Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Year of Island Life

The Peace Corps turned 50 this week, and today is our one-year-since-arriving-in-country anniversary. Sounds like cause for celebration, no? Congratulations to all RPCVs the world over—and especially to my dad, who volunteered in Korea during the 1960s. JFK and Sargent Shriver had the means and the vision, but it was you folks that made Peace Corps real, and it’s an honor to continue the tradition of service that you began.

The next few weeks promise to be interesting. I’m working at the Tana meva right now, helping to prepare things for the new group’s PST. Today I’m also writing blog posts, searching the capital for moringa seeds, and browsing the PC office’s stash of English-teaching materials. Tomorrow PC is throwing a farewell party for Boda, the outgoing health program director (who I spent much quality time with while stranded in Farafangana last month), and Saturday the Embassy is hosting some sort of celebration. Sunday, I’m tentatively planning to head south with a PC car going to Fianar. I’ll spend about a week there and in surrounding towns working on various projects with other PCVs. Then, it’s up to Mantasoa to work at PST for a week or so. Once my commitments there are finished, I’ll make my way back home to the Sud Est, hold a series of English classes with the WWF agents in Farafangana, help Melissa and Raffy celebrate their birthdays, and finally (road conditions allowing) return to Vondrozo. Never a dull moment.

A couple of random things:

Firstly, 20/20 recently aired an “exposé” looking at Peace Corps’ handling of cases involving murder, rape, and sexual assault. The investigation focused primarily on the case of Kate Puzey, a PCV in Benin who was murdered in 2009 (you can find the segment online). I’ll skip a lengthy commentary and instead just say that Peace Corps Benin made a series of terrible mistakes, and the situation ended in heartbreaking tragedy. However, the 20/20 piece is—I think—too quick to transpose that country program’s problems onto Peace Corps as a whole, and too eager to cast the agency as villain in a sensationalized storyline.

Secondly, while I’m in Tana and Fianar, I’ll have access to decent interwebs. Google is currently promoting its gchat phone service (which allows you to dial any number through your account) by granting free calls from Madagascar to the United States and Canada throughout 2011. I’ve used it to call home a few times now, and it works pretty awesomely (provided the interwebs cooperate). If you’re up for a phone call, shoot me a message/email/text and I’ll try to reach you sometime over the next few weeks.

Thirdly, Notre Dame men’s basketball is ranked #7 in the nation and faces UConn in their final regular season game on Saturday. GO IRISH. BEAT HUSKIES, and then bring on the Big Dance.

Lastly, I’m cooking up shoyu chicken for dinner and recently acquired an ukulele (another volunteer who'd lived in Hawai'i ET'd and left it behind), so island food and music are on the docket for tonight. What better way to celebrate a year of island life?


If Katrina, Icelandic volcanoes, and Australian floods have taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that even with Doppler radars and sophisticated response bureaucracies, developed countries remain susceptible to the devastating effects of severe weather events and other natural disasters. Strip away high technology and all but the most basic elements of emergency preparedness, though, and you’re left with an even bleaker picture of unmitigated vulnerability. That’s the reality for people in the developing world in the face of such catastrophes.

Two weeks ago, Cyclone Bingiza hit the northern half of Madagascar with force, dissipated as it passed into the Mozambique Channel, then changed directions, regained strength, and washed over the island’s southwestern flank. Down in the southeast, we were spared a direct blow. But the system still brought several days of pounding rain to the region—and concomitantly a good measure of frustration and adventure.

Our plan was to leave site, head to Farafangana, swing down to Manombo (a village south of Farafangana that will be getting one of the incoming environment volunteers) for a day of site development, trek up to Fianarantsoa for the Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) meeting, and finally continue on to Tana and Mantasoa for training of trainers (TOT). I managed the first leg all right, thankfully. It’d been raining heavily and a dam outside of Vondrozo had burst, but the taxi-brousse still made it through to Farafangana on Tuesday afternoon.

The following morning, Abe and I went to Manombo for site development. Or rather, we tried to go to in the morning and wound up there in the early afternoon. Our taxi-brousse left two hours late and then broke down 15km outside of town. Forty-five minutes later, a replacement car picked us up and took us into Manombo town. I’d arranged for us to meet with the director of the nearby special reserve, but he’d found us as we were leaving Fara to say that there was a schedule change, he was unavailable for the day, and other people would talk with us, instead. When we arrived in town, though, no one knew who we were or what we were talking about. We found the president of the fokontany and spoke with him, had him show us the future volunteer’s house site (they hadn’t started building it), held a quick community meeting, and then hitched a ride 5km back up the road to the MNP office, where the reserve agents were waiting for us.

