Wednesday, September 27, 2000

When that German guy, who sat next to us at Paris Airport, said he was going to use public transit to get around in Madagascar, I smiled. I remembered that ten years ago, there were three trains in the whole country, going once every two days. Now there is only one train left and it runs once a week, if at all (and it’s so run down that you don’t want to take it). The primary means of transportation in cities was and still is the taxi. Ten years ago, a taxi was, no exception, an old Renault 4 (R4). At that time, they were already extinct in Europe but in Madagascar, they kept fixing them because there was no money to buy a new one. They’re still on the road today.

A more intact Renault 4 Taxi
A more intact Renault 4 Taxi

A taxi is still an R4 but after 10 years, it is reduced to the parts that are absolutely necessary to make it run. The tank is now a small container full of gas between driver’s seat and shotgun. A small tube connects that container with the motor. (I wonder if the Air Madagascar planes are operated the same way - I hope not.) This morning, when my dad and I took a taxi to the airport, we ran out of gas. The driver pulled the tube out of the container, asked for an advance, filled the container with gas, put the tube back and the car was running again. Of course, you always smell gas in a taxi (and some drivers even smoke in the car!). At times, when the “tank” is reconnected with the motor, there is air in the tube and the driver has to put the other end in his mouth and suck so the tube is filled with gas. Of course, he can’t avoid swallowing some of the incoming gas and often, he gets out of the car and tries to spit it all out. We were sometimes wondering what his wife says when he comes home with such a bad breath!

You hail a cab, there’s always one coming by. Today, though, we saw how they start it in the morning. It is a ten minutes procedure where they fiddle with the motor. Then you sit in the back, try to breathe some fresh air and hope you reach your target.

In a Malagasy taxi, the rearview mirror dangles down a short wire, the windshield wipers are reduced to a piece of metal, the speedometer points to some number below zero, and virtually every control lamp is on - it’s some kind of wonder that they work anyway.

During the ride, the car - or “pop can on wheels” being more appropriate a description - must be started several times by short-wiring the starter cable. At times, just like this morning, a taxi has a flat tire and the passengers have to help lifting the car up so the spare wheel can be put on. We made it to the airport on time though.

A short comment on driving in Madagascar. Basically, there are no rules except not to kill anybody (I have, for example, never seen a traffic light and very, very few signs). You can drive on either side of the road (you may want to take the side with the fewest and smallest holes) as long as you don’t hit, scratch, or kill a person. “Person” includes the passengers. Animals often come close to being hit (I have seen chicken run; no pun intended) but we never killed any.