Monday, September 26, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The school year is about to start back up again. Before it does, I’ll fill you all in on my adventures during grandes vacances.

Adventure 1: I going countryside

At the beginning of vacation I spent a lot of my time walking around Ambanja with my guitar and going on bike rides. One of these bike rides was particularly noteworthy. Back-story: I have a really bright student named Jacquino who is the man: he bikes 12 km into town from the countryside every week to go to high school; he actually does well in his subjects; he sings in the school chorus; he’s the president of the English Club that I run; and he plays guitar.

So, Jacquino’s a cool cat. He had been asking me to come out to the countryside with him and get fruit a bunch toward the end of the school year, but I had always been too busy.

So, the first Friday I had free during vacation I agreed to ride out into the wilderness with him. He came to my house at 6 a.m. and, after coffee, we went on our way. We biked along a mountainous but paved road for 12 km, which left me pretty winded. Then we went off the main road and took a rugged dirt trail further out into the countryside until we got to his village, Ampamakia. People came running to get a look at me. Most of them were super excited to see a vazaha (white person) who spoke Malagasy. However, some of the littler kids were not too excited and started screaming and crying when they saw me, having never seen a vazaha before. I gave a short speech in ‘gasy about Peace Corps and the U.S.A. and my job as an English teacher in Ambanja, and then we went around town.

While going around the village I met a bunch of his family members, and then we ate fresh-picked bananas and drank coconut juice from fresh-picked coconuts. After the refreshments, we hopped on our bikes and entered a thick forest of cocoa, coffee, and miscellaneous other trees. We made our way along a treacherous, winding path until finally emerging in a clearing in the middle of mangrove trees.

We rode through this clearing for a while before arriving at a solitary orange tree next to a little hut in the middle of the mangroves. The orange tree was bursting with oranges (which are green on the outside here, but still ripe and orange and super sweet on the inside). We filled our sacks with oranges and then went a little further through some grass to find a small river that led to the sea. He showed me his family’s boat, sitting all by itself out there, ready if they ever want to leave.

After watching some colorful sand crabs fight, we got on our bikes and made our way back through the mangroves. Then we went back through the forest where we saw a big black snake before arriving in his village again. There we grabbed some more coconuts and, thus heavily-laden with fruit, headed back to Ambanja. The trip back took a lot out of me, but I made it in one piece.

Adventure 2: Benin, West Africa

From July 26 to August 18 I was in Benin, West Africa visiting the lovely Miss Summer Morgan. To get there I first made my way down from Ambanja to Antananarivo by taxi brousse with Ryan Farkas, who had just spent a few days visiting me in Ambanja. I spent the next couple days in Tana getting my mid-service physical and dental appointments taken care of. Then I took a flight from Tana to Paris, and then from Paris to Cotonou, Benin. There was a bunch of drama with my Beninese visa situation: specifically, my lack of one. I won’t bore you with the mundane details, but after a stressful time in the Tana airport where it looked like I wouldn’t be going to Benin after all, and then a few stressful days in Cotonou, I got my passport back from the Beninese immigration authorities. Inside the passport they stapled my receipt asking for a visa, stamped it, and wrote the note “visa en cours.”

So after a rough start, Summer and I made our way up to her post in Founougo, northern Benin, stopping in Parakou, Kandi, and Banikoara along the way. We spent a lot of quality time at her post catching up, eating tasty food, drinking warm beer, throwing impromptu guitar/djembe dance parties with her Beninese family, and repairing the southern hemisphere of the world map in her town, freehand. On our way back down to Cotonou we both got food poisoning, which lasted a bit longer for Summer, but that was all cleared up by the time we arrived. This allowed us to enjoy some of the finer dining establishments Cotonou has to offer, before the inevitable, painful goodbye. Due to the fact that I had never actually received a visa, I had some trouble again at the airport, but they eventually let me leave the country and return to the world’s fourth largest island.

[I could write an entire post comparing Benin and Madagascar, but these are the three main differences that first come to mind: 1) Benin has much bigger paved roads, but these are filled with an absolutely insane number of motorcycles; 2) much more French is spoken in Benin than in Madagascar due to presence of over 60 different indigenous languages, although it is a unique West African version of French; 3) from what I saw the diet consisted mostly of manioc and cornmeal in Benin, rather than the heaping piles of white rice typically consumed three times a day in Madagascar.]

