Posts tagged Madagascar
Finding myself a month since my last post has made me realize that somehow it’s already June 18th… where did the time go!?
This week, the first of my official “summer vacation”, has been a bit crazy, even by Brittany standards. Our last official faculty meetings finished on Monday. I then hightailed it to visit the family for a whirlwind visit before boarding a train for Richmond to attend an education conference. That conference ended this afternoon, and it wasn’t a few hours before I was back on a train (where I am right now) en route to New Hampshire. Why New Hampshire? I was lucky enough to be invited to (road trip) Katelyn’s sister’s wedding, and everyone knows I love a good wedding. Once the wedding festivities are over, I’ll be back on a train bound for Jersey in order to catch my flight to China on Monday. I’ve been told that sometimes the activities I fit into a length of time can make other people exhausted, but thankfully for me, I’ve got a lot of energy and I’m a light packer. So despite the fact that I’m hauling everything I need for a work conference, a wedding and 6 weeks in China to a variety of other states, I’m feeling pretty good.
My hotel reservations for this conference had been taken care of by my school and trusty google maps informed me that the Amtrak station was a mere 2.4 miles from my hotel. Yes, I had two bags. Yes, a cab was affordable. Yes, it was mid afternoon on a sweltering, sunny day in the south. But for some reason (and not just because I’m a frugal Franny), I was overcome by my desire to walk. In Madagascar and Senegal, where public transportation was either undecipherable, unreliable, or unavailable, I would always walk over taking a cab. In Madagascar, I could navigate myself on foot all over the city. In Senegal, I’d have to walk 45 minutes just to get internet. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of miles I must have walked while I was there, yet it’s something that has been more or less absent in my American existence.
Work obligations, social commitments and respite requirements fight for the precious hours of the day, often making walking an impossible option when pitted against the convenience of my own vehicle or the speed of the metro. To be honest, it wasn’t until considering my options to walk to my hotel in Richmond that I even realized how little I walk anymore. Perhaps it was my first time in months that I had found myself in that similar African scenario: in a new place, I knew where I would arrive and I knew where I want to go, but I had no idea how the public transportation worked or if it existed. That, plus the fact that I had no real time constraints for the first time in recent memory, made walking that much more appealing. I saw it as an adventure, maybe not of epic proportions, but an adventure nonetheless. So when I arrived in Richmond, I gathered up my bags and set out with my printed out map and directions and started walking.
Google does walking directions, but only in beta….ie. not every road they might put is “walkable”. I knew it was a gamble, but definitely do-able. It wasn’t long before I was chuckling at myself as high grass itched my legs and stop lights had no crosswalks. Despite the minor inconveniences, I enjoyed the quaint, residential beauty of Richmond and I enjoyed the solitude of my walk (a luxury I never got in Africa). Surely the majority of people zooming by in their cars thought I was insane, but no one bothered me.
I wondered as I left the Amtrak station parking lot if I would regret not flagging a taxi waiting patiently at the main door. I’ll admit that that thought re-entered my head in the last few tenths of a mile as my bags dug into my shoulders, but it never took root and I marched onwards. I was just a short distance from my hotel when I heard a car honk. I looked up as I saw a taxi. Just like Africa, I thought. Never could I walk the streets without having every passing taxi honk in hopes my obviously foreign self might crack and hail a cab. So close to my destination, I continued on, committed to reaching my hotel. I had made it so far.
A few minutes later, I looked up and saw a cab pulled over up ahead. A persistent one! I thought. I hadn’t expected that on this side of the Atlantic, and accustomed to rejecting thousands of cabs before, I shrugged and kept walking. However, as I passed the cab’s window, the driver offered me a free ride to my hotel. Despite my attempts to reject, Tipu from Bangladesh was insistent and I eventually accepted. Call me a sucker for Asian hospitality or a victim of slight heat stroke, I enjoyed an air conditioned cab for the .2 miles that remained. True to his word, Tipu rejected my attempt to give him a tip for his kindness, insisting he just wanted to help. Well Tipu, I wish you all the good karma in the world. Adding to the positivity of my afternoon, I realized that since I covered the first 2.2 miles on my own two feet, I still got the feeling of triumph for my afternoon’s adventure.
Now it’s time to get some rest on this overnight train and soak in my last few days of life in the USA before departing on my Asian adventure!
I’ve accumulated quite a few good ones in my day.
This past weekend in NYC visiting Katelyn, we were enjoying an evening in Manhattan, strolling around, chatting and people watching. Eventually we decided to go into Walgreen’s to get a drink. I walked through the door, and I unexpectedly registered recognition as I saw my friend Lucy from Harvard (who actually lives in Boston) standing at the register.
