My Driver the Hallmark Card

I am not necessarily one for the Hallmark-ey things of the world. I do not watch Lifetime specials; I did not cry at the end of Titanic; Valentine’s Day makes me borderline nauseous. The last familial birthday card I sent was addressed, “From one deeply emotive heart to another.”
But occasionally one encounters in life a person so delightfully cheesy and wonderful that even the least emotive heart cannot help but be swept away by their joy and charisma. It is as if one is suddenly and all at once caught in the throes of a Lifetime marathon, awaiting with bated breath February 14th, afloat in the icy waters of the Atlantic (“I’ll never let go!”). As complicated as it may seem, what I have just described is now a regular emotion for me. I have found my living Hallmark card and his name is Zama. He drives my town brousse.

I should preface with two disclaimers. One, Zama is pushing fifty and balding; he sports a distinct rice-belly; we are not in love. Two, my town brousse- which runs the ninety kilometers to and from Ambanja daily- is, excepting the personality of the driver, no different from any other harrowing Madagascar travel experience. In fact, it is often worse.

The car routinely runs at double capacity, which is to say that a van designed for fifteen carries over thirty; children are stuffed in the cracks like peanuts in a packing crate. The trip is long, arduous, and unpredictable, stops frequent, prolonged, and often unexplained. Seven AM departure is no guarantee of reaching Amabanja by noon and the Three PM return trip often leaves after nightfall. Body odor, debilitating joint pain, and contact with infectious diseases are routine hazards.

But the van is bursting with more than its sheer human cargo, reeking of that which is more powerful than body odor, and threatening the spread of something far more infectious than simple skin fungus. No, this vehicle is alive with, crawling with, exploding with…joy and laughter. It emanates from Zama, seeps into the narrow cracks, works its way into the crushed and stifling backseats, beats out through the speakers.

Zama honks and shouts, dances and sings, greets everyone- best friend and stranger alike- with his signature two handed wave, now and then breaking it down to a goofy, slow-motion version that requires a full ten seconds of knee-steering. He bounces the van to a halt in keeping with the frenetic beat of the Malagasy music and declares beaming, “Karibo an-trano!” (“Come into the house!”).
He offers free rides and says without hesitation: “when you are troubled, come with Zama.” To one and all, two hundred times each way, he yells “ARAHABAINA!” (CONGRATULATIONS!). Growing weary of this repetition, he unfailingly expands as the ride proceeds, at first on more routine topics – the time of the day, the weather- then to more creative observances such as “that lovely bunch of ripe bananas” or “your house with a very small door!”

Zama is a local celebrity and as the good-karma mobile rolls through village after roadside village children appear, running as fast as their little stumbly legs will carry them to dance and wave, to chase the car. This is the highlight of many road-watchers’ and weary walkers’ days: men drop the reins of their ox-carts, women drop babies, comatose old people show sudden life.

The first time I hitched a ride with Zama I feared for my young life, as I had clearly placed it in the hands of a lunatic. But now I revel in these rides; it is like hopping the “It’s a Small World Boat,” with slightly less grating music, or better yet, living a tourism commercial (Madagascar: We Won’t Rob You While You’re Looking!). When I manage to leverage my status as town celebrity, dignitary, and novelty, and snag the front seat, I grin stupidly for two hours, pretending they are all waving to me.

On more than one occasion, Zama has tossed out candy, an action roughly equivalent in this sugar-crazed country to flinging out gold nuggets or hundred dollar bills. Bikes crashed. Children screamed. Entire herds of cattle were left to fend for themselves. It was chaos and I could not help but think: I know where Santa vacations and I get to ride in his off-season sleigh.

There are, of course, practical reasons why appreciate Zama: he does not drink, is not rude, creepy, or outright lecherous, does not even run over chameleons. But these things alone could not elevate him to Hallmark status. It is the simple fact that he takes a potentially monotonous routine and stretch of road and day in, day out makes it a vehicle of joy, utilizes it as a way to spread happiness. This is what gets me all goose-bumpy and tear-eyed, all choked up in the throat like I just in the name of love kicked Jack off the flotation device.

Then again, it does not hurt to be able to brag that I am routinely driven through a tourism commercial by Santa, who unfailingly congratulates me on my house with a very small door. That is certainly the kind of Hallmark card to be found only in Madagascar.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.