LINDA HAS RETURNED FROM HER 'ROUND THE WORLD TRIP
THIS PROJECT WAS SUCCESSFULLY FUNDED ON KICKSTARTER ON DECEMBER 6th, 2012
Thank you for your support and participation.
"TO SEE THE BAOBABS..."
“This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.” --Freya Stark
“Linda, what are you doing?” I whisper to myself. I'm sitting in a dilapidated, overcrowded transport van that is stopped at a checkpoint, in the pitch dark, on a mountain road, somewhere in the remarkable country of Madagascar. It’s a rhetorical question. I know what I’m doing. I'm on my way to see the famous Avenue of Baobabs.
I have waited for hours at the crowded and chaotic “taxi-brousse” terminal at the edge of Antananarivo, the sprawling capital of Madagascar. I have become part of the confusion of passengers and onlookers and drivers and packers and hawkers of sunglasses, pillows, toys, maps, food. I watch a young boy completely engrossed in hitting small stones against a broken board while his mother dozes on a big crate, waiting, as I am, to board the van to Morondava. I lean against a shady wall while men and boys load baggage atop the rusted, stripped-down van. The rooftop cargo has almost the same volume as the van interior. Should I change my mind and ask for a ticket refund? No, my determination to see the famous trees and to succeed in this private pilgrimage, keeps me from catching a taxi back to the small French run hotel in “Tana” where I had spent the past few days of my “Round The World” journey. Surely I am able to endure and appreciate what may be a dangerous and grueling overnight trip to the coastal town nearest the Allee des Baobabs. To make the trip more comfortable, I take the advice of the owner of the hotel, where I have been staying, and purchase an extra seat.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. The two o’clock taxi will leave at three-thirty, I’m told or at four o’clock, perhaps…or four-thirty.
Shortly after five o’clock, at a signal from one of the three designated drivers, everyone scrambles into the van. I take my assigned seat, next to a window, two rows behind the driver. My little backpack serves as an armrest on the extra seat at my right. The engine starts. With careful and skilled maneuvering around animals, cargo, people, and vehicles all parked or moving willy-nilly, and with helpful yells and instructions from a number of the “ground crew,” we ease out of the congested “terminal” and onto the crowded, trash-filled side street. Slowly, the “taxi-brousse” makes its way past children playing, past food fires smoking, past people congregating.
We turn onto the highway. I settle in for the overnight ride. My “pilgrimage” to the best place on earth to see the remarkable Grandidier’s Baobabs is just a day away! I have everything I need for the five or six day adventure: my camera and journal; a few clothes; malaria pills, insect repellent, and a good book. For the van trip, I also have a liter of water and two fruit pastries from a fancy patisserie in downtown “Tana."
The adventure begins - or continues. Lively contemporary Madagascar music fills the van - happy sounds, loud enough to cover the congestive cough of the engine. Some passengers are singing or humming. I am completely content as we speed along the winding highway in concert with the music. The driver has a reassuring command of the vehicle and firm feel of the road. Having no patience with slow traffic, he deftly passes truck, after van, after cart. We drive through small villages on increasingly curvy mountain roads - horns honk, the music blares. I am silently in tune with the other travelers and with the rhythms of the road as we swerve and speed and lurch! Such a happy feeling! I am on my way to Morondava.
Just before sunset, we stop at a wide place in the road. The driver honks the horn three times and we watch as a young woman in a flowered sarong runs down a hill lugging a back pack. She hands it through the “shotgun window” to the younger of the two relief drivers. He sends kisses up the hill where a small girl stands holding a baby. We continue. It begins to get dark. We encounter the first of many Armed checkpoints. I don’t know what they check. Are they looking for guns? Lemurs? Drugs? It’s all very friendly. Perhaps they check to make sure the cargo is properly secured.
The music continues. It unites us.
Around ten, we stop for fuel and food at a dark and rainy truck stop. A friendly French-speaking woman, with a little girl, who occupies the seat in front of mine, takes my hand, “Mangeons!” she says. We exit the van, stretch and enter a big, dark “cafeteria” with rows of tables and benches filled with truckers and passengers - all Malagazi (except me!). At my companion’s suggestion, I order the “cutlet” from a serious server wearing a green Mickey Mouse shirt. She places two bowls of rice in front of us, along with two bowls of a clear soup. I take a sip of the soup. It’s bitter, undrinkable. The greasy, fatty cutlet arrives. I eat the rice. My bill is three hundred Ariary; not much money at all. Now to find the toilette. Oh, yeh! There is no toilette. I am glad I realized that before inquiring! Madame and her child and I walk around to the darker side of the building—a muddy expanse of a vacant parking lot. We pull down our pants and pee. In the drizzling darkness, not far from me, my eyes connect with a very old woman, adjusting her trousers. Back in the bus, the Second Driver takes the wheel.
