Sometimes it seems impossible to really know where you are, I think as I stare at the map. I have been sitting on my large woven mat for the last thirty minutes staring at a world map lit by candle light and perfumed by a lavender-scented anti-mosquito coil. I burn it in part to deter mosquitoes and in part because lavender scent reminds me of my parents and the color purple- which reminds me of my grandmother. I asked my family to send me a world map so I could show others where the United States was in relation to Madagascar, but I have found myself unable to look away each time I bring it out, no matter if the viewing party is over. I have never been a map person- I desperately wanted to be in adolescents – my sister was into maps when we were younger and older sisters have that special power to make anything seem cool.
I have been staring at this map, astounded by some of the countries I had completely misplaced in my understanding of the globe. Moving the candle stand around as my interests cross oceans, I can only see a continent and its shadows at a time. I fly my candle back to Madagascar for quick stops between continent switches, hollowed by the lack of information the map gives. 4 cities are identified. I stare intently at the inch on the map between Antananarivo and Diego.
That inch is where my journey over the last few weeks scribbles all over.
The culture around travel here involves something called a ‘volandalana’, or ‘fruit of the road’. It is a gift you should bring with you to show you were thinking of whoever you’re visiting or coming back home to. Luckily, the translation is quite literal and the expectation of the gift is generally fruit, vegetables, or bread. I’m heading back to the training center, so I will be seeing my original host family. I want to bring them something special from my town, so I head across the street from my house to buy a colorful woven basket. I am still looking for rice farmers to ask a few questions, and just as I am walking away I think to ask the man selling the baskets. I see him around town a lot, but never in the fields so I figured he wasn’t a farmer.
“Of course I am a rice farmer”
I ask him a few questions about his fields to verify, just in case he is a land owner but not the farmer. He’s definitely the farmer. His farm in the east. I have been to fields in the south, the west, and the north, but never the east- that explains it. Sometimes you forget you’re completely surrounded by rice fields.
I get my sack and my woven basket all ready and head out to the road to catch the next van to Diego. I get real lucky and just as I step out a van passes.
“Sure we have room!”
They throw my bag on the roof and show me my spot. I squeeze into my quarter- of- a- seat as the music blares. Three people are standing, but strike a chair-pose whenever passing officials. I feel a little guilty for making other people squeeze, but mostly happy to be on the road. The driver stops to get fried fish and beer for his lady friends in the front seat. He stops again to get an alcoholic drink made from coconut trees from the side of the road. Luckily it’s not too late in the day and that means the drink has a low alcohol content. Its scent is sickly sweet and as we hurdle through the craters in the road I feel grateful for the space between the man chest standing next to me and the back of the chair- in other words- the window.
If you’ve gotten out your map, it will probably list Diego as Antsiranana. Move your finger down just a touch and that’s where I live, Sadjoavato. The training center is close to Antananarivo (Tana), right there in the center-ish, so that’s my destination. The drive is about 25-35 hours, non-stop. Notice that 10 hour window of possibility? I get lucky and there is a Peace Corps vehicle making that journey the very day I need to go. That’s a treat worth a million bucks- driving down with your friends, blasting familiar music, stopping to pee whenever.
In any case, I arrived in Tana, physically sick in more than a couple ways. I was just getting over a facial skin infection, which I claimed to be a flesh-eating disease but the doctors didn’t entertain it. Anyways, the next few days were spent wallowing. I am a relatively dramatic sick person.
The training lasted two weeks and included topics such as small-scale chicken raising, raising bees, savings and loan groups, tree planting, and small other trainings on things like grant work and malaria-awareness project possibilities. We all got to choose one person we are working with in our town to come join us at the training center for the second week. This was a pretty exciting idea, to think someone from our towns might see us understanding complex sentences. I asked Marta to join me. It was incredible to see a woman so strong and respected curl up a little at the thought of leaving the country side.
“I’ll go, but it’s not habit for me to leave the North”
At first Marta was quiet during the training. Quick to start writing everything down, I started taking her notes for her so she could listen. The training were all in Malagasy standard, and the northern dialect is quite different (in my opinion). A few days in Marta raised her hand and stood up to chime in. By the end we were supposed to give a presentation on a technique. We chose SRI (system of rice intensification). We spent our breaks making the poster.
“You talk, and if you need help I will say something too”
Low on time, I mostly just read off the poster we made. I don’t really give Marta the time to chime in since I am reading off the poster. She interrupts me to explain something further and much better than I ever could. I look over and she’s beaming, standing proud.
Running off the high of seeing Marta realize how good she could be at training others, I start trying to make plans with her for training SRI in town. Should I make another poster or should we use this same poster? Maybe we can do half in the town hall and half in the field?
“Alyssa, it will not work to do training with a poster or writing, let’s do it all out in the field”
Deep breath Alyssa, listen to your cultural guide. Posters and written instruction aren’t everything.
After training is a great time for volunteers to go on vacation since they already traveled so far for the training. I decided to go on a bike ride with a fellow volunteer, Shannon, from a nature reserve to a port city. Peace Corps lends me a bike and we set out to a take a bus to the nature reserve.
Running a little late, we catch the last bus going to Mahajanga before lunch time. Mahajanga is also on the map. The nature reserve is about 120 km south of Mahajanga, so we figure we can just get out ahead of time. About 4 hours into the ride, we talk to the man next to us to make sure we know where to get off. Wait, we need to get off at Mavetanana and take a different bus? This one isn’t going all the way to Mahajanga? Where is Mavetanana? Oh, we’re here.
