May 14, 2012

Books for Maroantsetra

My name is Katie Browne and I endorse this message...

Dear friends and family of the Maroantsetra Peace Corps Volunteers, 
We hope to find you all healthy and happy and loyally holding off on all weddings, baby-making, birthdays, graduations and other joyous occasions that we would love to be there for! We miss you all and we can’t thank you enough for all the support you have given us!
That being said, we also LOVE living and working in NE Madagascar and we feel extremely lucky to be here. Many of you have been following our experiences through blogs, phone calls, or letters and have been asking what you can do to help (besides sending candy bars and letters from the states which is obviously our favorite kind of help). Well, the time has come!
The education system in Maroantsetra needs help. For the 227,070 residents of the Maroantsetra district, there is one public high school with 450 students. In order to reach high school, all students within a 90 mile radius must move to Maroantsetra, support themselves, and try to learn everything they can from an education system that can offer them only a blackboard, chalk, and a notebook. No printed papers. No books. No computers. Given that, it is not surprising that only 17 percent of students will manage to graduate from high school. The students that actually make it all the way through the education system here should get a country named after them.  
Despite the challenges to the education system, many of the students are unwaveringly motivated, inspired and ambitious. In school, students learn French, English, and Malagasy. Educational materials and media available in Malagasy are, however, decidedly scarce. French and English are extraordinarily important for higher education resources and media exposure. Both students and professionals knock down our doors everyday of the week asking for English lessons or to borrow English books. 
This brings me to the PLAN. Led by Peace Crops Volunteer Lynn Brown, the PCV’s of Madagascar decided to find a way to provide educational resources to Madagascar. An organization called Books for Africa has a shipping container filled with 22,000 books with Madagascar’s name on it! Maroantsetra is lined up to receive over 2,000 new books including subjects such as math, science, history, health, geography, English, pleasure reading, and other miscellanea. In addition to books, the high school media center will receive two new computers. The 19 of us in different communities around the country came up with a detailed proposal including all costs of the project, building shelves, renovated spaces and training staff members. Now we just need to fund it!
That’s where you come in! The community of Maroantsetra has been asking for help with this for a long time and they are THRILLED that the books are finally coming! They are eager to donate time, energy and resources to make it all come together. They only thing they don’t have is the funds to ship the box! Together, the volunteers of Maroantsetra need to raise at least $2,000 dollars! Have we convinced you to make a difference?
Help our students DREAM BIG! How to Donate:
  1. Go to this link:
  1. Search for the project by going to Google: type in ‘Donate to Peace Corps Project’, click any of the first 3 links, and search for our project by any of the information listed below: 
    1. Country of Service: Madagascar
    2. Lead Volunteer Name: Lynn Brown
    3. Project Number: 684-132
    4. Key Word: A New Chapter
    5. Volunteer Home State: Maryland

We can’t thank you ALL enough for being there to support us through this whole experience.  It’s been quite a ride! By bringing these books to the Malagasy students here, you will be giving them an important tool to help them achieve all they hope for themselves!
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!
All our love,
Kerry O’Neill, Dave Illgen, Steph Edwards and Katie Browne
Peace Corps Madagascar
Maroantsetra 2011-2013

Never Trust a Pirate! [Photos]

Baobabs, Morondava



Belo Sur Mer

Baobab at Sunset

Song and Verse,  Belo Sur Mer


Low Tide, Belo Sur Mer

Baobabs, Morondava

Moonrise at Sunset, Road to Morondava

Sunrise from the Piroge

Um, that's a pirate ship. Just saying...



Belo Sur Mer

From Maroantsetra to Tamatave: 15 Obstacles to Conquer All Fear

     The road from Maroantsetra to Tamatave looks like any other on a map. It covers 400 kilometers of rugged coastline and offers the only vehicular escape from this isolated corner of the country. What maps fail to express is that this road, while appearing to rather solidly exist on paper, is in fact purely theoretical. The taxi-trucks which routinely depart for or from Maroantsetra enter a void, where the fate and fortune of all passengers rests with a varied pantheon of weather, water, travel, and trial gods. For weeks, cars and their passengers can disappear into this chasm, always to reappear on the other side, muddy and weary, with stories to tell as soon as they have recovered sufficiently to speak of it. 

      This is not a road for the faint-hearted! Travelers face countless river crossings, endless mudslides, a myriad of unexpected and often inexplicable delays. There are dark times when all are sure, unequivocally sure, that they will never escape from the void. But if one succeeds in enduring, indeed surmounting, all the obstacles that stand between Maroantsetra and Tamatave, one will know what it means to conquer all fear! What follows is the story of my four day, four night journey down the road of no return. Read on! 

