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Peace Corps Volunteer Tales of Selb writes: The Great Consolidation of 2009

Peace Corps Volunteer Tales of Selb writes:  The Great Consolidation of 2009

I have now been back at site for a good few days now, and it’s fantastic. Getting my life somewhat back in order, talking to folks around town, eating right and getting good sleep. I even picked back up the hogging program. The trick is to get up at 4:30; that way it’s still cool out because it’s dark and it’s earlier than most other folks get up so I have no gawkers pulling up lawn chairs to watch me, as has been a problem in the past. You know work’s been goin’ pretty good too? Although one frustrating point of my “post-crisis” new life here is just that knowing something could really break out again anytime. It makes it harder to really genuinely invest myself in longer projects. I still do and will, but I dread the day that I get a text telling me it’s all over. On the bright side, if that day does come and we went back into consolidation or were evacuated, I would at least get to prepare for it, unlike before. There has been more violence too… A few shops were looted in Toliar last week, and someone was shot dead in Fianar just yesterday by the military. But I’m trying to stay optimistic and do the best job that I can do. And by God I will, raha sitrapo ny Andriamanitra (Gasy for “lord willing”).

Peace Corps Volunteer Tales of Selb writes: The Great Consolidation of 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Great Consolidation of 2009

Caption: Madagascan soldiers separate supporters of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina and President Marc Ravalomanana in the capital Antananarivo February 14, 2009. Photo: Reuters/Carl Hocquart/Files

(The following post was written on February 23rd, 2009)

It was all supposed to be so simple. A quick, three-day stint in Mantasoa for a Peace Corps conference. In and out. I had always felt up to spending a few days at the training center up there. Despite the slow tempo of Mantasoa life, time would always fly by. I was used to having a few meetings scattered throughout the day; here in the morning, a little there in the afternoon… Then have a staff vs. volunteer volleyball game, maybe throw on a DVD, or just take the canoe out on the lake for a bit to relax; reflect. No screaming babies, no chickens; none of the hardships that accompany life in the city or country in Madland. It was January 22nd that I left Isoanala with all that in mind. Little did I know that I was about to embark on an experience in which I would witness the most incredible, the most extraordinary and the most remarkable events I have ever seen in this strange place.

Part I

I wasn’t horribly anxious to depart Isoanala proper. I had only just arrived a week and a half earlier from being gone for over six weeks. But I was asked to attend a three-day conference, and thus duty called. The first obstacle on my journey would not take long to make itself known. Cyclone Gael had just blown through the day before my departure. Truly one of a kind, Gael managed to lumber herself directly over the unlikely desert of Betroka earlier in the week, and left a trail of floods and tears in her wake. Normally, a taxi-brousse takes two hours to go the 80 km from Isoanala to Betroka, as that particular stretch happens to be the most developed on RN13. This time it would take 23 hours. The first 40 km flew by as they usually would. Then we hit the first flood. Seven hours we waited for the water to recede, as semis, brousses, cars and bikes all began to accumulate on either side of the decrepit land bridge. To this day I know that any of the semis could have easily trudged through the 20 meters of three-foot deep water with little trouble. But no one would try before them, so there we sat.

Once beyond the first flood, the day had reached late afternoon, and the rest of the distance should have taken less than an hour. I envisioned laughing about this with friends and colleagues in Betroka over drinks and appetizers before the sun was down. My God; how wrong I was… As the brilliant orange penetrated the peaks of a nearby mountain range from afar, the colors in the sky promised that twilight was nearing. As we began to close in on Betroka, the town had never looked to sweet to me. Back in range, I was texting friends to tell them which bar to meet me at. To my sheer horror, as we neared the bridge on the southern route to enter the town, a giant lake emerged on the horizon. As we approached it I saw a motley crew of semis, brousses and cars, not unlike the one earlier, assembled on either side of the flood. What kind of forces were at work to be so cruel?

