The Cost of Not Being Able to Convert Currency in my Head

Currency Conversion

Establishing new routines and habits takes a long time for me. As I blunder through adjusting to this life in Madagascar throwing money at problems, I frequently reflect on the stat that 68 percent of Malagasy live on less than a dollar a day. But here in Antananarivo, those 68-percenters are largely invisible to me.

Among the routines I need to establish here are buying food (i.e. not at a Gouge-A-Rama) and doing laundry.

You know that thing where you pull shirts out of your dirty laundry and sniff the armpits, and you wonder if your co-workers will notice that you just wore the same shirt a couple of days ago? That thing? I’ve been doing that a lot.

Last week I had no clean shirts to wear to work – and none of my work shirts were passing the sniff test.

But I had a plan: 

  1. Pull a clean-ish teeshirt out of my dirty laundry and wear it for my commute. 
  2. On the way, swing by Gouge-A-Rama and buy a cheap new work shirt.
  3. Change into the new shirt when I get to work.
Gouge-A-Rama 1
Operation No Shirt Shame: Step 2

I ran into trouble when I realized that I was confusing this Gouge-A-Rama with the other one up the road. I had to think fast. I was running late.

This is a freakin’ mall, for chrissakes. There’s got to be another place to buy a shirt.

And there was.

Fifth Avenue
Just a simple stall in an African market

I picked out the least expensive shirt that (a) would fit me, and (b) didn’t have some silly fashion branding on it in giant letters.

I found a simple black shirt. The price was 185,000 Ar. I told myself, That’s not as expensive as it sounds. Buy the thing and get to work.

Which I did.

When I arrived, Sandra, one of my expat co-workers, had what appeared (to my Arizona eyes) to be a huge plate of nachos on her desk. There are nachos in Madagascar!?

False Nacho Alarm
Dear God: I know you are busy winning football games and killing African 
children, so thank you for taking time to think of me with the nachos.

I made a mental note: Sweet talk Sandra for some of those nachos after you change into your new shirt.

I emerged from the staff bathroom in my new shirt.

“Sandra, are those nachos?”

“No, mangos.”

Damn you, mangos!

Wait. Mangos are pretty good.

Then I sat down at my desk and did a little currency conversion to see how much I just paid for my shirt.

185000 MGA in USD
a.k.a Three months income for the average Malagasy – the ones
who don’t shop at the mall. Seriously.

Shocked, I of course went to the little cafe near my office and spent too much on coffee and a sandwich.

Cookie Shop
Nice shirt, huh?

And I sat there and practiced my Malagasy, because if I really want to save money, I am going to have to learn to haggle in the local language.

Malagasy Flash Cards at The Cookie Shop
Espresso Americano: Merely a day’s income for the average Malagasy

Tonight I counted up all of the Madagascan cash I have on hand to make it until I get paid (any day now).

Not counting one actual US dollar I have in my wallet.

That was before I went out tonight and bought rice, toilet paper, and condensed milk – but I at least bought the stuff at my local market.

When you think about it, the overpriced‑shirt incident was less than three weeks since I moved into my place. Give me a break.

Screw you. I’ll give myself a break.


Two days later (wearing a shirt I hand washed myself in my kitchen sink) I went with my co-workers on a staff retreat.

When I heard we were going to the beach, I got very excited – We’re going to the coast!

But Batou Beach is actually just a touristy swimming pool less than an hour out of Tana – whereas the real coast is something like eight hours away by car or bus.

Batou Beach Pool
Soon to be filled with frolicking co-workers.

On the bus ride I discovered that many of my co-workers are musicians and they sing quite well.

Here is one of many songs they sang together on the way:

HNI Co-Workers Singing on a Bus

The Batou Beach attraction also promises “The Sexiest Beach Party of the Indian Ocean.”

Batou Beach Spring Break Flier
Mark your calendars

My co-workers committed acts of karaoke as well as Zumba – choreographed aerobics to soca, samba, salsa, merengue and mambo music. Yes, even I was a good sport and joined in. Photos will emerge eventually.

The outing to Batou Beach was the only time I’ve gotten out of town since I arrived. And the bus trip out there reminded me once again that I need to make the effort to get out of Tana more often.

I wouldn’t deny the Malagasy middle class their diversions – or myself my own. But I have been operating in a world where the Malagasy middle class seems like a typical state of being in this country. The more I see of the other Madagascar, the more I will be reminded why I am here.

Abandoned Railway Station
The train doesn’t stop here anymore.
Fishermen near Batou Beach
Fishermen on the Ikopa River
Girl on Beach Chair at Batou Beach
Girl on a beach chair at Batou Beach.

Hopefully this will be the last time I whine about money.


  1. Rron Reply
    October 21, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Love this! Keep 'em comin'.

  2. Unknown Reply
    October 21, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    I love these posts. With the depth and rigor you're putting into them, you should be thinking "book… three years from now."

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