Saturday, May 1, 2010

I fell in love in Madagascar...

I fell in love in Madagascar with a boy named Jamal. He's about 7 years old and has the biggest toothy smile, full of mischief who squealed with laughter when I waved or high fived him. He's also a mean dancer! Needless to say the people will be the thing that sticks with me most on this trip.

Here's some background on the trip and why I chose it. Basically when I booked it in February I was looking for something completely different from my previous African experiences. Well I certainly got what I wished for and all in a great way. Let me backtrack a little though.

After leaving NZ, I went to Sydney to visit some Irish friends and chilled at their house for a couple of days which was lovely and much needed. Then after a couple of nights at a hostel in Jo'burg (I'm actually back at the same hostel writing this) I headed to Madagascar. I was flying to Tana (the short name for Antananarivo, the capital) for a night before heading to Fort Dauphin in the south east of the island the next day. I got a window seat as the plane was pretty empty so I could see the island coming into view during the 3 hour flight. Its very green and hilly with lots of red dirt roads. I whizzed through the visa and passport control and found the hotel guy picking me up. It was Easter Monday so everyone was out on the streets partying, kind of a crazy atmosphere. They all seemed oblivious to our car on the narrow streets where barely 2 cars could pass by.

The hotel was lovely, serene and clean but no one spoke English so I had to rely on my high school/secondary school French - yikes! But I managed to get by and order food, a taxi for the next day etc.

I woke up pretty early the next day, still a little jet lagged so did yoga on my balcony before having a shower and lunch. Then made my way to the airport to meet my fellow volunteers and fly an hour south to Fort Dauphin.

For those of you who don't know, I was volunteering with a group called Azafady (which means 'please' or 'excuse me' in Malagasy) They're a charity committed to eradicate poverty, suffering and environmental damage in Madagascar. When you volunteer you can do some conservation projects or construction projects, both on a long term or short term basis. Long term = 10 weeks, short term = 2-3 weeks. I was doing construction for 3 weeks and our project was to build a school. Carol, Laura (both from the UK) and Tim from Canada were my fellow short volunteers. Jim our project coordinator met us at the airport. He's from Brisbane, Australia and was a volunteer last year. He loved it so much he came back to work for them. Jim took us to our camp for the night to meet the 10 long term volunteers we're be building with. They'd only just arrived a few days before us. There were 8 guys and 2 girls, mostly from the UK except for 2 French guys and they were all 23 and under which apparently is unusual! So quite the age gap. They were all really nice though, and I don't think I would have been brave enough to do this at their age.

We all swapped a few intro stories and went to bed. Next day we packed up the bus and headed to our new home for the next 3 weeks, a village about 20km away called 'Mahialambo' which means 'skinny pig' in Malagasy. The roads are so bad it took us almost 2 hours to drive it. Its a village spread out over a few km with 700 people who all live in grass huts. Most of them are around 10ft x 8ft and can hold a whole family of 8 people or so.

The kids all helped us unload the truck and set up our camp at the edge of the village, about 2 mins walk from where we'd build the school. The number of kids was staggering and I recently read that half the population of Madagascar is under 14. Apparently each family has so many kids because on average 2 will die before the age of 5, a couple might go to college, some will marry and whoever is left will have to take care of the parents. They don't have it easy but it doesn't show in their faces.

The next 3 weeks had pretty much the same routine so I'll just summarise and point out the best bits.

- Wake every morning for breakfast at 6.15am. It consists of rice, banana bread, a dough ball and a banana. Same every day for 3 weeks. Lunch is also rice and vegetables and dinner is rice and beans. We got meat twice a week, either fish, chicken or zebu (a kind of cow). So rice for every meal for 21 days, weirdly I've missed it since I left.

- After breakfast we'd head to the work site. The first week was spent building benches and making posts for the frame of the school. There is no electricity so everything is done by hand. I had some wicked blisters but I can saw and hammer with the best of them now. Jim or 'the Australian brute force' as I liked to call him was a great teacher. There was a local construction crew who were invaluable in helping.

