I've written before about what I called “bush magic” – e.g. my bush taxi has broken down in the middle of nowhere, it cannot be fixed, I’m stranded, I have no food, and then, like magic, a miraculous event extricates me from the situation. What I didn’t mention is that bush magic isn’t free. In my experience, it’s followed by a hardship that is, in my opinion, the universe’s way of collecting what’s owed. It’s always the same pattern: stuck in the bush > miracle occurs > endure hardship > balance is restored.
Stuck in the Bush
I recently returned from a trip to South Africa where I met up with my parents. The hardest part of the trip was getting from my site here in Madagascar to the airport. This would typically involve an eight hour bush taxi ride to Ft. Dauphin. Bush taxis come through my site on Thursdays, and my flight was scheduled for Saturday.
This Thursday, I had my bags packed and was waiting at the bush taxi station for a ride. I hadn’t been out of the country in over a year or seen my parents in the same amount of time, and was really looking forward to the trip. I had been for some months. How strange that it was finally happening.
A bush taxi pulled up, but it was full. No seats. I was told to wait for the next one, that there would be seats on the next one, don’t worry, it will come soon, no problem. I waited for hours and it never came. Everything was riding on getting out of the bush. If I didn’t get out today, there wouldn’t be a bush taxi tomorrow, and I would miss my flight the following day.
I began running through options. All I had to do was get to Ambovombe, where I could catch one of the regular Ambovombe-Ft. Dauphin bush taxis the next day. It was too late to bike there, and I had too much luggage anyways. I could hire someone with a vehicle to take me, but I knew no one. The possibility of missing my long anticipated trip seemed definite.
A Miracle Occurs
A Malagasy man approached me as I sat dejectedly at the station. I had met him before, but couldn’t remember his name. He asked me what I was doing and I explained the situation.
“No problem,” he said. “I have a pickup leaving for Ambovombe in thirty minutes. There’s an empty seat. It’s yours.”
I was elated. I asked him how much, but he wouldn’t accept any money. Even better, since I only had enough money to get me to Ft. Dauphin and pay for one night in a hotel. I didn’t even have money for food. I was carrying a bag of dried beans. Now, I could get a room in Ambovombe, get dinner, and go to Ft. Dauphin the next day. Furthermore, I would be spared the discomforts of the bush taxi. Miraculous.
1000 Invincible Cattle Thieves
The ride to Ambovombe was easy. I had a seat in the back next to the window. That’s as good as it gets. The two men next to me were talking about Amboasary, a town on the way to Ft. Dauphin that was besieged by a small army of dahalo (cattle thieves).
“How many dahalo are there?” I asked them.
“One thousand. They have Kalashnikovs. They’re fighting the gendarmes.”
“Have many been killed?”
“Yes. Maybe twenty gendarmes.”
“How many dahalo?” I asked.
“Oh, you can’t kill the dahalo. They have medicine.” He showed me by rubbing his fingers into the palm of his other hand. What he meant was that the dahalo had gotten special medicine from an ombiasy, or medicine man, that made them invincible to bullets. To apply it, they rub it into the palms of their hands.
“The bullets bounce off them,” he continued, and imitated what it looked like when a bullet bounces off a dahalo, as if he'd seen it a dozen times before and was an authority on the subject.
“You believe that?” I asked him.
“Why don’t the gendarmes use the medicine too?” I persisted. I thought this question would be a coup de grace, or at least blow a hole in his story. But he waved his hand in the air dismissively, as if my question was ridiculous, and that’s where the conversation ended.
I wondered about what form my hardship would take. A confrontation with an army of invincible cattle thieves sounded a bit much. I couldn’t decide what might befall me, but the anticipation of something awful was enough. That way, it wouldn’t be so bad when it happened.
The Ambovombe Bush Taxi Shithole
We entered Ambovombe by a back road. The driver wanted to avoid the gendarme checkpoint for some reason. I walked directly to the bush taxi station. It was evening, and I wanted to find a room near the station so I could catch the first ride out of here. I didn’t want to leave any room for error.
The Ambovombe bush taxi station is a dusty shithole, caked in a constant veneer of filth, and home to drunkards, degenerates, lunatics, and the other dregs of Ambovombe society. It's also home to a group of street urchins with whom I’ve made acquaintance. They’re all young boys, all around 12 years old, and I often buy them bread and fruit when my bush taxi stops there. In return, they help me out when I need it. They can find anything and they know everyone. They’re the Malagasy version of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.
When I got to the station, it was nearly dark and the station was deserted. The street urchins immediately converged on me. They call me “Yes” instead of Wes, and when they see me they always shout “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The older boy, who is the leader of the crew, was injured and hopping around on one foot.
“I need a cheap room. It has to be here in the station,” I told him.
The “buildings” that surround the station are not really buildings but structures of wood plank and corrugated tin, and for the most part they’re all connected so that it’s hard to distinguish where one structure ends and another begins, as if it all grew organically. The urchins took me to a portion of the mess where there were cheap rooms for rent and food.
