Though not many, there were several non-French expat families living in Madagascar, particularly in Tana. The kids came from a wide variety of families, backgrounds, countries and schools. Embassy workers, NGO workers, missionaries, American School teachers, business owners, etc.
Life as an expat kid can be exciting: friends from around the world, experience in a foreign culture, learning new languages. Life can also be difficult, especially for kids of government workers, who may move every few years, leaving friends behind and forced to make new ones. It can also be difficult for those that left their home country later in their childhood, leaving a lot of established friends behind.
Of the many great things about growing up in a foreign country, the pure adventure may be the best. A young couple living in Tana,; one a pastor from South Africa (Hennie), the other an American missionary kid who had grown up in M/car (Shelly); had started an outreach to the kids, organizing monthly hang-outs, trips to the favorite coffee shop, and best of all: the annual youth trip.
The year I was there, the trip was to Mahajanga, Shelly’s hometown, where we would (theoretically) spend the majority of our time camping at a waterfall outside of town. Our trip started by taking a bus (which of course arrived late) from Tana to Mahajanga, about a 10 hour trip. When the bus arrived to pick us up, we quickly realized that it had spent the previous day hauling loads of fish. It took several hours of the drive before we no longer noticed the stench.
The 10 hour drive went fairly quick, and I took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery of the central highlands. We arrived in Mahajanga late Saturday night, and made home at Shelly’s parents house. Sunday was Easter so we had a short service, then spent the afternoon hanging out at the beach. Monday morning our real adventure began.
Early in the morning, all 20 or so of us loaded up our gear and ourselves into the back of a large lorry for a five-hour drive to the waterfall where we could camp for the next few days. Starting out, even early in the morning, it quickly became hot and uncomfortable in the back of the truck. But for five hours, we could endure anything.
An hour and a half into the trip, we got stuck for the first time. All of the back tires were buried up the axles in mud from the rainy season. The biggest hindrance to getting unstuck was the fact that all the tires on the truck were bald. Through the course of our trip, several tires on the truck became so worn, that there was little more than threads holding them together. Truck tires are expensive, maybe $500-$1000 each, in a country where most people make only $300-$400 annually.
The next four hours were spent digging out the back end of the truck. Through this, I learned the Malagasy method of getting out of the mud: dry sand. No matter how the truck was stuck, the driver and his helper’s answer was dry sand. Everyone would dig the tires out of the mud, then promptly bury them in dry sand. However, dry sand or wet, with bald tires its hard to go anywhere.
In the truck, we had with us four live chickens that would later be our meals. The stress of baking in the back of the truck during those four hours caused one chicken to start laying eggs, and another chicken to die. We made a small dish out of a water bottle and attempted to feed and water the remaining chickens in the hope they would stay alive long enough to become dinner.
Eventually, after a lot of pushing and digging, and at the expense of a chicken, we got out and back on the “road.” After a couple more hours of driving, we came to a river and took a break. We all had a snack and jumped in and swam. A small concrete dam had been built across the river to serve as a bridge, creating a beautiful swimming hole and a welcome break from the back of the truck.
After a half hour of relaxing, we loaded back in the truck to finish our trip to the waterfall. We drove across the dam and onto the sand on the other side where we immediately became stuck. Ironically, we were now stuck in dry, beach-like sand. The driver and his helpers stared at each other confounded. Their only previous solution to getting un-stuck was dry sand. Now stuck in dry sand, they had no way out. Despite this, one of them still offered up the solution of burying the tires in dry sand.
Luckily, after about an hour of brainstorming, another truck passed by that was able to pull us out. However, by this time, it was around 5:30 and nearly dark, so we decided the beach would be a good place to spend the night. It turned out to be really great. It was warm, the swimming was fantastic, and the sand was soft and comfortable for sleeping. We all had a good time.
The next morning, we repacked and loaded back into the truck. We were all still expecting just a few hours left to go. It wasn’t an hour out of camp before we were stuck again, for a third time. Perhaps rainy season was not the best time of year for traveling dirt logging roads in the grasslands of Madagascar, but the weather was great for us, and the scenery and greenery amazing. It just meant getting stuck in the mud. A lot.
This time we only spent about three hours, gathering rocks and cutting down trees, trying to find anything we could to throw under the tires for traction to get the truck out of the mud hole.
