Stories of my adventures in Madagascar… for my daughter and son

Posts tagged “Antananarivo


During my stay, Todd, one of Tom and Lauralee’s sons, came to visit for a couple months.  It was great to have him around, we played a lot of ping pong and hung out with some of the other expats in the country together.  I did not see Nate and Scott much on a regular basis, so it was nice to have Todd there to hang out with and talk to.

One late night, after leaving a friends house, we were driving home.  Todd was a experienced “missionary kid.”  Though now over 30, he had grown up in Africa, mostly in Swaziland and Kenya.  His experience in foreign relations was vastly greater than mine; I had only youthful ignorance.  Todd was also about 6’2″ 230 pounds.

At nights in Tana, groups of soldiers/gendarme would gather at street corners, in order to check people’s and car’s papers… and also to drink beer.  Three Horses Beer was the beer of choice for most Malagasy.  I am not sure the level of authority of these soldiers, but they carry AK-47s, and some level of authority comes with that.

As we approached a street corner that night, a group of soldiers were there, waving us to the side of the road with their flashlight.  At the moment, I had the option, to just blow through and see what happened, or to pull over.  Without much thought I pulled over.  As we were coming to a stop Todd said to me, “I don’t have my passport with me.”  When you’re doing everything right, it’s easy to talk your way out of a situation.  When you’ve actually made a mistake, getting through it is much more difficult.

The chief of the soldiers walked up to my open window and asked for our papers.  I gave him my identity card that I carried everywhere and substituted for my passport, and the truck registration.  I also told him that Todd did not have his passport.

The chief’s eyes lit up with the possibilities of profit that the situation opened for him.  “Well,” he said (I can’t remember if in French or English), “We will have to take your friend with us.  However, you could give me a cadeau and go on your way.”

With bribery there is a great deal of moral and ethical dilemmas, and debate as to appropriate situations, or defintions.  I had previously decided that I would not give bribes.  Perhaps this was a great moral victory, or perhaps it was just youthful exuberance, but nonetheless, on this night, I carried out my decision.

“No, I’m not going to give you a gift”

“Then I will have to take your friend”

“No, you don’t need to take my friend”

“He does not have his papers, I must take him in”

Thinking that Todd could handle himself, “Ok, you can take him”

“No, no, no, just a small gift and you can go on your way.”

The group of AK-47 carrying soldiers surrounding the vehicle looked anxious.  This conversation went on for probably 15 minutes, him asking for a gift, me refusing, him telling me he was going to take my friend.  Eventually the point came when someone’s bluff would be called.

“We will have to take your friend”

“Ok, Todd, jump out, don’t go anywhere and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Todd opened the door, and started to step out.  Seeing that his bluff had been called (and probably not wanting to show up back at HQ, drunk, and with a huge American) the chief quickly handed me back my papers, “No, no, no, just go.”  Todd closed his door and we quickly sped off.



Malaria is a terrible disease.  There are more than 225 million cases each year, and over 780,000 people die of malaria each year,mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is the leading cause of death of children under 5 in the world.  The symptoms of malaria can be almost anything, but most notable is probably on and off fever and chills.  Malaria has also developed resistance to many previously useful drugs making it difficult to combat.

A couple weeks after returning from my Christmas trip, I got a really sore neck.  It felt like a headache, or maybe a ‘stiff neck’ from sleeping funny.  It was sore from the back of my head down into my shoulders.  I brushed it off as just sleeping funny, though it continued for several days.  Thursday and Friday the headache became very painful.

On Friday night, I was at the Johnson’s for dinner when I began shivering uncontrollably for short, irregular periods, and my body hurt all over.  This, combined with the fever, was the tell-tale sign of a possible bout with malaria.  Since I was there for a year, I did not take any anti-malarial drugs, and instead took the risk of dealing with malaria if it came.  This was pretty normal among the missionaries living there.  During my travel, probably in Ifaty, I had contracted the disease.

I don’t remember exactly how I felt realizing I had malaria.  To me, it was still a distant disease that only occasionally comes up in history books, or WWII stories from the fighting in the Pacific.  I knew the dangers and at some point feared the possibilities.

