Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Veloma Madagascar — I’m an RPCV Now!

COSYesterday was my first full day as an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer).

Except, I’m not returned. My friend Liz, who I’ll be travelling with for the next few months, joked that it meant “Recovering Peace Corps Volunteer”. That seems more suiting, since neither of us will return until Christmas. But whatever it means, it’s a pretty significant event. I’m done! We’re done! On Friday, my group of five COS-ers had our official I.D.s punched and voided, our Country Director shook our hands and said “thanks for your service” and we popped open a bottle of cheap champagne from the duty free store to pass around on our walk from the office to lunch. (Note: When a PCV finishes their service, it’s called “COS-ing”. COS stands for “close of service”. Because of medical processing, only a 5-7 volunteers can be COS-ed at a time. Those volunteers are called COS-ers.)

Working up to that moment, the week was filled with lasts. Last goodbyes, last time at my favorite restaurant in Tana, last day as a Peace Corps volunteer. And finally today, I have my last day on this island. My friends that I’m leaving behind keep asking me how I’m feeling. To answer that, I’m feeling a little nostalgic, but mostly excited for new adventures. And honestly, it’s hard to feel really upset about leaving a place when at the same time you’re cursing it under your breath. Last night, our taxi driver asked for a “kiss kiss” goodbye and it pissed me off. We got stopped at a police checkpoint and hassled for our I.D.s. Several homemade bombs have been going off throughout Antananarivo (but fortunately, whoever’s making them isn’t particularly good at it, so there have been no deaths or damages). This week, I’ve generally been irritated and stressed. I’m ready to move on.

I’m sadder about not being a Peace Corps volunteer anymore. All in one day, I lost my home, my job, and a significant part of my identity. I love being a Peace Corps volunteer and I love the family us Madagascar volunteers have built out of being in it together. Also, Madagascar loves us. On a really basic level, PCVs are known for being “those white people who speak Malagasy”, and Malagasy appreciate it. Telling someone that I’m Peace Corps almost always gets a good reaction (when they know what it is, obviously), and I’ll miss this aspect of instant awesome-ness when I tell people my job.

Fortunately it seems like the RPCV community is just as much of a big family as Peace Corps, and just because I’m losing one identity, doesn’t mean I’m not gaining another. Like I said, I’m less sad than excited for new adventures. I’m excited to fly to Kenya with Liz in less than 24 hours (I’m not excited about the 2am departure time). I’m excited for new food, new music, new scenery, and new discoveries. We’ve both put seeing a movie in a real cinema, not on a laptop, as our number one thing we want to do in Nairobi (silly, I know, but i haven’t seen one in 3 years). I’m also excited to finally be making my way home with a RTW (around-the-world) trip!! So guys, save the ‘welcome home’ for Christmas-time… I want to take my time getting home.

Photo: A mix of friends during the second COS week in August while celebrating at Le B’ in Tana

Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Breaking Up with Madagascar

Broken Hearts by Darwin Bell

I need to get out of Madagascar. And I will leave, to East Africa, in 40-some days. Don’t take this to mean I dislike Madagascar — I’m lucky to have been placed here for my service in Peace Corps and there some truly wonderful things about the island, but two years is enough. I like to use the analogy of an arranged marriage to explain being a PCV here. I, along with most PCVs, came to Madagascar knowing little about it but willing to make the commitment based on the little we did. After we got here, we spent much of our first few months figuring out what this place was all about and in the process uncovered wonderful and awful aspects of Madagascar’s character. Yet despite all of the awful (smelly piles of trash, annoying men, general lapses in logic) we found ourselves forcing to focus on the parts we loved in order to make the ‘marriage’ work (beautiful landscapes, cheap fresh vegetables, laidback attitudes). Some people here, well, they’re really just ‘staying married for the kids’ (as in, they aren’t happy in Madagascar but for whatever reason are too committed to quit now). It’s definitely like an arranged marriage – you don’t know much getting in and have to focus on what you love, not what you hate, to make it work.