What amazed me during the whole two day trip, was the fantastic attitude of the kids. If this had been in America, it would have been nothing but incessant whining. Though two days in the back of a truck seems extreme, even in hindsight, at the time, it seemed almost normal. This was just how things go in Madagascar. Everyone knew it and dealt with it. It was frustrating at times, but expected, and everyone enjoyed it and had a good time.
After getting unstuck, we continued our journey. Now deep into the bush, Shelly, our guide, began to realize that a lot of new logging roads had formed since the last time she had been out there, and began to lose her way. We spent a lot of time testing roads trying to find our way. Then we got stuck again, for our fourth and final time.
This time was inexcusable. It was almost as if the driver drove directly into a ditch on the side of the road and dumped the front wheel in it. Even the driver’s helpers gave up on him and took a nap under some trees. The driver was either crazy or blind, or both.
While the driver worked on digging out the truck, I took a walk up the road. While walking I discovered one of the more sinister insects of M/car. I don’t even know what their called, like horse flies, but nearly impossible kill and relentless. They began attacking my legs, at least a dozen of them, immediately latching on and digging into my skin. No amount of swatting could keep them off, so I just ran. I ran until they were gone, hoping not to see them again.
Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention, Todd was able to dig the truck out. After a lot of revving, spinning of tires, and pushing, we got the truck out. Now, it was only a matter of finding our way to the waterfall. With the truck low on gas and Shelly at her wit’s end, we found the waterfall just before sundown on our second day of travel.
It was beautiful. We camped on the smooth rock next to a trickling creek, above a magnificent 55-foot waterfall. There were trees all around us and a huge pool to swim in below the waterfall. That night we set up camp and swam in a few pools above the falls.
We also had our first real meal in two days. In addition to riding in the back of a truck, on hot summer days, that we had to dig out four times, we also barely ate. We had some small sandwiches for lunch and some beans for dinner the first day, and nothing but some slices of banana bread for breakfast the second day. That night, we ate chicken and beans and rice, and it was maybe the best meal I have ever ate. The next morning we ate the leftovers for breakfast and it was still amazing. We were all just so tired and hungry.
Camping in the bush was a special treat, because M/car is a country with few city lights, and being in the bush, were even more removed from any trace of artificial light. The stars were bright and clear, brighter than anywhere else I’ve ever been. The added treat was seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere, different enough that it’s noticeable, compared to what I’m used to seeing in the states.
First thing in the morning, we drove a short 30 minutes to the Anjohibe Caves. This cave is truly in the middle of nowhere and rarely visited. The first thing you come to before entering is a small patch of concrete and a flagpole. According to rumors, the caves had been used by French soldiers at some point in time, and possibly also be Malagasy soldiers, though I can’t imagine what they would be fighting or defending out here. At some point around WWII, the cave had been fitted with electric lights, which is phenomenal, considering you can barely get reliable electricity in the capital. However, I don’t remember them working at the time, so maybe not so phenomenal.
Which brings up another funny thing about M/car. Electricity is so fickle anywhere you go, that you spend much of your time inside using candles for light. During my time there, the electricity would go out 5-6 times a day for anywhere from 15 min to several hours. Many of the missionary wives would comment that their idea of a romantic dinner was one with all the lights on, as candlelight dinners were so commonplace.
Once inside, the cave, we were amazed. It may be the most unique cave I have ever been to. Most of the caves I had been to were in the Pacific northwest are old lave tubes, smooth and without mineral formations. This cave was completely different. Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere. From floor to ceiling in all parts of the cave. We wandered in and out of all the tunnels, exploring as much of the cave as possible, gazing at the rock formations. Part of our exploring was also a race to find the entrance to an underground river.
The entrance was little more that a crack at the bottom of an obscure wall. One at a time we slid down through the crack and into a cavern holding the river (or maybe just a lengthy pool of rain runoff). We walked out of the caves through the river, which was about 500 yards from where we jumped in to where it came out in the open and completely dark. The water was mostly waist deep, but there were few places that we needed to swim, helping each other along with the few flashlights we had available. Sharp rocks littered the bottom of the river and all our legs were pretty cut up.