Unfortunately for me, no doctors would be open on the weekend, so I would have to wait until Monday morning to see the doctor.  The next three nights were probably the longest of my life.  The symptoms that I can remember were headache, body aches, fever, chills, profuse sweating, nausea, a slight cough, sore throat, and a sore spleen (I didn’t know this at the time, I only new that I had a pain in my stomach, but apparently malaria can cause the spleen to swell).

Those nights I sweat through my bed sheets several times.  I would lay in bed, wake up shaking with fever in soaked sheets, then take the sheets off the bed and lay them out to dry while I sat in the shower.  After awhile I would go back to my room, remake the bed and lay down, starting the whole process again.  One night I think I did this eight times.

On Monday morning I went to the doctor.  My temperature was 102, my blood pressure 91/62, and my pulse 100.  She prescribed me some medicine that I took and over the next three days and slowly felt better.  By Thursday I felt mostly backed to normal.  The medicine worked really well and quickly.  I ended up with bronchitis afterwards, and I had one flashback of malaria a couple weeks later, but other than that I felt fine.

My bout with malaria was short, and I was fortunate enough to take a cure early, but during that week I felt probably the most miserable I have ever felt.  It gave me a glimpse into the terrible disease that affects so many lives around the world.  I hope that continued efforts to curb the disease are successful.


My purpose for being in Madagascar was to teach carpentry.  In connection with the SKC already established, there were still many teens and young adults for which traditional schooling was no longer possible.  The ministry then decided to start a vocational school to train these young men and women to have skills that they could use to find a job in the workplace or start of business of their own.  With a moderate amount of skills there were jobs available, so it was a much better opportunity than their current path in life, which would likely be that of a menial labor worker.

The three skills that the school was to teach were computers/keyboarding, sewing, and carpentry.  The year I was going, was to be the first year of the carpentry program.  Wood working has always been an interest of mine and others in my family, so I was really excited about the opportunity.

Upon arriving in M/car I found that I would be starting from scratch on developing the program.  There was a limited amount of curriculum that Tom had acquired, and there was a great shop in need of some clean up and organization.  At some point previously, a work and witness team had walled off a corner of the basement where a collection of power tools and a workbench had been placed.  I had no idea  the level of effort it would take to teach the incoming students.

My task when I arrived was to set up the shop.  I did all of this in July and August between the two work and witness teams.  The shop was already well stocked with Grizzly power tools: table saw, band saw, lathe, jointer, planer, combo sander, drill press, shaper, and miter saw.  A few of them were being used, but some had not really been set up yet.  In addition, most of the shop area was being used for storage, so there were several pallets of goods taking up space.

First step, cleaning.  I moved the pallets out, swept, vacuumed, dusted off all the tools.  The area was actually pretty spacious, so  next, I worked on determining the amount of space needed for each power tool.  After a few design tweaks, I moved the tools around into their determined positions.

Second step starting up the tools.  Some were being used already, so I worked on adjusting and calibrating each of them.  For the others, there were a few hiccups.  Upon starting two of the machines, the capacitors blew.  Thankfully we found this before the second W&W team came, so they were able to bring replacements.  It turned out some wiring was crossed, that we were able to easily fix, and get the tools up and running again.

After getting the shop tools organized, set up and calibrated,  I then finished setting up the shop for the students.  There were no workbenches, so David and I built about six workbenches along one wall of the shop.  We also collected tools necessary to teach the students the finer points of crafting with hand tools.  We focused on teaching the hand tools, as that is the type of work they would most likely be doing upon leaving the program.  Near the end of the school year, I began teaching the use of the power tools to a few of the students.

The student workbenches

With the shop set up, and waiting for the school year to begin, I got the chance to build a few projects for David and Lisa and a few other people.  I built a bunk bed, bookcase, desk, a single bed, an entertainment center, and a small armoire.  It was not museum quality, but I was proud of my work, and had a lot of fun building pieces of furniture.  Unfortunately, the wood available that we used was never really cured properly, so after several months, many of the pieces began warping.  It was a hard problem to find a solution for.

