour past from the time we’d met to the time we said au revoir. I walked away with a small baobab tree gifted from the couple as a remembrance of our brief time together in Madagascar. As if I’d ever forget.
I don’t know who was more surprised at the events of the morning. I had expected to visit him, learn a bit about Mada, and continue on my way. I had no insight into how enthused he would be or I would become from our meeting. And now, if I ever begin to forget the feeling of reconnected love, I’ll look at the green and brown striped statue. A tree which, like a photo, rebuilds relationships and diminishes time past.