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.

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