Travels with My Aunt

If I had to choose a few words to sum up the trip it wouldn't be one phrase, but several, shouted loudly in my aunt Adelina's dry, shrill voice:

"Stop! Stop! Will you stop once and for all! What's wrong with this imbecile, darling? Stooooop!"

I am "darling," her nephew, whom she invited to join her on a voyage through Madagascar, whether I wanted to or not. The one she's calling an imbecile is Tsiery, our Madagascan driver. Over the course of fifteen days the three of us covered nearly 1,300 miles on that African island in a Toyota Hilux 4x4. It was, in many respects, an unforgettable experience.

We left the capital, Antanananarivo, a mosaic of white and ocher houses spread across green hills, to explore the plateaus, savannahs, and deserts as far as Tulear, an inhospitable spot on the west coast. We saw adobe huts, stunted cornfields, tea plantations, cebus, red brick churches, orange rivers, women carrying their babies in sarongs, dense jungles, lemurs, and even baobabs, the trees from Saint-Exupery's Little Prince.

Tsiery was foisted upon us by the car rental agency, which informed us that it was illegal for a vahza, a foreigner, to drive. My aunt objected, but we had no option but to take the driver. Tsiery was a man of indeterminate age and average stature, with limp black hair, shiny jaundiced-looking skin, and Oriental features. He was more Indonesian than African. Since we didn't have time to learn Malagasy—a language in which "amin'ny valo ora alina sy roapolo initra" means "8:20 AM"—I communicated with him in French. He smiled only when we made him nervous, which is to say, frequently. I never knew what he was thinking, not even for a moment, in any situation. Neither did my aunt, for all her constant assumptions about him.

My aunt, his opponent, is an eighty-year-old widow who has traveled the world alone. She's from Burgos, a very somber Castillian city. She's a woman of means, but she's the most miserly person I've ever met. If Tsiery smiled only out of nervousness, my aunt smiles only when someone is under verbal attack, preferably by her. She's not attractive, becomes skinnier by the year, and ever since her hip operation she's lame. That's why she invited me to join her on her travels: so she could lean on my arm and so I could carry her up and down steep inclines and stairways. Truth is, I can't think of one likable thing about my aunt. The only positive thing I can say is that she's an educated woman, harsh but brave, and tough as nails.

The first scuffle between the two adversaries took place about sixty miles outside Tana, when we'd been on the road for barely two hours. It was nine in the morning and my aunt wanted to have breakfast. She ordered the driver to stop when she saw a bar at the side of the road, but Tsiery, though it sounds strange to say so, simply pretended not to hear her. My aunt, taken aback, fell silent. She was used to her orders being carried out immediately. Perhaps she thought that Tsiery didn't understand the Spanglish she was speaking. When she spotted another bar, a few minutes later, she once again demanded he stop, this time more shrilly and curtly. He didn't blink. It was then that I heard those words for the first time:

"What on earth does this imbecile think he's doing? Stop! Stop, idiot! Stoooop!"

No response. Tsiery, who wore a pair of light brown leather gloves which lent him the air of an old-fashioned chauffeur, paid no attention to the old woman. My aunt continued to yell at him for the next ten minutes, until he stopped our ATV abruptly at another bar. He had chosen a joint run by an obese, smiling Negress where we were served a revolting breakfast that cost a fortune. My aunt did not invite Tsiery to join us. Despite the fact that we were responsible for his meals, he didn't say a word in protest. The cards had been dealt. The war had begun.

There were so many battles that it's impossible to remember them all. Every time my aunt shouted, "Photo!" because she wanted to get out of the Toyota with her 1940s camera, Tsiery sped up. My aunt began to treat him with utter contempt, not even looking at him, and she never once said misaotra, thank you, not even when he went above and beyond the call of his duty to drive us, rattling along. It goes without saying that she never paid for his meals, his lodging, not even a coffee or a mango at a roadside fruit stand. The days went by and little by little my aunt began to weaken; Tsiery, on the other hand, remained exactly the same, silent and inscrutable.

The decisive battle took place on one of our final nights, on a road between Tulear and Ifaty, a beach where I would witness the most spectacular sunset of my life. A ferocious tropical storm poured down. The road became a river and you couldn't see more than three feet in front of you. We moved along, or better said, we floated along at a snail's pace and I felt obliged to get out of the car every once in a while to locate the road, standing up to my waist in water, mosquitoes and spiders floating around me. And then we blew a tire. It was getting late and my aunt was both starving and febrile, so I told Tsiery that it would be best if we changed the flat immediately. But he refused to change it in the downpour. My aunt's fever rose the moment she heard this. She screamed at him but she wasn't just screaming at Tsiery, she was furious with the whole Orient, with its different ways of doing battle and understanding the world. Tsiery, in response, tilted his seat back on top of the old woman and fell asleep instantly. My aunt shed tears of rage, and since I couldn't change the tire alone I counted the seconds for hours until the storm died down. Then the driver and I put the spare on and we were able to make it to our hotel. My aunt was shaking uncontrollably and had a fever of 104. I thought she was going to die.

By the following morning my aunt Adelina had miraculously recovered. She didn't ever complain about him again, nor did she raise her voice to him. Simply put, he ceased to exist for her. A few days later we returned to Tana and it was time to bid each other good-bye. My aunt, in a completely unforeseen circumstance, gave him what was a generous tip by her standards—five dollars. While she handed him the bills she said, in English:

"You moron, son of a bitch . . ."

And he, who certainly didn't speak English either but clearly knew a little, smiled while he bowed, accepting the bills, and replied in English:

"Bitch, yes, bitch, thank you, thank you, bitch, yes, bitch . . ."

We all know what a bitch is. Aboard the plane, en route to Madrid, my aunt Adelina was unusually quiet. She spoke only to complain to the stewardess about the small dinner portion. And once before landing, when she said to me:

"Do you know what, darling? I've never had such a wonderful time. That Tsiery . . ."

She didn't finish the sentence. Perhaps she was going to insult him one last time, but I think at that moment hers was a silence of admiration. Aunt Adelina had never encountered such a formidable enemy. No one had beaten her and humiliated her in that way. I think, in a way, my aunt fell in love with him. With Tsiery, the imbecile Madagascan driver. I'm still waiting for her to invite me on another trip, but I doubt it will be as interesting as that journey through Madagascar.

Copyright Nicolás Casariego. Translation copyright 2008 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.