Obstacle #1: Escape from Maroantsetra

     Two weeks before my departure date, I visited a taxi-truck company on Maroantsetra’s main street to make my reservation. This is Madagascar, so it was necessary to flip forward into the blank beyond the day after tomorrow and start an entirely new page in this great unknown future. The week before planned departure, the town was abuzz with bad news from down road: a ferry is latsaka an-drano (“lost in the water-” which can be alternately translated as “sunk” or “lost out to sea,” a largely irrelevant distinction as neither bodes well), a bridge had collapsed and would require at least a week to rebuild, a portion of the paved road was swept away in a massive flood. Everywhere the rumors come to the same conclusion: the road was tapa-tapaka, broken. 

But each time I checked in with my taxi-truck company, I heard the same response: “We’re going!” The night before departure, I carefully packed (zip-locking and duct-taping my every water-sensitive possession), bid farewell to friends, and took the time to write a not-so-thorough, more-sentiment-driven Last Will and Testament which began: “Should I unfortunately perish in the midst of my journey...”

I should have known not to write the will. At four am, departure time at the taxi-truck station, I was the only passenger to appear. By six, several others had filtered in, but without evident enthusiasm. At seven, the first representative of the company appeared, with unsurprising news: the road was broken! Cars that had left Tamatave a week earlier had yet to reappear from the void. A vote was taken among the passengers and it was decided we would try again in two days. I left and went to the bar. 

Obstacle #2: The Black Cliff

     My dejection was in fact unwarranted. Two days later we departed bright and early, twenty-four of us entering the chasm as one traveling, slightly-terrified mass. At first all proceeded fairly smoothly: we surmounted our first obstacle, a four foot cliff in the road, with only a few tries. The passengers needed not even vacate their rooftop positions

      In the early afternoon, however, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. As we proceeded along a rocky, bumpy stretch of road there was a sudden loud bang, like shotgun going off under the car frame. Our driver let out a long stream of foul language: apparently whatever had snapped, or exploded, or combusted underneath had gotten him solidly in the foot. We passengers exchanged concerned, meaningful looks over our fate with a footless driver. We should have been more concerned about the vehicle, for whatever had broken down there was pronounced rather crucial by those type of people who look at a car and know how it works. The thought that we were done for before even getting started crossed my mind: I still had a lot left to learn about conquering all fear. 

Obstacle #3: The Partially Sunken Raft

A piece of wood cut down to size and a length of rope from the baggage was a suitable substitute for this apparently crucial car part. It was not long and we were on our way again, though each of us expected another explosion to truly cripple our driver. After a number of ferry crossings- long waits for the operator to appear, treacherous maneuvers to get the truck on and off the boat, constant unloading and loading of passengers- we came to a beach crossing that did not boast a ferry. Instead, there was a raft. Built of bamboo, relying on old, rusted oil drums for buoyancy, it was no seagoing vessel. In fact, its very ability to float was questionable. With the car loaded and all passengers aboard, the entire raft was under several inches of water. Passengers had to be distributed in strategic locations to keep the thing balanced and afloat. Then we were commanded: aza mihetsiketsika, do not move. 

As the operators of this crossing proceeded us by canoe, then pulled us slowly across the tidal flat by rope, what else would we discuss on board but, how many of us can swim? If you guessed considerably less than half, you would still be overestimating.

Obstacle #4: The Radiator Meltdown

Immediately upon avoiding that potential disaster and reloading the vehicle, we faced another. We were heavy, the day was hot, and the next ten kilometers of road was sand. All sand. First, the radio started smoking- or at least smoke was undeniably coming out of the radio. Then the whole engine began to smoke ominously, billowing in our faces as we plowed our way through the sand. We had to stop, time and again, to allow it to cool. We poured every ounce of water we had into that radiator and still it defiantly smoked.

At last we arrived in Mananara. I had once made it faster on my bicycle. 

The plan was to spend the night, repair whatever had been MacGyvered under the truck, and depart into the true void by early afternoon. Accordingly, the morning was spent at the brousse station, where all talk was of the trucks that had left Tamatave over a week ago and still not arrived. Everyone took it upon themselves to interject an opinion: that we would not make it, that we were bound to be sahirana (“troubled”), did you idiots not hear there is a ferry latsaka an-drano? It was certainly no positive omen when the truck reappeared repaired, rolled ten feet out of the brousse station, and BAM! the same explosion rocked its underneath. Straight back to the shop. 

