So, man, have I been busy. After spending a good amount of time at site without seeing another American (a whole month!), I climbed in a taxi-brousse and headed down to Mantasoa to meet up with some other volunteers from my staging group for our IST (in-service training). IST usually comes about three months after installation at site. It is intended to give you a bit more training on specific things you might need after spending some time in your village. On top of this, Peace Corps gives you information about how to seek funding for your projects (I’m sure I’ll be telling you more about this in the future). IST was about two months later than usual for our group due to an overbooked training center (another group of trainees). This means I’ve been in-country for about seven months and a Peace Corps Volunteer for about five months. How has it gone so far? Well, very quickly. Looking ahead, I can see how the months already gone will start accumulating faster and faster.
Aside from training, I’ve also had the chance to spend some time in Tana, the capital, meeting with NGOs, hanging out with other volunteers, but also enjoying all types of food that are not rice-based. In fact, I’ve eaten a good amount of pizza and cheeseburgers in the past couple weeks, and you wouldn’t believe how good they tasted. American food is really the greatest on the planet. I’m probably biased though.
Before this trip, I hadn’t really had a chance to explore Tana. I had been there for our swearing-in ceremony, but was too busy to really walk around and check things out. This time around, I got to know the lay of the land and figure out how to get around. If you need to go anywhere out of walking distance (most places), you have two options: a standard taxi or a Taxibe (taxi-bay). The standard taxis in Tana are small old style cars that have more in common with a tin can than any American vehicle I’m used to. There are never any seatbelts, the doors never close properly, the windows don’t roll down, and the windshield is usually cracked. You also need to bargain for the fare every time you find a cab. Sometimes the driver is a bit fetsyfetsy, but the average fare is about 7000 Ariary ($3.50). It’s tough for the taxi drivers because gas is so expensive. It seems they only buy enough for each ride, as the driver always swings by the gas station to buy a liter or two before taking you to your destination. I’ve gotten pretty good at the bargaining, but sometimes it’s easier just to jump on the taxibe. The taxibe is a bus system that connects the city. The vehicles are essentially large vans that pack as many people in as can fit…. And, if they can’t fit, then they hang out the back door. The pay off for being uncomfortably squished is a cheap 300 Ariary fare (15 cents).
After IST, it is typical for volunteers to take a little vacation. I decided to head down to Manakara with my buddy Cliff to check out the south east coast of the country. This involved a ten hour taxi-brousse ride to Fianarantsoa and then a train ride through the countryside. The train was an experience in itself and is very popular with tourists because it travels through the beautiful countryside and stops at many villages along the way. The Malagasy sell snacks and drinks on trays, while the tourists (mostly French) snap pictures. After being in country for over half a year, I thought the French people with their big camera lenses were more of a spectacle than the Malagasy.
By night time, everyone on board was tired and a bit delirious from sitting in one place for 10 hours. The train had broken down several times and frequently would only move at a crawl. Two drunk policemen on board provided a bit of entertainment for those still awake. I made friends with one of them and we shared a beer while he complimented me again and again about how great my Malagasy is.
After 14 hours, we arrived in Manakara and took a pousse-pousse (a hand-pulled cart) to the nearest hotel to crash for the night. Since, I’ve been enjoying the beach, a bit of karaoke, and visiting with the other volunteers.
As for packages and letters, I want to say another big thank you to everyone. I’ll keep mailing out letters in response to each one that I get. My village also says thank you for the art supplies, etc. I have kids in my house pretty regularly drawing and coloring.