Volunteers in northern Madagascar were gathering in Antalaha for a regional volunteer meeting the week of September 15. It would be a fun getaway for a few days, but all public teachers were to report to their schools the same week for meetings. My site partner, Monique, said I wouldn’t have to attend every meeting because I probably wouldn’t gain much from them. I hoped that when I went to the middle school principal, he’d give me permission to skip the meetings and go to Antalaha.
On September 15 I went to my middle school and had a conversation in Malagasy with the principal along the lines of, “Hello!” “Hello.” “What’s new?” “Nothing’s new.” “Do I need to go to all the meetings this week?” “Yes.” “OK.”
On the way out of his office Mr. Pascal rode up on his bicycle. Mr. Pascal is a high school English teacher and his English is excellent. “Thank God,” I said to him. “Can you help me talk to the director? I need a translator.” After telling him about the volunteer meeting in Antalaha, Mr. Pascal and I went to talk to the principal again. Mr. Pascal explained my situation to the principal for about ten seconds. The principal said something, then Mr. Pascal turned to me and said, “You can go to Antalaha.” “What? Really? I don’t need to go to any of the meetings?” I said. Mr. Pascal smiled. “Nope. Have a good time.”
By evening I arrived in Antalaha. After many hours in a taxi-brousse I walked around the town to stretch my legs. Shortly afterwards a girl looking about 17-years-old joined me. She insisted on speaking in French, but I insisted on speaking Malagasy. She was looking to meet French men. “Are you French?” she said. “No, I’m American.” “Where are you going?” “I’m meeting up with my friends at my friend’s house.” “Are your friends French?” “No, they’re all American.” “They’re not French?” “No, everyone is American.” “Will there be French people?” “No, I don’t know any French people.” “You don’t know any French people?” “No.”
We repeated this conversation a dozen times in a dozen different ways. I’m not sure she knew what America was or who Americans were. At one point we saw a foreigner walking into a hotel. I pointed to him and told her, “Look! There’s a French person! You should talk to him.” She laughed and then asked for the thirteenth time if I was French.
Antalaha is the vanilla capital of Madagascar, if not the world. You can feel its presence everywhere in the area. The road between Sambava and Antalaha is paved with street lines, there are foreigners everywhere in Antalaha, and the smell of vanilla floats to your nose as you walk by many parts of town. During our time in town, we volunteers had the opportunity to visit a vanilla factory where Malagasy workers were separated into performing different tasks by wearing different colored uniforms.
In Antalaha, the ocean waves crash noisily into white beaches and seafood is absurdly cheap. I saw my very first whale in Antalaha; it repeatedly crashed its tail into the water near the coast. Apart from a volunteer stepping on a sea urchin and then having to fly to Antananarivo to have its tiny spikes removed from his foot, our time in Antalaha was indeed a nice getaway. I’m still dreaming of the delicious fish samosas we ate there in a small hut by candlelight.