Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Plunge

Sorry for the recent dearth of blog posts, but turns out I’ll only have (crappy) internet access when I travel to Farafangana or another large town for banking/business, which will probably be around once a month. So it goes.

When last we talked, I was about to be sworn in as a PCV, and all went according to plan. The swearing-in ceremony was a hoot, and the associated celebrations at the ambassador’s residence and acting country director’s house in Tana were appropriately awesome, largely because the spreads included pizza and burgers, respectively, and a trampoline to boot.

The following day began the mad dash of “installation,” the process of getting us and our stuff to our sites around the country. I traveled with Abe, another environment volunteer posted in Iabarefo, a small village 35km to the east of me. Our PC staff “installer” was Nirina, the regional head of PC in Fianarantsoa.

We left Tana and drove ten hours south on Route Nationale (RN) 7 through Antsirabe and Ambositra to Fianarantsoa, where we stayed the night at the Fianar PC Meva. The next morning, we spent some time shopping for essentials (gas stove, spices, etc.) that would soon become scarce as we left the cities of the Haut Plateau behind. After loading up, we began our break to the coast, stopping in Ranomafana to have lunch with two PCVs from the stage (training group) prior to ours. We eventually turned south again onto RN12 and made it to the seaside town of Manakara, where we found a carpentry yard to buy our beds, tables, and chairs. We slept there at the Sidi (pronounced “seedy,” though it’s actually a nice place) Hotel, which also happens to be our regional consolidation point.

Side note: If there’s a crisis/disaster of some sort (e.g. violent revolution or alien attack), all the PCVs in a given area “consolidate” in a central location and wait for further instruction from PC. It would take me about two days to get to Manakara, which might just give PC enough time to figure out what the hell is going on before I get there.

We woke up fairly early the following morning and jumped back on RN12, continuing south for an hour and some change until we hit Farafangana, our banking town. After setting up shop in the hotel, we went to the market and met Alison and Melissa, two PCVs from the previous stage who work near and also bank in Farafangana. Over the next few days, the group of us did more buying of household goods, went to Fara’s one nightclub (the name of which the locals say in English, “Three Ten”), and tried our best to relax. I helped with Abe’s installation on Saturday, rested easy on Sunday, and then embarked on my own installation on Monday.

The road between Farafangana and Vondrozo, RN27, is a “national route,” but it’s a far cry from I-80 in the States, or even from RN12, which is (mostly) paved. RN27 is a somewhat-maintained dirt road that generally serves its purpose fine, though cyclones and incessant downpours often render it impassable to four-wheel vehicles during the rainy season. In a private 4x4, the drive takes about two and a half hours; by taxi-brousse (public transportation truck), it takes about six. We set out early on Monday morning and picked up Abe on the way. About an hour later, I caught my first glimpse of Vondrozo in the distance.

Fast-forward to now. Yesterday marked three weeks since I arrived at site. I’ve spent about half that time on field trips into the Vondrozo Corridor with Robson, a WWF agent, becoming acquainted with the village communities where I’ll be working. Otherwise, I’ve been getting settled in the spot I’ll be calling home for the next two years.

The town of Vondrozo (voon-DROO-zoo) sits atop a series of hills that roll up from the coast and gradually climb into the mountains of the Eastern Rainforest Corridor. With an area population of around 14,000, it’s the smallest district capital in Madagascar.

But it’s nevertheless a town, and, moreover, a district capital. Most environment volunteers live in villages of a few hundred people or less, but Vondrozo has a post office, a gendarmerie, district offices (and the bureaucrats that fill them), a microfinance organization, a high school, a hospital, a daily market, a city hall (which turns into a makeshift nightclub on Satudays), a cell phone tower, and an industrious Chinese-Malagasy family running two well-stocked shops and a hotely (restaurant) that serves steak and cold beer. Who would’ve thunk?

And it gets better. The original housing plan that WWF and community leaders arranged for me fell through (the District Chief decided to give the place to his driver), and the back-up option also failed to materialize (the Forest Ministry needed the building for its trainees). Enter Plan C, which has me living in the back of the WWF office in what used to be lodging for excess field agents passing through town. The building is one-story, cement, with a tin roof, and my quarters consist of three rooms (currently cast as kitchen, bedroom, and storage space). I have electricity, a water pump outside my window, a shower, and, best of all, a genuine porcelain crapper to sit on. And my door opens west to a view of the forest and mountains of the Corridor.

Granted, there are a few qualifiers: The electricity typically works from 5pm to midnight but periodically breaks down. The water in our neighborhood comes from a small tower that’s filled every day, but most pumps either have faucet heads that are broken or none at all, so when the water starts flowing (around 6:30am), it’s a race against the clock until it runs out (around 7:00am). Having a full day’s supply thus involves filling all available buckets during that half-hour, which makes it unpleasantly impossible to sleep in. Also, the shower and toilet are in an outhouse adjacent to the building, and are shared by WWF staff and the family next door. The neighbors usually fill a huge tub in the shower when it’s running, so bucket baths are still my norm—though I’ve gotten in the habit of using my gas stove to heat the water first.

All told, though, I feel like I’ve landed in the lap of luxury. True, I’ll be spending a good amount—maybe even the majority—of my time outside of Vondrozo on field trips to villages in the Corridor. But it’s nice to know that whenever I get home, there’ll be a cold beer and warm (bucket) shower waiting.

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