First impressions of a new life

Driving south from Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, you twist and wind through the sprawling highland landscapes. Rice paddies seem to stretch for miles. Small clusters of narrow two-story mud and brick homes occasionally dot the hillsides and valleys. The quality of the road is pretty good, by Malagasy standards, so the trip is mostly bearable. Stopping at roadside diners is an easy way to break up the journey and a chance to refuel with a heaping portion of rice and a smaller portion of pork and vegetables. Passing through the villages along the main road is like watching the local cultures transform in small incremental steps, from the predominantly Merina areas around the capital to the hearty Betsileo villages. And finally, about nine hours from Antananarivo and in the heart of Betsileo country, you arrive in Fianarantsoa.

A statue of "Masina Maria" (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

A statue of “Masina Maria” (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

Recently, I made that journey and began the next chapter of my Peace Corps service in Fianarantsoa (Fianar, for short). After living and working in Andapa for the past two years, I have decided to leverage my experiences and continue exploring the development world for one more year. My new assignment does not include teaching English, instead I’ll be co-managing the regional Peace Corps office in Fianar and supporting other PCVs in a variety of capacities. This is a big change for me, in a lot of ways, and even being in Fianar for this short amount of time has afforded me the opportunity to explore a new city and to think critically about my service in Madagascar up to this point.

One week isn’t enough time to form a strong opinion of Fianar, and I don’t plan on doing that quite yet, but I do want to share some of my initial observations and thoughts so far.

My newly developed Peace Corps instincts, which I didn’t appreciate until this relocation, kicked in almost immediately. It was late in the afternoon on a Friday when I arrived in a new city. I walked into my new house and office and it was completely empty and silent. A bit disorienting, at first. I looked around, started taking a mental inventory of everything, and then I began thinking about the basics. Where am I in this city? Where do I find food? How can I cook? Where can I buy basic supplies for the short term? Who can I contact if I need help? These were similar questions that I learned to answer after being dropped off in Andapa for the very first time almost two years ago. I felt proud of myself for calmly and confidently jumping into this new city within an hour of arriving. I remember working up the courage to find dinner that first night by thinking to myself “just get yourself out the front door, and everything else will happen on its own.”

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianar

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianarantsoa

One of the first major differences I encountered was the fact that people in Fianar speak a dialect of Malagasy that I’m not familiar with. I can still communicate on a basic level, but I know that studying and practicing the local dialect will be a priority for me. With the exception of some local vocabulary and pronunciation, most of the Malagasy dialects are similar enough that getting around the country is manageable.

Living in a larger city is another thing I’ve been getting used to. Compared to cozy Andapa, Fianar is a very big Malagasy city with more shops, hotels, restaurants, offices, churches, and markets. There are portions of the city that bustle with vehicles, street vendors, and pedestrians. Seemingly just around the corner from these areas, there are some streets that are more peaceful and offer beautiful views of the city. Fianar is built on a series of hills and the relaxed energy is refreshing for the size of the city.

The view from the balcony at my new house

The view from the balcony at my new house

The food of Fianar, and the highlands in general, is a bit different. The most noticeable difference is the availability of pork in the highlands. In Andapa, and most of northern Madagascar, many people do not eat pork for religious or cultural reasons. Fianar also has a huge variety of fresh vegetables in the markets. Items such as cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peas, and pumpkin are things that are new for me to see in the market. There’s even a small corner of the market with fresh cut flowers, which is something I had never seen in Madagascar previously. The street food and fried snacks are also a little different in Fianar. Some of my favorite snacks during PST, such as mofo anana (fried dough with chopped greens) and mofo akondro (battered and deep fried banana), are now available to me again. While I am leaving behind access to fresh coastal seafood, meals with coconut, and many seasonal tropical fruits that I was used to in the SAVA region, I am still in the honeymoon phase of enjoying other foods that are more typical of the highlands cuisine.

I’ve noticed that even the people look different in Fianar. Compared to the Tsimihety people of Andapa, the Betsileo people in Fianar tend to have a darker complexion and many of them are tall, thin, lanky individuals. Obviously, I’m not making a blanket statement about all Betsileo people, but these are some of the features that have stood out to me as I’ve been walking around the city.

A section in the Old Town of Fianar with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

A section in the Old Town of Fianarantsoa with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

Considering all the changes I’ve experienced in the past month, including leaving Andapa, saying goodbye to some of my closest friends as they finish their service in Madagascar, and transitioning into a new home and job, my spirits are still high and I am eager to move forward. I’ve been enjoying my time spent exploring in Fianar. Inside the regional Peace Corps office, there is a small note attached to the communal refrigerator that reads “Peace Corps by choice, Betsileo by the grace of God.” I’m choosing to embrace this outlook as a guiding principle in my integration. I may not have specifically chosen to live in this region, but I will do my best to fall in love with it.

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A mission to serve

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

To offer myself in the service of others, be a curious participant in new cultures, and build relationships that bring out the best in people

This is my “why.” My personal mission statement that has guided me to where I am today. As I reflect on my Peace Corps service in Madagascar and the decisions that led up to this point, I can simplify my reasons for pursuing this opportunity into the statement above. Even looking forward, this is the guiding principle for how I want to continue living my life.

