If you had asked me this summer what I was most worried about for this upcoming year, I would have mentioned something about transportation. I had heard stories and seen pictures of crowded streets, overloaded vehicles, and not a lot of clear transportation-related infrastructure—lane markings, stop signs, etc. And being the daughter of a former police officer, vehicle safety has been instilled in me from a very young age. After absorbing countless stories of accidents involving distracted drivers, unsafe road conditions, and the like, my seat belt is the very first thing I reach for when I get into a car.
So needless to say, during orientation I was a bit hesitant to ride the taxibe (taxeebay, literally, ‘big taxi’) or local public bus. It’s not exactly the type of bus you might picture in the U.S. It’s more of a large van with a driver and front passenger door and a large door in the back where passengers get on and off. There is a center aisle and five rows of two seats on each side of the aisle. Then when it’s really crowded, there are fold down seats (or sometimes wooden planks) that extend to allow people to sit in the aisle. This allows for 25 people to sit in the bus, not including the driver, two or three people on the front passenger seat, and the back door operator. Then when it’s really really crowded, two or three more people stand in the very back, just inside the back door. And when it’s really reallyreally crowded, people stand on the back running board and hold on for dear life to the outside of the back door. (Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I just wait for the next bus.)
There are lots of different bus routes. There is a wooden sign in the front windshield that lists the villages where the taxibe will stop. Each route has a specific number (or sometimes letter) and corresponding color. They go one direction until the end of the line and then they go back the other way. All day long.
The driver and operator work together to signal where they need/want to stop along the way. It’s a delicate balance of getting to the destination in a “timely” manner, navigating the streets to avoid pedestrians, other vehicles, and delivery carts, and also making sure the bus is as full as possible to make more money and make the trip worth it. The driver and operator (kind of like a train conductor) are always in close communication, often using a series of whistles to tell each other ‘I’m pulling over’ or ‘someone needs off here’ or ‘we’re full, let’s go!’. At each stop, if the bus isn’t full, the operator swings the door open and leans out the back, shouting the taxibe’s destinations like an auctioneer. In between stops, he (I have yet to see a female driver or operator) collects fares from all of the passengers. It’s 200 ariary (about 5 cents) to get to one of my worksites and 400 ariary (ten cents) to get to the downtown of the capital. Depending on traffic, this trip can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a little over an hour.
Inside the taxibe is quite the menagerie. With five people sitting in a row in a vehicle not much wider than an average SUV, it’s quite crowded. And only children over five years old are paying passengers so anyone under five is sixth person per row, often occupying a lap. There’s lots of shoulder bumping and elbow pushing and it’s wonderful. Sometimes the aisle seats are hard to put down so fellow bus riders always help each other. Anytime you have to squeeze down the aisle to get on or off you just repeat “Azafady” (excuse me and I’m sorry) the entire time. And if you are coming up to your stop, you say “Misy miala.”
Most of the stops have some kind of name, based on local landmarks. When I take the F bus to one of my placements, my stop is called Mangue because there is a mango tree across the street. The stop near my church is called Magasin M after a store that used to be located at the same intersection. If you are standing on the side of the road and you want a ride, you hold up your index finger to hail the bus. If it’s full, it will go whizzing past but usually you don’t have to wait much longer than five minutes for the next one.
My favorite thing about the taxibe is the community aspect. No matter how hot or crowded it is, when we’re sitting in traffic at the end of a long day, we’re doing it together. We’re all listening to the same song on the radio. And even though there’s not much conversation amongst strangers, it’s somehow better than if we were all waiting impatiently in our own cars, with the windows rolled up, AC on, and each listening to our own radio station or afternoon commute playlist.