Getting Mad about Gas and Cars in Madagascar

Madagascar is a frustrating place if you’re used to things working and planes being on time. It’s only domestic airline carrier has been nicknamed “Mad Air” because of its erratic schedule and tendency to randomly cancel flights on a whim. It was very little of a surprise when I showed up at the airport and couldn’t get on a morning flight that obviously wasn’t full. The employee at the counter just didn’t feel like dealing with us.

My second option was to rent a car but none of the rental car places at the airport had decided to open that morning. That’s the way it is in much of Africa. The expression “mora mora” means “slowly slowly” and seems to be a way of life. I asked the information desk if any of the rental companies  might open anytime soon and I was directed outside. As I wondered around trying to come up with a plan, a man walked up and asked what I was looking for. 

Since there is little information about anything anywhere in this country, sometimes an English speaking native can help resolve a few problems and answer a few questions. Elias listened patiently to our plans and announced that he had a 4WD and driver on the way that might be able to help us get around. When he arrived, we decided to work out a deal to travel with him as a guide and drive to the northern part of the country. We figured we could hit most of the northern highlights and fly back to Antananarivo in time to make out international flight.

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Madagascar is that every time you take a taxi, the driver will pull into a gas station as soon as you get in the car. No one wants to take a chance of pumping fuel into the car until they’ve got some kind of guaranteed fare it seems. Once we closed our 5 day deal, the driver wanted money up front for gas. I refused to pay all at once since we weren’t really sure if he would come back and pick us up. I took a picture of the driver’s ID card and insisted on a receipt. It’s been my experience in some previous dealings that once the money is paid, the itinerary changes and I might find myself renegotiating the original deal.

We were ready to start our journey immediately that morning but were told that we were starting too late and that a section of the road would be closed. Of course we never suspected that our driver was lying to us and was using our deposit money to fix his broken car. The only problem was the broken car didn’t really get fixed.

The driver picked us up the next morning, immediately pulled into the gas station and insisted on more money for fuel. Everything seemed fine for about 2 hours as we headed through the rolling hills . We knew the first day was to be the longest stretch of road so we didn’t expect to get to the game park until around 4pm. We thought that our driver might be stopping for a bathroom break when he pulled over to the side of the road. The engine was making horrible gurgling noises and suddenly wouldn’t start back up. Our guide push started it and we were up and running… For about 10 minutes.
Our next stop was outside a village made out of red mud bricks. I started to have some concerns when the tools came out and the driver had half his body sprawled over the engine. We were told a mechanic was on his way. Hours passed until he finally showed. Why? Because he walked to us. After some more banging and clanging, we were off again. Apparently we hired the driver to come with us for future problems…life was good. For almost 30 minutes. 

It was almost 1:00 by this time and our driver announced that we wouldn’t be going any further. He offered to call another driver but we’d have to wait until he got there. Supposedly he would be 2 hours. Already we were feeling disgruntled about having another entire day wasted, then our guide had started alluding to the fact that we might be skipping some places on our itinerary since they hadn’t charged enough for gas. Everything seemed to be going sour quickly so we decided to get our money back and take our chance on public transport. Every bus passing by seemed to be impossibly full and we soon discovered that the driver had spent almost our entire deposit and had nothing left to repay us.

We were assured that the new driver had already left and would be arriving shortly. I calmed myself and passed the time working on blogs with my phone. Two hours later he still was nowhere to be found but we were able to drive the car to a small town to wait for him. When we questioned the time discrepancy we discovered that the driver who was “on his way” wasn’t able to come after all and that another “better” driver was on his way. We found a little mud hut selling lukewarm beer and did our best to wile away the hours.

After the new “better” driver didn’t show, we demanded that our guide call him, but surprise! his phone was turned off. It was dark by now and it appeared that we’d be sleeping in the car. We were very upset and decided that we would leave in spite of the money we’d already paid. It was late unfortunately and no one had any interest in stopping for some desperate looking white people. Our guide calmed us and told us that yet another driver had been dispatched. 
We didn’t have a lot of faith that driver number 4 would actually come either. Apparently it was much more exciting for the chauffeurs to get hired than to actually show up. Nevertheless we moved the car to the next bigger town and waited for the D team to arrive. As we suspected, one by one of the shops in the dusty town closed and no driver appeared. It was 9:30 by this time so we already had invested 15 hours into going nowhere. 

We decided to visit the last remaining establishment to order some pomme frittes since we hadn’t eaten all day. A well spoken man came in and asked if he could help us. Our original trio of guide, driver and mechanic had all but disappeared looking for the phantom driver. Could this man help us get back to Antanarivo? Of course he could. He was also a taxi driver. Without a word we grabbed our bags and tossed them into the truck. The new driver was charging us $50 for the 2 hour drive. We told him that we’d pay him on arrival. Not surprisingly,  he had no gas either and not only did  we have to pull into a deserted station, but we also had to find a guy to unlock it and then we paid for it out of the agreed price. The truck we rented was huge and allowed us a full bench seat to lie down while we were headed back to where we had started 20 hours earlier.

Around midnight I was awakened by police. There were flashlights scouring our vehicle and we were commanded to get out of the vehicle. There was no light other than from the full moon and it was difficult to see who was who. There were 4 cops with machine guns, a couple of locals and miraculously the guide we had left behind, Elias. How he couldn’t get us a car, a bus or contact anyone but yet had arrived where we were before we even got there was the ultimate magic trick. We soon discovered what had happened is that the “better” driver had finally decided to show up shortly after we had left. Somehow he’d missed my 14 calls, 3 texts and at least 20 calls from Elias. He had disappeared without a trace for 8 hours and couldn’t seem to explain where he’d been except they he had bad reception and had gotten delayed by an accident. The police had stopped us because he was demanding that we go with him since we had “hired” him and he had all this time invested in us.
We didn’t really trust him, but we had 2 choices: continue to the hotel and start all over or continue our previous deal. Our previous deal was more complicated than before since the now stranded original driver had our money and that was what was needed to pay for gas to pay the new driver.

We were assured that the original driver would refund our money once we were back in the capital. We were still out a lost day though. I told the new driver that the ONLY way we would go with him is if he drove all night while we slept so that we could be at the lemur park in the morning. He agreed, but there was a further complication. The only bridge on our route would be closed from 6 am to noon. If we missed crossing in it, we’d be stuck on the side of the road for 6 hours. It was 5 hours drive and we had 6 though. An hour to spare! We transferred our bags, paid the guy who had brought us the opposite direction and started our trip.

We had just forgotten one thing. Whenever you get in a taxi, what is the first thing you do? Go to a gas station! The only one that was open at midnight was in the opposite direction. It was at least a 30 minute drive each way. Our guide had left his luggage in the broken vehicle as well so we would be losing at least an hour. Losing an hour meant possibly getting stuck at the bridge. Once we arrived at the gas station, our new driver demanded that we pay him in advance for gas. We refused to pay anything in advance, but would pay as we went. Suddenly our driver was no longer our driver and we ended up with a new guy that only spoke French. He drove like a man possessed intent to make the 6 am marathon deadline. We had to pass the machine gun police one more time and this time some paperwork was missing. The amazing thing is a $7 bribe goes a very long way in this country. Once I paid them off, we were on the road again. We reached the bridge at 6:20 am.

Through some cosmic luck, we were able to steer through the construction workers before they’d had a chance to check their watches and shut it down. Sometimes “mora mora” is a good thing.

That was it. We made it to the national park, saw some lemurs, made up with our guide, drank some Malagasy beer and there’s a happy ending. 

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