We made it.
The 18-hour flight from DC to Johannesburg via Dakar was pleasantly uneventful. I got a decent amount of shut-eye and shared good conversation with the other trainees. We arrived in South Africa late in the evening, paid way too much for a 5-minute shuttle to our hotel, jumped in the pool, then had what were probably our last burgers and cold beers for a while. I and a few others decided to stay up through the night to try and get our bodies to adjust, so we hung out in the lobby, talking to a Canadian and a Dutch dude who kept giving me grief for being such a white Hawaiian.
We took a 6am shuttle back to the airport and checked in for our South African Airways flight to Antananarivo (Tana). I was incredibly overweight baggage-wise, but thankfully the airline workers put me through without any trouble (probably because I work out with weights). Not everyone was so lucky (nominally Binh, a small Asian woman in our group, who got stopped at every turn for having a bag five pounds over).
We got through security with plenty of time before our flight, so I ate a meal, sent a few postcards, and read. The place was decked out with banners and advertisements linked to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this summer, which killed a few of us (since we won’t be allowed to leave Madagascar during that time frame because of Peace Corps rules), so I tried my best to avert my eyes.
When they called our flight, we crammed into a shuttle that sat on the tarmac for a good 30 minutes before driving us to our small (dinky might be a better word) SAA Link plane. There happened to be a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV)-turned- State Department specialist on the shuttle, who was happy to share stories of his glory days in Lesotho and a few words of advice, basically amounting to “It’s OK to be adventurous and irresponsible.” Don’t worry, Mom—I’ll do my best to forget the irresponsibility part.
I was exhausted, and fell asleep almost as soon as I sat down on the plane. About an hour later, I woke up drenched in sweat in the steamy cabin. Turned out we were delayed, still sitting on the tarmac, and wouldn’t have air conditioning until takeoff. I felt bad for Minnie, the USC-sorority-girl-turned-trainee I was sitting with, who may or may not have had my damp head slide onto her shoulder at some point. Then again, she went to USC, so she probably deserved it.
I fell asleep again after takeoff, snoozing most of the way over until Minnie woke me up and pointed out the window.
Madagascar. The Red Island.
And red it was. Deforestation has left the landscape barren and vulnerable. Erosion is a serious problem, and the rivers and streams are dyed the color of rust. I remember reading or hearing that when a Malagasy government minister flew over the coast for the first time, he looked down and said, “My country is bleeding.”
The plane landed smoothly at Tana’s airport, which only had a few gates and a single (small) terminal. It reminded me of one of the Neighbor Island airports back home, only it’s meant to serve as the main air transit point for a city of 2 million and a country of 20 million. We were met by a host of Peace Corps country staff, who ushered us through passport control and customs and packed us into a few vans and a Range Rover for the 30-minute drive to Meva House, Peace Corps Headquarters in Tana.
Meva House is actually a cluster of two or three buildings in a secure compound set back off of one of the principal roads in Tana. Because Madagascar is still in the midst of a political crisis that began last year, the staff asked us to stay in the compound for our brief time in the capital. The night went well. We had a few introductory sessions, ate dinner, and hung out talking until relatively late. Breakfast and further sessions started early the next morning. We went over rules and regulations, personal security strategies, basic health training, and a crash language/cultural course. After lunch, we packed up our things and were on our way to the community-based training (CBT) sites, Mantasoa and Anjozoro.
Mantasoa is a small (small) town set on a lake east of Tana, and Anjozoro is a rural village a few kilometers away. To mimic the conditions we’ll have at our permanent sites as closely as possible, small enterprise-development (SED) trainees are living with host families in Mantasoa, while environment trainees (myself included) are living in Anjozoro. The ride up gave us our first ground-level glimpse of the Malagasy countryside, marked by rice paddies and other cropland, rolling green hills, white and red mountains, forests, waterfalls, and towns and villages of orange, red, and yellow houses.
Two vans carried the environment trainees up to a junction heading into Anjozoro, where we disembarked and found ourselves face-to-face with a crowd of Malagasy. It was an absurd moment. After an application process that took many of us over a year, and three solid days of orientation and traveling, there we were: 18 Americans a hemisphere and an ocean or two away from home, meeting the Malagasy families (most if not all of whom have never left the island and/or region) that had agreed to take us in.
