I consider myself to be a fairly seasoned, competent bus-rider. Relying on public transportation in many situations to get from point A to B has caused me to frequent busses regularly enough in Washington to actually understand the unwritten protocol and social nuances of public transit life. Basically, I know what I’m doing. That is, I knew what I was doing until I got to Madagascar. In the capital city of Tana, my host family lives far enough away from the program center to warrant taking the taxi-be (bus) to and from class everyday. In our previous homestay, many of the students rode the taxi-be everyday but my homestay was conveniently located within a two-minute walk to the program center so I had no experience riding the taxi-be solo in that laid-back coastal town, let alone in this bustling urban center; in Tana, traffic rules, street names, and social nuances of public transit are less than apparent to a first time observer (and in the case of route maps, schedules, and traffic lights, completely nonexistent). Needless to say, I was a bit terrified.
In Malagasy class, we learned a song that all Malagasy children and adults I have asked seem to know. It is sung to the tune of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and the chorus, with a rough translation, is the following:
Ny mandeha (the voyage) x3
dia mahafinaritra (magnificent)
The verses go through various forms of transportation, for example: Ny mandeha taxi-be dia mahafinaritra.
After seeing these taxi-be, which are maybe 16 passenger vans with often times over 30 people, coupled with my unfamiliarity with this massive city, it was hard for me to imagine how I could ever come to think of this particular means of voyaging as “mahafinaritra.”
For my first few days of class, my host father and sister took turns riding with me to and from class. On my first day, my host father showed me the walk to Lake Anosy where I was to take either the 146 or 147 all the way to the program center neighborhood of Antanimena. Getting to the lake requires one to cross a 4 lane busy street where the only way to cross is to walk out in front of moving traffic trusting that the drivers will stop because only the presence of a body directly in front of the car will get any driver to yield for pedestrians. We did this successfully and the 147 arrived just as we did. You enter the bus from the back where an attendant opens the door and collects money from the passengers at some point during the ride; their memory and attention to detail is impressive. I learned how to say “misy miala” when it was my stop, and it all worked out seamlessly, as did the return trip. I was feeling confident about my ability to repeat this on my own.
As it turns out, we only took that bus because it was market day, so the next day my host father wanted me to take a different bus from a different place, and it was chaos. We missed several busses because they were too crowded. At one point, I felt my host father pulling on my arm and then he started running and hopped on a bus with a crowd all pushing to get on; apparently, I was a little too slow because the attendant motioned that they were at capacity right when I tried to enter. My host father got off and we waited again. The next time, my host father urged me ahead of him and indicated I should run and jump onto the bus while it was still moving. For anyone who knows my particular dislike for running and really the smallest possibility of danger, you know that this was definitely a stretch for me, but I did it! The bus ride also included stopping for gas and driving away with the attendant still running alongside adjusting the gas cap.
I had an incredible feeling of accomplishment the first day I successfully made it both ways of the journey by myself. Now, I am beginning to pick-up certain protocols, like how to pull out the aisle planks for additional seating, and I know which are the best seats to score. Most of my nerves have subsided as I have learned the basics, which allows me to look out the window 2 hours a day (1 hour each way) and observe city life! This has become one of my favorite parts of my day and I get to practice “participant observation,” a concept we have studied as part of our field research class.
I watch in awe as women and men carry enormous loads of anything and everything on their heads and all the carts speeding along with traffic. I tried to count how many photocopy shops I pass on my daily commute but stopped counting as they are too frequent to catch them all. I stare zébu in the face when they walk along the road and I observe all the retail interactions on the street as people sell their animals and goods, sometimes through open car windows. On many occasions, the taxi-be drivers will purchase newspapers while driving and read them while we idle in endless traffic jams. We drive by “Chez Luther” and “Coiffure Jonathan.” I see men receiving barber services on the sidewalk and women delicately shaping their mountains of rice for sale after each purchase. There are crowds of people standing in front of newspaper stands reading the front page of each newspaper hung on a clothesline. There is a street with a line of sewing machines with women waiting for customers that need lamba (cloth) sewn. There also is a canal with hundreds of leather armchairs for sale on both sides There are so many eggs. And chickens (dead and alive). And tempting smells of street food wafting through my open window.
I recently discovered while walking with a friend that I could cut my commute in half if I were to walk. Although I am excited to do this too, I have come to look forward to my daily taxi-be commute. Walking, I don’t have the luxury to just sit back and observe life as I need to be more alert. It was unexpected, but the song is in fact true: ny mandeha taxi-be dia mahafinaritra.