Tuesday, Nov. 4
I stayed in my hostel bed on my first morning in Madagascar long after I woke up, partly because my stomach was rumbling in the sorry way that usually foreshadows sickness. But I also had another reason to keep my eyes closed: someone was showering in my room.
It was a dorm room, with four beds, and a shower and sink just feet from the bunks, so it wasn’t unusual that I had a roommate. But I hadn’t met the traveler, since the person was already asleep in the top bunk when I climbed into my bed the night before. I only realized it was a man when I heard him clearing his throat that morning in the shower, and so I kept my position, facing the wall, to offer some privacy.
When I figured he had had enough time to dress himself, I turned, thinking I might meet a new friend, perhaps another 20-something backpacker who would explore the island with me. It’s in these hostel dorm rooms that I often meet other frugal travelers.
Instead, I was shocked to see a skinny old man, wearing only shorts, his wrinkled chest bare, rinsing his hands at the sink.
I smiled to myself, and asked where he was from.
“Born in Italy, but now living in Malaysia,” he responded. “You?”
“United States,” I said.
“Oh, well we can switch to English then,” he said, transitioning out of French.
The man, who had lived most of his life in various east African countries, had just returned to the capital after six weeks of traveling the country. Since that was similar to my time frame here, I inquired about his route. Looking at my guidebook earlier, I hadn’t noticed an obvious one, and I still wasn’t sure how I would go about seeing the island.
“They say you can’t do a loop around the country,” he said, “but I managed to do just that.”
We paged through my guidebook to find a map, and indeed, it looked impossible to loop around Madagascar. Most of the main roads start in the center of the country, in Antananarivo, the capital that goes by “Tana” for obvious reasons. The roads radiate outward, kind of like a subway station that has one center point and lots of lines that never connect.
The man used his finger to trace the route he had taken, often going into green space on the map where there didn’t appear to be a road.
Those trips were uncomfortable and long, sometimes two days, including night driving, the man said, and he spent several dawns sleeping in bush taxis.
He told me about his favorite parts of the country, suggested a few places to visit. And then, when he handed the guidebook back to me, I asked the question I had been wondering about all along.
“How old are you?” It was a bit abrupt, but I couldn’t help it.
He didn’t seem to mind. “Sixty-seven,” he answered.
“I don’t think I could ride in a bush taxi at that age,” I admitted. “All of that bumping, the lack of personal space, the heat.” What I was really thinking was that, without an ounce of fat on him, he was likely to get bruised during long rides from all the jostling.
But this man, whose name I never gathered, had traveled all over the world, budget-style. In fact, now retired, he traveled about nine months out of the year, spending only three at his home in Malaysia, he said.
He left the room to explore the city. And I got to thinking: Is six months really enough? Will I feel satisfied after Madagascar, my last stop?
I had pondered this briefly during my last flight, lamenting the fact that only two months remain of this trip. At the moment, I feel revived after enjoying several days in South Africa. Maybe after wandering around this undeveloped island, where travel will surely be more difficult, I’ll be ready to rest in the States.
But if not, if my bank account can weather it, perhaps I’ll buy another plane ticket. Maybe to Asia.