It’s been almost five months since I left Madagascar. Now, I’m on the verge of starting the next chapter of my story and wanted to take a look back at some of my final experiences in Madagascar. It was one hell of a ride.
It’s been almost five months since I left Madagascar. Now, I’m on the verge of starting the next chapter of my story and wanted to take a look back at some of my final experiences in Madagascar. It was one hell of a ride.
There are a handful of regions in Madagascar that hold an alluring mystique. Whether it is because these places are isolated in the deep countryside, tucked away off distant coastlines, or nearly impossible to reach by conventional means. The Sud Est (South East) is one of those regions. In my mind, it is an untamed and legendary place down on the eastern coast of the country. The Volunteers in that area exhibit a cultish loyalty to all things Sud Est and are extremely proud to call it their home. They shamelessly uphold traditions from Volunteers that served in the area generations ago, which is part of why it feels so different than other regions. It’s a part of Madagascar that I’ve wanted to visit for a while, but it takes some real dedication to make the arduous journey. Passing through a wide range of landscapes and enduring hundreds of kilometers of open road, anyone with a healthy sense of curiosity and ample amounts of patience can put their travel skills to the test with a visit to the Sud Est.
As luck would have it, one of our Peace Corps Medical Officers recently invited me to accompany her on a trip to this fabled land. The purpose of the mission was to visit health care facilities in the region in order to asses what medical services are available (or more accurately, what isn’t available) and to update contact information for physicians and clinics. We visited some current Volunteers along the route and got a taste of the mystifying Sud Est culture. Through this visit, I learned a lot about healthcare in Madagascar, enjoyed the beautifully diverse scenery of the area, and gained a better appreciation for the hard work that our Volunteers are focused on.
The statistics of the trip are telling of our work. During five days, we covered more than 723 kilometers (450 miles) roundtrip from Fianarantsoa headed east toward Mananjary, then south to Manakara and Farafangana, and all the way back to Fianarantsoa. Our team visited 11 healthcare facilities including rural outpatient clinics, private Catholic hospitals, and large government hospitals. This allowed us to see a varying range of care levels and meet with a number of dedicated doctors and nurses. We also got to see 11 Volunteers in their communities, which was a special look into the realities that they live in every day.
Covering as much ground as we did gave us the opportunity to see many stunning terrains. From the onset, the road from Fianarantsoa glides through the highlands countryside, with sprawling rice paddies laying at the base of formidable rocky mountains. As we approached Ranomafana, the scenery changed to steep hillsides covered in thick rainforest. There were quite a few landslide areas along the road leftover from Cyclone Enawo and the subsequent heavy rains. Continuing down the windy road to the east, we passed the Vatovavy mountain. This gorgeous massif is part of the region’s namesake, Vatovavy-Fitovinany (Female Rock-Seven Estuaries). From Mananjary south through Manakara and further on to Farafangana, the road mostly runs parallel to the coastline and offers occasional views of the Indian Ocean. On the more inland portions of road, the landscape is a mixture of heavily deforested hillsides, scrublands, gorgeous rolling hills covered in nothing but soft grass, pine trees, and iconic Malagasy Ravenala.
While visiting the various healthcare facilities, there were some noticeable differences between private clinics and government posts. For the most part, the private establishments were funded by religious organizations that could provide a much more robust source of income compared to the government. This is where we saw the more advanced medical equipment, the larger laboratories, the most patients, and the proper amount of staff to make it all work. The government buildings were more likely to be in a disheveled state, the equipment was more likely to be out of date, and the facilities sometimes lacked qualified personnel to offer specialized care. Another aspect that I noticed across the board was the fact that despite a tremendous number of patients and their families coming to the facilities, none of the hospital staff seemed to be in any particular rush. I don’t mean to say they were being lazy or inconsiderate to the patients, but they all appeared to have a calm and methodical focus to providing compassionate care. The doctors that we met humbly took us on tours of the clinics and proudly showed off whatever equipment and laboratory space was available.
