Another trip, another two weeks in the car another few weeks in Tana. Sad to say, but I don’t think my life has really been that interesting of late – nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve seem to have become used to my work, used to life in Tana and used to traveling in the car every month that there doesn’t seem to be that much to talk about. That being said, let’s see where I end up with this thing and maybe I’ll change my mind.  

When my trip to the southeast started I was a little worried. My driver wasn’t really the best of drivers in his ability to drive a car. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he was reckless, but he definitely doesn’t care too much about his job and I wouldn’t say that it was the smoothest ride that I’ve ever been on. In addition, it seemed like he didn’t really want to talk and wasn’t that sociable either. I was thinking: great, for one of my longest, if not longest trip, I got the driver that doesn’t want to help me out and can’t drive…this is going to be fun. To top it all off the first day we had car problems and that slowed us down and was annoying. Nothing quite like stopping on the side of the road in a town and having every crazy person within a 2 km radius come and bother you as well as look at the engine like they knew what they were doing (ok, the latter was kind of entertaining).

However, like all things, and all people, given time and chances they can surprise you and so did my driver. Before I really delve into the time I spent with my driver I have to discuss one factor that could have influenced the success of the trip – music. My first solo trip consisted of a temperamental radio/cd player that didn’t play to often or that well. My second trip was in a new vehicle that oddly enough didn’t have a radio, just an empty slot of sadness. Granted my driver played music on his phone and that lasted part of the trip, but it still wasn’t the same and a battery only has a life that is so long. This time, we had a real radio and flash drives to play music. I think this really helps because with music you don’t feel obligated to have a conversation with the person sitting next to you (sounds bad, right?). You can still talk, still interact and be friendly, but when you want to shut it down, all (or at least most) of the impoliteness goes away. There’s a sense of conversational freedom when music is involved; you can tune in and tune out all at the same time.

That being said, the driver and me did our thing and talked when necessary at the beginning. I think we were both trying to size each other up and figure out what was going on. It’s kind of strange to be on a two-week trip with a total stranger. However, he started to realize that I could actually speak Malagasy and that definitely helped with communication. He also seemed to enjoy that I don’t get offended easily and don’t want any handholding. And I realized that he didn’t need to talk to me when I was tired of talking with people. He was happy to talk, but he wasn’t going to chat my ear off after I just spent the last 6 hours asking a billion questions. It actually worked out great. And with the music, there was no silence and no mandatory conversation.

On the second day of the trip I had already noticed that he was rocking out behind the wheel. Then, it became more and more apparent that he would clap and honk the horn occasionally with the beat of the song. I didn’t feel that it was unsafe and it really made me smile. Then he started singing in the car and I realized that this guy was in his element. It wasn’t until about a week in that we were driving around a village in the middle of nowhere in the Southeast and “Hey Jude” came on that we both just enjoyed the music. I don’t know why, but we both just started singing with the song as we went down through this village and I think we both realized that it was going to be a relaxed and easy trip. The people in the village were a little off guard to see us both singing, but that could be for a lot of reasons.

What I find interesting is that a lot of people in the office don’t like this guy. Yeah, he is kind of a jerk, not the best driver and doesn’t really want to help people (I guess those are good points). But really, that didn’t matter to me. He left me alone after I was tired of talking with people, he joked around all of the time (I don’t like being serious for too long) and he did his job. What was amazing is that there were multiple days that we were leaving at 5am or 6am and he didn’t complain. We would come back on those same days at 6pm or so. He didn’t complain about leaving early, we were back before it got too dark so he was fine with that. I appreciated that despite his personal social shortcomings, he drove the car and that was what I needed. And I think he liked that I did my job because it was my job too. I’d much rather be in a car with a guy that’s going to tell me like it is rather than the guy that is super nice and afraid to speak his mind and that you can’t just have a normal conversation.

Now the places we stayed in were slightly interesting as well. In Manakara the room, which was apparently one of the nice rooms, was decked out with red everything and flowers all over the place. It was something straight out of an 80’s prom date high school movie. I kept wondering when Christian Slater was going to walk in. Continuing with the movie theme, the guard that was walking around the hotel reminded me of the guy in the movie Sling Blade; he seemed to be humming or grunting or just making weird noises as he made his rounds and had a very similar facial expression. There you have it; Manakara is the Hollywood of Madagascar.  Weird. Then when I got to Farafangana, I was staying in a hotel that had the worst central lighting that I’ve ever had. I couldn’t work at night because it was so dark (I didn’t even attempt). It was crazy how bad it was. I’m still quite shocked as to how a hotel could really think that it was adequately lit. Then again, I’m sure the majority of their clients aren’t trying to read cryptic notes during their night stay. In Vangaindrano I had a spaceship shower. I’ll just let you think about that on your own. And then I’d been to the hotel in Mananjary before so there wasn’t really anything to comment on. I was downgraded from a bungalow to a regular room (because the bungalows were already booked), which just means that I had a smaller desk and shower. Which really means, that I hit my head in the shower a few times and that I had to fold in half in order to work at the desk. But then again, that sounds like a first world problem so I don’t think I should be freaking out about that.

I realized that I’m turning into my dad with all of my travel items. I keep my laptop in a shirt and my sunglasses in a sock. Don’t know how it happened, it kind of just snuck up on me (scary). I don’t think I have too much to worry about unless I start putting my iPod in a hat and my kindle in some underwear.

