This is the story of Jim and Mary Margaret Van Damme's trip to see Kateri in Madagascar in August 2008. It was mostly written by MM because she took notes on everything. Jim took most of the photos.
Have a look at our photos on Picasa, if you haven't already. We haven't figured out how to embed their photos in our document yet. And those are our best ones.  Many of our pictures on Picasa have locations associated, so check out the map in satellite view.

This isn't a blog because we were usually far from the Internet. Sorry if the narrative is a little rough in places but it took a long time to transcribe.

Friday, Aug. 15, 2008. Can it be that long since we left Rome at 9:30 AM on our way to see Kateri?!
After the "threat" of missing our flight to Paris ("Yesterday your 2 PM flight from Albany to JFK left at 10 PM.  Want to take a train?"), we were able to catch an earlier flight that had been delayed.  Whew!    So then we waited at JFK, and had lovely flights to Paris and then to Madagascar: good food with wine, and sights of the Alps covered in snow, and the volcano on Sicily spewing smoke, and the blue Mediterranean with lovely beaches, and the sands of north Africa, and a thunderstorm from above.

Kateri greeted us with open arms!  (The driver that came to pick her up at the Peace Corps place was turned away by the security guy for reasons unknown, and Kateri threw a fit...and then risked her life by travelling solo in a taxi to the airport.)

The next morning we walked to church for the Malagasy Mass. Lots of cool music! ...and a fake flame next to the tabernacle.

After that we started our immersion into Malalagsy life with a walk down the stairs (about 100?) from our hotel-on-the-hill to the market. On the stairs we ran a gauntlet of people trying to sell us things.  Kateri taught us, "Tsi mila!" (I don't need it!")

There was a nice art show.  The strawberries looked lovely...but we couldn't eat them.  sigh  (Those little pits harbor E. Coli and does lettuce and every other  raw fruit and vegetable.)  We walked around town, down Independence Avenue, which has the only traffic light in the country:

Then we took a taxi-be (mini-van that serves as a city bus) to the Peace Corps house (MEVA).  Met some of the folks there, then went to eat lunch at Nirvana (see pix) where I had the server "magaga"  (surprised) with my "Misoatra (thank you)."  Kateri said he called me a "le be " (lee bay) important/oldperson.  We had dinner with Becca, another Peace Corps friend. 

Delicious chicken...but so thin! (Most of the chickens in Madagascar are pretty scrawny). Had some Three Horses Beer, the national swill. Hard to say why it has an English name that the Malagasy can't pronounce; they just call it THB. Becca went back in a taxi, and we hiked back to the hotel in the dark.  Thank God for flashlights!    I had a tough time getting to sleep as Kateri assured me that when we left Tana the next day, I would see the real Madagascar.
Monday, August 18th we went down the stairs/gauntlet.

I forgot to mention that my first and lasting impression of Tana is: people!  Masses and masses of people!  Everyone seems to be outside.  All 1.5 million.      There is not one traffic light in the whole country, so crossing streets is fun.  Oh...and the smells, yes! Mostly bad.   As Kateri said: Burning garbage and pee. Choking clouds of diesel exhaust. Sometimes worse. 
We strolled through a Galleria...which was pretty empty of people as the goods were so expensive. There was a guard at the door to keep out riff-raff. Then we took a taxi-be to look at the big lake (the name means Big Lake with an Island)...and find a bank to exchange money for some Gasy money for our upcoming trip to the North.  Yes, they have a sign that is like HOLLYWOOD. :-)

The memorial on the island in the lake is a statue that looks like the Mormon's Moroni. (Moroni is also an island near Madagascar. hmmmmm)   BTW: businesses close between noon and two, except for food.
Then, in the heat of the day, we continued walking around...the stadium, little food stands (where we bought water...ahhh...and those little "turkey onion snacks).

Saw the big AIDS monument...

and looked through the market that was now open

...and I bought my blue hat, which came in VERY handy during the trip.
Then we hiked to The Cookie Shop for 1PM lunch with Molly, another PC friend.  We had pizza bagels...and shared a brownie sundae.(and can't find the picture I thought we had taken by the waiter...)  There we could eat ice cream!  Then we taxied back to the hotel, then to the brousse station for our 3PM taxi-brousse to Antsihohy.