For me, the most rewarding aspect of this whole trip was the chance to visit other Volunteers in their communities. Every site where a Volunteer lives and works is unique, so seeing these locations first hand allows me to better support Volunteers and advocate at the administrative level on their behalf. During the five days of travel, we met with Volunteers from all three project sectors (Health, Education, and Agriculture), saw almost all of their houses, met many of their friends and work counterparts, and learned a great deal about their experiences. I was impressed by how tamana (settled, well adjusted) these Volunteers are and how well integrated into the community they have become. The Malagasy work partners that we met all had great things to say about their Volunteers and they were so delighted to talk about the positive outcomes of working with an American. In one particular village, the timing of our visit happened to coincide with an official opening ceremony of a clean water project that a Volunteer had been working on. We attended most of the ceremony, witnessed a government official conduct a ribbon cutting, and celebrated the culmination of a fantastic community collaboration.
No matter where we visited, it was obvious how each Volunteer has become a real part of the village family and how their Malagasy peers have gone the extra mile to make their American neighbor feel right at home. Further proof that if you are willing, Madagascar can steal your heart.
One day will come, maybe soon
And this day will be new and unfamiliar,
At least parts of it will be,
And maybe this day will happen over again
And at different times and places
I recall the clanking of the metal latch
On the bottom of my window
Like a forgotten treasure chest
That hasn’t been disturbed for generations
The window swings open and the day begins
I recall walking into the market
To join the bustling commerce of the morning
There’s something happening here
Maybe it’s not always significant, but maybe it is
A jarring embrace from the community
As I stand, I am connected to it
I recall the rain drops slipping off the roof
A free fall of a few meters
Into the uniquely shaped puddles
Carved out by a barrage of Nature’s purest love
The splashes echo in just the right way
To calm even the most ambitious of intentions
I recall the peculiarity of my dearest friend
Clearing his throat intentionally to announce himself
My response is to clear my own throat
And we engage in this dance for a few moments
To let each other know it’s safe to talk
I recall the security of my house
A physical extension of myself
A place to return to and seek refuge, to feel sane
To shut out the world, when needed
And to welcome it in, when warranted
To work, to play, to eat, to share, to learn
I recall the grand views of this corner of the world
The proud and solitary hill framed by my window
The daunting and strong mountains hugging our town
The lush forest, once far thicker and healthier
The vast fields where joyful families toil for a living
I recall the man I was
Unsure of what to do or what to say
Uneasy about navigating the new realities
Curious about strange, yet still familiar, surroundings
Ready, but nothing could prepare for a transformation
When this day comes, and surely it will
Reflections from the past will comfort me
Wisdom will guide me forward
Understanding will motivate me
I smile because I have lived here
This gallery contains 9 photos.
These photos span many months and feature images from some of my travels during that time. A few of the photos focus on local fomba (traditions) around ancestor worship practices.
This gallery contains 10 photos.
A snapshot of happenings from the past few months.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re shopping at your local food market. You stroll through the narrow aisles and inspect the produce, looking carefully for the plumpest tomatoes or the cleanest lettuce. You approach a vendor and ask the price of a small bunch of eggplants that caught your eye. She quickly and forcefully replies, “Cinq mille!” You pause and roll your eyes back to concentrate on remembering how to count in French. A few seconds later, you confidently conclude that cinq mille is five thousand. The next question, which usually only complicates matters, is to clarify if that price is quoted in francs or ariary. You suspect that the price is in francs, the former currency of Madagascar, so you mentally try to convert the price to ariary in order to put things in a perspective that you can more easily understand. The standard conversion is 5 francs to 1 ariary. You then fumble through the local language to ask the vendor if she really means to say the eggplants are arivo ariary (1,000 ariary) and she just blankly stares back at you. Maybe she also pauses to roll her eyes back. You see that she’s having just as much trouble converting ariary back to francs in her head as you did a few moments earlier! With a big smile and nod of her head, she confirms that you two are both on the same page. You hand her a crumpled and worn out purple bank note, she gives you the eggplants, and with an emphatic “misaotra betseka” (thank you very much) for her patience and help, you move on to the next stall and repeat the exercise again with the man selling onions.
This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Madagascar. The root of the confusion is the currency. Officially, the ariary is the sole currency of Madagascar. It replaced the Malagasy franc, a relic left over from French colonization, in January 2005. For various reasons, many people have held on to the idea of the franc in terms of both financial worth and the French numbers that come along with it. In the part of Madagascar where I live, there is still a strong French vazaha (foreigner) influence and most people mistake me for being French simply because of my appearance. When I buy things, most people make that assumption and give me the price of items in francs and they say it using French numbers. Delightful for someone like me who hates doing math in his head and doesn’t speak French very well. But I usually manage to turn the tables by using Malagasy to ask for the price in ariary and most people get a kick out of seeing a tall white guy like me haggling in Malagasy for a good price on a kilo of carrots. I will not be taken advantage of at the market!