On the other hand, I believe a healthy relationship makes you the best possible version of yourself. I would say this extends to a person’s relationship with a place, not just people, as well. This is why I need to leave — Madagascar does not allow me to be the best possible version of myself. Yes, I like the relaxed sort of lawlessness of it all, of living here, but overall I don’t like the characteristics it tends to draw out of me. Over time, it’s made me angrier. I’m constantly on guard, ready for someone to pickpocket or harass me. The lack of general creative energy at first was disappointing, but now it feels stifling. I remember being blown away when I went to Thailand briefly last year, because there was so much presence of fashion, art, and architecture that had been carefully thought out, designed, and constructed. It was inspiring. (To be fair, there are some very creative people here making beautiful things, but it doesn’t seem to be as embedded in the general Malagasy mentality or history as, say, Thai mentality).

I understand that Madagascar has been through some unfortunate circumstances (political instability, it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, locust plague) so I feel somewhat unfair to speak badly of it, but I think my run here is over. We just weren’t made for each other. We had some fun, but didn’t fall in love. In a way, I almost feel like I’m breaking up with it. Sorry Mada, you have some fantastic qualities, and I’m sure you’ll find someone who loves you for who you are, but I just don’t think we’re right for each other. We can still be friends though, right?

Oh, and just to let you all know… I will officially be an RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) September 6th, and fly off the island for Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia on September 9th. I’m looking forward to this next adventure!

Photo: Flowers in Golden Gate Park by Darwin Bell

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)

Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

5 Reasons Why Antsirabe is Madagascar’s Best Urban Destination


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


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

Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Madagascar

Ile Sainte Marie

Even though we had agreed neither of us felt like drinking beer that day when we left the house in the morning, by the time my friend and I – both of us girls – sat down for lunch we didn’t even have to ask the other to know that we wanted the waitress to bring us two Skols with our lunch. Somehow, the sexual harassment that day had been worse than usual. A policeman at one of the road checkpoints asked for our passports as an excuse to flirt with my friend. Another man grabbed me at the brousse station. Then, even though we were both covered in dust and dressed our dingiest, walked to the Peace Corps house to the whistles, tisks, and other various catcalls of men

“F—this shit,” I said while we waited for our food, “I’m buying water guns tomorrow.”

It started as a joke, but even though the catcalls and inappropriate gestures directed toward foreign women in Madagascar are a common annoyance we as PCVs and expats here have to tolerate, some days I reach a breaking point of intolerance. That day, I want nothing more than to successfully retaliate. It had angered the part of me that wants to scream ‘FREEDOM’ to wearing what I want, not feeling uncomfortable in everyday situations because of my gender, and to reclaim the power and independence of being a woman that I lost when I left the States. But more than anything, I felt this innate need to tell these men that what they’re doing is not OK. I want to tell them that me getting upset at them for yelling “I love you” to me from across the street, draining the phrase of its intended meaning, doesn’t make me mean or stuck-up but rather makes the man saying it rude, mean, or arrogant.

So the next morning at market, I bought two water guns.

In the afternoon, I loaded them up and faced the street again.

Far beyond what I could have predicted, walking around Fianaratsoa with two loaded water guns proved a fun social experiment. From the market stalls and darkened shop corners I could hear people mutter “Kai! That white girl has a water gun,” in Malagasy. Deftly, I swiveled towards them, aimed, and said “watch out!” Most of the shop owners, women especially, would gasp and jump back in surprise before breaking down in laughter when they realized I wouldn’t actually shoot. I tested it on a beggar who was pestering me – he laughed. I shot a few street children and quickly learned it was a terrible idea. They all began to demand I give them the guns or shoot them again. They were riotous.

As for the men I originally intended to use the guns on, most never saw it coming. Walking in the throngs of people along the crowded sidewalks, they pulled the usual lines, sticking their face in my face or trying to block my path, when out of no-where I drew my weapon and shot water in their face. They jumped back in shock, looked offended, and even though they almost definitely learned nothing of the message I was trying to convey, it made me feel gratified and empowered.

