Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Peace Corps Volunteer for a Week: When Shaz Came to Visit

The idea of inviting a non-Peace Corps volunteer to fly all the way to Madagascar and brave Taxi-brousses and kabones (outhouses) while living off rice and beans for a period of time is always an intimidating notion. I’ve tried to paint a realistic enough picture on this blog, but reading about a kabone and experiencing one are two totally different things. Fortunately, when my friend Shaz came last month to visit me, he took all of our little mishaps with surprising stride. On the way up to Mahajunga, our brousse broke down several times, and while I was slouched in my seat muttering “uhg, we’re never going to f*ing make it” he stayed positive. “Maybe we’ll still get there before the pizza place closes! Here! Drink some of the whiskey I brought!” He actually liked the food, especially brochettes (which are one of the most fantastic snacks here… he has good taste). He aslo didn’t complain nearly as much as I did about the rather putrid kabone situation at one of my friend’s sites (the outhouse has gone to shit because the whole middle school uses it). Furthermore, he even tried toka-gasy, the homemade sugar-cane moonshine that’s known to turn people blind, and was enthusiastic about it. Okay, okay, I mostly pressured him into trying toka for my own amusement, so way to go Shaz for taking that bullet! I took a lot of hilarious photos of him and another PCV throwing down shots with looks of utter disgust while I sat by and giggled.

Also, we took a lot of photos

Ankarafatsika CanyonDrink Seller Mahajunga

Mahajunga boardwalk
Girls in the window
Breakfast
Lemur Forest
Mahajunga baobab(1)
Bush

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Really Officer, I’m Not an Illegal Immigrant

Creative commons courtesy of timsackton
Creative commons courtesy of timsackton

I know I have slacked for the entire month of June about blogging… and a lot has happened in that month. The books for the Books For Africa project I’ve taken over have arrived in Tamatave and are currently stuck in customs. I had my Close of Service conference with Peace Corps and will officially be leaving the island on September 9th (onwards to Kenya/Uganda/Ethiopia!!). My Dad will be arriving (with homemade cookies!!!) tomorrow to see this hunk of land I’ve been camped out on for the past two years.

And… a fellow American and I were stopped for being potential illegal immigrants.

Every time I have told this story to other PCVs (and expats in general) they always interrupt me here to exclaim — “who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar?!?” I’ll get to that.

It started when a Malagasy police officer stopped the two of us as we were walking around town looking for breakfast and taking photos. When the police officers started yelling “eh! eh! eh!” at us, I thought they were mad at my friend for snapping an accidental shot of them. Easy problem to solve, right? We’ll just delete it, say sorry, and be on our way.

But I was wrong. Instead:

Officer: “Can we see your passports?”
Me: “Passport? Why? Here’s my resident card…”

The tall, well-fed officer and his two assistants (all donning very official looking, laminated badges dangling from lanyards) took a full five minutes to decipher the card and write down my information — all was good — but started to give us trouble because my friend had left his passport and copy of his passport at the hotel.

Officer: “You’re going to have to come to the station and present it later,”
Me: “But we already have plans, we left the passport at the hotel because there’s lots of thieves. We were afraid of getting robbed.”
Officer: “You need to come to the station.”
Me: “Why are you checking our passports anyways? I’ve lived here for two years and no one has ever asked me for this.” (With the exception of one police officer who, I swear, stopped our whole taxi-brousse just to flirt with my friend, using the passport check as an excuse to talk with us).
Officer: “There’s a big problem with illegal immigrants”
Me: “From where?” (This is when I was thinking ‘who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar??’)
Officer: “The Comoros”
Me: “Do I look like I’m from the Comoros?”
Officer: *Small chuckle* “No, passport please.”
Me: “He left it in the hotel, can’t we just pay you some fee so we don’t have to come back?”

At this point the officer got incredibly offended that I tried to bribe him, and I was equally shocked that he wasn’t taking the bribe.

In the end, we walked away and I was in an outrage at how pointless the whole ordeal had been. Seriously, us illegal immigrants in one of the 10 poorest countries on earth?! The absurdity!! Couldn’t these guys be spending their time doing more productive things? Later, we did end up going to the station and were a little creeped out when everyone knew my name already and had been expecting me (I don’t think the could have pronounced my friend’s name). We figured that they had made such a big fuss about seeing our visas because of the upcoming elections that were scheduled, rescheduled, and now postponed indefinitely, because he wanted to prove that he had been doing actual work before his post came up for elections as well.

