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Published: December 21st 2011
The baby’s head pressed firmly into my ribcage; the mother kept cracking her own head sharply on my bony shoulder, though this didn’t seem to disturb her sleep. Abby dozed fitfully against the window on the opposite side. Our bags were crammed in around our feet. There was no way I could move.
And all I could see in front of me, out the tax-brousse’s windshield was blackness and the occasional rushing of oncoming headlights. The CD of Malagasy covers of Christmas carols – including several of “Angels We Have Heard on High” (where did they find a Malagsy-Latin dictionary to translate “Gloria in excelsis Deo”?) - went into its 100th
I thought I was going to start hallucinating.
All this to see some trees?
Distances are deceptive almost anywhere in Africa, as I have come to know more than well. If it looks relatively close on the map, there’s bound to be myriad obstacles in the way to prevent a speedy arrival. I had at least been forewarned that getting from point A to point B in Madagascar could take considerable time. So I wasn’t so surprised to hear that estimated travel
time between Antananarivo and Morondava was anywhere from 10 to 17 hours, despite the fact it looked like it should be no more than a 4 to 5 hour jaunt.
Optimistically, I assumed we could still make it in a day. Surely, there would be taxi-brousse (for some reason almost every form of road transport here is called “bush taxi”) leaving early in the morning. Surely, people would want to get to their destination before nightfall. Right? Aina, from the guesthouse, thought the same, so we arranged for poor Mr. Sulu to pick us up bright and early at 5am to head down to the appropriate taxi-brousse station.
Things were already hopping at the chaotic station, so I was hopeful that we would be on the road soon. But Sulu, after leaving us, the obvious vazahas*, in the car for a moment so he could suss out the situation, came back with this interesting bit of news: there was a “set” departure for Morondava. At 2pm. Well, so much for the early bird catching the worm!
We purchased tickets and back to Chez Aina we went, trying to map out Plan…ok, I was losing track of
how many change of plans we’d gone through since our checked luggage went on its own vacation. Perhaps, just perhaps, we would be able to get those bags before we left. Though I had started to lose hope of ever seeing them again. (Three weeks, two pairs of underwear – yeah!)
Mr. Sulu told us he would pick us up at 1:15 for take 2 of the taxi-brousse adventure.
At 1:00, while we were waiting for our ride, Abby managed to get a hold of someone at the airport, who informed her that a certain Mr. Sulu had picked up one – one! – of our bags. The other bag was still AWOL. Why had they released it to him? How had he managed to convince them to let him take it? Whose bag was it? And WHERE was he?
At 1:25, with still no sight of our fearless driver (and possessor of one of our backpacks) and fearing we would be late, considering the gridlock traffic of a Tana afternoon, we decided we couldn’t wait for Sulu any longer. We found an aging Citroen taxi (apparently needing to be hotwired to get started every
time it stalled) and “raced” to the station. I was sure we would pull in just as our bush taxi pulled out. Such had been our luck so far.
But then what? Wait another day? I decided to let fate take its course…
With my heart racing, we arrived with four minutes to spare before the scheduled departure. Beating back a few overly persistent touts (“We’ve got tickets! No thank you, we don’t need tickets!”), we stumbled into the hut that served as the Sonatra “bus” ticket office. The agent recognizing that we must be the crazy vazahas who had shown up earlier in the morning bustled us out the back into a jungle of mini-buses, each being piled with an unimaginably large load (refrigerators? motorcycles?), and shepherded us into our seats.
And then we waited. And waited.
2pm departure! I should have known we'd be on African Non-Standara Time! Realizing we were nowhere near leaving, I called Aina to ask about the mysterious bag that Sulu had managed to acquire. It was there! She said she’d send Sulu right away – hold the bus!
When Sulu arrived, holding my well-traveled green backpack high
above the hullabaloo of the taxi-brousse station, I could have kissed him. I really never thought I would see it ever again. And yet, despite all the bizarre machinations of the past three days (the delays and unloadings in Khartoum, the nearly missed flight from Nairobi, the mix-ups in Tana) it was now being strapped to the top of our taxi-brousse. Right next to the bag with a squawking duck.
Poor Abby, however, was still sans luggage. I tried to suppress my own markedly improved good cheer!
At 6pm, after four hours of waiting for our, ahem, 2pm departure, the driver crawled in and installed our “in-flight” entertainment system – a mini-TV playing endless cycles of music videos, covers of famous western Christmas songs translated into the local lingo. Abby just couldn’t figure out how even the Latin “in excelsis Deo” could be translated into Malagasy… Would we have to listen to this CD the entire 15 hour trip? We finally rolled out of the station and into the Malagasy twilight.
The taxi-brousse skirted Tana and passed the blanket of bright green rice fields surrounding the city. Finally, we were on our way. Morondava and
the Avenues of Baobabs, here we come!
By dawn, we were in a very different Madagascar from the highlands. This was drier, almost desert-scape. I felt like we had arrived in a decidedly more African part of Madagascar (Tana somehow had a very Polynesian/South-East Asia feel in my opinion). I half expected to see an elephant or giraffe amble by.
We were of course still hours away from the coast, but now at least I could see the country. As we stopped in various villages to unload a passenger or two, we got quick glimpses of Malagasy life. The zebu carts. Women with faces covered in tumeric paste. Boys on bicycles.
As the morning lengthened, the landscape again changed. We were descending into the coastal plain; still dry, but now dotted with palm trees and….yes, there they were: our first baobabs!
Suddenly, fifteen hours in a bush taxi didn’t seem too bad. Not bad at all.
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