One of the three goals of Peace Corps is “to help people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women.” Going through the Peace Corps application process, I knew this goal ensured my experience would be much more than simply traveling abroad. At that time, I couldn’t really pinpoint any specific training that I possessed that would be extremely sought after by foreign governments. I didn’t know how to farm or build bridges or improve water sanitation, and I still don’t know how to do those things. These were things that I assumed would be expected of me as a Volunteer. Instead, I prepared myself to arrive in my new host country and basically wing it. I wanted to first become part of the community and from there, find work that served the collective good. In this way, I hoped to invest myself in my community as a motivation for improving our shared experience. I quickly learned what I could do to help and how I could adapt my skills. Over time, I have learned to work in a fairly ambiguous and ever-changing environment, which has allowed me to confront complex, sometimes initially undefined, issues that are often very different from my experiences in America. Serving my community in Madagascar is about more than what I can do with my hands, but also what I can do with my mind and my heart.

I feel very fortunate to come from a family that values travel. Growing up, I often took vacations with my parents and we occasionally traveled with other family friends or relatives. One of my first international trips was with my mother and our close family friend. The three of us went to London and Paris during the summer after I graduated form high school. And this is when I was truly captivated by foreign travel and cultural immersion. The architecture, the history, the scenery, the people, the food, the chance to see and experience these places that I had only heard about from others. I loved it all, and I was never satisfied. That experience led to me pursuing an opportunity to study abroad in Italy during college, later exploring Israel through a group excursion, then returning to Europe for a 3 month backpacking trip after graduating from college, and more recently visiting Vietnam and Cambodia before ending up in Madagascar. Throughout all of these episodes abroad, I couldn’t get enough of the culture and I loved learning about a place through the eyes of the locals. It is this passionate curiosity that has kept me always thinking of the next destination. For me, combining this powerful force with the desire to share my skills was an obvious motivation for pursuing my current Peace Corps service. By traveling abroad, I learned to sit back and listen, create a deeper understanding of a place, and consider the hopes of someone else. These are all skills that have served me well as a Volunteer.

Building supportive relationships is not something that I consciously set out to achieve when I began preparing for my Peace Corps service. It is something that has developed and become more apparent to me since living and working in Madagascar. I’ve met some outstanding people on this island and I find myself wanting to support them in ways that encourage our mutual personal growth. I learn from them and I hope they can learn from me. I have been humbled and inspired by the hospitality that has been shown to me and I strive to replicate that in my actions. When I see the potential in someone, I find joy in helping them fulfill that potential. I believe that part of my purpose here is to help others be the truest and best version of themselves.

While I freely admit my reflections are presented with romantic and idealistic tones, they are grounded in my experiences up to this point. Like everything in life, there are good days and bad days. There are days when I can have rewarding conversations in Malagasy and days when my students get on my last nerve and then proceed to obliterate that nerve. Looking at the big picture of how and why I am here is what consistently brings me back to my personal mission statement. It is the small light on my darkest days and the reassuring maxim that pushes me to the next level.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

Ode to the taxi-brousse

Just the mention of the word stirs up a mixture of emotions in every Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteer. Everyone’s got a story, or 20, about traveling around this beautiful island in a taxi-brousse, known as a “bush taxi” in other countries. It is the primary form of land travel in Madagascar. Most Volunteers see it as a necessary evil. Traveling by “brousse”, as we sometimes call it, is a skill that has to be honed and adjusted. It takes months to perfect your approach and style. At first, we were all afraid. But now, we are mahay taxi-brousse (knowledgeable about how to ride in and live in a world with the taxi-brousse).

In an attempt to describe and pay tribute to the taxi-brousse, I’d like to share a collection of observations and experiences that have happened to me since I arrived in Andapa in September 2014. Everything you are about to read is true and has happened to me, but you could easily imagine that taxi-brousses are generally the same all across Madagascar.

For starters, you might be wondering what a taxi-brousse looks like. That’s a little like asking what a lemur looks like. They all have a few commonly defining characteristics, but every one you see is a little bit different than the next. A taxi-brousse is basically a vehicle intended to move large numbers of people from one place to another. It’s usually a mini-van type vehicle. A little bigger than the average soccer mom’s mini-van, but smaller than a military transport truck. Usually. Brousses are also almost always customized. Not like “Pimp My Ride” customized. More like electrical wires hanging from the roof, religious stickers on the windows, door hinges obviously joined together with solder, and tacky pleather upholstering. The engines have been tinkered with by the local mechanic. The entire vehicle roars like a wild beast and rumbles like an electronic massage chair. Being in a taxi-brousse is truly an experience unlike any other.

A typical taxi-brousse

A typical taxi-brousse

The Good

I’ll admit that is has taken me a while to see the good things about broussing. Yes, one of them is the fact that “brousse” can be a noun or a verb. Once I got over the initial shock of the process, I began to appreciate the brousse for a few simple reasons. For starters, there’s no weight limit on luggage. Whatever bags you bring can be tied down on the roof of the car. And it’s not just limited to bags, my friends. I’ve seen entire living room furniture sets, bicycles, giant bushels of produce, wooden cages filled with chickens, geese, or ducks, and even mattresses on top of a brousse. If it can be tied down, it can go on top of a brousse. Smaller, more delicate bags can be placed on your lap or under your seat.

