It’s been months since my last entry, which, in this case, is a good thing because it means that I’ve been contentedly busy in Madagascar. Over the past few months I’ve witnessed the arrival of Peace Corps Madagascar’s newest training class, helped to train them and watched them depart to their sites to begin work as volunteers. They’re a great group of open-minded and motivated individuals and I couldn’t be more excited to see what they’ll accomplish over the next two years.
Following the training my parents arrived for a visit and, together with my amazing girlfriend, we spent eleven days touring the country, which was possibly the best trip of my life. At the moment, I’m back in Ankazambo and am admittedly just beginning to process the whirlwind that comprised the previous two months.
The myriad of experiences has resulted in more fodder for writing that I could have ever imagined. That said, I have been so busy over the past month with training and travel that I have neglected to share experiences from the previous month’s life at site, leading to a serious backlog of short stories. For the sake of chronology I’ll endeavor to share some of these older stories now but promise to update everyone on more recent happenings shortly.
The day after I posted my last entry bemoaning the oppressive heat and lack of rainfall in Ankazambo, Cyclone Felleng grazed Madagascar’s eastern shore sending torrential downpours our way. On the first day of the cyclone—which was admittedly tame at my site in the middle of the island—I was overjoyed. By the second day, I was already sick of the constant rain. By the third day, I lost my mind. I have a tin roof that amplifies the sound of even drizzles to deafening levels, making it impossible to have a conversation even if your friend is sitting next to you. There are, therefore, literally pages of my journal dedicated exclusively to the classification of different types of rain. Forrest Gump would be proud.
On the fourth day, the rain stopped, the floods subsided a bit and I crawled out of hibernation squinting to the blinding rays of the first sunshine I had seen in days. If I learned anything from the cyclone of February 2013, it’s to be careful what you wish for.
On the fifth day, I had plans to visit my friend for the weekend in Mandritsara just 100km south on the Route National 32. The road had been passable and in good condition since arriving in Ankazambo in May 2012 so I had no reason to think that I would encounter any problems. I was naïve.
Ankazambo is split down the middle into Ankazambo Avaratra and Ankazambo Atsimo (north and south respectively) by a small river that, during most months of the year, resembles little more than a creek. There is no bridge. Since May, there hasn’t been the need as there has been less than 3 inches of water trickling through the center of my town since I arrived. During cyclone season, however, that changes and the river swells to 30 meters across with swift, nearly whitewater currents. Anyone foolish enough to try to swim across the rushing brown water is promptly carried hundreds of meters downstream before reaching the northern bank.
The day that I intended to go to Mandritsara, the river had swelled and the original plan to travel with my friend in Befandriana, which is north of the river, wasn’t possible. Such is the reality of travel in Madagascar. You’re almost never in control of the details of your trip—only that you’ll get to your destination, eventually.
For three hours, I sat on the south bank of the river, waiting for minibus drivers to get up their nerve and forge the swollen river. Finally, one driver did just that and his broken-down Mazda was nearly swept away by the current in exchange for his bravery. Water was still pouring out of the van when myself and fifteen others clambered in to make what we assumed would be a four-hour drive to Mandritsara.
Predictably, we proceeded at half speed, because we had taken on water in the undercarriage. I soon learned that it’s probably not the best idea to travel in Madagascar one day after a cyclone. Before we made the 30-kilometer mark we were required to ford 2 more rivers and 3 ponds that had overtaken the road. By the time we reached the town of Pont Sofia, our engine and undercarriage had taken on so much water that we stopped for an hour to make repairs and dry off.
At the 50-kilometer mark we came upon a whitewater river cutting through the center of the national highway. Three days earlier, there was likely no obstruction. No one seemed fazed. We spent the next two hours waiting while villagers took advantage of the stranded travelers, setting up makeshift stands along the road and selling fried bread and fruit.
Here, sitting at exactly 50 km from the nearest town in one of the most isolated regions on the island, it occurred to me that most of these people had never seen a foreigner for more than the two seconds it takes the occasional British missionary doctor to drive through. I was reminded of my first day in Ankazambo as three dozen kids intently watched my every move from an uncomfortably close distance.
After two hours of waiting in vain for the current to decrease, the driver finally became impatient enough to simply drive through the rapids. As he slowly crept the rickety Mazda minibus to the riverbank’s edge I was reminded of childhood amusement park trips, specifically the water rides—after waiting for hours, the big pay-off had finally arrived, my heart was in my throat and my stomach dropped making me realize that I had to pee. The only thing that distinguished this water ride from those of my youth at Six Flags was that this time, I resisted the urge to pee in the boat.
The minibus stalled in the middle of the river. As water slammed against the driver-side doors, I seriously considered getting out and swimming so as not to be caught in the car when it was tipped over by the current. I looked down to find that water inside of the cab had risen up to my ankles and my luggage was soaked. After a brief stall that seemed to last forever, the pitiful automobile was restarted and heaved up the opposite bank to loud cheers from hundreds of on looking villagers.