When school started, my students were very raw, and from a variety of backgrounds.  They had all received little or no schooling, and a few of them likely had learning disabilities.  Teaching was a difficult process.  We started small, identifying tools and their uses, learning to measure, learning to use each tool.  Cutting straight lines with a hand saw was one of the first difficult obstacles to overcome.

The sense of quality was very different among these students then my own understanding, and may have shed some light on the state of maintenance and quality among infrastructure in the country as whole.  For them, completing the task was sufficient, quality was not a concern.  I spent a lot of time trying to instill a sense of quality, and that completion was not enough, but making it look good, and long-lasting was equally important.

After getting past basic tool usage.  We moved on to more complex tasks.  For a few new ideas and tasks, I would design a project that practiced those tasks.  So along  the way, we made more and more complex projects, eventually practicing all that was learned.  At one point, I brought Lisa down to judge their projects, to help reinforce the concept of quality.

In addition to vocational skills, the students also learned English and took a Bible class.  I taught a small English class for a few of the computer students that already spoke English.  Not knowing much about teaching English, I made it a conversational class.  I would have the students rotate brining a topic to class for everyone to discuss, and therefore, practice speaking in English.  Through this, I was able to learn a lot about Madagascar.  The students discussed the state of affairs in Madagascar, their way of life, and what they see for the future.

Patrice, myself, and most of the wood shop class

At the end of the school year we had a graduation ceremony.  The students sang songs, and we handed out certificates, and took lots of pictures.  It was a great occasion and a great conclusion to the school year.

One of my most special students was Andrianjaka.  Andrianjaka had what I presumed was epilepsy that caused him to occasionally have seizures, though he never had one while in my class.  Knowledge of this kind of thing is limited in M/car, so everyone presumed he was possessed, or at least just crazy.  He also clearly had some mental disability as well.

Nonetheless, he faithfully showed up to class each day, even on days when no one else came.  He slowly caught on to some of the concepts, but never made real solid progress.  However, he kept working hard, and always came with a smile on his face.

One morning, Andrianjaka was found dead on the side of a road.  Perhaps, he had a seizure while walking home the previous evening, and with no help, passed away in a ditch until he was found in the morning by a passerby.   He had a large funeral with many people in attendance and was laid to rest in a cemetery outside of town.

It’s a sad event that sticks with me.  However, unbelievable even to myself, I made no mention of his passing in the journal I kept during my time in M/car.  Perhaps at some point, I realized that life was just different there… and more fragile.  In the rush of writing  my journal, simply to keep track of my actions each day, I forgot about the details and the relationships built in everyday life.

I mourn for Andrianjaka, for a young man, with never much hope in life, who had been written off by all but a few as un-helpable, who will stay firm in my memory the rest of my life.

Return to Nosy Be

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.

Club Natation

In May of 2005, I swam in the Madagascar National Swimming Championships against current and former Olympians.  A great and unique experience.  There’s a little story as to how I got there.

Sports have always been my way to fit in.  No matter where I am at or what the situation, I have often found my place through sports.  In Madagascar, it turned out to be no different.

As I mentioned during my first trip, a large part of our ministry was playing basketball.  It gave us the opportunity to get to know people and make friends.  In Tana it was no different.  During July/August/September, in between W&W teams and the start of teaching, I played what sometimes seemed like endless amounts of basketball, volleyball, and table tennis.  It was great fun but tough at times.  The previous December I had torn my ACL so I was still in the recovery period from the surgery (only 7-8 months out).  Some days it didn’t feel so good and I was still wearing a bulky brace.  Playing those games, though, gave me the opportunity to hang out and get to know some of the young adults and teens of the church and gave me a chance to fit in.  Michael, Draza, Valeria, Patrice, Felena, Pastor Richand, Mbola, Ari.

Sometime in October, as I was driving from the compound to do some shopping, I came across Felana on her way out.  So she got in and I gave her a ride.  I asked where she was going, and she said that she was going to a school to ask about learning to swim.  It sounded interesting and not wanting to miss such a vital cultural experience, I offered to go along (I’m not sure if she thought this was a good idea).  We went to ESCA: Ecole Secondaire Catholique Antanimena.  I waited while she inquired about the swim lessons and tried my best to follow along in French.  When she was done, looking for a way to get more exercise, I began asking the director about coming down to swim for exercise.  The coach then began telling me about their swim club.  Not really knowing what this was, I thought, sure that would be great.  The fee was only about 12 dollars for the school year and would give me a chance to get in shape while my knee healed.

