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An unreliable train links Madagascar’s highlands to the coast

It is 7am, the train should be preparing its chugs but the ticket office stays shuttered. People are milling around: would-be passengers, vendors, the curious… The tourists are bunched around the ticket booth looking at watches, locals are scattered in chattering groups around huge mounds of luggage.

The last train left running in Madagascar connects the highland town of Fianarasoa to the east-coast town of Manakara – when it works. Today we will take 14 hours to do the 163km: often it takes much, much longer. The train and rails must be treated gently, they have, over the years, been battered by many natural disasters.

There are burdens weighing on the old, red, delicate, diesel shoulders of the train; it has been given many roles to play though it is dilapidated, feeble, cranky and wildly unpredictable. But, it has personality and should not be judged solely on appearance.

It has become financially dependent on being an offbeat tourist attraction-a comedown for a venerable lady with an impressive CV. It is running on rails some of which date from the late 19th century, part of reparations seized by the French from the Germans at the end of WW1: historical significance.

Six carriages: four weather, time-beaten ones with seats – called first-class. These are priced beyond locals’ pockets. Up-front there are two goods wagons which the locals will share with many kinds of cargo.

We are going to cross 68 bridges, enter 40 tunnels, make 18 scheduled stops and some unexpected unscheduled ones. The train stops somewhere with a small jerk, a little skip and jump, takes a breath, gives a small jolt. Is it an attempt at metallic hip-hop or a gulp of guilt in memory of the forced labor used to lay the rail?

First-class is very white: mainly retired, mainly French – people equipped with cameras and videos. They chase from side to side of the carriage to capture spectacular vistas: fields of coffee, rice paddies, banana and sugar cane plantations, towering mountains and meandering rivers, villages nestling… They spill out onto small station platforms pointing their lenses at the giggling children, the anxious vendors and the piles of local produce.

Up front the train is fulfilling its economic role: there are big baskets of bananas, sacks of rice, sugar and coffee, bags of cement, planks of wood, mattresses, hens, ducks and chickens being loaded; there are cases of beer and soft drinks, cartons of this and that-letters to be delivered.

Ecologists say that were it not for the train bringing cargo up and down the line in this road-less region the locals would be cutting down trees and forests to make more paddy fields. The train has its ecological role.

Few doors or windows can actually close. There are no “DO NOT” signs; arms, legs, necks, and heads may be thrust outside but carefully. Thick vegetation rubbing against the train can bend back and snap in an open door or window. A slap of a banana leaf or something thornier is a real possibility.

The arrival of the train is greeted in the villages and stations with gaiety by the excited, skipping children and with some stress by the ladies who have prepared many types of snacks. Children perform, dancing and singing for the tourists and some run around carrying trays of local specialties. Competition is fast and furious.

The two worlds meet lightly: people of an affluent West and those of a very poor country touch hands across a huge divide. A French lady tries a phrase she has learned with some barefoot children which provokes much hilarity, leaving her perplexed. A German gentleman shuffles, joining in a children’s dance. A young Frenchman on a training mission in Madagascar is surrounded by a group of children singing a Malagasy song he has learned. People sample snacks with strange names: little bridges across the divide. The train, knowing its social role, allows time for all this.

We meet the driver who smells of rum. Three French girls with charming smiles ask to travel a little in the driver’s cabin. He refuses apologetically: his boss is on the train. We go to a shack by the tracks and I buy him a small bottle of local rum – with our speed I feel little chance of derailment. He is retiring soon he says, back to his hometown. He has not been paid in five months but has a wistful, permanent smile.

We sit on some rusty signaling and our driver knocks down a large jack-fruit from the tree we sit under; the French girls taste, for a first time, its pleasantly rubbery texture. A wizened man with a soiled cap and very few teeth slices it open with a machete and shows them how to eat the fruit. I watch a family of geese in single file, entering the station and exiting onto the noisy platform: nobody turns a head.

With the dusk, the first class carriages begin to fill with locals. Vacant seats are gratefully commandeered and floor space squatted. The two worlds mingle a little; night falls

The carriage is dark but for the occasional flash of a torch, a spark off a rail, a glimpse of moon; the French girls, meeting again after many years, begin to sing the hits of their teenage years. Some young Malagasy girls come and squeeze up close, listening and watching with open-mouthed pleasure.

In a darkened town, rickshaws – no motor taxis here – wait to take us to homes or hotels; the two worlds, having touched lightly and briefly, separate into the night. The engine rests up front: job done. If it were not so dark and a rickshaw driver hadn’t already seized my bag I would have gone to say thank you.

Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.

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