We proceeded slowly for the remaining 50 km and finally reached our destination after eight hours of travel. By comparison, a Peace Corps 4×4 can typically complete the same journey in about 2 hours. As always seems to be the case, there was redemption at the end that made the trip more than worth it. Upon arriving in Mandritsara, I joined my friend’s landlord for ‘one drink’ which, despite my protests, ended up turning into an entire bottle of whiskey, pork ribs and a three hour debate regarding Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits. I was only permitted to leave once the bottle was finished, I had taught them about American drinking games and had promised to make my comrades CDs with their two favorite musical genres: gangster rap and country western. I couldn’t make this up.
I digress. My point is that public transportation in Madagascar has taught me a level of patience that I never thought possible through the realization that the journey is often just as interesting as the destination. At the very least, there’s a story in there somewhere. It’s also taught me that things are never as bad as they seem and can always be worse. For instance, this particular trip seems insignificant in comparison to the 40 hours it took me to get to the north for vacation (because the driver insisted on taking several naps) or the 49 hours it took me to get to the capital for a conference (because of flooded roads and broken down cars).
In my village, sources of entertainment are often hard to come by and are typically improvised. Toys are usually nothing more than an empty sardine tin dragged around by a piece of twine or a plastic bag on a string doubling as a kite. The boys race old bike tires through the dusty streets with sticks while girls make mud pies with rusty cans, broken jars and discarded charcoal remnants. Almost all of the younger kids have never seen a television or computer and there are only a few dozen radios in Ankazambo. As a result, when it was announced that my landlords had a satellite feed and would be inviting the whole community to watch the semi-finals of the African soccer championships at our house, there was pandemonium.
For the two days leading up to what was shaping up to by Ankazambo’s super bowl, there was heavy rain. I tried to explain to my landlord that if the rain didn’t let up, picking up the satellite feed on the cheap dish he received as a gift from his microfinance institution would be impossible. In his characteristic stubbornness, he assured me that he’d find a way to make it work even if he had to climb the nearest mountain.
So we set about preparing for the game. Our goal was to fit the entire village into a 10 by 12 foot room. Then there was the issue of setting up the television and satellite dish and watching the actual event without electricity. We borrowed a car battery from the visiting construction workers, which did the trick. Our industry was rewarded because by game time the skies cleared and it was time to watch Nigeria vs. Mali play for the right to face Burkina Faso in the finals.
Neighbors began arriving at game time and vied desperately for a seat that would allow them to see the 20 inch television screen but I had saved myself a seat just 3 feet from the TV. As more and more people piled into the small room with no windows, the temperature became stifling and the air was heavy with moisture. By the time Nigeria scored their first goal I realized that this was the longest I had watched television in ten months but also that I had sweat through my first shirt.
There were 25 kids crammed into every conceivable floor space and 12 adults equally crammed onto wooden benches in the back. The hundreds that had arrived too late to get a seat inside mulled about outside while a young man watched from the doorway and recapped the action. It was the peak of Malagasy summer and everyone was literally dripping sweat but I seemed to be the only one slightly uncomfortable.
The game was a rout. Nigeria dominated time of possession and was up 3-0 by the end of the first half. This did not dampen anyone’s spirits however, because like America’s super bowl, the spectacle is half the fun. The difference is that here the spectacle is the mere novelty of watching television.
There was uproarious laughter at every close up of a Malian player with a strange haircut, a Nigerian post-goal celebration or when the camera cut away from the action to the face-painting Nigerian soccer hooligans. It also proved difficult for me to explain why Mali had a European coach but nothing was more confusing than the Pepsi and Nissan commercials at halftime that were set in an imaginary distant future. I gave up on this one and simply told everyone that the imaginary cityscapes were of Chicago and New York today.
Nigeria ended up winning the match 4-1; however, details regarding the second half are admittedly hazy in my mind because all I could think about was water and fresh air. By the end of the game, I had probably sweat more than all of the players combined. Normally, I would have left before the final whistle but nothing short of body surfing my way out the door would have permitted exit in the tiny cramped room.
Finally, after over 90 minutes of the most physically intense sports-watching experience of my life, it was all over and people filed out of the room still giddy from the night’s excitement. Having lived in Ankazambo for over a year, many cultural differences, once strange, have become normal; however, I remain amazed by how much the simple pleasure of watching a soccer match raised the spirits of an entire community.
So many things that we take for granted as Americans are still luxury items to most that live in the developing world. This; however, encourages those with less to appreciate the small things more than we could possibly imagine. After the game, I found that I was envious of my neighbors that had experienced so much joy from something so commonplace to me. With that in mind, I began eagerly looking forward to the following week’s match up where I was bound to watch the game in similar conditions, appreciating it all the more.