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Madagascar's Truly Terrible Train Trip… That I’ll Always Treasure

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I’d been warned about the train before I arrived at the station. 

The ride began badly. 

Nine hours later, it got much worse.

Madagascar’s “FCE” railroad is the only passenger train that’s still functioning in the whole country. Built with rails taken from Germany by France as reparations after WW I, it connects Fianarantsoa, in the central highlands, with Manakara, on the Côte Est (Thus “FCE”). That was a once-thriving Indian Ocean port during the French Colonial period. 

There used to be rail lines throughout Madagascar when it was a French colony and the country’s forests were being raped. Rosewood is still illegally harvested for the lucrative export trade. If you own a guitar or a set of marimbas, or even black chess pieces, they may be made from this wood, the export of which was officially banned in 2010, though it’s still extensively logged and exported. (Corruption!)

When the French pulled out of their former Madagascar colony in 1960, nobody stayed behind to maintain the rails or rolling stock, and everything fell into disrepair, except the marginally operable FCE. It’s a fabled run sought by rail aficionados like myself.

The line took 10 years to build by Chinese and Indian laborers starting in 1926. The Malagasies refused France’s forced labor initiatives. 5000 of the foreign laborers died, many from malarial infections, while constructing 48 tunnels and 67 bridges through spectacularly rugged terrain. Waterfalls abound, rainforests encroach, and remote villages along the route have no roads or other connections to the outside world, except for the FCE.

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The line is infamous because of its sorry state of disrepair and predictable unpredictability. There’s just one barely-functioning locomotive left, so train nuts clamor to ride the FCE before that engine breaks down for good.

Getting to Madagascar is hard enough, and once there, the only way to reach the train is by a punishing “Bush Taxi” run from the capital for 10 to 15 hours on horribly potholed roads that detour around bridges that collapsed years ago. These are minivans that may have up to 19 seats, occupied by about 37 people. (OK, I’m exaggerating. Could be only 27.)

But if you want to ride the FCE, that’s what you have to do. There are no flights or alternatives.

After a series of delays and abundant misinformation, I reached Fianarantsoa (Fianar, for short) and learned that I’d need to wait three days for the train’s next departure. 

Fianar’s not a nice place; just a slightly scaled down version of Madagascar’s dreadful capital, Antananarivo. I walked the town and waved at consistently smiling, friendly Malagasy locals who seemed puzzled at what a big white guy was doing, walking through their buckled-pavement streets and muddy back alleys, triggering gales of laughter from school children who spotted me. 

I’d endure anything to wait for the train after all I’d gone through just to get to Fianar.

On the scheduled departure day, I had arranged for a taxi to meet me at 5:30 AM so I could be sure to reach the station before anybody else, in plenty of time to buy my ticket before the 7:00 departure time. (Hah!) The taxi driver, amazingly, spoke English and introduced himself as “Ninety-nine.” He said nobody with white skin could pronounce his name, but it sounded a little like “99.”

I’ve found no taxi in Madagascar with door handles that work or window cranks that operate, even if they still have handles. Once inside, you can’t get out unless the driver comes around and opens the door from the outside. And of course you can’t open the window to reach around to the outside handle. Or, some door handles work only from the inside. You can get out, but you can’t get in.

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Ignition keys are rarely used in taxis, as the driver typically reaches under the dash fishing for loose wires until he finds two that will spark when touched together. Then, off you go, just hoping you won’t be trapped in back if the taxi succumbs to the omnipresent tire-swallowing potholes.

Fifteen minutes later, 99 and I arrived at the station. In the pre-dawn darkness, I could see that I was not the first to arrive. We were not alone. Hundreds of locals were already jostling, which is not to say “lining up.” Women carried huge gunny sacks of charcoal and clutched chickens whose feet were tied together with twine, or, more commonly, bundles of grass. The men hefted supplies for the roadless villages we’d be passing through, including large plastic bags filled with dozens of bread loaves, as there’s no boulangerie once you leave Fianar. Those loaves became quite compressed, as you’ll learn.

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99 pushed through the mob, helping me with my backpack and escorting me to the ticket counter, where the clerk assigned me to seat 31 in the sole “First Class” carriage, since foreigners are not allowed to purchase second class tickets. Although luxury isn’t my normal style, once I saw those second class carriages, I understood why. I was glad to pay the 70,000 Ariary price, less than $20. For a scheduled eight hour trip, not bad.

