One of the guys we played basketball with in Nosy Be was Birkoff. His actual name is Frederic, and goes by Freddy, but for the white people that come visit, he tells them to call him “Birkoff.” He got the name from a French TV series/movie, “La Femme Nikita.” In the TV series there is a computer geek named Seymour Birkhoff. Freddy wanted to be a computer programmer, therefore, Birkoff (with a different spelling).
Birkoff is a pretty smart guy and spoke English perfectly, and now works off and on as a dive assistant in Nosy Be so he’s one of the guys that we got to know well on our first summer in Nosy Be. He’s very crazy. When I arrived at my first church service at the local church in Tana, behold, there was Birkoff. I was amazed to see him there, as was he to see me. Apparently he had since moved to Tana to try to go to school and live with his father. He had spent some time trying to find the Nazarene church and this was the first Sunday that he had found it, an amazing coincidence, or providence.
It was nice to have a friend there for my first couple of months. We hung out a lot around the church, managed to fix the basketball hoop, and played a lot of basketball. We hung out quite a bit during the year, during the off and on times that he was in Tana. He had a troubled relationship with his father so he ended up back in Nosy Be for much of the year.
Fortunately, at the beginning of November, I got the opportunity to go up to Nosy Be at a time that Pastor Dave would also be going. I got to visit Birkoff and his family, and visit the others I had met there the year before.
November is quite possibly the warmest month in Nosy Be. It’s getting to be summer by then, and is before the rainy season starts. So it is just pure heat with no rain for relief. Flying into Nosy Be was so beautiful, it was right about sunset, the sky and water reflecting a palette of colors. We also circled the island before landing, giving a great reintroduction.
Birkoff and his mother were waiting for me at the airport. I stayed with Birkoff at his modest two room house with his mother and sister. They treated me so well, preparing great local food for dinner, giving me a bed to sleep on, it was wonderful. His house, of course, did not have plumbing, so I took bucket showers with water from the well, and took care of other duties at a hole, covered by a thatch hut. On a couple of occasions we showered at this half-built abandon building, that somehow, had warm running water. I didn’t ask any questions about the nature or ownership of the building.
Being in Madagascar, was often a practice of being opportunistic. If an opportunity came up to do something, I usually went ahead with it. That’s how I ended up on a swimming club, hiking through barren grasslands, spending 20 hours on a bus, or two days on a lorry. Most often, it was best to only partially know what was going on, and enjoy the journey; as long as I didn’t get in trouble.
On Sunday morning after arriving I went to the church. I surprised everyone by showing up. I saw Patricia, Patrick, Claude, and Faed. It was great to see everyone. I walked home with Patrick and Patricia and talked with them for awhile before having lunch.
Patricia and Patrick are great people. Patricia lives pretty well, but her husband works a fishing boat and is gone for long periods of time. Patricia speaks English so she is easy to visit with. How she came to know English is amazing. At one time Pastor Dave had never heard her speak English and neither had her husband, until he came home from a trip to find her able to speak English. Amazed, he asked, how did you learn? Jesus taught me, she replied. That’s the story she’s stuck with and nobody has any evidence to the contrary. She asked Jesus, and she received.
Patrick was another very smart kid, did well in school for what he had. Unfortunately for the previous year he had often been sick with malaria, and had gotten a whole year behind in school. Graduating from high school is surprisingly tough there. He is also one of few Christians in Nosy Be, and I don’t think he had any friends who are Christian. It always seemed to me like he may have been a little lonely.
After visiting with them, Birkoff and I took a taxi to the beach at Ambatoloaka that I was dying to visit. Taxi’s were always a fun experience, especially in Nosy Be. The taxi’s are typically ancient Renault 4L‘s or Citroen‘s that are cast-offs from other countries. They run primarily on modified sheet metal, ingenuity, faith, and a water bottle of diesel held by the driver’s feet. In Tana, they are always out of gas and the first part of any taxi ride is a trip to the gas station (oddly, this particular characteristic of taxi’s in Tana was featured on The Amazing Race).
In Tana, there are more regulations on taxis (including they all be painted beige), particularly on the number of riders in the taxi. On our first trip to Nosy Be, we became accustomed to packing the whole of our 7 person team in one taxi. When we arrived in Tana, we found that this didn’t fly, and would have to split up in two taxis.