In order to share a part of Malagasy culture that I come in contact with on a daily basis, I would like to present a brief summary and description of the money used in this country. The photos are of actual bank notes that have been in my possession and they are without a doubt the cleanest that they will ever be in these pictures. It’s hard to keep an ariary clean for a long time in Madagascar. At the time this post is being written, 1 US dollar is equivalent to about 3300 ariary. The conversion rate between Malagasy francs and ariary does not change; it remains constant at 5 francs to 1 ariary.
100 Ariary (approx. $0.03 USD)
On one side of the bill is an image of Antsiranana Bay with it’s iconic island jutting out from the water. The bay is located near the very northern tip of the country and is considered one of the finest natural harbors in the world. It protects the city of Antsiranana (also known by it’s French colonial name Diego-Suarez) from the Indian Ocean. Today, Antsiranana is a popular destination for foreign tourists and French ex-pats looking to retire in Madagascar.
On the opposite side are two images of the natural wonders found in Madagascar. First, the famous ravinala tree found on the island. It is commonly know as the “traveler’s palm” because the various parts of the tree can be used to assist a wandering traveler. For example, the broad leaves make for an effective umbrella during a sudden rainstorm or they can be thatched together to make a roof for a house. Also, there is often water stored in the base of each leaf that can be used as an emergency source of drinking water. And behind the ravinala tree is an image of a karst limestone formation frequently found in Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. The area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 because of the unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, and wild bird and lemur populations.
This is the smallest denomination of paper money in Madagascar. Smaller denominations do exist in the form of coins, but those are almost never used in circulation. With 100 ariary, I can easily buy one small piece of fried dough or one decent-sized tomato.
200 Ariary (approx. $0.06 USD)
The 200 ariary bill features an image of various styles of aloalo, which are intricately carved wooden poles placed on the graves of prominent people. These funerary sculptures, along with the skulls and horns of slaughtered zebu, often tell a story about the person’s life and why they were important to the community. This is a practice done primarily in the south-west regions of Madagascar, especially by the Mahafaly people.
On the reverse side of the 200 ariary note is a depiction of one of the large stone gates that were used to protect many villages in the central Highlands. The entryway to the village could be sealed each night by a huge stone disk, called a vavahady, and reopened again in the mornings. The practice of building fortified walls and gates in the Highlands spread quickly in the region and allowed the Merina royal families to maintain their positions of power until French colonization in the late 1800’s.
With 200 ariary, I can buy 3-4 small tomatoes, three large bananas, or a small cup of coffee.
500 Ariary (approx. $0.15 USD)
One side of the 500 ariary bill shows a group of zebu, which are a sub-species of domestic cattle that originate in South Asia. The breed is extremely resistant to high temperatures and commonly found in tropical countries. The zebu’s defining characteristic is a large fatty hump on the shoulders. In Madagascar, zebu are almost exclusively farmed as work animals in agriculture and for beef. When beef is served in Madagascar, it is almost always meat from the zebu. The animal is so well integrated into Malagasy culture that it is prominently featured on the country’s official seal.
On the other side of the bill, a Malagasy artisan is seen weaving a traditional basket. The material, known as tsihy, is a natural fiber that can be used to create all types of items. The most common types of items made are hats, bags, baskets, and floor mats. Malagasy people all over the island use this material in their everyday life.
With 500 ariary, I can buy a cup of dry beans, two small bars of soap, or sometimes I can get a one-way taxi ride in the larger cities.
1000 Ariary (approx. $0.30 USD)
The 1000 ariary note celebrates the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar. On one side, the sword-shaped leaves of the sisal plant are seen together with cactus. Sisal is a species of agave plants and is widely used for it’s strong natural fibers. Both the sisal and cactus represent the dry desert areas of Madagascar.
On the reverse, two species of gidrö (lemur) are proudly displayed along with a turtle. Madagascar is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot because approximately 90% of all plant and animal species on the island are endemic. Lemurs are arguably the most famous animals from Madagascar and there are more than 100 species of lemurs.
With 1000 ariary, I can buy two eggs, two baguette-style loaves of bread, or a small glass of natural fruit juice.