(a picture of Lucy and I from senior year)
After excited hugs and laughter, Lucy informed me that it was Harvard Alumni night at the bar around the corner, making this an even funnier coincidence. It sounded almost too comical to be real, but needless to say, Katelyn and I stopped by the bar and I saw some friends and some other familiar faces.
It’s always funny to look back and consider all the factors that led to the chance encounter at Walgreen’s. What if we turned right instead of left out of the subway? Or what if we spent a few extra minutes listening to the drumming group in the park? There are so many seemingly unimportant decisions whose consequences that piece together perfectly into a random, fun story.
In my first attempt at a blog when I first moved to Madagascar, I shared a small world story so that others could share that “wow” feeling that so often accompanies less-than-traditional coincidences and run-ins. I wrote this back on January 6, 2009: “this story is just a little crazy but worth writing about, but mainly for those from PA. i was on the main avenue of town around new years where there were carnival games and tons of people, but i was at a booth and i look to my left and i saw a springford sting sweatshirt, hailing from collegeville, pa written on the back. not only was i stunned to see collegeville, pa on a sweatshirt halfway around the world, but katie u., one of my friends from high school played for sting!! unfortunately my lack of french kept me from talking to the guy and my slow hands kept me from taking a picture, but i told katie that the shirt said ‘sarah’ and #21, apparently one of her old teammates ironically enough, so she emailed sarah, and sarah apparently left it at a goodwill at some point, so i will leave it up to all of you to decide how the heck it got to anatananarivo, madagascar on a guy standing next to me.”
How about this one?
While hiding away from the political revolution in Madagascar, there was another American named Sawyer who by chance had connected with our group and was staying with us to avoid the drama and violence downtown. I didn’t get to know him very well because it wasn’t long after he arrived that I left Madagascar.
(photo as I was walking out the door to leave Madagascar, Sawyer is the one on the right.)
Fast forward to Senegal about 2 months later. I was visiting a Peace Corps volunteer for the first time in her home village on the coast to explore more of the country. Our plan for my only night in the area was to meet some other Americans for dinner who worked with her on environmental projects. When she mentioned what organization they came from, I recognized the name. I casually mentioned that I knew someone who worked for that organization in Madagascar (Yes, Sawyer). My friend then proceeded to inform me that the guy she was referring to was originally stationed in Madagascar. I guess you can imagine where this is going, but basically, it turned out to be the same person. He still had no idea I had figured this out, so I decided to surprise him. When he finally arrived at the restaurant and saw me sitting at the table, I laughed as I watched his eyes twitch with recognition then light up with laughter looking at me from across the restaurant. Needless to say it was fun to reminisce and marvel over the fact that we went from hiding in the same house from a coup in Madagascar to a small village in eastern Senegal without ever communicating in between or really even knowing what happened to each other after Madagascar.
Now am I a magnet of coincidence or am I a victim/beneficiary of the artistry of fate? I doubt I’ll ever know, nor do I need to, because I always enjoy my small world stories.
One of my co-workers at my new school was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar in 2001. His time was cut short by a coup d’etat led by Marc Ravalomanana, who, coincidentally enough, was the same president to be ousted by the coup d’etat that led to my eventual departure from the island in February of 2009.
Hints of growing discontent
I began to hear word that the mayor of Antananarivo (the capital city, on the right) was holding “meetings” about democracy that were against the president of the country, Marc Ravalomanana (on the left). Although I had no prior knowledge of the political dynamics of Madagascar, I began to pick up on where the discontent spurred from by talking to the people I had met in the city. Ravalomanana, aka the Yogurt Tycoon, had monopolies on many products. Try buying yogurt that didn’t have the president’s brand name on it– it was impossible. Couple that with the fact that in the months prior to the revolution, he had purchased a $60 million “presidential airplane” while the rest of the country struggled with extreme poverty.
Interestingly enough, getting my news from the people rather than the television also gave me a different slant to the story. I learned very quickly that Madagascar’s elite class had drama that read like a cover of US Weekly, with history and personal vendettas that only intensified the rivalry. Andry Rajoelina (did I mention he was a 34-year-old ex-DJ?) had once been in a relationship with Ravalomanana’s daughter, but from what I’m guessing, it didn’t end well based on the residual conflict. Take that, and add to it the fact that Ravalomanana shut down Andry’s television station after it aired an unfavorable interview about the president, and you are starting to see how this conflict got real complicated, real fast.
