Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Address + Taxi-Brousse Adventures

I HAVE A MAILING ADDRESS FOR MY NEW SITE!! I'm in the process of moving - I left my old village today and will be moving into my new one tomorrow. I may yet open my own PO box once I get there so that I can claim mail myself; this address belongs to one of the schools, so the Principal brings mail to the PCV when he's in town. But know that you can start sending things to this address:

Kristen Walling: Antanambao
FKT, CR Imito
B.P. 113 Ambositra (Peace Corps)

The address for the PC office in Antananarivo is also still valid, and I'll actually be able to go to Tana much more frequently now. I'm in the process of moving now - I'm supposed to move my stuff in tomorrow, and depending on how things go I'll sleep there tomorrow night or Saturday. But now for my latest adventure . . . .
One problem faced by every single country on the planet is that its people must have some means by which they can get from one place to the next. In the developing world, the most common solution to this problem is the bush taxi. Depending on your location, this method of transport may go by any number of names--in Ghana it was the "tro-tro;" in francophone countries such as Madagascar it is the "taxi-brousse" (or the more Malagasy-ized "taksy-borosy"); us PCV's in our typical fashion of shortening or assigning an acronym to every phrase possible lovingly refer to them simply as "brousses;" and I am sure there are dozens of other names in dozens of other countries. In any event, they are by far the cheapest form of transport both within a single city (compare 15 cent brousse fare to $5.00 taxi ride) or for traveling between cities (roughly $10.00 for a long day's journey in a brousse, versus $50.00 per day + fuel in a private 4x4). Thus brousses are the primary mode of transportation for the average Malagasy person or American Peace Corps Volunteer. In addition to affordability, all brousses share many things in common.

A typical brousse is a van, often a Peugeot or other similar model, with at least 30 years on it and in desperate need of a tune-up. In fact, "tune-up" is probably not even a sufficient way to describe the needs of most brousses. It's not unusual for me to watch the driver install headlights or other parts shortly before departure, or for 5 men to push the van while the driver is simultaneously hot-wiring the car. (My favorite brousse that runs between my site and Morondava actually needs to be pushed backwards in order to get started. Literally. The engine will not start if the car is moving forwards!)

Brousses are generally operated in pairs--one driver, and one assistant who collects fare and assists with loading and unloading luggage from under the seats or on top of the vehicle. (In Ghana this guy was called the "mate;" I haven't heard a name here, so I just stick with that.) Ideally, these vans would hold 12-15 passengers comfortably. Instead, they far more often hold 30-35. This defiance of the laws of physics matched only by clown cars and cans of sardines is achieved by removing the normal seats in them and replacing them with slimmer benches arranged closer together. Usually the bench seats are positioned on the left side of the vehicle, and the right side of the vehicle--on which passengers enter and exit through a sliding door (if said vehicle even has a door)--has single seats which are attached to the benches but which fold down and flip sideways, creating a sort of "aisle" to reach the farthest depths of the brousse (the back seat). At first glance you would probably assume that two people could fit in a bench and one on the side seat, allowing 3 per row, but inevitably a fourth person is forced to sit on the incredibly uncomfortable metal bar connecting those seats (sometimes with the assistance of a pillow to ease the pain, though more often than not said person must suffer without). You know the expression "beer goggles?" Well, I have now coined the term "mate goggles." Mate goggles are when the mate looks at the brousse and sees it in a new and beautiful light, brimming with possibilities. He sees that yes, if we try really hard, we might in fact be able to fit a fifth person into each row...and then we can place a couple of babies on laps...and then we can cram a few more passengers into the row behind the driver BACKWARDS with their legs staggered between the other passengers'...and then we can have up to three men standing, hanging out the side door, holding on to the roof. And voila, the maximum capacity of the brousse has been increased exponentially in a matter of seconds. [I have tried to snap photos to prove to those of you who have never traveled in the developing world that I am by no means exaggerating . . . but alas, every brousse I have ever been in has been so crowded that it's been impossible to show anything but the 3 people in my immediate vicinity with whom I am competing for oxygen.]
Now if that doesn't yet sound like enough of an adventure to you, just hold your horses. Or rather your chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs. That's right, not only are brousses the cheapest means of transporting people, they are also used to haul people's things from place to place. (Perhaps the greatest feat I have witnessed was seeing an entire live cow hoisted onto the roof of a brousse in West Africa.) While these animals are sometimes bound and set on top of the car or behind the back seat, or neatly packaged up into baskets designed for easy transport, it is also not unusual to have smaller ones shoved around your feet or placed in a bag on the seat next to you. I'm sure you can imagine just how happy the average chicken is to have its feet tied up with five other chickens and placed at my feet, and they never fail to make sure that I personally am aware of just how ecstatic they are to be in their present situation. If they stop their squawking and wing-flapping long enough to take a breath, they then inevitably begin trying to peck their way into the gigantic sacks of rice or crates of tomatoes which have also been miraculously piled into the brousse.