A couple weeks later I showed up ready to swim.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  When I heard “club,” I was thinking, a group of people swimming around for fun.  This was not a “club” but a high school swim team, that I, a 22-year-old, had joined.  The first day I nearly drowned.  These kids swam hard, year round, for who knows how many years, and I was nowhere near their level.  I had swam on a park & rec swim team in middle school and that was the extent of my competitive swimming experience.  The workouts with this team, were intense, and non-stop.  The first week I was choking, swallowing a lot of water, cramping; it was no good.  The kids on the team must’ve thought I was nuts.  Keep in mind, I’m a 6’2″ Caucasian in an African country with an average male height of probably 5’4″.  I stuck out.

While the first few weeks were tough, I eventually powered through and slowly began to keep up on the workouts.  At the end of one day’s workout we did 25m sprints for some speed work and practice.  It was then that I beat everyone in the short sprints, thus justifying my place on the team, and earning respect from my teammates.  I fit in much easier and was a part of the team.

We would swim anywhere from 4,000-6,500 meters a day (2.49 – 4.04 miles) often swimming for 2 1/2 hours.  It was a lot of work, but I loved it and got into great shape.  It was probably great for my knee recovery, giving me some low impact exercise.

A competition at the ESCA pool

The team also competed in some competitions.  My first competition was in December, on a cold and rainy day.  I didn’t know what to expect and the coaches eased me into it.  I swam the 50m freestyle and butterfly and was also on the 4×50 and 10×50 relays (yes, ten).  I took first in the freestyle and something else in the other races.  It was fun and gave me the feel of competition.

We had a few other races throughout the year.  I ended up participating in about 3 competitions.  I never knew exactly what was going on, there may have been more races that I missed while I was out of town, but I remember going to at least three.  I eventually worked up to where I was competing in the 50 and 100m freestyles and butterflys, as well at the 4×50 freestyle relay, and the 4×50 medley relay.  I was usually able to place in the top 3 in my events, sometimes winning (of course, I may have been competing against high schoolers).

The best time I had swimming was probably in February and March.  At that time, I had finally gotten in shape, got used to and was now leading the workouts, and I was at my healthiest, finally over all the bronchitis, sinus infection, and malaria.  I was swimming hard, 4-5 times a week, the weather was warm, it was great.  I probably would’ve posted some great times during that month, but maybe because of the timing of my out of town trips, there were no competitions.  I also became semi-famous.  Felana told me once that she had heard some people talking about the swimming “vizaha.”

In April and May, the weather got colder, and I got a little sick again, and I found myself unable to keep up with a lot of workouts, so my performance declined some, but I still went as hard as possible in the championships to come.  On April 9th and 10th, the regional (like a county) championships of Analamanga were held.  For two days, teams from all over the Tana area competed in their races, from 5/6 year olds up to “masters” divisions of people in their 20s and 30s.  It was a lot of fun, and a tough couple days of racing.

50m Free medal ceremony - regional championships (I look like a giant)

One the first day of competition, I made my way down to Youth Sports Academy in Ampefiloha.  I had no idea where I was going.  I got off the bus when I thought I was in the area and walked around a bit not seeing anything that looked like it would have a pool.  After asking around in a couple businesses, I finally found the center and the pool.  Despite all my wanderings, I will still the first from my team there.

The first day, I had very few events.  Mostly I sat, and waited (you do a lot of this in M/car).  Finally at 5:30 I swam the 200m freestyle.  I then waited to swim the 4x100m free a couple hours later.  By the time we swam that race, it was dark, and the pool did not have lights, except for one nearby street light.  Being dark, I couldn’t see the wall coming and when I made by flip turn, I flipped early, and barely got the wall with my toes.  The judges saw it different, and our team, despite coming in 3rd was disqualified.