The taxi-brousse station: An Experience in itself!  It appears to be chaos...but it works.

 It's a huge outside place with minivans and such parked tightly.  People actually make reservations..or you may not get the earlier brousse.  Kateri made ours for 3PM for  a good brousse.  We had our luggage put on top and Kateri warned us that it would be hours before we left!  We waited...and had vendors come around, and watched the nearby river get more abuse (used as a toilet by all the men, all the time, Jim saw a guy change his oil and dump it in).
We all got in (only about 22 of us) and finally left about 5:20.  We had to stop about 6:30 PM to have a back tire changed. We weren't out of Tana yet.

The we drove on, into the night, on the curving road North.  The moon was full, and we could see the landscape changing...from city to rural.  The buildings changed to huts with thatched roofs, similar to Polynesian style.  Then we saw a fire...I thought it was a house, but we drove...and drove...and drove and finally realized that it was huge fields being burned off (so the new growth would be easier for the cattle/umbi to eat). We saw that over and over again. (In fact, our last glimpse of Madagascar when we were flying home: fires in the blackness.)
We stopped about 9-9:30 we stopped and had our first "local" Gasy food: beans and beef to add to rice, with water boiled in a burned-rice pot. (Yes, it tastes like burned rice...but, hey, it's drinkable and won't get you sick!)  A huge amount...all for about $2!
Then came the first pit pitch darkness (flashlights don't work too well).  Then back on the bus...with a "bathroom" stop about 3AM: side of the road, bright moon, white sand, no bushes, everyone out! :-)  Reality!!     THEN the road got really bad.  (In the summer rainy season it takes three days to get to Tana.  You must cross rivers by boat.)  But then the people were waking, and you could see umbi pulling carts, and later women carrying things on their heads to market, and men with axes and machetes going to their fields...and it was still dark.

It brightened about 5:30, and we hit the new road and drove speedily to Antsihohy.  We could see many of the beautiful Traveler's Palm trees that are portrayed on Air Madagascar (like a fan).  (Jim & Kateri had gotten some shut-eye.  I had only a little as I was so excited and didn't want to miss anything.)

At the taxi-brousse staion in Antsihohy, smaller but still crazy, Kateri had to get us a taxi-brousse to Mandritsara.  The "good/early" one was filled, so we had to go on another.  It was a huge thing with so many people on it!  Kateri go us the front seat, and she was crammed into the second row.  It was supposed to have 4...but they crammed in about 6.  (We had to wait again, and Kateri had her rice for breakfast, while we had coffee and tea.)

We left about 9:50...with many stops to pick up more people and pay off the gendarmes.  The road was bad.  We must have gone up some hills at 2mph.  (Kateri can sometimes leave there at 9:30 and get to M/sara at 1:30). We had one stop about 2-2:30, and had a meal at Kateri's favorite little place ( meatballs and rice and rice water )..and a bathroom of a field near a wall.

Then back on the bus...and more and more stops for people to buy food. 
Kateri did buy us some dried bananas wrapped in banana leaves, and also some yummy peanut brittle. More payoffs to the gendarmes...the scenery is getting to be mountainous.

We finally pulled into Kateri's city in the dark about 6:30.  Busy place!  We gathered our bags and followed Kateri to the hotel.  Our room was basic: bed and sink and a table. We had running cold water and electricity until 10 PM.

 We dumped our stuff, and then headed to Kateri's place...on the opposite side of the town (about a 10 minute walk).  We saw her rooms and then headed out to find a place to eat...but first looked for the Southern Cross, as there is no light pollution, and the night sky is awesome!     We got the "dregs" of the chicken dish and more rice, but it was good and filled our bellies.

We headed back to the hotel, and Kateri let us go the last bit by ourselves as she headed back to her place. I took a shower.  Not bad. Actually, it was a 55 gallon drum of cold water which you dumped over yourself with a bucket, but it was good to get clean.  (The windows of the taxi-brousses are always open: exhaust & dust.)