The driver's assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

The driver’s assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

Also, there is a wonderful seat in the brousse called place d’avant (French for “front place”). It is the front bench row next to the driver. Usually, it is reserved for two people. This is by far the most luxurious and comfortable part of the brousse because the other rows get filled to the brim, and then some, with passengers. A bit more on that later. But the place d’avant is typically reserved for special passengers. For example, a pretty girl that the driver might want to hit on during the ride, a traveling police officer or other local official, a foreign tourist, or in my case an obviously tall white dude who can speak a little bit of Malagasy. After riding in the huddle of passengers for a few months, I’ll never forget my first experience sitting in the place d’avant and feeling like royalty. I will admit that now I insist on sitting in this space, something that most of the local drivers already know about me and are happy to oblige.

On longer, overnight journeys (there are some routes that take more than 30 hours to travel and drivers always drive through the night when necessary) it is common for the vehicle to stop at “rest stops” along the main road to pause for a meal. At these rest stops, there are usually 5 or 6 small restaurants that all serve a heaping plate of rice with very similar side dishes of meat or beans. These places specifically service the taxi-brousse community and although the food is prepared on an almost industrial scale, it is still usually delicious and filling for a long night of driving through the pitch-black countryside. The service is quick and straight forward, enabling passengers to sit down, eat, and leave within 20 minutes.

For shorter, usually regional trips, the common practice for food is to stop in a town and food vendors will sell things to passengers through the car window. When the brousse stops, a group of vendors will run toward the car and start shoving large platters of fried breads, deep fried meats, hard-boiled eggs, coconuts, and the occasional fresh fish. The snacks are usually cheap and easy to eat in a vehicle. One of my favorite parts about broussing in different parts of the country is sampling the local cuisine in the form of brousse snacks.

Women selling various snacks to passengers

Women selling various snacks to passengers

The Bad

As I have eluded to earlier, riding in a taxi-brousse isn’t all sunshine and delicious brousse foods. There are some bad things that deserve to be mentioned. While some of these things might sound terrible to the reader, I will admit that to another Volunteer they might only seem trivial or annoying at best. One of these issues is known as “taxi-brousse time.” It’s related to a larger cultural phenomenon known as fotoana gasy (Malagasy time), where the concept of time is interpreted in a much broader sense. Things do not work on a precise schedule in this country, and the taxi-brousse is no exception. That being said, there are no hard scheduled departure and arrival times for a taxi-brousse. It leaves when it is ready and it gets there when it gets there.

The departure can sometimes be the most painful part of the whole experience because the brousse will generally leave only when it is full of passengers. If there aren’t 15-20 people ready to go at the same time, there are basically two courses of action. First, the brousse will just wait at the station until the desired number of passengers trickles in. Often times with the engine running, the combination of the day’s heat and the exhaust fumes enveloping the car can make for an extremely uncomfortable waiting experience. The second option is to put whatever passengers you do have into the car and drive around town trying to pick up more people off the street. This tactic can take 10 minutes or and hour and a half. In my opinion, the goal here is to show off how many people are already in the car in the hopes of attracting more passengers to join your downtown loop tour for the next 45 minutes.

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

Once the taxi-brousse is full and ready to depart town, at least you know the journey will get underway. This also means that the seating arrangement, if you can call it that, has been established and the discomfort of being crammed into a row of seats build to seat 3-4 people comfortably, but now has 5-6 people jammed in, slowly grows into a stinging and sometimes unbearable pain. Most taxi-brousses are build to seat about 15 people by American standards. This, my friends, is only the starting point in Madagascar. Brousses are routinely packed with 26-30 people and nobody puts up a fight about it. It’s just the way it is. It’s common to sit on someone’s lap, sometimes for hours at a time. Infants get passed around to strangers just to make the puzzle pieces of humans fit together better. Most of the time your knees are jammed up against the hard wood or plastic seat back in front of you. In the region where I live and travel, most taxi-brousse drivers seem to live by the philosophy that a brousse is never full and there’s always room for one more person. Only in the most extreme attempt to overpack a brousse will a person verbally protest the driver. The common expression to voice your disapproval of the situation is translated into English as “Hey! We’re not cows!”

If the seating isn’t enough to push you into a quiet rage, the music certainly will. This is another regional difference, but the taxi-brousse drivers in my region tend to show off their stereo systems by playing the loudest, fastest, and most disorienting music I’ve ever heard. The style of music is known as salegy and a brief internet search might be more helpful in explaining the truly aurally oppressive nature of this music than my words here could. An experienced Volunteer will tell you that one of the keys to surviving a brousse ride is an iPod and a good pair of headphones. In the central highlands of Madagascar, it’s more common to hear gospel church music in the taxi-brousses. This can sometimes be more pleasant to listen to, but it also gets tiring after many hours on the road.

The Ugly

This last category of taxi-brousse experiences describes what I consider to be the universally terrible things about this particular form of travel. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve traveled before, these next few observations are unmistakably shitty.

To start off, I’ve been a witness to taxi-brousses running over animals way more times that I’d like to admit. Much of this country is rural and many of the towns and villages along the roads are basically next to the road. Unlike in America where people tend to have good strong fences around their homes and properties, Malagasy villages are not built like that. This means that animals of all varieties, domestic and wild, can get on the road and get themselves into trouble. I have been in brousses that have run over pigs, geese, frogs, snakes, dogs, and chameleons. It’s always alarming and most passengers, if they notice it, gasp in distress and shake their heads in disapproval of the driver. Then life quickly goes on and the brousse keeps going.

