I like to ride trains.
I like to travel rough and I specialize in discomfort.
I like to visit hard-to-reach places that sensible people avoid.
So, when I saw Anthony Bourdain’s (I miss him) coverage of the “FCE” train in Madagascar, I wanted to ride on it, myself.
(Uploading a video is impossible where I am in Madagascar, so just check https://youtu.be/8t3waHOVFsk and you’ll see why I’m intent on finding this train.)
This involved enduing a wearying journey in pursuit of this absolutely unique train ride. Madagascar has just one remaining colonial railroad, the “FCE,” (Fianarantsoa-Côte Est). It’s notoriously unreliable, with a twice-weekly scheduled 8-hour run from Fianarantsoa, a central highlands town, to the Indian Ocean coast. Travelers who board are advised to bring plenty of food and plan on 24 hours, though.(One reviewer noted a 37 hour transit because the train went off the rails and there are no nearby repair facilities.) There are no roads where this train goes. One wouldn’t want to be stranded between villages when the sole locomotive breaks down or derails, which happens often enough.
That was my goal: Ride the fabled FCE train. I’d arranged my flights so that I could land in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, city, on a Sunday, in just enough time to find a minibus or “bush taxi” to take me down the road for ten to twelve hours all day Monday , just in time to buy a ticket and catch the train on Tuesday morning.
The journey was arduous before I ever reached Madagascar, off the East coast of Mozambique and just south of the equator. It involved two full days of flying. The first flight, form Denver to Toronto was uneventful, though since being demoted to lowly “Gold” Star Alliance status means I’m almost never upgraded any more. I’d opted for a nine hour connection in Toronto, because the more sensible one hour connection option would have been cutting it too close. Any flight delay would have meant missing my onward travel, and that would mean arriving too late for the FCE train’s departure on Tuesday morning.
Nine hours is a long time to sit in any airport, even the very best, such as Singapore’s Changi, or Schiphol in Amsterdam. It’s far too long to remain in Toronto’s Pearson, so at least I got in a “practice” train ride from the airport to Toronto’s Union Station (I love grand old train stations). This being a Friday afternoon, I made my way through the commuters swarming into the station eager to begin their weekends in the suburbs, while I walked “upstream” toward the old city hall downtown, another architectural landmark.
After my walk through the crowds, boarding the train back to the airport still left me with five hours of waiting for my next flight. It would be worth it for the prospect of riding the FCE.
Flying from Toronto to London was just fine, thanks to the Ambien sleeping pill I took just before takeoff. We didn’t take off, though. I groggily realized that we were still on the ground two hours after boarding. Oh, no, if there’s a mechanical issue, I may not reach Madagascar in time to ride the FCE!
Thanks to my medication, I passed out and awoke just before landing at Heathrow, glad that I’d scheduled another nine hour connection so I wouldn’t have to worry about missing my next flight, on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fortunately, a family I’d met and become fond of while living in Buenos Aires had arranged to meet me at the Heathrow airport and drive me to Windsor for some pub food and a reunion.
The next flight was on Ethiopian Airlines, which is well short of being world-class. Again, flight delays jeopardized my FCE plans, though we landed in Addis Ababa in adequate time for my onward connection.
I’ve been in lots of terrible airports, and Addis Ababa now ranks near the bottom. Crowded. Dirty. Overflowing with travelers from multiple continents, including a large contingent of Indian soldiers, doing who knows what in Africa. Never mind, I can endure anything, given the prospect of the FCE journey ahead.
Finally, the flight from Addis brought me to Antananarivo, where I was supposed to be met by a driver holding up a sign with my name.
I pay attention to what I do and don’t like to do, so that I can arrange my life to maximize what brings me joy, and minimize that which doesn’t. Arriving at third world airports and being swarmed by taxi touts who speak some foreign language, which means Malagasy in this case, is something I dread. This language is especially foreign: It’s an offshoot of the Malayo-Polynesian group, unrelated to any African language. Even my remnants of Xhosa and Swahili will do me no good.