On this particular trip in Nosy Be, I rode a packed taxi of 11 people (7 adults, 4 kids), my personal best. We made it to the beach, luckily making it through the police check points (police check point = location for bribe payment/creative negotiating). We hung out on the beach, saw where Birkoff’s mom worked, then went home to bed.
Monday morning I went back to Ambonara to visit the neighborhood that we had stayed in. It was great, all the kids were still there and I had a lot of fun hanging out with them again and talking with them. Many were now learning French and English in school so I could talk with them a little bit. Madame, Babo, Yasmine, Vola, Emilio, they were all there. I felt so happy to be back. I went back again and played with them on Saturday.
Later in the day I walked down to the basketball court. When I got there many of the same guys from the summer before were there playing. They were also surprised to see me. I had a good time hanging out with them. They still played the same crazy basketball, missing most of their shots. But, when they did make a shot, there was a lot of trash talk and posturing. Patrick also showed up at the court so I got more time to talk with him.
Each night we had dinner at about 9:30. After getting up around 6:00, and walking around in the heat all day, I could not stay up til 9:30. I always ended up falling asleep, then waking up when it was time for dinner. Something to know about living near the equator, the sun sets between 5:30 and 7:00 year round. With very little to do once it gets dark, besides read or write next to a candle (the power was always going out), it was hard to stay up too late. M/car is an 11 hour time difference from the Pacific Time Zone, so when my body adjusted, it adjusted to waking up without an alarm at 6.
Tuesday I just hung around with Birkoff most of the day hanging out with his girlfriend, or at his uncle’s house. In the evening we went back to the basketball court and played basketball with the guys again. It was fun to play and hang out with the guys that we had made such good relationships with the year before.
I went to the beach again Wednesday and Thursday, one of my most favorite places to be, and again on Saturday. I felt good to hang out at the beach, walk around, and enjoy the warm water. I explored different areas around the beach, just walking and hanging out. Thursday night was the youth meeting at the church, so I went to that. I saw a lot of the same youth from the year before, and all the kids from Ambonara showed up as well. Everyone shared how things had been going, and David shared and preached.
Friday I stayed in town, and played some basketball in the afternoon. The guys that showed up at the court this day were much different from the guys that we had played with before. These guys were really good, and it was much harder work to keep up with them.
Sunday was my last full day in Nosy Be. I went to church again, helped lead the children, and watched as David led the annual meeting. With the kids, we played Boom-chicka-boom and Little Malagasy, some of the games we had taught them. During the church service, Patrick was made a full member and leader along with Patricia and Mama. I got to talk with Patrick several times during the week and really enjoyed it, I hope he is doing well.
While there in Nosy Be, I acquired some kind of sickness. I had a stomach ache most of day Wednesday and felt just drained the whole day. Sitting in the water on the beach felt nice, but it was just so hard to escape the heat, it may have just been some heat stroke. Later in the week, starting Saturday night, I got a terrible, pounding headache. All day Sunday I was just miserable, and could hardly function. I got some aspirin, but it barely helped. I ended up being exhausted for the next week until I got over it. I’ve never been sure what it was, but after getting malaria later on, perhaps it was that, or maybe a stomach issue from some bad water.
Overall, I loved my trip back to Nosy Be, it’s one of my most favorite places on earth. I loved the opportunity to talk with Patrick and Patricia, to hang out with the kids again, to visit the beautiful beach, and to get the opportunity to live with a Malagasy family for a week. It was great, Nosy Be will always hold a special place in my heart.
So, this isn’t actually a story about Madagascar, but rather the story of getting to Madagascar for the first time. Before going on my first trip with Youth in Mission, we spent a week training for our trip in Pasadena, CA.
On Thursday of training camp we got our flight information. We assumed we would be flying through Paris and had all hoped we would get to see the city. We opened up the envelope with great anticipation and saw what we had all been waiting for, an overnight layover in Paris!
We arrived at the airport on Monday as one of the last teams to leave, and would definitely be the last team to arrive at our destination. We would have an 11 hour direct flight from LAX to Paris; by far the longest flight I had then been on, arrive at around 2 pm, stay overnight, then catch a flight at around 10am the next morning for another 11 hr flight to Madagascar. When checking in, the attendant asked if we would like to volunteer to be bumped, and the airlines would pay us $100 each just for volunteering. With our long layover, and a lack of cash, we quickly accepted. This meant waiting in the check-in lobby until right before the flight was to leave.
