“Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to Mariel,
Happy birthday to you!”
Midnight, and I have just turned 22 in the middle of a rice paddy somewhere in Madagascar. Lisa has got her shoe stuck in the mud and, wobbling on one leg, retrieved it looking like a large wet brick. We were all laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of our situation when I checked my watch and realised that it was now my birthday.
With Lisa’s shoe cleaned as much as possible and back on her foot, we look up and realise that we don’t know where we are or where we are supposed to be going, and that the dark figures that were ahead of us leading the way have all disappeared.
The truck we were travelling in got its second flat tyre of the night half an hour ago, half sunk on the edge of the rice paddy, and rather than waiting cramped inside, everyone was told to get out and walk to the next village where we’d be picked up.
I don’t actually remember how we found this mystery village, but eventually, out of the gloom, we saw the shapes of 50 or more people sitting huddled on the ground outside a few dark huts, and joined them. I lay down in the damp grass and slept until the truck was rumbling again next to me. I left it until the very last possible moment before opening my eyes and climbing back on board for the rest of our journey.
Anyone who has taken any kind of informal public transport in a developing country will no doubt have a story of a car, bus, truck or bike with innumerable passengers, chickens, goats, baskets of fish, children and the elderly crammed together or hanging off the sides. The three months that I spent working in Madagascar in 2011 gave me plenty, but this journey was by far the most extreme and memorable.
It had started the previous morning, when we had packed up our gear and supplies from the basketball court where we’d been staying in the town of Vohemar, ready to catch the taxi brousse that we’d been told would collect us at 9am. Of course, 9am came and went, and a group of teenagers came and played a whole game of basketball before a giant old army style truck appeared around 12.30pm.
We loaded up our bags into the ominously empty truck (everybody knows that no self-respecting taxi brousse will set out until it is well and truly full) and were driven a few minutes across town to an open grassy area where a few other people were milling around. We were ejected, and the truck drove off again for a couple of hours, collecting other passengers and luggage for the journey north. Meanwhile, we read books in the sun and ate the lunch we had prepared in the morning to eat on the journey.
As we waited, more and more people arrived carrying bags, sacks and boxes, and children and livestock. When the truck eventually reappeared, everything was emptied out and then meticulously repacked. This 8ft high truck was packed to within 3ft of the canvas roof, which in turn was piled high with sacks of rice and mattresses, leaving just enough space for the passengers to climb up and file in, sitting squashed together, knees up, between the sacks and bags below and the laden roof above.
Being vahazas (white people), we were granted the luxury position – the back end of the truck, with fresh air and a view out behind us. When the truck looked to me already full, I was helped up and sat with my knees up around my chin on the edge of a sloping sack of rice. I held on to a wooden slat above my head to try to stop myself from sliding out. I didn’t think there could be any more room, but a woman and baby climbed up and perched on my feet, hanging precariously out of the back.
By 6pm, we were finally on the move, and travelled a mere 15 minutes out of town (passed the police checkpoint) before we stopped next to another 20 people and their luggage waiting to get on. People and possessions were once more unloaded and reloaded, and there being no more space to hang from the back, Ismael and I were offered a position on top of the cab. I was keen, but Ismael refused to let me, saying that it would get cold, I would fall asleep, fall off the roof and die, so I reluctantly climbed into the supposedly two-man cab with the driver and four of my colleagues. I was perched on the corner of a brief case, neck bent sideways to stop it hitting the roof at every bump.
When we stopped for a dinner break an hour later, we rearranged the cab so that we had two rows of two sharing the one passenger ‘seat’, with Matt perched on the edge and leaning half out of the open window.
The engine cover between the two seats was hot, and we crouched again on tiptoes with our knees around our ears. The heat burnt my bum and passed through the soles of my green plastic ‘lucky elephant’ flipflops. When Matt said he couldn’t decide which position was more comfortable for his arm, Lisa, Lucy, Tim and I all exclaimed that he was lucky to have more than one option, because we certainly didn’t!
Every now and then, the truck stopped in the darkness for more people to join or for some to leave. Until 3am, we were still laughing at the absurdity of the situation, and watching the small tropical frog that joined us for a time in the cab. But after 3am, with my butt and feet burning and my hips feeling as though they might crack into pieces, the laughter faded and we travelled in silence, unable to sleep and desperate to just stretch our aching limbs.
At 5am, it was finally our turn to disembark, in a small village apparently renowned for witchcraft. It was too early to meet the village chief or the caretaker of the hall we were due to stay in, so I got out my sleeping bag and fell asleep in the grass.
It was only an hour or so later that we were woken to move into the hall. It was the only building in the village with a concrete floor, dusty, covered in gecko poop that had fallen from the roof, and with cockroaches that scuttled into the corners as we put down our sleeping mats for another hour’s sleep.
We spent the day working. Lucy and I mapped the village while Ismael and Tim conducted interviews as part of a socioeconomic survey we were doing. When they returned at lunchtime, they carried with them a handsome chicken hanging upside down by the legs – my birthday present, bought from a woman they had just interviewed. The chicken sat outside the hall all afternoon, legs tied, occasionally trying to make a bid for freedom but failing. At dusk, his throat was cut and he was plunged into boiling water before being plucked.
Having observed the sacrifice with interest and given thanks, I went for a wash behind a chest height screen in the village mayor’s garden under the stars. Clumps of my hair fell out in my hands as I washed it, the result of a diet of mostly rice and beans for a little too long.
When I returned to the hall, I found a balloon tied to the end of my mosquito net, a bottle of wine and a card, smuggled in from the last shopping trip in town. Ismael and Jery had turned the chicken into a delicious stew with the last of the vegetables. “We’ve given you the feet” Matt said. I remembered when my brother Alec had given our brother Tim a chicken’s amputated foot in a box for his birthday a few years previously (the hen had survived a fox attack, but her injured leg had eventually fallen off and she’d lived for many more happy years as Hoppity the one-legged chicken). There was no mobile signal in this village, so I’d not been able to text or speak to any of my friends or family as I’d hoped to.
In the end, Ismael enjoyed the feet, and we were all in bed by 9pm, the earliest I’d be in my bed on my birthday until I was old and retired, I thought.
I woke up the following morning with cockroaches inside my mosquito net, earning myself the nickname Roach Girl.
It would be another week before we reached anywhere with phone signal, and 10 days before the sight of a pyramid of four small cherry tomatoes for sale outside a house would bring me to tears (fresh fruit!), having subsisted on rice, beans and an octopus for days, and two weeks before I saw tarmac roads or sat on a toilet again.
I was still yet to travel by zebu cart worthy of the flintstones, or on a boat carrying octopus up the coast, which would throw us out into the sea to spend the night on a beach rumoured to host man-eating crocodiles. And I was still yet to learn that mosquito nets can protect you from more than just malaria, when a rat ran over my face during the night.
Those are stories for another time, but each year as I celebrate another trip around the sun, I think back to where I have celebrated birthdays past, and remember the cramped truck cab, cockroaches, chicken and the friends with whom I shared it with a grin.