Internet service in Madagascar is difficult to find, and when one does find it, impossibly slow. So this entry is the accumulation over several days in Madagascar and is a result of a jet-legged, sunburned, but excited mind. Hopefully I will be able to upload photos, but in the off chance I can’t I hope the descriptions paint a picture of Madagascar as I have seen it so far. I hope to write about food, culture, and wildlife in the future, but for now I want to recount the hectic past week.
“Tsy misy finoran….” I stuttered , frantically searching for the impossible string of “ana”s that will lead me to the phrase “you’re welcome.” The two Malagasy guys my age start grinning as I proceed to butcher the key word and start laughing hysterically. Learning Malagasy has turned out to be an extremely organic and slow process, mostly through talking to the people who invariably appear out of nowhere to see the circus of American vazahas (white people) rolling into the town of Menatentely, just south of Fort Dauphin. It is impossible to travel through Madagascar as a vazaha and not be stared at or engaged in conversation. And here I am at the river by the village washing my clothes from my 19 hour flight in the river surrounded on all sides rice terraces and manioc fields, with huge stone massifs blanketed in rainforest and brush in the encircling the small village, with several Malagasy watching my every move. It’s not rude, just a part of their culture to which we are all still adjusting. In the end I managed to stutter out “Tsy misy fisaorana.” Misaotra. Thank you. Tsy misy fisaorana. You’re welcome.
Flying to Madagascar was difficult enough in of itself, with a layover in Paris followed by the 11 hour flight to Antananarivo, the capital located in the central highlands. The three other SIT students and I landed at 2am Tana (short name for the capital) time, which was god knows EST time, and were whisked away to our hotel to meet the 9 other students. In the morning we awoke to find our rooms overlooking the sprawl of Tana from our vantage point in middle town. Tana is composed of the upper town, on the top of a Y shaped hill, the middle town, on the flanks, and the lower town spreading out for miles in all directions. While I have been in developing countries, they have mostly been throughout the Caribbean and subsidized by large tourist resorts. Here, one finds true sprawling poverty. On our taxi ride back to the Tana airport in preparation for our flight to Fort Dauphin, the route took us through the chaos of the lower town. Small shacks serve as houses and stores, in front of which the throng of Malagasy humanity pours out in a colorful river. The people ranged from strutting well-dressed young men to small barefoot children picking through trash heaps. But the most striking thing about Madagascar are the smiles. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. Life is tsara be, very good.
Fort Dauphin is hotter than Tana, N’aina the language instructor informs us as we all stand sweltering in the Fort Dauphin airport waiting for our luggage. But the ocean breeze makes everything a little better. We bump along in the ubiquitous taxi brousse, the bush transport, to Menatentely, where we will stay for a few days to regroup and explore the countryside surrounding Fort Dauphin. The mountain chain that runs the length of Madagascar comes to its southern terminus right here in Fort Dauphin, covered with the remnants of virgin rainforest and looming over the azure waters of the town. Here inland in Mantentely we hiked up a valley with a forester to see the protected area surrounding the peaks. We hiked through miles of forest mosaicked with terraced rice fields and manioc fields. Our long train of vazahas attracted the surrounding populace, everyone from three year old toddlers to older farmers eager to practice their English on the group of Americans. So as we hiked up the valley, burning in the brutal southern hemisphere sun and gulping down liters of water, a farmer named Noel strode comfortably next to me and tried out his English on me. He has been taking English lessons at a school in Fort Dauphin, and hopes to get a better job after learning English. Farming for the Malagasy living in the country has become more and more difficult in a hard economy.
We finally arrived officially in Fort Dauphin to find a calmer, more laidback city on a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean with crystalline beaches flanking on all sides. The 13 of us walked on our first day from our hotel to the Centre d’Ecologie a Libanona, where our classes will be conducted. We met the other members of the SIT staff, including Mamy, Sosony, Madame Martine, Jim the lanky Montanan program director, Barry the Irish ISP (Independent project) coordinator, and of course N’aina. In the afternoon after class we went to the beach just below the center and drank our inaugural Three Horses Beer (THB), the national brew of Madagascar which comes in satisfying 50cl bottles.
Currently, I have just moved into my homestay family’s house. The father, M. Ravelonandro, is the secretary general of the Anosy province (no. 2), and the mother Mme. Soanomenjanahary is currently staying home with their year-old daughter Abigail. So for Malgasy standards they are quite well off, and have just moved into a beautiful house on the outskirts of town near the foot of the mountain, which unfortunately means a long walk to and from class but a quiet neighborhood and beautiful views. Despite speaking what I believe to be advanced French, the language and culture barrier is there and real. However, I hope within time my Malagasy will improve beyond the few pathetic phrases I have managed to commit to memory and that I can assimilate into their culture. Until next time I find wifi, Veloma!