Then there’s always the carsick passenger. Usually it’s a child, which makes the whole situation a little more pathetic. But inevitably someone will puke during the ride and you’d better hope they’re nowhere near you. In my experience, it seems to be a pretty sudden occurrence. All of a sudden, someone is covering their mouth and the people sitting next to them are shouting and trying to distance themselves. In this case, the person usually vomits into a shirt, jacket, backpack, or other piece of cloth that they have with them. Other times, if there is enough warning, they can ask for a plastic bag from the driver. Then the next trick is getting the bag safely out of the moving vehicle through the window without spilling on other passengers or having the contents of the bag blow back through other windows as it is released into the wind. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

At some point along the road, there is almost always a police checkpoint. For the most part, the police want to check that drivers have the proper license, registration, and car insurance and that they’re not transporting anything blatantly illegal (for example, a couple of rosewood trees strapped to the roof). With “minor” paperwork infractions, the police can always be paid off by drivers to overlook the issue. This is just one part of the culture of corruption that exists in Madagascar. Drivers will routinely pay about 2,000 ariary (about $0.60 USD) each time that they come to a checkpoint and the handoff isn’t always subtle. It’s usually done with a handshake, like at fancy restaurants when someone wants the maître d’ to give an extra nice table. Or often the cash will be slipped in with the pile of paperwork handed to the police officer. In other not so subtle attempts, I’ve seen drivers openly ask police officers if they have change for large bills. This is something that most people agree is bad but nothing substantial is being done to correct the behavior.

And finally, one of the absolute worst things that can happen during a taxi-brousse ride is the dreaded vehicle breakdown. Let me remind the reader, roadside assistance does not exist in Madagascar. When a brousse breaks down, it pulls over to the side of the road and the real fun begins. The driver and assistant get out and survey the vehicle. If you’re lucky and it’s only a flat tire, that’s a relatively easy fix and you’ll be back on the road shortly. Consider it a nice break to get out, stretch your legs, and pee in the bushes if you need to. But if the damage is under the hood, it could take a while. Most of the time the driver will just pour water over the engine and see if that does anything. Maybe it’s overheated? Maybe it’s thirsty? No one really knows. If the engine bath doesn’t work, the tinkering begins. The driver usually barks orders at his assistant and every other man gathers around to stare and offer their opinion. This could take minutes, or hours, which is the truly scary part about the breakdown. You never know when it will really end and usually the passengers are forced to just wait on the side of the road in the heat until the problem is fixed. Daytime breakdowns are a little better because there’s a better chance of other motorists driving by and offering help. But I was in a brousse once that broke down at night in the middle of nowhere, which was terrifying for many reasons. Luckily most of the taxi-brousse drivers and assistants are the same people that build and “customize” the vehicle, so they are pretty capable when it comes to repairs. But the uncertainty and the inconvenience of a breakdown can be one of the worst things to happen on the road.

Giving the engine a bath, because that'll definitely work

Giving the engine a bath, because that’ll definitely work

When you consider it all, it’s clear that the taxi-brousse is an imperfect reality of life in Madagascar. It’s something that we rely on here and a way of traveling that we just have to accept. I like to remind myself that broussing builds character and adds to the charm of traveling in the developing world. If I didn’t think this way, I’d actually go crazy and never leave my town.

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

The Easter adventure

In Madagascar, schools usually close for two weeks during the Easter holiday. What better excuse to plan a vacation and travel with some friends? During the past month or so, I made arrangements with some other PCVs to visit the city of Fianarantsoa (AKA “Fianar”) and the surrounding area. The Fianar area is located in the highlands of Madagascar, a couple hundred kilometers south of the capital, Antananarivo (AKA “Tana”). We made a smart decision by dividing the long car journey from Tana to Fianar into a few days, stopping at a couple other places along the way.

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Excited for our first day of vacation, posing in front of the train station in Antsirabe

Our first stop was Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar. We had all been here before during PST, but at that time we were pretty much herded through the city according to the tight schedule laid out by Peace Corps staff. So this time around, we got to explore the city on our own terms and rediscover Antsirabe. It has all the signs of an up-and-coming Malagasy city with a mix of traditional highlands culture and modern commercial outlets. As one of our travel companions noted, Antsirabe is what happened after people realized how big of an urban mess Tana was and they got a chance to start over with a new city. It’s more organized, friendlier, and prettier than the capital. After adjusting to the noticeably cooler weather of the highlands, we mostly walked around parts of Antsirabe that we hadn’t seen before and even sang karaoke one night. Karaoke is a very popular activity here in Madagascar and we had a blast belting out English classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, and struggling through “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. It was a fun way to get the vacation started and have a few laughs.

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

View of the countryside that surrounds Antsirabe

Next, we stopped for about half a day in Ambositra. This town is known as being a place for artisans and craftspeople to show and sell their work. There’s not much else to do in the town, so we figured a few hours there would be sufficient. We grabbed a bite to eat after arriving in the late morning, then spent most of the afternoon wandering through the shops filled with wooden sculptures, silk cloths, and other hand crafted items. I didn’t see anything that caught my attention, so I ultimately walked away empty handed. Much like Antsirabe, Ambositra is surrounded by stunning scenery and picturesque countryside, so that was good enough for me. We made arrangements to travel onward to Fianar that afternoon, which took about 4 hours over sometimes less-than desirable road conditions.

