The picture that I did not take

The “taxi-brousse” slowed to a halt – once again. We were already way behind schedule, despite being only one hour into our drive south. This was not our first stop.

N. and I had been picked up at our hotel at 5:30 that morning, which was not so bad considering the scheduled time of 5:00. In a country where “mora mora” (slow, relax) is the national catchphrase, a half-hour delay is really nothing to fret about. Of course, although we were the last on the schedule to be picked up, we still had to fill up at the gas station. The co-pilot, who doesn’t do any driving but is in charge of dealing with passengers, securing luggage on the roof, and any other menial task that might be encountered, made his rounds of all the passengers to collect the fares, which he then used to pay for the gas. Nobody was handed a ticket or receipt in return – since we already were sitting in the bus, why bother with such formalities ?

Taxi-brousse on the road south, Madagascar

Our gas stop lasted a good twenty minutes, what with the need to not only fill up on gas, but also on snacks, smokes, and even on rum. I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that people were drinking pure rum at this ungodly hour of the morning, especially since after smelling the stuff from a distance I got the distinct impression that someone must have switched the rum and the gasoline. What’s more, I also pondered the safety of having our driver drink a glass along with the rest of the gang. I did notice however that a few drops of the precious liquid were saved in order to be poured on each of the bus’ wheels, as a way of blessing our journey. If the rum gods were with us, surely all would be well.

While we waited for everyone to get back on board, I observed the early morning rituals of this small city, Antsirabe. The pousse-pousse drivers made their way to the hotels or the taxi-brousse station, hoping to catch their first fare of the day. A great many people, more health-conscious than I would have imagined, were jogging. A few were wearing running shoes and sweatshirts, but most were simply running in their flip-flops. How they even managed such a feat, let alone maintained a rather impressive rhythm, was beyond my understanding, and I was definitely impressed. I thought of all the petty excuses I constantly used to shy away from running myself, and mentally flogged myself for my lackadaisical attempts at staying fit.

By the time we actually left for real, the early morning chill had given way to pleasantly cool air, and the sun’s first timid rays began gently leaning on the clouds above our heads, which slowly dissipated. Our spirits lifted as we reached what must be the highway: a paved road wide enough for two small trucks, stretching away into the distance, and cratered with many potholes. Of course, we had barely been on the highway for five minutes when we had to stop, this time for one of the police or army checkpoints that cover the main access points to every city. After a cursory check of the vehicle’s registration, and having gracefully accepted the small bribe discreetly placed within the papers, the officer waved us through. Such is travel in these parts.

As we left the city behind, the open road beckoning us further at every bend, I started to relax and take in the views. Soon we were cruising through the landscapes of the high plateaus of central Madagascar. The ever-present dirt and city grime were replaced by the country’s distinctly red earth and the strikingly bright green patches of rice paddies terraced all along the hills. At this season, the young rice shoots are such a vivid colour of green that it seems as though they have been painted over with a fluorescent marker.

Madagascar rice paddies

The landscape truly was breathtaking, bathed in the early morning sunlight that is a photographer’s delight. We stuck to one side of the valley, hills rising away smoothly to our left, the wide valley floor to our right, all fields and rice paddies criss-crossed with a few footpaths. Here and there people were already at work: women bent over in the rice paddies, knee-deep in the muddy water, replanting the young plants one by one; men by the side of the road, next to one of the many brick ovens dotting the area, loading a large stack of bricks onto a waiting truck. One man takes the bricks from the drying stack, throws them two at a time to his partner in the truck, who deftly catches them and rebuilds the stack on the bed of the truck. A simple, yet well-rehearsed choreography.

Thus I was happily lost in my own thoughts, admiring the landscape, when in the middle of nowhere, we stop. This isn’t simply a stop to negotiate a particularly nasty pothole, as we fail to restart immediately. Nor is it a checkpoint, as there seems to be nothing of interest in the area. Nothing save a small stream, rushing down the hillside and crossing our path underneath the road. Only after I’ve spotted the stream do I notice the man standing by the side of the road, who approaches us slowly, holding up a large object in his hand. At first I do not make out what it is, as my view is partially obstructed, but as he gets nearer I notice the huge smile he is wearing. And then I see that what he is holding up is a huge eel, almost as long as he is tall, quite simply massive. I am awestruck and obviously so are all the other passengers. However he came to catch that monster I have no clue, but what a catch it is! Animated discussions quickly ensue, of which I do not understand a word, but the smile on that fisherman’s face tells it all. Beaming with pride, he must be recounting his exploit, and answering the bucketload of questions being thrown at him.

After a few minutes we move on, leaving the fisherman with his prize catch and his permanently etched grin, missing teeth and all. I understand from one of the passengers that such a catch could be worth upwards of 100,000 Ariary – perhaps barely 40 Euros, but definitely a huge sum for a simple fisherman. Knowing that 100,000 Ar corresponds to the average teacher’s monthly salary puts things into perspective…

This scene is the one that I did not take a picture of, and yet it is one of the images that has stayed with me ever since. Everything seemingly came together right then to make that moment unforgettable : the morning light stretching across the valley and onto the hillsides of the high plateaus; the knowledge that we were off on our own, N. and I, on a great adventure; and this simple fisherman with his missing teeth and his smile radiating such joy that it seemed he didn’t have a worry in the world.

I often wonder what happened to the fisherman; did he manage to sell his fish at a good price ? Did that one fish make a difference for him and his family ?

Madagascar is hardly a place for fairy tales, and I often think that perhaps this story ended somewhat like Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. Surely the fisherman had to walk for miles before he could reach his village, and I doubt there was a fridge waiting for him there. Perhaps he managed to get it to the market and sell it at a good price, though. Perhaps he smoked the fish so that it could be stored in good condition. Perhaps he found a way.

Whatever happened, I will never know. But in that moment at least, when a bus full of people on their way south stopped by the side of the road, this man was happy. Forgotten were the daily chores, the children to feed, the miles and miles to walk every day in tattered flip-flops. Simple joy in that fleeting moment. A reminder to enjoy the good moments in life, whatever hand you are dealt.

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