“So what are your ‘first impressions’ of Vondrozo?”asked our new friend, Peace Corps Volunteer Brian Klein, upon our arrival on Sunday. Vondrozo has been home for him for the past four months and will continue to be so for the next year and a half. For us, it is a but a home base for our scanty three months in Madagascar. I felt unqualified to answer such a question to one who must know so much more than I can even guess, but after a few days of consideration, I feel ready to share my thoughts with the world.
Vondrozo is the district capital of this corner of humid rainforest in southeastern Madagascar, and as such, it is bigger than I had anticipated. There is a primary school, a middle school, and a high school here, and some few thousand residents call this town home. With my western arrogance, I assumed that this hamlet would be untouched by technology and industrialization, and I could not have been more wrong. All the world carries a cell phone, the women in the village asked me to share my photo files with them via USB drive, and there is even a women’s soccer league in the area (the existence of the men’s team goes without saying...). I was shocked by such development and then ashamed of my false assumptions.
At the same time, Vondrozo is also the third world at its finest. We are installed right now in Behavana Hotely, the town’s only lodging establishment for out-of-towners. Don’t assume that this is a five-star pension just because I am able to write to you—we bought a USB modem that allows us to access minimal amounts of internet and upload to the blog via satellite, but it is a rarity in parts such as these. I am guessing that Brian and the WWF Bureau own the only other two in the village.
The hotely is run by a Chinese-Malagasy immigrant family who seem to own most of the commercial enterprises in the town. In addition to the hotel, they manage Vondrozo’s lone restaurant and also its general store, where one can by flour, rice, beans, and lambas, the traditional sarong-style women’s robe of Madagascar. The four girls in our group (myself included) eagerly await the purchase of our own lambas, scheduled to take place tomorrow with the aid of Marlin, our on-site WWF coordinator.
Behavana Hotely is simple and dirty and a far cry from the comforts of Antananarivo or even Farafangana, the coastal “metropolis”which we passed through on our route here. The floors are made of concrete, the walls are full of holes, and our lone window looks out into the restaurant’s washbasin. Just outside, there is a toilet which is basically a glorified hole in the ground in which one can often see yesterday’s feces floating about. The toilet’s delicious aromas often waft into my bedroom at night or around our table at mealtimes—daily, I get better at holding my breath. Next to the toilet, there is a “shower,”or rather, a bucket of water and a tile basin for washing, and the remnants of one’s self-cleaning float along a chute that snakes its way through the hallway between the rooms. If someone is in the shower when you want to brush your teeth, you can just skip the wash basin and spit directly into the chute outside the door.
It took us three days to get to Vondrozo from Antananarivo, a distance—as the Nazgul flies—of just under 300 miles, but distances are deceiving in this land of no I-5. When I asked PCV Brian what of the western world he misses most, he answered readily, “the interstate highway system.”In the private vehicles of WWF, this journey over rutted and pitted dirt roads was quite posh. By taxi-brousse, the crowded vans used for public transportation, it can take up to twice as long, and come the wet season (starting in mid-December, just in time for our return to Tana), public transportation may not exist at all. Brian says that he will likely have to bike the 40 miles to Farafangana to catch a ride to any other part of the island.
I mentioned in my first entry that we were five and expecting another. Our expected sixth team member, a young man from Cameroon, was unable to successfully obtain his passport and visa, and so, in his stead, we now have Ranto Tantely, a Malagasy student of sociology who hails from the capital. Ranto is a godsend with his language skills—he speaks to us in fluent French and simple English and translates all the Malagasy. Henintsoa was born in Madagascar and speaks a bit of Malagasy already, Kuni appears to be a bit of a language virtuoso and after a week of study, threatens to surpass Brian in her sentence fluidity, and the rest of us are bumbling as long as best we can. I feel more confident by the moment and successfully purchased 6 eggs and a bunch of bananas in the market today, but I am still little more than an infant in in the art of verbal expression. My French is by no means perfect either, and it is frustrating to feel so constantly ineloquent when I am speaking in unfamiliar tongues.