After hiking back to the main entrance of the cave and grabbing our stuff, we headed back to camp for lunch. One of the driver’s helpers, we called him Rasta because of his dreads (generally, anyone with dreads goes by Rasta in M/car), tagged along with us all day and had the time of his life. The whole time we were exploring the cave he was talking non-stop. When we found the entrance to the river, he was the first to dive through the crack , even before we could get flashlights. Later that night, he continued to talk non-stop telling anyone who understood Malagasy about his day. When some of the kids were dancing around the campfire, he was joining right in.
After lunch we went down to the pool below the falls to swim. To get to the pool, we had to climb down roots of trees sticking out from the side of the cliff. Once down, we all jumped in. The pool was pretty deep, but littered with large boulders just below the surface.
After swimming for awhile, a small group started walking downstream, crawling up and over the huge rocks blocking the river’s path. We scrambled down until coming to another small pool where we swam for awhile until it got too cold. While there, a family of lemurs came and perched in the trees just above us. They didn’t seem bothered by our presence and hung out for awhile watching. With lemurs becoming scarce, it’s rare to see them truly in the wild, away from any nature preserves or national parks.
After getting cold, we scrambled back up to the main pool and swam more until climbing back up to camp for dinner. After dinner we broke into small groups and had an opportunity for the kids to talk about life as a missionary and relationships with their parents. While being an ex-pat can be exciting and adventurous at times, it can also be hard on the kids. The kids talked about never living normal lives; they have few if any close friends, they generally move around the world against their will, their parents are always focused on work of the mission and often don’t have time for them. It was a good opportunity for the kids to share their feelings and how they work through them, and to let each other know that they were not alone.
Afterwards, everyone gathered around the campfire and sang and danced until late into the night.
The next morning we quickly packed up and got back on the road. The drive back to Mahajanga was quicker than the drive out, it took only a full day, but not without hiccups. We drove to the river where we had made our first camp without incident and stopped for snacks and a little swimming to cool off.
Shortly after starting out again, our troubles began. First, the truck ran out of gas. We had another car with us, that Hennie and Wilfred (Shelly’s brother-in-law) took off in to find gas, however, they were nearly out of gas also. Luckily, they found another broken down truck that they siphoned gas from and were back in 45 minutes. The battery on the truck was also dead, so it took us nearly forever, and all our remaining energy, to push start the truck and get it gong again.
Shortly after starting again, the clutch went out and the truck could barely shift. We now barely had any gas, with a dead battery, no clutch and threadbare tires. Then it started raining. The tarp over the back of the truck was tied up on top, and we couldn’t stop for fear of not being able to start again. The rain just poured down on all of us, but by then, no one really cared. Everyone just sat quietly and took it (needless to say, but I ended up throwing away most of the clothes I wore on this trip). When we got to the top of a small hill where the driver wasn’t so worried about getting stuck, we stopped and pulled the tarp down. But, this also had the side effect of making the back of the truck into a greenhouse.
It was then that the driver decided that he wanted to wait until after the rain stopped and the road dried before starting again. Everyone immediately objected, and luckily, Wilfred was able to convince him to keep going. The next stretch of road was crazy, it was probably good that the tarp was down and we couldn’t see. The truck was sliding, and fish-tailing, brushing up against trees, spinning, and barely avoiding getting stuck. But, the rain eventually stopped, we dried out and made it to the main highway before running out of gas again.
After Hennie and Wilfred got more gas, we made it back into town and back to Shelly’s parents. We all crashed hard that night. The next day we spent walking around town, shopping for souvenirs, and hanging out at the beach. The following morning we all packed up early and got ready to take our bus home. However, keeping in line with the transportation theme of our trip, the bus we had hired broke down that morning and they were scrounging to find two vans left in town that could take us home.
We left a few hours later than we wanted but still got out of town, and most everyone spent the ride sleeping. Twelve hours later I was back home in the compound, where I could finally crash (however, I got up early the next morning to meet some friends to go to a concert and ended up staying up all the next night… oh to be young again). It was a great trip, everyone enjoyed it, the kids had great attitudes.
Though the three days on the truck were obnoxious, it really made the trip. Sometimes the journey is the adventure.
After checking into a hotel for the night in Toliara, we made our way to the bus station to try to arrange our trip to Isalo and back to Tana. The bus station was insane, as are all bus stations in M/car. We needed to (1) get a bus from Toliara to Ranohira, the city closest to Isalo; and (2) get a bus to pick us up on New Years Day a few days later. This is difficult for a couple reasons. First of all, we weren’t entirely sure that we could actually get someone to pick us up 4 days later. We were taking a chance on them just stealing our money. Secondly, on New Years Day, all the drivers will be sleeping off a night of drinking, so we would have to find the only bus driver in M/car not getting wasted on New Years Eve.
