Wednesday, Nov. 12
Fianarantsoa, Madagascar

It took the luggage handlers about an hour to pack the top of the bush taxi, first lifting a large wooden desk onto the roof, then a dozen bags, then covering it all with a plastic sheath in case of rain. They wrapped rope around the entire thing, making sure to hit all the corners.

Then someone decided the desk shouldn’t go to Ranohira, where the vehicle was headed. So the guys took everything off the roof and started from scratch.

As the passengers waited to depart — there were 28 of us, I later counted, who would cram into the 15-passenger vehicle — the five children waiting in the front row with their parents smiled and waved at me, calling out “Vazaha!” whenever I strayed too far from the van. The word, which sounds more like “vaza,” means “white person” in Malagasy — I’m happy to add it to the countless number of local slangs I’ve been called during the last five months.

Eventually, I approached the kids. “My name isn’t Vaza,” I said, in a friendly tone. “It’s Alexi.”

My bush taxi friend.

My bush taxi friend.

The three-year-old girl who seemed to be the leader of the bunch changed her chant immediately. “Alexi!” she said, trying to get my attention even though she already had it. Once we had boarded the vehicle, myself crammed into the back seat, the little girl near the front, dressed in a blue-and-white checkered dress, she continued to call to me every half an hour or so: “Alexi!”

The ride was not my most comfortable, since a rice sack consumed the leg space I thought I had paid for, forcing me to sit with my legs up near my chest. But I had a window seat, and an interesting one at that: the passenger who sits in the very back left-hand corner of the vehicle usually gets in and out via the window, since she’s the farthest from the door. And so when the bus stopped for lunch, I slid open the pane and climbed out, and later entered the same way.

Driving in Madagascar, I’ve learned during my last few road trips, is about more than getting from place to place. The scenery is absolutely stunning, from rice patties in every shade of green, sculpted into hills like giant staircases, to mountains of rock rising high into the sky. The people add more color to the scenes: groups of women transversing the plains with baskets on their heads, men guiding zebu through the wet rice fields, children in green uniforms walking miles to school. It is, no doubt, some of the most striking scenery I’ve ever seen. Have a look for yourself:

Scene from the road in southern Madagascar.

Scene from the road in southern Madagascar.

Rice patties like this line the roads for miles in central Madagascar.

Rice patties like this line the roads for miles in central Madagascar.

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