It was approximately 200 meters from shore to shore of the tremendous flood, sporting whitewater rapids towards the center. However many millions of tons of water left in the uplands from the cyclone were proceeding to pour down monstrously at eh most crucial part of that road. I began to laugh maniacally, then straightened a serious expression on my face. I began trudging through the flood. At first the water was up to my ankles; then my knees, then the waist. I was only a third of the way across and I felt as if I could have been swept away. Two teenagers dragged themselves out, claiming they could lead me across “the right way” for 2,000 ariary. Fine, I thought. Whatever it takes to get me to a bed tonight. They brought me upstream a bit to a submerged forest of shrubbery and low-lying trees. We then hit open water, as the current immediately picked up and the depth increased dramatically. My two “guides” were as skinny as twigs and the first in front easily lost control and began to be swept away into oblivion. I quickly grabbed a branch and told his comrade to grab the long end and go retrieve his partner. After doing so, we began trudging back from whence we came, defeated. I was told to sleep in the back of the brousse and that at first light we would check to see if the waterline had receded.

The night in the brousse could have been worse. I had my own row and managed to get substantial shuteye. The next morning I awoke and immediately ran to the water for an update. It had not receded. Not enough for cars, in any case. There was, however, a line of folks soldiering through the water, one after another, like lost souls exiting the Titanic. I gathered my things and got in line. Balancing my duffel bag atop my head, I was getting wet as the water had reached my chest at the deepest point. But before I knew it I had reached the other side and my salvation. Sweet, dear Kelly, bless her heart, was waiting for me and guided me to her house. She wrapped a blanket around me and put on a kettle of water as I began to describe the things I had seen.

That evening we rejoiced with merriment late into the night. By the next day it was already Saturday and I was set to miss the conference which was to commence Monday morning. So I hitched a ride with one of the brousses that had been stranded but was no longer constricted by the flood. It was Tana-bound, and on a direct route. Good, because it would get me there on time. Bad, because I would be stuck on a cramped, filthy, urine-soaked taxi-brousse for the next 26 hours straight. It’s better for me to gloss over this part of the journey, as it is still painfully raw in my mind.

We pulled into the Tana brousse station around 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon. On the cab ride to the Peace Corps house the driver was describing to me the recent political problems currently plaguing the city. I remembered having heard something about it the past week, though not much news makes it down to Isoanala. I remembered something about someone holding protests at a local park in Tana every Saturday. Turns out the Malagasy president, Marc Ravalomanana, had forced Viva off the air two weeks ago. Viva is a radio/TV station owned and operated by Andry Roejilina, a 34 year-old former disc jockey who was elected mayor of Antananarivo, also known as Tana, one year ago. Ravalo’s (Ravalomanana) reasons for shutting down Andry’s (Roejilina) media station were simple and bold: two weeks ago Andry hosted a live interview via satellite with former Malagasy president Ratsirika on Viva. Ratsirika has been living in exile in Paris ever since he was ousted in a successful coupe by Ravalo in 2002, and any media coverage of him has since been forbidden. Well, the cabbie had just said a mouthful. I could understand why Andry might be none too pleased to have his property violated, but I could also see just cause for at least suspicion from Ravalo provoked by Andry. At this point the cabbie told me that Ravalo was not supporting the democracy he supposedly had established in 2002, and that the time had come for a change in Malagasy politics. I, of course being street savvy, did not offer any opinion but just nodded and said, “Hmm…” Then we drove by a mob of people who evidently were assembled to protest, and I could see just how potentially explosive this quagmire could become.

I arrived at the house only to learn that Ravalo had fled the country in fear and that he had issued an arrest warrant for Andry. Andry was clearly gaining the upper hand. That afternoon I saw my dear friend Sarah Curl, and we proceeded to go out for beer and pizza. As we did so, we pondered the current political debacle of this country we had come to hold so dear and brainstormed on what the implications were of what might be to come.

I was jarred awake late that night by a text message from a gasy friend. It was 3 a.m. and I had received the following cryptic message:

“VIVA RADIO was destroyed BY africains SOLDIERS WITH WEAPONS AT 3 IN THE MORNING TODAY we DON’T know yet if there was people killed,” is what it said, verbatim. What did that mean? Was Ravalo back? Had he actually brought back mercenaries from abroad? Despite the propensity for the rumor mill to run in this country, I tossed and turned until the morning.

The morning of January 26th seven other volunteers and myself shipped out to Mantasoa. The text message I received the previous night was getting more and more confirmation. There was an enormous rally scheduled for 10 a.m. by Andry to respond to the aggression. Upon arrival at the PC Training Center we were informed that despite the multiple rallies forming in Tana and predicted violence, we would proceed with the conference as normal. The topics included analyzing the Training Design and Evaluation in its relation to the PC “knowledge, skills and attitude” approach to learning and teaching in a village community. A worthwhile program to be sure, but remarkably mundane given the nature of the events that were unfolding in Tana. The day went on into the afternoon and multiple reports of rioting and looting were beginning to filter in from Tana. At last we finished the day and it was time for dinner. By that time many Malagasy PC staff members had grown significantly distressed over the safety of their families in Tana and the future of their country. After dinner came an announcement from Mr. Leif Davenport, the APCD/director of the environment sector.