Our names were read off one by one, and our host family representatives stepped forward to claim each of us in turn. When I came up towards the end of the bunch, a middle-aged woman and a small, young girl approached me and signaled that I should follow. The Peace Corps staff had given us sheets with a basic description of our Malagasy families (list of household members, etc.), so I quickly figured out that I was with Monique, my host mom, and Letichia, my 12-year-old host sister. I understood nothing of what they said to me during the 15-minute walk to the house (the crash language course we were given included “My name is…” and “I’m from…”, both of which turned out to be useless since they already knew all our basic info), but I was able to point to the landscape around us and say “tsara,” a catch-all for beautiful, good, fine, and well, which at least made them smile.
We stayed on the “main road” (dirt, passable by 4x4s if they drive really slowly and avoid the worst of the holes/mud) for most of the trek home, but eventually veered right up the side of the valley a bit. After passing a few houses of varying structural integrity, we ended at ours, the only white house in the village, at least of what I’ve observed so far. My host mom—who I usually call neny (nay-nee), which is what most Malagasy kids call their mothers—led me upstairs to my room. It’s about 9x9, with a bed, desk, chair, small couch, window, and door that leads out to the second-floor balcony. The view is awesome—rice paddies, forested hills, and clusters of houses along the winding roads on either side of the valley. The walls of my room are decked out with images of Jesus and Mary (my family is Catholic), and a poster of Pope Benedict hangs over my bed. Unexpected? You betcha.
Many other things are as I expected, though. The house has no electricity or running water. We operate at night using a mix of candles/oil lamps/flashlights, and we get our H2O from a well down the street, a spring in a small side valley behind the house, or by putting buckets out when it rains. And oh does it rain.
We cook over open wood fires in the kitchen/dining room, which has a small window and a chimney. Our living space consists of one floor, with 3.5 rooms and a balcony. The bottom floor is occupied by another family…must be related, but my Malagasy hasn’t reached the point where I can understand how yet. There’s a bed set up in a nook outside my door, and another room off the kitchen that has a sitting area and bed. Besides Monique and Letichia, we live with Patrick (9-year-old host brother), Charline (22-year-old host sister), and Serge (37-year-old uncle of some sort).
Long story short, I have an incredible setup. Our living arrangements as trainees vary pretty significantly. Vanessa, another environment person, is in a house with only two rooms: one for her, and another for the kitchen/living room/dining room/bedroom for all members of the host family. Meanwhile, Bill, a SED trainee (ND ’09, was also in Morrissey), lives with the deputy mayor, who showed him Beckham highlight videos in surround sound on his first night here. Most environment folks have arrangements closer to mine or Vanessa’s. It’s frustrating at times because we feel like we’re inconveniencing and/or displacing our families in various ways, but Malagasy culture is all about welcoming and offering your best to guests. So it goes.
In an interesting turn of fate, I’ve ended up being neighbors with Annah, the environment trainee who I met a few months back in DC (I randomly met her brother in the Apple store in Honolulu when I was home over Christmas and got her contact info). We share a kabone (kah-boo-nay) and ladosy (lah-doo-see), which are a pit toilet and bucket shower space, respectively.
A few other points to make in the inaugural entry:
• The people here have very little, yet are some of the happiest I’ve ever encountered. They’re also kind beyond measure.
• Letichia spent our first few hours together pointing to everything in sight and telling me the word for it. She and the rest of the family are going to teach me more than any book or class.
• Our kabone rivals Tony’s NZ pot for the pooper with the best view in the world.
• The town generally frowns upon people being outside after dark, because that’s when witches come out (obviously). Like I said, my family’s Catholic, so I’m not sure if they’re concerned about witches, too, or if they’re just abiding by local fado (taboos) for social reasons.
• One fun byproduct of the no-going-outside-after-dark rule is the pô (pronounced like Edgar Allan), a covered bucket kept in the bedroom that’s used for anything you’d normally do in the kabone during daylight hours. Plenty of stories guaranteed.
• Most trainees are on a malaria medication called Lariam (meflaquine). Besides rage and psychosis, extremely vivid dreams are a possible (and more common) side effect. A few nights ago I sat and talked with a white wolf for hours. Pretty epic.
That’s about it for now. We made it, and life is good.