Whatever it is, I promise you all, I am not trying to illegally immigrate to Africa.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Importing Books to Madagascar is Like Herding Cats

copyright @ photohome_uk

If you are a close friend/family member of mine, I probably bugged you almost a year and a half ago to donate to a huge project aimed at getting 22,000 books from America to 17 different schools and libraries in Madagascar. I really appreciate everyone who helped donate money to the project and I think after so much time has passed you deserve an update…

Well here it is: They’re still not here, but they’re close. Crunch time to sort out the logistics of sorting the books and sending them (by car/bus) to different cities/towns/villages throughout Madagascar is approaching quickly. Which means, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been running around town trying to get the nit-picky official aspects of importing a 40-foot shipping container with books and computers done. Unfortunately, the perils of wading through third world bureaucracy is driving me crazy. Mostly, it’s irritating because I’m trying to figure out a process I know nothing about, in a foreign language, in a system that’s 30 years behind in technology. For example, when I asked a Malagasy official at the customs office earlier today if I could e-mail her the one missing document I needed to petition for a tax-free import (since they are donations), she said “I don’t have an e-mail,”

I probably rolled my eyes a little too obviously.

I mean, in the West the idea of anyone working in government, business, or operations of this caliber not having an e-mail address wouldn’t ever cross anyone’s mind. But here, it’s kind of a big deal if I don’t have to travel across town on a janky bus and risk getting pickpocketed to hand off a letter. Not even an original copy of some official document, but a letter of request.

There’s also a lot of mis-communications that have come up in the process. Malagasy tend to talk around a point, rather than taking the American approach of direct communication and getting right to the point. I feel like I have sat in front of officials who explained something irrelevant to the question I asked, in three different ways, before they either answered my question or I gave up.

When I was registering on Gasynet — a website that anyone who imports large shipments to Madagascar has to get registered on — they kept sending me an e-mail saying “missing document” when it should have read “incorrect document”. It took a trip from my site to Tana to figure out what was going on, and even then I got so frustrated with the tech-help woman at Gasynet (who, even though she works for a website was hunt-and-peck typing) that I left her office crying.

However, I am proud of myself for holding it together today, when after going to the customs office for the third time they told me that I yet again, was missing a document. I felt a lot like when I was a server, and I would deliver a coke refill to a table, only to be asked for some more salt, and then a side of bread, and curse the table for not asking me for all three things at the same time.

Efficiency is a foreign concept I suppose.

I know a lot of it is language and culture barriers, and the fact that everything here does not run on e-mail and computer systems, but is still lost in the literal red tape of turning in hard copies of documents and having signatures and stamps on everything (my god, the f*ing love for stamps in this country!), but still, I can’t help but cry a little inside when I have a conversation like:

“We need the documents from you.”
“What documents?”
“The official documents.”
“Ummm…. that’s not what I meant….”

It’ll get done. They should be in port on June 23rd, and then I’ll be back in Tana, rushing around again. (Fortunately, there have been some incredibly helpful and efficient people working with me on this project, and I’m happy to say that we’ve finally got a space to unload the books, and someone to take the shipping container off our hands! Yay!) Wish me luck, or mail me bags of Starbucks coffee. No seriously, Starbucks coffee, send it my way — my address is in the about me section ;D

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Madagascar Locust Plague? What Locust Plague?

The vendor was too shy to have his picture taken with the locusts, so this lady volunteered! You can’t see the crowd that gathered behind me.

 

I first noticed them last Wednesday when I was fetching water at mid-day. The sky was bright and cloudless, and tiny shadows began to flit past in the dirt. Since nothing had taken a swan dive into my head, I initially thought they were the shadows of a flock of tiny birds – not that I had ever seen anything like that before in my town. But the shadows kept moving across the dirt basketball court in numbers too large to represent one measly group of birds. So, I put down my bucket of water and squinted up at the sky.

“Locusts!” I thought, “So it is true…”

Since March, news reports have been floating around the internet about a locust plague ravaging Madagascar. These distant writers have been predicting famine and portraying a pretty dark situation. Apparently “100 swarms across Madagascar, made up of about 500 billion ravenous locusts” have accounted for the worst locust infestation in 60 years. Concerned friends and family back home shared the articles with me and other Peace Corps volunteers located here, but most of us would read the articles only to glance away from my computer screen, look outside, and think “locusts? What locusts?”

To be fair, it started much further south of the capitol, near where I and the other PCVs I see most frequently live. Madagascar is a huge country with climates almost as varied as the United States. So we mostly wrote it off as something that was happening in that far-away southern part of Madagascar. But then, a few weeks ago, a friend of mine about 300km to the south of me outside of Fianaratsoa mentioned that the rumored locusts were floating about her town. Then, on Wednesday, they finally seemed to have made it to my town.

“Teacher, how do you say fanala?” one kid asked me in class later in the afternoon.

“What?”

Fanala,” he repeated and pulled a locust out of his backpack.

“Oh, locust. Are you going to eat that with your rice tonight?” I joked, sending the class into a fit of laughter.

“Yup,” he responded. Honestly, I don’t doubt he’s lying.

The thing is, while the rest of the world is anxiously watching to see if Madagascar will reach a famine, Madagascar is having a blast. Kids are out in the field at the sunniest parts of the day – when the locusts are most abundant – trying to catch as many as they can. Several vendors have popped up in my market selling them for 200 Ariary (about $0.10 USD) a cup. They’re apparently delicious.

