At 7 am Sunday morning, we were ready to board the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est train (more commonly known as the FCE) from Manakara to Fianarantsoa. As expected, the train was not ready to depart at 7 am as scheduled. We milled about in front of the crumbling depot amidst Malagasies queuing for tickets, vendors selling pineapples and bananas, and various vazaha (foreigners) looking out of place like us.
We were scheduled to take the FCE the full length of its tracks, a trip described in glowing terms by every book and article we had read about Madagascar. The train travels eastbound on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and returns west on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Along the way, it navigates through a series of remote hamlets, providing the only means of transport for the villagers and their crops since roads don’t reach these locations deep in the jungle. All of the towns along the route depend on the FCE for their livelihood, as it transports their crops for sale in larger cities. Without the train, the villagers would be reduced to subsistence farming, which would in turn destroy the lush forest surrounding the towns. When cyclones caused landslides to cover the tracks in 2000, several NGOs as well as USAID stepped in to make sure the train could resume its daily trips, thereby ensuring the livelihood of the townspeople and the biodiversity of the surrounding jungle.
Even without Lala’s repeated warnings that the FCE could not compare to a European train, we were well aware that our journey was unlikely to be as comfortable as an Acela trip from NYC to Boston. He repeatedly warned us that “first class” only meant “better class." One of our guidebooks indicated that the trip could take anywhere from seven to 12 hours, so we settled in for the long haul, bringing a picnic lunch, snacks, playing cards, and books.
Around 7:30 am, whatever had caused the train’s delay was resolved and we crowded into the depot with the rest of the passengers to show our tickets prior to boarding. Lala shepherded us through the crush of people and, after providing a small bribe to the ticket taker, temporarily boarded the train with us to make sure we were all set with our seats. He had arranged for us to sit on the northern side of the car, which boasted the best views along the way. We quickly settled in to our window seats, the only passengers in the first class section of the car other than a German couple. Seats and standing room for second class were located directly inside the train doors, with a prime location next to the bathroom, while first class was set apart at either end of the car with a sign marked reservée.
With the sound of the train’s horn and accompanying conductor’s whistle, the locomotive slowly clattered out of Manakara at 7:45. As the train pulled away from the station, we took bets on our arrival time in Fianarantsoa, with Stephanie estimating 8:30 pm (12 hours, 45 minutes) and Giorgio optimistically guessing 6:30 pm (10 hours, 45 minutes). Although the tracks briefly paralleled the local road, soon enough we were chugging past verdant green rice paddies, banana trees laden with fruit, and hump-backed zebus grazing. Often, we would simply listen to the train’s wheels loudly clank against the uneven tracks as branches from the surrounding lush forest scraped against the sides of the train and crashed through the large open windows. Just as we began to think the train was traveling through a deserted jungle, we would hear the shouts of small children as they jumped out of the surrounding grasses to wave enthusiastically at the passing train. We aren’t sure if their enthusiasm was due to the sight of so many vazaha, simple excitement seeing the train, or both.
Of course, the purpose of the FCE is not to provide tourists with a scenic journey through remote parts of Madagascar, but to load and unload cargo on its east and westbound trips.
There are 18 stops along the route, where the train idles for anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour, loading baskets of bananas, bundles of firewood, and other goods. At the first few stops, vendors (mostly children) ran up to the train offering bananas and other fruits for sale. As our journey progressed, the offerings became more varied.
Did we want local peppercorns in any of five different colors? Crayfish? Meatballs? Ginger? Sausages? Un poulet (alive, of course)? Lala had sternly warned us to only buy fruit from the multitude of vendors – the other food would make us sick. So we ignored the offers of live chickens and delicious-looking fried goods and settled on buying a large bunch of bananas for 1,000 ariary (slightly less than 40 cents). We were also proud of negotiating the price of two battered cans of beer down from 6,000 to 5,0000 ariary in our broken French.
We slowly made our way east, marveling at the scenery as well as the feat of constructing the train tracks in such a remote location. 48 tunnels and 67 bridges aid the FCE’s eastward trajectory. The train trundled over muddy rivers and through narrow tunnels where you could reach out and touch the stone walls in the pitch dark if you so desired. A few of the second class passengers gradually joined us in first class and at many of the stops, their friends would hop on the train to chat before the departure whistle blew.