Jim then headed out to the shower, and I heard Kateri talking with him!  I went to look, but no Kateri.  I kept hearing her talking to her firiends, but when I Kateri.  It was crazy!!  Turned out, I was hearing voices!  Now I know how real they can be. (Kateri said it was probably because I was so tired.)  That night...slept well!

This is real Lamba cloth, by the way We are awakened in Hotel Pattes by a rooster and umbi carts outside on the road beyond the small porch.  We get up about 6:30 AM as Kateri is coming at 7 AM.  We are on a main road that is part of the rectangle of the town.

We came in from the North (road at the top); the hill with the post office is at center left, the market is in the middle, and Kateri's house and school are in the lower right with the bare ground.

This photo shows the market in the center with Kateri's place at upper left just to the right of the grassy airstrip. And no, it's not noisy, they get about one plane a month. 

Kateri shows up with little rice "pancakes"...yum!  We eat them with oranges and discuss the night before, as she assures me she stayed home and went to bed.

Then we head out to the daily market (where she had already bought the rice thing.) to buy the ingredients for lunch.  I wondered why she hadn't sent pictures...and it's because she lives there...and doesn't want to be seen as a tourist taking pictures. I could though...but NOT pictures of her buying!  So I went to a corner and took pictures.

She wouldn't even let us NEAR her when she was buying the we wouldn't be grossed out. The dried fish, anyhow, was covered with flies.
Then we headed to her place to do the laundry. 

It was a pleasant task.  And the clothes dried during the day, so we could pack them that evening!  

The concrete thing to the left is the faucet of the well. The structure to the right is Kateri's cabonet (shower, and toilet with no seat).

Then it was time to head out, after Kateri presented the boy next door and his friends with the balls we brought.  
First to see the rest of her "compound", where we met Raymond, her "go to guy" at the school.  He was presented with a two cd set of Tim McGraw, as he enjoys country music.  He is a little guy...and rides a huge motorcycle, which you can see in this picture.

Why is the water pipe exposed? Well, all we can figure is the mud washed away over many rainy seasons; about 6 inches or so.

Raymond wanted his picture taken by the picture of the world.  Cool! We didn't embarass the guy and ask where New York was.  I wonder how many New Yorkers know where Madagascar is?

Then we went from the main courtyard to behind the building with the World...and were able to see more classrooms, and the beautiful mountains, including the Holy Mountain with the concrete cross on top (she decided that we wouldn't climb that; it takes her 3 hours there and back), a nice garden, . . . and also her yard from the "outside". 

Now we head out across town, about a mile, to where she teaches the younger students,"CEG",  90 in the room.

It's a walk to see more of the town, and the people (I sent away the picture of a student we met / she named him "Jesus" because he used to have a full beard...), and included a stop at the hotel for our hats as the day was getting really warm... (Winter...ha!).
It was a little "out" of the town. We crossed a little river.  She explained that in the rainy season, she has to wade through that area!!  I'm glad we came in the winter.

We took the photo of Kateri reading the Rome Observer which graced the cover of their November 7, 2008 edition.

We looked at her classroom, and then shook hands with the headmaster.  Then we hiked "way back" to her place.
Lots to look at when not watching the road so I wouldn't break a leg.  I had to try to walk like the people there: lovely posture, as the women carry huge loads on their heads.

We love the flowers!!

On the way back from the CEG, we meet a guy on a bike...and we find out after a while that he is Econome, the man at the Lycee that she really likes.  We go to his home, in the Lycee compound, and meet his wife and granddaughter...and one son.  His wife knows French...but we don't. :-(

Kateri presents them with one of the French/English dictionaries.  Wonderful!!  Kateri told them we travelled on a taxi-brousse from Tana, and they were amazed.  Kateri said that we were travelling to Diego the next day, and also to Maroansetra, where Mrs Econome was from. Kateri later told us that they had never travelled to all the places we were going to...and could never afford it. Whew! They looked pretty rich, though; they had a freezer!

Then, at noon, we got to Kateri's and started on lunch. Wash your cucumbers in bleach. Pick the rocks out of your rice, and so on.
We received our Peace Corps Madagascar shirts, and looked at a book of Madagascar with great maps.

