Thursday, Nov. 27
Ambilobe, Madagascar

My main objective this week, as I traveled to Madagascar’s most northern town, was to avoid spending a night in a bush taxi. I failed.

The first three days after I left the capital were full of sight-seeing and no delays, since I traveled in a private vehicle (yes, it cost a pretty penny) with a Malagasy woman, Ony, and a young English girl, Charlie. I had met Ony nearly a month earlier when I visited the children’s home where she works, and the timing worked out perfectly for me to join her and Charlie, a volunteer at the center, for part of their trip to Mahajanga, a city on Madagascar’s northeast coast.

We visited a park (my third one) where, during a night walk, we saw loads of cameleons, a large boa snake (!!) and many nocturnal lemurs. Between that stroll and our hike the next day, we spotted a total of six lemur species, and I was surprised at how different each looked, from the variety of sizes — we saw a mouse lemur — to the appearance of their faces. My favorite was the Sifaka, which has a face like a teddy bear:

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they arent cute!

Mommy lemur with baby on its back. Tell me they aren't cute!

We also drove to an amazing rock formation, I believe it was sandstone, where I took this photo. Check out the clouds in several tones:

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

Cirque rouge near Mahajanga

After three days with the group, it was time to move on. As much as I enjoy finding travel companions, it usually feels good to get out by myself again, when I tend to be more pensive, live cheaper and fall into more adventure.

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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.