When Ninah first included a trip on the famous FCE train from Fianarantsoa to Manakara, I wasn’t sure what to think or to expect. Who doesn’t like a train trip through lush forest and mountains, passing numerous villages along the the way. Sounds nice but do I really wanna spend a day and possibly night on a Choo Choo train. This train is as old as the early 1930’s, and as reliable as the weather. Perfect for a moora moora trip, back in time.
From our week hiking in the highlands, I was looking forward to some rest, a hot shower and catching up on my journal in our hotel in Fianarantsoa. There I met Lisenne and Raoul, a Dutch couple, after 8 months, still in a loving relationship. They had only just arrived in Madagascar and were asking for tips or things to do here in Madagascar. We had dinner together and I showed off, yes, I admit it, my photo gallery on my pad. I highly recommended the pirogue river cruise with Ninah as it seems, that Ninah, Odilon and I part ways after our final destination in a weeks time. Perfect change over for Ninah and Odilon as I was ready to go my own moora moora way and chill out for the remainder of my trip on Malagasy soil. Raoul and Lisette booked a trip on the Choo Choo train as well, no doubt we will run in to each other.
5 o’clock wake up, 6 30 drive to the station, 7 am departure… sounds like a Swiss train but it wasn’t. I met Lisenne and Raoul on the train, who reserved a seat for me.
We followed up on our conversation we had last night and chatted freely about our lives. Both work in human socialism, Raoul with deaf people, Lisenne with people who suffer from depression and similar symptoms caused by human behaviour or society. Wow, they’d come to the right country with those occupations. As the clock turned 8 am or so, and still no sign of any movement with or around the train, we started to investigate like many other tourists. The first wagon behind the locomotive was partially lifted and some heavy hammering and bush basher antics were performed. Now where have I seen that before?
There I met Paula, a Spanish doctor, visiting her sister with their parents. Her sister Emma volunteered for a month in Toulear, helping kids who fell victim to social problems, i.e. drugs, violence and prostitution. They were staying in the same hotel last night and were playing cards when I was showing of my photos.
Eventually the crowd was cheering and clapping, its time to start our journey. I just hope the duct tape is strong enough. I leaned my head outside the window and watched the train station slowly disappear as locals were cheering and waving along the railroad tracks, others were simply stunned.
I had a closer look to my unknown fellow passengers. Across from us sat Sister Marie, who apart from the Afro hair, could have easily taken part in the follow up from the ‘Sister Act’ movie.
Her and other adults accompanied a teenage group, which took over the remaining seats to our right. It is part of a youth program for international and national kids, encouraging human behaviour and interaction. Behind us was the police. Yes, there is always police, who seemed rather bored. Luckily, no guns in our wagon.
One row in front of me sat a very tired ‘Lionel Messi’ look-a-like, no joke. Joined by a group of French, occupying the row behind him. One of the girls, end 20’s I would think, standing next to the window, looking out with a sad smile, as if she was a thousand miles away, or hoping this train journey would change previous experiences, just like a time warp.
So, the stage was set, the real life actors playing their role and I was quietly following with my eyes and OM-D. It didn’t take long,and the first stop was reached.
Immediately we were surrounded by people selling almost everything, mainly food and drinks. Some haggling with the local wagon, who were reaching down to buy food or drinks.
Others trying their luck with embarking ‘wassa’. At first,the tourists were somewhat overwhelmed, but that disappeared quickly. It was obvious to whom the entertainment prize will go to and no, it wasn’t me. Raoul was clearly in his element.
I think, I might have encouraged him a bit more with early antics, picking flowers from the moving train for Lisenne. As we passed a few close to railroad tracks banana trees, I was thinking of testing my reflexes and pick a banana. But decided against it, as this is the income for local farmers. But, I had been watched by the lively local crowd, two wagons behind.
I heard some commotion coming from there and as I turned and looked, one of the young fellas held a banana in his hand. These kids had as much fun being on this train, possibly even more. I whistled loudly every time we passed a tunnel, which they found highly amusing.
But instant karma hit back shortly. I was just enjoying this ride, looking out the window, a million miles away, so I wasn’t quick enough to retrieve my head from oncoming twitches and one picked up my sunnies and lifted them of my head. Some cool looking tree. Lisenne meanwhile,always smiling, opened up a little more. It was obvious she enjoyed herself immensely but I could always see a ‘this is too good to be true’ glimpse in her eyes. The French and Malagasy kids first under strict rule by sister Marie, loosened up as well. Some kids were playing cards, some sitting on the ‘porch’ outside chatting and singing. Mr. Messi, a French man living on a small island just north of Madagascar, looked extremely tired, drinking a fair amount of beer. He flew in to Tana the day before, jumped straight on the taxi Brousse to Fianarantsoa and from there straight on the train. He might have been on a bet with himself, how many different transport options to use in a least amount of time. He did win this Oscar, as the next day he was going on a pirogue trip. Four outta four, well done. The French family in the back still looked triste, such a shame. I was thinking of going over to say hello, but didn’t find the courage to do so, for unexplainable reasons. Meanwhile, we had passed plenty of stations. The scenario was always the same, just with different faces.