“The situation in Tana is…not getting better,” he stated with a solemn expression. It seemed the looting was previously being targeted only to businesses associated with or owned by Ravalo, but it had now spread to Jumbo, the one store equivalent to a Target Greatland in the country, and the savior of many PCVs in search of deodorant or barbeque sauce. This store was not even close to something owned by Ravalo. There had also been many recent reports of the Malagasy government selling several million hectares of land, totaling around a fifth of the country, to Korean electronics manufacturer Dae Woo. This potential deal resulted in otherwise unprovoked attacks on many Asian and Indian-owned stores that day and throughout the week. The decision was made to stock up on enough food to last us a week in Mantasoa, then head back to Tana the next morning at 4 a.m. in order to avoid any potential rioting.

For reasons I still do not understand, and to the dismay of virtually everyone else at the conference, the woman facilitating the conference just insisted that we work past dinner and into the night while these horrific events were taking place. Very unsurprisingly, no one was much in the mood and it didn’t last long. The next morning our caravan was en route to back to Tana before sunrise, and little did I suspect I would soon regard Mantasoa not with the sweetness my taste had acquired, but with puckering sourness as a result of what would be the Great Consolidation of 2009.

The rest of that week was virtually spent on lockdown at the Peace Corps house in Tana. By Tuesday the violence had spread to other regional capitals around the country. By Wednesday every Magro grocery store, a chain owned by Ravalo, had been looted and burned to the ground. In another looting at an electronics store in Tana that Tuesday, the roof caved in killing all inside, most of whom were reported as looters; the death-count topping off somewhere around 30. Within a day, grizzly photos of the recovered corpses were being circulated on at least one Malagasy Facebook group, and were likely being used exploited as propaganda on both sides of the conflict. On Wednesday evening the PC Country Director (CD) gave a much needed update visit to the eleven of us trapped in the PC house. He told us that non-essential personnel of the American Mission (i.e. families of the American ambassador, director of the American school, etc.) were on the verge of being evacuated, and that if they left PC would likely follow. We were also informed that all PCVs had been frozen around the country and would likely begin consolidation before the week’s end. By that Wednesday evening not only had the news story finally shown up on the BBC website, but the story had jumped to the top headline.

Thursday and Friday of that week, things calmed down and there was a hint of promise and compromise in the air. Andry’s daily protest crowds had diminished and the immediate threat of violence seemed low. Those of us stranded in Tana went to the PC office to help organize what they call “phone trees,” a mechanism to locate, contact, and mobilize every volunteer on the island. Then, on Saturday, January 31st, 39 PCVs including myself were shipped out to the training center in the cozy confines of Mantasoa. Some of us would not return for 18 days, and I would be one. And so began the great consolidation of 2009.

Part II

At first, consolidation didn’t seem like it would be so bad. To me, it meant lots of free time at the training center, free food, getting to see old friends and getting to meet some new folks too. And meet new folks I did. If it hadn’t been for consolidation, I may have never met Chris, Chase, Whitney or Phil, among others; all good people. Plus, I got to hand with some people I already liked but hadn’t hung out with much yet, such as Lindsay, Jerome, Dave, and Joanne. It was largely forbidden to exit premises beyond the village of Mantasoa, but we were allowed to at least go that far for beer and such. There was usually a car that would bring people in every day as well, sort of like a supply ship. As the first few days went by, the political situation wasn’t doing much one way or the other. The biggest problems were being reported in the regional capitals of Mahajanga and Sambava, but not in Tana. More and more busloads of PCVs were being brought in with each passing day, and the number of residents swelled to over 70. Each morning there would be a visitor from PC Tana with an update on the political situation and Peace Corps’s response to it. I had been told a week earlier we were on the brink of evacuation, and despite the politician-esque vagueness of our status of whether we were staying in-country or not from the PC staff, it seemed as if we might be staying.

