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

Posts tagged “life and death


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.



It was pouring rain.  At the height of rainy season, this was expected, but nonetheless, a serious hazard at this moment.  The bus I was riding on, overloaded with nervous people and market goods, slipped and spun down the muddy road built precariously into the hillside.  We were coming from a remote  part a Madagascar, Andringitra National Park, and the twice weekly trips that this bus made comprised the majority of vehicle traffic on this road.  As we rounded a bend the bus started sliding to the downhill edge a little closer that we were all comfortable with, and the passengers began yelling in unison, “Miala, miala!”  We needed to get out of the bus.

We piled out.  The women continued walking down the edge of the road while the men pushed against the back, downhill corner of the bus, in an ill-advised attempt to keep the bus on the road as it made its way through a few treacherous areas.

I had heard of Andringitra National Park through some other ex-pats who lived in country.  At the time I was still really into rock climbing and Andringitra was a mythical place of endless granite rock walls.  It was also supposedly one of the last pure wilderness areas of Madagascar, mainly known for those towering walls of granite and some endemic golden lemurs.  The rock climbing there was said to rival that of Yosemite, which is a pretty bold claim, that I had to see for myself.

I read as much information as I could about the park in Lauralee’s old guide books and at one point even got a hold of the national park director in Ambalavao.  Based on limited information (or, as it would turn out, no information) I booked my bus tickets to Ambalavao and headed on my trip.

I took the night bus from Tana in the hopes that sleeping through the 12 hour trip would make it go faster.  I rode through the night, arriving in Fianarantsoa very early in the morning, around 4 am.  Taxi-brousse stations in M/car are pure insanity, more so being a foreigner.  Upon coming within 100 yards of a taxi-brousse station, you immediately become accosted by a group of men chattering at you loudly and pulling you around (interestingly, my wife and I had a similar experience upon exiting a ferry in the Philippines several years later).  I don’t know a name for these men, but they apparently get paid for directing customers to certain bus companies.  More than anything, though, they are just very annoying.  I knew the names of a few bus companies, so upon nearing a bus station, I would just walk straight to that company, trying my best to ignore the dozen or so men yelling incoherently in my face.

Bus station at Fianarantsoa

Despite arriving in Fianar at 4 in the morning, these men were still there.  I had already booked a ticket through to Ambalavao, and even had a hand-written receipt to prove it, so I was in no need for a personal shopper.  Men crowded around the bus as it pulled in, banging on the windows and trying to open the doors. One man made it inside the bus, and began asking me where I was going and what I needed.  I instead just talked directly to the driver and an actual employee of the bus company and after a few minutes of confusion; and them wanting me to buy an additional ticket to Ambalavao; I was able to get on a station wagon for the rest of my trip.  Despite this, a man still tried to get into the station wagon demanding that he was my guide and I would pay for his trip.  He was still asking for money through the window of the car as we drove away.  A lot to deal with at 4 am.

I made it to Ambalavao a couple hours later as the town was waking up.  I found a small roadside stand open and got some tea and bread to start my day.  I took my time eating then slowly walked up the street to the national park office on the other end of town.  When I got there it was still not open, so I just waited by the gate.  Eventually a guard saw me and let me in and I was able to nap on a bench until the director arrived an hour later.

It was then that I found out that getting into the park was not so easy.  At first, the national park director told me that I would have to drive my own car (which I did not have) or walk into the park, a 15-25 km trip.  That not being an option we looked for another.  Someone else at the office know of a bus that went out to the park on Tuesdays (the next day) and Thursdays that I could probably ride.

The director and I then left the office to inquire about the bus.  First we drove and found Julio, a Peace Corps worker living in town whom I had coincidentally met previously in Isalo.  We talk with him for awhile about the bus and arranged to meet up later.  The director then drove me to a nice local hotel where I was able to get a room for the night.  The room cost $9 a night, the most I ever spent for a hotel room, and at the time, being used to local prices, it seemed like an absurd amount.  Julio met me later and we talked with the bus driver, got some food from the market and walked and talked a bit.  I felt a little bad for Julio.  About one year into his two year assignment he ran out of things to do and spent most of his time just hanging out.  He seemed sad and disappointed with his overall experience and was ready to go.  Thankfully, he had only one month left before leaving.

