I’ll be the first to admit that traveling Madagascar isn’t the easiest. It’s a country I’d consider to be off the beaten track with less than half a million visitors a year. It also has a poorly wrought infrastructure and road system which results in a difficult time getting around. There are three options when traveling the country: fly by plane, rent your own 4×4 jeep with private driver for expensive prices, or take local transport known as the taxi-brousse. It literally means bush taxi and is a giant van that can seat around 20-24 people. They pack it full, toss chickens, chairs, and bags on top and you bounce your way to your next destination with all the locals, windows open, and music cranked to full volume.
This particular morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m. in my cute little bungalow set in the sand only a few hundred meters off the beach in the tiny town of Mangily. I was to catch the local taxi-brousse to Tulear, a major city in Southern Madagascar. Then, my plan was to work my way Northeast to Ambalavao, a town several hundred kilometers away close to the Eastern edge of the island for some epic hiking in Andringitra National Park.
The morning went off without a hitch. The taxi-brousse arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m., and surprisingly, I was in Tulear just after 7a.m. From one taxi-brousse station to the next by pousse-pousse (rickshaw cart), I managed to arranged a 30,000Ar (roughly $12CAD) ride all the way to Ambalavao with the promise of making it there by 5 or 6 p.m. that evening. The ride was leaving at 8 a.m., so I had time to wander down to grab some breakfast. I found a little stall on the side of the road and scarfed down two different types of pasta, a carrot salad, and a cucumber salad all for the ridiculous price of 600 Ariary (not even $0.50CAD). Full and pleased, I headed back to my taxi-brousse and said goodbye to the German friend I’d been traveling with. The moment he left, a local came up to me, gave me a high-five, an awkward hug, and wished me ‘bon voyage’ while the rest of the locals watching giggled in a friendly way. Madagascar doesn’t see many tourists, so the locals are all quite friendly, curious, and very helpful. I was originally nervous about traveling on my own in the country, but after seeing how wonderful the locals are, and knowing they are more curious and interested than plotting to steal your belongings, I was at ease and looking forward to my long journey ahead.
Guided by my well-known sweet tooth, I spotted a woman selling some sort of fudge-like treat on a tray and instantly called out to her in my poor French. I understood it was 100Ar for one, so I pulled out 200Ar and she took the money then looked at me funny; there is often some awkward confusion when you can’t speak the language properly and cultural customs are different. Out of nowhere a hand pushed in from my left with a crumpled 100Ar note to help me purchase my treat and I looked over and spotted two young guys trying to assist me in buying the snack. After some explanation and me hand-picking the treats I wanted off the tray, I was happily munching away on a sort of caramel fudge while chatting in English with the two young students. They were brothers, 18 and 20, and traveling in the same taxi-brousse as me. Relieved to have someone speaking English who could fill me in on details I was missing, they quickly invited me to sit in the same row as them in the taxi-brousse.
Waiting around until shortly after 9a.m., we were finally on our way. About 20 people in a big van, off to Ambalavao. Thankfully they assign seats and don’t overpack people into the van unlike in other countries. There’s something about the monotonous hum of an engine, and before we had even gone two blocks, my head was tipped back, mouth open, softly zzz’ing away in my corner of the vehicle. After drifting in and out for over three hours, I awoke to a bathroom break on the side of the road. Quick and convenient, I actually prefer using the outdoors for my toilet than waiting in line to use a stuffy, stinky squat toilet that is often a hole in the ground anyway. Back in the vehicle, we continued on and I picked up a sweet cake from a lady on the side of the road for 1000Ar; looks like that would be lunch for me.
I began chatting up my new friend Donne who was eager to practice his English, and we spent part of the early afternoon sharing stories. He was heading to Ilakaka, a sapphire mining boomtown where his uncle lived. We arrived shortly after and all hopped out of the van for a quick break. I had been telling him the sad tale about my broken cell phone and, lo-and-behold, across the street was a small vendor selling exactly what I was wanting to buy (cell phone vendors are everywhere). All three of us ventured over and we had a blast checking out cell phones to purchase and joking around with the vendor.
I was very aware of the darkening clouds above us as we looked at phones, and shortly after, the sky opened up, sending down big, fat drops of water, splashing to the dirt road, quickly making a small river where there had been no water before. I am traveling in rainy season, and have been very lucky so far to escape any torrential rains. We ran across the road and hid inside of a restaurant to wait it out. And pour it did. For almost twenty minutes, the sky unleashed and dropped all it could down on the small town of Ilakaka. I grimly looked to the roof of the taxi-brousse where my backpack sat, covered only by another sheet to protect it from dust, and cringed thinking of my newly hand-washed and dried laundry and the shape my bag would be in when I arrived later that afternoon. Backpacking lesson learned: always cover your bag with the provided rain cover. It may not fully protect your pack, but it can only help in rainy situations.