It turned out that we would not be bumped and when notified we quickly ran to the security and began to go through. At that time I realized my sunglasses had dropped out of my pocket. I left the security, ran back to the lobby, didn’t find them, ran back through security, and ran onto the plane, presumably close to the last one on. After the waiting, running, and barely getting to the plane, we then sat at the gate for 2 hours – all that rush for nothing.
We landed at the Paris airport at about 2pm, cashed our $100 checks at the Air France office, then boarded the train into Paris. We had just found out we would be in Paris a couple days before, and our combined knowledge of Paris was not good (internet access at hotels must not have been popular then either, because I don’t remember looking anything up). Not knowing where else to go, we got off at the Notre Dame stop. This was my first experience in Europe and it was amazing to come up out of the tunnel and see the Notre Dame Cathedral, something I’m used to only seeing in pictures.
Having grown up on the west coast of the U.S., architecture more than 100 yrs old is pretty rare. In the city I grew up in, there’s probably nothing older than the 1940’s, and even in Seattle where I live now, there are only a few things older than the 1920’s. So, seeing buildings centuries old was an entirely new experience for me
We took lots of pictures, walked around, and then decided we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower as well. We tried to find a taxi thinking we could just stand on a corner and wave and one would stop. There may be something that we completely missed about Paris culture, but we couldn’t do anything to get a taxi to stop for us. We tried different corners, tried to get away from traffic, all waved together, but for whatever reason, none would stop. So we just walked.
We figured the right direction to walk to get to the Eiffel Tower, walked until we started to see it, then just walked towards it. Keep in mind, we all still had our carry-ons with us. We ended up walking for about an hour and a half before we arrived at le Tour Eiffel. We got to sit and watch the sun set behind the tower. I thought it was so cool that there was a huge park in front of the tower, with people picnicking and enjoying the weather, it just seemed like such a beautiful place.
Another thing I remember about that time in Paris, was that no matter how hard you tried speaking in French, people would hardly even acknowledge that you were speaking to them. I think we’re very tolerant of how people speak English here in the US.
Along our walk, we inquired at a few hotels about their pricing, but all were incredibly expensive. We had no idea where the hostels were, and didn’t make a lot of effort to find one. After hanging around a bit, we decided to go back to the airport. We found a subway entrance, and got back on the train to Charles de Gaulle.
We then learned another thing about Paris, the airport is nearly completely empty at night. Nothing. No security guards, no restaurants open, no passengers. It was this way from about 10pm to 6am. We had almost the entire airport to ourselves, and we also hadn’t had dinner. We didn’t eat while in the city because we figured we could just go to a restaurant when we got back to the airport. We found some vending machines and spent 35 euros on snacks to tide us over until the restaurants would open in the morning. We then spent the remainder of the night, alternating between sleeping on the floor and wandering the halls of the airport, waiting for the resturants to open; we all barely slept. I remember a maintenance guy buffing the floors near where we were sitting, and watching him slowly complete the large section of the lobby. Not the most exciting night, but how many people get to say they spent the night on the floor of a Paris airport.
Finally, morning came and we were able to get breakfast, get to our gate, and get on our plane to Madagascar. The flight to Madagascar was another 11 hour flight, over the Mediterranean, over the Sahara (a cool sight from the window of the plane) and into Antananarivo (Tana) the capital of Madagascar, but still not our final destination.
We arrived their late at night, and were picked up by Tom and Lauralee, the Nazarene missionaries in Tana, who were also with our translator Patrice. We stayed the night at an inn close to the airport. The beds had down mattresses that weren’t fully filled, so by the end of the night I was just sleeping on the hard bed frame.
The next morning, Thursday, we boarded the plane to reach our final destination; a two hour flight to Nosy Be (“big island”), a small island on the north end of the main island. The plane was a rickety old Air Madagascar 737 with paint chips and dents in the wings and seatbacks that all flopped forward when the plane braked, unless someone was sitting in them. There also seemed to be much more steep banked turns on that two hour flight than necessary.
At the Nosy Be airport, we were greeted by David, the missionary we would be working with for the summer, and Don, our colorful tour guide, thus completing our three day trip.