Drivers and touts surrounded our rickety taxi as we pulled into the open-air gare routiere on the outskirts of Antananarivo. I thought I saw my traveling companion – Guy – stiffen as I called out our destination through the window.
That's the jumping off point for the local minibus – called taxi-brousse here in Madagascar – to Andasibe, which would be another hour away after our first three-hour Antananarivo-Moramanga leg.
Now several men tugged at us as we left our taxi. They tried to carry our bags, and directed us toward their vans, assailing us in French with tales of their vehicle's superiority.
I gleefully waded in. This is where I'm in my element, when touts with senses of humour are sportingly competing for attention, trying to sell their product along with cheerful acceptance when the other guy wins.
"How much? How long until you leave? Is that your van?"
I initially ask lots of questions, pretending to consider all options as I stall. What I’m really trying to do is work out which taxi-brousse is leaving first and what the fare is. It's how I do everything when travelling or even at home – stall and gather information.
Guy hung back as I cheerfully debated the finer points of one van's departure, and eventually, he gruffly called my name.
"Marie, may I speak to you a minute?"
I’d met Guy – an Israeli studying in Cape Town – in the Immigration line at Madagascar’s airport, then found him again at the Tana-Jacaranda Guesthouse in Antananarivo.
He was playing the bad cop perfectly.
I walked over to Guy while the touts co-operated by shutting up as we conferred.
"Don't you think it's best if we go with the fullest one?"
I laughed at my new friend now. "Of course. But let's figure out which one it is."
"I think it's this one."
I agreed, but Guy's conference request had given us exactly the space we needed to work out that important detail. We bought two tickets and piled into two seats in the middle.
"Thanks, Guy. You really helped me negotiate there." I could see he was worried about our different styles of ticket-purchasing, but he needn't have been concerned. We both travel the same way. Today it was his turn to be the cautious traveler. I’m much better at solo travel, but stalling for discussion time is a great benefit to travelling with another person.
The van itself was comfortable and fast. We'd heard stories of overcrowding in Madagascar's bush taxis but each passenger had one comfortable seat. And the roads were fine, if winding. After West Africa, this was luxury indeed.
We drove out of the city which seemed more charming than urban – and out past bright green rice paddies and rolling hills, snaking through tiny villages of wooden buildings alternating with farmland and countryside. We passed through a town called Krypton at one point, but rather than being other-worldy, Madagascar so far seemed like a cross between Bali and Lesotho, both luscious and remote.
In Moramanga, Guy and I gathered our belongings and spilled out into a large parking area full of vans.
"Andasibe?" I addressed our driver, who pointed us out of the parking area and across the road to an oversized jitney. We were headed to a national park so that we could go lemur-spotting.
Guy talked to the driver while I climbed into the jitney to look for good seats. I'm considered tall here and Guy is tall anywhere, so I was looking for something with a little leg room. But the jitney was full of small hard rows, like overcrowded church pews all shoved into a small, square room on wheels.
"Why are you coming back?" Guy was boarding just as I was climbing back out of the jitney.
"There are no good seats," I announced.
He laughed and said, "All right, let's take these two in the front then." At least we could see out the front window.
Heaps of people piled on, most of them cheerfully smiling at us to welcome us to their local jitney. We were lucky that when the jitney was full, the people sitting next to us were school children, so while the taxi-brousse was overcrowded, old, barely functional, and involved a makeshift fuel jerrycan shoved in behind the passenger seat, it was tolerable for the hour we had to be on it, as we chugged slowly up the mountains and stopped every few minutes.
When the jitney turned off to Andasibe, the driver said something to one of the passengers, who turned around and asked us in English where we wanted to be left off.
Door-to-door service! Not bad, I thought. If you can make yourself understood, that is. I'd read that Hotel Mikalo – formerly called Buffet de la Gare – was a reasonable place to stay, had a decent restaurant, and was near the park entrance so I tried asking for that.
And flubbed the pronunciation so bad that the passenger asking for our destination just stared at me.
I tried again, noticing that we were currently sailing past Hotel Mikalo, then past the railway station.
That's a budget hotel in the centre.
Now he was starting to look worried. Obviously I'd flubbed it again. I could see Guy gearing up to get involved.
I had one more shot.
Visibly relieved, the passenger said something to the driver who nodded and slowed. We disembarked at the post office, one of the few concrete buildings in a town of wooden-plank houses, mostly weather-worn down to the bare wood.
Guy looked at me as the taxi-brousse pulled away, and I could see he was wondering what exactly I was thinking putting us down by the post office.
I pointed across the street.
Mitsinjo. The NGO we were hoping to use to hire our guide was, according to my map, across from the post office. Guy smiled and we headed over.
Today was Sunday and I wasn't sure the office would be open, but Mitsinjo always has someone on duty during working hours. We asked a kid where we should go, and the kid pointed us past some laundry to a bare wooden staircase. We climbed up into an office/dining area/bedroom decorated in ramshackle-granny-style and sat at a table, awaiting further instructions.
A lovely young woman approached, and in moments, she'd booked us a night walk that would go into the Mitsinjo private reserve (the national park is closed at night), a morning walk into the national park, and did we want to see the NGO's brand-new guesthouse across the road?
Why yes we did.
"Do you want to share a room to save mone--"
I cut Guy off.
"No. I want my own room."
A little surprised at my gruffness, he backed off of that idea. I realised that I probably had been kind of obnoxious today, what with all the pushing around on the transport and not letting him participate much. My natural tendency is to travel the same as I always do and let someone who comes along for the ride flow along in my wake. He hadn't complained at all, but Guy's not a back-seater. I promised myself I’d play nicer.
We each chose a second-floor simple room at opposite ends of the complex. The decor was plain – bed, mosquito net, desk, shelf, chair. The showers were downstairs and across the courtyard as were the toilets. It wasn't the nice hotel that I'd hoped to check into, but it was cheap and cheerful. And a great bargain.
We hurried into town to walk around and find some food, but all we managed to dig up were some biscuits, bread, oranges, and an avocado. We'd missed lunch. We checked the restaurants at Hotel Orchid, which didn't look like much from the outside. But then, the whole town was a ramshackle good-natured collection of old wood. The Orchid restaurant wasn't open until dinner time, but agreed that if we ordered now, they'd have our dinner ready at 8.
We ordered, took our cookies and sat by the side of the dirt road, and watched people go by on their way to or from the village's Sunday soccer match.
Soon, we'd be chasing lemurs after dark.
And couldn't wait.
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