Madagascar – Try a delicious taste of ‘Africa light’

I have been in town for 3 days and impatience is gnawing away at me. The polluted cloud of the city hangs over me. Bidding goodbye to the Tana-Jacaranda hotel I jump in the first taxi that comes by. The taxi is some cruel frankensteinian monster. It appears to have been cobbled together from junkyard pieces. Under the steering wheel hang wires that writhe like worms, one connected to the other by tape and glue and…is that chewing gum?! The engine belches and the exhaust seems to be entering the car, no doubt through one of the many holes that pepper the cab like a spray of bullets. I hang my head out of the window like a dog eager to see home. “Where to?” asks the driver. At least that’s what I think he’s saying. Like many Malagasy he is missing most of his teeth and those that he does have impede more than aid his speech. I try pronouncing the long and utterly tongue-twisting name of the bus station. Vowels collide, some are silent others emphasized…luckily I have it written down and I simply point. He nods and we take off. Only after we start do I notice that the gear shift is on the dashboard! I shake my head in bemusement. Lightheaded, I stick my head out the window though after a moment I hastily draw back. The window glass is like a guillotine. I hang on as we swerve around the narrow streets. I just hope that the taxi will hold together long enough to make it…

About a 100m from the bus station and the taxi is assaulted by people. They’re like angry ants swarming out of a nest. They chase the taxi, bang on the roof, and angle their arms like coat-hangers to open the doors. It’s a mob! I look over at the driver who quite unconcerned continues to drive into the station, the epicentre of confusion and chaos. The taxi driver overcharges me (of course) and I hand him a couple of bills waiting for change when I’m completely overcome by men grabbing my bags. “Where you going?” they ask in broken English. I haven’t even told them yet and they are carting my bags off to who knows where? I manage to lay hold of my camera bag, practically wrenching it from the grip of a Malagasy who looks saddened at not being able to be given a tip for ‘handling’ my baggage. “Ranomafana” I finally manage to yell out to be heard over the din. “Ranomafana”! “Ranomafana”! They chant, hopping around with hoots and hollers. Finally one man wins out and pushes his way to a booth. I can do nothing but follow. “You want to go to Ranomafana?” Asks a somewhat suaver gentleman. “Yeahhh…” I answer slowly, still recovering from the onslaught. “Okay”. He draws up the bill. This is where a guidebook would really have come in handy, so that I wouldn’t have had to pay 6 times the rate. Meanwhile I look around and the taxi driver has made good his escape with my change. “Bastard” I curse…yet another black mark against taxi drivers and their ken.

They throw my bag atop the taxi-brousse (a form of minibus) as I watch in awe as they continue to heap furniture, bags of rice, charcoal and anything else you can imagine on the roof until it forms a small mountain. Meanwhile a disreputable looking man comes up to me and points to the ziplock bag full of cash in my pocket. The lip of the bag is barely protruding from the pant pocket but he warns me, “many thieves around here, be careful”. I look around and it seems like the entire station is looking at me, or rather my money. I hastily scrunch into the back beside a little girl, glad that at least I won’t have to worry about being robbed the entire trip. This is going to be a tight fit I wheeze, trying to make myself comfortable. “Move over”. I look around but assume the man is probably addressing someone else. I feel a tap on my shoulder from a man outside the bus. “Please move over”. I push uncomfortably against the girl, no doubt crushing her, as the man climbs in through the window. If it had been tight before, it was intolerable now. The close quarters beg an introduction and so I chat with the man who has a good grasp of French and some English. I find out he is a gendarme and I slowly relax, feeling at least a little safer…that is until the taxi-brousse fires its engine like the starting gun of a race…

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