We proceeded down the row of buses and began talking with the bus companies. We explained our situation (in my broken French/Malagasy mix) and quickly booked a bus to Ranohira for the next day. Then we started looking for a bus to pick us up New Year’s Day. It was then that we found out that there would be no bus drivers that day. With no bus, we had to quickly change our plans. There had been a man following us around this whole time saying that he had a car to take us to Ranohira. We had been ignoring him because it sounded fishy, and it would cost 450,000, ~$45. Realizing that we would now need to leave Ranohira a day earlier than planned, we decided leaving right away would be better than waiting until tomorrow. We found the car, negotiated them down to ~$20, then ran back and cancelled our bus trip to Ranohira. We also quickly found a bus that would pick us up on New Years Eve and booked three seats on that.
The car was leaving immediately, so we went back to the hotel, got our stuff, cancelled the room, quickly said goodbye to Tomasina, stopped at a store for some supplies, and got back to the car before they left. We hopped in the car, picked up the front seat passenger and left town. It turns out the driver and passenger were cousins heading back to Tana, just looking for some extra money for their trip. Worked out for us.
The trip was quick and smooth, partly because our driver seemed to be friends with all the police. We had an interesting event along the way. We pulled over on the side of the highway near a small village not near any major town. After a few moments a woman came out from the jungle. The driver gave her three glass bottles and 25,000 franc (~$2.50) and the woman handed him a baby lemur! Lemur trafficking is highly illegal, and it was amazing that the woman would do it for so little. The rest of the trip, the lemur was kept at the legs of the passenger, a gift for his niece.
The trip was a nice few hours, we were all grateful to be riding in a car. The driver knew of a decent hotel in Ranohira and dropped us off there. We booked a bungalow, then went to the visitor center to arrange a guide. The tourist services at Isalo were pretty nice. There were many certified guides and camping gear was also available for rent. We arranged a guide, porters to cook and set up camp, and camping equipment. We would take a three day trip at a total cost of about $25 each.
We went back to our hotel just before thunderstorms hit. We sat in our room looking out as one thunderstorm after another rolled past. Being out in the grasslands, I imagined that this was what the settlers in the west must have seen as they came across the Oregon trail. We could watch the storms come and go and the driving rain in between. As the sun set, the whole sky glowed red in the mist and low clouds of the storms. It was one of the most amazing sights I have seen, and sadly one my camera could not capture.
The next morning we started out on our three day trip. We packed our clothes and went into town to get some bread and tea for breakfast from a roadside stand. Our guide met us there and we started hiking through the grasslands along the face of the hills.
The park consisted of a massive area of sandstone formations that rose out from an otherwise barren landscape. The eastern edge of the park formed a wall of stone, like the massive ruins of an ancient fortress. Small canyons broke up the wall, gates through which we could cross into the wilderness of the interior.
We walked north, parallel to this wall across rolling hills and small rivers. We came across small villages along they way, and watched as farmers prepared their rice fields for planting by running cattle around in the mud. We also saw the makeshift distilleries where toaka-gasy is made, an alcohol so primitive and strong it kills hundreds each year. We stopped at a grove of mango trees where we would camp for the night. We set down our stuff and once the porters arrived, we set out to explore a couple canyons.
The two canyons we hiked to were the Canyon des Makis, and the Canyon des Rats. Makis was heavily forested and we walked under the canopy and through the jungle. While in Canyon des Makis we were fortunate to see some ring-tailed lemurs lounging in the trees, grooming each other.
Canyon des Rats was much less forested and filled with giant boulders. We crawled up, over and around these boulders, as far as we could go when we came to a bright, open pool. We swam in the cool water and climbed up the canyon walls to jump in. We ate a snack of egg and tomato sandwiches, and pineapple so sweet it burned our mouths. Nowhere have I found pineapple that tasted so good. After our ‘lunch’ we all napped on the sand and relaxed the rest of the afternoon.