Then it was 2 PM, so we could head out again:
To the post office, a goodly walk and up a hill, to see if her blue card/ visitor's visa had come.  Then we checked at another place to see if it had come.  Nope.  (It was supposed to be renewed in June.  She was somewhat worried that someone would ask her for it...but, thankfully, they never did.)

Then we hiked see the bazaar, and the church, and stop to see one of her favorite students who watches her cat...but she wasn't there.  We DID meet her parents ...climbing up steps cut into the dirt of a hill, and through a tiny door into a house full of furniture and people,...and Kateri's cat!  We went to the bazaar and bought some lambas, then it was about 4:30 PM and we "split"...Kateri going home and us to the hotel to rest.

About 5:30 we walk over to Kateri's (about 10 minutes, we're getting to know the way), and we pack up the wash, and then wait for Kateri's favorite student, Bertan.  He had stopped in sooner, but wanted to meet us.  So we waited, and the sun set...  He finally showed up and we took pictures.  (Jim took 4 photos, and his eyes were closed in ALL of them. Mine had open eyes...but I mailed them to Kateri). 

At 6 we headed out to the "Fat Lady's" for brouchettes (umbi on a stick).  It was turning dark, so we hiked fast on the bad road.  Kateri bought us Fanta Cassis.  The soda there is made with sugar and not corn syrup...mmmm.  It was delicious and reminded me of Rock & Rye.  After that we tried to have it whenever we could. 

Then, since we were getting to know the city, we walked to the hotel ourselves and Kateri went home.  Pack pack for the rest of the trip...
Bed by 8:10!  Good night, Mandritsara!

21 Aug 2008
leaving Mandritsara + Antsohihy
I left off with us going to sleep in Mandritsara...but I forgot to tell you of the night sounds: dogs barking!  Kateri says that they take over the night as they can see better.  All day they are just kicked around, so at night they are mean. That is part of the reason why she couldn't go out when she was with her host family.

The next day, Thursday, Aug 21st, we woke at 6.  Kateri arrived with her backpack at 7, paid up our bill  (just over $8 for both nights!), and hiked to the taxi-brousse place and loaded up our bags...and waited. (Trip cost: about $8 each) We were off by 8!  It was a packed, but speedy van.

 It was fun knowing what we were going to see again.  I tried taking some pictures of the awesome scenery, but didn't do it justice (and got my fingers in just trying to keep the camera steady. )  We made only only one long stop, 10:30-11, at the same place and had our rice with little meatballs and the bathroom-outdoors-by-the-wall.

There were a few other pick-ups and drop-offs but they were fast, and we arrived in Antsohihy about 1:15...about 3.5 hours faster than the trip TO Mandritsara!  Kateri made reservations for the next morning for the early taxi-brousse to Diego...with no transfers. On her Easter trip they were scammed and almost stuck in a little town half-way, so she wanted to avoid a repeat.

Since it was sunny and warm (always warm there, says Kateri), we decided to splurge and take a taxi (about $2.50)(a LOT to Kateri!). We arrived at the hotel where Kateri had reservations: our room with toilet and shower, hers with just a shower.  Then we hauled our bags up to the fourth level. (The last step was about 12 inches.  Steps are never the same in Madagascar.) Lovely bottle of water on the table...but "Don't drink it!" as you can see that it was already opened and just refilled.

We took showers (so nice after those dusty rides) and rested.  Kateri came up, and we chatted and then headed out to dinner about 5:30, because I like to walk while I can still see (and it gets dark early, remember!). 

We headed to the restaurant where Kateri and her friends go and where the guy likes to act American, and the food is good. Cost: about $7 for all of us.   On the way there the boys all make calls to Kateri -even with us along!-  and she hates it, and disses them in Gasy.)

We're back to the hotel and in bed by...7PM!     We are woken by brightness, and I thought "What a short night!"...but it was the electricity and the lights back 10:30 PM!....Good-night, Antsohihy!

Aug 22nd: To Diego
Everyone told us about the enjoyable trip to Diego: beautiful scenery and a good road. We woke about 6 AM (I think this is where I heard what sounded like a ram's horn about 5, probably for the Muslims), and Kateri came up at 7, and we walked to breakfast.  We ordered omelettes...and saw them leave to buy the bread.  We got the bread and then waited and waited.  Finally we mentioned that we wanted omelettes...  Kateri made comments about the staff.