But don't get me wrong--despite the extreme overcrowding, brousses often come with some great features most other vehicles lack. Have you ever worried that your gas gage was just slightly off and that perhaps you wouldn't make it to the gas station before running out of fuel? Or have you ever wondered if you even have a gas tank, since you can't actually see it? Well, have no fear--gas gages are completely unnecessary in brousses, since the "gas tank" (plastic bottle with tube running to engine) is usually positioned right in the front seat, so you can see exactly how much fuel you have left. Vanilla and Forest Pine air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror also become unnecessary expenses; instead you can just inhale the gasoline fumes wafting through the vehicle for the duration of your journey. Furthermore, if you are one of those people for whom windows are an insufficient means to view your surroundings as you drive by, many brousses also come fully equipped with "peep-holes" in the floor and roof so you can watch the road and sky as you pass by. A bucket of fish once tipped over on the roof of the brousse I was in and the water seeped through one of the holes, drenching me. I found this to be an especially convenient surprise since I hadn't had time to shower that morning before heading into town.

Admittedly, this is often an incredibly stressful way to travel. They're hot and uncomfortable and often take 3 or 4 times as long as the journey would take if I could just hop in a car and drive myself. They leave a minimum of 2 hours after the planned departure time, and then they stop every 45 minutes. Stations at the beginning and end of the journey are inevitably crowded with taxi drivers and hawkers who assume I'm an ignorant tourist willing to shell out large chunks of money. However, I never know what kind of adventure I'm going to get myself into or what hilarious story I'll be able to tell after a journey by brousse. I don't know how many times I've been on the brink of tears and had to consciously remind myself that eventually, I would look back at that moment and laugh. I recently had one of those moments.

My site is close enough to Morondava that under normal conditions it usually doesn't take much more than an our to get in or out of town. That being said, in light of all the aforementioned possibilities for disaster, I still try to build in some room for error. It's dark by about 7pm now and the last regular brousses leave Morondava by 5:30, so I usually am at the station by 3 or 4, knowing I still have plenty of wiggle room. One fateful afternoon we set off shortly after I arrived at the station, leaving Morondava around 4:00. Nearly halfway back to my site, around 4:30, the driver noticed we had a flat tire so we pulled over to the side of the road and everyone got out. As you may guess, this isn't a particularly unusual scenario, and I expected we'd be back on the road shortly. I did have a brief moment of panic when I realized my brousse didn't have a spare tire (which IS unusual--normally they are prepared for imminent vehicular failure), but soon found relief in another brousse which passed and did have a spare tire. Naturally it was nailed to the underside of that brousse in a most inaccessible fashion, but soon enough the spare was extracted from the belly of the brousse, our tire was changed, and we were on our way again by a little before 5:00. About 10 minutes later we pulled over again, and the driver and mate began working again on the rogue tire. It quickly became obvious to me that they did not have the right parts to make that tire stay in place on the wheel--not enough, and not in the correct sizes.