Finally, we arrived at our main destination in Fianar. Weary from the constant travel of the preceding days, our first full day in Fianar started with a lazy morning of sleeping in and making waffles for brunch. In the afternoon, we ventured to a nearby village and took a tour of a tea plantation. It was really interesting to see the processing facility and taste some of the different varieties of tea.

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

Exploring the fields at the tea plantation

The following day, we ventured out yet again to go paragliding in a village called Ambalavao. There, we met up with our pilot (not sure how else to call a person who operates a paragliding apparatus) and followed him up a pretty big mountain that was to serve as our launching point. From the top, the views of the surrounding Betsileo (one of the many ethnic groups of Malagasy people) countryside were simply breathtaking. I felt like this was the version of Madagascar I was meant to see. One by one, we each donned a harness and strapped in for a ride through the quiet and peaceful air. After each flight, the pilot would fold up the parachute, hike back up the mountain, and the next person would go. The pilot and his assistant didn’t speak much English, but we had fun speaking Malagasy and sharing stories. The weather was perfect, the views were amazing, and it was certainly something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Standing on top of the mountain that served as our paragliding launch pad, looking out across the Betsileo countryside

Strapped up and ready to fly

Strapped up and ready to fly

We also spent a couple of nights outside of Fianar visiting Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana is a Malagasy word that means “hot water” and the town and the national park are both named for the natural hot springs located there. It’s one of the most popular national parks in Madagascar and the terrain really reminded me of Andapa – tall mountains, thick green forest, and freely flowing rivers and streams. On Easter Sunday, we hiked through the national park for about 5 hours. Some of the highlights included seeing five different species of lemurs, a huge waterfall, and a few other animals along the way. The hike was challenging, going up and down the mountains certainly took a lot of energy and my calves are still sore, but it was very much worth it in the end. The town of Ranomafana is a small town, but it was lively during Easter.

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

One of the lemurs we saw enjoying a snack in Ranomafana National Park

We left Ranomafana in the morning on Easter Monday, headed back to Fianar and spent most of the day there, then took an overnight taxi-brousse to Tana and arrived there around 4am on Tuesday. Talk about a whirlwind of travel! But one day of rest in Tana was enough before I hopped on an airplane and flew back to the SAVA region. Everyone that I travelled with agreed that we did so much in a relatively short amount of time. We made some great new memories, had a lot of fun together, and certainly tapped into our more adventurous natures. I can say that traveling through the highlands of Madagascar was refreshing for me because the scenery and the people are very different from what I am used to in Andapa. I really enjoyed spending time in Fianarantsoa and the surrounding areas. Until the next adventure, I’ll have some pretty great memories.

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

Standing in front of the waterfall during our hike through Ranomafana National Park

The walk

During the recent holiday vacation, I embarked on a journey that few people in this country undertake. Even fewer foreign visitors attempt what I did.

In some parts of Madagascar, the terrain does not always allow for roads to connect villages and cities by car or other conventional modes of transportation. As a result, some journeys can only be done on foot. One such example is the overland route from Antalaha to Maroantsetra. There is, however, a walking path that connects these two cities by cutting across the peninsula in a general southeast direction. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of another Volunteer, I decided to attempt this particular journey and walk from Antalaha to Maroantsetra.

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A simple map of the area where we walked.

I was not alone in my quest to reach the other side of the peninsula. I joined a group of three other Peace Corps Volunteers and we brought two Malagasy friends, Ertice and Rado, to help us as guides along the route. Two of the Volunteers are certified Wilderness First Responders in America, so I figured it was probably a good sign that they were with us. Leading up to our departure, we all were very excited and hopeful that this would be an incredible experience and a fun story to tell in the end.

In preparation for the trip, I really didn’t fully understand what I was getting into. I knew I needed to pack light because I would be carrying my own backpack the whole way. I assumed I would be walking for a few days and it would be exhausting, then I would arrive at the destination and it would be over. Piece of cake. That attitude began to change when I told other Malagasy people about my plans to walk from Antalaha to Maroantsetra. After they stopped laughing in my face, most people told me it would take between 3-5 days to complete the trip. Very few Malagasy people I spoke to had actually walked the route themselves, which was probably a good indicator of how uncommon and difficult the task is. Nonetheless, I tried to shake off the doubts and maintain my adventuresome attitude toward the journey.

Day 1

Our group had gathered in Antalaha to review our final plans and discuss how we would start the journey. We agreed that we would leave by 5am and take a car from Antalaha to the village of Marofinaritra, about 30km away. From that point, we would begin walking. In true Malagasy fashion, we were late and ended up leaving Antalaha around 8am after arranging our transportation and getting breakfast. The car was supposed to be a “special”, which we assumed meant that only our group of 6 people would be the passengers. The driver obviously had a different understanding of the term “special” because he packed a total of 24 men, women, and children into the back of his truck and made his way to Marofinaritra. The sun had been out for a few hours already and it was getting toasty. Packed into the truck like sardines, we braved some pretty treacherous and uneven terrain for a couple of hours. Every dip and bump in the road translated to us bouncing around on the unforgiving metal truck bed and holding on for dear life. About halfway through the ride, a couple of the young children riding with us got carsick and their mothers tried as best as they could to contain the mess. Between the glaring heat, the passengers tangled up like yarn, and the borderline reckless driving, this certainly was a “special” ride.

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Early on, crammed into the back of the truck, when we were still happy to be in a car.