As far as planning for the trip, it was kind of a mess again and I’m starting to think that I’m not being clear in my explanations, which I’m really working on so that the future trips don’t have any issues (I only had one week in Tana in between the last two trips). However, my language is getting much stronger in the group discussion settings and I’m really starting to understand the project. Interestingly, there will be a village where I understand everything and the people all understand me and I’m thinking what a wonderful job and then I go 10 kilometers to another village and it’s like we are both speaking a foreign language to each other and I have a headache and wonder why I even bothered to show up. Not entirely sure what brings these changes – it could be actual dialect and accent, how good I’m feeling, or how comfortable they are with visitors or foreigners – but it makes it hard to know where I’ll find something of substance. Interestingly, it doesn’t necessarily dictate whether I find a best practice, lesson learned or recommendation. There have been some struggles that gave me some good findings and then there have also been smooth conversations where I didn’t find a lot of useful information. In many ways, I’m feeling much more comfortable with my job, which also means that I’m busier, and that has freed me from some of the earlier anxiety that I was experiencing. It was clear when I found more findings in 3 days with one NGO (in the same area and with poor planning) than I did on my first visit with a different NGO for two weeks (and better planning) that I had figured things out.

I came back to Tana and got right back into the hash. It was fun to run again, but this time really kicked my ass. I didn’t do any running or jump rope during my last trip and so I wasn’t in the greatest of shape. On top of that I hadn’t been drinking that much water and it was a really hot day with bad air. Now, that I got all of my excuses out of the way, I managed to run and walk the 11 km (more like 12+ after all of my running in the wrong direction and getting lost on part of the course), but it was good to have it over with, fun to relax with beers and friends afterwards and get back into my social life in Tana. What’s funny though is that after the Hash, I’m always dead. I just go home and go right to sleep. But I’m not tired on the Monday after, which is really nice.  

I also noticed that my first few days of being back in town it’s hard for me to turn off work mode. I’m kind of stuck in my 20 questions mentality and I seem to be evaluating everything and asking questions about everything and everyone. I want to know the how and the why and the recommendations for every little thing that people are doing. I think it’s good to engage with people, and to think critically, but even I can realize that I need to shut off (for my sake and for others’). After a few days I usually manage to chill out and become a little less inquisitive.

Back in the office I’ve been writing a ton (that’s why I’m not really into this blog entry even though it has managed to get pretty long) and just trying to get everything onto paper for consultants, my boss and myself. It’s good to write down all of the important things that I’m finding and making connections between different villages and regions and just how everything is functioning, but it’s a lot of work. To add to this stress, I had to go to some meetings last week that were all in French. I think it did some good for my subconscious learning, but for the most part of I didn’t really follow and just ended up writing and paying attention occasionally. It didn’t really matter because I wasn’t the target audience, but I did pick up some useful information that should help me with my future travels.

My walk to work got a new excitement – I’m comparing people to animals. It all started one day when I was walking home and I saw an old women running across the road. For whatever reason, she reminded me of an owl. And once that started, I haven’t been able to stop. I never tell people any of these connections but I’ve seen an entire zoo this past week and it really keeps me smiling. * Let me be quite clear that I don’t mean any of this to be offensive or degrading; it’s just an interesting connection between us humans and our animal brethren*

One of my roommates recently left. We had a going away dinner and night out to celebrate for her and it was really fun because we did a zombie vs. vampires theme. Everyone dressed up and it was super cool because the restaurant accommodated our theme and really helped out. The costumes and the people involved really made the night. It’s nights like that that remind me of how lucky I am to know my current social group and really happy to be where I am.  Halloween might just be the greatest holiday, but people are too scared to admit it (pun intended). I had so much fun that I think I might just dress up like a zombie once every few months just to keep the nightlife of Tana guessing.

Madagascar had elections this past Friday. I guess I should be thrilled, excited, positive and writing a blog about that. I suppose I could even connect it with Russel Brand’s whole political view or movement or whatever it’s called that seems to be flooding the Internet; but really, neither of them warrants much of anything at the moment.

The elections in Madagascar are great and I’m very happy for the country, but it’s still a long way to go. Not only are most of the votes still to be counted, but also no real results have come out so of course there aren’t going to be problems yet. There’s still a chance for people to get mad, to cheat, for something to go wrong. It’s only something that can be applauded in hindsight. I’ll be excited once an elected government is in place and this country has the chance to get back on track. But I’ll believe it when I see it. Oddly, I feel somewhat similarly about Brand’s comments as well.

Yes, he has no credentials. Yes he is wacky. Yes he is an actor and that’s the only reason that anyone is listening to him right now. Yes, he doesn’t have a plan of action. He doesn’t have a road from theory to application and so everyone who is educated and endorsing the current political systems of democracy are in complete disagreement with his statements. However, what I do admire in all of this is that Brand will probably reach a large population that never thought about the issues that he’s bringing up. He will probably reach many of the people that he is supposedly fighting for. People that didn’t know they are being exploited. People that never cared before, but might actually care a little more about the economic, social and political systems they are a part of. I think voting in a government is our best option, but I know that getting a population to think about what they are doing is even better. It is the ideal.

But once again, there is no looking into the future for this one as well. Madagascar might have a new president soon. Western politics could change if the majority of the people believe in a celebrity rather than tradition and history. Who knows. Sometimes we get stuck in our caves and it’s hard for us to see the necessary lights towards change. Regardless, I hope that Madagascar and humanity keep moving forward so that we can all look back and say we did something right, rather than we did something ridiculously wrong.