More as a matter of conscience than any other reason, we got up before six in the morning. We left the Cotsoyannis hotel pointed towards the yellow and red station of Fianarantsoa.
Once we arrive, suspicions are quickly reinforced that we would never leave on time.
More and more vehicles leave travelers intrigued by what awaits them. It's a quarter to seven when Lalah Randrianary, a born and raised guide in town, escorts us to the crowded box office.
We said goodbye to him only until the end of the day. We pass the reviewers and the tourniquet to the first platform of the station, which is, in part, limited by a small urban sugarcane plantation.
The train, made up of green passenger carriages with yellow stripes and semi-rustic freight cars, is already waiting there. The most important thing is missing, the locomotive.
The Dispute of the Old Seats of the Malagasy TGV
Malagasy passengers vie for entry on board as if fleeing a tidal wave.
Once installed, they pass their luggage through the windows and, when the storm is over, they seek harmony in the muffled metallic cobblestone that fell on them, or they indulge in farewells, some more moving than others.
We see the red locomotive in the distance, in unintelligible maneuvers. Since it takes a while to get closer, we go into investigation mode. We traversed the platform from one end to the other with sporadic incursions in the following ones.
A time-worn sign marks the start of 1st class carriages.
In these, no matter how tight they may be, Malagasy people have a seat. Others, of second nature and comfort to match, are so disregarded that they do not deserve a sign that identifies them.
are supposed to tricks (foreigners) like us riding in a supreme, exclusive, immaculate and cosmopolitan carriage. Before joining them, we stuck our noses in one or another 1st Class, which intrigues Malagasy passengers.
“Does it come here? Or what the hell do you want from here?" they think to the buttons of their Sunday best robes as they survey us from top to bottom.
A whistle signals the locomotive's approach.
A Malagasy Delay and the Departure Almost in Slow Motion
There is still a long time before, at 8:30 am, an hour and a half late, the train driver of the Train FCE Fianarantsoa – Côte Est makes another definitive hiss sound.
The composition, finally motorized, breaks out in hiccups.
It starts by crawling at about 20 or 30 km/h through the uncharacteristic surroundings of Fianara.
It is favored by a series of level crossings in which dozens of passersby on their way to their jobs and tasks greet the train and passengers with enthusiasm.
Shortly thereafter, it prompts the passengers' first inclination to the left of the carriage, when a sixty-year-old Frenchman, the guide of several others, announces that we were passing by the Sahambavy tea plantation and farm, the only one in the country.
The Merina and the Malgache Lands Overflowing with the Rice Fields that Dominate
The population of Madagascar is divided into eighteen distinct ethnic groups. One of the predominant and influential is our guide Lalah's Merina. The Merina occupied much of the high and central lands of the nation.
However, as improbable as it may seem, it is believed that they arrived on the great African island in huge canoes, between 200 BC and 500 AD, coming from islands of the present day. Indonesia, probably from Sunda.
With them, they brought the habit of planting and consuming rice and, today, Madagascar is the largest rice field in Africa.
Its waterlogged terraces and the peasants who take care of them as they do their lives emerge just outside Fianara.
accompany the old railroad tracks FCE said to have come from Alsace, taken by the French from the Germans with the outcome of the First World War and assembled from 1926 to 1930 by Chinese workers.
The rice paddies paint almost the entire route in a much brighter and more diaphanous green than that of the rainforest.
But not only the rice fields that accompany us.
Also wearing green, although troops, two imposing black soldiers, armed with machine guns, continue to sit on the veranda in front of the carriage doors, with the mission of protecting the precious foreign passengers from whatever happens.
His first intervention could not have been more disparate. One of the windows of the group of French-speaking elderly is the only one not to open.
The four indignant Gauls who share the bad luck, are tired of trying and resort to the help of the military that they think is a more brutal force. Without success, to the obvious embarrassment of the soldiers from whom everyone, including themselves, expected better performance.
It is through the doors and windows that the inhabitants of towns and villages, as we pass, make up the composition and interact with it. In the case of the Malagasy TGV, you can expect almost anything.
Malagasy Rail Vendors of Everything a Little
In Mahatsinjony, Tolongoina, Manampatrana, Sahasinaka, Ambila and others with equally long but less important names, the train is already slowing down an army of vendors of all ages racing to offer their specialties.
"Mrs., ma'am! Regardeza, des kakis!“ calls for a girl who displays a round tray full of ripe persimmons.
"Missy, missy j'ai des bonnes samoussas!”. “Monsieur, monsieur pouvez-vous me passer les Eau Vive vides?” asks a young man who collects empty water bottles to sell later.
In order to avoid fairs that are too chaotic and detrimental to the comfort of passengers, train officials and the military have long banned vendors from entering carriages, even more so in the carriages. tricks.
Sellers thus stay as long as they can to encourage them to buy under the windows and in their surroundings.