When we finally arrived in Marofinaritra, we got out of the truck as quickly as possible and moved around to regain the feeling in our legs and butts. It was about 10:30 in the morning at this point, the day was still getting hotter, and we had to keep moving. We donned our backpacks and took our first steps of the journey. After walking for an hour or so in an area that had very little shade, we decided to stop at the river and cool off. Over the next few days, we would visit this river again and again because the route basically followed the flow of the river. But on this day, we swam in all our clothes and temporarily relaxed in the cool waters of the river. Completely soaked, we carried on.

2015/01/dscn0717-0.jpgThis is where we stopped to swim in the river.

In the early afternoon, we passed through a village where one of our guides, Ertice, had some family members living. They welcomed us and allowed us to sit at their home while they fetched fresh coconuts for us. It was a nice break to sit in the shade and enjoy the coconut water. We walked a bit further and sat for lunch, again enjoying the chance to sit down and escape the oppressive sun. After lunch, we summoned our remaining energy and continued on with a strong afternoon of walking. We passed through villages and marveled at wide open landscapes along the way. This is, after all, the ambanivolo (countryside) of the SAVA region.

2015/01/dscn0731.jpgErtice (center, white shirt) with members of his extended family.

About an hour before the sun went down, we reached a village that was to be our refuge for the night. There was a small and simple hotel that we found where we could get a room and a meal. I went down to the river to bathe and change my clothes before coming back up for dinner. It was the first time I had ever done such a thing and some of the kids were really entertained by seeing a big white guy dunking himself in their river. We inhaled our rice and salty duck meat dinner and headed off to bed to get some much deserved rest. We had survived the first day.

Day 2

The alarm on my phone began to chime at 3:30 in the morning. It was still dark outside and my sore muscles ached as I slowly crawled off the foam mattress on the floor. Slowly but surely, everyone else in our group began to wake up and like zombies we packed up our things for another day of walking. We hit the road by about 4:45am, just as the sun was starting to glow far away across the horizon. Our pace was strong as we moved through the rainforest and the birds and insects started to come alive with noise. A few hours into the walk, we stopped for breakfast in the next small village and the meal lasted a little longer than we had hoped. When we left after breakfast, we continued to keep a good pace as we tackled kilometers up until stopping for lunch.

2015/01/dscn0723-1.jpgOur group walking through a portion of the trail.

During our lunchtime conversation, as well as many other times during the days, we talked about our walking progress and estimated how many kilometers we had left until our destination. At the start of the trip, one of the Volunteers had somehow determined that the whole route from Antalaha to Maroantsetra was about 80km. Because we had taken the truck about 30km the previous day and then walked roughly another 10km since then, in our minds we were a very manageable 40km from our destination. Nothing to laugh at, but certainly we could walk another 40km in a good day and a half. Our guides, for whatever reasons, chose not to dash our hopes by giving the more realistic version of our distances. When we asked them, repeatedly, “will we get to Maroantsetra tomorrow?”, their mantra was always, “it depends on you.” Skeptical of their ambiguous answer, we started to ask people passing on the road near our lunch spot where they were coming from or going to and how many kilometers away they estimated Maroantsetra to be. Some of the more fit people claimed to have left Maroantsetra early that same morning, so we felt optimistic. But when a few separate people said that Maroantsetra was still another 82km from our current location, our guides stepped in to break the bad news to us. Our previous understating of the length of our journey was devastatingly inaccurate and we did, in fact, need to prepare to walk at least another 80km. Upon hearing this, we started laughing merely as a defense mechanism to avoid crying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My legs were jelly, I already had a couple gnarly blisters on my feet, and my energy level was being zapped each minute that I continued to be in the sun and listened to the fact that my understating of the distance of this journey was actually doubling. This was a low point for our group. But those upcoming 82 kilometers were not going to walk themselves, so we had to get our things together and take it one step at a time.

We moved forward in the heat of the afternoon and much of this leg of the walk was through some hard terrain. The jungle with thick around us, blotting out the sun and brushing up against our arms as we walked the insanely narrow path. Add to this, the unforgiving climbs and descents of walking up and down mountainsides. I had no way of knowing when it would end or how much higher I had to climb. My frustrations were high and I had to scream at the faceless jungle around me when it tried to trip me up or further delay my progress. The blisters on my feet intensified and sent a sharp pain through my legs with every step I took. Eventually, the jungle loosened its grip on us and we came to a flat clearing next to the river we had been following all along. It was a perfect place to rest and change my shoes. There were some other Malagasy people sitting near the river so I picked a spot close to them to rest and talk a bit. We enjoyed the shade, even buying mangoes from a fellow traveller walking past us, but we knew we had to continue on.

2015/01/dscn0741.jpgAn example of the narrow paths and thick jungle that we encountered.

Just before sundown, again, we reached a village that we could sleep in for the night. Our guides asked around for an available room and meal and soon enough we found refuge. There was a brother and sister with her daughter that we had met walking along the route earlier in the day, passing them and falling behind a few times throughout the day, and they had made it to the same village around the same time as we did. So we shared the hotel with them and agreed to start walking together the following morning. This was one of the many moments of cooperation I encountered along this journey, something that I believe most Malagasy people are inherently good at.

With our spirits somewhat still intact, we devoured another meal of rice and mystery chicken parts before curling up to sleep. I remember only sleeping for a couple of hours, then mostly tossing and turning on the lightly padded wood plank that served as my bed. We had survived the second day.

2015/01/dscn0744.jpgAn open field at dusk.