Basket of Locusts
Yum…

 

“Are you going to eat locusts for your dinner tonight?” the woman at the photocopy shop asked me.

“I don’t know how to cook them,” I said (rather diplomatically, I thought).

“Easy, just fry them up in oil!”

Besides being able to eat them, harvest season is largely over, and the central highlands – which are the rice and vegetable belt of the country – weren’t hit as hard as the south. Meaning, from my non-expert opinion (let me repeat: I am no expert, I’m just a PCV / teacher), even though locusts are undoubtedly causing problems, famine in this region doesn’t seem to be as big a threat as the media is making it out to be. They have undoubtedly caused problems for the southern part of Madagascar, which is already too arid to grow the same amount of rice and produce as the central highlands and easily affected by natural disasters. However, in the highlands, the problem feels distant. Around Antsirabe at least, the media’s pessimistic opinion of the locusts doesn’t seem to match up with people’s talk of eating delicious locusts for dinner and kids jumping around trying to catch a few. It’s got me thinking, maybe I should try one?

Photos taken in Antanifotsy, Madagascar

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Biking Saved My Sanity in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers have a reputation for being a little off-kilter. Newbies arrive, meet more seasoned volunteers and think “wow, they’re a little weird.” The seasoned volunteers shake their heads and say “don’t worry, you’ll grow in to it.” Exhibit A: A PCV dancing with a bunch of pousse-pousse drivers and street kids:

Peace Corps Volunteers are WeirdJust another Friday night, right? Sadly… yes. There’s just something about living in a rural African village for two years that can drive a person slightly crazy, (or really crazy, but that’s rare) and generally the things that affect us are different for every volunteer. Maybe it’s that rooster that crows outside your bedroom window every morning at 4:30, or the kids that try to move the bamboo slats that constitute as walls on your house to peer and spy on you. More often yet, it’s the lack of schedule and extreme and utter boredom that comes with having a vague job in an area with no electricity. Or it’s weird food cravings and the sudden disappearance of your social life (once early in my service, I had one of those what-the-f-am-I-doing-here moments when I realized it was a Friday night and I was sitting at home sewing curtains).

Personally, when I first arrived at my Peace Corps site, the town that was supposed to be my home for the next two years, the thing that ate at me the most was disappointment. I had electricity and an abundance of cheap, fresh vegetables (two things I hear other PCVs complain about not having at their sites and I count myself lucky for), but the town itself was… well… bland. I’m in a beautiful country, but my town isn’t pretty. It’s big enough that there will forever be someone shouting “hey white person!” when I walk through market. It’s also in the heart of the Merina tribe’s region, and, sorry to any Merina folks reading this, I think the I-love-Jesus-and-soccer culture is mind-numbingly dull. I mean, great for you, but going to church and watching soccer are about as fun to me as going to the dentist. I still don’t like my site. It’s comfortable, people actually do work when I ask them to, but it’s bland.

At first, I really tried to take Peace Corps’ cheesy advice and “make the most of your site”. I tried going for walks, but no matter how far I walked I could never fully escape the obnoxious kids who herd cattle or random creepers. I tried going to church once, and almost fell asleep. I watched a fair amount of soccer games, and eventually decided it wasn’t worth my time to sit in the cold rain watching a game I don’t enjoy. By my third month at site, I was officially going a little nuts and over-fixating on the flickering light bulbs in my house. I couldn’t sit in a coffee shop, rock climb, hike or do anything outdoorsy to cope with the stress and boredom of site like I would have back in the states, and felt stuck.

But then I got a bike.

DSCN0742

And biking saved my sanity.

It quickly became the one connection I had to my life back in Seattle, back in the states, and a way to do something outdoorsy without worrying about obnoxious cattle herders or having to make conversation when I wasn’t up for speaking Malagasy. Finally free, I would furiously pedal back and forth between the highway and town, or throw the bike on top of a bus and take it around Antsirabe. One day, I broke out of my fear of biking on the highways (reasoning that drivers were already more used to seeing cows, kids, bikes, and rickshaws on the road than the average American driver) and went the 22km from Antsirabe to Betafo.

Cows

It was the happiest I had ever felt in Madagascar.

I was part of the scene, but not — and that was exactly what I wanted, what I needed, as a reprise from daily life in town. I wanted to observe Madagascar, to be outside and not cooped up in my house, but I still had this incredibly American mentality of wanting to not be bothered. It was a practice of being present but not pestered.

Road to Betafo

It’s still my favorite way to view Madagascar, and I’m hoping to bike the 500-ish kilometers from Antsirabe to Morondava before leaving the island, so stay posted!

Categories
In Photos Switzerland The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot in Lugano, Switzerland

Bringing you a travel snapshot from the Beat Nomad archives each and every Tuesday…

Lugano, Switzerland… except for last Tuesday because I was having some internet problems. To continue with today’s post:

I wish I had better pictures of Lugano, Switzerland. Even though I’ve ended up in the tiny Swiss town just north of Milan several times, I have disparagingly few. I’d like to say it’s because I was too busy drooling over cobblestone streets and bugging my friend to drink espresso or climb a castle with me… so we’ll blame it on that. This photo is a view of Lugano from a nearby mountain (but really just a hill in comparison to the Alps that hover in the distance).