2000 Ariary (approx. $0.61 USD)
On the 2000 ariary note, a typical landscape of terraced rice fields is depicted. Rice is a staple food in Madagascar and typically eaten at every meal of the day. For most Malagasy people, rice is the primary focus of the meal and any meat or vegetable dishes are considered to be side dishes eaten in smaller quantities. Madagascar is among the top 20 rice producing countries in the world.
On the reverse side of the bill, the mighty baobab tree is shown. The baobab is endemic to Madagascar and there are six species on the island. The tree is another one of Madagascar’s popular icons. In some parts of the country, baobab trees are greatly revered and seen as a link between the living and their tribal ancestors.
With 2000 ariary, I can buy a plate of rice and side dish at a local Malagasy restaurant or a half kilogram of onions.
5000 Ariary (approx. $1.52 USD)
The 5000 ariary bill is designed with a scenic beach view from the southern coast of the island. The location is near the town of Fort Dauphin, which is another very popular tourist destination. It gracefully shows the complexity of the Malagasy landscape, from beaches to mountains and a variety of plants.
Continuing with this oceanic theme, the other side of the bill shows a traditional Malagasy boat. The style of boat, general known as a “dhow”, is believed to have roots in the Indian culture. Because the Malagasy people come from a mixture of Indian and Micronesian decent, this style of vessel has been a part of Malagasy tradition for many generations. In many coastal parts of the island, fishermen still use these boats to sail out to sea.
With 5000 ariary, I can buy two beers, enough telephone credit to last me for about a week, or a decent shirt at one of the many secondhand clothing markets.
10000 Ariary (approx. $3.03 USD)
On the 10000 ariary bill, the past and present are brought together to celebrate the progress of Malagasy society. First, a scene of road construction is pictured. As with many developing countries in the world, the current infrastructure of Madagascar is a constant project of national concern. Between building and maintaining roads, schools, hospitals, and other social services, the Malagasy people have their collective plate very full. Without getting into any of the politics surrounding infrastructure development, it’s fair to say that some places on the island are more developed than others and many of the Malagasy people I’ve talked to have lamented about how this road or that power plant could be better. In general, however, people seem to be hopeful about the future development plans of this island nation.
Secondly, the other side of the bill is a reminder of the former Kingdom of Madagascar. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the seat of power in the kingdom was in the central highland city of Antananarivo (also the current national capitol). The Rova (royal palace complex) has been the home of several kings and queens and it sits on top of one of the highest points in the region. The building depicted on the currency is known as the Queen’s Palace, which is part of the greater Rova. The original palace, as seen on the bill, was built by French colonial officials for Queen Ranavalona I around 1840 and then it was reinforced with a stone casing in 1867. In 1995, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the Rova, including the original wooden structure of the Queen’s Palace. Today, only the stone casing remains and it is still prominently displayed as part of the growing skyline of Antananarivo.
With 10000 ariary, I can buy an unusually nice meal at a “fancy” restaurant or a live chicken in the market.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.<
This gallery contains 14 photos.
These are moments from the last week of PST, including swearing-in day, and some of my experiences during the first 2 months living in Andapa.
With each new day, as I wake with the gentle light of dawn peering through the cracks of my wood shuttered window and the persistent chorus of roaming chickens and ducks, I become more aware of the new world around me. Every day I have the opportunity to meet someone new, eat a new food, learn something new, get bitten by a new bug. When I reflect on my understanding of the world just 6 months ago, I feel like I am now in one of the farthest corners of the globe that I could have imagined. How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? How can I work to transform here into home?
On August 29, 2014, I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. During the ceremony, a senior member of the Peace Corps staff delivered a speech that included some advice for our group of new Volunteers. One line in particular moved me when he said, “Thank you for choosing to integrate into your new host communities…” Like a blast of fresh air, his words hit my face and I immediately felt the atmosphere change. I had not previously appreciated the idea of integration from the perspective of choice, but it became very clear as he continued to deliver his remarks. It is up to me to decide how much I want to be a part of my new community. Assimilation does not happen passively or from behind closed doors. I must choose to be an active member of my community from the start and remind myself of this principle when future days seem dark or lonely.
With this new perspective and feelings of excitement and optimism, I arrived in my new community four days after the ceremony. Other than some anecdotal stories from Volunteers who had visited in the past, I had little knowledge of what Andapa would actually be like. My very first glimpse of the town was as our car made a turn in the road coming down one of the many lush green mountains that surrounds the fertile farmlands. That’s when I knew it was real. That’s when I felt that the adventure had only just begun.