Building the foundation for revolution
Intrigued by the idea of the “meetings” that Andry was holding downtown, I ventured down with my camera (and mace, just in case) to see if I couldn’t get a better sense of what was going on. The first large “meeting” I went to was absolutely packed with people. The fenced in park was full, with lines of people pressed against the fences and sitting on the surrounding hilltops and houses, all just to hear the mayor’s speeches about freedom and democracy.
Desperate attempts to rally support
In the face of Andry’s growing popularity, Ravalomanana made efforts to bolster his popular support. One afternoon, I noticed people lining the streets by my hostel holding signs for Ravalomanana’s political party. Apparently people were posted all along the road into town, awaiting the president’s procession to downtown that evening. I started filming from my window when I thought it was getting exciting and the president was going to come, but it wasn’t until the second video that he actually made an appearance (he liked to build a dramatic entrance, I guess). Both videos give an idea of the fanfare that the president tried to surround himself with amidst the growing support for the opposition. The guy that worked at my hostel was convinced that he had paid the people to make it look like he had more support than he did, but I have no idea what the true situation was.
January 26th, 2009- Lundi Noir (Black Monday)
The next day, on the day that went down in Madagascar’s history as Black Monday, Andry launched his first city wide march against the president. Starting from the Place de l’independence in the heart of downtown Antananarivo, thousands of Andry’s supporters went throughout the town, wearing the color orange as a mark of pacifism. (They were not looking to create a violent conflict). It was on this day that on a morning errand I spotted a huge group of people marching towards downtown. My Malagasy friend who had accompanied me explained what was going on, and I quickly ran back to my room to grab my camera and get a closer look.
I made it down to the Place de l’Independence to catch the march kicking off:
On a side note, Antananarivo is almost like San Francisco in terms of the hills and the view points. This made it easy for me to get high up and look down on the action without being right in it.
Here was more of the march from another part of the city, at a higher vantage point:
And a bit more before things started to get ugly:
A turn for the worse
The march turned chaotic rather quickly. I’m not sure what sparked it, but it wasn’t long before I started to see pillars of black smoke rising from the horizon and people charging through the streets screaming. As time went by more and more pillars rose out of the tree line and more unpredictable crowds were tearing through the city. From my hostel window, the employee speculated what was in that general direction of each pillar of smoke– the TV station, the president’s grocery store, the president’s warehouse, and it became obvious what the protestors were targetting.
We never quite determined exactly what people were running from because there wasn’t any gunfire or violence from police or military, but the tension was palpable.
There were people who lost their lives that day, but most were killed indirectly. One of the buildings that had been looted and torched collapsed before all of the looters had gotten out. There were also other incidents like that from the crowds and the chaos. The day after, I went to explore the damage, in particular the Radio and TV building that housed the station Ravalomanana had shut down.
Many people were walking around doing the same thing I was– trying to figure out if what we were looking at was a dream or not.
By African political upheaval standards, the conflict was relatively tame without street violence or firearms. Regardless, this unexpected turn to destruction and chaos put the entire city on caution mode. Stores and restaurants shut down, mostly to protect themselves from potential looting, and street vendors vanished. I was lucky that the day before I had run into other foreigners I knew and was able to stay at their house with them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even been able to buy food.
By virtue of the connections of my foreign friends, we had a safe place to stay outside the city. We all agreed it was best to get ourselves out of downtown and let things settle. We were graciously accepted as guests of an upper class Malagasy family who was (don’t ask me how I get myself into these situations) cousins of the mayor, Andry. Small world I guess? Anyway, we started to understand the political tensions from a more personal perspective through the voice of a family that had been intimately involved in Madagascar’s politics for years. Just when we thought the boat had been rocked enough, we got word (albeit a little early being that we were staying with direct family) that Andry had officially declared himself president and the “official” coup d’etat had begun.
The political situation kept us indoors for a while, and their home became somewhat of a safe house for people who had nowhere else to go. We had a hodge-podge mix of nationalities and situations who had in one way or another been connected to the family. It was through this group that I got connected to CNN and shared some of my footage. Click here to see my iReport for CNN!
The activity had calmed down in the city pretty quickly despite Andry’s declaration of power, and after a few days of playing Space Pinball on a laptop, cabin fever really started to kick in. Since things seemed relatively stable it wasn’t long before we were back downtown trying to restart our lives.
Life in Madagascar take 2
I resumed my life in Madagascar almost as if we hadn’t had that little blip of political turmoil. The only real reminder that we were technically still in a “coup d’etat” was the armor clad soldiers who now paraded the streets.
