Evacuated

June 26, 2009

I received a text message from the Peace Corps on March 12 to inform me that the Peace Corps Madagascar program was officially suspended. When soldiers at a military base near the capital decided to ignore all orders from their commander-in-chief, President Marc Ravalomanana, the Peace Corps decided that the country was too dangerous for volunteers to stay. The timing of their decision was perfect: Less than a week later tanks stormed the capital building and forced Ravalomanana to resign.  There have been protests, shootings, and failed discussions since.

The next morning I raced around my village with my bicycle, taking photos of the market, my favorite restaurants, my middle school, and the beach. I also said goodbye to the Malagasy friends I’d made in the last six months like Monique, Eric, and my neighbors. Bezara, the yogurt guy, gave me a souvenir Madagascar tank top and hand soap. Then I hitched a ride to the taxi-brousse station with two small bags and I left my village for good. Through all this I never cried though my heart felt like a wilted flower.

The next day we flew to Antananarivo. I rushed through a medical and a packet of administrative forms, and early next morning I was on a plane to South Africa. As I watched Madagascar become more and more distant through an airplane window heavy clouds obscured my view.

For the next week all Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers were holed up in a Johannesburg, South Africa hotel for more medical and paperwork. We ate in a restaurant akin to T.G.I. Friday’s every day and experienced culture shock at its menu—so many items, so many colors! Our rooms had clean beds and hot showers with wonderful water pressure. We had more alcohol to choose from than Three Horses Beer, and everyone spoke English and seemed very tall.

I terminated my relationship with the Peace Corps on March 18, sixteen months earlier than I’d expected. Although I could’ve attempted the difficult task of transferring to another country, I wanted to wait and see if Madagascar’s program would reopen. Today I’m still waiting.

In my Las Vegas home Michelle and I flip through photographs of everywhere we’ve been in the last year. There are nearly a thousand from Madagascar, and when we left that Johannesburg hotel to travel around Southern Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, we took another five hundred photographs. The photographs contain Malagasy friends, volunteers, ceremonies, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples. There are lemurs, chameleons, elephants, rhinos and wildebeest. There are volcanoes, train travels, waterfalls, orchids and lovebirds. Jungles, islands and beaches; safaris, bus trips, and plane rides. We flip through these photographs and I shake my head incredulously. How lucky, how awesomely lucky I’ve been to have experienced these things.

After being evacuated from Madagascar, a piece of me is still unfulfilled. I am no longer in my village. I’m no longer teaching English to my 600-something students, and my plans to help my community have been interrupted. But this is not a sad story, nor has it ended. It’s only on hiatus. It’ll take on new characters and new plots. There’ll be new conflicts, new resolutions, and new observations that’ll make you think. And in fact, stories much better than this one reveal themselves everyday. In innumerable ways there is and always will be good work to bring to others.


Consolidation, returning to site

February 18, 2009

For 18 days we volunteers were consolidated at a beachfront hotel in Antalaha. The sun beamed for most of the time and we listened to the Indian Ocean’s crashing waves from our rooms. The Peace Corps gave us money to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, so we indulged in luxurious foods like coconut shrimp, chocolate mousse, pizza and crab. During this time we read books, took long afternoon naps, listened to music and wrote in our journals.

But our consolidation period was far from relaxing. As we wiled away the 18 days we didn’t know what would happen to us. It was possible that at any moment the Peace Corps would call us and report that we’d be leaving Madagascar forever, and it was equally possible that we’d return to our villages and our work. We received daily text messages from the Peace Corps’ security officer that reported the news: the mayor of Antananarivo declaring himself President of Madagascar and creating an alternative national government, the opposition storming the presidential palace, the military shooting and killing over 20 protestors in the capital, airplanes set aflame elsewhere, crowds fleeing from tear gas and grenades, more lootings and violence. Each day we were certain to be returning to America, and then we’d receive a text message giving us hope of returning to our villages, but then only to be dashed by a second and contrary text message. Antalaha’s beautiful beach setting and our luxurious meals were always tainted by the thought that we could soon be leaving Madagascar.

I’m writing to you from Sambava. Most Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers have been cleared to return to their villages. From what I’ve gathered, however, many volunteers are still bracing for evacuation. While most of Madagascar is presently peaceful, the political crisis at the capital has not finished. The crisis could intensify; we could be removed from our villages again. Today I’m returning to my village with the hope that I’ll spend the rest of my Peace Corps service there. It has become a home to me—a very happy home—and I would hate to leave it.