Andapa is located in the SAVA region of Madagascar, which hugs the north east coast of the island. If you were here with me, I’d show you where that is using the helpful map of Madagascar that my left hand becomes when I extend all my fingers and hold them next to each other (I’m sort of up by the tip of my left ring finger). Andapa is one of the four principal cities in the region, along with Sambava, Vohemar, and Antalaha, and together they form the SAVA acronym that this region is named after. The region is best known for it’s vanilla production. Based purely on personal observations, Andapa seems to be a medium size Malagasy town with a population around 20,000-30,000 people. The town is about 104km (64 miles) from the coast and it is surrounded by huge mountains that contain the town like a washing basin. A local man recently told me that this area used to be a hotbed of geological activity, which supports the idea that Andapa is nestled in an ancient volcanic crater. The thick vegetation and formidable geographic features made quite an impression on me as I approached the town initially.
The climate was another aspect that stood out to me. On the day that I arrived, the sun was beating down with what felt like a physical presence on the back of my neck. Compared to the previous three months I had spent in the cool and overcast highlands, the heat was almost a refreshing change. I quickly learned, however, that Andapa is also notorious for it’s frequent rain showers. In my time here so far, it hasn’t rained for more than 20-30 minutes at a time and the rain usually comes in waves during the afternoon hours and overnight. Locals claim that Andapa’s “dry season” last for a mere two months in October and November, the rest of the year is what they consider to be wet. I have only met one person here that likes the rain.
Two things stand out to me when it comes to describing the inhabitants of Andapa: extremely friendly and avid English speakers. In general, Malagasy people seem to pride themselves on having a culture that values hospitality and genuine friendliness. But the people of Andapa have shown me a whole new level of friendliness that I was not expecting. When I bring it up in conversation occasionally, some say it is an attribute of the Tsimihety people (one of the many tribes in Madagascar, based on traditional ancestry, and the principal ethnic group of people in Andapa and much of the SAVA region). No matter what the root cause is, it has helped make my adjustment to this town much easier. I also consider myself lucky because the previous Volunteer in Andapa had a few close Malagasy friends here and they each came to my door in the first few days and took me in like we had also been friends for many years. People that I had not known for more than a few hours were inviting me into their homes for meals and walking around town with me to introduce me to even more of their friends. I was also taken back by how many people, young and old, speak even basic English. And on top of that, they are also extremely motivated to practice and improve their English by conversing with a native speaker such as myself. I’m happy to oblige their excitement and in return I ask them to help me learn a little more Malagasy each day. The librarian at the only English language library (a project started by a previous PCV) has told me that there are more than 200 members in the town’s English club! In addition, there is an Adventist church that offers an English language service each week. The number of people in Andapa that are willingly exposed to English on a daily or weekly basis is, in my option, astounding for a town this size. I’m very much looking forward to working with such a mizoto (motivated) crowd and hopefully instilling more excitement for English in some of the younger students I will teach.
I’m slowly discovering that my new community is filled with some delightful characters. In my mind, there is the retired high school gym coach who owns an épicerie. There is the tired-looking guard with a deep raspy voice that might as well be a blues musician in 1950s Detroit. There is the eccentric aunt in the countryside who jokingly chases after me on my runs just to get a rise out of her nieces and nephews. There is the excited drunk who sees my white face in the crowd and just wants a high-five. And almost every day I meet a new character in the cast.
In Andapa, there is a whole boulevard about a mile long that is packed on both sides with small stores. It’s the main non-food shopping area in town and it’s busy every single day. There are four main types of stores here. The épicerie sells basic household items such as cooking oil, snacks, laundry soap, pasta, candy, batteries, etc. Another store sells just clothes. The clothing donated to popular charity stores in America does in fact eventually make it’s way to developing countries like Madagascar. There are other places that are similar to hardware stores and they sell nails, rope, bicycle parts, flashlights, plastic buckets, etc. Finally there are movie and media stores that sell DVDs of fairly recent films, usually in French voice overs, and music. When I first arrived, I was also amazed at the size of the market and quickly recognized that I could buy almost anything that I need in this town. When I go shopping here, the sellers tend to be very polite to me and they appreciate when I try to speak Malagasy with them.