It was late afternoon when we finally departed Mananara. Several passengers, including my seat-mate, simply bailed, reclaiming their funds and hoping to wait for more favorable winds.   As we pulled out, they gave us departing, pitying looks which clearly said: mazotoa (enjoy) your imminent doom. We made it only twenty kilometers that evening, as the road climbed into the mountains and rapidly deteriorated. Coming to a very small town, we stopped to eat rice and to hear rumors of the road. Ten cars from Tamatave had been stuck in the mud for days. If we continued we were sure to face the same fate. 

There was something undeniably foolhardy about my crew of fellow travelers. Despite the constant stream of negative information, they were not to be deterred. Especially the driver, who just shook his head and laughed at the naysayers. 
Each of us found a quiet corner to sleep in (mine was the back of the truck), to wait for first light and another day in the void.

Then an amazing thing happened. Lights lit up the small village. Truck after truck rolled in, leaning on their horns; whooping and hollering the passengers descended from their cramped positions. The cars from Tamatave! They had surpassed the void; the road was passable. Everyone emerged from their corners to exchange news. Afaka atsika! my fellow passengers shouted gleefully: we can do it! 

Obstacle #5: The Landslides

The party lasted all night, but at first light the horns were blowing again, rousing the sleepy and the hungover to another day of travel. The trucks roared out one by one, leaving us alone, headed south into that void from which they had just emerged.
It was immediately apparent what had so hindered their progress. Again and again we would come upon stretches of road where the bank above had collapsed, leaving what can only be described as a giant pile of mud in our path. The driver would set his face and rev the engine, charging at the mud with his characteristic foolhardy determination. Inevitably, we would reach a point of arrested momentum, while the wheels spun futilely. Everyone would exit the vehicle and comb the nearby woods for refuse- branches, rocks, anything to provide traction- stuffing it into the gouged tire tracks. 

Again the foolhardy charge. Again the spinning tires. With a great yell, the passengers would flock to the back and sides of the vehicle, rocking it to release the tires from the mud and allow them to gain stable ground. Great clouds of black smoke would billow up from the struggling engine. I would try very hard not to think about global warming. At last, with a shout, the car would free itself and the passengers would run to board. 

A hundred meters of bumpy road, another corner, another imposing pile of mud, again the revving engine. Thus I say, a theoretical road...

Obstacle #6: The Extremely Questionable Bridge and the Wise Choice

Once, we rounded a corner, only to stumble upon this:

Nobody could explain the apocalyptic level of destruction. The ladder, I believe, was a feeble attempt to maintain the illusion that this bridge could still support a car. Our driver may have been foolhardy but he was no idiot. He wisely chose to caulk the wagon and float. 

Obstacle #7: The Mud Pit of Endless Doom

 Though progress was slow, a certain camaraderie was pushing us through. A number of men in the car were returning to the capital, after a long period of work in Maroantsetra. Their determination to reach home was infectious. As they pushed the car over landslides or waded through rivers, they would yell to each other and all of us: Tsy maintsy tongatsika! We have to make it! For days they sang in the back of the truck, refusing to acknowledge our bleak outlook. 

Then we met our match. Fifty meters of mud: deep, sucking mud on an uphill. The driver plowed straight ahead; the wheels dug deeper and deeper into the morass; in thirty seconds we were hopelessly mired, nearly up to the windows. For two hours, attempts were made to rectify this mistake and simply free the truck, using a carjack and a number of logs to leverage it out.

But even then, at the first spin of the wheels, the car slipped immediately back into the cavity it had created. We were, I decided, doomed, bound to face the same fate as the cars from Tamatave who had just escaped this very place. Even the buoyant spirits of our truck gang began to waver: aza kivy, they said. But even they looked at the mud pit with discouraged eyes.

Obstacle #8: The Hired Hands

 After four hours, a decision was made. The driver dispatched several men to the nearest village, where they gathered a group and returned with ropes. These were the mercenaries of the road: hired hands to free us from our predicament. With double the numbers and a new manner of leverage, the car was quickly freed from the mud pit of doom. Running behind the vehicle, pushing and pulling with incredible enthusiasm, splattered unrecognizable with mud, the villagers shepherded us through a catastrophic series of landslides. Again the men were yelling: we have to make it!

After surmounting the last of the mud, as the sunset on the third day, I realized that we had covered five kilometers in eight hours. We were still only forty kilometers south of Mananara. 

Obstacle #9: The Midnight Ferry Pull

We drove late into the night and long after dark came to river crossing where the ferry was inoperable. There was, however, no cause for alarm. A rope had been strung from shore to shore and the ferry was pulled across by the light of the truck’s headlamps. Pulled across, I should say, by the passengers. I am not entirely positive that anyone supervised this activity. We may have hijacked a ferry.