Photo: Walking across the jetty in Ile Sainte Marie

Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Second Year in the Peace Corps


I wrote this blog post back in October at the beginning of the school year, but somewhere along the way failed to post it. It may have lost some of its relevancy, but seeing as how tomorrow is the end of Christmas vacation and the beginning of our second trimester, I thought I would go ahead and finally publish it, for whatever it may now stand for. It’s crazy to think that I only have 8 months left in Madagascar, and what the older volunteers have said in the past is definitely true: the second year is much easier, and passes so much quicker!

I am simultaneously dreading and excited for the upcoming school year that we began at the beginning of October. The dread stems from memories of last year, yelling at children to be quiet, and growing frustrated at not being able to communicate properly with my pre-intermediate level English students, and the thought that I have to do it all over again. Excitement shortly follows when I realize that I can explain myself significantly better and really believe I can do all of that better. As they told us in our Peace Corps training, “it’s a new job. You won’t be good at it immediately.” So much learning on the job, getting better through trial and repeat, occurs as a teacher.

What they didn’t tell us is that native English speakers tend to have a much higher learning curve for teaching English, according to an academic study which sought to answer “is it better to have a native-speaking teacher or an experienced one?” For starters, native-speakers tend to make more use of real English media (songs, magazine articles, radio clips, etc.), as opposed to the stuff textbooks provide, in the classroom. Ultimately, it is better for our students to grow accustomed to real-life usages of English than poised, polite, and often cheesy textbook dialogues. Additionally, we correct our mistakes quickly, and possibly because we aren’t concerned with how well we speak English, can focus more on our teaching techniques. Again, most new English teachers, especially the ones who have gotten hired with no teaching experience but solely based on their fluency in the language, realize their shortcomings and are anxious about compensating and becoming good teachers.

While their defense of the inexperienced, native-speaker oozes reassurance for our sorry lot, my one year of experience feels like my strongest armor against in-class riots and blank stares – especially since my Malagasy has improved tremendously and their level is too low for me to expect a class of 60+ students to pay attention without using their native language.

As for results, I have only been teaching for two weeks now, but have already taught them more in six hours of lessons than I probably accomplished in the whole first trimester last year. For starters, I have gotten over my shy-kid-loathing for singing in public (since songs engage students while giving large classes an opportunity to practice speaking and pronunciation without getting too rowdy) and taught my kids “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles. Lots of giggling was involved. Now I sometimes catch one or two singing it while we copy things from the board, and do something that was also rare this time last year: smile.

Photo: (1) Two girls who came out of the bushes to chat while I was hanging out at a waterfall in Ile Sainte Marie; the older one complained about how terrible her English teacher was!

Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Volunteering in the Shadow of Madagascar’s 2009 Political Coup

Diego Taxi Sequence

Since the beginning of May, protests have been held the capitol. Several minor incidents of violence were reported on the embassy’s website. Some public school teachers began striking for better pay early in the year, and many have since joined. They continue to strike. (In response, at least one of my friends has been stealth-teaching English to high school students; a gesture I can only describe as “bad-ass”.) More recently, there’s been talk of health workers and other government employees joining them. Whether it’s a genuine threat or nothing more than a rumor, I won’t pretend like I know. In fact, I won’t pretend like I know any more than what has been texted to us by Peace Corps, posted on the Embassy’s website, or mentioned to me in passing by a friend who works in Antananarivo and weekends in my town.

Yet, Madagascar hasn’t had a lot of time to bounce back from the coup of 2009.It seems like old news to me, but I forget that probably none of my friends or family back home ever knew of it.The coup of 2009 acted as the catalyst for a lot of foreign aid (including Peace Corps) to pull out of Madagascar and although some have returned, things aren’t totally sorted. But some people think it’s high time they were. According to a co-worker, the protests are nothing in comparison to those leading up to the 2009 coup, but they’re happening nonetheless. I have no personal opinions towards the matter, but have seen some of its effects on my work with my local English Center. One English teacher mentioned that “before the 2009 coup, the government was going to pay for someone to work there at all times. But then the coup happened, and the government stopped talking to us.” And of course, the second volunteer to work at my site was evacuated after four months of work, leaving behind little more than a legacy of her love for iced-tea and a cooking class. In our personal situation, it seems more stable to find help in the private sector, like the English Center of Antsirabe (ECA) has with the local cigarette factory. Unfortunately, I am absolutely ignorant in how to turn our ambitious educational establishment into a sustainable, business with paid employees.