Others, usually children and daring young people, climb the access steps to our carriage and stay at the entrance to the centered door, in a restless but kind commercial relationship with each other and with the foreigners they manage to captivate.
Patusca Márcia and her companions opted for other lines of business.
The girl settles down, with her big eyes that, even under a straw hat, radiate sympathy and curiosity as they scan the carriage for opportunities. "stylo madam…Eau Vive.
Missy, des cadeaux...” and insists until he disperses while friends and begging colleagues enter and leave the scene over and over again.
The Load that Overwhelms the Malagasy TGV Composition
The train failed to complete the route on a daily basis, as it used to. It does so now only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For this reason, the company that operates it seeks to profit as much as possible from the transport of cargo on each trip.
Every time it stops at a new station or stop, the old FCE does it indefinitely, while workers with dry bodies of fat and sweat carry large bags in balance,
They try to tame long iron rods, they ship crates with everything imaginable and, of course, huge bunches of bananas and domestic animals, immobilized on a sudden.
When we take off again, we and dozens of other outdoor enthusiasts return to the curious game we had played with before. More than contemplating each other and the green scenery, we had fun avoiding the bush.
On both sides of the line, tropical vegetation grows almost faster than the train. It becomes invasive and aggressive.
It forces us to retreat inside the carriage, as happens at the entrance to the forty-eight tunnels that are repeated like black interludes in that fascinating Malagasy parade of color and life.
Attractions Arising from Both Sides of the Line
One of the employees aboard the train goes through the tourist section and announces that we are about to catch a glimpse of the Mandriampotsy waterfalls. This time, all passengers flock to the right side which comes in handy. On the opposite side, the railway looks over a huge cliff.
Soon, we stop at Andrambovato. A stop that contemplates another series of strange maneuvers of the locomotive and extends beyond any delay.
We have time to enter the tunnel that followed and examine the colorful clothes drying between two pairs of rails at its entrance.
The Invitation to go up to Engineer Rakoto Germain's Locomotive
We get into a conversation with the machinist who invites us to climb aboard the machine and introduces himself with undisguised pride: “I'll write you my name and address here. Please see if you can send me one of the photos.
I am the machinist-instructor Rakoto Germain and he scribbles everything as if he were perfecting his handwriting, on the back of an invoice we gave him.
Life around this railway line continues to prove prolific.
Just from the return of the locomotive to the carriage in which we were following, we witness two other remarkable events: near the entrance to the station, a newly married couple are photographed in a bold railway production, illuminated by large spots that, it seems, had become fashionable.
At the same time, ten or eleven men from the crowd hand over a newly captured pickpocket to the soldiers who followed with us.
These, in turn, handcuff him to the railing of the carriage's balcony.
They interrogate him in a way that seems pedagogical to us, taking into account the popular humiliation to which he is subjected until he is disembarked in the next town with a prison, several hours after the crime.
At some point, it becomes obvious that the driver is following the rails but has completely lost his preoccupation with the schedule.
We enter Mananpatrana, another key town on the route, recognizable by the stilt houses perched on both sides of the line.
It's six in the afternoon, the time we were supposed to arrive at the final destination Final. Night falls shortly and we are still a long way from Manakara, but the return to the march takes even longer than in Andrambovato.
Finally, we started the last journey towards the coast, soon interrupted by a power failure that leaves us in the dark for more than half an hour.
It is not that we had witnessed it, but in the last third of the journey, the railway leaves the primary forest. A sequence of hills filled by the traveler's trees is made.
It passes through the small village of Mahabako and then through the quasi town of Fenomby.
Like us, most passengers have already surrendered to the heat and fatigue and lean their heads against the windows or their partners next door if they have that confidence.
Outside, vendors share impromptu dinners with what's left of the day's sales.
Others remain awake, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes fascinated by the invasion of insects and small reptiles that the light of the carriage and the piercing branches of vegetation invite on board.
A small chameleon in particular lands on us right ahead. When we spot it, we have all the passengers in our carriage awake and leaning over us, determined to admire and photograph the poor creature.
Here and there, the train continues to stop. From our seat, we follow the movements of the vendors and children, now in the diffuse traces of their animated voices and their candles, lanterns and oil lamps.
We have no idea where we were, but around eleven-thirty, we went back to exhaustion.
We even missed the eccentric stretch where the convoy crosses the runway at Manakara airport, on the Malagasy coast opposite that of Morondava and Avenida dos Baobás that we had already explored.
We woke up at three in the morning, already with the FCE fuss entering the terminal station.
An army of Malagasy undead and tricks he rushes to the exit desperate for rest and comfort.
Lalah welcomes us again: “This time they were unlucky. It's normal for the train to take a while, but nine hours late is really bad. Well, there are two very hot soups in the room. Tomorrow at eight, the Panglanes Channel awaits you.
It will be, at least, the whole morning in the canoe!”