And then I saw the hand-scrawled sign: “George Walther” held up by Liva, my driver who’d been arranged by the proprietress of the youth hostel I’d booked for that first night so I could get some rest before making the journey to board the FCE.
I won’t include pictures of Antananarivo. It’s horrible. Madagascar is even poorer than Yemen or Afghanistan, with over 90% of the Malagasy citizens living in poverty, defined as having less than $2.00 a day for subsistence. If you’ve never been in a desperately poor, chaotic, crumbling sprawl of a place, you just can’t imagine it. Maybe you saw the “Black Hawk Down” movie with scenes of Mogadishu, Somalia. Antananarivo is worse than that. Worse, even, than my previous worst, Cotonou, Benin, West Africa.
I’ll put up with anything, just so long as I can make it to the FCE in time. An eight to twenty-four hour train ride, averaging 15 miles per hour, though isolated villages in Madagascar is s goal worth suffering for, wouldn’t you agree?
Youth hostels are my favorite places to stay, and it’s not because they’re cheap. They’re always a community of explorers. Whenever I arrive, I see the wondering looks of the twenty-somethings in the lounge. They’re thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here? He must have made a terrible mistake.” An hour later, those same groups of “kids” are pointing toward me, and I can lip-read what they’re saying: “If you want to know about the ‘Devil’s Nose’ train in Ecuador, or how to hitchhike in Namibia, or which hostel is safe in Burma, ask that old guy. He’s been everywhere.”
Hostels are welcoming because they always offer a community room where eager adventurers swap stories of their travels over a beer or three. Again, I won’t show you photos of Antananarivo’s “Underground Hostel,” as you’d say it’s dirty and unpleasant. I, though, love it.
Asking around, I find that all the hostelers have heard of the FCE train, though nobody has ridden it. Adam, from Canada, says he wanted to, but it’s been out of commission for two weeks with no prospect of being repaired anytime soon. There’s only one locomotive, you see, so when that breaks down, there is no backup option. Although the train’s starting point, Fianarantsoa (“Fianar,” for short) is only 250 miles from the hostel I’ve booked, it’s quite impossible to get any reliable information about it.
Simon and Nico, two Malagasy guys who man the hostel’s check-in desk, are as helpful as they can be, phoning around the get information about the train’s scheduled departure on Tuesday. That proves to be impossible. Nobody answers phones, and nobody knows anything, anyway. It’s Sunday night, and I’ll need to dedicate all of Monday just to reach Fianar in time to buy a ticket and climb aboard if the train has been repaired.
The minibus terminal is far from the hostel, and I’d need to catch a 7 AM departure from there to reach Fianar in time. The transport system here works like this: The minibus, called a “Taxi Brusse,” or bush taxi, waits until enough people have crammed aboard so that it’s well over capacity before it will leave. Still, if everything works out, I should reach Fianar just before dark on Monday night, in time to find a hostel or hotel and locate the train station before its scheduled departure at 7:00 Tuesday morning. At least, that’s when it’s supposed to leave. But the ticket office only opens at 6:30, and nobody is quite sure where it is, or even if it’s possible to buy a ticket before the train leaves. That is, if the train even leaves.
I’m feeling skeptical about the whole undertaking, having seen the minibus terminal on the way from the airport to the hostel. Again, chaotic Benin comes to mind. English isn’t spoken much in Madagascar, so how will I ever find which minibus will take me to Fianar?
Helpful Nico comes up with a plan. If I will give him money for the train ticket, about $20, he’ll phone his brother, who lives near Fianar and he’ll buy my ticket while I’m on the minibus. After I find a place to sleep in Fianar, I can hunt for an internet connection, email to let Nico know where I am, and he’ll arrange for his brother to deliver the ticket to me.