Late that afternoon we hiked back to camp where we found a fantastic meal being prepared for us by the porters. We had a tea and ramen appetizer, followed by the standard rice and chicken loaka. As far as cuisine goes in M/car, you have two food groups: rice and loaka (loosely translated as: stuff you put on rice). Rice is most important; you have not eaten until you have had rice. Our meal was finished off with some bananas flambee. Needless to say, we slept full and happy that night.
Breakfast the following morning was again bread and tea, before we began our hike back up the Canyon des Makis. Once through the jungle and into the canyon we hiked for about a mile and a half over, around, and under every rock and boulder. Deep into the canyon, we finally got over the last of the boulders and began walking along the small stream that flowed through the canyon.
This part of the canyon was very narrow, with sheer cliffs going up hundreds of feet on both sides. More often than not, there was no room to walk along the creek, so we just took off our shoes and walked through the water and mud up the canyon.
Remember, Scott had only brought sandals on this trip, and badly sunburned his feet on our long walk to Ifaty. While in Toliara, before driving to Isalo, he had bought some wool socks to wear with his sandals. Scott, now dressed in his socks and sandals, walked ahead of me tromping through the creek, not even bothering to take off his socks. The image is burned into my mind, and is so funny, that I could barely write about it in my journal later, without choking in laughter.
We eventually were able to hike out the side of the canyon, and onto the high prairie of the interior. It was then that our guide informed us that he had never taken this route before, but thought it would be a good time to try it since we looked like a strong group. We hiked across a few more small canyons before eventually coming to a trail. We hiked until we came to our second campsite.
This campsite was very well built. It had a flushing toilet, running water, flat tent sites and stone picnic tables. We chatted with some other campers then headed for a swim. The first pool we came to was called “Namaza.” It was a deep, dark pool, surrounded by high, dark rock walls, with a beautiful waterfall flowing into it from above. We swam, and jumped from the rocks, the cold water soothing our sore muscles and joints from the last two days. Each day we hiked about 9 miles. We then swam in Piscine Noire; a slightly muddy pool, with a warm waterfall; and Piscine Bleu; a small, crystal clear pool.
We finished off the day with large plates of spaghetti and again, bananas flambee for desert. We woke up the final morning of our hike and immediately started off with a long staircase, back up to another long prairie. On this day, we stopped at one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, the “Piscine Naturelle.”
The landscape we were hiking through seemed so barren, just grass and rock. It appeared in hospitable. Yet out of the wilderness, hidden in small canyons, were these amazing oases. This pool had a small water fall on one side, a rock wall on another, a small beach, and the exit creek with beautiful tropical plants on the other. It was such a surreal place. The seclusion of a place like this preserved their natural beauty and made it a cool place to visit.
After spending a good time swimming and jumping off the rocks, we hiked the rest of the way back to Ranohira and our hotel, stopping at a high overlook along the way. The experience was great; we found a good guide and porters that made amazing meals. Each oasis that we came to was more amazing than the next. Exploring the entire park would have taken months, but I was glad we could explore even a small section.
The next day we pulled ourselves out of bed and waited along the side of the highway for our prearranged bus that we hoped was coming. After a two hour wait, we found our bus and hopped on. Our bus was so loaded down, that it couldn’t make it through the largest pot holes on its own, so every once in a while we would all pile out of the van and push the bus through the mud. After a couple hours we were all dying of laughter. We laughed so much on that trip.
This may have been my best trip in Madagascar, though I loved everywhere I went. Being with Nate and Scott was a lot of fun and the places we visited were just amazing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday of each week we had a “day off.” On a few of these days off we got to go on excursions around the island. We were led by our guide and member of the church, Don.
Don was a character all to himself. Despite having terrible eyesight, he was able to spot chameleons in every tree as we drove past. He was always more than happy to stop the van, get out and hold the chameleon for us to take pictures. On one excursion we found a boa in a tree and we all took turns taking pictures of ourselves with the boa. Don wanted in on the fun so he held the boa and requested we all take pictures of him while he struck poses for us. We obliged, pretending to take pictures of him as he posed.
Don had a couple of other quirks. He was unable to say “Madagascar” without also adding the phrase, “the fourth largest island in the world.” All along our tours, every time we talked to him, it was always “Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world.” It became a joke for us so that every time we would say Madagascar, we would also include the obligatory phrase.