Favorite part about Lugano: Stumbling upon a violin-cello duet around the corner from the Louis-Vuitton store, performing with sheet music and all (even the street musicians have class)

Least favorite part about Lugano: It’s retardedly expensive and a Swiss couple judged me for climbing that mountain in Toms

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Photos From Inside an African Market

Malagasy girl eating riceI hate to say it, but I’ve gotten used to the Antsirabe market’s smell. It’s a weird combination of muck and old produce, rice being cooked, and charcoal. The meat section has a totally different stench. Even after two years, I scrunch my face and try not to breathe it in as a walk quickly past. Once past the meat and surrounded by piles and piles of vegetables, (the women, because the overwhelming majority of people selling goods in the market are women), shout out the names of vegetables they think I want. “Citron! Citron!” one woman carrying a basket of limes calls out “Les tomates, madam, les tomates!” another says from her perch on a table covered in various vegetables, holding one up for me to see. It catches me off guard on the rare occasion they ask in Malagasy, and I wonder “if I were a tourist, would I have even noticed?”

The place is dark and dingy. Although it has no walls, the stalls of various vendors lined up at the entrance to the covered market and sectioned off with sheets of plastic, make it seem as if they do. The whole place is ensconced with a brick-tiled roof. I’m pretty sure several birds and bats have made homes in the rafters. The floor is no better. I keep my eyes to the ground to make sure I don’t step on a chicken, a small child playing with a cardboard box, or any other mysterious, liquidy substances.

On the other side of the produce market, sit rows of tiled lunch counters. Behind each one, people tend to giant metal pots over charcoal flames, cooking rice and loaka — the thing that accompanies the rice, (pork, beans, cow tongue) — coffee, or frying different sorts of bread in hot oil. Off in the far corner, I notice all of the street kids have gathered at one of these counters, being fed rice and chicken by the owners.

“Hey look, they’re doing their dishes when they finish,” one of my friends notices.

“I guess that’s a fair trade for free food, right?” I reply.

In that moment, I’m still finishing up my own plate of rice, beans, and cucumber salad when one of the older kids ambles up to beg for money, still munching on a chicken bone.

“Sorry kid,” I say, “but you can have the rest of my rice.”

“Sure,” he replies, and dumps the rice into a plastic bag. (This is one thing I love about Madagascar, how little is wasted. If I can’t finish my food, which I rarely can when it’s rice, there’s always someone else who’ll eat it — even if it’s just the cat that hangs around the hotely)

We finish and leave the dark, weird-smelling, half-open market and step out into the street. I’m startled by the sunshine, but also on some level how normal sitting in a dingy market eating rice has become.

Chickens and Bananas

ChickensBasket SellerStreet kid eating chicken boneWashing ShoesBag vendorPhotos: (all were taken near Antsenakely, Antsirabe)

(1) Small child eating rice (it would have been cuter if she hadn’t made that weird face just as my friend Amy snapped the photo!) (2) Women selling chicken, bananas, and brooms (3) Chickens… duh (4) Woman selling woven rafia baskets and hats that are common in Madagascar (5) The street kid I gave my rice to… he’s making a funny face because he was in the middle of eating a chicken bone, but I think the photo is kind of hilarious (so did he) (6) Shoe vendors washing their shoes just outside Antsirabe’s small market (7) Tangerines, bananas, and bags

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot in Diego, Madagascar

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s travel archives each and every Tuesday

Diego SuarezI recently found a blog describing Diego Suarez (the northernmost city in Madagascar, known as Antsiranana in Malagasy) as a “small fishing village”. It made me giggle a little, but then again, everything is relative. It’s small by western standards and most well known for it’s Portuguese-founded port, but tell someone from Diego that they are from a village and they’ll likely tell you off. Within Madagascar, it’s a hub of cosmopolitanism in the north. The city boasts a couple of night clubs, banks, a university, round the clock electricity (which says nothing of its reliability), and an airport. And then, there’s this semi-cryptic graffiti all over the place — a style of art I’ve always associated with urbanism. Through the Peace Corps rumor mill I heard that a French volunteer, not a local, is responsible for the graffiti, but of course that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Best part about Diego Suarez: The nearby Ankarana national park, the retardedly beautiful Emerald Sea, and all the fresh seafood and coconut rice we could handle.

