Jeff's main page can be found at http://web.mit.edu/iggy/Jeff.
This page is the letter that Jeff sent on: March 10, 2000
How are you? I'm fine, thanks. But enough idle pleasantries.
Let's talk about the Peace Corps. We have entered the 21st Century, and in some respects, the Peace Corps (in my experience) is no longer like the image that you probably have in your head. I have electricity in my house, my mud hut is made of cement, my water comes from a faucet not a river, and the wild animals outside my walls each night are pigs and dogs, not hyenas and elephants. I live in one of the larger towns in Madagascar (although it's no bigger than the small village I grew up in in America) and I'm not digging latrines or hacking trails through jungles - I'm just a boring, old English Teacher. The Peace Corps, however, has not lost all of its charm and mystique. The third world is, after all, still the third world, and with it comes adventure, no matter how you slice it.
You may or may not know that Madagascar has recently been hit by a few cyclones (a Southern Hemisphere term for hurricane). Yes, its cyclone season in the Indian Ocean, and the last one, appropriately named Gloria, barged heads with my town, Andapa, and its environs. Perhaps it came to greet my friend Katie, here for a short visit, or perhaps it meant to prove that the old adage about March coming in like a lion applies to the Southern Hemisphere too. I can't comment on its motives, but I can describe its effects. The most reliable estimate I've heard is that 40 people died in the Andapa area, most as a result of houses being washed away by streams turning into rivers in the night. I've heard talk of some small villages being entirely or mostly washed away by floods. The town of Andapa itself suffered few casualties (human or structural) and other than a little water on the floor, my house was fine.
The rats who live in my roof, however, either disoriented by the storm or taking the turmoil as an opportunity to wreak some havoc of their own, decided to descend briefly from their nests and bite my friend Katie on the foot in her sleep. The bite itself was quite benign, but it meant that she had to get to Tana (the capital) rather quickly for precautionary rabies shots. Normally, getting to Tana entails a 3 hour taxi-brusse ride to Sambava to catch an airplane to Tana. However, during the cyclone, as my French friend put it, "La montagne est tombe sur la route." Yes folks, the mountain fell on the road, and no cars were getting through.
On Saturday (the cyclone had hit Wednesday night), we encountered someone in Andapa who had just arrived from Sambava. Apparently, the road was only blocked for about 27 km outside of Andapa. Beyond that, there were mudslides, but minor enough to still be passable. The mountainous stretch of road, from Andapa to a village called Belambo, was all that was impassible by car. If you traveled this distance by foot, you could get a car in Belambo going to Sambava. So, that's what Katie and I decided to do.
The next plane from Sambava to Tana was scheduled for Monday afternoon, so we left Andapa at 6AM Sunday morning. The mudslides were longer and deeper than I had expected, but I guess that's what you get when a mountain falls on a road. Some could be traveled in 5 strides, others took 5 minutes of careful maneuvering, since the mud was still relatively fresh, a few times we sunk in goo up to our shins! Some of the slides were strewn with boulders, trees, branches and other natural refuse.
After just over 7 hours of strenuous hiking, along a paved road, but through the mountains and over and around 10-15 significant mudslides, we heard the glorious clamor of an engine. We were just less than 25 km outside of Andapa. Out of the distance appeared a taxi-brusse loaded with people, about to begin the trek we had just completed. We flagged her down and covered the remaining 80 km to Sambava in about 3 hours, arriving en ville at about 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday. Our plan had worked out just how we had figured it. However, as if to remind us that this is still Madagascar and so plans never work out just as they are figured, at the appointed time on Monday afternoon, the plane didn't show up. Just a minor glitch, however by Malagasy standard, as the plane did arrive the next day (only about 20 hours late) and whisked Katie off to Tana for her rabies shots.
Wednesday morning I set off alone for the return trip. After a 3 hour taxi-brusse ride to Belambo, I traveled the final 24 km on foot in just over 5 hours. Along the way I met my Russian-, French-, and English-speaking Malagasy friend, about 20 km outside of Andapa who informed me that he had just begun a trip to Tana by foot (I found him drinking moonshine, Malagasy rum called Betsa Betsa "for force"), 2 Australian precious stone-seekers with a team of Malagasy hacking trails through the mudslides for their 4x4s, and a nice Malagasy man of Chinese descent who managed to produce cold Coca-Cola in a town with no electricity. But alas, these are characters for another novel on another day.
Today, life is back to "business as usual," teaching English and general being (as someone more intelligent than I once said) "A stranger in a strange land".
Take care and keep in touch,