Friday, January 21, 2011

Never Stop Exploring

Time for a quick game of catch-up. I apologize for going dark over the past two months, for the cursory treatment I’ll be giving my recent comings and goings in this post, and for stealing The North Face’s tagline for my title. So it goes.

Rewind to mid-November, when I was tasked with assisting Augustin and the VOI in Ankazomaneno (south of Vondrozo) with a forest restoration project. Augustin asked me to delay my departure by a few days to await the arrival of two Malagasy university students from Tana, Richard and Joelle, who were planning to carry out socioeconomic surveys with the Corridor communities. Normally, when I go to Ankazomaneno or other nearby villages, I bike 14km south to Ampasimposy, stash my bike, and hike the rest of the way. But this time, since Richard and Joelle were bike-less, we covered the entire 18km on foot. It was a grueling hike, especially since we left in the heat of high noon (when the village guides showed up) and were caught in a rainstorm a few hours later before finally reaching our destination.

Traveling with the students was an eye-opening experience. Part of me had assumed (stupidly) that all Malagasy—that everyone from a developing country, really—would have some sense of what life in rural areas was like. But as Richard and Joelle discussed missing their laptops and the latest plot twists in Prison Break, I realized how completely removed their lives in Tana were from the world ambanivohitra, or “in the countryside.” The differences in dialect were also apparent; the locals repeatedly turned to Augustin for translations of the students’ city-speak Officialy, and Richard and Joelle confessed almost constant difficulty in understanding the villagers’ muffled and slurred Sahafatra.

Our time in Ankazomaneno passed without incident, though the restoration project was delayed several times by late arrivals and frequent downpours. The most remarkable event during the trip was an intense storm that hit us the second night. I’d set up my tent in a clearing on the hill between the school and the village. Around midnight, a sharp crack of thunder woke me up. The lightning strikes were constant—and close—and I curled up on my sleeping mat, hoping the worst of it would pass quickly. About ten minutes later, however, the wind picked up significantly and battered my tent to the point that it collapsed on top of me. As water began pouring in, I shoved all of my belongings into my backpack, staggered out into the storm, felt my way over to the hut where the students were staying, and bunked down with them for the rest of the night. In making a run for other shelter, I’d abandoned the tent for dead; I thought its poles had probably snapped, leading to the collapse. When I checked it out in the morning, though, I was relieved to find it in generally decent condition (other than the lake that had formed inside). All in all, a pretty fun experience.

Stan, our acting environment sector program director, was coming to Vondrozo for a site visit, so after another day of getting the tree nursery set up, I left early in the morning to trek home. After a brief conversation about my work plan and lunch at Behavana, I convinced Stan to come with me to visit the village of Vohimary Nord, 21km north of Vondrozo. Abe (who’d come with Stan) and Erica tagged along for the ride.

Of all the Corridor villages I’ve visited over the past nine months, Vohimary Nord is my favorite. It’s got a beautiful hilltop location, a mazoto (“diligent”) VOI, and a friendly, welcoming, forward-looking population. Peace Corps is always interested in developing new sites for incoming volunteers, and I think that Vohimary Nord would be an excellent place for a PCV to live and work. Shortly after arriving, Stan and I met with the VOI president, his wife, and the village chief to discuss the prospect of having a PCV in town. Afterwards, Stan said that he thought it was an excellent site, but that its isolated location gave him pause. It might be too much for a new volunteer, he thought, and getting PC’s medical and security officers to approve the site would be an uphill battle. I jokingly suggested to Stan that I could move to Vohimary and he could put a new volunteer in my place in Vondrozo. “Now that’s an idea,” he replied. In a subsequent visit to the village, I held a community meeting and helped the VOI president file the necessary paperwork to request a volunteer. PC isn’t planning on placing one of the new environment trainees (who come in March) there, but they’re amenable to the idea of me moving there to test it out for a few months in the future. We’ll see.

