It’s been almost 2 months since I last posted a blog. I suppose a lot of things happened in that time. Of course life moves on and everyday brings about new events, but I think I sometimes question whether anyone would want to read it. Or do I want to take the time to write it? Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing so much for work that I didn’t have the motivation to write a blog; nothing exciting seemed to be happening. However, this past week I traveled to the SAVA region in the Northeast to visit my old Peace Corps site in Andapa. My visit was interesting enough as far as travels go and therefore, I thought that it warranted a blog. Besides, it’s good to remind all of you that do happen to read this thing that I am in fact still alive.  

As always, I prefer to think linearly and so I’ll start with what happened before I visited Andapa. My last blog post was on February 6th…shit…so I guess here we go.

Most of February consisted of writing reports. I was finishing up on drafts of regional reports and then drafted activity reports. I only have a few more activity reports until I’ll need to figure out what I’ll do for dissemination. I’ve continued running at the hash, although I’ve missed the last two times. I had a blister on my foot as a result of a burnt wart so I stopped running. I hurt my back, so I stopped running. I haven’t been running that much so I decided to only do the 30 km race in May rather than the 65 km. I went to an African Swag party. I went to a Movie Character party. I’ve attended workshops and presentations for work. I had a close friend and colleague leave Madagascar. We got a new guard for our house. I continued writing reports, but not writing a blog. I’ve been looking into graduate school programs and schools. I’ve been looking into Peace Corps response opportunities.  I’ll probably be home sometime in the middle of June. For how long, I still don’t know. My dad turned 67 years old. I had my 4-year anniversary of living in Madagascar. Bus stops and roads were renovated. I still battle the cars each day as they threaten me with the puddles that they pass. I still eat sandwiches on my walk home. It was raining so I took the bus. It was dry so I washed clothes. There were nights that I went to sleep at 7:30pm. There were nights that I went to sleep at 6:00am.  I’ve spent time with friends; I’ve spent time alone. I’ve been cheap and I’ve been extravagant. I still have a planner that I write everything in because the NSA will never be able to steal that. They’ll steal my blog instead.  More than anything, in the past two months, I’ve simply lived my life and thoroughly enjoyed it even though I haven’t wrote about it.

Which brings us now to the last week and more current affairs. Two months of no travel and living in Tana motivated me to take a trip back up to Andapa. It was encouraged by the fact that almost everyone from our Project was traveling to mainland Africa and that I didn’t really feel the need to be working alone in the office. Also, it had been about 10 months since I took a real vacation so I thought it was about time. 

Once I arrived in Sambava I was greeted by the heat and humidity. I forgot how tropical it was! In many ways it felt refreshing although you would have never guessed judging by how much I was sweating. It was delightful to hear the buzzing of the beautiful coastal dialects as I walked by the people.  Not only did I feel that I could express myself so much more clearly to other people, but I feel like the people in the north are so much more expressive than the people in Tana. The people just seem happier, and if you ever have a chance to see where they are living then I think you would understand why.

I got a taxi brouse to Andapa the same day that I arrived, which seemed good until I remembered taxi brouses in the north like to be full. Nobody has a seat in a SAVA region taxi brouse. There are 4 rows and it’s expected that you seat 6-7 people in each row where there are only 4 places. To make things even more interesting, we decided to fill her up a bit more and have 2-3 people standing on the sides with the door open. The positive of it all was that most of the people were going to Andapa or close by and so we didn’t need to stop so often. The down side was that I was jammed in the middle of a little van with my knees nestled against my chin accompanied by about 30 people in 80% humidity for a little over 3 hours. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely pleasant. It wasn’t until we were getting closer to Andapa and people had to get out that the real fun began. It turns out that the clutch for the car wasn’t in the best shape. And by ‘best shape’ I really mean that it wouldn’t always catch. Now, anyone that has gone from Sambava to Andapa knows that for most of that road you are going up. When you have a car over capacity and you’re trying to go uphill, things can get a little dicey if the clutch doesn’t work. However, after a few pushes, starting the car sideways into the road and a whole lot of hope, we managed to keep moving along. It was when we made the final turn over the ridge that I saw down into the Andapa basin and a smile just flooded my face.

