A Tumultuous Affair with Orange Kely
When my husband and I first moved to Madagascar, we had to make a choice: live like expats or live like locals. OK, that isn't exactly true. We weren't in the Peace Corps, we were living in the capital and working in an office. And though I was a little disappointed that we weren't living in a hut, I did appreciate the fact that our apartment had running water and electricity. But we came here to be challenged in our lifestyle so we compromised: We kept our modern living amenities but decided to drive a local car.
And so we bought Orange Kely. "Kely" means small in Malagasy, and "Orange" is for the color. It is a Renault 4L, an adorable little car that looks like it drove right out of a 1960s French film. It is also one of the most common cars in Madagascar. An expat driving a 4L gets major street cred — with the people — not all high and mighty from behind the wheel of an air-conditioned Land Cruiser. Sure, a 4L will break down now and then, but fixing it is part of the adventure.
Turns out we might have overestimated our desire for adventure. Our troubles with the Orange Kely started the day after we brought it home. First it wouldn't start. Then it wouldn't stay on. Then the gas pedal fell off. Then the gas gauge stopped working. Oh, we got the local experience all right. Soon, I was just like any other Malagasy driver, running out of gas going up a hill and then rolling backwards into a gas station.
To most Westerners, this thing is ready for the junkyard, but to your average Malagasy, it's just a car. And so, as far as cars are concerned, we have an authentic Malagasy experience. I've learned how to clean the carburetor in the middle of the street. I've watched a mechanic jack the car up with a tree branch and a pile of rocks. It's an experience all right, and I'm proud that I've overcome the challenges of the local car. But after the 30th breakdown, I'm ready for that Land Cruiser. Orange Kely is no longer an exciting test of my mettle. It's a pain in the neck — just as it is for the Malagasy.
They don't drive cars like mine for the adventure of breaking down; they drive them because that's all they can afford. And they're irritated if I cause a traffic jam with Orange Kely, when I can clearly afford a better vehicle. We bought Orange Kely because it felt unfair to drive a nice car when so many local people don't have that option. But it's a fine line between solidarity and condescension. I'm not a tourist here; I'm part of this community. And in a place where so many things don't work, and the people or the government don't have the means to fix them, maybe the least I can do, as a wealthy outsider, is not to cause more traffic problems out of a desire for adventure. I wonder if I'm being a patronizing expat, playing at hardship like Marie Antoinette, so that I have fun stories to tell to my disbelieving friends back home.
Despite all these issues, we haven't gotten rid of Orange Kely. Yet. Every time we get it fixed, I ask myself, "Why am I putting up with this?" Maybe it is for that feeling of superiority when I see an expat pulling out in his or her Land Cruiser. Or maybe it's because, deep down, I do think I have something to learn from experiencing what it's like not to have everything be easy all the time. Or maybe, it is for the approving nods and the rush of pride when I tell people, "Yeah, I drive a 4L."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.