Thoughts from the throes of a taxi-brousse
After a week in Tana, I was ready to retreat to a less polluted, slower-paced part of Madagascar, so I boarded an early-morning taxi-brousse (“bush taxi”) headed south to the highlands of Fianarantsoa.
I was half excited, half scared as I took my seat on the minibus at the Cotisse Transport terminal in Antananarivo (the ticket was 30 000 MGA or 7 EUR). I had already undergone the African minibus rite of passage in Ethiopia and knew the latter feeling was justified—conditions are cramped, toilet breaks are seldom and sporadic (plus the "toilet" is usually the bush on the side of the road), and as you speed down narrow, winding, pitted roads, it feels like every moment could be your last. Type II fun at its finest.
I also knew that it would be a long haul (Google Maps estimates the drive from Tana to the Fianarantsoa city center to be around nine and a half hours for just over 400 km). But I was prepared with my quick-access toilet paper, snacks, and mental pep talk.
However, Google didn’t factor in the bus breakdown around 30 minutes into the drive (although I half-expected it). After loitering on the side of the road on the outskirts of Tana for an hour or so, we piled into another, presumably more functional taxi-brousse.
Each time we sped past a helmetless cyclist with barely an inch to spare or had a momentary stand-off with an oncoming transport truck, I cringed. I cringed again as Malagasy gospel music blared from the bus stereo (which I half drowned out with my more palatable Spotify playlist). Forget reading—free hands were needed to brace yourself when the bus suddenly jolted to avoid something or another, plunging you forward unexpectedly.
Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss the action happening beyond the not-so-safe confines of the bus.
I had the luxury of a window seat, so for the majority of the ride I distracted myself from the close calls unfolding ahead of me with the landscape and variety of interesting things happening to my right. Among the sights were men and women (but mostly women) balancing anything and everything you can imagine on their heads—brightly coloured baskets filled with fresh produce or laundry, chickens in cages, bundles of wood, and sacks of rice, among other things. If their head wasn’t loaded, they were wearing a distinctive hat—the Betsileo people who inhabit the highlands traditionally don beautiful, colourful straw hats.
A selection of random impressions: a girl flying a kite, young boys playing soccer barefoot, a black minibus decked out as the "Black Pearl" ship from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, and a partially collapsed bridge that made me to hold my breath every time we drove over a bridge afterwards.
Once in a while we'd pass a craft stall on the side of the road geared toward tourists. A theme among the merchandise seemed to be brightly coloured toy transport trucks and the old Citroën 2CV taxis ubiquitous in Tana. The landscape (hilly, speckled with rice paddies and giant boulders) made my heart soar.
The frequent fires burning nearby or off in the distance, on the other hand, made my heart sink. Agricultural fires are a common sight (and stink) across Madagascar, as both small-scale farmers and larger commercial entities purposely "slash and burn" fields to temporarily replenish the soil via the nutrient-rich ash produced by the fire. As you can imagine, this practice isn't sustainable (the nutrients are eventually consumed after several years, rendering the land infertile).
The process not only produces significant air pollution but also causes soil erosion. The red soil, exposed to excess rain due to the lack of vegetation, doesn't have the capacity to absorb the massive amounts of rainfall during rainy season. As a result, the eroded, nutrient-poor soil runs off into nearby, thriving farm plots, blanketing them and consequently destroying the livelihoods of the families who rely on their bounty to survive. The insidious soil also seeps into waterways, diminishing fish populations and making the country appear as though it is "bleeding to death" from space.
These dark thoughts were brief, as I was inevitably interrupted by yet another series of lobotomizing potholes in the road. I arrived in Fianarantsoa with a migraine, but I was relieved to be welcomed with a steaming bowl of veggie soup and hot shower.