Despite all that, the city was almost back to normal, shops were opening again, and we all began to believe that maybe everything was going to be OK after all. Andry did nothing immediately after bold declaration and we all thought perhaps he had lost his momentum.
February 7, 2009: Samedi Rouge (Red Saturday)
With almost a week of calm back in Antananarivo, we didn’t think much of a march that Andry had planned for the coming weekend. Convinced he was on the outs, we went about our day as usual. I was sitting in the house with my foreign friends eating lunch that afternoon when out of nowhere our conversation was silenced by the sound of rapid gunfire. I remember us staring at each other with utter disbelief. I think we spent a few seconds in our heads trying to find some way to make the sounds be not what we thought they were, but the situation had obviously taken a turn for the worse. Our house was positioned behind the Presidential Palace, only a few minutes walk away, and from the balcony of the house we could hear the people yelling, see the military cars heading towards the palace, and hear the unnerving sound of guns. The video below was taken from our balcony a little later in the afternoon when the gunfire was more sporadic, but still chilling. The roof behind the tree line is the Presidential Palace:
As the day went on, we pieced together more and more of what had happened. Andry’s protest marched on the palace, but Ravalomanana had placed mercenaries in the palace with orders to shoot “anything that moves in a 360 degree radius”. The protesters were completely unarmed. The Malagasy people were outraged, as the overwhelmingly accepted code of conduct among the people was that “Malagasy’s don’t kill other Malagasy’s”, and any remaining support Ravalomanana had had among the people was immediately gone.
Needless to say, we made a rather unanimous decision to retreat back to our safehouse. Madagascar’s weak economy was tanking, suffering from the political instability that caused many foreigners to cancel tourist reservations and pull business investments. It was all too obvious that the situation was going to get a lot worse before it got better and I decided to leave to restart my fellowship adventure elsewhere (which ended up being Senegal). Despite what I witnessed in my turbulent month and a half in Madagascar, I still hope one day I will have the opportunity to go back.
In starting my new job, I was thinking about new beginnings and I thought back on when I first arrived in Madagascar on December 27th, 2008.
I had received the Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship from Harvard with the intention of working with disabilities. Infused with the spirit of adventure and independence from the fellowship, I decided to try life in Madagascar, a world completely unknown to me. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity that had been given to me and do something I otherwise might never do.
With these ideas in mind, I booked my tickets to Madagascar. I knew English wasn’t widely spoken, nor did I speak French or Malagasy (but I was eager to learn them!), and only knowing where I would be spending my first night. I didn’t have any disability contacts in the country, and only had two e-mail addresses of people in the country of distant contacts who I could try to meet.
When I think back on that first morning when I arrived at the airport, I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach that I felt on my first drive into the capitol called Antananarivo, and the reality check of this new beginning. I arrived without a hitch to my hotel that I had booked from the US, and breathed a sigh of relief in my new room, with a view over the city of my new home away from home.
It wasn’t long before my chest grew heavy with the weight of anxiety over my situation. What was I going to do from here? How did I start? Where was I going to sleep my second night? (I needed to find a cheaper option) I spent a while looking out my window down the street and observing my new surroundings before I mustered the courage to leave the room and explore.
I remember my first walk down that street, not sure what to make of it all and submerged in a completely new world. Immediately overwhelmed by my inability to communicate and struck by the attention I received as a “Faza” (white person). I realized that anonymity was not a realistic desire. You don’t realize how nice it is to sit in a coffee shop and blend in when you want some time to yourself until you know what it’s like to stand out like a sore thumb everywhere you turn.
I had attempted to memorize the map of Antananarivo from the Lonely Planet while still in the hotel, not wanting to pull out the book on the street and brand myself as a novice to the city. Despite a few wrong turns and accidentally walking into the restricted area in front of the presidential palace (oops!), I managed to find a cheap hostel just a short walk from the hotel. I moved there the next day after check out, and felt pride in the success of my first small but significant accomplishment.
I was struck by the beauty of Antananarivo, and the view from my new room was a constant reminder:
And here’s a view in motion:
A few days after I arrived, I watched fireworks from my hostel window to ring in 2009 and begin my yearlong post-college adventure. I was excited at the prospects of my journey and seeing how I could grow from it.
As I write this now, I can look back at the scenario I willingly put myself in when I left Pennsylvania and can understand why the majority of people in my family thought perhaps I was a little crazy. However, when I think about throwing my bag on my back and embarking on my completely autonomous adventure, I remember feeling invigorated by the vision of the fellowship, ready to test my comfort zones. I was ready to discover a new world and ultimately, a new me.