Getting out of the taxi I was surprised to see that Andapa now has bicycle taxis. It makes sense as everyone has bikes and it’s relatively flat in the area. I wasn’t about to take one, as I wasn’t traveling too far, but it seemed like a good enterprise. Walking to the hotel and during the first few days I would see a lot of old friends and a lot of changes in the area. It was strange because in many ways I felt like I never left and in some ways I felt like I was a total stranger. 

There is a new casino in Andapa, also many new houses and construction all over the basin, which makes me think that things are okay overall in the area (although many people don’t have money in March). There were new places to eat rice and soup, which I took advantage of over my week vacation and I still managed to visit places that have existed for years but that I hadn’t seen in my three years of living there. There are new people and new businesses all over town and nothing really stood out as being shocking. I don’t really know if this is true or if I’m just comparing it to all of my field visits where I visited some of the poorest communities in Madagascar.

It was both embarrassing and endearing to see how many people remembered me and wanted to talk to me; I don’t really like the attention. It reminded me of the generally good-hearted souls that live in Andapa and why I fell in love with the place to begin with.

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My trip into the countryside took much more time than I ever would have imagined and in retrospect it was a great decision to not plan anything. I borrowed a bicycle and left Andapa around 6:30am. I traveled about 28 km and I didn’t get home until around 6:30pm. All I did was say hello…for 12 hours. Granted I talked more than that, but that was the general idea. I also had my fill of street food. I had soy tea, rice flour cakes, corn, bread, bananas (which are oh so amazing compared to the sorry excuse of a fruit they call a banana in Tana), and of course a glass or two of betsa (sugar cane alcohol similar to a wine).

I had a chance to visit the old fish farm and talk to the guard about everything. The fish are growing and the ducks are doing great. They planted tarot and yams that they will likely start harvesting in August or September. It looked like it was in really good shape. I asked people about rice and found that a little more than half are still doing some SRI, which was nice to hear. I also found out that the pink rice that I gave people either grew extremely well or failed miserably even before transplanting. Discussing with them I think it might have been an issue with water and soil quality, and possibly pests.  And I got to visit the library and my old Peace Corps house. Puppy was still alive and kicking although he isn’t the guard dog that he used to be and I was blown away to see all of the changes that they’ve made because of help from outside funding.

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They have new toilet facilities and a water pump. They built a kitchen, which is basically a house. And they have started raising pigs (8 of them). In many ways the yard was still the same and except for the vanilla that died in the flooding this year, the pineapples, avocados and other trees that I planted seemed to be doing well.  Of course it wouldn’t be a trip to the country if I didn’t get my hands a little dirty, so I helped them get three new pigs into a pen. Nope, I don’t have any desire to raise pigs and I still don’t find piglets cute.

I said hello to my old counterpart and we had a long discussion. I don’t know if the realization has set in that he wont have a new Peace Corps Volunteer this year and they he’ll need to do a lot more on his own. He was trying to encourage me to take a career in tourism, but I think that could only make me more suicidal than teaching.

I saw once again the discipline of the teachers in the schools out in the country. Kids were deemed as having hair that was too long and so the teacher took the liberty of cutting small sections of hair off of their head to encourage the children to cut their hair that evening. Apparently, 10 children went home with some very interesting haircuts that needed to be cleaned up. Although it made me laugh, I thought it was a bit much and how they would probably be put in jail if they did something like that in the States.

I went to Antanetiambo. It just seemed natural to put my bike on my shoulder, raise my shorts and wade across the water and mud. Walking to the reserve I noticed that a bull didn’t seem too happy in my presence but I made it farther than his rope to get by. Entering the forest, the guard wasn’t there, but I still walked around for a little bit. It’s amazing to see how many little things have changed in 10 months. More importantly, I was very aware at how unaware (known unknowns???) I was after not walking in the forest for 10 months. I used to see and hear everything as I walked through the forest. Now, it felt like my first time in Antanetiambo and I felt clumsy, clueless and removed.

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I walked barefoot, of course, as my sandals were thin and probably would have done more harm than good. I forgot how nice it was to walk barefoot. The natural pressure of the body seemed strengthening in many ways. Feeling the mud and soil sink around my feet and occasionally feeling a sharp bit of pain from a rock or branch reminded me of the years past. I definitely don’t have the calluses that I used to, but it was nice nonetheless to free myself from the restrictive shoes. After walking for a bit, 2I didn’t see the guard so I just decided to leave and would come back the next day when I had more time and really planned to walk around.  As I was leaving the Reserve I noticed that the bull was waiting for me and that my exit wasn’t going to be as clean as my entry.