Worst part about Diego Suarez: A surprising lack of cheap Malagasy food options and a not so surprising abundance of prostitutes (the seedier side of Diego: it’s a sex tourist destination, though still not as bad as Nosy Be)

Categories
Asia In Photos Thailand The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat in Krabi, Thailand: Tuesday Travel Snapshot

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday:

Thai Street FoodI had a serious space-cadet moment when I was in Ko yao noi, a small island about an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, while traveling around Thailand last September. I said goodbye to my friends, packed up my bag, got on a boat, all ready to fly back to Madagascar and realized “wait — it’s Wednesday, not Thursday… I still have a whole other day in Thailand!” How did I spend it? Eating, of course. Sushi, iced coffee, and noodles were all obsessions of mine while traveling there, but don’t judge me for also getting overly-excited at a packet of freeze-dried raspberries in a 7-11. (RASPBERRIES! NO WAY! I haven’t eaten these in over a year!)

Anyways, this photo was taken at Krabi’s nighttime street food market, right on the ocean. I suspect that most of the food here is a mysterious meat-on-a-stick sort of thing — one of Thailand’s food options that never struck my palate much, but I always gravitated towards for their colorful displays.

Favorite part about Krabi: Oh, besides the food? The night market (not the one shown here) and its overload of sensory experiences, and all the super rad climbing spots (which I didn’t climb) nearby.

Least favorite part about Krabi: This really awkward Barbie-pink pedicure I got because it was raining and I couldn’t think of anything else to do — awkward because of the language barrier and uncomfortable chair.

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

5 Reasons Why Antsirabe is Madagascar’s Best Urban Destination

Antsirabe

Happy May, blogosphere. I’m sure for most of you it means a thawing out of the winter that lingered in the northern hemisphere, but for my part, I’ve been camping out in the same pair of sweatpants and light sweater-down-jacket combination for the past three days. Normally, I hate cold weather, but somebody imported maple trees to Antsirabe, which means at least in that small pocket of Madagascar, I can bike over crunchy, brown leaves, and indulge in the charm of autumn – my favorite season. It makes the chill worth it.

Fall in Antsirabe

But then again, Antsirabe in general just makes all the frustrations of life in Madagascar worth it. A small city just 160km south of Antananarivo on the RN7, I would argue that Antsirabe is Madagascar’s best urban gem (and this is even after visiting Mahajunga, Diego, Fort Dauphin, Tamatave, Fianaratsoa, and Antananarivo). In a country most visited for its national parks and wildlife, it’s easy to gloss over the cultural aspects of travel here. However, Antsirabe is a compact, and easy to reach city that has it all.

1. La Cabana

La Cabana

Next door to the hostel I usually stay at is a small, Malagasy bar called “La Cabana”. They are locally known for their freshly grilled chicken (actually marinated!) and cheap, cold beer. It’s one of the few places I regularly see foreigners and Malagasy happily mixed, I imagine because the prices are still ‘Malagasy’, but it doesn’t have the same dodgy, dingy appearance of most Malagasy bars. I also love it because it’s literally a place where everyone knows my name…

How to get there: Go to the ‘Score’ grocery store on the main avenue and follow the smell of grilled chicken.

2. Concerts at Alliance Française

Main Avenue

I have yet to figure out why the local music scene in Antsirabe is so vibrant – some bands from the area have even gone off to tour in La Reunion and France – but you don’t see me complaining. Almost every Friday night, folks in Antsirabe can find a live concert happening at Alliance Francaise, either for free or a small cover charge of about 5,000AR. The bands are almost always Malagasy, sometimes traditional but sometimes more of a rock/reggae kind of vibe.

How to get there: Alliance Francaise is on a small street near the supermarket, Score, and the train station.

3. A smaller, cleaner version of Antananarivo

nine

Antsirabe and Antananarivo hold a lot of similarities – both are highland cities and major economic enters – which makes Antsirabe, the country’s third largest city, feel like a less grimy and more manageable sister to Tana. Throughout the city are signs telling residents to keep streets clean and it seems like people actually listen. Sure, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but compared to most urban areas in Madagascar, Antsirabe is down right tidy. Most spots worth seeing are within walking distance of each other, and a lot of the slummy grittiness of Tana is practically non-existent in Antsirabe. For this reason, if I were to use any one word to describe Antsirabe, it would be ‘pleasant’.

4. Bikable streets and day trips

Madagascar's Highlands

Okay, I was in Antsirabe when that goat jumped on me and my bike, but for the most part wide, flat roads and slow traffic – half the vehicles are rickshaws, bikes, and cows – make it a really bikable city. Just a few kilometers south-west of the city on hilly but well-paved roads sits Lake Tritriva, a lake-filled crater. About 22 kilometers away is another small highland town, Betafo, which I personally love biking to since there’s less traffic on the road west of Antsirabe than the RN7.

5. Hamburgers

Pousse Pousse Cafe

The Pousse Pousse Café, a restaurant at the center of town near the small market (Antsenakely), has created a unique ambiance with table and chair sets made out of rickshaws locally known as pousse-pousses. I love everything on the menu, but for Peace Corps volunteers we naturally gravitate towards the place for their hamburgers. Chez Dom, another establishment further north of the town center, has a dining experience much like eating in someone’s living room. Dom, an amicable French gentleman, rocks the hamburgers by finishing them off with blue cheese.