‘Tranobe’ means ‘big house’ in Malagasy, and at the training center the Tranobe is a large meeting room located at the furthest point of the peninsula on which the center sits. From the first night on Tranobe dance parties became a mainstay every night as an option for anyone interested in dancing or drinking on any given night. Of course, I partook multiple times the first week, and had a pretty good time to boot. I remember one night dancing with a girl I liked, after which she whispered a very encouraging sweet nothing into my ear. She then withdrew outside and I pursued with the vigor and conviction of a slightly intoxicated man. Evidently, and unbeknownst to me, she already had a gentleman suitor that particular evening who had witnessed my pursuit outside.

“Head for open waters, Tuna…” he said, after pulling me gently aside. But he had become a friend by that time, so I was more than happy to gracefully bow out, although it may have been more of an awkward sideways stumble.

The next day, Thursday, February 5th, brought horrible news of a plane owned by Ravalo being burned upon landing that morning in Manakara, a large city in the southeast. This was followed by heavy gunfire and even grenade usage which may have resulted in deaths. Unfortunately, these events happened to take place just down the street from a PCV consolidation point, leaving said volunteers quite shaken up. This is to no fault of the person who selected that point, as such temperate violence was liable to breakout virtually anywhere anytime. That night after dinner, Lindsey, Jerome and I all felt a little fidgety. So we headed down to the Tranobe with a bottle of rum. We started trading stories from back home. Eventually, we all got a little tipsy and someone put on “Purple Rain” by Prince. The circumstances dictated that the situation had become weird, so we embraced it. We first started weirding out by building a bonfire outside and dancing around it. We then entered the Tranobe once again, and using folding chairs and table cloths, we built what I believe to have been the best damn fort that Tranobe has ever seen. All in all, it was a pretty fun night, which would not be easy to come by soon after that. The good times couldn’t last forever.

Part III

What we had by this point in time was a very fragile situation with many moving parts. It dealt with two massively narcissistic Malagasy men who shared no major ideological differences, potential tampering form the country’s ex-president, enormous and unavoidable economic problems looming on the horizon, cyclone season, potential food riots, and most troubling, it was still unclear whose side the military was on. By all accounts they had largely done nothing but stood idly by up until then. All that was clear and that could be said was that there were individuals with firearms occasionally accompanying protesters and looters, and that Ravalo had been attempting to protect his power at times using other individuals with firearms.

Despite news of recent deaths and violence in Toliar, and the airplane incident in Manakara, things were looking up for Peace Corps. Earlier in the week, PC staff had told us if there was one more instance of violence in the country we would be evacuated. So two instances later, they changed their tune (again) and called said incidents ‘isolated’, so they were hoping to start sending us back to site that Monday. The PC staff voluntarily introduced the concepts of “tripwires” and “chokepoints” to us early on in consolidation, and virtually every day would change what their definitions were. All this was very frustrating and mentally taxing; to be told one day that evacuation is on the table and the next day being told it turns out that’s not actually true. But despite dealing with that, I was growing weary of the Mantasoa life. I was growing deeply annoyed with at least a few people, one in particular. There were organized activities to do each day, such as painting a country map on the basketball court or starting a community garden, but finding my mind idle was increasing in frequency. Especially frustrating was watching people, usually PC staff, freely breeze in and out of the training center and go back to the capital at least every weekend if not every day. I wanted more than anything to get out and back to site, or at least to the reality of Tana. So despite flip-flopping from PC Tana and PC Washington I was receptive to the prospect of getting out and heading back to site by the beginning of next week. Then came Saturday, January 7th, a day which shall live on in infamy and be mourned throughout the country for the indefinite future.

I slept through breakfast and got up around ten in the morning. I grabbed a quick shower and headed to the rec room to see what was on. Unfortunately, I had to watch something called “27 Dresses” for an hour and a half until lunchtime came. After finishing lunch, an announcement was made that Andry organized a massive protest over 10,000 strong and was currently leading them to either the main government ministry building or Ravalo’s palace. We later heard that when the march arrived at the Ministry building Ravalo’s forces had fired right into the crowd and gunned down at least 30 people, none of whom lived. Personally, I could never have fathomed the crisis reaching this level. There was sporadic rioting and looting reported throughout the afternoon following the shooting. That night there was much sober conversation and nervous laughter among us at the training center. The CD was due in the next morning for an update. That night most lights were out by ten.