Day 3

The Malagasy people sharing our hotel, and consequently I as well, we’re awake and moving around well before my alarm was set to go off at 3:30am. On this morning, our group was able to get our bags in order quickly and we started walking around 4:15 in the morning. The brother and sister group had also joined us, as promised. The morning was dark and peaceful, it was almost pleasant to cover so much ground in the cool temperatures. During sunrise, one of the other Volunteers and I talked about the special moments we were living in. The moments where no one else will truly understand what it feels like to stand in this spot and look at this beautiful sunrise splash hues of pink, blue, and orange across the newly born sky. I also thought about how years from now, when I’m not in Madagascar, I can stop at almost any moment and realize that someone is walking this stretch of path in a remote place of a very far away country. I captured the feelings in my mind and pressed onward.

That morning, we walked through parts of the Masoala National Park. I can only assume it was part of the western realm of this nation’s largest national park. I could tell the difference almost instantly because the forest suddenly changed into a dense and primitive covering that could only be achieved by protecting the land. We made very good progress that morning and stopped for a hearty breakfast around 7:30am. After breakfast, we continued to devour the kilometers until the early afternoon. Our guides had convinced us that if we really worked hard enough, we could feasibly get to Maroantsetra by the end of the day. Somehow we put aside their previous deceptions and our incredible fatigue and chose to power through as much of the terrain as we could. That tactic proved to be harder than we though, considering the afternoon heat was again building and eventually our stomachs ached for more fuel. The burdens of the pervious days were starting to catch up to us and turned the afternoon into a sluggish affair of desperately determined walking. I just wanted to get out of the sun and into the next town.

2015/01/dscn0732-0.jpgAn example of the small villages that we frequently walked through.

When we finally arrived at the next town, I hobbled over to the first piece of shade I saw and took a seat. We found a restaurant nearby to have lunch and it felt like the table was the only thing keeping me in a somewhat vertical position. This was probably the most exhausted and worn down I had been during the entire trip. The guides told us that from this point, with a little help from a vehicle, we could conceivably get to the place where we needed to hire a canoe to take us into Maroantsetra by the end of the day. That was all the motivation we needed to scarf down our lunch and quickly plan our next steps.

Our other guide, Rado, tracked down a local man who was willing to drive us another few kilometers down the road, therefore saving us time and energy. For a reasonable price, we hopped in the back of his tricycle truck (imagine a motorcycle with a pickup truck bed attached to it) and he bumbled through town and continued on down the road. During this short trip, our hopes of reaching Maroantsetra were lifted and dashed a couple of times. First, the driver told us he could take us far enough to reach his brother-in-law who had a boat that we could take to our destination. Great! Then we began to bargain for the price of the boat and it was astronomical compared to what we would pay for a canoe. He wouldn’t come down on the price to our satisfaction, so that option was removed. Next, the driver confessed that he couldn’t take us all the way to the canoes but he could get us about 5km away and we would walk the remainder. We conceded that was better than walking the entire way. Finally, we came to a large river crossing and a rickety wooden “bridge” that I was nervous to walk on, let alone drive across. The driver stopped and told us this was the end of the line. He could cross this bridge but the one after it was no match for his vehicle. Feeling as if the possibility of reaching Maroantsetra was quickly slipping away with the rapidly setting sun, we discussed our two options: to stay on the road one more night or press onward to the canoes immediately. Exhaustion and frustration won that battle and we decided to stay in the town next to the river for the night. The accommodations were, again, very basic and we even skipped dinner because we were that tired and weary. The mental and physical exertion of the day was finally released.

Day 4

The night was the hottest and most humid we had experienced during the journey. Laying on an exposed foam mattress felt like I was just covered in a membrane of sweat and discomfort. Alas, the alarm rang at the usually 3:30 in the morning and we were walking by 4:15. Limping and tired, at least we knew that this would be the final day of the trek. Our guides told us that we could reasonably walk over what they considered a hill and just a little further to reach to canoes. I was hopeful about finally being in Maroantsetra before lunch.

We carried on in the darkness of the morning, crossing the wide river from the day before and continuing up the hill. It was here that I came to appreciate hiking this terrain in the dark and not being able to see farther than the glow of my headlamp, because although it was obvious we were walking uphill it was next to impossible to know exactly how much more uphill waited ahead of us. We just had to keep blindly walking and pressing on. We didn’t have the benefit, or burden, of being able to see the entirety of the large mountain that we were traveling over. A couple of hours later, after coming down from the “hill”, we managed to hit flat ground and took a path that paralleled the beach. The morning was young, it was still quiet except for the crashing waves, and all we had to do was walk a few more kilometers straight ahead. In a zombie-like state, we eventually found our way to the canoes.

It felt like we just got in the first canoe we saw and assumed it would take us where we wanted to go. Luckily, they really only travel to and from Maroantsetra. For a much more reasonable price, our gondolier skillfully guided us through the clam waters of the marsh that surrounds most of Maroantsetra. I don’t recall how long we were in the boat for because I seized the opportunity to sit down and I fell asleep for a while. But minutes after I woke up, we arrived at the humble docks of Maroantsetra around 8 in the morning. If it weren’t for our complete exhaustion, I think our arrival would have had a bit more fanfare, but we just sort of looked around at each other and smiled. We grabbed our backpacks, got to our hotel, and let out a celebratory exhale because the walk was finally complete. With stomachs still empty, we ordered some eggs and coffee for breakfast and then went back to our room to collapse and nurse our wounds. I asked one of the staff members if it would be possible to get some hot water to soak my feet in, and even with my broken Malagasy skills, she took one look at my haggard appearance and figured out what I was saying. Upon inspection of my soaked feet, I counted a total of 11 blisters that prove either my heartiness or my complete stupidity when it comes to selecting footwear.