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After all my transportation travails, I’d finally reached the origin station in Fianar, Madagascar. I was going to ride the FCE before it broke down for good! 

I just knew something wonderful would happen.

I boarded at 6:30, getting settled and somewhat comfortable, eager for the 7:00 AM scheduled departure. Several other white travelers climbed aboard, too. French, Polish, German, and Spanish, many toting long-lensed Nikons. I don’t know how they’d also managed to push through the crowd in the station without 99’s help.

The train cars had once been part of a minor Swiss rail line and had apparently been sold for scrap. Yellowed placards listed the names of Alpine villages, incongruously noting where ski lifts could be found. 

My first class carriage even had a toilet! The kind where you can look straight down at the rails, which must make for well-fertilized agriculture along the line. No toilet paper, of course, nor lock on the door. There was a sink, but the faucet had busted, probably back in Switzerland some decades ago.

Promptly at 7:00, an unintelligible announcement blared from the station and a whistle blew. Hooray!

But we didn’t move. No locomotive. A French couple, Patric and Pascal, translated and told me they’d heard something about there being no diesel fuel and that the locomotive was elsewhere trying to get some.

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At 8:30, the locomotive arrived and the carriages bumped and banged as it hitched on to the train, and soon, we were on our way. 

Not quickly, you understand. The maximum speed the whole way was a little under 15 miles per hour, which was already tempting fate, given the condition of the rails. You’re probably used to train tracks that are long steel segments welded together and perfectly smooth. On the FCE, the line consists of short lengths of rail, maybe 30 or 40 feet long, joined by bolted metal plates. Except, many of the bolts have worked loose in the last 90 years, so that every few seconds the train ka-bumps over each misaligned joint. The rails themselves, manufactured in 1893, have chunks of metal missing, though I can’t quite imagine what impact could have caused the damage. Just metal fatigue over the last hundred-plus years, I guess. 

Then, the train began to lurch forward. Some of the Nikon people insisted on sliding open the windows for photos, which was a chore, since the handles that probably worked just fine back in Switzerland 90 years ago, were long gone and have never been replaced. Still, the handle holes through the glass were just about the right diameter to accommodate big fingers like mine, so I periodically forced the windows back to their closed positions to avoid getting soaked, since it had begun to rain.

There are 18 village stops along the way, and by the fourth one, we were out of road territory. The roadless villagers count on the twice weekly train for everything. So, how do they get by during the weeks when the train breaks down, which happens regularly? In 2000, cyclones triggered landslides that shut down service for months until US-AID funding helped repair the tracks.

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Nobody in the villages owns shoes and their “clothes” are just filthy rags. One fantasizing rock star did hold his coveted handmade wooden guitar. He strummed imaginatively, mimicking Jimi Hendrix, though I didn’t detect any strings.

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At every stop, villagers surrounded the train, hoping to sell their bundles of sticks for firewood, which may have sold OK in the second class carriage, but none of us Westerners bought any. In fact, we weren’t good sales prospects for the unidentified deep fried dumpling-like morsels, either, though bananas sold pretty well. Still, at each of the stops; Sahambavy, Andramvovato, Ambitambe, and the others, the villagers came, holding up baskets and battered trays outside our windows, hoping to sell anything.

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As heartbreaking as it was to witness such poverty, the crowds of locals always smiled and waved, and didn’t even seem to mind the Nikon lenses poked in their faces. I found it distasteful to watch, as if they were zoo animal oddities being “shot” for the curiosity of rich travelers who didn’t have any trouble paying the $20 for a ticket so they could show off their photos and shake their heads at the display of poverty. 

Over 90% of Madagascar’s citizens live on less than $2.00 a day. But that average includes the “wealthy” Malagasies who have actual paying jobs in the capital. These remote villagers have nothing except some impossibly filthy limp 100 and 200 Ariary notes, worth less than five cents each.

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I did see one two thousand Ariary note, though I could barely make out its numbers, worth over 50 US cents!

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The back of my first class ticket listed the 18 stations and their altitudes, noting the degree of slope between each, since the line descends from the highlands to sea level.