I waded through knee high water to discover the bull shaking his horns from side to side and stamping his hooves. Now, I’m no bovine expert, I think that I can safely admit that, but I took these as signs of aggression and that he didn’t really feel welcome at my presence. However, my lazy ass was not about to go down some rice field walkway maze through more mud and water just because some bull didn’t want me to walk in his little grazing area (mind you he was on a rope, so it wasn’t like he could charge me from everywhere). I shifted my sandals to the same hand that was carrying my bike and looked for something to aid me in battle.

Of course, nothing in my life ever gravitates toward moderation and I was stuck with either going big or going home. So that’s what I did. There was a large Raffia branch near me that was about 10 ft long. Now, Raffia isn’t heavy so it wasn’t hard to lift, but it was just kind of awkward to carry, especially because I was already carrying a bike. The bull kept doing its thing until I looked at it and started walking directly at him swinging the branch and yelling Malagasy cattle terms in an angry voice. The bull backed down (I’m quite deadly with a branch) and I made my passage to the next row of mud and water between the rice fields. The people walking on the road seemed thoroughly amused by my triumphant victory. I arrived at the road and road off into the sunset…

Overall, my relaxing vacation with no set plans really just ended up as a jam-packed week of me visiting old friends and saying hello. Although I really loved it, it was actually quite exhausting!  There were a few nights that I just wanted to go to sleep (although most nights I had a beer or two with a friend).  As always, people are quick to give gifts such as meals, bananas or beans, which I graciously accepted. I had lunch most days at the homes of friends and a few dinners with friends as well. I bought vanilla for friends in Tana and a little bit for myself.  Over the course of the week I got sunburnt because I’m a distant relative of Casper since I’ve been working in an office. It’s just a friendly reminder how ghostly we become when we spend all of our time within the confines of an office.

Riding my bike into the countryside really made me miss my life back in Andapa. As I rode my bike I had a quick flash, a thought or dream that pierced my mind and made me realize that I had enough money to live there. I could buy some land and a rice field and simply become a subsistence farmer. I could start a small business and become involved in vanilla, coffee, and rice trades. I thought about all of this as the sweat dripped down my forehead and I stared down the dirt road into small villages and people weeding in the rice fields.  The wind stopped and I could feel the heat where my backpack struck through my shirt and joined with my skin. Feeling my lungs filled with clear, clean air and a slight burn in my thigh muscles from never riding a bike, I felt like this is what life is supposed to be like. And, in many ways, it’s something that I think I would like to have, but just not now.

Seeing how much I enjoyed the simple life in Andapa just reminded me that it would be selfishness that would make me settle down there. I saw more new children than I expected and although everything is green, March is a time when people don’t really have a lot of food and the cost of living is expensive. People ration out their rice and in some cases people are already cooking green bananas to deal with the shortage. I truly love the people and the place of Andapa. I hope that one day I can return to Andapa, with more education and experience. I hope that I can return to this life of simplicity and goodness with a real contribution to the community rather than just my own needs. My week vacation reaffirmed my decision that I should go back to school and get a master’s degree so that I can gain the experience and money necessary to make real changes for the community rather than superficial changes that make me feel good but have no real use.  

My last night in Andapa consisted of beers, karaoke and celebrating a friend’s 31st birthday. My ride back to Sambava was relatively uneventful, although I was definitely in the hot seat as the motor was right below me, but we weren’t too full and the clutch worked fine.

I saw more old friends and ate more food in Sambava. I met up with Peace Corps volunteers in the region and saw how much I’m removed from their social circle and lives, but that the Peace Corps family is always so cool and welcoming regardless of who you are or where you are. I said goodbye to more people and even more so to a region of Madagascar that I hope will change relatively little in the next few years.

My return to Tana was simple enough. I brought plantains and oranges in a basket that I checked on the plane (yes, I’m Malagasy) and braved the cold weather and smog once again. My first day back I was struck with stomach issues that I will spare the details. Maybe it’s just one last little souvenir from the North. Image

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