After leaving Julio, I spent more time just walking about town.  Ambalavao is known primarily for two things: paper and architecture.  Amabalavao is the home of the art of “Antaimoro” paper which they make at several places in town.  Its a papyrus based paper, very rough, and usually with decorative flowers embedded within.  It’s very popular with tourists.  The house construction in Ambalavao is also very unique compared to other parts of the country.  First, the houses have wooded porches with decorative carved railing.  Second the roofs of the houses, rather than being thatch or tin as is common in all other parts of M/car, are made of clay tile, the only place in M/car where they build roofs this way.

Typical house in Ambalavao

The next morning I got up, stopped by Julio’s, and we went to catch the bus together.  Julio was going to ride out also, but it turned out the bus was not staying long enough that day for him to do what he needed to get done.  So I took the bus out alone, a 2 1/2 hour ride to the entrance of the park.  The drive out was amazing.  This was February and the heart of rainy season.  The fields and rice patties were all lush and green.  The drive was through rolling hills and valleys and next to tall rice terraces.  The houses along the drive were all made of white mud/clay, another unique feature that I saw no where else and a striking visual effect among the green backdrop.

Namohly Valley

The entrance of the park had a nice welcome center, with some pictures of Madagascar and some examples of endemic plants of M/car.  After awhile a guide arrived to take me into the park.  With only about 2 1/2 days, I had to get started hiking if I wanted to see the park.  I left my bags at a “safe” spot at the welcome center then we started out to two nearby waterfalls.

The area we walked through is called the Namohly Valley and is one of the prettiest places I have ever visited.  Everything growing was bright green, the streams all full and rushing, high rice terraces everywhere and even taller granite rock walls, and red and white mud villages.  We walked through the farms and villages, into the rainforest, and up the hillside to about the mid point of the two waterfalls.

My guide, Martin

My guide, Martin, was great, with endless energy.  On our walk he told me the legend of the waterfalls.  There were once a king and queen who try as they might were unable to have children.  They consulted the local witch doctor who told them they must journey to the waterfalls far away and when there, bathe separately in the two waterfalls and sacrifice a bull.  The made the journey, taking an all black bull with a white stripe on its forehead with them.  They bathed and sacrificed the bull and returned to the village.  They went on to have 8 children.  The waterfall is said to have taken on the shape of the white stripe on the bull’s forehead.  (By the way: the perfect family in M/car is said to be 14 children, 7 boys and 7 girls, a daunting task).

The waterfalls

After spending some time at the waterfalls, we hiked back through the guide’s village, Antanafotsy, picked up my stuff at the welcome center, then went to guest house where I there was a room I could stay in.  We agreed to meet in the morning at 7 to hike to the highest accessible point in M/car, Pic Boby.  (There is one other mountain in Madagascar higher, however, it is extremely difficult to get to, is taboo to climb, and the only story I’ve read of someone climbing it ended with him being carried out by local villagers).

My guide knocked on my door at 6:15 the next morning, and told me he had been there since 5:30 and was apparently anxious to get get going.  Though I was hoping to sleep in a bit, I reluctantly got up, hastily ate some fruit I had brought for breakfast and we got on our way at 6:30.  The rising sun enhanced the beautiful colors of the villages and rice fields, making the whole valley look even more beautiful than before.

Granite walls

We hiked back towards the waterfalls of the day before and up a ridge to the side to a high plateau.  At 7,000 ft, this was the highest plateau in M/car and also the only place in the country where blueberries grew.  All across the valley and in the rest of the park, wildflowers and aromatic plants grew everywhere.  Most prevalent were orchids, which grew like weeds.  This is where most people spent the night, but having only one day and no camping gear, we pressed on.

All along our right side as we hiked were these huge granite cliffs, about 1,000 feet high.  They towered over the whole valley and stood guard along our hike.  This, apparently, was the mecca of Madagascar climbing.  With no climbing gear and having, unforunately, met no climbers so far on my trip, I continued walking, left to stare in amazement.  We hiked up through a small break in the cliffs where steps had been carved into the rock.  We scrambled up this and most of the rest of the way to the top.  We finally reached the peak after 10 miles and a 4,200 foot elevation gain.  Pic Boby is 8,720 feet high.  We paused a moment to rest and try to take in the view.  We were surrounded by clouds so there was not much view to see.

