7 ways Madagascar prepared me to travel in India

When a Peace Corps Volunteer finishes his or her service, it’s referred to as COS (Close of Service). And it’s very common for Volunteers to celebrate their accomplishments and embrace their new freedom by taking a COS trip. Usually it’s an adventure to transition between life abroad and a new life in America.

When I COS’ed at the end of September, I knew I had another adventure waiting for me in India. I had planned a month of traveling in the world’s second most populated country as a way to mark the end of three years in Madagascar and to help me begin the transition from rural Malagasy life to bustling and modern American life. As I began traveling in India, I noticed many things that reminded me of life in Madagascar. I also realized that if it hadn’t been for my previous experiences in Madagascar, I would have most likely reacted to these new Indian experiences differently and possibly developed a more negative outlook of the country because I would have been more uncomfortable in these new settings.

Like many things in life, we normalize ides as they become routine. As they become more routine and common, we tend to be unfazed by their relative difference or shock, as perceived by others who are less familiar. When I kept having moments in India where I thought, “hey, this reminds me a lot of Madagascar,” I knew something was changing inside of me. When I could step out of my mind and realize that what I was feeling about Madagascar was happening right before my eyes in India, I felt compelled to start a running list and share it with my readers.

In no particular order or significance, these are the seven ways that I believe Madagascar prepared me to be a better traveler in India:

1. Trash and road conditions

In India, there’s a lot of trash. I won’t get into the why or how of it, but trust me—there’s trash seemingly everywhere. It can smell, it can look unpleasant, it can be overwhelming. But I had been living in similar circumstances in Madagascar, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to me in India. Without a lot of public infrastructure to deal with trash in either country, it piles up along the streets and in open fields or plots of land.

Other aspects of India’s infrastructure, specifically roads, seemed downright pristine in my eyes. Coming from a country where if you’re lucky enough to have a paved road it probably has a bunch of potholes, to a country where almost every street is paved AND has lanes painted was a real treat for me. I was visibly smiling for the first few days whenever I got into a car, while on the other hand, my friends and other travelers looked more nervous or put off by their perceived low quality of Indian roads.

2. Challenging creature comforts

More than once in India, I had a thought that was along the lines of “this toilet is disgusting, but at least it’s not as bad as a kabone (pit latrine)!” In many of the Indian toilets I used, there are even these cool butt hoses to use instead of toilet paper. Whether it was an air conditioning unit that was out of order, a television that only had 2 channels, or a sub-par Wi-Fi connection, I was coming from a place where those things were considered luxury items and I could deal without them. Some of my fellow travelers felt a little more…entitled…to these things than I was.

3. Long drives and travel times

Getting around India is relatively easy, efficient, and affordable, in my eyes. There are lots of car or bus options, as well as a connected rail system. So when I would meet other travelers who complained about 4+ hours traveling on a bus in India, I had very little sympathy. In Madagascar, what you are told will be an easy 3 hour taxi-brousse ride often turns into a 7+ hour ordeal on an old minivan held together with duct tape where you’re crammed in between two sweaty Malagasy people, chickens nipping at your ankles from under the seat, and music blasting in your face as you fly down a windy road riddled with potholes and stray cows. Sounds charming, right? On the flip side, in India, a comparable journey takes place in a well maintained commercial bus with assigned seating, air conditioning, and a reliable travel time because the roads are predictable. While I met some travelers who dreaded the idea of a 4 hour train ride in India, I was excited because it would probably comfortably cover more distance in less time than other options in Madagascar.

4. Language barriers

Almost every Indian person that I met spoke at least basic English and many people were advanced speakers. Coming from a country where few people outside of my students or work colleagues spoke any English, I was overjoyed that I could speak so freely with almost anyone in India. The tricky part was adapting to the Indian accents and vocabulary. I frequently found myself searching for linguistic common ground, something I was very used to doing in Madagascar. Rephrasing questions, using simple vocabulary, or just surrendering to the idea that I would remain partially clueless during a conversation—these were skills that I learned in Madagascar and easily transferred to India. Non-verbal communication in India was another idea I had to adapt to, where something as simple as the direction or force of your head nod can speak volumes above the actual words you utter.

5. Trust

At many times during my travels in India, locals and other travelers would give me unsolicited advice about maintaining my personal safety and health. When my initial reaction to these ideas was “Duh, of course that makes sense,” I knew that I had a skill set from Madagascar that I was starting to take for granted: street smarts in the developing world. Whether it was dealing with pushy taxi drivers, street vendors, children begging for money, or being in crowded unfamiliar places, I trusted myself and those around me like I did in Madagascar. It wasn’t entirely new for someone to try to take advantage of me because I am a foreigner, so I tried to keep that in the back of my mind. Dealing with similar situations in Madagascar helped me recognize, and mitigate, them in India.