People are starting to fall asleep. I take a moment to wonder what the bleep I’ve gotten myself into as this absolutely overloaded mini-bus speeds along, narrowly averting (at least in my mind) accident after accident. I can’t sleep. My fate awaits me, I muse, dramatically. I watch the road---what I can see of it through the broken windshield and the rain. I take a few bites of the apple croissant.
It’s well after midnight. It’s raining very hard now and the wipers are not working properly and the taxi is not getting good traction. I send a “mental message” to the Driver to slow down. It works! The headlights illuminate the shiny puddles on the black road. I bet the tires are bald. I never thought to check during the long wait at the taxi terminal. Even if I had checked, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Not at all. I am going to Morondava to see the Avenue of Baobabs...this is the way to get there!
One of my four seat partners, a young man with two cell phones, and I remain wide awake. We lean forward, peering past the sleeping children and dozing mothers in the row in front of ours…past the three drivers and through the cracked, rain-spattered windshield to the slippery, dark road---just in case. If the taxi turns over, I will be prepared---for what!!? For the realization that there are smart reasons why “Europeans” and other savvy, careful travelers, do not travel this way? It’s not that I love this mode of travel, exactly. It’s that it is the best way, in my opinion, to experience the country, to be with the people, and to get to my intended destination. A four-wheel drive vehicle with a driver/guide and two nights on the road, in lovely guest houses, is another way. Oh, and I understand that there’s an airport near Morondava but…
What’s this ahead? Lots of trucks and vans pulled over on both sides of the road…armed guards…cargo being unloaded/off-loaded. People milling around in the wet, moonless night. Our taxi-buisse moves to the side of the road, towards the front of the long queue. The driver and co-drivers get out…I open my window and hear the relaxed, muffled voices of Malagasy men. Nothing seems out of the ordinary---but what is ordinary! I do not speak this lovely-sounding language. No one speaks English. No one is speaking French. I am in the dark—in many ways. The Third Driver turns off the engine. My fellow passengers are awake and quiet as we wait…and wait, in pitch black. The only light comes from my glow-in-the-dark bracelet with the phrase “Brand New Day”. Oh, yes, I am looking forward to it! In about forty minutes we press on. I don’t know why we stopped. I am definitely not on the “need-to-know” list! Nous continuons! I doze, at last, with my head on my backpack--which occupies my second seat. I entertain and comfort myself by imagining that I am standing among the amazing baobab trees. I think lovely thoughts.
I am in Madagascar, Madagascar, Madagascar. Tick, tock…
A sudden and loud crash and bump! The taxi-bus swerves and stops. Everyone wakes up and begins to talk. What happened, I wonder? There is no one to tell me. Did we hit an animal? A person? The three drivers get out and check…babble, babble, babble. I ask the friendly woman with the little girl. She answers in French, “Nous allons maintenant.” We are going now. And we do…Whatever we hit is history--and to me, a mystery.
Eventually it is dawn. Damp and foggy. There are already people on the road—moving cattle and goats, hauling water in big yellow containers. We stop in a few small villages where parcels are removed from the roof. A few passengers depart. New people board. The bus is crowded now as people shift and shuffle for seats. No one crowds me. People seem to understand that I have purchased two seats. I am “entitled” to two seats. Wait! I am suddenly self-conscious. Who am I to require two seats? A woman with a sick baby gets on - I move my pack to my lap and make room.
We must almost be there.
Late last night, at a second petrol stop, while strolling away from the headlights with my woman friend and her daughter, in search of a shadowy place to pee, she tells me that we are in Miandravazo. Back on board, I check my watch and my little map…Hmmm, by now, we must be in Mahabo. No, I learn, we are not in Mahabo. We are only in Malaimbandy. Patience, Linda, patience. We take short muddy side trips into primitive villages—not on my map. More cargo is off and on-loaded and small money is exchanged. The sick baby coughs. I reach out, in a grandmotherly fashion, and gently touch his thin leg. The pretty young mother smiles, sadly. “Mon fils est tres, tres mal. Il a un fievre.” She puts him to her breast. He does not suck.
It is almost noon when we arrive in Morondava. We drive through a rabbit warren of rain soaked alleys to the taxi-brousse terminal. I exit the van with my backpack—awkwardly—and step into ankle deep mud. I don’t mind. I have arrived and survived the amazing journey from Antananarivo to Morondava.
On the far side of the muddy expanse, three tall men stand next to a small jeep. One holds a sign “Welcome Madame Linda Durham.” I hug goodbye to my woman friend and her little girl. I turn to look for the pretty woman with the sick baby. She is already walking towards the street. I didn’t get to say, “Bon chance.”
I make my way to the vehicle with a baobab tree painted on the door.