I had read a lot about the Fianarantsoa–Côte Est train, FCE for short. Theoretically it leaves at 7am for a 7-12 hours journey to Manakara through a narrow corridor of jungle vegetation, plantations and waterfalls. The poorly maintained line was built in the 1930s and stops in 16 villages before reaching Manakara. In reality the trip could last much longer, in our case 15 full hours. We woke up at 5:30 to arrive in time at the beautiful Fianarantsoa train station, only to find out that the departure would be delayed because the only engine was being repaired. The train had three passenger cars, the last one reserved for 1st class passengers.
This ride is not for the faint of heart and economy class should be avoided at all costs unless you want to have a very strong story to tell your grandchildren. The first class car is not different than in economy, but you have guaranteed sitting and the smells are milder. Anyway, it took two hours for the engine to get ready and I got the chance to shoot some pictures of people waiting for the train to depart.
We left at 9, with two hours delay for the great journey to the east. We shared our 4-seater with a young Dane who was taking a break from college and was already one month on the island, a brave guy that regularly used taxi-brousses to move around the country. A taxi-brousse is the African version of a bus, usually a Japanese mini bus with a capacity of 10 people that usually carries double this number and stops promptly when somebody flags it down. No matter how many aboard, there is always room for one more passenger on your lap. Shortly after departure, we realized that the windows and doors of our car can close and would stay open for the entire trip. There was a non smoking sign in the cabin but obviously it did not have any practical significance. Soon we stopped at the first train station. Wow!
There are train stations every 15-30 min along the way and the doomsday train stops to every single one. The FCE train is really important for those villages, a lifeline and only connection to the rest of the world as they might be located 200km away from the nearest road. In every station a big crowd gather to sell food, handicrafts and in some cases even more extreme merchandise. On one occasion, a guy jumped aboard with a tempered rooster but fortunately no one in our car was interested in acquiring it.
When the train approaches the station, children jump on the car and then jump off again. Apparently it is very entertaining among youngsters and not so dangerous as it sounds, since the train’s top speed does not exceed 30km/h. When the train finally comes to rest, the crowds of kids holding dishes with crabs, bananas and other exotic tastes come close and the bargaining begins. I developed an expertise on banana pricing along the entire length of the FCE line. It is pretty much stable, at about 300-400ar. a bunch, but you could pay for it as much as 2’000ar if you do not negotiate. The villages are poor, everybody is walking barefoot on the muddy terrain. Crowds of kids in traditional villages dressed in a thousand colors, carrying exotic foods and their younger siblings and not bothered to be photographed. In a nutshell is the travel photographer’s heaven.
Besides the regular stops we had two unexpected incidents worth mentioning. First when a kid flagged down the train to sell a bunch of river fish. The train stopped promptly and a guy in our car bought a couple of them.
Then, again in the middle of nowhere, the train stopped again, only this time slowly. After 15 minutes of waiting I got out to check what was going on. Much to my surprise, the engine was missing! What happened is that the engine detached and moved on before the driver realized what happened and returned – half an hour later – to pick us up. This incident had some very interesting implications, as the electric connection was damaged, leaving us in complete darkness when entering the numerous tunnels. I mean pitch black, I could not see my own hands.
The situation got really interesting after sunset until the driver decided to stop in a station and fix the problem, another one hour delay. From then on, it was four long hours until we reached Manakara at 9:45pm. The only interesting incident was a guy that was caught without a ticket – or this is what I understood at least – and was handcuffed by a policeman who was riding our car!
I do not think I have ever felt more exhausted after a day’s travel. Jean Luc was there to pick us up in the Manakara station. We drove to the hotel and were so hungry that we each ate a zebu steak and a dish of pasta before a hot shower and the subsequent collapse on the bed. Next: Canal des Pangalanes.