Sunday morning the CD rolled in around 11 a.m., toting a case of beer in each arm; a welcome gift. He followed suit with the vagueness of all the other updates we had received earlier in the week, but he did say this was a push much closer to evacuation. I understood and appreciated the complexity of the situation, and, though I didn’t necessarily hold it against the CD, I did walk away from the “update” feeling more unsure of things then when I walked in. I spent most of the day by myself thinking about the fact that, unlike others who had notice they were consolidating, when I came to Tana I thought I was coming only for the conference and would be gone for just a few days. Most people had gotten to pack their prize possessions and said good-bye to their village in case they didn’t make it back. I hadn’t had any of that. I started realizing for the first time that I may never again see any of my friends in Isoanala. It was depressing.

On Monday the word was out that (finally) at least PC Washington had set a deadline, and that PC Tana had to decide by 11 p.m. that night to either evacuate or send us back to site. This came as a relief to me, even knowing full well that evacuation might well mean never returning, I would still prefer that then spend another week in what had become this netherworld purgatory to me, totally unsure of anything. After all, putting it off and keeping us in Mantasoa for at least another week was the only other option on the table.

Monday came and went with nothing. Tuesday Joanne and Chris asked me if I might be interested in a walk to Ambatalaona to visit our old host families, as both our stages had trained in the same village so long ago. Nothing sounded better to me; get some fresh air, stretch out the legs on a 15 km walk, get the hell out of Mantasoa, and, most importantly, pay a long overdue visit to my dear host family. If we were evacuated, I would take solace in the fact that at least I could touch my old roots before leaving. The walk took nearly three hours each way, and it rained almost the whole way back to compliment my broken sandal. But God was it great to see them. It had been nearly a year, and it was just my pleasure to bring them a couple bags of groceries and reminisce of times past.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the daily update had been delivered and was awaiting us upon our return. I would be disappointed. The news was that the deadline had been extended and given an open-end for a decision from PC Tana, and that we would likely be spending another week in Mantasoa. Also, for those feeling too uncomfortable to return to site or staying in-country, they could opt for “interruption of service” (IOS). In the exact language of Peace Corps, this is a “no-harm no-foul early end of service; like an honorable discharge.” First of all, that’s great for those who are “uncomfortable” staying in-country. What about those who are perfectly comfortable staying and would prefer to go back to work but need a decision from PC Tana? What’s the option for that person? Furthermore, the degree to which IOS would be a pragmatic solution for a PCV would not be high in many or most cases. This is due to the many folks who were in my dilemma or other fragile states of mind who are thus not thinking clearly, and it is the volunteers in this kind of position that might opt for IOS as they are ushered towards it as an option by Peace Corps. These were the same types of people who would never opt for it in a clear state of mind. In this way I believe that Peace Corps was mortgaging potential volunteer work for a small time extension to make a decision they had already had twelve days to make. I understand it’s very, very stressful and demanding. But this was it, it was go time. Make a decision already.

That Wednesday and Thursday they organized trips for anyone interested to the city of Moramanga about an hour east on the highway RN2. That was a nice opportunity for those of us with cabin fever. I was a bit beyond that, though, as they abyss of Mantasoa purgatory, i.e. consolidation, was getting deeper and deeper, with no end in sight. Days were going by without me speaking to more than one or two people. I know I would have been more mentally stable and comfortable anywhere else, even in a potentially dangerous hotspot in the country, than in Mantasoa. The list of people who I found annoying was growing. A new list of people I was growing to hate was forming. I wasn’t over the edge, but I had never felt much closer… There was one person, though, whose care and love was carrying me from one day to the next. So I’d like to give out a special, special, special, special dedication to that person now, because without her I think I would be checked into a laughing academy right now. On Wednesday I wasn’t up for much of anything, but Thursday I took the trip to Moramanga. Finally, we had cell reception, internet, and ice cream. The few hours there was only enough to wet my appetite for any hint of reality, and before long it was back to the straight jacket at Mantasoa.