How to get there: For Pousse-Pousse, it’s in the small market (Antsenakely) just near the Shoprite. Chez Dom is an unsuspecting house on a small road just off the RN7 by Zandina’s. Look for the giant sign to point you in the right direction

And a few more photos before I leave…

Cathedral Pousse Pousse in Autumn Street Kid

Photos: (1) A street kid shying away from my camera (2) A view of the maple trees from Ravaka hostel (3) Outdoor seats at La Cabana (4) The main avenue at sunset, just near the Alliance Francaise (5) A cobblestone street near Antsenakely (6) The RN7 about 15 kilometers south of Antsirabe (7) Taking photos while anxiously awaiting our hamburgers at Pousse-Pousse cafe (terrible lighting) (8) Rush hour traffic outside the Cathedral d’Antsirabe (9) Another shot of the maple trees (10) Another street kid

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life Travel

How Blogging in the Third World is Frustrating Business

AarrrrgggRemember when, back in the day, you’d start up your dial-up internet, most likely with AOL, and your computer would make these obnoxious whrrring sounds, a long, high-pitched eeeeee-rrrrrr, and maybe at some point your family would yell at you to get off the internet because they needed to use the phone? Remember how tediously slow it was? Yeah, well blogging from my home in Madagascar, with an internet stick (a small device you plug into a USB outlet and connects to the internet with 3G through a local phone tower) feels a lot like that.

Some days, I’ll click on a link to an article I want to read, get up, make some coffee, write a few things on word, check it – still not loaded – get distracted, and before I know it, half an hour has gone by and all I can see is half an image, slowly loading line by pixelated line, and I give up. I’ve had days when even twitter, a relatively low bandwidth site, takes ages to load. For one of my most recent posts, I spent a day and a half uploading the seven images I wanted to include with the post – and that was with comparatively “good” wifi at a hotel and not my dinky internet stick. Blogging in these conditions can be seriously painful.

And of course, there are all the other weird obstacles in the way. I missed a Skype date once because a cyclone had somehow wiped out all the wifi in the entire city of Antsirabe (then again, it was a Malagasy waitress explaining this to me, so you have to take the explanation with a grain of salt). I biked to all the places I knew with wifi, and nothing. There’s the fact that my electricity for the past month has consisted of a single light bulb strung from my neighbor’s house with all sorts of sketchy electrical wiring that I’m a wee-bit afraid of. (I walk to the other side of the school compound about twice a day to charge my computer in the English Center, if you’re curious.) There’s even that one goat that jumped on me while I was biking to get to a wifi spot, leaving me limping into the café after his hoof smacked my foot.

I love blogging and I love sharing my travel experiences, but behind every post I’ve made there was probably quite a few moments of me shouting “ARRRGGG WILL YOU LOAD ALREADY!” at my computer. So guys, for me, tell your kids “appreciate that fast internet connection you have – there are Peace Corps volunteers in Africa with dial up.”

Photo: I may or may not have had a couple of beers when someone tossed that fake turtle at me

Categories
Adventure Travel Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Dining and Hiking on La Reunion’s Active Volcano

La Piton de la Fournaise

Seriously guys, I’ve already gabbed on enough about La Reunion, but want to point out two more highlights of the trip, Le Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, and a cozy restaurant called Le QG before returning to posts about Madagascar. Next week, look for some colorful photos I’m eager to share depicting the arrival of autumn in Antsirabe (wait, what? Fall? That’s right. Madagascar is not ‘Africa hot’ – as my mom would say – as we roll from April to May).

Hiking an Active Volcano

Plant

But anyways, at the center of La Reunion sits the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and perhaps the pinnacle of its attractions. The tourism board’s website is littered with dramatic black-and-orange photos of the volcano’s last eruptions back in 2007, 2008, and most recently 2010 to leverage this unique geographical feature in creating an adventurous allure to the island. “It’s like a moonscape,” one French expat had described it. Because we didn’t have a car, Chip and I weren’t confident that we would get the chance to see it, but lucked out by tagging along with one of our couchsurfing hosts and two of her friends visiting from France. Once we arrived at the trailhead to get to the volcano, having watched a landscape filled with every imaginable shade of green change to an ominous field of dried, black lava and scraggly plants, I could easily see why it gets so much attention as a tourist destination on the island – It is super cool up there.

A Fog Engulfs Us…

La Piton de la Fournaise 2

Unfortunately, a heavy fog engulfed the volcano the day we set out. Off in the distance we could blurrily make out other hikers on the trail – little specks too far off in the distance to shout out at and be heard – and it gave me the impression that I was caught in some sad, forlorn dream. When we ran into hikers closer up on the trail, they only emphasized my impression – many of them looking grumpy and defeated at how unexpectedly less than pleasant the hike was. I guess most of us hadn’t considered it beforehand, but trying to summit a volcano is clumsy business. Instead of an actual trail, visitors follow a route marked out by white spray paint on the rocks to the top. Small rocks and pebbles make the route slippery (I’ve got the scabs on my hand to prove it) and I never quite felt like I was on a solid, steady surface. Fortunately, a clumsy, rocky way up proves the only danger to hiking La Fournaise.

