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.
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.