As far as I understand, there are two types of guides if you want to go with a tour in Madagascar. One is the foreigners who have set up travel agencies, the other is locals. As can be imagined, foreign travel agencies are much more expensive than the locals. I suppose their services are a bit above the average of the local guides even though I'm not sure if it's worth the price difference.
Anyway... Of course it's always better to support the locals, so we decided to go with Jean-Claude. Even though I read he was way expensive than other local guides, it was fine as we see travel as contributing to the economy of the country. The tour went fine, Jean-Claude was friendly and on time with everything, all was smooth. I wish we had only good things to say about him. Things soured on our return trip and we left Madagascar with a bad taste in our mouth.
It started when I mentioned to Jean-Claude that he should have told us how much the gas for the car would cost. Sure, he had mentioned the gas of the car from Antananarivo to Morondava and back was not included in the price, but I had just assumed it would be something negligible like 50 USD or so. My mistake, I admit. Instead, it turned out to be 200 USD. Another local had asked us for 1000 USD for the whole trip including gas; we had paid Jean-Claude 1150 USD without gas. As I said, I was ready to pay 15-20 % more than the normal, but ending up paying 35 % more did not feel nice at all.
That's still not the problem. What Jean-Claude did was come empty tank to pick us up from the airport, make us fill it up and on return fill it up again to have half a tank full upon leaving us. Still, not important. We could have considered it as gratuity. But it sure felt like a sneaky way of cheating, -like small letters written in hidden corners in contracts-, which is never nice.
I said “felt like” because I thought they might not know how to do such things in Madagascar. I give people the benefit of the doubt. So I told Jean-Claude that if one is to pay for the gas, the car is given full tank and then left full tank on return. This is where things got ugly. Instead of acknowledging the advice, Jean-Claude retorted “We always do it this way.” The way he responded made me think: So perhaps, it was in fact a sneaky cheating, done knowingly.
Then I told him he should have told us how much the gas would cost in advance. He claimed we should have asked the price, that some of his customers ask. I don't know why he couldn't simply say “Yes, perhaps it would have been better if I had told you. Next time, I'll be doing that.” But he didn't.
No, instead, he still tried to assert his position claiming we should have known the price of gas, how much it would cost for the distances we were to travel! Now... Sure, we could and should have asked. But again sure, he could and should have told us how much it would roughly cost. And I actually asked how much cash we should be taking with us and he did not mention the gas cost being 200 USD even at that point. So that was a very nasty surprise.
What's more, as I said, he didn't charge us the fuel used, they (together with the driver) calculated and charged us EXACTLY 200 USD, which was more than the gas consumed in our trip, about half a tank more. The issue here is not the money but Jean-Claude's approach, his attitude. Cheating and then defending his cheating!
This still is not the big issue. At the airport on our return, the moment we parked, before I could even get out, we were surrounded by locals; they had blocked the door and were begging us to give them paper bills for coins. They said “Problem with the bank.” There were about 8-10 people between me and my husband, all shrieking “Please please please...”
The way they were asking, swarming around us and distracting attention, I suspected something was wrong and asked “Jean-Claude, is this a scam?”
He replied “I don't know” and went on checking his phone.
Seeing his unconcerned, calm attitude, and knowing that banks do not accept coins when exchanging money, we wanted to help them out.
Guess what? Of course it was a scam!
We realized this only after getting into the airport and counting in peace. They had counted the coins in their hands, they must have given us less than half of it, mostly the 10-20 cents that they counted last, keeping the big coins in their palm.
I actually remember very clearly. I was about to count the money they gave in my hand, and they started making turmoil “Please madame please, me too” etc. This was of course meant to distract my attention. I'm sorry to say it worked.
It feels miserable to be tricked. It feels even more miserable to be tricked when you were trying to help someone out.
It also feels miserable to be tricked when there was someone there whom you had paid and who should have covered your back. This shouldn't have happened under the watch of a private tour-guide.
Confronting Jean-Claude with this and his not doing anything while we got swindled, he became very aggressive and tried to blame us as he did for the gas money. He said we were adults and we should have been more careful. Sure we are adults; on the other hand I'm sorry but it was his responsibility to protect us. We could have been idiots for God's sake! He should have warned us to not deal with money with unknown people. Besides, I have asked if it was a scam. I felt something was going on, I was suspicious. He should have done his duty and interfered on our behalf. We hired a guide to protect us from any kind of harm. As adults we could have travelled on our own; however, we have a 6 year-old and travelling as a family in an impoverished country, we wanted the protection and guidance of a guide. Such a thing should NOT have happened under his watch. Mind you, this definitely would NOT have happened had we been on our own. I would not have dealt with a crowd of people knowing that I'd be robbed somehow. It's NEVER OK when you are alone and there is a crowd around you. I felt helpless not being able to reach my husband who was out and surrounded by these people while I was in the car, with people blocking the door. Jean-Claude was there, doing nothing but watching!