(I know this is torturous to read, so just try actually doing it. You’re coming with me, aren’t you? Uploading my photos and videos is out of the question here. )
By now, I’m feeling less and less confident that all the moving parts are going to come together in time for my FCE dream to come true. So, I chat up another traveler, Matt, who’s a schoolteacher from Malawi and who’s less than half my age, which already makes him a “Senior” in this roomful of eager adventuring kids who’ve ended up here at the “Underground Hostel” in their world travels.
My body’s still messed up and confused after the long series of flights, so I’m awake at 2:00 AM and finally give in, realizing that I won’t get back to sleep. The hostel’s dark, and cold, this being the Winter season. I rearrange my luggage, planning to leave behind most of what I have, storing it at the hostel. I’ll board the FCE train with just my backpack, prepared to be stranded somewhere along the FCE line when the train derails or breaks down.
Gingerly making my way through the hostel’s dark community kitchen, past the abandoned pool table, I startle the sleeping night watchman who’s sprawled on the well-worn couch, snoring. In the dark, I just wait-it-out, as sunrise happens abruptly at 6:00 AM this close to the equator.
If you don’t live in the tropics, you may not realize that when you’re close to the equator, the day is sharply and evenly divided between sunrise at 6:00 AM, and sunset at 6:00 PM. There are no lingering dawns or dusks,. Suddenly, it’s light, and just as suddenly twelve hours later, it’s dark. I’ve been warned not to leave the hostel when it’s dark outside for personal safety reasons. So, I sit and wait silently, just hoping everything’s going to fall into place and I’ll reach Fianar by dark, and will find a place to sleep, and an internet connection, and will successfully reach Nico, who’ll then be able to call his brother, who’ll find me and deliver the FCE ticket, in time for me to catch the ride I’ve planned so long for.
Finally, at 5:00 AM, I hear stirrings. Nico comes to the “Reception” in his underwear to help another early departer, and I ask him to call the FCE office to verify that the train will actually be running after its two week mechanical shutdown Adam has warned me about. Nico has a computer, but can’t find any phone number that anybody will answer this early at the FCE office.
In third world situations like this, it’s extremely frustrating for a Westerner such as myself to encounter interminable difficulties with simple communications. Nobody knows anything, and can’t reach anybody who might know something.
By now, I’m about 80% sure that plans are going to fall apart, and even if I reach Fianar in time, Nico’s brother may not find me, I may not get a ticket, and I may not get to the station in time. Calculating the odds, I figure the most likely outcome is that I’ll be jammed into a miserable minibus all day, reaching Fianar well after dark without a place to stay, and won’t connect with the brother, and won’t get my ticket in time… all to learn that no, the train isn’t going to run after all.
So, I grudgingly make the sad decision to abandon my plans and go see lemurs in a national park, instead of catching my cherished FCE train ride.
I just knew something wonderful would happen in Madagascar. I thought it would be the FCE train ride, and instead, I’m going to find lemurs. That’s going to take Monday and Tuesday, and while it will be nothing like riding the FCE, at least I’ll have a unique adventure, as lemurs can be found only in Madagascar.
(I’ll save that encounter for another post when I’m in a connected-enough place so I can upload videos and photos. That is, if there is such a place in Madagascar.)
After the lemur adventure, I return to the hostel, whose owner, Christine, appears and says that if I hurry, I can reach Fianar in time for the train’s Thursday morning departure. She speaks English and sounds quite confident that I can still get to Fianar and ride the FCE if I hurry.
After an early morning taxi ride to the minibus terminal, I upgrade to the “luxurious” minibus operated by “Cotisse,” a company that’s reputedly more comfortable and faster than a normal bush taxi. The trip should take about 10 hours, and I should reach Fianar with just enough time to buy my ticket for the Thursday FCE departure.
The ten hour ride is, well, an adventure for another post.
We make it to Fianar just before dark! I hustle to the train station, and there is a woman at the ticket counter, and she speaks English! I’m going to make it, after all!
She stresses that the train will leave exactly at 7:00 AM… in three days, not today!
So, I’ll be getting to know Fianar, it seems. That’ll be another post. I’m sure something wonderful will happen and I’ll eventually catch that train.