Madagascar: Keep Your Head Down and Do Not Get Far From Me

Black smoke billowed through my halfway-down window. Something was wrong with the car. Again. We’d gone three or four hours outside of Antananarivo to see some lemurs, but we’d stopped many more times for oil and water for the car than for pictures. It wasn’t the first time we’d had to pull over, but now that we were on our way back to our hotel, it should be one of the last.

The smoke was coming from the front-left tire and the driver quickly pulled off the main road onto a small dirt cul-de-sac that often lined the roads of rural Madagascar. In a combination of English, French, and Malgasy, we gathered it had something to do with one of the brake pads. The driver and guide we hired, popped open the trunk, pulled out several tools, took off the tire, and inspected the damage.

“Just a few minutes and we’ll be back on our way”

Mike and I got out of the car and looked at our surroundings. There wasn’t much for as far as we could see, but honestly it was just good to be out of the car for a bit. We’d spent the majority of the day with the lemurs and while we were ready to be back, it was kind of nice just to sit out in the last few hours of sunlight. The heat from the day had passed, grey clouds were billowing in over the hills to block some of the harsher rays. We played a couple of rounds of rock, paper, scissor, and threw some stones at a puddle while we waited for the car to be fixed.

After about an hour, the sun continued its westward way behind one of the large hills and our driver announced that it was time for us to also head in that direction. We loaded back into the car, fastened our seat belts, and made it about half a kilometer before the wobbling of the front-left tire clued us in that we may have a larger problem.

The driver steered the hobbled vehicle into a long and dusty driveway and turned off the engine. This time for good. If we were getting back to our hotel tonight, it wasn’t going to be this way.

The four of us each pulled out our mobile phones. We looked to our guide and driver; they shook their heads. Both were dead after a full day of usage. Mike and I pulled out ours; both had the unmistakable “Searching…” in the top left corner.

We were in the middle of the Madagascar countryside, hours away from our hotel. We had a broken car, four useless cell phones, and it was getting dark. Quickly.

We assessed the situation. The driver wanted to stay with his car, the guide wanted to get back home. We’d passed a small village about ten minutes ago and none of us were sure how far it was to the next one on our way.

As the last rays of light quickly evaporated from existence, our guide resorted to trying to wave down a vehicle, while Mike and I assessed our personal situation. We had a dwindling supply of ariary, Madagascar’s currency, and only a couple of euros between us. Should we stay with the guide and the car, wait until morning, and hope that he could somehow get it fixed? Or should we go with the guide and try to get back to city tonight?

The decision became more pressing as the guide successfully waved down one of the 15-passenger vans that doubled as buses between the city and its outlying villages. This taxi was heading back to the village we’d passed only a couple of minutes before and had room for three people. The guide told us to wait here and he’d come back for us. We told him we were coming with him and loaded onto the bus.

As the vehicle that had clearly been operating since the early 1960s barreled down the road, the guide explained to us what we could expect:

“You will be the only tourists here, it will be very apparent that you are tourists,” he began, “Keep your head down, hide all your valuables, and do not get far from me.”

We arrived into the village. I tucked my passport in my front shirt pocket, separated my money into different areas of my body and slung my camera around my neck, but below my shirt. Our first bit of good fortune quickly appeared: right next to our bus was another bus getting ready to leave for the city. There were already 15 passengers on board, but for a little extra, the driver allowed the three of us to get on. As the driver was pulling away, we were flagged down by four people; passengers 19, 20, 21 and 22 hopped on board the 15-seat bus bound for Antananarivo.

The driver continued through the night, slowing as we passed over twenty-foot gaps in the pavement and speeding up as we went around large trucks. As we popped over one hill, before coasting down the next, an unmistakable array of blue, red, and white lights greeted us. A police checkpoint. In the middle of the country, away from any city.

I pulled my passport from my pocket, waiting for the officer to board the van and demand to see the documentation of the two people who looked very different from the rest. Our guide leaned over to us:

“Do not tell them you’re tourists. Tell them we’re friends. Tell them you came from America to visit us, your friends.”

We nodded in silent agreement.

The officer took his flashlight off his belt, briefly illuminating the scene around us. Five or six stood around the bus, each with very large and very automatic rifles. The officer with the flashlight shone it on the driver, who smiled and gave him a few Malgasy pleasantries. He moved slowly towards the back of the bus, shining the light on each passenger who gave the officer a brief smile and then continued to look forward. He arrived at me. I met his gaze. He paused for a second and moved onto the person sitting behind me. He tapped the top of the van with the butt of his flashlight. The driver started the vehicle and we began anew for the city.

We arrived back to the bus stop. Like a clown car, we all began to file out of the vehicle, one after another. The driver asked Mike and I to stay put, offering to give us a ride to our hotel for a small fee. Several others stayed on the bus, as well; opting to sleep there rather than face the potential danger of the night.

We made it back to our hotel, a couple ariary and a couple of euro less, but with everything else we’d brought. Our cell phones picked up the wifi signal of the hotel and buzzed to life with new messages and new alerts. Dinner had been covered and left on the lobby’s table. As we sat down at the table, white steam escaped from the lid as we uncovered the meal that had been prepared for us hours earlier.

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