Friday, Dec. 12
Tamatave, Madagascar

It ain’t easy to leave Maroantsetra.

I arrived there via plane from the north. Since there’s no road, my only other option was to hike in, several days worth of walking from the nearest town.

Most visitors depart the same way, flying out of the tiny airport they flew into. But I decided to take my chances with ground transport, since there was something resembling a road that headed south. I could weather one more bush taxi ride on unpaved road, I told myself.

The trip was about 180 miles. It took two days. Thirty hours! Plus a few hours when we stopped to sleep.

Even considering all the horrible roads I’ve taken during this trip, one stretch of this route in particular was the worst I’ve ever experienced. It was more like a monster-truck obstacle course, with our four-by-four bush taxi — basically a 4×4 15-passenger van; who knew they existed? — climbing slowly over boulders, piles of rocks, sometimes tilted so far to one side that I worried we would tip over.

Indeed, we passed one vehicle that had done just that, and our driver joined a crowd of people, mostly the truck’s passengers, as they worked to push the vehicle right-side up.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

An over-turned truck we encountered on the road to Tamatave.

Much of the path was marked by two deep ditches, tracks from vehicles that had passed before us in the mud. We were lucky: it hadn’t rained for days, so those tracks had hardened, and we rolled slowly over them. Had the road been wet from rain, I doubt we would have been able to pass at all.

Yet the trip, if the roughest I’ve completed, was far from the most uncomfortable. For it’s not only the road that determines one’s comfort level, but also a host of other factors, mainly where you’re sitting and how many people are sitting on top of you.

My friend Chris had reserved for me one of the vehicle’s best seats, the front middle, between the driver and the window passenger seat, where I had plenty of room to stretch my legs and shift my weight when one part of my body lost circulation. I had an entire seat to myself!

The driver was friendly; he didn’t hit on me, try to touch my thighs when he shifted or even ask whether I was married. And a DVD player — they’re popular for long car trips here — played Malagasy music videos over my head, keeping me entertained (and no doubt adding to my hearing loss).

The best feature of the road though, was this: we got to exit the vehicle every half hour or so to work our legs. Why? Because there were so many water crossings.

Driver and others assess whether the water is too deep to cross.

Driver and others assess whether the water is too deep to cross.

We were traveling adjacent to the coast, sometimes literally on sand just feet from the ocean, and used a myriad of techniques to cross the bodies of water that snaked out from the sea.

Most often we’d take short, shaky-looking wooden bridges. The driver’s assistant would inspect the bridge before the car went a cross, putting beams into place where they had broken and jumping on parts that were clearly dodgy, using his weight to determine whether it would hold up for the four-by- four.

Repairing a bridge before crossing.

Repairing a bridge before crossing.

The driver had more than one reason for having us debark before crossing these bridges: he wanted the car to be as light as possible, but he also had our safety in mind. If the vehicle went down, we wouldn’t be in it.

For the dozen or so larger bodies of water, we crossed using a motorized ferry or wooden raft propped up on pirogues and pushed across by men using long bamboo sticks. (The latter reminded me of the raft my brother and sister and I used to float on during summer vacations at a lake in upstate New York. Only we never put bush taxis on ours.)

The ferry raft our four-by-four used to cross this body of water.

The ferry raft our four-by-four used to cross this body of water.

I arrived in Tamatave a bit beat up and a lot exhausted. But I also was excited. This port city was more than just a destination on my itinerary.

Tamatave represented the beginning of my trip home. From now on, every move I make will bring me closer to the capital, closer to the flight I’ll take back to the States on Sunday, Dec. 21.