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About halfway along, the gradient is steeper than any I’ve ever seen on a railroad: 36%! (That number can’t be right.) That’s far steeper than any train you’ve ever been on, unless it was a cogwheel railroad in the Swiss Alps. My Lonely Planet guidebook advises going only on the downhill leg to the coast, as the return trip takes much longer. The locomotive periodically uncouples half of the heavy coaches so it can pull part of the train uphill, returning later to retrieve the second half.

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Each stop was inexplicably long. Sometimes a half hour, and at other stations, up to an hour. The Nikon-toting people de-trained at each stop and slogged through the mud beside the tracks, capturing their perhaps prize-winning poverty images. 

After nine hours, we’d almost reached the halfway point, so it was easy to calculate that this wasn’t going to be an eight hour trip, as scheduled.

I climbed out at one of the longer stops and was amused to see three “mechanics” working to repair a thick rubber hose connecting our car to the ones behind. They used two greasy wrenches, and also tried string wrapped around the fitting. It didn’t look to me like it was going to hold. I wondered if that hose might be the brake line. This seemed ominous, since the listing on the back of my ticket showed that the grade was about to get much steeper.

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The hanging wires running from car to car didn’t look promising, either.

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After nearly an hour, there was a garbled announcement in Malagasy, and someone with an FCE ID badge told the French couple seated beside me that something was wrong, and that at the next stop, we should be prepared to quickly dash to “another car.” This being the only coach that wasn’t overflowing with locals, chickens, a pig or two, and lots of firewood bundles and bananas, I couldn’t fathom where we were supposed to go, or why. There were no extra empty carriages to move to. The French people didn’t know, either, but urged me to get my things ready to quickly de-train at the Tolongoina station.

Sure enough, as the train slowed, we piled out with our backpacks, right into the throngs of villagers and second-class locals, who all looked confused, as there had been no explanation about what was happening. Since we were the exalted first-class passengers, we’d been privileged with sketchy advance notice of the unexplained impending difficulties. 

Pascal, my French seatmate, translated and said, “The man in the blue cap says we should quickly follow him, so be sure you follow me.” We pushed forward, though I was baffled about where we were going or why. By the time we’d reached the front carriage with second-classers also piling out with their bundles and chickens, where were we to go? Exactly what carriage were we supposed to climb aboard?

The locomotive, it turned out. As first class folks, the FCE guy was giving us the privilege of climbing into the engineer’s cab, which quickly filled and left one last Polish guy clinging to the locomotive’s ladder. 

And then, one of the railway workers unhitched the locomotive, and we rattled down the rails, leaving behind the rest of the train and the clamoring, uninformed, confused second class passengers!

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By now, word had spread that the train had no functioning brakes. My guesstimation about the guys attempting to repair the brake hose with string was correct. The locomotive was OK, but its brakes alone weren’t strong enough to hold back the whole train on the steep grades ahead. I just hoped they were strong enough to restrain the locomotive that we’d all jammed into.

There was one wooden flatcar being pushed in front of the locomotive, and some of the locals had figured out what was going on, so they’d piled onto the open car, clinging to whatever they could. I saw one of the large plastic bags of fifty or so bread loaves now compressed to about a fifth of its original size. The bread had became a cushion for a large woman perched on top of a laughing man. Her nursing baby was slung in a dirty rag. 

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Once we began to move, the locals on the flatcar in front were very good natured … until the rain intensified.

In the cab of the locomotive, us Westerners got acquainted and could do nothing but laugh in various languages, shaking our heads, wondering just when the locomotive was going to stop and let us off, perhaps to retrieve an empty carriage or two from somewhere and transfer us into a modicum of comfort. 

No. There was no stopping. Keep in mind that there was never any official announcement or information, so after an hour or two, it became clear that we’d be riding “up front” all the way down to the sea.

By now, it was dark. Pitch dark. And raining hard. The locals fortunate enough to be clinging to the flatcar wore plastic bags over their heads, and two held broken umbrellas, which offered little protection as we picked up speed. 

The locomotive did have a headlight. A dim one. And misaligned, so that it vaguely illuminated the tunnel of rainforest just to the right of the tracks. I say “tunnel” because the vegetation was so lush that it scraped along the sides of the locomotive, after whipping the faces of the poor drenched folks clinging to the side of the flatcar. I imagined that the scenery must have been spectacular, if it hadn’t been dark. Periodically, we heard the rushing sound of waterfalls and just hoped that we weren’t about to be washed over a precipice.

