After my ordeal getting into Madagascar, I spend a couple of days in Tana, getting used to the climate and my new surroundings, and figuring out what I’m going to do now that I’m in the country. I want to get out of Tana, so I decide to head to Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar, about 170k kilometres south. My transport of choice – because as you can imagine the choices are quite limited – is the taxi-brousse [bush taxi].
There are several types of vehicles used as taxi-brousse in Madagascar, depending on the roads or lack thereof. In order from the most to the least comfortable, there’s the minivan, the soft covered pickup with wooden benches on either side, and the huge Mercedes Benz soft-covered trucks which make the deuce and halfs we used in the army look like Tonka trucks. Into the truck or van, pile people, sacks of rice, luggage, live chickens, and other foodstuffs. Then tie people, sacks of rice, luggage, live chickens, and other foodstuffs to the roof. Voila! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the taxi-brousse!
For the trip to Antsirabe, since the roads actually exist and are relatively good, they use minivans that are supposed to seat twelve, including the driver. When travelling by taxi-brousse there are no real departure times. They wait until it’s full, then go – you could wait an hour, or you could wait four. Once you leave the taxi-brousse station, the driver will typically drive around to find more people and things to stuff into and onto the vehicle and then they pocket the money directly. So you could end up with twenty people in these little things, and that can be quite uncomfortable for a six hour journey.
While I’m waiting in the shade, two kids – a girl and a boy each about three years old – are playing in the dirt at my feet. The little boy looks up at me with a wide grin and big brown eyes and says something to me in Malagasy which I take to be asking for money because he has his hand out. I don’t have any small change or any food to give him, and even if I did, I couldn’t give it to him because I would be swarmed by the other children in the area. After a while, he returns to the little girl and their game – playing with a three inch cockroach – and wrestles with her, laughing. It absolutely crushes me.
After the long wait so they can fill the minivan, we finally get going. Fortunately, I only had to wait an hour or so, and the driver decided not to line his pockets too much, so we weren’t too crowded. The drive is not too bad and I find the road surprisingly good. The countryside is hilly and the colours are all muted greens, reds, and browns. The smell of burnt earth starts just outside Tana and continues all the way to Antsirabe. Lining the road is the source of the smell – hundreds of mounds of earth in which they are making bricks upon the thousand. The villages along the route are made up of a mixture of mud and straw huts and buildings made of these red bricks.
The radio’s on constantly, blaring out a mixture of Malagasy tunes and Western music including my ‘favourites’ such as Celine Dion and Shania Twain. For the most part it’s quiet in the van – except for the music – when suddenly an ABBA song comes on. One guy behind me starts to hum along to it, then someone else starts to whistle, and eventually the whole bus is singing, whistling, or humming along to the song. As we round a hill, the song cuts out when we lose the signal, but that doesn’t stop the music. We round the hill and the signal comes back – with everyone still in perfect time with the music. The song finishes soon after that and then it’s silence in the van again. Very surreal.
After a couple of hours, it’s getting a bit boring, so I try to make friends by offering some biscuits around to my comrades in the rear two rows. A couple of the guys take me up on the offer, but Military Guy to my back-right, in his fatigues, just looks at me without acknowledging me at all. I chat a bit with the young guy to my left, an economics student at university in Tana. It’s the first time he’s gone home to Fianaratsoa in seven years. We discuss the development of Madagascar and its ‘new’ president, Marc Ravalomanana. He explains that the president’s priority is the road systems, but that he is addressing other things as well, including corruption. He leaves me with the impression that the president, if nothing else, gives hope to the younger generation that things will improve for them.
About half-way to Antsirabe we stop for a break in a village and everyone piles out. People selling food and drink approach each of us as we get out. Looks like pakoras and doughnut-like things – not my favourites. I decide I need to crack Military Guy, so I ask him about the military system and explain a bit about ours. His French isn’t that great, which might explain why he was looking at me funny earlier, but he explains that there is compulsory service in Madagascar, unless you go to university. He’s just ‘doing his time’. As we chat, one of my new friends from earlier returns with a frozen yoghurt thingy for me with a big smile on his face. “I don’t have a lot, but I got this for you because you were generous with us.” It looks a bit dodgy, but there’s no bloody way after that statement that I can refuse, so I thank him very much for his thoughtfulness and eat it. It’s quite refreshing in this heat, though I’m sure I’ll pay for it later.
Just before taking off again, the driver opens the back to adjust some gas canisters because one of them spilled, which is why we have been smelling gasoline the whole way. As we pull away, Military Guy does his best to kill us by lighting up a Good Luck cigarette [a Malagasy brand, aptly named I think] in the back row, right in front of the canisters. Fortunately, a couple of hours later, we make it to the relative safety of Antsirabe. As the driver pulls my pack off the roof and the pousse-pousse drivers swarm around me, I say goodbye and good luck to my travelling companions and prepare for the next part of my journey.