6. Being a good passenger

In both Madagascar and India, people drive very differently than they do in America. I would describe their approach to driving as doing whatever the driver wants while making sure there is a small buffer of safety around the car. In America, driving lanes, posted speed limits, and rules of the road are all generally accepted and obeyed by drivers. In Madagascar and India, these things feel like mere suggestions. It was not uncommon for me to be a passenger in a Malagasy car when the driver would try to pass a slower car on a two-lane highway while coming within a few feet of oncoming traffic before darting back into the original lane. After a few instances of this, I learned to calm down, trust the driver, and basically surrender to the idea that either everything would be fine or I’d be involved in a massively horrific vehicle accident. This also meant I was already prepared for the same behavior from drivers in India. While other passengers winced or gasped as we crossed into oncoming traffic or came within inches of hitting a stray cow in the street, I tended to remain present in conversations or gazing out the window like nothing was happening.

7. Cash based economy

In Madagascar, cash is by far and away the primary monetary tool. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I saw a credit card machine in the three years I lived there. In India, cards are slightly more prevalent but cash is still the best way to get around. I was used to being conscious of how many small denomination bills I had in Madagascar, because breaking large bills in the countryside was nearly impossible. Those same instincts kicked in while I was in India, so I was very comfortable living day to day with cash.

A few extra things that surprised me about India

  • In the south (Kerala, from my experience), there are more churches and cathedrals than I expected. Many of them were ornately decorated and flashy.
  • Billboard advertising is extremely common—everything from political coalitions to the newest smartphone with an impressive selfie camera.
  • Most Indian men have a full thick head of gorgeous hair. I definitely experienced some hair envy.
  • Women dressed in beautifully designed and colored saree as everyday clothing. Much like the Malagasy lambahoany, I never saw the same saree design twice.
  • Unexpected warmth, hospitality, curiosity, and helpfulness of local people. I could go on for days discussing this, as it also reminded me of the nature of most Malagasy people.
  • More than just stray cats and dogs—cows, goats, monkeys, and donkeys are commonly wandering the streets of India like they own the place.
  • Vehicle traffic, congestion, car horns, and aggressiveness really got to me after a while, eventually becoming a full on auditory assault.
  • Air pollution is much worse than I anticipated. On some evenings, the sun set behind a layer of pollution before it reached the actual horizon.
  • A fine appreciation of electrical outlets—availability in cafes and restaurants, placement near beds, and a convenient switch to turn the outlet on or off. This made traveling and charging devices so easy!

Overall, I absolutely loved traveling in India and I would go back in a heartbeat. The people, the food, the history, the natural beauty, and the spiritual magnetism were all so accessible and kept me in a constant state of awe. I don’t think I would’ve had the same positive experience if I didn’t get help organizing my trip from the great team at India Someday. I can’t recommend them enough and they made my first trip to India feel less intimidating and smooth. Please check out their website for more info, especially if you’re planning a trip to India in the future. And you should go, right after you visit Madagascar!

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Ode to the taxi-brousse

Just the mention of the word stirs up a mixture of emotions in every Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteer. Everyone’s got a story, or 20, about traveling around this beautiful island in a taxi-brousse, known as a “bush taxi” in other countries. It is the primary form of land travel in Madagascar. Most Volunteers see it as a necessary evil. Traveling by “brousse”, as we sometimes call it, is a skill that has to be honed and adjusted. It takes months to perfect your approach and style. At first, we were all afraid. But now, we are mahay taxi-brousse (knowledgeable about how to ride in and live in a world with the taxi-brousse).

In an attempt to describe and pay tribute to the taxi-brousse, I’d like to share a collection of observations and experiences that have happened to me since I arrived in Andapa in September 2014. Everything you are about to read is true and has happened to me, but you could easily imagine that taxi-brousses are generally the same all across Madagascar.

For starters, you might be wondering what a taxi-brousse looks like. That’s a little like asking what a lemur looks like. They all have a few commonly defining characteristics, but every one you see is a little bit different than the next. A taxi-brousse is basically a vehicle intended to move large numbers of people from one place to another. It’s usually a mini-van type vehicle. A little bigger than the average soccer mom’s mini-van, but smaller than a military transport truck. Usually. Brousses are also almost always customized. Not like “Pimp My Ride” customized. More like electrical wires hanging from the roof, religious stickers on the windows, door hinges obviously joined together with solder, and tacky pleather upholstering. The engines have been tinkered with by the local mechanic. The entire vehicle roars like a wild beast and rumbles like an electronic massage chair. Being in a taxi-brousse is truly an experience unlike any other.