All I remember about my room was that the walls were tarp, the mattress was clammy, and there was a cheap Chinese calendar with a conventionally attractive girl modeling a rip off of a Tiffany’s heart necklace. The only incongruence was that there was electricity.
I arranged a ride to Ft. Dauphin that would pick me up at 3am and ate at a nearby hotely. I sat near a window, and when I was done, one of the street urchins reached through the window and scraped the residue of my meal from the plate and licked it off his fingers. I promised to repay their kindness when I passed back through.
I should mention that there was something gratifying about all this. I liked the grittiness and uncertainty of it. I felt alert and occupied, whereas my easy life back in the States dulled my senses and made me feel lethargic. I think that something of human nature is ignored when living in the ease of modern Western life. Dealing with adversity is part of human nature. Not engaging this instinct deprives us of the full human experience, and leaves us feeling bored. There was something fulfilling about staying in that shitty room.
A Prelude to What You Really Wanna Read About
My ride to Ft. Dauphin was a small van. It was still dark and raining. I got a seat near the back near a window. In the back seat was an old man who was clearly from the bush, judging by his clothes and speech. Two sick boys sat at his feet, and as soon as we got on the road, they began heaving and vomiting. This is nothing new. Passengers barf all the time, and anyways these guys were behind me.
Strapped to the top of the van was a goat. I felt bad for the goat. It was cold and raining, and every time we hit a bump, the goat would bleat miserably. This must be what’s due for the miracle, I thought. My ride would be plagued by a cacophony of cheap Malagasy music, heaving children, and a bleating goat, and I have to listen to it for the next six hours. Seems fair.
So I got comfortable and turned my consciousness dial to its lowest setting. I sent regular probes down to my stomach to determine whether the nonstop barfing in the backseat would make me carsick, and each time I decided I would not be joining them. This is a cakewalk, I thought, and more importantly, I’ll make my flight.
My Debt Is Revealed
We entered Amboasary after an hour. I didn’t see single invincible cattle thief. What a bunch of hype.
The driver took on a few more passengers there so that the van was at capacity. I didn’t care. I had a window seat. Load it up.
And the driver did load it up. In fact, he had to rearrange the seating to make it work, and the result was that the old man and his puking kids were placed next to me. My confidence melted away and I squeezed my body against the side of the van to avoid contact. So, this was it. This would be my payment. What would happen to me during the next four hours was crystal clear. Bush Magic is a mean old bitch.
I was shoulder to shoulder with the old man, and the two boys were on the floor at our feet. They were still sick, still heaving. It was the deep, desperate heaving of a stomach in crisis. You’ve experienced it before: those heaves that seem to last so much longer than you think possible, and when the heaving is done, you’re still making the heaving face, straining to heave, you’re body contorting, your head bobbling about under the stress, tears streaming down your cheeks, veins and tendons protruding from your neck, jaw locked open, gums exposed, looking like you’re being exorcised of a stubborn demon. Those are hard to ignore.
“Barf into my cloth! Into the cloth, boy!” The old man had forgotten to bring bags with him. He was bringing two sick kids on a five hour ride, and he didn’t bring barf bags. So they were barfing into his clothes. When one boy started heaving, the other followed suit.
I blocked it out as much as I could. I blocked out the sound of their heaves. I blocked out the stench. I even made concessions. I allowed one of the boys to lean against my leg. I gave them sympathetic looks. I did feel bad for them, after all. I just didn’t want them near me.
My Sweet Nylon Pants
Exoficio sells great pants. I have this one pair. They’re nylon, I think. They’re super easy to hand wash and dry fast, mostly because nylon is such a thin and sweet material. Great for Peace Corps volunteers and other troglodytes.
I was wearing them. An hour had passed without incident, except that I had conceded too much. The boy who had been leaning against my leg now had his face pressed flat against the side of my thigh.
I was staring out the window when suddenly my leg felt warm. I’ll spare you the prose and just tell you that it was caked in fresh vomit. It was warm and wet and smelled like fried fish. There had been no demonic heave to warn me. It was just there.
The old man made a weak attempt to wipe it up, but since his clothes were already saturated in vomit, he only made it worse by smearing it around. Wearing nylon pants in this condition was like wearing a Durex Extra Sensitive – I felt everything. I could describe the consistency of the vomit without looking at it.
The thing about Malagasy vomit is that it’s usually composed of rice. Rice vomit isn’t so bad. It’s colorless, doesn’t smell terribly, and is probably the best kind of vomit out there. These kids had obviously eaten bad fish, and fish vomit is the lowest order of vomit. It’s horrible. And the worst part was when it cooled off. It just felt more disgusting.
I spent the next three hours in complete silence, knowing that if I spoke, or read, or did anything besides staring blindly out the window, my focus would dissolve and I would join the pukefest (would the old man let me barf in his clothes too?). I considered my debt to the universe paid as I arrived in Ft. Dauphin crusted in dried barf. And I made my flight the next day.