After Stan, Abe, and Erica had left to go back to Vondrozo, I hiked on from Vohimary to Antaninary. There I met Florent, Andry, and the WWF Explore! volunteers, who were approaching the tail end of their hike across the Corridor. The next day, we climbed into the mountains and forest above Antaninary, where we set up camp at the top of a waterfall and slept for two nights. After descending back down to Antaninary and spending a night in Vohimary village, we continued up into the mountains and forest above Vohimary, where we explored the course of the Manampatrana river and camped in an absurdly beautiful valley. We returned to Vohimary the following day, spent the night there, and were picked up by a WWF vehicle in the morning.

Back in Vondrozo, I hastily packed my bags, shared a few last meals, and then had to say goodbye to Cara and the other WWF volunteers. Their three-month stint was almost over, I was heading to Tana to catch an international flight, and they’d be gone by the time I got back to the country. My heart was in my throat as I rolled out of town, my eyes glued to the rear view mirror until we turned a corner and their images dispersed. To say they brought a few plot twists to my life…well, it’d be the understatement of the century.

The next two weeks were a blur of airplanes, parties, friends, and family. My first stop was in Washington, DC, where I spent a breakneck 40 hours with most of my best friends from college. We went out on the town one night (4 P’s & Dan’s CafĂ©) and had a Christmas party the next. Thanks again to Huff, Katie, Jordy, Claire, and Kristin for hosting the deluge of rumpus that came down that weekend, as well as to all the out-of-towners who made the trip. Seeing you folks made me happier than I could ever put into words.

After DC, I continued on to Hawai‘i for Sean and Michele’s wedding. I helped with preparations as I could (becoming a corner-rounding expert in the process) and did my best to catch up with family and friends who were in town for the festivities. The wedding itself was utterly awesome. The ceremony went perfectly; the reception was a blast; the trolley ride to Waikiki was hilarious; and the hotel afterparty went well into the wee hours (5-hour Energies may have played a part in the marathon celebration).

And then, before I knew it, I was saying goodbye. Again.

I won’t pretend that it was easy. In fact, I was reeling. Peace Corps warns volunteers about the dangers of going home during their service. It wasn’t at all that I didn’t want to come back to Madagascar. But having to say goodbye to the people I love again…well, it was heart-wrenching, to say the least. Coming back was never up for debate, though, so regardless of the emotional rollercoaster playing out in my head and chest, I put one foot in front of the other, boarded the plane, and started the return journey to the other side of the planet.

(Don’t worry—I “wah”ed myself plenty while writing that paragraph.)

How best to describe the trip back to ‘Gascar? Long.

I flew from Honolulu to LA, where I slept through a 10-hour layover. Then it was LA to Frankfurt, where I used my second 10-hour layover to explore the city, hitting up the Christmas market for some currywurst and gluhwein (mulled wine) and walking along the River Main as a gentle snow started to fall. Unfortunately, that gentle snow decided not to stop. Four hours later, sitting on the tarmac, we got word that the airport had been shut down, delaying the flight several hours. We eventually got off the ground, but by the time we finally arrived in Johannesburg, I’d missed my flight to Tana. Thankfully, there were seats available on the next day’s flight. The airline put me up in a hotel for the night, and (despite a booking mix-up that nearly cost me my seat) I made it back to Madagascar the next day.

Immediately after getting back to Tana, I was frantically trying to find a way to get north to the Sava region. I’d been approved to travel to fellow PCV Nick and Annah’s sites to assist with trainings, but all of the flights were sold out by the time I got the final go-ahead. I was mulling heading east to Tamatave, a city on the coast, and taking a boat from there to Antalaha, but PC Country Director John Reddy nixed the idea, saying that it was too dangerous. After talking with a travel agency representative, I decided to head to the airport the following morning and try to get on a flight stand-by. I didn’t think I’d have much luck; there are only a few flights to the Sava region every week, and they were booked solid until Christmas. Somehow, though, more than five people didn’t show up for the flight, and I got a seat on my first attempt—to Sambava in Sava. The flight took about an hour. If I were to have made the journey by taxi brousse, it would’ve taken—no joke—three or four days. Crazy, no?