Wait, is This Dangerous?

Formica Leo

“Can they predict eruptions with enough accuracy to keep people from being on it during an eruption?” Chip asked aloud as we neared the top.

Our hiking partners assured us that yes; the eruptions could be predicted in advance enough to get a warning out. A nearby observatory, the Piton de la Fournaise Observatory, keep a constant watch on volcanic activity using geophysical sensors and have a no-nonsense warning system and evacuation plans for nearby villages. It appeared our only concerns should be tripping and falling – like one French woman who was now shuffling back to the parking lot with a chipped tooth.

“Ahrgg! Are we there yet??” I yelled, too cold, wet, hungry, and sleep-deprived to give a shit about being present and enjoying the physical challenge anymore. At the top, our hard work was rewarded with sitting with a half-dozen other tourists eating sandwiches in a cloud. We knew that we were sitting on the mouth of an active volcano, but appearances alone wouldn’t have given that away. We sat long enough to eat a cookie and left – now with the new motivation of knowing that descending meant ultimately reaching “the best creole food in La Reunion,” as told to us by Chef Fred.

“Pig Intestines, Please”: Lunch at Le QG

Creole FoodWhen we finally did reach Le QG, the cozy, dimly lit restaurant was a welcome reprise from the chill and rain outside. Chip, our couchsurfing host, and I clustered around the wall mounted fireplace in the back sipping Dodos (the local beer) and doing our best to warm up. Fred greeted us in a chef’s apron, an introduced us to the head chef, a Senegalese man with a broad smile and a towering, white chef’s hat. I had hardly finished my Dodo before we sat down and Fred asked us what we wanted to eat.

“Pig intestines, please,” Chip told Fred.

A minute later we could see the Senegalese chef and Fred discussing the order – “really? The American wants that? You’re sure? Well okay then…”

The intestines tasted salty yet full of flavor, but my favorite dish on the table was the goat seasoned with bay leaves. In true creole fashion, they brought out large bowls of rice, steamed greens, beans, and the various meats each of us had ordered – family style. In true French fashion, our host ordered a bottle of red wine since drinking beer with a meal was simply “improper” (this is totally a custom I can get down with). As our last real meal in La Reunion, we went all out, even splurging for desert – crème brulee and something called a “pineapple surprise” – and espresso. I couldn’t have imagined a better farewell meal.

Pineapple Surprise

Slightly tipsy from the beer, wine, and complimentary samples of rhum arrange, a rum infused with different flavors such as ginger, baobab flower, or vanilla, I got up to pay and thank the chef.

“Wait, before I leave, I have a question for you… Degena Wolof?” I asked – which means “do you speak Wolof?” in Wolof. He looked at me for a second then gave me a resounding “Yaow!” before running off around the restaurant shouting “did you hear what she just said? Degena wolof! Degena wolof! Oh my god, did you hear that?” It made me miss how vibrant and outgoing West Africa is compared to the passivity of Madagascar.

“Come back Friday and I’ll cook a big meal for us!” he exclaimed after he finished circling the restaurant in excitement. Genuinely sad, I shook my head and said “sorry, I’m going back to Madagascar tomorrow,” and instead said goodbye, thank you for the food, and headed back to our hosts’ home for a much needed nap.

Le QG Server

Photos: (1) Beginning the ascent (2) A plant on the hike to the volcano (3) On the way down from the parking lot (4) ‘Formica Leo’ (5) Pork and rice (6) Pineapple surprise desert (7) One of the owners of Le QG serving up some delicious food

Categories
In Photos North America The Nomadic Life The United States

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot [Washington]

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday.

Crescent Lake

This photo was taken at Lake Crescent on a trip to the Olympic National Park shortly after I moved to Seattle. A couple of medical students from Arkansas that I met at a hostel and I were staying at Lake Crescent Lodge, and this was the view of the lake and it’s canoes right when we woke up. Being here in Madagascar, I seriously miss the Pacific Northwest.

Categories
Adventure Travel Africa La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Rappeling Through Waterfalls in Cilaos, La Reunion

Last week I wrote about a few of my first impressions in La Reunion, but I haven’t even mentioned the best part of the trip:

Canyoning in Cilaos!

Graffitti

Before arriving in La Reunion, neither Chip nor I had ever done canyoning before, but while doing research on La Reunion I came across a website boasting “Reunion Island, an Eden for canyoning? That’s what fans of this [sport] say.” It didn’t take much to convince me (or Chip for that matter) and it quickly became one of the things on my ‘To-Do in La Reunion’ list I became the most excited for.
“But, what is canyoning exactly?” one friend asked me before I left.

“Well, it’s… err… something like… rappelling down canyons?” I answered.