The rain slowed, I waved goodbye to my two new friends and the rest of us climbed back in to continue on our journey with storm clouds brewing and chasing us across the impressively flat and open desert of Central Madagascar. I was very surprised in the change in scenery. It’s commonly described as being something out of a James Bond movie, with red desert sand and green grass, few trees hampering the view across the way. Rolling hills in the distance, and rocky outcrops looming up out of nowhere, the land houses some impressive National Parks and those lovely sapphire stones. In my taxi-brousse next to me now was a man who pulled out a satchet of rocks and flipped on a pen light to examine them more closely. I asked if I could snap a photo and he offered to sell me some as a souvenir. He claimed they were sapphires, but he was only asking the equivalent of a Canadian dollar, so I can only assume they weren’t worth much. I should have given him the 3000Ar anyway and taken the pretty stones.
As we ‘sped’ across the middle of nowhere, the storm clouds brewed and boiled across the sky, chasing us to our next destination. I watched the formation of a supercell from my taxi-brousse window and snapped photos of the constantly flashing lightening. At times, the thunder boomed right over us, and at others, it rumbled in the distance. My attention was solely focused on the roiling sky until we arrived in the next town of Ihosy. There, I had to change taxi-brousses and had some time to kill.
A local guy helped me out and showed me a bathroom and where I could get a good meal on the fly. That’s the best part about taxi-brousse or bus stations, there’s always some good street food to be had. For $0.50 I had a steaming bowl of chicken noodle (a la spaghetti) soup with an egg dropped inside. Warm, yummy, and satisfying. Unfortunately as I climbed over the bench to tuck in for my meal, I tore a giant hole in the calf of my favorite leggings. As I tend to be fairly accident prone, I was thankful I didn’t draw blood on the rusty nail, but now I will have to try find an adequate replacement for them or stitch them back together.
After the tasty meal, I headed back to my taxi-brousse and caught the eye of several locals who were excited to chat with me and practice their very limited English. Soon I had everyone chiming in, telling me their age and names, and giggling while they tried to pronounce my name. It makes me feel a lot better at how awfully they butchered pronouncing “Ashlyn” as I had a hard time saying their names in Malagasy.
On board my final taxi-brousse, we didn’t depart until after 6 p.m. and I knew we had at least two more hours of driving to go. I don’t often like arriving alone at night unless I’m already familiar with the town, or if I have accommodation and transport booked to my hotel. Today was not one of those days and I was going solely on the hope that since it was shoulder-season, accommodation wouldn’t be full.
I had the privilege of sitting in the very front with the driver and another passenger and was hoping to enjoy the light show of the still-chasing storm. However, my middle seat was too high to see the horizon properly, and the passenger, despite his incredibly limited English, insisted on trying to talk to me almost the whole ride. We resorted to drawing pictures and writing words to communicate and he offered me both a place to stay in Ambalavao, as well as an invite for supper as we were to stop in the town just before my final destination for a late night meal. Not convenient for me as I was just hoping to arrive at my destination as soon as possible, but there’s never much choice when traveling by local transport.
While I joined my friend for a meal, the rain started trickling down again and we all quickly hopped back in the taxi-brousse. The last 36km took almost an hour to drive and I struggled to keep my eyes open as I was so tired from the day’s journey. The driver woke me up in Ambalavao and asked where I was staying. I had the name of a hotel from a travel guide, hoping there would be someone around that late at night to let me in. The town was dark and silent, no vehicles, no one biking in a pousse-pousse, no one even out walking. I was nervous and hoping my accommodation would be open as I wouldn’t know what to do next if it wasn’t. We arrived and I hopped out and rang the doorbell with my fingers crossed while I asked the driver to grab my bag from the roof. And that’s when the sky unleashed again, pouring rain down everywhere. I quickly hid in the underhang near the hotel door, trying to shield my small backpack from the blustering rain and hoping someone would answer the door. After several more rings, a man finally ran across the street and thankfully replied that there were rooms available. We waited in the foyer for fifteen minutes until there was a lull in the rain and the driver could cut the cords with a knife to drag my bag out from under the giant pile on the roof.
I was shown to a basic room and set my bags down, glad to relax and dive right into bed. That’s when I touched my bag and noticed just how wet it was. Cringing and swearing a little under my breath, I slowly opened it up and pulled everything out. Soaked. All the way through. Everything in my bag was wet, with the odd exception of my rain jacket (a bit of irony?). Craving sleep, but needing to sort my life out first, I proceeded to spend the next hour hanging my clothing from every inch of space and every rack available in my small room. If the clothing doesn’t dry quick enough, it will smell awful, and ruin the fresh laundry I spent both money and time on. Thankfully, only a few things in my bag were water damaged and can be dried and made due with. Wet money is still money, right?
As for travel days, they will continue to be an adventure, meeting interesting and unique people along the way, trying new foods, and seeing new places. They may be long, hot, rainy, and tiring, but they’re sure worth the story you get to tell at the end of the day.