We made it back to the hotel to pick up our bags, check out, catch a taxi (which had to drop someone off first), and made it to the brousse area about 8:30 for our 9AM brousse. The lady assured us we were leaving at 9, yet Kateri was worried because they hadn't even sold all the seats yet!  The red one appeared to be going first...and Kateri was fuming!  She had reserved for 4 seats so we could have the whole 2nd row to ourselves. 

After waiting a bit, Kateri was approached by the company right next to us, saying they would put us on their bus, which was packed up and pretty full. Hmmm.....maybe we would!  Well, when the first lady-arranger saw that, she ordered our bags to be put on the red van, and Kateri had to snatch the money out of the other guy's hand as Jim was paying him.  WHEW!!

Yes, they scam whenever they can!  Kateri was assured over and over that we were straight to Diego.

So we left at 9:30, only to stop and wait for gas (they collect the fares, THEN buy gas), then we stopped...hmmm...why???   Oh, he received a cd player and it had to be wired in (you can ask the electrical engineer about that).  Finally we were off, and it was a great road!  The scenery was awesome, although the other riders probably wondered about us taking pictures. :-)

We stopped about 11:40 and one got off and one got a bicycle on top. About 1:15 we arrived on one side of Ambanja (about halfway on the map...), and found that our van was going to turn around and go back to Antsohihy. Uh-oh!!!  Not scammed again?!?!   Well, luckily, our stuff was put onto another van, and we get in and travel across the town to another brousse spot. 

Our new driver gets out,  loads up (22 people and 2 chickens)...and we soon travel back across town to the first stop.  We drive to the 2nd stop again, and get a new driver (Kateri said he was the best dressed one she ever saw), then back across town and get gas at 2:17, and then back to the 2nd stop, and load up more. A guy is now added to our row, the "man seat" they call it (fold-down jump seat), as he is the helper (?), and we are finally off to Diego at 2:26.
We're going along at a good pace, when a bit of excitement happens as a big bag fell off and had to be retrieved. (Kateri said she had never seen that happen before!) So we had an unexpected bathroom break, and Kateri had to warn me about the pricker bushes. (I was lucky and didn't have one.) 

We arrived in Ambilobe (about 60 miles from Ambnja) about 4:10.  A man with broom making materials got off.  We get out to see if there is water and Kateri buys herself an "icee" (made from school milk or something.  I don't trust it, myself), some water, and some little peanut brittles (about 100 ariary/7 cents each...and, oh, so good!).

 I decide to get back in and sit, and a new guy and his friend get in and the door is shut...and off I go with only a few others in the van! We start driving around the town, pick up a soldier,drive back to the stop.  I wave at Jim and Kateri (what do they do standing there for an hour?
...and the van takes off again!  The driver and his "helper" are pulling khat  leaves off a small branch and chewing them.  I wonder what is going on...  

We pick up a little girl, drive a bit around and drop her off, and then drive and the soldier goes in...and comes out with a group that looks like his family with children.  Jim's and Kateri's seats now are full!  ?!?!   We drive around all over town, I can't even remember if more get on then. 

Finally we get back to the stop and one lady in the front seat says , "Vahaza!"...and I shake my head, "Vahaza!!", so now the second row is cleared so Jim and Kateri can get in.

You can see the boy selling food from a tray...usually there are about 10 vendors around the van! And they keep packing more in...4 in the front seat, 5 in our row (remember we were supposed to have that row!), ... I think a total of 32 (Kateri counted 8 adults crammed in the back seat)...and back on the road about 5:10. (About 80 miles to go...)
Then the road got bad, and the sun the going got slow.    We arrived at the brousse station in Diego about 8:45, and got a taxi, and arrived at the hotel Kateri had reserved, the Belle Vue, about 9.  We checked in. (Nice bathroom!)  Jim and Kateri were so cold.  Jim was shaking!! We headed out for dinner at The Dragon, which has a thatched roof and thin sides, and it was windy. Brrrr. Dinner of  orange soda and mi sao (about $4 for all of us). At least walking can warm us a little? We were in bed by 10. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

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