The second day was a full day of swimming.  In the morning I swam the 100 free, taking 1st, the 100 fly, and the 4x50free.  In the afternoon, I swam more, swimming the 50 fly, 50 free, and the freestyle leg of the 4×50 medley.  I placed in the top three in the 50m,100m, and 200m freestyle.  The weather was nice those days and some of my friends even came to watch, so I really enjoyed the experience.

The ESCA relay team

My main competition and what prevented me from coming in first were two brothers, about my same age, 20 or 21.  They swam for the team from the Youth Sports Academy of Tana and had been swimming competitively for more than a decade, I hadn’t even been going for 10 months.  They were the only ones I could never beat.

After another month of swimming and lagging behind in my workouts, on May 12-17th, I had the opportunity to go on the big out of town trip to the National Championships.  Earlier in the year I had attended a benefit dinner put on by our swim club, that raised funds for this trip.  I met the rest of my team at ESCA and we loaded up in vans for the long road trip to Toamasina. We got there late, ate a quick dinner at a Chinese restaurant then went to bed.

Our first full day, Friday, we did not have competition, but was a practice and workout day.  We had two time slots, one in the morning and one in the evening for practice.  Before this time we only swam in 25m pools.  This was the first time that we were swimming in a 50m pool.  So we used this time to warm up, and get used to the length of the longer pool.  Otherwise, we spent a lot of time resting and watching TV at the hotel.

Saturday morning, the first day of competition, we did not go to the pool until the afternoon.  So in the morning I took some time to walk around Toamasina, see the beach and take some pictures.  Toamasina is one of the largest cities in M/car, and is also the location of the largest port.  After lunch, we went to the pool.  Again it was another long day of waiting, ending with back to back 200m races.  At about 6:30pm I swam the 200 free and at 7:15 the 4×200 free.  That night, after the races and dinner, I went almost immediately to bed.

The national championships

The second day was again a long, full date of races.  The morning started for me with the 50m free, followed by the 100 fly and the 4×100 free.  I had a frustrating incident with the 100 fly.  I was supposed to be in the top heat, as I was with all races.  At the last minute, I was bumped from the top heat to the next heat.  As a result, I ended up swimming almost alone, winning by heat by more than 10 seconds and taking 4th overall.  With some competition in my heat, I may have been able to do as well at 2nd.  I didn’t understand the reason for being bumped.

In the afternoon I swam the 50 fly followed by more waiting until finally finishing my swimming career with the 100 free at 7:00pm and the 4×100 medley at 8:30.  Thankfully, this pool at least had lights.  Madagascar is a tropical country, but nonetheless, it does cool during the winter months.  Since it is a southern hemisphere country the winter months are June-September, so our races were taking place in the fall.  I remember during the final race looking out of the water to take a breath and seeing the stars in the night sky.  I thought to myself, this is no time to be swimming.  I ended up being the last one in the van back to the hotel, leaving the pool for the final time around 9.

Overall, I was disappointed with my performance, but I greatly enjoyed the experience.  My results at the national championships declined from the previous month, due again to my lack of conditioning.  I only placed in the top 3 in the 50m and 100m free, just barely missing 1st in the 50m free.

Race start (I'm the white guy)

After going back to the hotel that final night, we had a party back at the hotel and handed out the medals earned during the weekend.  Our team, overall, did really well.  I hung out until 12:30 but by then was too tired to stay up any longer.  My roommates stayed out until 4:30 and came back into the room still loud.  The swimming team was a great experience and one of my fondest memories of Madagascar.

My shirts and medals

Regional Championships Results

50m free – 2nd

100m free – 1st

200m free – 3rd

50m fly – 5th

100m fly – 4th

4×100 free – 3rd

4×50 free – 3rd

4×50 medley – 3rd?

National Championships Results

50m free – 2nd (by a hand)

100m free – 3rd

200m free – 5th

50m fly –  7th

100m fly – 4th

4×100 free – 3rd?

4×200 free – 3rd?

4×100 medley – 3rd?

