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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
Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Biking the RN7 to Antsirabe

“This’ll be adventurous and totally not dangerous at all,” I sarcastically texted my friend as we made plans to bike the 60 kilometers from my town to the pleasant highland city of Antsirabe one afternoon.

“Yes, so adventurous that I’ll hum the Indiana Jones theme song the whole way down,” he responded.

I may have to bring headphones, I thought.

Yet, jokes aside, I was jumping with anticipation. Biking the hilly highway between Antanifotsy and Antsirabe has been on my Madagascar bucket list ever since Peace Corps handed me the prophetic piece of paper describing my future town, but once I witnessed the road in person, the speeding cattle cars and propensity for chicken busses to be lying upside down by the side of the road made me realize it would be a fairly harrowing experience.

What changed my mind? Sitting on the side of the road waiting for a bus, and realizing how infrequently cars actually do pass and seeing over and over again bus drivers expertly dodging the ever-present bike traffic on the side of the road. Unlike American highways, drivers are used to sharing the narrow, winding expanse of highway between Antananarivo and Fianaratsoa with wooden cattle carts (known as saretys), bikes, rickshaws, and cattle herds.

When we finally set out, in the autumn-esque sun of a cool June afternoon, the sun was beginning to dip behind the rolling highland hills, illuminating the landscape and all its shadows. Small figures still dotted the fields of carrots, rice, and potatoes. As it was the height of carrot season, the produce Antsirabe is most known for ($0.25 USD per kilo!) every few kilometers pairs of people sat roadside washing hundreds of carrots by pushing them back and forth in water-filled tarps, a rhythmic see-saw like motion broken only to shout “bonjour, vahazah!” at us. Children rushed to the side of the road to scream whatever French phrase they had stuck in their head at us. A group of old women decided it was important to inform us what was growing in the fields we stopped to stare at. 30 kilometers in, someone shouted my name, a teacher from my school that I had eaten lunch with earlier that day, reminding me how small the 4th-largest island in the world can sometimes be.

17 kilometers out-of-town, the sky grew darker than we would have liked, and we hitched a bus half the way, until we were in the safety of street lights and urban, pre-Independence Day traffic (the Malagasy Independence day is June 26th). With the promise of the best pizza in Madagascar (Green Park / $5-6 USD) to satiate our hunger, we finally arrived at our “ hoteles en bacalar“, butts aching and stomachs grumbling.

Photos: (1) Rice fields (2) Antsirabe’s mosque at sunset (3) Merina men walking on the highway (4) Roadside carrot stand (5) A row of colorful Malagasy eateries — known as hotelys (6) The flattest part of the journey (7) Hotel de Thermes in downtown Antsirabe