I am also getting a bit off topic. I merely mean to express that after all these months of blogging about such-and-such beautiful spot of Madagascar, I never bothered to mention that even though Peace Corps has been back in Madagascar long enough to see the first of the non-reinstatee volunteers through an entire service (yay!), we’ve been serving under questionable political circumstances and without an official ambassador to the American Embassy here. I suppose I never mentioned it before because I don’t want to worry friends and family back home, and also because I’ve grown used to it. It doesn’t seem unusual enough to mention anymore. But somewhere between an increase in incidents in May and listening to Doom Tree’s song “Bangerang” on repeat, it suddenly seemed worth telling home about. It hit me that the students in my town are incredibly fortunate that we’re not striking, that their education isn’t interrupted, andto consider how important it is that Peace Corps be, and stay, in Madagascar as long as circumstances will allow. I hope for the sake of Madagascar, we do stay because sadly, if we leave again, we’re gone for good.

Also, let me repeat that none of this reflects the opinions of Peace Corps but are wholly my understanding of the situation in Madagascar.

Also, also, enjoy the non-riotous photo of a taxi sequence in Antsiranana (Diego), Madagascar and my current musical addiction. The secret’s out: I like hip-hop.

Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Meandering Down the East Coast to Ile Sainte Marie

Bike MapIle Sainte Marie at Low Season

With the weather getting colder and talk of below-freezing temperatures soon to come near the Antsirabe area, a friend and I took advantage of our Easter break from teaching and headed to the east coast, where the bulk of Madagascar’s rainforests grow. Even with the school holiday, Ile Sainte Marie felt relaxed and empty of tourists as most tend to come for the whale-watching season around July/August. However, this worked to our advantage since it made it easier to haggle down prices and we never worried about hotel reservations. As one hotel owner admitted “it’s 40 euros for a room here, but I’ll take just about anything now since we’re seeing so few tourists.”

So what did this mean for two broke backpackers trying to forget about our unruly middle-school students and take in one of the most cliche-ishly beautiful (but expensive) areas of Madagascar? It meant we were able to haggle down our bike rentals from 15,000 AR to 8,000 AR a day at Randonne VTT, hotel  and restaurant staff were more relaxed and willing to chat, and the beaches were totally ours. The more relaxed atmosphere of the island at low-season made it feel less like a travel destination and more like a place where people live.

Biking South

Our first day. 5:30am. While the air was still cool and the sun was just beginning to come up over the harbor, we set out on our bikes. Rolling south towards the airport, we passed women crossing the road in towels, coming from their morning shower in the sea and families starting their breakfast fires. Small children crouched in rows behind their ravenala-leaf huts, pooping on the beach, and reminding us to be careful of where we swam. The further we traveled, the more life began to wake from the road-side huts, and concrete homes with satellite dishes, reminding us that we were in a more prosperous area of the country. We passed long wooden benches under USAID-donated tarp where old women wrapped in colorful lambas (sarongs) served fresh coconut bread and coffee, until finally deciding to stop at one.

“You live in Antsirabe?” one of the women exclaimed in the usual oh-you-speak-Malagasy-what-are-you-doing-here slew of questions. “How wonderful, there’s lots of fruit there!”

“What about here? Aren’t there coconuts, pineapple, and papaya?”

The woman shrugged. Although the markets of Tamatave and other coastal, mainland towns have an abundance of cheap, tropical fruit, Ile Sainte Marie seemed to produce little itself and import most fruits and veggies by boat from the mainland except for spattering of oranges, bananas, coconut, and a lumpy, green fruit the size of a head known as soanambo. A plant prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, soanambo, or breadfruit, has a starchy, potato-like flavor. Throughout the island, it was used widely in snack breads sold along the road, and even fried up like plantain chips as a bar snack for the gourmet taste buds of guests staying at the upscale Princess Bora resort.