A second favorite item of Don’s tour script was the Traveller’s Palm. The Traveller’s Palm is a beautiful plant, found only in Madagascar, and is the national tree and symbol of Madagascar. You’ll even see it as the logo of Air Madagascar. Each time we came to a Traveller’s Palm, Don would ask, “Do you know why they call it a Traveller’s Palm?” By the second or third palm, we all knew why, and despite us calling out the reason he would proceed to tell us anyway, with a smile (not wanting to go off script), “It is called the Traveller’s Palm because the base of the plant can hold water that can be used by weary travelers.”
Our first excursion was an island tour. It was shortly after arriving, so it was good to get our orientation and a feel for where we would be staying.
To start, we first went east from the city (Hell-Ville, or Andoany) where we could look out over the water back to the mainland and where there was an oceanographic museum. Besides the nice views, they had a room filled with fish specimens in jars. It was facinating to see all these preserved types of fish. I don’t know how much work was performed by the oceanographic society or what actually occurred at the museum. They also had pictures of a coelacanth that was caught off the coast of Madagascar. It’s a little bit of an urban legend, but true. Its a prehistoric fish that was thought to be extinct for millions of years until this one was caught.
From the museum we went to a local ylang ylang factory. Ylang ylang is a flower that grows a on tree that is used to make perfumes and other aromatherpy products. It is the main crop that Nosy Be is known for and has led to Nosy Be being called the “Perfume Island”. When we first arrived in Nosy Be we were all given (by Don) leis made of ylang ylang flowers that we kept fragrancing our room for the rest of the trip. We toured through the orchard, went into the factory to view the distillery, and had a picnic in the yard.
After lunch, we made our way back west and around to the north side of the island. We stopped in a small village, Djamandjary, where there was an old sugar cane factory and some other sites to see that escape my memory now. Don shared again about the Traveller’s palm and more about some of the other plants and flowers in the area.
We continued on to Andilana, the most beautiful beach in all of Nosy Be. It was incredible. I could not believe I was there. It was like something you see only in books or calendars, or computer desktop backgrounds. The beach is about a mile long of pure white sand, the warmest water, and coconut trees leaning over the beach. It was unbelievable. Julie and I walked and picked up tiger cowrie shells because I couldn’t swim still at that time.
After enjoying the beach for the afternoon, we drove up to the highest point on the island, Mount Passot. There, we were able to view the tranquil, crocodile inhabited lakes of the center of the island, and look out over the Mozambique channel and watch a beautiful sunset.
It was just an amazing, beautiful, relaxing way to get introduced to Madagascar and all the beauty that the country holds.
Loko Be Nature Reserve
Our second excursion was to the Lokobe Nature Reserve. Lokobe is probably the last untouched piece of jungle on Nosy Be. Deforestation is a problem in all of Madagascar and Nosy Be is no different. It’s a shame because there is so much amazing flora and fauna that is only living in M/car. We took a boat around to the village that served as an entrance to the forest. We then hiked into the forest.
In the forest there were tons of Black lemurs. There were also nocturnal lemurs but they were just huddled in the trees trying to sleep. It was amazing to watch the lemurs jump between the trees, and glide so easily through the branches. We fed them bananas and they would come down to our shoulders and eat right out of our hand (which is actually a bad thing, meaning they are now habituated to humans). They would also sit in a tree, reaching out to lick your hand while you pet them.
We also found a boa when we were walking through the forest. Our guide took it out of the tree and we got to put it over our shoulders and took pictures. The nature walk through the jungle turned out to be really cool.
After the hike, we went back to the beach and had a delicious lunch and lounged in the water. At the time, I was short 1 science credit for graduation. Since there were no 1 credit science classes, it meant that I would need to take an entire semester class. Since I had previously taken a couple ornithology (bird science) classes, I worked it out to do a 1 credit self-study by watching and documenting the birds in M/car. This trip to Loko Be gave me plenty of opportunities to see birds, the most spectacular probably being the large frigate birds that soared high overhead. While we were at the beach, I spent a lot of time walking around the mud flats identifying birds.
We took a boat there and back which was a beautiful ride, going between Nosy Be and nearby Nosy Komba. On the way back, we stopped out in the water and jumped in and swam around for awhile. The water felt so good, and so much fun to swim in.