Some, a bit more skeptical.
These ancient train tracks symbol the vein of life for this region. Not only brings it tourists and direct cash, but it is the main,and possibly the only transport for all sorts of goods, coming or going to markets around.
Some stops were longer then expected, goods were loaded and unloaded, wagons attached and reattached, with the train moving at the station managers whistle. This caused a fair bit of confusion, as no one really knew if the train was leaving or just moving to its next location. I saw a group of older tourists from one of the other wagons running for their lives, waving and huffing, to reach the train. When they realised, they wouldn’t make it, they threw hand kisses to their loved ones and waved goodbye. The train only readjusted location, and some exhausted, but happy tourists didn’t venture too far from the train anymore.
I really tried hard not to crack up laughing and decided I best check out the other side. Lisenne meanwhile entertained the local kids with the square jumping game(can’t remember the name,that ever young girl played when growing up).
Turns out, this simple game never made it to Madagascar, as the local kids looked on in amazement. Why this wassa woman is jumping around on squares? A few of them tried it out, after some serious considerationand gentle persuasion by Lisenne. Raoul clearly was in his element, entertaining other kids, while other tourists were having fun taking photos and showing the amazed smiling faces the result.
Meanwhile, I was observing from the backstage and was spotted by three cheeky kids, who were pulling faces against the glass on the opposite wagon. Ha ha, what a bunch of entertainers. Best Oscar to the local clowns.
Paula and Emma persuaded their parents to come out more often which was great to see. I would be guessing, but I think for the first few hours they were acting as good kids, and stayed around their parents.
When I asked if they wanted to join the fun wagon, more frequent visits appeared throughout this journey.
As the sun slowly gave way to an almost full moon, people on the train slowed down as well. The older ones anyways. The police and security meanwhile were completely intoxicated and kept Raoul amused, along with other vendors and kids.
Paula and Emma came over at a different stop, as it gotten really quite in the pensioners wagon.
They had very comfy seats, I was almost considering about moving wagons at the start of the journey. But who needs comfy seats, on a Choo Choo train, traveling thru lush forest and traveling thru time.
Later on, on another long hold ( meanwhile we had locomotive engine trouble), one of the young Malagasy kids came up to me and asked if my name was Ben. I said yes, but who wants to know, or what happened? He heard that I have taken some nice photos from his country, a country he has not seen much of and asked if I could show him a few? Paula had just invited me to join her and her family and some other Spaniards for a snack and a beer. What to do? what to do? Looking in this young fellas eyes with a glare of excitement, I just couldn’t resist, even though I was hungry and a beer would have been a great option too. This look in his eyes and other photo watchers, on how beautiful this country is, if you look a bit closer, is just priceless. For everything else, there is Visa card. Ha ha… but seriously, that look, that I have encountered many times before in local and tourist eyes, makes me humble and I realise that it isn’t just taking a photo, it is like telling a story. A beautiful story.
Back to the train, which meanwhile did more standing then rolling, and frustration was rolling in as well. People trying to get in to a comfy position, some were even snoring. Sister Marie looked very comfy. Even Raoul, who said he wouldn’t sleep, snug up to Lisenne, snoozing for a while. One more odd thing is the magic wee. This is no bollocks, and can be confirmed by Raoul and Lisenne. I went to the toilet 3 times in total, while the train was moving; And every time I came back, the train had stopped, for one reason or the other. I didn’t dare to go to the toilet at the end of our journey, as we had engineering issues with the locomotive. As it stopped again because of that, I thought, see what happens if I go to the loo now. Believe it or not, but the train started rolling and never stopped until we reached our destination,Manakara. Things that make you go umhhh…?
It was meanwhile after 1 am, and we spent 18 hours in or around this mysterious train, and I think everyone on this journey will take a lot of impressions and memories home. At least I hope so, I sure do!
Odilon picked me up from the train station, as Ninah was asleep on the back bench of the 4 WD. Raoul and Lisenne and most of the other guests were staying in a different hotel, but we arranged an early morning breakfast, as I had another busy day ahead in Manakara.
Another pirogue trip thru the wetlands of the area with a fresh cooked lunch by the beach! Another amazing day to come.