Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Madagascar Taxi-Brousses

Madagascar Taxi-Brousses (Posted by Polly)

These things are nuts. We took a trip to Fianar (our banking town) last week and had two of our most “interesting” taxi-brousse rides of our time here in Madagascar so far. (For those who are unaware, taxi-brousses are vans of various sizes used to shuttle people around the great country of Madagascar.)

On the way to Fianar, we ended up getting seated next to one of the large speakers in the van. It was about six inches above my head, actually. I was next to the window because I get motion sick on long rides here; Erik sat pressed between my right side and a happy old man. Once we got properly squished into the van – about 25 people in all – the music videos (yes, there was a small TV for these above the rear-view window) got started and we pulled out of Ambohimahasoa (our town).

The music wasn’t too bad. It was all very religious, light rock-n-roll at first. Each video followed a similar format: footage of this mixed gender Malagasy group singing in cowboy hats and off-the-shoulder dresses along the Madagascar countryside with intermittent flashbacks to a white Jesus getting either crucified or eating with his white, bearded friends around a fire. We stopped a couple of times and crammed about five more people in the van. My hips tipped to an angle up against the side of the van, and the stereo got turned up to its maximum volume (ample with feedback).

The music was changed to a Malagasy heavy metal band of about five old guys in sunglasses and cool bandanas, and sometimes cowboy hats. The videos contained a lot of special effects, such as blue and red fire coming from the sides of the screen, and enhanced foggy mists with neon back-lighting surrounding young and attractive Malagasy women. The first song or two, on what must have been an extended album, were fairly decent; but when the driver was able to find a decibel or two more of volume, the music just became one loud ball of drum and screeching guitar static. The last three or four songs on their album turned to a speed metal style, and as we were still about 30 minutes from our destination, the album looped back to its beginning, and it started all over again.

My head was POUNDING; my fingers were plugged into my ears, and it was still too much. I couldn’t believe it. How do these people handle this absolute noise? I mean, it wasn’t like the taxi was full of teenage rockers, hungry for offensive music – the taxi-brousse was mostly filled with middle-aged to elderly men and women from the conservative countryside, as well as the token handful of breast-feeding women. I thought, they can’t enjoy this sh-tuff!? But NO ONE looked the least bit pained. They just sat quietly in each of their five inches of seating room, and looked straight ahead with emotionless faces. If anything, those who did wear some emotion upon their faces looked somewhat happy to be there. This trip confirmed, once and for all, a theory of ours that has been in the works since arriving in Madagascar: Malagasy people are completely unfazed by noise (e.g., crack-of-dawn construction; crying babies; screaming kids playing everywhere; pig slaughters heard for miles around; crowing roosters 24-hours a day; street party music turned to the max; crying cats in heat; barking dogs at 3am; etc., etc, etc.). No one blinks an eye!

Finally we pulled into the taxi-brousse station in Fianar. This is the place where you have an absolutely chaotic end to some of the worst road trips you can imagine. As the driver took his time crawling the van through the narrow lanes of other vans with yelling men coming to the windows trying to get us foreigners on their next taxi, the music did not falter. It kept at full blast until the taxi-driver scooted the van back and forth enough times to feel it was properly parked at the correct angle and spacing as compared to the other vans in the lane. At last the van shuts down and the music stops (sweet relief). As we wait for the 20 people closest to the sliding door to get out before us, we see the light at the end of the tunnel…

Our trip back to Ambohimahasoa from Fianar:
This trip wasn’t as awful noise-wise, but it was definitely the tightest ride we’ve been on so far. The day we left town was a fety, or festival, in Fianar. Many of the men in town were drunk, including the guy who worked the door to our taxi-brousse. (From what we could tell, our driver was pretty sober. Didn’t have a chance to check the tires of the taxi, as Peace Corps recommends, before departing. It’s a tough thing to check when the process of getting into the correct taxi includes a swarm of frantic people trying to sell you something, or trying to persuade you and your stuff into/on another taxi.) Anyway, the guy working the door was having a grand ol’ time finding space in the taxi for as many people as he could grab that needed to leave Fianar, and maybe needed to get to Ambohimahasoa. Keep in mind that this van was slightly smaller than the van we rode into town in…by about a row. Nonetheless we started the trip with about the same number of people: 25 again.

We stopped about five times before getting out of Fianar. One stop was for a small gas refill, and the other four were for the drunk door guy to yell back and forth with other drunk men along the street and cram one or two of them into the van with us. By the time we left Fianar, we probably had 30 people in the van. I couldn’t do an exact count because I did not have enough room in my 3.6 inches of space to twist and look behind me. We were in the second row, which had five people and half of the door guy. (Our row was made for four). The first row had ten heads (eleven if we count the breast-feeding baby), as people would sit backwards along the narrow strip of raised flooring found behind the driver and passenger seats. Then, there were four people in the three seats up front.

As we left Fianar, the music got turned up to a low roar. There was no TV this time – no music videos (sad face).

Our van stopped several times in the first two hours of what should have been a two-hour trip at most (the trip is just 60 km in distance, but the roads are very twisty and narrow over mountainous terrain…the taxi-brousse really struggles…it takes time). People got out, more people climbed in. The drunk door guy would jump up on the roof to move luggage, swap bills of cash with new passengers, then hang out the door as the taxi-brousse gathered its stride and we’d get going again. Up and down mountains we’d go, twisting and turning 'round 330 degree bends until the door guy would spot more people on the side of the road and we’d stop to see if we could crowbar in a few more. It was the ultimate shuffling game; it was the ultimate clown car. At one point four or five people got out, and there was another inch of room, but two kilometers later, our door guy found their replacements.

One time we stopped in a large town to let people out (for good, we thought); but it was just a stop for three of the drunk guys near the front to run out and pee. “People are not chickens,” is what you say (in Malagasy, of course) to get the driver to make a restroom / side-of-the-road stop for you.

We were still 20km from our destination when we picked up an old lady with a large basket, in which was a duck. She found a spot, somehow, in the row without seats – the one where you sit backwards on the raised floor with your back against the driver’s seat. The duck was a happy duck. It quacked the whole rest of the way.

As we rolled and smoked our way into Ambohimahasoa, we counted that our small taxi-brousse held a total of 32 people, two of which were breast-feeding mums, and of course the duck. Insanity. We’re still regaining feeling in our legs. The good news is that we found out yesterday Peace Corps needs us to travel back to Fianar this coming Monday!

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