The conversation went well, except that they were more interested in having an English teacher than an environment volunteer. We finished up by 2:45 and walked out to the main road. We’d made a reservation with a brousse that said it’d be passing around 3:30, so we set up camp under a little hut roof at the reserve entrance turnoff. It’d been raining off-and-on for a few hours, and it began to pick up as we waited. Soon, it was blustery and pouring. 3:30 rolled around—no brousse; 4:00—no brousse; 5:00—no brousse. Finally, around 5:30, our (terribly overloaded with people and crap) brousse showed up. By the time we got back to Farafangana, the Manakara brousse had already left, so we called Farafangana PCV James to come meet us for dinner. As we sat down and began eating at the station’s hotely (our new favorite in town), the downpour escalated into a torrential pounding. We decided to try to wait it out at the hotely. Three hours later, it still hadn’t subsided—but we had made a few Malagasy drinking buddies, who offered to drive us back to James’ so we wouldn’t have to get soaked. Also,we’d heard that Boda—the PC health program director—was in town for the night and driving north the next morning, so we called and she agreed to give us a ride as far as Manakara.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other designs in mind. The rain didn’t stop, and when we left with the PC car (a 4x4 Nissan Patrol) on Thursday morning, we got 10km out of town before hitting The Rapids. The road was completely covered for about 200m in front of us with forcefully flowing water. Abe, James, and I walked out about 30m to test it and concluded that it wasn’t passable, so we went back to Farafangana.

On Friday, we only made it 5km outside of town before encountering The Flood. Some barrier had broken somewhere, unleashing a wash of chest-deep water over a previously-uncovered part of the road. We walked out to test it and considered hiring some onlooking locals to push us through it, but ultimately decided to turn around. James and I biked out to it later in the day to take a look; it’d gone down but wasn’t low enough to get through.

Saturday morning, the water had receded enough for us push through The Flood and on to The Rapids. The tide there had pulled back, too, but after another let-the-vazahas-walk-out-into-the-river-to-see-what-they-can-see event with me, James, and Abe, we realized that we wouldn't be making it through again. Some Chinese folks talked big about rushing it and pushing through, but ultimately they decided otherwise. Dugout canoes were ferrying people back and forth between our side of The Rapids and a site 2km down the road. We got some disheartening intelligence from passengers coming over from the other side. Apparently, what we could see from where we were standing (The Rapids) was actually only the first leg of an inundation intermittently stretched over the next 2km. The end of this stretch, we were told, was much deeper and flowing even more quickly.

Heads down, we returned to Farafangana. James had met a French couple in Fara a few months back (and one of the vazaha canoe passengers we saw earlier in the day turned out to be the husband, Mathieu), and they invited us over for conversation and drinks. It was a blast. Afterwards, we went to the hotely for dinner and then on to 310 for a late night of dancing, staying out until close to 4am.

On Sunday, we were hurting. The PC car arrived at 7am, but it was nearly 8am by the time we’d packed up and dragged ourselves out the door. At The Flood, the road was completely dry and the water had gone down about 6 feet. At The Rapids, things had also gotten better, but it was still impassable, so we turned around and drove back to Farafangana. Again.

As we were walking to dinner on Sunday evening, the PC driver pulled up alongside us. He told us that two 4x4s had pushed through The Rapids and were on their way to Manakara. We couldn’t head out right away (PC doesn’t allow staff to drive at night), but we set out in good spirits bright and early the next morning. And sure enough, the water had gone down several feet—enough for us to get through. Finally, we were free of Farafangana. Tempering our jubilation, though, was the wash of destruction all around. Parts of the road were gone; landslides had blocked lanes right and left; trees had fallen over; villages were partially submerged. In short, people’s lives were massively disrupted.

We’d already missed the VAC meeting in Fianar by several days, so we just stayed there a night before driving up to Tana. TOT in Mantasoa went well. We developed the schedule for technical training, went through some teambuilding exercises, and had medical, security, admin, and cultural briefings with PC staff.

I was originally planning to return to site for about a week between TOT and the portion of the new group’s pre-service training (PST) that I’m officially helping with, but now that's changed. Erica attempted to get back to Vondrozo after spending a few days in Fianar, but once she got to Farafangana, she found out that the road heading west is cut. Two bridges were washed away in the storm’s aftermath, and there’s no telling how long it might take to repair them. I called WWF to discuss the situation, too. Turns out that there are canoes ferrying people across the stretches of water now blocking the road, but no taxi-brousses can make it all the way through from Fara to Vondrozo. It’s been raining every night in the southeast, so there’s no telling whether or when things will get better. Plus, it’s a far trip to make (at least three days’ worth of taxi-broussing) and I could end up sitting in Fara for days again, or possibly make it back to Vondrozo—but not be able to make it back out. So instead, I’m probably sitting tight and helping with projects in and around Tana and Fianar until my PST stint begins.

Erica was particularly bummed that we were blocked in Fara and missed the VAC gathering in Fianar. She hadn’t been out of site in a month and a half and was looking forward to the break. “There are always options back home,” she said, staring out at The Rapids. “But here, we’re just…stuck.” It’s frustrating, but we've learned that you’ve just gotta roll with it. After all, it’s not a bad place to be stuck—especially when the days are long, the beers are cold, and the company is true.