We were never quite sure how long the train would stay at any given station and were worried about being left behind if we strayed too far, so we generally watched the organized chaos from the windows of the train. We didn’t want to end up sprinting after the train to leap through the doors like many of the local children. We stayed at one stop in the middle of a field for so long that we even began a lengthy game of Uno, which several of the men on the train watched intently, attempting to ascertain the rules.
We thoroughly enjoyed the first seven hours of our journey, with a constantly changing backdrop of sights and the accompaniment of the rhythmic rattling of the train wheels. However, at 3 pm, our scenic journey came to an abrupt end nowhere near our final destination. The train screeched to a halt in a larger town, which even boasted a school and a Catholic church. Chaos ensued. Before anyone could get off the train, seemingly the entire populace of the town began to push its way onboard. Kids, grandparents, and even a nun crowded into the car. Babies were passed through the windows. Obviously, the new passengers were not alone, and boarded with boxes of squawking chickens, several giant baskets of bananas, and numerous other mysterious bundles. We tried to guard our seats from the invading hordes, but to no avail. Apparently, it no longer mattered whether you had a first or second-class ticket – whoever pushed the hardest claimed a seat. Our new seatmates were a young couple and their baby – both parents, at most 18, were already busy changing diapers and breastfeeding in the cramped quarters, providing us with our very own Malagasy advertisement for birth control. Another man was quite convinced that he was going to either sit next to Giorgio or stand right where his knees were, but Giorgio wasn’t having any of it. This particular battle would only intensify throughout the next thirteen hours of our trip.
All of the new arrivals seemed to know one another, exchanging gossip, letting their children play together in the aisle, and buying dinner from the vendors alongside the train. The baby seated across from us kept busy trying to steal the rest of our bananas. Giorgio offered him one, but it turned out the youngster really just wanted to throw the fruit on the floor so that was the end of sharing. We also desperately wanted to put some Neosporin on a large oozing cut on the child’s forehead, but didn’t think we could do so politely. It turned out that there was no need for our Western medicine because at one point, a passenger yanked some leaves off a passing tree and handed them to the child’s mother, who mashed them up and rubbed them into the cut.
Even in the crowded car, the rest of the trip, which should have been coming to a close, would have been bearable. But then we pulled into a station at sunset and didn’t pull back out after the usual 30 minutes. After an hour sitting in the dark, we began to wonder what was happening. (If you thought this train would be equipped with lights, you would be wrong.) We would have remained in the dark, both literally and figuratively, had it not been for a friendly French tourist who stopped by to explain that the engine was broken and they were sending oil to fix it all the way from Fianarantsoa, about three hours away. How do you fix an engine with oil? Why don’t they carry spare magical oil if this is a common problem? As usual in Madagascar, we weren't quite sure, so we settled in to wait in the dark for the repair train, wishing we hadn’t already eaten the entirety of our picnic lunch and snacks. As we were beginning to give up hope, the sound of a motor pierced the silence. Of course, our ancient train was not easily repaired, so someone decided the best course of action would be to tow the train the rest of the way to Fianarantsoa.
Off we chugged into the darkness, even more slowly than before. There is a significant gain in altitude between Manakara and Fianarantsoa, making it more difficult to tow the train full of passengers and cargo. The train is so important to the towns along its route that even when it is incredibly late, it still stops at each and every station or banana field. All requisite tasks are performed in the dark, with a few flashlights for illumination. Essentially trapped in our seats by the hordes of passengers camped out in the aisles, we dozed fitfully as the train continued. After it became clear that the final leg of the trip was going to take a lot longer than the promised three hours, Stephanie knew she would either have to make her way off the train at the next stop or somehow get to the bathroom. Between our seats and the door, there was an obstacle course of sleeping Malagasies and their bags. With Giorgio’s iPhone flashlight and repeated "pardons," she made her way down the aisle, only to realize that a towering stack of luggage was blocking the questionably clean bathroom. Worried about the train leaving her behind in the dark village at 1 am, Stephanie rushed off the train and down the tracks for the most embarrassing and stressful bathroom break ever.
We slowly chugged into the Fianarantsoa station sometime between 4 and 5 am. By that time, everything was such a haze that we could barely push our way out of the train car and into the station, let alone tell time.