A typical taxi-brousse

A typical taxi-brousse

The Good

I’ll admit that is has taken me a while to see the good things about broussing. Yes, one of them is the fact that “brousse” can be a noun or a verb. Once I got over the initial shock of the process, I began to appreciate the brousse for a few simple reasons. For starters, there’s no weight limit on luggage. Whatever bags you bring can be tied down on the roof of the car. And it’s not just limited to bags, my friends. I’ve seen entire living room furniture sets, bicycles, giant bushels of produce, wooden cages filled with chickens, geese, or ducks, and even mattresses on top of a brousse. If it can be tied down, it can go on top of a brousse. Smaller, more delicate bags can be placed on your lap or under your seat.

The driver's assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

The driver’s assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

Also, there is a wonderful seat in the brousse called place d’avant (French for “front place”). It is the front bench row next to the driver. Usually, it is reserved for two people. This is by far the most luxurious and comfortable part of the brousse because the other rows get filled to the brim, and then some, with passengers. A bit more on that later. But the place d’avant is typically reserved for special passengers. For example, a pretty girl that the driver might want to hit on during the ride, a traveling police officer or other local official, a foreign tourist, or in my case an obviously tall white dude who can speak a little bit of Malagasy. After riding in the huddle of passengers for a few months, I’ll never forget my first experience sitting in the place d’avant and feeling like royalty. I will admit that now I insist on sitting in this space, something that most of the local drivers already know about me and are happy to oblige.

On longer, overnight journeys (there are some routes that take more than 30 hours to travel and drivers always drive through the night when necessary) it is common for the vehicle to stop at “rest stops” along the main road to pause for a meal. At these rest stops, there are usually 5 or 6 small restaurants that all serve a heaping plate of rice with very similar side dishes of meat or beans. These places specifically service the taxi-brousse community and although the food is prepared on an almost industrial scale, it is still usually delicious and filling for a long night of driving through the pitch-black countryside. The service is quick and straight forward, enabling passengers to sit down, eat, and leave within 20 minutes.

For shorter, usually regional trips, the common practice for food is to stop in a town and food vendors will sell things to passengers through the car window. When the brousse stops, a group of vendors will run toward the car and start shoving large platters of fried breads, deep fried meats, hard-boiled eggs, coconuts, and the occasional fresh fish. The snacks are usually cheap and easy to eat in a vehicle. One of my favorite parts about broussing in different parts of the country is sampling the local cuisine in the form of brousse snacks.

Women selling various snacks to passengers

Women selling various snacks to passengers

The Bad

As I have eluded to earlier, riding in a taxi-brousse isn’t all sunshine and delicious brousse foods. There are some bad things that deserve to be mentioned. While some of these things might sound terrible to the reader, I will admit that to another Volunteer they might only seem trivial or annoying at best. One of these issues is known as “taxi-brousse time.” It’s related to a larger cultural phenomenon known as fotoana gasy (Malagasy time), where the concept of time is interpreted in a much broader sense. Things do not work on a precise schedule in this country, and the taxi-brousse is no exception. That being said, there are no hard scheduled departure and arrival times for a taxi-brousse. It leaves when it is ready and it gets there when it gets there.

The departure can sometimes be the most painful part of the whole experience because the brousse will generally leave only when it is full of passengers. If there aren’t 15-20 people ready to go at the same time, there are basically two courses of action. First, the brousse will just wait at the station until the desired number of passengers trickles in. Often times with the engine running, the combination of the day’s heat and the exhaust fumes enveloping the car can make for an extremely uncomfortable waiting experience. The second option is to put whatever passengers you do have into the car and drive around town trying to pick up more people off the street. This tactic can take 10 minutes or and hour and a half. In my opinion, the goal here is to show off how many people are already in the car in the hopes of attracting more passengers to join your downtown loop tour for the next 45 minutes.

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

Once the taxi-brousse is full and ready to depart town, at least you know the journey will get underway. This also means that the seating arrangement, if you can call it that, has been established and the discomfort of being crammed into a row of seats build to seat 3-4 people comfortably, but now has 5-6 people jammed in, slowly grows into a stinging and sometimes unbearable pain. Most taxi-brousses are build to seat about 15 people by American standards. This, my friends, is only the starting point in Madagascar. Brousses are routinely packed with 26-30 people and nobody puts up a fight about it. It’s just the way it is. It’s common to sit on someone’s lap, sometimes for hours at a time. Infants get passed around to strangers just to make the puzzle pieces of humans fit together better. Most of the time your knees are jammed up against the hard wood or plastic seat back in front of you. In the region where I live and travel, most taxi-brousse drivers seem to live by the philosophy that a brousse is never full and there’s always room for one more person. Only in the most extreme attempt to overpack a brousse will a person verbally protest the driver. The common expression to voice your disapproval of the situation is translated into English as “Hey! We’re not cows!”