Adventure 3: Ankarana National Park

When I got back to Madagascar from Benin my buddy Paul and I did some thorough exploring of the capital, Antananarivo. In addition to finding a place that serves beer on tap (it’s the same unexceptional beer, but it’s on tap!), we also stumbled upon a music shop with all sorts of electric guitars. I was able to borrow one in the store and for five minutes I was in distortion-filled ecstasy.

After a few days in Antananarivo, Paul came with me in a taxi brousse up to the north. He lives as far south as possible, in a desert region, so coming up to my beautiful, tropical, cocoa/coffee/vanilla-producing region was a vacation for him. He explored a lot of beaches on his own, as well as going to the tourist resort island located just off the coast from my town. However, there was a tourist-y thing that in my year living in Madagascar I still had yet to do: go to a national park and see lemurs.

So Paul and I went to Ankarana National Park, about 130 km north of Ambanja. We stayed in thatched-roof, bamboo bungalows, drank warm beer, hung out with the staff from the park and the family who runs the bungalows, and ate delicious Malagasy food. As usual we had an immediate “in” with the Malagasy folks because we spoke ‘gasy rather than French like all the tourists.

So after chilling Malagasy style, we took an epic hike the next day. We went through a forest and saw lemurs jumping through the treetops; we climbed a tsingy mountain (tsingy are these jagged, pointy rock formations); and we went into a massive cave where we saw stalagmites, stalactites, and thousands of bats. So, it took me a year, but I finally had a cool, rugged Madagascar hiking adventure.

Adventure 4: Statue Unveiling/Jason’s Birthday

A few days later I went to a cultural event at my buddy Jason’s site, Siranana, about 46 km north of Ambanja. His tiny town consists of a few thatched roof huts and a concrete health clinic: no electricity, no running water, and poor cell service. Usually not a lot happens there. However, on September 10th the women’s group in his town was having a huge party to celebrate the unveiling of a statue honoring the women of the community. This event just happened to occur the day before Jason’s birthday, so he invited a bunch of PCVs to his site to partake in the festivities.

After sitting around in the hot sun and listening to speeches for a few hours, the statue was unveiled and we feasted on rice and beef from the two whole cows they killed that morning. All afternoon we hung out at Jason’s hut and drank betsa (cheap, homemade, delicious sugarcane wine) from big plastic water bottles and played corn hole (bean bag toss?) with boards Jason had made with his neighbors. That night they fired up a gas-powered generator so that a Malagasy dance band could throw an all-night dance party. They literally played nonstop dance music from 9:00 p.m. until 5:45 a.m. in an open area across the street from Jason’s house. We danced from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. but couldn’t keep going with those ‘gasy folks.

Summer Winds Down

As vacation comes to a close I’ve been relaxing in Ambanja, playing guitar and running a few sparsely attended English courses. I also helped with the installation of two new health-sector PCVs. PCV Megan was installed in Ampasindava, about 20 km north on the main road from Ambanja and then about 20 km west on something that might have once been called a dirt road in someone’s imagination. The trip out is worth it though: her house is on a hill looking out on a long, beautiful beach. PCV Ellen (or, I should now say, Soaravo) was installed in Betsiaka, 100 km north on the main road from Ambanja and then about 30 km east on a good dirt road.

I had my back-to-school scheduling meeting with the proviseur of the LycĂ©e today. This year I’ll be teaching two additional classes, bringing the total to 7 sections of 70 students each, or almost 500 students! Before agreeing to take this on, I negotiated my hours down, so I’ll only be meeting with each section once a week for 2 hours. I will still be holding English club every Wednesday and most Fridays, broadcasting my radio show on Thursdays, and holding an adult English course on Saturdays. I may also be working with an Italian NGO and the owner of the hotel/restaurant Palma Nova in creating a hotel/hospitality services school. Malagasy folks interested in working in hotels, restaurants, or as tour guides would receive training at Palma Nova and could then attend Italian and (depending on my availability) English language courses.

So, starting next Monday, October 3, I should be pretty busy again, but I’ll try to do a better job of regularly updating this thing. Until next time, for all of you reading at home, go out and enjoy some tasty food and beverages. Amin’ny manaraka koa!

[I’d like to take the time to personally dedicate this entry to my Ambanja predecessor, mentor, and friend, Dorothy Mayne, who just sent the most amazing care package to the Ambanja crew. Thanks Dorothy!]