On Friday, the daily update was vaguer than ever. The PC staff breezed in and even brought some volunteers back to Tana for personal reasons when they left. I watched the car drive off, resenting the burning jealousy I felt for all in the vehicle. Everyone going back to some slice of reality, getting out of Mantasoa to do something else for the weekend. The vagueness of the day’s update this time leaned towards the positive side. By the next day, my third Saturday within a two acre compound, I had lost any sense of caring. I had let go and was in a bad way. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, so of course there was to be a dance party scheduled for the evening at the Tranobe. There was also to be a pre-game party on the basketball court in the afternoon; something called a “case race.” Evidently, the environment sector had challenged the health sector to see which team could finish a case of beer first, hence the case race. I was in a mood to indulge in anything to help me forget what was happening, and thus more than happy to oblige the request from my sector of health to participate. We would have won too, if it hadn’t been for Chris C. on the environment side. The kid weighs 140 lbs, and slammed four 66 cL beers in a period of fifteen minutes! It’s just like that Nathan’s hot dog eating contest; you always have got to watch out for the skinny kid, because he’s the one who has the power to turn off your lights. Predictably, I was able to get drunk and unsurprisingly I felt invariably depressed the next day.

On my third Sunday in Mantasoa, both the CD and the Regional Security Officer came for the update. Again, the CD came with two cases of beer in hand, and again it was greatly appreciated. Now we were hoping to deconsolidate on Tuesday, he said, and start getting folks back to site. Hmm, had I heard that before? The situation had become so stressful that I had all but shut down emotionally. Once again, I understand that PC staff was working long, long hours and in many ways in a more physically stressful environment than us. And once again, who had their own beds waiting for them at the end of every night? Who was going back to Tana every day and getting to choose what they ate and not live with the same group of 80 people for fifteen straight days? It wasn’t me. Another common theme which was surfacing more and more in the conversations of PCVs was to what extent the PC staff conferring with PCVs on the final decision. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the American PC staff say that no one knows the Malagasy language, people and culture better than the PCVs. So why were the only sources of input for the decision which wholly evaluates the Malagasy people and culture coming from those who don’t know the culture as well? Never even for conversation’s sake were PCVs asked what we think the decision should be during a staff meeting or group update in Mantasoa. Instead it felt more like being patronized; throwing us all in the training center with basketball and beer for safe keeping while the people who knew what they were doing made our decision. I realize the difficulty of the situation and commend both PC Tana and PC Washington for doing the best they could, and I do trust the judgment of all those in the PC staff. I certainly consider us to be a team. I just hated being in the position I was in at Mantasoa.

The third Monday night in Mantasoa we were told that the caravan for Fianarantsoa, my route to site, would be heading out at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. I felt great about the prospect of it happening, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. See was believing by that point, and nothing lesser. That night word came in that three looters had just been shot and killed in Tana, and that we were no longer leaving the next morning. I smiled at the irony. Despite the news, I was up and ready Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. in the unlikely event we were still leaving. Breakfast came out at six and it was confirmed that we were not leaving. I started shooting some hoops and at nine I overheard someone on a cell phone talking about rumors being false and it being okay to leave. A couple minutes later on announcement was made that the violence from last night was a false rumor and that we were leaving in fifteen minutes. Hoorah! I got my bags back out and an hour and a half later we were on the road.

We were dropped off at the PC house in Tana for a couple hours, then back on the road by 3 p.m. We were about six hours behind schedule, but we could still get to Antsirabe, a large city and checkpoint on the Fianar route, before dark for pizza and sleep. However, that also did not happen.

I have ridden in the PC cars, convoys and caravans many times; countless, probably. Never have I had problems with car trouble on those trips. Not until this trip. The funny thing is it’s still technically true. We would have horrible car trouble on the short way to Antsirabe, but it wouldn’t come from a PC car. What happened was, de-consolidation involves driving an insane amount of volunteers around at the same time. Therefore, the amount of space in PC cars understandably ran out quickly. So, PC Tana justifiably had to rent private vehicles to transport the excess volunteers. Disappointingly, the person in charge of renting the car for the Fianar caravan chose to select a lower-than-average, run of the mill, beat-up taxi brousse for our extra car. The second the engine started, clouds of black smoke poured out the exhaust and a perpetual rattling came from the engine; seats were torn and the doors didn’t lock. Whoever opted to rent this particular vehicle deemed it roadworthy for PC to take it the over 400 kilometers to Fianar. I have got to question the judgment here. It was obvious it would break down. On the way to consolidation from Fianar, I understand they reserved a high quality conversion van and heard high reports about it. So I just don’t understand how this one passed the same tests. In any case, the whole way the PC cars were going half their normal speed on the highway to accommodate this ridiculous van, and after the first hour it broke right down. Sunset came and went, and we ended up having to double up everyone in the other cars and leaving the rented van behind as it was clearly beyond irreparable. So nearly everyone had a person on their lap for half the way to Antsirabe.