If the seating isn’t enough to push you into a quiet rage, the music certainly will. This is another regional difference, but the taxi-brousse drivers in my region tend to show off their stereo systems by playing the loudest, fastest, and most disorienting music I’ve ever heard. The style of music is known as salegy and a brief internet search might be more helpful in explaining the truly aurally oppressive nature of this music than my words here could. An experienced Volunteer will tell you that one of the keys to surviving a brousse ride is an iPod and a good pair of headphones. In the central highlands of Madagascar, it’s more common to hear gospel church music in the taxi-brousses. This can sometimes be more pleasant to listen to, but it also gets tiring after many hours on the road.

The Ugly

This last category of taxi-brousse experiences describes what I consider to be the universally terrible things about this particular form of travel. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve traveled before, these next few observations are unmistakably shitty.

To start off, I’ve been a witness to taxi-brousses running over animals way more times that I’d like to admit. Much of this country is rural and many of the towns and villages along the roads are basically next to the road. Unlike in America where people tend to have good strong fences around their homes and properties, Malagasy villages are not built like that. This means that animals of all varieties, domestic and wild, can get on the road and get themselves into trouble. I have been in brousses that have run over pigs, geese, frogs, snakes, dogs, and chameleons. It’s always alarming and most passengers, if they notice it, gasp in distress and shake their heads in disapproval of the driver. Then life quickly goes on and the brousse keeps going.

Then there’s always the carsick passenger. Usually it’s a child, which makes the whole situation a little more pathetic. But inevitably someone will puke during the ride and you’d better hope they’re nowhere near you. In my experience, it seems to be a pretty sudden occurrence. All of a sudden, someone is covering their mouth and the people sitting next to them are shouting and trying to distance themselves. In this case, the person usually vomits into a shirt, jacket, backpack, or other piece of cloth that they have with them. Other times, if there is enough warning, they can ask for a plastic bag from the driver. Then the next trick is getting the bag safely out of the moving vehicle through the window without spilling on other passengers or having the contents of the bag blow back through other windows as it is released into the wind. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

At some point along the road, there is almost always a police checkpoint. For the most part, the police want to check that drivers have the proper license, registration, and car insurance and that they’re not transporting anything blatantly illegal (for example, a couple of rosewood trees strapped to the roof). With “minor” paperwork infractions, the police can always be paid off by drivers to overlook the issue. This is just one part of the culture of corruption that exists in Madagascar. Drivers will routinely pay about 2,000 ariary (about $0.60 USD) each time that they come to a checkpoint and the handoff isn’t always subtle. It’s usually done with a handshake, like at fancy restaurants when someone wants the maître d’ to give an extra nice table. Or often the cash will be slipped in with the pile of paperwork handed to the police officer. In other not so subtle attempts, I’ve seen drivers openly ask police officers if they have change for large bills. This is something that most people agree is bad but nothing substantial is being done to correct the behavior.

And finally, one of the absolute worst things that can happen during a taxi-brousse ride is the dreaded vehicle breakdown. Let me remind the reader, roadside assistance does not exist in Madagascar. When a brousse breaks down, it pulls over to the side of the road and the real fun begins. The driver and assistant get out and survey the vehicle. If you’re lucky and it’s only a flat tire, that’s a relatively easy fix and you’ll be back on the road shortly. Consider it a nice break to get out, stretch your legs, and pee in the bushes if you need to. But if the damage is under the hood, it could take a while. Most of the time the driver will just pour water over the engine and see if that does anything. Maybe it’s overheated? Maybe it’s thirsty? No one really knows. If the engine bath doesn’t work, the tinkering begins. The driver usually barks orders at his assistant and every other man gathers around to stare and offer their opinion. This could take minutes, or hours, which is the truly scary part about the breakdown. You never know when it will really end and usually the passengers are forced to just wait on the side of the road in the heat until the problem is fixed. Daytime breakdowns are a little better because there’s a better chance of other motorists driving by and offering help. But I was in a brousse once that broke down at night in the middle of nowhere, which was terrifying for many reasons. Luckily most of the taxi-brousse drivers and assistants are the same people that build and “customize” the vehicle, so they are pretty capable when it comes to repairs. But the uncertainty and the inconvenience of a breakdown can be one of the worst things to happen on the road.

Giving the engine a bath, because that'll definitely work

Giving the engine a bath, because that’ll definitely work

When you consider it all, it’s clear that the taxi-brousse is an imperfect reality of life in Madagascar. It’s something that we rely on here and a way of traveling that we just have to accept. I like to remind myself that broussing builds character and adds to the charm of traveling in the developing world. If I didn’t think this way, I’d actually go crazy and never leave my town.

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse