Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Final Exhibit

People always say that Peace Corps is like a roller coaster- really high highs, really low lows. This last month has proven that to be true for me more than any other point in my service, and included probably my highest point in country.

As you may recall, I started a project at my site with girls from my Girls Club and the English Club. The goal of the project was to teach photography, and through that, critical thinking. It was also to inspire confidence in the girls, to show them they are capable of being strong women and taking ownership of their lives. Lofty goals, sure. But we recently put on an exhibit of their work in my town, and I feel sure in saying that every single one of those goals was met.

The exhibit was held in one of the big school rooms. Due to some fortunate timing and good planning, it started right after a school-wide parent meeting, so between the invitations, flyers, and an announcement at the meeting we got well over five-hundred people to attend. Each girl had a section of the room to display one large picture and four smaller ones. Throughout most of the exhibit they stood by their pictures and explained them to the people who came to look at them. Seeing their smiles and pride as they explained why they took certain pictures to total strangers really made me feel like they had accomplished everything we set out to at the onset of the project. By the way, there are pictures of the exhibit to come, once I can find a camera cord. I took a few and then handed my camera over to the girls to take pictures, because after all, they're the photographers now!

On a personal note though, one of the best parts of the exhibit for me was seeing the reactions of the people from my town. I greeted and said goodbye to everyone who came through, and seeing the joy they got out of looking at the pictures was unbelievably rewarding. Almost everyone who left said the same thing: “Mahafinaritra!” and “Misaotra betsaka,” meaning beautiful, and thank you. The certain high point though was when one older gentleman came in. I recognized him immediately from my favorite photo, a carpenter bent over his work. He was wearing exactly the same thing as he was in the photo, right down to the old fedora. I pointed to the picture of him and said, “It's you, isn't it?” to which he broke out into a smile and said “Yes, that's me.” When I saw him leaving I asked if he enjoyed the exhibit, and was surprised to see little tears sparkling in his eyes. He too said the pictures were beautiful, and thanked me, because he had never seen himself in a photograph. If anything has made my service feel worth it, that moment did.

The last few months have been difficult. I've been robbed several times now, every week prompts more warnings about riots, and the entire school system is on strike. It's disheartening to feel like you're giving everything to a country that doesn't care about you, or even its own people. And yet to know that for a couple months there was a small group of girls in my town who were being inspired by art and got to share that beauty with their friends, family, and community members, I can still say that my time here was worth it. Is still worth it! I have eighty-five days left as of today, and I know that I'm going to try to enjoy each one of them to the fullest.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Well, this cyclone season has been really annoying. First the east coast got nailed by Giovanna, and then Irina came down the north and west coasts. The good thing about living in the highlands is that we never suffer the brunt of the storm, but we do get the weeks of lingering rain no matter where a cyclone has hit. Since the two cyclones hit so close together, we've had several weeks of almost non-stop rain, which means my town is basically just a mud pit. I haven't been able to go running, people are staying inside so the clinic has been pretty dead, and all of the food in the market has been rotting. The last one is probably the biggest problem. I've still been able to find some veg with only a few bad spots that can be cut around, but you can forget about fruit. The bananas are just piles of black mush, and the apples are so bruised and rotted out you can barely tell what they are. But, I've got my little stock pile of rice and can still buy ramen from the stores, so I'm doing alright. A couple friends and I are planning a vacation to the east coast in a couple weeks, so we'll probably check out the damage there when we go. Hopefully no new cyclones crop up during that time though. We'll be hitting Tamatave and Foulpointe, which I haven't been to, and then popping over to St. Marie, which is probably one of the most beautiful places on earth. I'm so excited to be going back there. Dreams of the perfect beaches are what's keeping me going at this point. Oh, and lobster of course.

Even though clinic work has been slow, my photography project has been amazing work. We've had a few meetings at this point, and I've been absolutely thrilled with the way the girls have embraced the assignments. They've really seemed to understand the point of the assignments which so far have been “home” and “fun.” They've produced some really great pictures of their families, daily work, and friends. At each meeting we go through all the pics that they took the week prior, and then I tell them which were my favorites and why. Then, they have to select which of their pics was their favorite that week and then write a short paragraph describing the picture and why they think it's good. One example from the first week was from a girl named Safidy whose picture was of her mother sifting rice:
“I like this photo because it is of my mother. She does the house work and helps her children with their studies. She works very hard so that her children may study.”
I'm excited for this week's assignment, which is “community” because it will get them out and about in the town interacting with other people. They won't be able to be shy if they want to get good pictures of people, which is what I always tell them- “You must be brave for art!” Which they always giggle at, but I hope they keep it in mind this week. I've posted some of my favorite photos in an album on facebook if you want to take a look at their work.

That's about all that's going on in this soggy country for now. Till next time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Well, it's been brought to my attention again that I've been a horrible blogger. And seeing as my last entry was...almost half a year ago (!?) I can't really argue. But I will anyways, because as anyone who knows me is aware, I'm always up for a good argument.

Somewhere around being in country for a year, the feeling of “living in Africa” sort of ceased. The weird things became less weird, the scary things less scary, and the novel things downright tedious. The feeling of waking up everyday slightly nervous about what strange, madcap things might happen lessened, and eventually I settled into what could more or less be called a routine. I know that when I wake up now I'll immediately go outside to fetch water, come in and make coffee (and oatmeal if I have it), eat breakfast, and chat online for a little bit. Then I'll get ready for work and go to the CSB to do prenatal consultations, vaccines, or malaria tests depending on the day. At lunch I head over to the middle school to run while the kids are at home for lunch, and afterwards, I'll follow suit. I can usually set my lunch to cooking while I heat a little water to take a shower, and then I come back and eat. Afternoons are a little less structured, but typically involve some combination of reading, studying for the MCAT, watching a movie, or hanging out with my site mate, Travis. After that it's dinner time, so another round of cooking, or maybe going to the hotely for soup, then cleaning, and then it's practically time to go to bed, most often to the sounds of mice and lizards scurrying around my house.

To summarize, “living in Africa” became simply “living,” and most of it seemed too mundane to really even mention to people back home. At least, that's what I thought until I went home last month.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we build up what America is like in our heads, because for many of us, it's been several months (or even years) since we've been there. Obviously I hadn't forgotten America in the year and a half since I had left home, but I was overconfident in my thinking that reverse culture shock wouldn't be a problem. On the one hand, when my plane landed in Paris I was ready to get on the next return flight to Madagascar because holy crap, there are a million cars, and buildings, and roads, and it's FREEZING. On the other, by the time my tired and delirious feet hit Chicago and had my first bite of deep-dish pizza, I was ready to stow my suitcases for good and never look back.

America was all kinds of wonderful- spending time with family and friends, eating food I'd been craving for so long, going places and not having everyone pointing at me, and actually, having places to go in general was simply amazing. But there were constant reminders to me of how I've changed since leaving, and how different my life in Madagascar really is. Though I can't honestly say I missed Madagascar while I was home, there was a part of me that was happy to be back to my simple life for a while more.

Being in America was a reality check, and I don't think I would have been ready to stay there for good when I was home for the holidays. People have jobs and bills and schedules, and while I do miss a faster pace of life, it's kind of nice to only worry about buying rice (or usually ramen in my case) and rat hunting in a day. But, it was a wake up call. My stage of PCVs has less than 7 months left here, and then it's back to “real life”. It's created kind of a weird dichotomy of feeling like I need to be planning for when I'm home but at the same time, trying to really make the most of my time here. The usual challenge of “being present” I suppose.

In any case, my trip home was a reminder that the weird things ARE still weird here, or cool, or different, or whatever your interpretation of them is if you live in America. And I remember reading blogs before I left and thinking how interesting everything about Peace Corps seemed, and being excited about having that life. So, I'll try to keep that in mind over the next several months and do a better job of blogging. Because hey, rat hunting might seem normal to me, but there is really nothing normal about 3 grown-ass adults chasing rats around a room with broom sticks and wiffle-ball bats (combined, we have a .5 “batting” average).

What's next for me and the blog? My photography project with girls from the Girls Club is scheduled to start next week, so I'll be updating about that as much as I can, hopefully with pictures! And also, if you've seen the news (CNN, Al Jazeera), you know that Madagascar is in a bit of a tenuous state, politically speaking. One of the exiled presidents has been trying to come back to country, which is being met with opposition from the current regime. So, everyone here has been closely monitoring that situation and waiting to see how it plays out, myself included.

Other than that, not much big news on the island! Till next update, take care.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Winter Break

Finally, back at site for some peace and quiet! It's been a really busy summer so far, but for the moment I'm back in Ankazobe for a couple weeks. Here's what I've been up to recently:

Training! I got to go to Mantasoa for a week to help with the training of the new group of health and education volunteers. They seem like a really great group of trainees, enthusiastic but realistic, and just generally cool people. It's always fun to meet new volunteers, so meeting 27 was a lot of fun. During my week, I taught sessions on fruit drying, planting moringa, at-risk groups for malnutrition, and breastfeeding. We also organized a day of work with SEECALINE, a volunteer run Malagasy organization that deals with mother/child health and nutrition. The trainees were split into four groups with several mothers and their children to do a cooking demonstration. They had to use charcoal stoves, light the fires, and prepare food for babies such as a pumpkin and milk mash and corn soup (yum, right? Right??). During this day they also got to practice weighing babies and using the little weight tracking notebooks that the mothers bring in. I think it was nice for the trainees to get some hands-on experience, because sometimes the technical sessions can get a little boring if you're just sitting in a room listening to information. This way they got to see how they can apply their knowledge to actions in their communities.

One of my favorite things about the training week was that we got to stay at the super nice Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC) with it's comfy beds, hot showers, and constant supply of coffee and tea. And the food! O the food! It's like eating at the best hotely in all of Madagascar. I think what I like most about the meals there is that there's so much variety. When I cook for myself it's almost always just one dish, no sides or anything. At the PCTC though there's always so many choices- soup, a couple loaka (side dishes), a salad, and dessert. Maybe not the best place to be the week before my beach vacation, but so worth it. I think my favorite meal was when they made ravitoto (pounded cassava leaves) with coconut milk, green beans with garlic, voanjobory (groundnuts? I don't actually know what these are in English), and avocado salad. There was even lime cream pie for dessert, which is definitely not Malagasy, but is definitely delicious.

*As a side note, I realize how much I talk about food. It's a Peace Corps thing. Whenever you get volunteers together, the conversation inevitably turns to food in about, oh I don't know, five minutes. Even if we're in the middle of eating a really good meal, we'll be talking about other food. It's kind of weird, but c'est la vie ici.

During my training week, the trainees actually moved into the PCTC. As opposed to my stage which did homestay for the entire nine weeks (bless our hearts), trainees now split the time between homestay and PCTC. I think this is such a good idea on Peace Corps' part, because being in homestay for that long can burn people out, no matter how nice your host family is. It was fun to be able to socialize with the trainees outside of being their teacher, and they had a lot of questions for me about volunteer life. I also got to meet my new site mate, Travis, who will be moving to Ankazobe in September! I'm super excited that he'll be here, and I think we'll get along great. And I'll finally have someone to cook with again which I've missed since Esther went home.

After training I went on a mini-vacation up to Majunga with Amber to visit our friends Ali and Karina who live nearby. I hadn't seen them since December, so we had a lot to catch up on. I think Majunga is now one of my favorite places in Madagascar, after Tana and Isle St. Marie. It's a beach town, but because it's kind of out of the way of other cities isn't vazaha at all. A lot of Malagasy people go there to vacation, but there are far fewer foreign tourists than in Diego or Ft. Dauphin for example. This is great because there's still a lot of nice amenities, but they aren't ridiculously overpriced like they would be if there were more vazaha. We spent a lot of our time at the Rouges Rouches, a hotel with a great pool and free wi-fi. Any place where you can get your tan on while you download new podcasts is a winner in my book. The fact that they also had awesome panini was just a bonus!

We did go to the beach one day which was pretty cool- you can rent umbrellas and mats for about 50 cents which we did, and we brought crackers, chips, and cheese to have a little picnic. We also got watermelon there which made it really feel like a summer vacation! I have to say that the Majunga beach is not one of the prettier ones I've seen, so I didn't actually swim in the ocean, but it's always nice just to sit and listen to the waves. And of course, no trip to the beach here is complete without a freshly cut open coconut which we picked up on the way out. I recently read in a magazine someone sent me that coconut water is the new thing in the states and Whole Foods charges like, five bucks a can for it? That's crazy! That would buy a couple liters of it here with the additional treat of coconut meat.

One of the best things about Majunga is the abundance of fresh seafood. We ate some form of it every single day we were there, mostly on the boardwalk. The boardwalk, simply called “Board” by people in the know, is the long strip of road by the ocean where everyone goes at night for fish kebabs, popcorn, cotton candy, ice cream, and beer. It's basically a mini-carnival. Amber, Ali, Karina, and I went there most of our nights in Majunga. We would all squeeze into a picnic table around a little grill and tell the cook how many of each type of food we wanted. Most nights we got a few fish or shrimp kebabs each, some paka-paka (little coconut flavored tortillas), and papaya salad and made a new version of fish tacos. So. Damn. Good. On our last night we even bought a box of white wine because we're supa-classy like that. I now understand why Karina refers to Majunga as her Disneyland here. It's magical!

After that fantastic mini beach vacay it was back to Tana to pick up the four trainees who were coming to my site for their demyst trip. I wrote about demyst trips before when I hosted some trainees from the March stage, but hosting health volunteers was extra special because they got to see what they'll be doing in just a few short weeks when they move to their new sites! It was a very low-key sort of weekend with lots of hanging out, walking around, cooking, and eating. Training is really exhausting, so I think everyone could just appreciate a weekend away from schedules. Our first morning we went to the market where I introduced them to my market-grandpa and they got to practice their Gasy and assured him that they liked Ankazobe much more than Mantasoa. Then we cooked up a bunch of onion scrambled eggs and fruit salad with pineapple, bananas, and oranges with a honey-yogurt dressing. I had also brought croissants and pain au chocolat from Tana, so we had a really nice little brunch. This is why I'm glad I'm getting a site-mate- I never cook big meals like that for myself, but if you have another person to share it with it's a lot more feasible. That night we did burgers, pasta salad, and beers and watched the movie Volunteers which is hilarious when you're with other PCVs. “Jesus H. Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

On their second day at my site we went to the hotely for omelets, bread, coffee, and tamarind juice. They were given forms they had to fill our during their trip, so we worked on that. It was mostly questions about my site and work, with another sheet that asked for sample prices for a lot of items so they could get an idea of the shopping they would need to do for their installation. After breakfast we went to the clinic where they met a few of my co-workers including the pharmacist who was just so excited to meet so many new vazaha. They all really liked her, which wasn't at all surprising. Since it was Monday it was big market day in my town, so we wandered around for a while and they bought voandalana (gifts from traveling) for their host families like peanut brittle, hats, and colored pencils. I know those will be much appreciated! We had one last meal together at the hotely again, and then said our goodbyes because their taxi-brousse left at four the next morning. It was so much fun hosting them in Ankazobe and I know they're all going to do awesome when they get to their sites.

And now it's back to just me, alone in my house. As fun as the last month has been, it's really nice to have some solitude again. As I was taking the trainees around my village I realized how many people I know here, and they all seemed really happy to see me after I'd been gone for so long. It was nice to be reminded that this really is my home and I have friends here, because sometimes all I feel is the isolation of being the lone vazaha. But people actually do notice when I'm not around and are interested to hear what I've been up to and catch up on life. It's nice to be back to the slower pace of the village for a while, where I can read and play ukulele and cook simple small meals on my own schedule. That, I think, is the biggest difference between training and volunteer life and I'm so glad to be living the latter!

Till next time, mazatoa (enjoy)!

Friday, July 22, 2011

One year in...

A year ago today I took my first steps on the red, dusty soil of Madagascar. It's been a long, hard, and fun year, so I figured a little reflection was in order. In some ways I can't believe...I don't know- that it's been a whole year? That it's only been a year? That I'm still here? All of the above I suppose. On the car ride through Tana from the airport last year, I remember thinking to myself “There's no way I can live here for the next two years.” Everything seemed so chaotic- Why were there so many stray dogs? What's with all the meat hanging in shops with flies on it? Why aren't these children wearing clothes or shoes? Basically all part of the scene I should have been expecting upon entering a developing country, but when actually confronted with it after several days of sleepless travel my reaction was one less of excitement and hope and more so one of “no thank you, please put me back on that plane.”

Today, I walked through my town's market. I stopped to play with my friends, children who often wander around without shoes. I dodged the flea-bitten, matted-hair dogs the linger around the market where they wait patiently for a small scrap of rancid meat to fall from the butcher's shop counter. I spotted some good looking mandarin oranges and had a conversation in Malagasy with the seller about when and where they were picked, how much they were, and how many I wanted. I bought some envelopes from a small shop so I could mail the letters I wrote to family and friends last night by candlelight when the electricity went out several hours earlier than usual, then took them to the post office so that they could start the long journey to America. Now, none of this seems out of place. A year ago though, it would have seemed daunting. I guess with enough time you can get used to anything. With enough effort, you can like anything.

I'm very tamana tsara (well-settled) in my town, although to be honest, I still feel much more at home in Tana. Talking to the street-kids and prostitutes feels so much more productive than talking to the people in my town who are already pretty well-off and mahay (knowledgeable) about health. I still go to the clinic in my town several days a week, but I've switched the focus of my future projects to be more youth centered. Right now I'm waiting to hear back about my funding proposal for a photography project which would let me and a few of my fellow PCVs teach our girls clubs about photography, let them take pictures, and put together exhibits for their communities. There is such a lack of visual art in Madagascar, and increasingly so when you get outside of the bigger cities. It's really a shame, so I'm hoping that with a little bit of funding I'll be able to change this in a few communities around the country.

Other than my community work, I've been pretty busy. I went to the Training of Trainers in Mantasoa a couple weeks ago where, along with four other health volunteers and several education volunteers, I learned about how to be a trainer for the new stage of trainees that just arrived in country last week. We are all taking different weeks to teach them about skills they might use over the next two years as volunteers, and also just to answer questions about being a PCV in Madagascar in general. For my week I'm teaching sessions on building cookstoves, doing cooking demonstrations for mothers of young children, gardening, planting moringa trees, and fruit drying. I'm also doing a session on what it means to be a vazaha in Madagascar which should be interesting, because I still haven't quite figured that one out myself.

When I was last in Tana a few other volunteers and I went to the airport to greet the new trainees as they arrived. I felt really nervous for them because I was remembering how I felt at that time a year ago, and I saw the familiar look of anxiety, exhaustion, and excitement on many of their faces. They have no idea what they're getting into! I only now, after one year, feel like I have the foggiest grasp on what I got myself into, but at least at this point I still feel like it was a good decision and I'm looking forward to continuing to figure it out over the next year. Till next time, take care.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Epic Vacay: In Conclusion

Sorry again for the extended intermission between posts, but this time I have a good excuse. Well, two excuses. First, I was out of town. I went to Tana to work on writing some funding proposals with my friend Shayla and then to Antsirabe for our regional VAC meeting. Second, when I was in Antsirabe I came down with strep throat...and scarlet fever. “Scarlet fever?” you might be asking yourself, “wasn't that eradicated decades ago?” And the answer is yes, if you live in a lovely developed country. We don't even vaccinate for it in America anymore because it is just that irrelevant. However, if you live in Madagascar you can still experience all the joys of a sandpapery, itchy rash, bloody throat, and total inability to eat or drink for days! Come one, come all. I'm happy to report that after a few heavy injections of antibiotics and days of sleeping I'm fully recovered though, and just waiting to see what the next disease is that I can add to my “sicknesses of the Oregon Trail” bingo card.

I'm going to fairly quickly summarize the rest of my vacation here, and then I'll be able to start posting about current stuff that's going on.

When I left off we had just left Fianar and Amber's site to head to the west coast. Our first stop was a few days in Isalo though. This was my favorite hiking of the whole trip. I don't really care for the rainforest I've found out, because it's just way too freaking humid. Isalo, on the other hand, is rocky, hot and dry. Perfect! We stayed at a cool lodge called Isalo Ranch, which is a collection of solar-powered bungalows with a pool and restaurant. We did a couple different hikes while we were there. The first took us up to the top of the plateau where you could see for miles and miles. We saw a lot of tiny plants since there's not much water in the rocky desert, including some two-foot-tall trees called "Elephant Feet" because they look like, well, what they're called (you can see a picture to the right). There wasn't much wildlife up there, but the scenery of the sandstone cliffs and canyons was really beautiful. We stopped for a picnic lunch, and were soon interrupted by pests...lemurs! They were habituated to people, so they were hopping right up on our table, trying to steal the food out of our hands. It was actually pretty annoying, as I was hungry and wanted to eat my egg sandwich and fruit.

Our second hike was my favorite. We hiked down from the plateau into one of the canyons that ran by a stream, so it was really lush and pretty. We followed it all the way to two natural pools that Matt and my dad swam in. My mom and I chose to sit that one out since there was no place to change into swimming suits and I didn't want to finish the hike in freezing, soaking clothes (and thankfully I didn't; we learned the pool was home to three-foot long eels!). Then we took another short little path to a 40 foot tall waterfall through a very colorful rock formation.

