Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Let's talk about taxis-brousse and taxis-be

These things:

From the Canal blog

From the Canal blog

Well, that, except much more crowded. And without the little eyes on the front. And not a cartoon.

So, more like this:

A trip to the countryside with a humanitarian organization in Antananarivo

Taxis-be (public transportation in the city; "be" means "big" in Malagasy) and taxis-brousse (long-distance regional or national travel) are gigantic vans, most that can fit upwards of 30 people if they squeeze in tightly enough (which they all do). Every single one is old, clanky, and practically falling apart. In Antananarivo, the drivers all obey the unwritten rules of the road, where there are no stoplights, few street signs, and a very confusing system of right of way. The "conductors" who take the fare tend to hang outside of the van's doors as it starts driving, closing the door from the inside halfway down the road. Oh, and the fare is . . . unknown? Known only to the locals? Definitely not written down anywhere. All in cash, too, so vazahas (foreigners) could easily just hand over some random bill and be taken advantage of. And in the above style of taxi-be, there's usually planks of wood that the driver passes back for people to sit down in the aisles when it gets crowded.

And it always gets crowded.

I'm very very very glad that I'm so short for an American. At nearly 5'3", I'm of average height for a Malagasy -- and I just barely fit in the seats. My knees tend to knock against the bare metal of the seatback in front of me, sometimes a bit painfully.

Basically, a taxi-be should be the most terrifying experience in the world. Nothing about it says "comfort" or "safety" or "the better way to travel," not by a long shot. It's loud and crowded and utterly unsafe.

And yet.

(There's always that "and yet.")

It's just how things are here. Everyone takes taxis-be, from poor to rich (unless they travel with bodyguards). The lack of personal space is normal, not uncomfortable. The drivers know exactly what they're doing, and how to thread their way in between alien-seeming traffic patterns. There's not enough space in Tana for anyone to drive fast enough for seatbelts to be necessary. Everyone pitches in to pass money back to the conductor, who will always give you the right change. They'll answer any questions you have, too (although mostly in Malagasy).

This is the culture, these are the norms, and just stop looking at things through your Western goggles now, won't you? It's hard, I know. It's hard for me, too. But not everything that's different from what we know needs fixing. Welcome to the other side of the world.