Popping Over to Ile Aux Nattes

Lakanas to Ile Aux NattesTowards the end of our journey, we biked to the smaller island just south of Ile Sainte Marie, known as Ile Aux Nattes. Ile Aux Nattes feels like a more condensed, but less populated version of Ile Sainte Marie, preferring dirt cow paths and wooden bridges to paved roads and concrete. Although the two islands are situated close enough to swim between the two, a quick ride on a lakana, or canoe, only costs 1,000 – 1,500 AR (depending on how good your haggling skills are) per person.

“We wish we had come here first!” we gushed to the South African owner of La Petite Traversee and Lucky Dube Cocktail Bar one afternoon at lunch.

“You know, most people say that,” he said, “and because its so beautiful here, the folks on the mainland don’t like us very much. They’re afraid that if everyone knows how great Ile Aux Nattes is, everyone will be coming here! They’ll lose all their business.”

We understood fully. With a population of roughly 1,500, Ile Aux Nattes felt like we were at the edge of the world, as though nothing else existed beyond this dot on the map. Sitting under the umbrellas at Lucky Dube and watching tourists come pull up to the bar in wooden lakanas (“the lakana guys know to bring anyone who doesn’t speak French straight here — Russian, Australian, whatever” he proudly stated) we plotted ways to stay forever, but eventually relinquished our daydreams to hop the boat back to Tamatave and start the trek home to teach.

Child Fishing at Low TideOrangesShrimp at the MarketWine Bottle GardenPhotos: (1) lakana to Ile Aux Nattes (2) child fishing at low tide (3) beach-side fair in Tamatave (4) pile of oranges at the market (voasary = oranges) (5) fresh shrimp at the market (6) wine bottle garden on Ile Aux Nattes

Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Interpreting the Stoic Stares: Notes on Living in a Passive Culture

AntanifotsyThe principal at my school cut me off before I could ask him if we would see the body. “What do you do in America when someone dies?” He asked in his usual, amiable tone.

I thought a moment. Maybe I didn’t want to know.

“We usually bring the family food, not money.” I replied as we, the entire staff of the local middle school, ambled along the town’s dusty back roads, having canceled the last few hours of school to give our condolences, an envelope with 5,000 Ariary, to the family of one of our co-worker’s cousin’s fathers.

Corn FieldsAt the house, the scene consisted of a group of stoic-faced people on rows of slapped-together benches. A bright, plastic, tarp awning – the ubiquitous, but far from morbid, symbol of mourning – covered the courtyard. The only noise came from a family of chickens pecking at the dirt and a few small children in yellow t-shirts babbling at each other. One child crept over to his mother and unabashedly gawked at me. Not in the mood to stare back, I instead glanced towards the gate where the other child had taken off her shirt and while standing in between the enormous, iron doors was holding it over her head giggling. None of the adults paid any attention; they were like robots put in the “off” position.

From there, the teachers and I were ushered into a musty room. I had held my breath not wanting to smell death, but not really knowing what death smelt like anyways. From my spot I saw no coffin or body and inhaled a breath of relief. It still didn’t smell fresh, but so much of the time places in Madagascar smell raw and human anyways. “We are sorry,” the principal said to begin his apologetic and murmured speech while facing the audience of mourners. The head of the family mumbled a speech in reply, and back and forth they went with their hushed formalities.

As they spoke, I counted the observations I had gathered throughout my time here on Malagasy views on the matter: friends smiling and casually mentioning a death; students showing up for class the day after a parent dies, hardly letting it disrupt their normal course of life. “Malagasy, especially in the highlands, hold so much in,” a Peace Corps friend once observed. Her words reminded me that in the end, it’s not necessarily that the feelings don’t exist, but as outsiders we can’t always see them. Coming from a typically gregarious American culture, I often find it difficult to decipher the subtle and often passive displays of Malagasy emotion, to read between the laughs that seem to be a reaction to every situation.