We spent Christmas Eve and a few days after that touring Maroantsetra. It’s a pretty quiet town, one main road and not much else to do there. On one of the days, we took a day trip to an island called Nosy Mangabe to explore some of terrain there. The whole island is a protected natural reserve of thick and vibrant jungle and I’ve been told it’s one of the few places on Earth where the rainforest directly meets the ocean. We walked around a bit and saw lemurs, chameleons, frogs, and a few other creatures. For most of that afternoon, we relaxed on the beach of the island.

The experience of the walk was certainly one that I will never forget. Throughout the trip there were times when I questioned why I even wanted to do this. And other times I was humbled by my surroundings. I will remember how I have never smelt worse than I did during those 4 days. I will remember how this was likely the longest amount of time that I was consistently uncomfortable for one reason or another. I will remember the communal experience of meeting other travelers, being welcomed in a small rural village, and watching strangers helping other strangers along the way. I will remember how frustrating it was to never have an accurate idea of distance or travel time. I will remember the varied and spectacular scenery that was constantly around us. I will remember the hearty laughs and groans of pain that I shared with my travel partners. I will remember that all of this is why I chose to embark on this journey.

And if I had to do it again, I would. But I’d pack so much smarter.<

Exploration

“The neophilic urge must drive us on and keep us interested until the unknown has become the known, until familiarity has bred contempt and, in the process, we have gained valuable experience to be stored away and called upon when needed at a later date” -Desmond Morris

In the book that I am currently reading, “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris, the author writes about the origin of humans, our behavioral and social structures, and aims to explain the qualities of our modern species through the lens of an evolutionary biology. One of the topics he focuses on is our strong urge to explore the world around us. In his argument, he asserts that exploration is the constant search for balance between our neophilic (love of the new) and neophobic (fear of the new) tendencies, which he applies to examples such as intellectual creativity and the arts, social interactions, and territorial exploration. Morris also claims, “we never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.”

Similarly to how Morris attributes our exploratory urge to the evolution of our species as a whole, I believe the argument can be applied to the individual and his or her personal pursuits in a lifetime. In my own life, I can certainly see how my desire to know and experience more has been greater than my apprehension toward those things that are new. In doing so, the same evolutionary forces that helped push early humans into the unknown have also helped me to learn more about the world that we all share.

The idea of exploration, as presented in “The Naked Ape,” seems to be very pertinent to my life right now. I began to reflect on my decision to join the Peace Corps and many of the factors that weighed on me at that time. Almost five years ago, when the prospect of joining the Peace Corps started to enter my mind, there were many things about the experience that I was looking forward to and other things that I was nervous about. Those ideas were transformed as I learned more about the nature of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am where I am today (physically, emotionally, and mentally) partially because my human instincts have allowed me to embrace the unknown.

One of the main reasons that I chose to pursue the Peace Corps was the opportunity to fully immerse myself in something different. To live and work in another country for an extended period of time can further open a person’s mind and soul. I was fascinated by the idea of having to adjust to different cultural norms, to eating new foods, to learning the history and traditions of a different group of people, to seeing new landscapes. There’s so much happening in this world and serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a unique opportunity to explore a little piece of the world that some people might otherwise never come close to. Another motivation for me was to gain new skills that could be used to serve others. The technical training and personal development experiences that come with being a PCV are things that can’t be found in many other opportunities. I felt that there was more I could be doing in my life and I wanted to push the boundaries a bit further. I wanted a way to see more, learn more, feel more, and develop more.

There were certainly some reasons to be cautious about making my decision. Questions that I had to consider and things that could potentially hold me back from pursuing this new experience. For example, am I willing to sacrifice 27 months away from my family and friends and everything familiar in my life? Will I be good enough and will I even be effective? What if I get there and I don’t like it, either immediately or 9 months down the road? What will my living conditions be and what are my bare minimum standards? When I get sick, how will I deal with that? What happens after 27 months and I’m supposed to come home? What if I end up falling in love with my host country and I want to resettle there indefinitely?

In the end, I made a decision and here I am in Andapa, Madagascar, of all places in the world. Without even knowing it, I made this decision using my deep-rooted instincts of human exploration. To explore new lands, to explore new skills, and to explore myself. I never considered teaching as a lifetime profession for myself, and who knows what path I might follow when I return to America, but I’m excited that I’m in a place where my ability to teach is needed and appreciated. Living in Madagascar is an education by itself and I’m sure most of the things I learn here will serve me well in the future. I’m confident that the collective impact of the experiences I have during my service will forever shape me as an individual.

What I really appreciate about Morris’ writing is the way he can break down any topic to the basic parts and make a logical argument based on the pieces. In the case of the naked ape, he is able to cut through the fluffy layers of humankind that centuries of social evolution have built on top of basic animal protocol and expose the primordial methods that have been on our side since our ancestors came down from the trees and began to walk on land. The thing that has kept us moving from that point and the thing that will propel us further into the future is the desire to explore. And when we are more curious than scared of something, that is when we learn and evolve.

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