For our third excursion, we visited the small island of Tanikely. In the morning, the weather was rough, and the ocean between Nosy Be and Tanikely was choppy, so we bounced along in our boat the whole way there. “Bounced” may be too soft of a term, the waves were so rough that the seat Pastor David and I were sitting on actually broke in half. For the rest of the ride I had to sit on the bow of the boat, feeling the full effect of the waves.
Once getting to the island, however, the weather cleared and it became another sunny Madagascan day. The island was beautiful and there was a great view of Nosy Be. There were tons of tropic birds and also a large group of bats on the island.
The snorkeling was awesome; there was tons of coral growth everywhere and thousands of neon colored fish. It was my first time snorkeling in a tropical place and took awhile to get used to the breathing, but once I did it was great and comfortable. There were a few sea turtles there so we were able to swim after them and touch them. There was one that was a little smaller that I tried to dive after but it was quick and went into evasive maneuvers so I couldn’t get it. The bigger ones were more docile and easier to touch. There was also one huge school of smaller white fish that was just hanging out against the rocks. It was fun to dive down into them and watch them part as I swam through. It was equally cool to watch someone else go through and see the fish part around them.
We enjoyed an amazing buffet prepared for us on the beach, enjoying the beauty of the beach and the island. Fresh grilled tuna, zebu skewers, carrot salad, pineapple so fresh it burned. I distinctly remember each of these meals that we had. I particularly like the zebu skewers. I could eat a dozen of those. There were typically made from the hump of the zebu, which probably isn’t actually the best meat.
During a break in the snorkeling, we walked up to the top of the island where there is a small lighthouse and from that point we could see back to Nosy Be and also see all the fruit bats flying around. Later in the day, Loriann and I trekked around the small island, exploring all the little coves, beaches, and mangroves. Some parts of the island had no beach and we had to swim across, with me holding my camera over my head. Somewhere along the way around the island, Loriann stepped on a sharp rock and got a huge cut on the bottom of her foot. She was close to needing stitches, but thankfully not a second round of that, and I carried her the last few hundred yards back to the others.
On another occasion we went back to Andilana and just hung out at the beach all day. It was, of course, warm and sunny. Marie Rose, our cook during the trip, cooked us an awesome meal, likely consisting of more zebu skewers, coconut rice, and other local favorites.
The first time to Andilana, I was unable to swim, so this time I took full advantage, jumping in the water, walking out along sandbars, and exploring the length of the beach. After playing around in the water till my legs were burnt out, I went back to our picnic area and strung my hammock between two trees. Earlier in the trip, I had bought a hammock at the market, a pretty well made one actually, for a cheap price. For the summer I hung it up on the veranda at the house, and would spend a lot of afternoon laying in it and napping. It was one of my favorite parts of the summer. At the end of the summer, I gave the hammock to Don as a gift.
It was wonderful to be at the beach, swinging in my hammock, underneath palm trees and a bright sun warming my skin and a light breeze cooling me. I could not think of anything I would rather be doing. At the time I was feeling the need for a little alone time, so being able to just lay and relax at the beach felt really good. It made my week, just laying there, not a care in the world, swaying in the breeze.
On our final day off we went back to Ambatoloaka beach. We slept in, played with the neighborhood kids a little, then drove over to the beach. It was awesome to relax and swim in the warm water again, lay in the sun, and walk around. Patrice and I walked again around to the cove with the arch.
Early on our last day in Nosy Be, Scott, Patrice, Mindy, Julie and I went back to Ambatoloaka for one last swim. It was like living in a fantasy world for the summer, far away from cares and worries, and in such a beautiful place. I had no idea that the summer would be like this when I signed up.
We had the opportunity a few times to go out to some small villages and visit the church services that were held there. The first place that I went to was to Andimakabo with Julie. Andimakabo was a small village on the beach where they picked and dried coffee beans that grew in the nearby fields.
The second place that I went, again with Julie, was Andrihibo. The drive there was nice, with a lot of views of the ocean. This village was in the center of the island somewhere. Both of these villages, I have no idea where to find them on a map. I went to Andrihibo one last time with Loriann, on one of our last days there.
We also spent four nights showing the Jesus Film, two nights each in two villages. It was a great opportunity to see how the film is used. I have since seen the Jesus Film several times, but always in Malagasy, I’ve never seen it in English.
It was an amazing summer, full of small adventures. Our team is really what made it amazing, we bonded and got along well; we were a strong group. God’s hand was really upon our summer.