The Second Trip: Laying Block

My flight to Madagascar took me, with only short layovers, from Seattle to Cincinnati (4.5 hrs), Cincinnati to Paris (8.5 hrs), and Paris to Antananarivo (11 hrs).  I arrived at about 11:00pm disoriented and sleep deprived.  David picked me up at the airport and we drove back to “the compound” where he let me stay in their house for the night (They had by this time moved to Tana).  I slept in Amanda’s room for the night.  I actually felt bad sleeping in her room, I had not had a chance to shower since arriving and I stunk.  In Charles de Gaulle the only place I had found to lay down was a smoking section and the stench was lingering with me.

This is what I refer to as the compound, though, its not really much of a compound

A couple days before I arrived, a Work and Witness team from South Carolina had arrived.  I had never been to South Carolina and still have not been, so this is my only introduction to people from there.  They loved grits more than any food except Coca-Cola, which they drank constantly (10-12 bottles per person a day).  Ironically, the same guy in charge of mixing the mortar at the job site was the same guy who cooked the grits, possibly some similarities between two.  Some of them spoke in such strong accents that I honestly couldn’t understand a word they said.  Think, Boomhauer from King of the Hill.  They all played fantasy NASCAR and were very concerned about the standings.  They also swore that South Carolina girls were the best in the world and all loved their wives a lot, calling home nearly every night and running up huge phone bills.  They snored uncontrollably but thanks to hard work and jet lag, I managed to sleep in the bunk room just fine.

In addition to all of this, the crew from South Carolina was a professional construction crew.  At the time, the new Street Kids Center was getting started with building a new building.  The purpose of this S. Carolina W&W team and team from Arizona that came later, was to lay the block and build the first two floors of the center.  The S. Carolina team finished the first floor in record time and record quality.  Compared to the guys on this team, my masonry skills were greatly lacking.  They were good at everything they did.  When the Arizona team came a few weeks later, I was one of the best bricklayers.  The professionalism of this team was amazing.

One of the first days of construction

The first week and a half I was in M/car I spent at the job site, hauling brick, pushing wheel barrows, cutting brick, laying brick.  Jet lag was never a problem.  The team was scheduled to take most of two work weeks to finish the job but instead finished by Tuesday of the second week.  Therefore, we got some time to roam around town a bit and get oriented to my new surroundings.  I visited the current SKC they were using, shopped at some of the markets, walked around Analakely.  A group of four girls were there with the current YIM team, so I hung out with them some and saw the work they were doing at the SKC.  With David moving to Tana, there was no one to guide them in Nosy Be, so this year’s team was staying in Tana.

Map of Antananarivo

The local workers a the SKC were unbelievable.  The location of the construction project was down a steep hill from the street into a small valley.  The Americans had trouble just walking to the job site.  The local workers, however, repeatedly loaded 50 kilo bags of cement, or two 40 lbs cinder blocks on their head and cruised down the hill…barefoot.  The wonder of seeing people carry things are their head is always remarkable to us western outsiders, but this was the most significant example of their abilities I ever saw.

Woman carry a 110 lb bag of cement

While the Work and Witness teams were there, all the men stayed in a room in the basement of the church.  In the room were about 15 bunk beds, with plenty of room for visiting teams.  I stayed with the teams in this room, and once the two teams had finished, I had the room to myself for the rest of the year.  I did my best to make the room my own from the scraps that I found around.  I pushed all the bunks to one half of the room so that I had an open space for the other half.  I moved in a bamboo couch, a chair, a folding table, a couch, a desk and a small shelf that were around the church and shop in various states.  I found a small TV and an old VCR that I eventually hooked up to an antennae from the market and was able to watch French and Malagasy TV and borrow videos from the missionaries.  Later in the year, after I had built Amanda a new bed, I was able to get her old twin mattress and use that for a bed, a huge upgrade from the too small bunk-bed.

Watching local TV allowed me to really improve on my French comprehension skills and having a space and table to myself allowed me to spend a good amount of time journaling, especially during the rolling blackouts.  The electricity would go off for some period of time everyday, and as many as 5 or 6 times a day, so that for much of many days there was little or no electricity.  I ended up making a few candle sticks on the lathe and burned through many candles as I sat in the dark reading and writing.

