26 August 2008

For the Love of Petrol!

As I am traveling back to site after a month of training and meetings and fine dining (where else can you get an exquisite French meal for $10 except Tana?) and merrymaking, I am reminded about what havens gas stations are in this country.

Its not that they are anything special from an American perspective - in fact they look just like gas stations back home - but that is what makes them amazing: they are like gas stations back home in a place where nothing is like back home. Not only is it comforting for the homesick, but also for the road weary traveler in Madagascar.

Just like home, it is a few pumps with a convenience store and a bathroom. Imagine a convenience store in a land where nothing seems to be designed with convenience in mind. This is a tropical country, so its hot, and it is easy to get overheated or dehydrated. For many of us that is a constant struggle and the only thing to find is a warm coke or THB. But at the gas station they have refrigeration so I can get a cold drink or, heaven forbid, an ice cream! Many shops here don’t even have an electric lightbulb, let alone a refrigerator.

Then there is the bakery. Not all of them heave this feature, just like not all gas stations back home have an Aztec Grill or some such. If you are fortunate enough to have one of this style in your area, it becomes like Mecca: If I had one I would know exactly which direction it is when I am surveying trees in the forest and would be constantly pulled by it’s energy. While the bread is twice as much as the stale baguette on the corner, it is warm and soft and ….oh so delicious. With the puff pastries and turnovers and other Frenchie thingies, it is hard not to come back multiple times a day when you are near one.

Now, some places in this country are more sanitary then others. In my area, as in many, people don’t even use latrines – they just do their business in the woods or, after dark, wherever they please. You can imagine the stank around those places people pick as their favorite doodie spots. So when you have been traveling and have to use the kabone (latrine) it is amazing to come across a gas station where you can use an actual toilette that usually flushes. And the sink might even have soap.

There are some differences from back home, however. Here, the ‘Gasy seem to know how amazing this Western convenience is and take pride in it. Gas stations are actually clean here – usually immaculately so. They are also quite conspicuous here, where most buildings are more like shacks or crumbly brick leftovers from colonial days. They are apparently such targets that they need to hire guards at night, armed with 50 year old rifles, to deter theft, though I guess maybe it is just that gasoline is so frickin’ expensive these days.

Those of you that know me probably won’t understand how I can write such a post. While I may have avoided these cesspools of capitalist exploitation like the plague back home, I have learned to appreciate even the lowly gas station in a place where everything else makes me feel like I am on a different planet.