In Sava, I attended an SRI training at Nick’s site outside of Andapa, as well as ecotourism, reforestation, and cookstove workshops at Annah’s site in Antalaha. We celebrated Christmas and New Years in Antalaha; went to a concert featuring (and got to talk with) Jerry Marcoss, Madagascar’s Jay-Z; met with Madagascar National Parks personnel to discuss ecotourism and long-distance hiking treks; and explored Marojejy and Masoala National Parks. Masoala (which translates as “Eye of the Forest”) is renowned as the largest remaining contiguous swath of Madagascar’s Eastern Rainforest. It’s also infamous as an illegal logging hotspot—especially for highly-prized Malagasy hardwoods like ebony and rosewood. Our trip (I was with Annah and Jonathan, a PCV from the northeast coast close to Ambanja) into the national park began at Cap Est (the island’s easternmost point) and consisted of a one-day canoe ride up the Onive River and four days of forest trekking. The highlight of the venture was undoubtedly the area around Bevontsira, a massive waterfall in the middle of the rainforest. The hike to the top of the waterfall kicked our asses, but it was absolutely worth the view of rainforest-covered, mist-shrouded mountains as far as the eye could see. One other interesting point—in the village where we landed our canoe, we witnessed a large amount of rosewood (about $16,000 worth according to our guide) being hauled to waiting pirogues and transported downstream. Though it looked like a lot to us, apparently hardwood trafficking in the area was much more robust a few months ago. The recent downturn coincided with the publication of a National Geographic article about the illicit exploitation going on, though I’m not sure how much credit should be accorded to the story given whatever else might have influenced the situation. In any case, the traffickers weren’t shy about having their pictures taken; Annah used the better part of my camera’s memory card to document the process.

Several days later and a few kilometers past the waterfall, we descended out of the mountains, rejoined a main-ish road, and turned north towards Antalaha, which we reached the following day after happening upon a taxi brousse headed our way.

Back in Antalaha for one final day, we rested up, enjoyed the beach (with white sand and turquoise water…much nicer than the beaches in Farafangana or Manakara), and took a last trip to the little bar shack on the beach where we’d spent part of New Year’s Eve. It was a great spot, though tragedy had struck our last time there. On New Year’s Eve, we witnessed a guy falling backwards off the seawall about 15 feet onto the rocks below. He was still breathing when his friends pulled him from the water, but his body looked broken and lifeless when the searchlight first fell on it. We asked around afterwards but weren’t able to get any definitive information as to whether he survived or not. Unbelievable.

The next morning, I had to wake up early, pack my bags, say my farewells, and grab a taxi to the airport. The flight—my 11th in 40 days—went smoothly, and I landed in Tana before noon. Then it was home to Vondrozo via taxi brousse and train, with brief stops in Fianarantsoa and Farafangana.

And now, here I am, back. Honestly, it’s going to take some time to readjust after the glut of celebration and exploration. I’ve been doing my best to get resettled into a routine. The jungle took over my garden while I was gone, so I’ve been working to reclaim it (though everything besides a few squash plants and some moringa saplings died while I was gone). WWF has some big wig from the unfortunately-acronymed SIDA (it stands for the Swedish International Development Agency, but SIDA is also the French acronym for AIDS) coming in, so they’ve been fixing up the building, landscaping, etc. They painted the office (which includes my house) Pepto-Bismol pink with baby blue trim, installed a fence around the entire compound, and cleared all the vegetation from the hillside below my house (excepting the jungle-reclaimed garden). In addition to working around the house, I’ve been doing my best to get English and environment clubs set up at the middle and high schools. We have meetings early next week, and then I’ll probably make a few field trips to the villages in early February.

The rains are late this year, but the past two days have been socked in, so perhaps they’ve finally arrived.

Tratran'ny taona. Cheers to 2011, and to the exploring yet to come.