It's true, sure, we are responsible; however, again sure, we believe Jean-Claude is responsible too. His lame excuse of putting the blame on us instead of saying sorry is unacceptable. It is part of his job to keep unsolicited requests away from us. He had done a similar thing with people begging us to buy things. It was obvious we did not wish to buy anything, but they were pestering us even after we got in the van. Jean-Claude waited and waited. He was sitting at the back, doing nothing but watching. I felt very uncomfortable. I have no trouble saying “No”, however having to say “No” a dozen times is exhausting. I bought one more thing after already buying three things I didn't want in the first place. Then I had to turn away my head. I couldn't take it any longer. Only then did Jean-Claude close the car's door and told the driver to move. When I confronted him, Jean-Claude defended himself and them saying “It's their job to sell.”
They weren't trying to sell! They were pressuring us into buying. Pressuring and pestering! Those are two very, VERY different things. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries, even in Africa. In such a poor country, you feel compelled; with so many around begging you to buy something you feel obligated to buy things you really don't want just to help out a little. However, as neither we nor anyone (not even Bill Gates!) can help everyone in such a situation, and there is no end to this we had to turn our backs in the end. I understand, Jean-Claude may have wanted his kinsman to make money, but it shouldn't have been at the cost of our being harassed.
I suppose that's something unavoidable when one travels to such poor places, that's why I have decided not to travel to Africa with my family anymore. I thought coming with a tour would prevent such situations; apparently it may not, and if not, it is very bothering.
Coming back to the swindling story... Jean-Claude once again tried to defend himself by claiming he thought we had Ariary left on us and wanted to change it back. Which is just so unacceptable because we had changed 2 USD from him to get Ariary to pay for a small souvenir right before getting to the airport. So he definitely knew very well we did not have any local money on us and we did not need to exchange. Unfortunately, all this made us think he might have been in on this scam. It's not nice, we are not claiming he is, he probably wasn't, but unfortunately a question mark arises when a guide is so nonchalant even when you have asked if this is a scam. Jean-Claude's behavior was inexcusable, but his lame excuses afterwards are even more inexcusable!
What's worse, he started answering our messages in capital letters, which is shouting. Totally unacceptable, uncivil, vulgar behavior.
During our trip Jean-Claude had mentioned he worked with ToursByLocals and that they provided counsel when an issue arose with a customer. So I told him to check with ToursByLocals to find out about the things I said. I had no doubt that they'd be confirming how the gas money is done. I was also sure they'd be backing me about being hassled by peddlers/hawkers as their foundation story is based on such an experience.
Jean-Claude retorted “Why should I be doing that?”
Obviously to learn and improve his services! But again obviously, he had no intention of doing that.
In the end, I asked him:
1) Do you really think your customers should have to know and calculate fuel prices for the distances you quote, or do you think it’s more reasonable that you give them full information?
2) We believe that when locals jump on your customers you are supposed to keep them away. Do you think “I don’t know” is an answer to give to a customer asking if this is a scam?
He did not answer.
We have been swindled about 90 Euros. Jean-Claude's original quote to us, including the gas money, ended up being 300 Euros (350 USD) more than another local tour guide gave us. So we asked him to pay us back 100-150 Euros -I believe it is quite a fair and reasonable request given how much money he made out of us in a place like Madagascar and given his responsibility in the situation- but of course he didn't.
We let it go. I mean what can you do anyway? He's got the money.
However, I could do one thing. Report this to ToursByLocals myself. Which I did. Unfortunately, I got a very disappointing answer from them. Please read about their response here: ToursByLocals
As I had used up the two resorts, i.e. the personal and the higher authority, there was only one more left. To write this post with the hope of warning other people. I want to emphasize one thing strongly: I never wish to “play with anyone's bread” as we say in Turkish; meaning I would never want to be the cause of someone's losing a bread-earning job. However, I also have a strong wish for people who deserve better to make money. Money should definitely be going to people with integrity more than the ones who seek it aggressively. Unfortunately, the way the world is set-up rewards the latter ones. I wrote this in the hope to just make a dent in the better direction.
Conclusion: I'm sure you'll be fine if you go with Jean-Claude through ToursByLocals. In fact, he includes the price of fuel in the cost of the tour on the page of ToursByLocals
He does not resort to the gas money cheap-trick while quoting the price of the tour on ToursByLocals. I also have no doubt he will be extra careful not to get any negative reviews there so he will be protecting you from street-sellers and scammers. Even if not, I'm sure you will be refunded by ToursByLocals in case of any issues. They are a five-star company and from what I have read online take great care to keep up their reputation. However, if you are like me in the sense that you would like to give your money and business to decent, humble people with integrity, to people who will not resort to cheap tricks when not kept in check by a higher authority, please avoid Jean-Claude.