After Isalo we continued to the southern Malagasy coast. We had to make a brief stop in Tulear, where we had a pretty nice lunch at an Italian place (lasagna at last!), but other than that it was a pretty gross town. The people had a fairly hostile attitude, even toward our driver because he was from the highlands. Everyone wanted money for the smallest things, like saying where the bank was, or you know, being a policeman and just doing their job. Sorry, but you already get a salary for that, it's not my business to subsidize your drinking hours. Once we got to the bank the ATM ate my mom's bankcard, and the manager refused to give it back. It was quite a hassle, and I think everyone was happy by the time we left Tulear.

From Tulear we had to rent a different car to drive us the 27 km to Ifaty because there is no road, just sand dunes, wet and dry riverbeds, and lots of ruts. At this point it was dark, our driver was a sketchball, and everyone alongside us was carrying spears, so I don't blame everyone for thinking we were going to be sold to one of the local villages. We made it to our bungalows at Au Soleil Couchant after an hour and half and were greeted with the most glorious seafood buffet you could imagine -- shrimp, fish, lobster, you name it! In fact, I mostly associate our few days in Ifaty with eating lots and lots of lobster. So delicious!

The first day in Ifaty we went to the Reinala Arboretum and saw lots of baobabs (the iconic tree of Madagascar) and then went to a radiated tortoise conservatory (they are a very endangered species). From there we went to the beach were we walked for about .5 seconds until we were hounded by vendors and beggars, and then proceeded to sit in a beach-side restaurant. We had a good time talking with the owner of our hotel, although since he only spoke French I use the word “talking” to also mean pantomiming and drawing. We went snorkeling that afternoon on his son's boat, and the water was so lovely and warm. We stayed in an area with lots of coral and fish, and I didn't even freak out too much when the fish got close to me. Just a little. I actually really liked some of the prettier fish, like the parrot and angel fish.

The second day my parents and I went on a pirogue excursion. These are just about the most primitive boats you can imagine -- dugout of tree trunks, sails made of whatever fabric they can find, and an outrigger made out of a really bouyant tree trunk. We sailed a little ways down the coast to the skipper's village and then he gave us a tour. The kids of course were so excited that vazaha were there and were showing us their best dance moves and songs, we visited a grade school, and our guide's family gave my mom and I some seashells as gifts for visiting. It was pretty cool.

After Ifaty it was back to Tulear to take a plane back to Tana. From there we did a quick little day trip to my site in Ankazobe where everyone saw my little room, garden, kabone, and ladosy. We had dinner at my french-fry omelet hotely which everyone enjoyed, and on the way back we ran into my friend Lea. Since it wasn't work hours they didn't meet any of the doctors, so I was glad they met at least one of my Malagasy friends. Then back to Tana and on to Isle St. Marie, my most favorite place in Madagascar.

Ile St. Marie is essentially "Fantasy Island." Absolutely gorgeous with sparkling turquoise water, palm trees, and grass huts. We toured the island by bike our first day there and it's just so pleasant. As opposed to my town where people barely say hello, the people on ISM were quite friendly. Everyone passed with a “bonjour” or “salam.” Our bungalows Le Libertalia were super comfortable, and the food at their restaurant was delicious. Every night was cocktail hour followed by a three-course meal followed by a food coma. I think I would go back for the food alone! The hotel also had it's own tiny little private island which had a hill you could climb up and pretend you were a pirate (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what we all were doing, right dad?). There was a pier leading out to "Pirate Rock" with beach chairs and ladders off the side so you could swim and snorkel around the little island. In short, it was relaxation heaven.

On one of our days on ISM we went to the much, much smaller Ile Aux Nattes which is just a stone's throw from the southern point of the big island. IAN is pedestrian only, and is so quiet. We walked around the whole island with our friends from the hotel, a couple from Switzerland, and Jean, a charming (and entertaining) 84-year old man from France. We really had a great time together and had lunch and cocktails there. We also got to spend the afternoon swimming in the most beautiful water I've ever seen. It's salty enough too that you just float...float and dream and forget that the rest of Madagascar -- er, the world -- exists. Mmm, bliss!