Thankfully, Shannon fights a tough bargain and since we paid for the trip all the way to Mahajanga, she got the driver to pay for us to go the rest of the way with a different bus. We waited a couple of hours, and got on the next bus. About 5 or 6 times in the next two hours we inquired about where we were going, double, triple checking there would be hotels. Suddenly, a bus you’re on going to Mahajanga might not be going to Mahajanga at all. What were we supposed to do? Our trust in the system, tainted.
We arrived at Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve and the bus even pulled into the parking lot of the bungalows for us where we were welcomed by the guard, refilling the recently spilled cup of trust in the unknown that is required during travel. Exhausted by all the nerves built up over the last few hours, and to be honest probably the last few months, I passed out on the bungalow bed.
The time spent in Ankarafantsika was wonderful. Shannon and I indulged in long breakfasts, walks with a guide that knew everything about the forest- from breeding rituals of the animals to the origins of trees names (our Malagasy has definitely improved!)
Shannon wasn’t disturbed when I shared with her my serve lack of biking experience.
“What’s the longest you’ve gone?”
“I biked 3 miles to work every day”
“We’re going 120 kilometers, it won’t be too bad”
We got a late start our first morning, when –tssssssssss- I tried to fill my tire and ended up letting the air out without the right device to put air back in. Anyways, the ride was wonderful. With wide open savanna on either side, we glided along.
For our first stop, my bike and I fell down together as I tried to get off it. Turns out when you have a huge sack (ingeniously) tied on back (thanks Shannon!), it might be harder to get your foot over than you think.
We stopped for a 3 PM meal and as we talked with the cook we came to realize we had already arrived the town we planned to sleep in- about 20 km before we expected. My butt thanked those who overestimated the distance. We got a bungalow for 10,000 Ar, which is about 2 and half dollars.
The next morning I stuffed socks in between my underwear and my pants for cushion. Along the way we got cat-called and what not. I got a mild case of diarrhea. We continued to get cat-called. When we ended I only found one sock in my pants. The views continued to be wonderful, even going uphill.
We relaxed in Mahajanga, planning our timetable around acceptable times to eat ice cream. Long talks and giggles that make your eyes water was the medicine we needed. Shannon found a rogue playing card to add her to collection- a fine representation of incomplete decks everywhere.
To get a bus back, I called and made a reservation. Shannon’s bus left at 7 AM, so I went with her to the station. I went to confirm my reservation, finding that the company I reserved with had no buses that ever, ever, go to Diego.
“Wait for me to go with you to find another company, I have a friend at the company going to Diego”
Thinking he was just being nice, I went to look by myself. In the midst of the busy and dirt covered station, an extremely well-dressed and manicured man politely asked me where I need to go.
“Oh you need to go in the direction of Diego, well come over here, we’re going that way. If you need to cancel this reservation, not a problem, just let me know”
I went back to wait with Shannon and the man that told me to wait for him got mad at me for not waiting for him.
“You don’t trust me! They cheated you!”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you. I just haven’t had coffee yet” The things you say in another language when you haven’t had coffee.
He takes me into an empty office where he opens up a book, writes down my name for a reservation, gives me a ticket, and reminds me that I don’t trust him but he knows it’s because of the coffee. I don’t feel great about this reservation considering no one from that company was there, but I trust this guy over the clean, well-dressed man so I take it.
A kid is seating next to me. Maybe its his first time traveling alone, but he seems pretty nervous. The music starts blaring. The man behind me starts coughing that sounds a lot like throwing up. Oh, just kidding, he’s throwing up. There’s nothing like the sound of someone puking every 10 minutes on a lengthy bus ride to remind you that whatever problems you think you have aren’t that bad. The windows have to stay open, so when the kid ends up curling up next to me, it’s for survival.
Arriving in Ambilobe (about 6 hours away from Diego), the bus driver decides that this direct bus is no longer direct.
Drinking coffee in Ambilobe, I started up a conversation with the man sitting next to me and I told him about where I was going and that I was looking for another bus. He asked me if I knew a man that I do happen to know, and they called him and he came and helped me figure out the rest of my travel plants.
I get on the new bus and I feel like I recognize the driver from somewhere, although I push it aside. We fill up the seats to capacity and then some, start the music and are on our way. He stops soon there after to let another passenger in. A familiar voice says:
“Sure, we have room!”
And as people get placed into spots that don’t exist to an American like myself, I chuckle at this almost-perfect circle of going home on the same bus and driver in which I started my journey. I end up falling asleep, not on the person next to me, but over them and onto the shoulder of the person next to them. I woke up and we laughed together, punctuated by a hot wave of embarrassment.
My last bus, finally with Sadjoavato as the destination, wasn’t really a bus at all but a pick-up truck with two benches in the back and a wooden roof on top. The benches swayed back and forth as we slowed and sped. Once again, we’re squished to the brim. As the passengers become fewer, my initial reaction is relief. But with the wind, the cold fills in the empty spots. The woman next to me gets out- I didn’t even realize she was breaking all the strongest wind. It’s funny, you can sit somewhere for two hours and not be aware of the most basic elements surrounding you. I didn’t spread out when she left, instead I continued to squish myself against the man on the other side of me.
PS. Happy birthday to my big sis Ariana! Love you and I hope your next year is full of cat parties, giggles, and a few steps along the autobahn!