There are a couple food markets in Andapa where I can find fresh produce, rice, beans, bread, and meats every single day. From speaking with other Volunteers, a daily market of this size is sometimes a rare thing. The best way I can describe the market is to say it’s like a farmer’s market in America. The road is lined with stalls where women, usually, can sell produce or sometimes they simply spread out a plastic tarp on the group and sell from there. Almost everyone sells the same things, but I’m learning to purchase certain items from certain people. For example, there’s a woman that sells great bananas and usually gives me a cadeau (French for “gift”, it means they give you a little more than you pay for as a sign of respect or good faith. In this case, I get an extra banana for free) but her tomatoes are not that impressive. I buy tomatoes from someone else, same with carrots and onions and so on. I’ve found that this technique has two benefits. On the one hand, I feel like I can integrate into the community better if I have interactions with more people and can establish more friendly faces. On the other hand, some of the vendors that I go to often recognize me and they make an extra effort to pick out some of the better produce for me. They get the pride of selling to a foreigner and I get great food, we all win! Buying meat is a whole other story. I can now appreciate why the butchers in American supermarkets have the majority of their work stations behind closed doors. But without the gory details, buying meat in Madagascar is an art that I’m determined to practice. For now, I only buy beef from butchers that my Malagasy friends buy meat from. I don’t buy chicken because the only way to get chicken meat is to buy a live chicken and butcher it in the comfort of your own home. There is pork as well, but I’m not ready to buy that quite yet. Due to Andapa’s distance from the ocean, there’s not as much fresh fish available here compared to other cities in SAVA but there is a wide variety of dried fish available that I politely stay away from. In recent conversations that I’ve had with Malagasy people, I find myself having to explain that in America we rarely get to see where our food comes from. But in Madagascar, the towns are all surrounded by farmland and livestock is usually part of the average household. People can sometimes walk 5 minutes out of the city, see what a field of green beans looks like, and then see those same beans in the markets. There seems to be a greater understanding, not necessarily appreciation, of how the food that we eat gets to our tables.
I am very fortunate to have my housing provided by the local CISCO, which is the equivalent of a school district. I live on a small compound that also contains the CISCO offices and a couple other small homes, so during the week there are always people walking around from office to office and conducting business at the CISCO.
My home is a converted office and it can’t be much larger than 20 feet by 15 feet, including the bathroom. It’s small and cozy, but it really is just the right amount of space to live very comfortably. Some of the amenities I have are electricity (usually reliable), running water, a flush toilet, a shower, and a small refrigerator. It’s certainly leaps and bounds more than what I prepared myself for when I was still in America. For perspective, I could theoretically sit on my toilet and take a shower at the same time. Or I could lean the other direction and brush my teeth in the sink. I also have a full size bed, a small table with two chairs, and another longer table that serves as my kitchen area. The Volunteer who lived here previously was incredibly kind enough to leave many of her home goods here so when I moved in it was nearly fully furnished. I have a wonderful big window above my kitchen space that opens up into the compound and I usually keep that open when I am home. Although my home is a converted office, I am still living between two currently used offices and I get the pleasure of greeting these CISCO employees when they come to work in the morning. My home is also two doors away from the Andapa Public Library, which is the town’s only English language library and where I will likely be doing plenty of work during the next two years.
Shortly after arriving in my new home, I realized that this is the first time in my life that I’ve lived alone. In years before I’ve either lived with family or roommates, but never had an entire space all to myself. And now I do, or at least I don’t share this space with any humans. I do, however, have a family of bats that shares at least the roof with me. I was told about the bats even before I moved in, but I didn’t realize that they live inside the house. For the most part, it is a perfectly harmless and symbiotic relationship. They squeak and make a fair amount of noise as they shuffle between the roof and the small holes in the upper walls, but they have not flown inside the house. Yet. Sometimes they are very chatty in the evenings when I am in bed and I imagine that they are plotting an attack against me, but no such insurrection yet. They are the most active during dusk and dawn, when I assume they go out to hunt at night and return in the morning. I also like to think that they help me by hunting some of the other critters that I wouldn’t want in my house either. Speaking of which, I also get the occasional gecko that finds it’s way through a slit in the wall to explore my pantry. They’re harmless and I find it entertaining to watch them wiggle up and down the walls, for a short time at least. I’m learning that living in Madagascar means living with the natural world around me, no matter how animal-proof my house may seem. Even with bats and geckos, it sure beats having cockroaches and I am eternally thankful for not having those at home. Yet.