I guess Air Madagascar must have known I wasn't quite ready to leave paradise, so our flight was cancelled on the last day there. Fine by me! Air Mad put us up back at Le Libertalia, so free dinner, drinks, and breakfast before we actually left the next day. Once back in Tana it was really just enough time to reorganize, sleep, and then say goodbyes (boo).

It's amazing that almost a month flew by that quickly, but we covered so much ground and saw so many incredible things and ate SO MUCH delicious food. It was a vacation I will never, ever forget and one that might never get topped! I hope you enjoyed my recap of it, and if you have any interest in visiting this country, DO IT NOW. It's rapidly disappearing as people continue to clear-cut the forests and global warming messes with the ocean. I feel really fortunate that we were able to see it while there's still so much wild and beautiful nature, but I know it won't last. So come see it before it's too late!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Epic Vacay Part 3

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, more rainforests, and that time when my parents ended up in a brothel with a bunch of crazy Peace Corps Volunteers. I've posted a few pictures as well.

After Antsirabe we kept driving south to our next destination: Ranomafana. In Malagasy this means “hot water” because of the natural hot springs that are around the area. It's also a huge rainforest. We stayed at a really nice lodge that overlooked the forest and that prepared delicious 3-course dinners. We were there for two days, and both days we went hiking in the forest. There were really beautiful rivers and rapids, chameleons, and TONS of lemurs. Between Andasibe and Ranomafana I think we definitely met our lemur-watching quota! On the second day we visited the thermal public swimming pool which is filled by a hot spring. It was non-chlorinated, which is a little skeezy, but no one got any weird skin diseases so I think we're in the clear. We swam for a little bit and then went to a hotely in the town for lunch. I don't know if I've talked about hotelys before, but just to clear up any confusion -- they aren't places to sleep, as the name might suggest. They're restaurants that usually serve Malagasy food, i.e., rice and side dishes. This hotely, despite being recommended by the Bradt guide, was a little bit grimy, and Matt ended up sick after eating the fish. My general rule is that in a country where the travel time from coast to wherever you are is more than a couple days, beware of seafood! I ordered ravitoto (pronounced rahv-TU-tu), which is cassava leaves that have been boiled and pounded into a spinach-like mash and everyone got to sample that for their first time. Not everyone is a fan of the "rav," but to me it tastes really fresh and “green.” After lunch we met up for beers with my friend and fellow volunteer Mike, whose site is in Ranomafana. He's been here about a year longer than I have, so it was nice to have another person's perspective about what life here is like to share with my parents and Matt.

The next day we headed to Fianarantsoa (Fianar for short), a town where several of my friends were meeting up to do some business. It was so fortunate that our schedules lined up the way they did so that my parents could meet the people I talk about all the time. After doing some brief introductions at the Peace Corps Meva we let the PCVs get back to cooking their breakfast while we went to the old city to try to check into the hotel where we had reservations. The old city is really, really pretty, and is pedestrian only. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to be carrying lots of luggage up some pretty steep hills. We were also immediately mobbed by children trying to sell us postcards as a “school fundraiser”. It's interesting though, because a lot of the kids spoke excellent English, far better than any of the oldest highschool students in my town. I talked to one little girl while we walked to the hotel and she told me all about her family and the town, so I did buy a card from her. In the end, we ended up staying at a different hotel in the center of the new town.

After settling in, my parents and I went to have lunch with my friend Amber. Matt was still feeling under the weather, so he took a rest day at the hotel. I was so glad Amber and my parents could meet in person...after all, they've been facebook friends for months! Later that night we all went out to “the brothel”, which is a bar close to the Meva that also happens to be a brothel. Peace Corps Volunteers frequent it because it has the cheapest beer, but it can be pretty grim. Anyway, lots of merriment was had, and I ended up staying out way later than I should have (for which I paid the price the next day, blah). It was great seeing so many of my friends in one place though and totally worth it.

The next day we continued on down south with my friend Amber to drop her off at her site. Ambalavao has a lot of silk weaving, and Amber was kind enough to take my parents and Matt on a tour of the weaving that goes on by her house. It was really interesting to see the process step by step, and everyone ended up buying lots of scarves to bring back to people in the states. Fortunately I was still in the car, otherwise I would have ended up adding to my scarf collection! They're just so lovely.

Next time: West side, best side? Maybe, maybe not.