Four am on a Sunday morning, and we have just pulled into the taxi-brousse station south of Tana. It’s been twelve roastercoller hours from the quaint highland town of Ambalavao, and twenty-two since I set out from the camp in Tsaranoro valley where I spent the week. Two hours’ walk out of the mountains took me to Vohitsoka, where a first taxi-brousse (another two hours) got me to Ambalavao. Buying a bus ticket, and then a tranquil afternoon serving the good people of the highlands as novelty and entertainment (my exploits with personal coffee-making equipment and a cup of warm rice water at a street stall will probably be talked of for days to come). I understand my responsibilities as a vazah in this country, and I smile, wave, tell people my name and refuse children sweets with good grace – at least most of the time.
In the taxi-brousse station all is dark, but our headlights sweep an encampment of travelers asleep on the ground. The convoy of 18-seater minibuses with which we have travelled all night up the RN7 will probably leave again in a few hours, and they must be on the spot to get a seat. My fellow passengers remain huddled inside the steamed-up bus, but I opt to stretch my legs and swap stale morning-breath for the clouds of cigarette smoke now issuing forth from the taxi drivers. “Fresh” air in Tana is only ever relative, but at least the stars are out.
Once standing under the dim light outside the bus office, however, my pale skin and I are once again on duty, representatives of the international community and public property of all aspiring English speakers. Sure enough, within minutes I’m approached by an enthusiastic gentlemen in an overly tight purple hoodie, who is soon explaining his hat export business to me (this is more successful once he produces his wares and I realise he is not talking about purveying “Malagasy heads” for the people of Europe). He has traveled up from the coast with a fresh cargo of the handmade goods, and is on his way to the airport to find a friendly traveler willing to carry them to Paris, in exchange for a little cash. “But that’s dangerous!” I exclaim, rashly. “What if you agreed to take such a parcel for someone and it had drugs in it?” Mistake. Offended, my friend must now unpack his entire stock, to defend his honour against my insinuations. I do my best to make up for the blunder by politely admiring the hats (but not too much, in case he is hoping to sell me some). He warms up again, and proceeds with close enquiries about my stay in Madagascar, nature of employment, place of birth, and place of residence in Tana. I am becoming uncomfortable, but hope he is merely wishing to practice his English. This is the constant challenge of a foreigner, and especially a woman: I don’t wish to be suspicious, and friendly politeness is the best insurance against all kinds of trouble. But one must constantly gauge the situation, sifting through language and manner and cultural differences to detect potential pitfalls. You have to be on your toes, even at 4am.
The conversation moves on to my weekly timetable, and in fact, what I will be doing today. Is he angling for a second rendezvous? I can’t tell, but am wary. Preparing class for tomorrow, I tell him. “Do you eat rice?” is the next question. This could be a set-up – if I say yes, he may insist on my eating some with him. On the other hand, given the hallowed place of this staple food in Malagasy life, it could also be the equivalent of “How do you like my country?” I can’t say I don’t. He looks pleased. “You have kitchen?” is next. Now what? Is he going to invite himself over for dinner? But again, I cannot say I don’t. “Ah!” he replies. “My friend has restaurant in my home town – plate of rice and two pieces kitchen, very good”. Kitchen: chicken. A common mistake.
“Tequila?” Now he has me. “I’m sorry?”
It is way too early in the morning. His train of thought has flung me from the carriage with no ticket. I smile vaguely.
“In your country, which aperitif?”
“Ah! Amarula. We have Amarula.” He has already sung me a line of Johnny Clegg on discovering my nationality, so maybe he’s heard of it. Phew – this is getting dangerous. One can only say “I don’t understand, again please?” so many times. But vague smiles can quickly betray – just the other day I apparently indicated “Yes please, I would love you to guide me on a two-hour lemur-tracking forest hike” when what I meant was “How nice that you are also walking in the direction of my accommodation”. Fortunately I identified the error in time, and my would-be guide was foiled. But I am taking no risks here. I excuse myself and move off to check on the progress of our luggage. On the roof of our minibus, someone is finally clambering around amongst the rice sacks and pumpkins. Some of the baskets have woken up and begun to squawk. I’m hoping this means my bag will be down soon and escape imminent.
Hat-smuggler man is back. He has once again positioned himself between me and the light, and I cannot see his face, but something about his round shiny forehead and the overtight purple hood makes him look like a Ninja Turtle. Also his large backpack. “So, when do you work?” he begins again. “Do you work in the morning? The afternoon?” All day, I tell him. “Where do you eat lunch, like tomorrow?” Now I am definitely hedging. “It depends” I say. Like I haven’t done since I was fourteen, I am ready to tell him I work every day, weekends included, and I never eat lunch.
“Are you catching a taxi from here?” He is relentless. I am non-committal, although I have already secured a driver. I cannot risk him suggesting to share: he cannot know where I live. He looks away for a second and I make a break for the now-open coffee stall. Surely the luggage must be coming down by now? I order thé au lait, tea with milk, and try to blend in with the other beverage-drinkers. The milk is condensed milk, which I expected. The tea is lemongrass, which I did not.
At this point I reach my limit. He might simply be a pleasant and friendly man, welcoming a lone foreigner to his country. I might be sampling a unique Malagasy delicacy, the fragrance of which will bring back fond memories for years to come. But right now, all I want is home and a bath. I swallow the tea and at last see the cargo coming off the taxi roof. With impeccable timing, my blue backpack descends from on high and everyone looks round for me: I may as well give up on trying to blend in. On cue, my taxi driver appears grinning at my elbow, and we make a break for it. The fare is the same amount as the entire bus-ride from Ambalavao, but I don’t care anymore. I’m all for travelling like a local, mingling with the people, having fascinating encounters with purple-turtle-head-smuggling-kitchen men in dark bus stations – within reason.
But right now all I can think is: I’m a vazah, get me out of here.
Vazah = foreigner (like umlungu, but not considered rude)
Taxi-brousse = bush taxi (long-distance minibus, usually including a fair amount of unexpected poultry and giant sacks of rice tied to roof)