The church and my home

Communication with home was limited.  I borrowed an old laptop from the missionaries and set up Outlook so that I would write emails and have them in my inbox, then once a week or so, I would hook up to the internet, at the missionaries house and send the emails and download my inbox.  The internet was slow and priced based upon amount of usage, so I did not use the internet much.  Occasionally I would go to an internet cafe if there was something that I wanted to spend a lot of time looking up.

I went all but the last couple months of my stay with no home phone and no cell phone.  In my world now, it seems impossible and utterly absurd to go 11 months with no phone.  But I don’t remember it being much of a problem.  The few times I needed to make a call to arrange a hotel or for the three times during the year that I got to talk to my parents, I used the phone at Dave and Lisa’s.  After I got more friends, they began leaving messages with Dave and Lisa when they wanted to get a hold of me, which probably led to them finding an old phone that I could use.

In M/car and likely in other countries in the world, entrepreneurs would set up little tables and an umbrella, where they would have a phone for each of the local phone companies.  You could then pay them to use their phone and make a call.  I did use this on occasion.  In developing countries, cell phone technology has greatly outpaced most other forms of infrastructure.

My bedroom

I also went to M/car before digital cameras really became popular.  So I wen to M/car still with a cheap point and shoot film camera.  The quality of the pictures I took in M/car is greatly lacking.  When I think of M/car I remember the vibrant colors and beautiful scenery, but when I look through the pictures I am always disappointed the poor quality and the lack of justice they do for such an amazing country.

When the W&W team had finished the first floor of the SKC, we all went on a short trip to the rain forest, and stayed at a hotel called the Vakona Lodge.  It was a beautifully constructed resort, with small bungalows for rooms, and a large, tall ceiling-ed central lodge, where meals were served.  The S. Carolina boys were always so picky about the food at the lodge and how it was prepared, it was a little annoying.  I learned early on in my stay, not to be too concerned with the food, but just to pray a fervent blessing and dig in.

Vakona lodge

While at the lodge we went on few different tours.  In one tour we went to “Lemur Island” which is a small island of domesticated lemurs.  It is actually an island with no bridge (so the lemurs don’t escape) and we rode in small canoes the 30 feet to the island.  See the big S. Carolina boys try to navigate the tiny canoes was pretty funny, they need a lot more keel.  The guides then brought out snacks and the lemurs flocked around, crawling on us, and allowing for a lot of good pictures.   In addition, we then toured the crocodile refuge, which was  pond with a couple dozen crocodiles lounging on the beaches.  It was winter, so the crocs were in a slow state of mind.  There were also cages with birds, snakes, and the legendary Fossa, the primary predator to the lemurs.

At night we went on a night (of course) tour to find the elusive mouse lemur. Mouse lemurs are really rare, and small, less that the size of my hand, so finding them is difficult.  The only way to really find them is to shine flashlights into the trees and look for the glowing eyes.  So we wandered through the forest for a couple hours looking for the elusive glowing eyeballs.  Luckily we were able to find a couple and focus in on them to see their little bodies.  We also saw a number of chameleons, which are quite common.

One of my many lemur admirers

Early the second morning, we got up to see the famed Indri lemurs.  Indri are known for two things: (1) being the largest of all current lemurs; and (2) making a haunting siren-like wailing.  We drove to the edge of the forest where the Indri were known to be.  As soon as we got out of the vans, we could hear the far off wailing.  We proceeded to trek into the forest with our guides, until they pointed high in the trees to the lounging lemurs.  We could see them in small groups, with their babies.  Every so often, they would call out, a loud, siren like sound that could be heard for miles, and hardly describable.  The volume was incredible.  Amazing animals.

I was fortunate enough on my trips to Madagascar to see many kinds of lemurs.  In addition to the mouse and Indri, I also saw (in the wild) brown, black, Sifaka, ring-tailed, and maybe some others I don’t now remember.  I also saw many more in zoos.  Since all lemurs and endemic to Madagascar, it was really a special experience.

Completion of the first floor

The S. Carolina team finished the first floor of the building and the main construction of the restroom area.  After they left I had about 2 months of calm to settle in before a second team came from Arizona.  During that time, I organized the shop, which was currently being used as a storage area, got all the tool calibrated and running, cleaned everything, determined the optimal placement of all the power tools, built a bed for Amanda and a couple other projects, and took a flight with MAF.