We did eventually make it. We pulled into Antsirabe around nine in the evening, where there just happened to be a city-wide curfew beginning at 9 p.m. Plus, we had no hotel reservations. No one had had dinner to boot, so we were all a bit grumpy. We waited on the street for an hour while the cars searched for open hotels, as we couldn’t sit in a restaurant let alone eat due to them all closing in compliance with the curfew. Eventually we found a hotel and rice to eat.

The next day we hit the road at eight and it was much better. Luckily, many folks had disembarked the caravan in Antsirabe so there were enough normal spots in the PC cars for all. We were cruising; making good time. For the first time in a while I was starting to feel genuinely good and optimistic. The fact that we were about to reach Fianar without problems after all we had been through was a signal to me that maybe this was really happening; getting back to good old Fianar and then back to Isoanala, back to home. The fresh plateau air blowing in was starting to smell ever so slightly of the savannah sage aroma I know and love, a surefire sign of the south approaching.

Finally, we reached Fianar. My God, it was a beautiful sight. We passed by Sofia, a dance we club we tend to frequent on the far side of town. We went by my barbershop, then Casa Delicios… We were getting close to the house. We turned onto the last main drag that leads up to our road. I was daydreaming; looking out the window and reveling in the prospect of our newfound freedom and good fortune. It was then that Adam turned from the front seat to look back at us behind him, his haw hanging home… I pulled out my headphones and immediately heard something like a group of people singing somewhere far off. I propped myself up on the seat and looked on ahead of what was in front of our vehicle. About half a block up there was a massive crowd of protesters holding up signs supporting Andry, and they were marching right towards us. The “song” I had heard was them chanting something along the lines of, “no justice, no peace!” Nirina, the driver, pulled a sharp 180 and peeled off in the direction we had come from. He found a long route that goes around the city to avoid the mob, and a half hour later we were at Chez Niny’s across the street from the PC house ordering lunch. It was right as my beer arrived that the first gunshot rang out. This was followed by a spray of gunfire down the hill from where we were eating and we were rushed into the security of the PC house. I was again on house arrest. Throughout the day we confirmed 39 shots, keeping tally with charcoal on the concrete outside the house. Somewhat surprisingly, the next day we were told to continue on to our sites. I was actually for that decision, although I was again disappointed that PC Tana did not even ask us what we say happen that day in Fianar, let alone how we think it should impact our immediate interim plan. Instead they relied on the notoriously corrupt and subjective gendarme for information on what happened. I have lived in this country for 17 months now, and I am 110 percent completely convinced that the Gendarme in this country, nine times out of ten, are sneaky, conniving, abusive and narcissistic individuals who are only interested on taking advantage of their power to gain wealth. This is not the case for all of them; but it is nearly all I have come in contact with. Despite all that, continuing south sounded just fine to me. Anything to avoid round two of the Dharma Initiative back there at Mantasoa.

So Kelly and I broussed it back to Betroka. Incidentally, on the way back down I saw my first wild alligator on the island. Right as we were entering Betroka from the north side of RN13, there was a large boggy marsh with water a few feet deep that we had to drive through. AS we crept across, a giant alligator surfaced in front of our vehicle. He was six feet long if he was an inch, I tell ya! His reptilian frame slithered smoothly past us, and his low growl faded into the nearby reeds.

I have now been back at site for a good few days now, and it’s fantastic. Getting my life somewhat back in order, talking to folks around town, eating right and getting good sleep. I even picked back up the hogging program. The trick is to get up at 4:30; that way it’s still cool out because it’s dark and it’s earlier than most other folks get up so I have no gawkers pulling up lawn chairs to watch me, as has been a problem in the past. You know work’s been goin’ pretty good too? Although one frustrating point of my “post-crisis” new life here is just that knowing something could really break out again anytime. It makes it harder to really genuinely invest myself in longer projects. I still do and will, but I dread the day that I get a text telling me it’s all over. On the bright side, if that day does come and we went back into consolidation or were evacuated, I would at least get to prepare for it, unlike before. There has been more violence too… A few shops were looted in Toliar last week, and someone was shot dead in Fianar just yesterday by the military. But I’m trying to stay optimistic and do the best job that I can do. And by God I will, raha sitrapo ny Andriamanitra (Gasy for “lord willing”).

