Today we spent nine hours on the road, making the move from Tana to Fianarantsoa. Luckily, it was incredibly scenic, and luckily, I am not the type to get car-sick, as it was mostly high-speed hairpin turns through the mountains. Our driver, Kosa, is incredible though, and the Land Rover has impressed me with its tank-like determination. The miles between Tana and Fianar were really beautiful, and over the nine hours, it changed from sort of barren greenish grassy hills to lush green foothills with enormous gray (volcanic?) rocks scattered over them, and closer to Fianar it was full of P.E.I.-reminiscent red rocks through the mountains.
The thing that struck me most was the enormous number of people walking on the side of the highway all the time. But it makes sense, since no one here has a vehicle, and there is really only one road. The colours of their clothes were incredible though: fluorescent pink, orange and green, and the same fabrics recurring all along the journey, in different incarnations. And I can’t imagine that it’s easy to carry a bundle the size of an ottoman on top of your head for that many miles. Maybe that’s a skill I’ll acquire…
More driving! From Fianarantsoa to Farafangana – another nine hours or so. The road got pretty exciting towards the end, with giant red, muddy potholes. It felt like the Land Rover was really in its element. We stopped along the way in Ranomafana National Park to have a look around the town of Ranomafana, which is really in the rainforest. We wandered around a gorgeous little hotel, where we may end up staying when we stop in the park for a few days in August. It was about a dozen tiny thatched-roof bungalows along the river, with orchids of every colour lining the paths. Keeping my fingers crossed for that one…
Our meals, so far, have been weirdly silent, probably because we just don’t know each other well enough to make great conversation yet. I’m also a bit weary about the French thing… it’s been quite a while, and I’m sort of feeling a bit over my head. But I’ll figure it out. I did learn today, though, that it’s a total cultural no-no to make faces at kids (sticking out your tongue and so on), which explains why the kids have looked at me in horror when I’ve been trying to make friends with them over the past few days. Oops…
Today we made the trek from Farafangana to Vondrozo. The day began with an incredible breakfast of the butteriest, flakiest pastries that I’ve ever tasted, at a little bakery called Le Croustillant. (If you are ever in Farafangana, you MUST go. You won’t believe what this woman can do with such limited ingredients.) We spent a few hours at the WWF office in Farafangana, listening to Marlin (the boss) talk about the project, the forst corridor, and our activities therein. The office, I can tell you, is nothing like the WWF offices in Toronto! It’s a bungalow with pink walls (frequently crawled upon by a family of geckos), beautiful carved wooden doors, usually left open with just lacy curtains ruffling in the breeze, and overflowing pots of flowers everywhere.
We went to do our grocery shopping for the next month, as they tell us that there isn’t much in the way of shopping in Vondrozo, and we need to eat! It took some planning, since we had no idea what would actually be available and we needed to consider that we’d be spending two weeks of the month out in the field doing zoning work. I was feeling really off and started seeing spots, so I sat down on a stack of rice bags in the crowded store and tried not to faint. (I was revived by drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola – the universal fix-all – so I think I must just have had low blood sugar or something.) But the provisionnement was completed, and we left with big boxes containing lots of spaghetti, Vache Qui Rit, cookies, and cans of tomato paste, corn, and tuna. The rice and beans will be taken care of once we get to Vondrozo – Marlin says the rice is better there. We each spent about 100 000 Ariary on the groceries, which amounts to about 40 Euros. For a month!
Before heading out of town, we stopped at the beach in Farafangana, and it is INCREDIBLE. I’m hoping that we can stay out there for my birthday week…
We arrived in Vondrozo after dark, so the last hour or so in the Land Rover felt like riding on a mechanical bull while blindfolded. The road was a complete disaster. In fact, “road” seems a little too generous a name for such a landslide. (Again, I am glad that the car-sick genes are absent in Johnsons.) When we pulled up outside “Chez Mme. Seing” in Vondrozo, we made a scramble to get our bags inside as quickly as possible, as we were completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the huge crowd who had gathered around our vehicles to watch us unpack and laugh at us. (Editor’s note: Being laughed at is something to which I have become entirely desensitized over the past few months. Vazahas are hilarious. I get it.) We’ll meet them all tomorrow, I’m sure…
We started our day with a hilarious (but now quite expected) breakfast of Vache Qui Rit and jam on melba toasts. It is fun sitting around our little kitchen table eating together, though. The words are flowing much more easily between us now. The water only works sometimes (and we’ve yet to figure out the hours, or even if there are specific hours), and the village has electricity between 5pm and 11pm, which means that the single lightbulb in each of our rooms actually works! Jour de fête.
We had our first Malagache lessons today, with Madame Victorine, the French teacher at the school. It was totally disorganized and confusing, but exciting to think that maybe by the end of these few months, I’ll actually know a dozen words or so. We also met Ryan, a (super cute) Peace Corps volunteer from California who is living here for TWO YEARS (!) and will be working with our group for the summer. This means that we have suddenly switched from French to English in casual conversation, which is a) awesome and b) terrible, since I need all the practice I can get.
The “jour officiel”. Today we visited the villages of Manambidala and Mahazoarivo to meet the mayors and introduce ourselves, since we’ll be working in their communities. Basically, we drove on some more truly unbelievable roads, but with all eleven of our flock in the same Land Rover, and sat awkwardly in offices while official-sounding Malagache conversations flew over our heads. But the villages were beautiful, and we got to cross a pretty frightening barge with the Land Rover – it looked (to my Canadian eye) like three rusty rowboats with planks across the gunwhales, propelled across the river by a single man pulling us along a rope. Actually, no. I think that’s a pretty accurate description. It was awesome.
I also had my first Chez Mme. Seing shower today, which means standing in a tiled shower stall (which is actually pretty sweet) and dumping cold water from a barrel over my head with a cup. Next mission: remember to boil water next time so that I won’t feel numb at the end.