Snapping back into the reality of the musty room tucked away in the maze of our town, our two groups ended their speeches. With both hands we gave our condolences. With both hands, the family received the envelope. With both hands, each teacher shook each family member’s hand. A soft din of murmurs filled the room as people slowly cleared out to reveal a corner I couldn’t see before. There, lying stiff and half covered with the white sheet his family would eventually wrap and bury him in, and for decades to come would change for him whenever he came to them in their dreams, shivering from the cold and asking not to be forgotten, was the deceased man.

tombPhotos: (1) A view of my town, Antanifotsy (2) Corn fields (3) A Malagasy mausoleum (fasana)

Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Sidewalk Street Foods of Antsirabe

Near the daily market of Antsirabe, the pleasant hillside town of Madagascar’s highlands, women with enormous bowls of batter sit next to sizzling pots of oil over a low charcoal stove. While crouching or sitting on wooden stools, they fan their flame and plop their freshly fried goods into mountainous piles of steaming fresh snacks. Continuing onwards we see no shortage of vendors or variety. Lining the streets are small display boxes filled with bowls of breads, noodles, and salads. Other vendors mingle with the crowd, hawking their wares to nearby shoppers while balancing plastic containers on their heads. While the Malagasy staple food – heaping servings of plain rice – is as simple as food gets, street food is a parade of flavors.


In Malagasy, mofo means bread while anana translates as leafy greens, giving mofo anana or “leafy greens bread” a much healthier name than it deserves. Vendors start off by mixing well-cooked greens into a bread batter, then deep frying it to make a soft, doughy treat. Sometimes prepared with tomatoes and other veggies and optionally served with sakay (hot sauce), this crunchy, deep fried bread is irresistible when hot.


The fillings vary from vendor to vendor and according to in-season vegetables, but these crispy eggroll like snacks called “nem” usually come stuffed with a combination of ground beef, potatoes, cabbage, leeks, and onions. Although simple in appearance, vendors first start by making small crepe-like pancakes in a pan, then rolling in the filling. Then, sitting with neat pyramids of uncooked nem, they deep fry them outside in scalding, bubbling pans of oil. My personal favorite is the potato-leek combination.

SpaghettiMountain of Noodles

“That’s a huge mountain of spaghetti,” my friend commented on the window-box stuffed with plain noodles. We don’t really know what was happening with those… spaghetti sandwiches perhaps?


Like nem, samosa-esque sambosas, are another culinary example of Madagascar’s unique position between two continents and the strong Asian influence on Gasy snack food. While they lack the hot spices of their Indian counterparts, vendors almost always have a small jar of hot peppers to compensate. Commonly stuffed with potatoes and ground beef, this savory snack can satisfy any comfort food craving and warm the belly on cold Antsirabe nights.


For those hankering for more than just a spattering of meat in their deep-fried nem or sambosas, food stalls are filled with miniature kebabs known as brochettes. On the coast, they are frequently made with fish but in the highlands vendors skewer a line of freshly sliced beef, onions, peppers, and tomatoes and grill them over an open flame, giving them a toasty char-grilled flavor.

Vary sy LokaVary sy Loka

Finally stepping off of the sidewalks, dozens of living-room esque hotelys (restaurants) entice passersby to indulge in a real, rice-laden meal. Being the highest per capita consumers of rice in the world, no Malagasy meal is complete without a heaping bowl full of plain, unsalted rice (vary) – although coconut milk is occasionally added in costal towns. Common laoka, which translates as the dish you serve with rice, include pork with leafy greens, beef with sauce, chicken with peas, dried fish, beans, or a dish of ground-up leafy greens known as ravitoto. As an example of its incredible significance in Malagasy cuisine, people will often invite others to have lunch or dinner with them by asking “will you eat rice (with me)?” So, with grumbling bellies we enter a promising hotely and before sitting make sure they have food by asking “is there rice?”

Mazatoa! Enjoy!

Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Winter in Madagascar’s Highlands in Photos







In playing the role of opposite land to North America, July and August mark the coldest months in the Malagasy highlands. The region often turns into a muddy mess under a Seattle-esque, overcast, sky with grey drizzle. However, we’ve mostly avoided the season’s usual crappiness and gotten to see Mantasoa’s better side.