A little dumb, I know. I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into, yet I was totally psyched. I knew it had something to do with rappelling, and as a rock climber deprived of climbing opportunities in her current home, my mind kind of stopped at “mid-way between rock climbing and…” Ropes? Bolts? Carabeeners? I was positively drooling at the thought of climbing gear alone.

Only, I should have read beyond “rock climbing and…”. If I had, I would have noticed “water sports”, a pair of words that I usually say a giant ‘nooo thanks!’ to. White-water rafting? Nuh-uh. Not doing it. Jumping off 10-foot high rocks into a river? I’m the girl that will stand there for 20 minutes before making the plunge. Swimming with sharks in Cape Town? I’m scared enough of the ocean as it is, do we really need to throw sharks into the mix?

So fast forward to the morning when Chip, me, four French tourists, our guide, Gilbert and I are standing around his car, getting the run-down on what to expect from our day. The area around Cilaos is rich with canyoning spots of all levels, but being total novices to the sport, Gilbert had chosen to take us to Fleurs Jaunes, one of the area’s most popular spots for beginner canyoning. Gilbert is speaking French, and I am ultra-focused trying to understand his explanations.

“If it’s easier for you all, I can explain in Creole,” he jokes when he notices how concentrated I am.

We all laugh, then out of no where (or seemingly so, because I probably just didn’t catch what he was saying), he tosses each of us a full-body wetsuit and instructs us to put them on. Immediately I know what’s coming. I’m going to be swimming, but there’s no backing out. I have no choice but to wriggle in to the wetsuit — and of course as soon as I’m all zipped in, feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story (“I can’t move my arms! I can’t move my arms!”) I feel the need to pee.

I’m off to a great start already.

CanyoningOnce everyone is zipped up, Ralphie style, we all waddle (or maybe I was the only one waddling) over next to a tree for a photo then head out. Not five minutes from the road, Gilbert has us jump into a small natural pool and scoot down a rock slide into another pool. We get out, all of our feet and sneakers now squishy and wet. I tell myself it’s OK, I just have to accept that I’ll be drenched for the next two hours… it’s not that big of a deal, right? The shoes will dry, don’t worry about it.

IMGP0018

And it was OK. After mentally embracing the water-sport side of canyoning, I had the most fantastic time. Seriously, canyoning is the best way to make a climber like water sports. In the span of two hours, we rappelled down 300 meters and 6 waterfalls, plunging into the small natural pools the water collected in, and sometimes even getting to slide down more rock slides. In between rappels, we tried our best to chat with the others — one of them was particularly fond of yelling “nice!” in English whenever Chip or I finished skidding down a waterfall. Finally, we stopped for a picnic at the bottom of our last cascade (our sandwiches kept dry in a large, buyout dry-sac) then scrambled back up a steep trail to get back to the road.

IMGP0046

Absolutely exhausted, Chip and I returned to our gite — a hostel-like accommodation catering to hikers and other sports enthusiasts — and shamelessly indulged in a hot shower and some beers.

DSC_1334 Cilaos Waterfall

Interested in Canyoning in Cilaos?

We spent 60 euros a piece on our tour with Run Evasion, a sports store in central Cilaos but several other companies also do Canyoning tours:

  • Run Evasion – 0262318357
  • Daniel Ducrot – 0692659067
  • Cilaosadventure.com (also does rock climbing) – 0692667342
  • Fabrice Bouisset – 0692662273

For accommodations, there were quite a few cheap gites scattered around town. We paid 16 euros a night at Ti Case Lontan at 10 Rue Alsace, and were floored by how kind and welcoming the owner was. If you’re really trying to travel on a budget though, Cilaos has a camp ground called Le plateau des Chênes, a short walk out of town towards Bras-Sec.

Photos: (1) Graffiti in Cilaos (2) Our group photo taken by Gilbert (3) One of my first rappels (4) The view coming back up (5) Cilaos mountains from a hiking trail (6) View of a waterfall from town

*Photos 2, 3, and 4 were taken by our guide, Gilbert*

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot [Fianaratsoa]

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s archives each and every Tuesday.

Betsileo

This week’s photo was taken on the RN7 just south of Fianaratsoa, somewhere near Anja National Park, in the wine-making region of Madagascar (although, trust me, it’s terrible — I once got drunk after drinking an entire bottle because I was convinced it was just weird tasting grape juice and it couldn’t possibly be actual alcoholic wine. Needless to say, I was a bit shocked when I stood up). Anyways, I took this at the end of a two-day bus journey back from Fort Dauphin, when, just a few hours away from our destination our bus got a flat tire right in front of a wine stand. So naturally, we bought a bottle of wine and sat down in a gazebo, where immediately after this group of party-people (yeaaah, they’re looking lively here…) sat down and joined us. Since they were all Betsileo, it would have been rude of us not to offer our wine, and (begrudgingly) went from five to ten people sharing one bottle. Also characteristic of the region is the way the man front and center has a blanket draped over himself, and the man next to him had a tall stick. Fancy, right?