Obstacle #10: The Dead Ferry and the Four Hour Jumpstart

Later still, we arrived at a crossing where the usual technique of leaning on the horn roused no one who would even acknowledge the existence of a ferry. Each of us again found a quiet corner and curled up for the night.

        When morning came we found ourselves facing a problem: the ferry battery was dead. Long attempts were made to jumpstart it from our truck battery. An elaborate battery switch was arranged and I quickly lost track of how many batteries were tracked down and traded in, likely all those in a ten kilometer radius. For hours we sat on the shore, listening to the click click click of batteries refusing to catch. I strongly felt in this moment that I would never escape the void, that we could spend days, weeks, on this dead ferry tracking down and trading out batteries from further and further away. I have never felt more isolated, more keenly aware of how little I influence my fate. The void was consuming me. 

Then across the river a sixth or seventh battery was paddled. When the ferry coughed to life, and the road again lay ahead of us, I immediately forgot the helpless, suffocating feeling of the void. It was morning of the fourth day.

Obstacle #11: The Black Swamp Hole

Sometimes, there is simply a gaping hole in the road: 

Obstacle #12: The Thousandth Ferry Crossing

Sometimes, all would be well. The ferry would run; the view was beautiful. For those of you who may note correlations in blood sugar and mood, notice that this ferry serves snacks!

Obstacle #14: More Dead Ferry Disputes

It was afternoon of the fourth day and a buoyant mood began to spread among the passengers. We could make it that day! 
Afakatsika, we would make it! There were only forty kilometers left until we hit paved road and a gateway to civilization. Just a few river crossings: a manageable task.

But conflict reared its ugly head. It was routine that upon arriving at a ferry, the operators would make a show of checking the gas and then lamenting, shocked that it was out. They would  beg to siphon some out of the truck’s tank, knowing full well that refusal would strand us on the undesirable shore. It was an elaborate display, acted out again and again, but one with a simple conclusion: if we did not provide the gas, we would not be going anywhere. 

At the final ferry crossing, the simple formula went awry. A number of cars pulled aboard and when the show of shock over the lack of gas began, a fight erupted. There was much shoving and arguing, much manly strutting. Most passengers wandered away to nap in the shade, disinterested. At last, an hour later, our truck finally gave up the final liter. We had, after all, come the farthest, with the farthest left to go. We had the most to lose in continued delay.

Obstacle #14: The Unexpected Canoe Ride

We were going to make it! We were cruising down the final stretch before pavement! Ten kilometers! Then five! Then...crunch. Some terrible noise from deep within the engine. We grind to a halt and solemnly extricate ourselves from the vehicle. The driver disappears underneath and immediately reappears, looking grim. He declares us vita, finished. This vague term can encompass many things in Malagasy, none of them good, especially on a journey such as ours. Our excitement evaporates.

All my previous experience in Madagascar runs contrary to what happened next. The driver quickly arranged for a new car. In an armada of canoes we were transported across the river delta on which the town of Soanierana-Ivongo sits. Within an hour we were on our way again, flying down pavement. 

The last thing the driver said to us was this: “Whatever you do, stick together. Do not let people split you up. If you stay together you will be fine.” We all felt vaguely like siblings being sent off to an orphanage. But the reason for his words would soon be made clear...

Obstacle #15: The Lost Pavement and the Vicious Hustle

A mere 200 kilometers of paved and perfect road stood between us and Tamatave. We were going to conquer all fear. We would overcome!

But then we were coming up to a bottleneck, dozens of cars parked and blocking the road. Briefly and irrationally, I thought there was a traffic jam. Then the schemers descended. We would need to change cars: reason unknown. People grabbed at our bags, tried to corner us into committing. This is the typical brousse station hustle, but this was no brousse station. “We are together,” we all yelled, thinking of our driver’s final advice. “We are together from Maroantsetra.”

We had to pass through the strange bottleneck, carrying our bags on our heads. We came to the end and looked out upon a thirty meter stretch of road simply disappeared. Pavement dropped off and there was nothing but mud and scattered rocks in between. This was the portion of paved road tapa-tapaka, broken, as we had heard through vague rumors days past. There was a strange carnival atmosphere around this small-scale disaster, but we of four days travel had no interest to partake.

A third vehicular change, a final obstacle surmounted. 

       We arrived in in Tamatave late that night, after one more flat tire. (We had probably had six). Four days, we were congratulated, was a pretty expedient journey.