While I am serving as a Volunteer in Andapa for the next two years, I have a primary project and I’m expected to develop other secondary projects for the community. My primary project is teaching English. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be teaching at two schools that are the equivalent to public middle school and high school. As of now, I don’t have any more details about that because school doesn’t start until October 6th. This means that most students are away from town visiting family and I’m basically on summer vacation. But I really am looking forward to meeting the students and working with more of a defined schedule.
My secondary projects are still undefined, and Peace Corps encourages us to create projects that are of more personal interest to us while still meeting the needs of the community, but I have a pretty good idea already of the direction that I might want to work toward. Luckily I live next to the Andapa Public Library and can continue to support the efforts of that library. The project was started by a previous Volunteer and it has only been fully functional for a little more than a year. The library holds hundreds of English language books, most of them donated by people and organizations in America. The library is also used as a meeting space for the English Club, which I hope to continue facilitating during my service. Based on the incredibly motivated and interested students and adults that I’ve met so far, I can’t wait to meet more club members and help them practice English. Working with the library and the English Club are both things that will begin to blossom in October when students return to school.
During my first few months at site, especially now that I am not formally teaching, my main objectives are to integrate into my community, identify key people that I can work with in different capacities, and learn about what the people of Andapa need and want from me. The idea is simple: I have to know my community before I can provide assistance. I didn’t come here with specific projects in mind to impose on everyone, but instead I need to build my credibility and listen to what people have to say. Even in the first couple of weeks here, I can already see the relationships forming and soon enough I’ll be able to understand what the local community needs me to do.
The average day
When I wake up in the morning, I usually have no idea what I will be doing that day except for a couple things that have started to become routine. Particularly now, when I’m not teaching and I’m not on a schedule, there are a lot of hours in the day to fill.
I typically wake up at 7:00am and crawl out from underneath the mosquito met covering my bed. I throw on some jeans and a t-shirt and I walk a few blocks to buy a cup of coffee. There’s a sweet lady that sells coffee, bread, and a hot breakfast soup made from soy and she doesn’t mind having an awkward vazaha (foreigner, usually French) visit her every morning. I slowly sip the coffee loaded with sugar while I listen to her speak with other patrons, hoping that I can pick up a new Malagasy word or two. Although at 7 in the morning, I’m not doing any learning. After the caffeine and sugar rushes kick in, I walk back home and have a light breakfast, maybe a banana and piece of bread. Then the next 4-5 hours until lunch are usually pretty up in the air. Sometimes I go for a run in the mornings and endure the odd stares I get from locals. Sometimes I do my laundry, washing everything by hand and hanging it to dry in the middle of the compound. Mostly I shop for food, hoping to get the more fresh items in the morning before the heat of the day wilts most of the vegetables. I’ll often walk around town, talk with people as they pass by my porch, or practice playing guitar (a personal development project I’m working on for the next two years). At around noon, I start to prepare my lunch and eat at home. I hope to use this time better in the future by inviting new friends over for lunch or sharing a meal in their homes. Sometimes after lunch I take a nap because, well, why not? In the afternoons, when the sun is strong, I sometimes stick to more indoor activities like reading, watching TV/movies on my computer, doing some light cleaning, or practicing guitar again. When the weather is more tolerable, I’ll be outside again walking and talking and generally showing my face around town. In general it’s another 4-5 hours to fill before dinner. Most of the time I cook a double portion of food at lunch so I don’t have to cook, or clean the dishes again, in the evenings. I’ll spend another hour or two relaxing at home after dinner and then I’m usually in bed between 8:00-9:00pm. I toss and turn on my foam mattress as the bats giggle above me, wake up the next morning and do it all over again. However, Sundays are exceptionally slow because almost all the stores are closed and most people are in church.
Overall, I feel like my adjustment to my new life has been going remarkably well. The first few days alone were rough and I can admit that I cried a lot when the Peace Corps car eventually drove off and I was left by myself. But each day I got out of my house for a few more minutes and I began to explore the new world around me. It has become more familiar, which makes it more comfortable, and I know soon enough I will truly feel at home here. I expected the emotional rollercoaster and I know the next two years will be filled with many highs and lows, but I also know that is a “normal” part of this experience. I can already say that the good times I’ve had here so far are worth the very few times I’ve felt lonely, scared, or sad. I’m learning to wake up in the morning and make the best of what I have in front of me, after getting coffee of course. I try to follow the advice of my Country Director when she says, “take each day as it comes and just stay in the here and now.”