Fifteen miles an hour seemed very slow when the train had first started several hours ago, and now it felt alarmingly fast as we rocked and rattled and ka-bumped along. Strangely, the engineer’s long-outdated control station was situated sideways, so that even if it had been light out, he could have seen what was beside the train, but not what was in front of it. It didn’t really matter, because there we so many of us white folks jammed in (laughing resignedly) that he couldn’t see out of any window, anyway.

I just hoped there wasn’t a washed-out bridge or a tree across the tracks up ahead. 

People use phrases like “bone rattling” and “punishingly painful” in situations like this. Although I prefer to avoid over-used descriptive phrases, well, the ride was punishing and rattling. Rough, rough, rough. Painfully rough. 

I imagined that the rusty steel locomotive might rattle apart at any time. We “sped” right through the remaining stations as there was no train attached to our locomotive to pick up any passengers, and those in the second class coaches were now abandoned a few hours behind us. Villagers looked on in confusion, wondering what had happened to the train. 

Perhaps the locomotive would drop us at the end of the line and return to repair the brakes for the rest of the train? Those poor people, stranded back in the cold rain, though many had no doubt realized they’d be spending the night and had swarmed into our now abandoned and empty “first class” carriage.

I had been sure something wonderful was going to happen, and it did. 

A brave, sturdy German girl was squished beside me and mentioned that she’d been saving up for ten years to make a year-long trip around the world. In my rudimentary German, I asked, “Kennen sie das buch, ‘Sag Was Du Meinst und Du Bekommst Was Du Willst?’” That’s the German edition of my second book, published in the 1990s. Yes! Her professor had recommended it! I replied, “Ich bin der autor von diesen buch.” (I’m the author of the book.) Suddenly, I was a celebrity in the locomotive.

She, “Ribana,” and the ladder-clinging Polish guy, “Tomasz,” became my friends and travel companions for the next few days.

(See, I knew something wonderful was going to happen.) 

My iPhone has the “maps.me" app installed. It works with GPS alone and doesn’t need an internet connection. It showed that we were nearly at sea level by 9:00 PM, 14 hours after our scheduled departure time. Some of us had no hotel arrangements, thinking that we’d have had time to stroll through the coastal town hoping to find someplace appealing before sunset. But now, in the dark, in a tropical downpour, we all banded together and agreed that we’d stay with each other as a group for safety, having no idea what we’d do if we ever did actually arrive at the end of the line.

There was a happy ending….

I knew something wonderful was going to happen.

At the dimly-lit end-of-the-line Manakara station, a man held up a sign offering a $7.00 hotel that even had hot water and said he’d take us to it for no extra charge. The kicker was when he said that if we didn’t like it when we got there, he’d take us to any hotel we preferred.

This guy, named Christian, turned out to be our savior. His English was nearly perfect. The hotel was the nicest I’ve stayed in so far in Madagascar. He cooked scrumptious fish in peanut sauce, and the “THB” (Three Horses Beer) was cold and welcome. Something wonderful always happens.

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In the morning, he even took us on a tour of the town before delivering us to the “Bush Taxi” station, as we’d all decided against taking the uphill train ride back to Fianar, especially since nobody could offer any information about where the train was, or if it had even returned in the middle of the night with the brakeless carriages.

There was even a barista, of sorts, at the bush taxi station.

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So, perhaps the ambiance wasn’t quite Starbucks. However, the deep fat fried donut-hole-like delicacy was quite delicious, if not quite healthful.

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As for the warnings I mentioned before the trip began, here’s my advice: Don’t read any guidebook about the train. It’ll tell you that things often go horribly wrong and that you should bring food and water to last for 24 hours in case you’re stranded. If you read that warning, you might not take the train, which would be a shame. Just think of the adventure you’d miss out on.

It was the most uncomfortable day I’ve ever spent. And if you know how I travel, that’s saying something. Worse than the voodoo festival in Benin, West Africa. Worse than my infected insect bite in Cambodia. Worse than the Sikkim leach infections. Even worse than the flea infestation in Papua New Guinea.

I loved it all. Just this once.

Something wonderful always happens.