I also spent a lot of that time getting to know the the youth and young adults of the church.  There were several guys and girls I hung out with including Patrice (from my first trip who was then the youth pastor and now the senior pastor), Draza, Valarie, Felana, Nanjan, and Sarah.  We played basketball and volleyball at the church, went to the Tana zoo, went to an English Club (where I was unknowingly the guest speaker) and walked around town.  I also went on the youth group trip to Mantasoa where I got to hang out and get to know everyone better.

At the end of August the second W&W team came, this time from Arizona.  Before they arrived, Dave and I moved about 450 cinder blocks down the hill one morning to prepare for the team to come.  This was a much different team.  Rather than the professionally organized construction crew from S. Carolina, this was more of a random collection of church members who had come to help out.  With the S. Carolina team, I had taken more of a support and learning role.  With this team I took more of a lead role, laying block.  Hard work, but for a good cause.  The Arizona team was different and I didn’t feel I got along with them as well, but they got the second floor done and kept the work moving.

Over the course of the next year, the school continued to be built by the local contracting company.  I was fortunate to get to watch the progress of it being built.  It is now successfully in operation as you can see in some of the pics below.

Completion of the second floor

Completion of the third floor and roof

This is how it looked when I left

How it looks today (not my picture)

The SKC and students (not my picture)

The first trip: Paris

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.

Jill, Julie, Mindy and Loriann and Notre Dame

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.

Approaching the Eiffel Tower

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.

Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars

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.

How I got there

I was sitting in a service, near the beginning of my junior year of college, fall of 2002.  Students that had spent the summer in different programs were sharing about their experiences of the past summer and how it had affected their lives.  Some students were in traveling singing groups and bands, others working in overseas missions.  I had spent my summer working an accounting internship at a road construction company (don’t feel bad about yawning).  I also managed to climb some mountains and do some hiking that summer, including summiting two 12,000-ers in one day (a story for a different blog).

Maybe I was a little down from a seemingly uneventful summer, but I was amazed by the stories being told and the experiences they had.  I thought to myself, I would love to go on a mission trip overseas.  And then, a voice not my own, said, “Why don’t you just go?”  I didn’t hear the rest of the service, I just kept replaying the voice.  I prayed continually, and never doubted that it was what I should do.

For the rest of the school year, I planned and prepared for the upcoming mission trip.  I looked through various organizations, thinking maybe I wanted to go to Nepal (the mountains still calling me), before deciding on Youth in Missions, a program of the Nazarene church, and fairly randomly picking Madagascar as the destination.  I would spend about 6 weeks in Madagascar, with a couple weeks of training and debrief in L.A.

In L.A. I met up with the 5 others I would go with: Scott, Julie, Jill, Loriann, and Mindy.  We flew to Paris, ran around the city then slept on the airport floor, flew to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, stayed the night there, then, on our third day from L.A., arrived in Nosy Be, a small island on the north end of the island of Madagascar (the fourth largest island in the world) and our final destination.

We spent that summer, hanging out with kids and teens in the town, ministering, playing basketball everyday, swimming at the beach, and seeing some sights.  It was amazing.  I had never experienced God’s love in that way before. I look to that summer as when God really became real and personal to me.  I loved everything about that summer, my team, the kids, the teens, the basketball players, the island, the beaches… it couldn’t have been better.

At the end of our trip, we spent a few days back in Antananarivo (Tana) visiting the missionaries there, the street kids center, buying souvenirs, and preparing to go home.  While there, the missionaries told us about a vocational school that they were starting there, teaching sewing, computers, and my love: woodworking.  I knew immediately it was the opportunity for me and began talking with them right away about coming back.

Back at school for my senior year, my life forever changed, I planned another for a trip to Madagascar, but this time, for a year, and to teach woodworking to the homeless kids there.

I boarded a plane in Seattle, early Sunday morning, June 27, 2004, two years after hearing God’s voice, heading for Madagascar.  I returned a year later, July 12th.  In between I had several adventures, and stories to document…for my daughter.