I’d like to finish by saying that the purpose of this post is not and never had been to bash Peace Corps. Any regular reader of my blog would know that the content I write rarely, if ever, speaks negatively about Peace Corps as an organization, a non-profit, or a support network for us volunteers. If there is any reference, it is usually in a positive light. I do apologize if at times this entry appeared to come down too hard, but I feel these things had to be said. It can be intimidating to bring up said issues as bluntly as I might like to with PC staff in Tana, not to mention that I try to uphold the professional courtesy of being polite. So the views I have expressed in this blog are meant to be received as constructive criticism. Very rarely would I even consider this as a tool to actually express any meaningful view of mine, as it is hardly the time of the place. I typically use it as a venue to simply tell the tales of my life as they occur; the tales of Selb. This particular post happened to take a course which inevitably led it to occasional opinionated ranting, and to the readers who enjoy my blog precisely because it usually avoids that, I also apologize. I have not embellished this story nor any others, as they need no embellishment. They are simply the facts of my life as a tall, 27 year old, PCV man in Madagascar.

Links to Related Topics (Tags):

Headlines: February, 2009; Peace Corps Madagascar; Directory of Madagascar RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Madagascar RPCVs; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Blogs - Madagascar

When this story was posted in March 2009, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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PCOL's Candidate for Peace Corps Director Date: December 2 2008 No: 1288 PCOL's Candidate for Peace Corps Director
Honduras RPCV Jon Carson, 33, presided over thousands of workers as national field director for the Obama campaign and said the biggest challenge -- and surprise -- was the volume of volunteer help, including more than 15,000 "super volunteers," who were a big part of what made Obama's campaign so successful. PCOL endorses Jon Carson as the man who can revitalize the Peace Corps, bring it into the internet age, and meet Obama's goal of doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011.

Director Ron Tschetter:  The PCOL Interview Date: December 9 2008 No: 1296 Director Ron Tschetter: The PCOL Interview
Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter sat down for an in-depth interview to discuss the evacuation from Bolivia, political appointees at Peace Corps headquarters, the five year rule, the Peace Corps Foundation, the internet and the Peace Corps, how the transition is going, and what the prospects are for doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. Read the interview and you are sure to learn something new about the Peace Corps. PCOL previously did an interview with Director Gaddi Vasquez.

Feb 22, 2009: Return to Indonesia? Date: March 1 2009 No: 1333 Feb 22, 2009: Return to Indonesia?
Clinton says PC expects to resume in Indonesia 18 Feb
Indonesia still touchy about Peace Corps 17 Feb
PCVs Remain Safe in Madagascar 30 Jan
Dodd's Senate seat up for grabs? 21 Feb
Tony Hall Talks About Poverty and Hunger 18 Feb
Pro Football Player Aaron Merz to serve in Zambia 17 Feb
Moyers could be new Murrow for US Public Diplomacy 17 Feb
Obituary for Nigeria CD Francis Underhill Macy 10 Feb
George Packer writes: Parties argue government role 10 Feb
James Rupert writes: Missile Strikes Counterproductive? 10 Feb
Danny Hevrol in Madagascar amidst fighting 6 Feb
Reed Hastings writes: Please Raise My Taxes 6 Feb
Obama overrides Hillary on Chris Hill appointment 6 Feb
Joseph Acaba has "The Right Stuff" 4 Feb
Maureen Orth writes: A New Start 2 Feb
Henry Rayburn could make art out of anything 1 Feb
Obama out to marry military power with diplomacy 30 Jan
Mike Fay honored by the San Diego Zoo 30 Jan
Charles Stroh writes: Karzai seen as impediment to change 29 Jan
Madeleine Meek writes: The market and the bath 26 Jan
NPCA gets new Web Site 22 Jan
Read more stories from January and February 2009.

Some PCVs return to Bolivia on their own Date: October 23 2008 No: 1279 Some PCVs return to Bolivia on their own
Peace Corps has withdrawn all volunteers from Bolivia because of "growing instability" and the expulsion of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg after Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the American government of inciting violence in the country. This is not the first controversy surrounding Goldberg's tenure as US ambassador to Bolivia. Latest: Some volunteers have returned to Bolivia on their own to complete their projects.

Read the stories and leave your comments.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Madagascar; Safety; Blogs - Madagascar


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