- We had a siesta every day from 11am till 2pm. This was spent fighting for 2 of the hammocks after lunch or trying to find shade somewhere. The flies are everywhere and constantly land on you and try to eat your open wounds. Really nasty. I never got used to that. Some days we'd have a Malagasy lesson before lunch so we could try to converse with the locals, especially the kids such as 'what is your name and age' etc. Very helpful to make new small friends.

- We'd finish up the day around 4.30pm. Normally on these projects there's a well where we'd fill buckets and have a bucket shower. Luckily for us there was a river nearby so we'd swim and soap up in there. We'd bring beers and Jim and a few of the other volunteers would play guitar. The locals were fascinated by this, all the washing and stuff we used to wash. We had an audience every day. I've never had so many people watch me shave my legs before. Actually we were stared at for anything we did which was funny but the river was the highlight of the day.

- In the evenings we'd sit around under a tarp or under the stars on a clear night, satellite spotting and playing cards before retiring to our tents.

- We worked 6 days a week and had Sundays off so each Saturday night we'd pay for a few litres of gasoline to get the generator going so we could play some local music and have a dance with the locals. The adults mainly watched us drink beers and dance with their kids. Some of the young girls could put Beyonce to shame! And us volunteer girls constantly had a stream of young boys between the ages of 5 and 14 fighting one another for a dance. One or 2 would get cheeky and try to put his hands around my waist until I firmly grabbed his hands back into him. Very funny.

- On the Sundays off we went for a hike one day, the views were stunning. We could see 5km to the ocean from the hill we climbed. Another day we found a basketball court on a private piece of land so we asked if we could use it. Great fun playing and definitely the strangest place I've played. Another Sunday we went to church which was a 3-4 hour service. We sneaked out after 3 hours. There was a couple of baptisms, some confirmations and an auction. It all happens at church! And lots of singing too.

At the end of the 3 weeks, the school was pretty much done. On Tuesday Tim, Carol and I left (Laura had left a week earlier, she was only there for 2 weeks). The rest of the long term volunteers were staying out a few days more. On the way back to town the 3 of us were brought to a lemur reserve. I couldn't go to Madagascar and not see one. We saw lots white, a few brown and loads of ring tailed ones which climbed all over me when I was feeding them bananas. Of course my camera died the day before so I'm waiting on those photos. Actually I didn't take a whole lot in general but plan on stealing Carol's excellent photos in a few weeks. I didn't even get a photo of the finished school! I think my battery died as quickly as it did because the kids love getting their photo taken and then seeing it again afterward.

On Tuesday night in town the 3 of us and Jim went for dinner at really cool restaurant owned by Brett who helped found Azafady. He's also an Aussie. It was so nice to have a cold beer, wine and food that wasn't rice. It was hard not to go overboard and indulge too much. On Wednesday we hung by the beach, watched the surfers and got ready to leave. I had a minor 30 hour delay flying back to Jo'burg. Apparently Air Madagascar like to pick and choose when they fly, regardless of schedule but it got me an extra night in town.

Overall it was tough going at times, especially being so remote without a phone or email for so long. We had some rainy days and its never fun when everything is soggy going to bed. And there were definitely some days I was sick of rice and beans but I wouldn't have changed a single thing. The long termers are heading back out to the bush on Monday for another 3 weeks to help build a teacher's house and I'm kinda jealous. I'll have to make it back there again sometime. Sadly they don't get many tourists at all due to the unstable political situation, the lack of infrastructure and how expensive it is to get there. Its a pity because they're such lovely people and have a stunning country. The poverty was tough to see sometimes though.

My next adventure starts on Monday for another 4 weeks out in the bush. I'm doing a field guide course in South Africa and hope to learn lots about living outdoors, animals, plants, insects, stars etc. Its supposed to be pretty intensive. Last month was all physical and using brute force with shitty hammers and nails. This next month is all brain power - yikes!

For those who mailed me, thank you so much. I've read them all and if I have time before Monday I'll reply. I'll try post some photos later today as well. They'll be here.

Take care and Veloma as we say in Malagasy (means goodbye) :)