Unfortunately, AAA Madagascar does not exist. Thus, the driver seemed to think the only reasonable solution was to remove various bolts from all of the wheels and move them around, trying to find some combination of fitting parts. Of course, none of those wheels had really been properly assembled, so chisels and wrenches were produced to force parts that did not fit, and before long the vehicle suddenly had not one but THREE wheels not properly attached. At first I sat patiently and figured I had no choice but to wait it out. After 6:00, I began to grow a little concerned. My house is next to my clinic, in a fenced-in compound that the clinic's security guard locks with chains every night around 7 or so. I still had time, but we were at least another 15 minutes' drive to my site, and it did not look like we were getting close to being ready to leave. I started asking the driver how quickly we'd be leaving, explaining that I really needed to get home before the gate was locked. He assured me we'd be on our way within 15 minutes. 15 minutes passed and we were back down to only one rogue wheel, but it still looked like we weren't close. Another 15 minutes, no apparent progress. I decided to try to call a neighbor and see if they could tell the guard I'd be late; I didn't have cell reception where we were broken down. I kept pestering the driver, and he continued to reassure me we were almost done. ("There's only one more bolt," "15 more minutes.") Then, they started removing bolts again and I finally let myself go into panic mode. It was after 7:00.
I started looking for other vehicles passing by, but there were none. A few had already passed, and I was fearful that the last ones for the day were among those that had gone by us. I again tried to appeal to the driver and some of the other passengers, to no avail. FINALLY, around 7:30, another brousse pulled up. There is an unwritten rule among brousse drivers that in the event of a breakdown, one driver will not pilfer another driver's passengers. However, I was desperate and had absolutely no indication that my driver would leave soon--in 15 minutes or any other certain amount of time. So, I (and several other rather peeved passengers) approached the new driver and asked if we could get in his brousse. Our driver kept saying we'd be leaving soon, he only had 2 more bolts to put on. I argued that 2 hours before they had been saying the exact same thing and that I was already late to get into the compound. Driver #2 insisted it wouldn't be fair, that all the drivers were friends, and he couldn't let us leave our other brousse. I continued to insist that I had already been patient with a driver who was lying to me and that it was imperative I get home ASAP. Finally, he agreed. I was lucky that I was only traveling with a backpack in my lap, but some of the other defectors had luggage on top of the first brousse. Naturally, the driver refused to let any of them have their luggage, figuring it would force them to stay with his brousse. People started yelling at Driver #1 and demanding he return their belongings so they could leave. Meanwhile, Driver #2 was TRYING to leave. He started inching away while the mate tried to close the door, but the passengers waiting on luggage stood in front of him in the road, refusing to let him pass. So there we all were--me, hysterical I wouldn't be able to get into my house, Driver #1 yelling at all the passengers to get back in his defective brousse, Driver #2 yelling for everyone to clear the road, and about 10 angry Malagasy people yelling at both drivers to quit being ridiculous. Normally, I am 100% supportive of coming up with creative ways to take a stand against an injustice. At that moment, I have to admit I was slightly less than amused at the continuing delays. Finally, driver #1 relented and gave people their things so they could get in the new vehicle and we were on our way.
I made it back home around 8:00 to find the gate had already been locked. It took several minutes, but I was finally able to get the guard's attention by yelling, and he came to open the gate. I did have to spend the next 3 days answering relentless questions from all of my neighbors about why I had come back so late, but I guess in the end it all worked out OK. And now that several weeks have gone by, I'm beginning to look back at it as one of those times that drives you crazy when it's happening but makes a great story later on. Man, the things I endure to keep you people entertained! Hah.

Send me mail! Love love.

1 comment:

  1. Every PCV in Madagascar seems to have an unfortunate taxi-brousse travel experience. One thing I’m sure of is that you guys will be ready to ride on a Greyhound bus back in the States.


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