Driving in Madagascar
Sunday, July 07, 2013
Yesterday, navigating a parking lot, I was waiting for a Land Rover to pass by in the main lane out, then she slowed down so much, to clear a speed bump, I just went ahead and made the left turn ahead of her. A couple days earlier, in another parking lot, I noticed a four wheel drive vehicle coming towards me, with a line of extra spotlights across the top, and a couple on the bumper. It looked more ridiculous than usual. There is only one important accessory to a reliable four wheel drive vehicle: The driver.
Except for perhaps the roads in the capital city Antananarivo, the roads in Madagascar are, at best, full of "potholes," but, more likely, badly rutted with gullies of water damage, dust and stones. Still, these roads are lifelines for the people. Our guide told us that, in the rainy season, a stuck car, which can easily happen since you can't see through the standing water where the bad potholes or ruts might be, can cut off all the vilages further away from town on that road.
Our guide told us he had heard that some country (can't remember which) called potholes "chicken nests." "Well," he said, "Madagascar has elephant nests." And yes, even on the roads where the big trucks traveled, there were potholes down to the roadbed the size of elephants. The asphalt had never been put down thick enough
So there is a real art to driving, to not break the vehicle, yet still make it from one place to another. Judgement and patience rule. Marshall, our driver, had those qualities in spades. I got the feeling that drivers have a pretty high status in their community too. They carry themselves with the confidence of a valued craftsman--few words, relaxed smiles, but a practiced intensity behind the wheel with a rutted road ahead.
Marshall spoke better English than I did French, and that isn't saying much, so we didn't try to talk much, even though I rode shotgun, with Ben, the guide, and my son in the back seat.
Truth was that Marshall wasn't supposed to be our driver at all, but he and Ben met us at the airport in Diego Suarez, because the driver we were supposed to have had a bad fever. Our plane had been rescheduled to be an hour or so later than originally planned, so we were wisked away, as quickly as feasable, into the Parc National de Montagn d'Ambre, or Amber Mountain National Park. I think I will save the description of that park for another blog, but you will understand the need to hurry, because it is their winter there. Not that their winter is cold (or not by our standards), but these were their SHORTEST days of the year, just when we in the US and Europe are in our longest.
After that outing, and some more rutted roads, they deposited us, at dusk, at the lodge we were staying at that night. Ben said that He wasn't sure who would be our driver the following day. I think he was making sure I tipped Marshall that day rather than waiting for the end of the trip, but I had already planned in my mind to tip everyone as we went, and I tipped them each for what I decided would be a half day tip, 10,000 Ariary for the driver and 5,000 Ariary for the guide. All the other days I tipped them twice as much.
The tipping guide from the travel agency had said that one tips a driver 10,000 Ariary per person for the driver, and 5,000 Ariary (not mentioning per person) for the guide, so I was pretty much following the guidelines, and perhaps even being a bit generous to the guide. Still you see that even the travel agency values the driver at least twice as much as the guide (who is also acting as translator and "fixer").
The next day, Marshall was back again, but with a different four wheel drive vehicle. This one was blue instead of desert tan and apparently belonged to the driver who was still sick. Perhaps it had been gassed up for our long trip. Oh, I saw no gas stations in the countryside at all. I saw people sporatically with yellow jugs, at the roadside, on motorbikes, on bicycles, etc. that I assumed had a few liters of gas in them each, but for a vehicle like ours, it could have never been enough, had we run out of gas and not been in a city perhaps.
While in the car, on one stretch of road, Ben and Marshall were talking about the sick driver in French. (Perhaps they needed French words? They mostly chatted in Austronesian. Maybe they were just used to using French for such discussions to hide them from the less educated women around.) I got the impression that Ben thought he'd gotten the fever from 'the ladies,' translating in my mind to a VD. I asked a clarifying question of them about the other driver, and got an evasive replay, and didn't persue it further.
However, I knew that, in my backpack (my son and I had packed very light, only backpacks for our trip), I had, perhaps, a cure for him. I had a Z-pack the nurse had prescribed to us, in case my son came down with a secondary infection from the cold he had had at the appointment the week before. A strong wide spectrum antibiotic treatment of six pills, take two the first day, and then one for each of 4 days after. But could I trust that this person I had never met, and couldn't instruct in person, would follow those directions? Or that the pills wouldn't get sold separately somehow and be perhaps even worse than useless?
I had told Ben that I was most interested in seeing the unique plants of Madagascar, and so he had been pointing out all sorts of plants to me, telling me of their medicinal uses, and telling me of the troubles of using them since the dosing could not be uniform. I thought that, all other things being equal, I could entrust the Z-pack to him and he would at least relay the pills and direction with as much authority as I would in person. Then at least the sick driver would have it in his own hands to succeed or fail at his own recovery.
I could also see, in how fond people in villages were of Marshall, how a driver might have the opportunity to catch some sort of communicable disease. Marshall was married though, and I even met his wife.
Halfway through the last day they were with us, Ben and Marshall asked us for a small favor. Marshall's wife was near our destination, and they asked us if they could pick her up, so they could head straight back to Diego Suarez after dropping us off. They said she was sick really needed to cut her visit to family short and head for home where she could go to the doctor (in a city). I said okay.
However, that threw a wrench into my intention to give the Z-pack to Ben for the other driver. Obviously, if she was sick, they would have to be used for her, if it was appropriate.
When she joined us though, she was showing no signs of fever at least. I felt somewhat taken advantage of, though carrying her in the back did not pose any real inconvenience. The unsettled feeling of being not told the whole truth kept me from giving the our now unnecessary Z-pack to them.
I don't know if there was a way to play that to make more winners, and I missed it, but I still have a Z-pack looking for someone to cure.