On top of Pic Boby

We then quickly made our way back down, just in case the clouds were a sign that a storm was coming in.  On the entire hike we made very little stops.  On the 10 miles hike back, we made only one stop, at about 2/3 of the way.

Back at the guest house I noticed a funeral taking a place.  A body had been laid, covered by a white sheet in a small grove of trees.  Many were gathered around dressed in very colorful clothing.  The women surrounding the body were singing.  My guide told me that they would mourn for several days before taking the body on a long journey to the tombs.

The next day the bus was coming for market day and would be my ride home.  I slept in, took my time packing up my things and cleaned up my room.  I went over to where the market was being held and looked around at what they had.  It was a pretty pitiful market with very little fruits or vegetables combined with the addition of manufactured goods brought by the bus in town.  I found out when the bus was leaving, then went walking for a bit.  I found  a quiet bend in the river a swam in the cool water for awhile, soothing my aching muscles and joints.

Market day… and my ride

I have to say again, that Andringitra was absolutely beautiful.  Certainly one of the most beautiful places in the world.  The area around the guest house was a lush valley of grasslands.  A few small rivers ran through the valley.  The granite cliffs bordered one end of the valley and foothills and rainforests edged the other sides.  The valley had been farmed for centuries so most of the hills had been carved with rice terraces.  Being the middle of growing season, the rice was high, think and green.  Everything in the valley was so green.  It was quiet, peaceful, relaxing.


I went backed to the guest house after swimming where I spent the rest of the day napping and reading.  I went out later in the afternoon and waited for the bus to leave.  It finally left around 6:45 when it began to rain.  This brings me back to the start of the story.

As the bus was driving along some sections of the road it would start to slide down sideways across the road the steep dropoff on the downhill side.  All vehicles in M/car have bald tires.  As we started to slide, everyone on the bus would begin yelling, “Miala! Miala!”  We need to get off!  The bus would stop and we would all pile out (except the poor driver).  As the bus would begin driving again, we would all push on the sides of the bus as it drove through some of the more treacherous parts to keep it going straight and on the road without sliding over the edge.  In M/car, life is just different than in the U.S.  After a while of getting used to this, you fail to notice at the time, just how strange your actions can get.  Pushing on the side of a bus down a muddy road during a thunderstorm just didn’t seem that odd a the time.  But in hindsight, I feel lucky to be alive.

After the harrowing one hour bus ride, we made it back to town in now, a complete downpour.  I had intended to try to take a bus back to Fianar that night, but being late I had to stay.  I went to a restaurant for dinner and found Julio there, so I had dinner with him and he led me to a cheap hotel where I could stay for the night.  It was by far the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  It had a bed, a sink, and a urinal and smelled like a room that had only a bed, a sink, and a urinal.

The next morning I caught a passing bus back to Fianar.  I really didn’t know much to see in Fianar, but since my week had been cut short in Andringitra, I decided to spend a day checking it out.  What really drew me there were two things:

First, Fianar is the home town of Pierrot Men, the most famous Madagascan photographer.  He brilliantly captures Madagascan life in beautiful photographs that are found nearly everywhere, but especially in his home town.  Secondly, the only running train at the time in all of M/car was a train from Fianar to Manankara.  It was supposed to be one of the most beautiful trips in the country.  Unfortunately, due to timing and the unreliability of the only train in M/car, I was unable to make the trip.

I took a day bus back to Tana the next morning.  While, typically I liked riding the bus at night, as sleeping made it go a little quicker, riding during the day had the bonus of the opportunity to see the passing country side (of course, on the 15+ hour trips you got to see day and night).  On this day I took the chance to see the country and rode a day bus.

Shortly after leaving town, and at the top of the first hill, our bus broke down.  Perhaps it would be a night trip after all.  After napping on the side of the road for a couple hours (again, another thing that didn’t seem odd at the time, but in hindsight…), a replacement bus arrived and we made the rest of the trip back to Tana without incident.

Sticking with the theme of the trip, I arrived late at night in Tana, in a complete downpour (perhaps there was a cyclone passing through and these last few days were the ancillary rain).  I managed to find a taxi despite the time and rain.  The location of where we lived made it impossible for the taxis to make it to the compound in the rain, so I got off in Amboditsiry and ran the last mile home, completely soaked and exhausted.


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.