Preamble

We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 17) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Cotonou, Benin West Africa on the M/V Africa Mercy, the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, through Mercy Ships International. God has called us on a journey that has been many years in the making. For this season we call West Africa home as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.



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Saturday, June 04, 2016

On Tour!

 A trip in Africa in the places we serve usually involves some or all of these......sand, mud, heat, humidity, rain, bartering, getting lost, someone being sick, conversations or parts of them lost in translation, rain, lush beauty, being laughed at, traffic, rain, mosquitos and other bugs, beautiful beaches and lots and lots of fun! Memories are made that will be cherished forever, looked back upon, retold and expanded like the size of the fish.

So when some friends offered us a trip to Antananarivo (or Tana), the nation's capital, over Easter, promising an adventure, we jumped at the chance! We began our journey at 4:00am as we were taking our friend's family, who had been guests on board, to the airport in Tana. A large percentage of our crew fly into Tana and take a bus to the ship in Tamatave.
 
As we travelled out of Tamatave I was amazed at the number of people beginning their day so early in the morning, walking along the side of the road carrying large loads, when normally I would be snug in my bed. The sun rose behind us in brilliant oranges and reds, the weather sticky and warm, even at that hour of the day. We watched the signposts of Malagasy town names flash by as we continued our windy, mountainous journey. Lush greenery surrounded us on every side and we began to see a different side of the island.
 


After a few hours on the road we made a pit stop at a roadside Pizzeria, of all things. We got the owners out of bed! It was definitely time for coffee!!

Jess was none to happy about the early morning start and after I drugged her with Dramamine for motion sickness, it was a little hard to rouse her to get out of the car.

A photo cannot capture the beautiful countryside. Whereas Tamatave is pretty much completely flat, Tana is at a much higher elevation and is full of steep streets.

After ten hours on the road averaging around 60km per hour, we barely made it to the airport in time after mistaking a "shortcut" for a much longer route, right throughout the heart of downtown Tana into the most maddening traffic you can imagine in a large four wheel drive through teeny, tiny streets. As we hurriedly tried to get all the bags off the roof rack of the car, we were surrounded by children begging for money, "Madame, Monsieur, S'il vous plaît". We raced inside and lined up, only to hear the announcement that the check in for our friend's family's flight had closed. Some urgent negotiations followed and they just made their flight.

It was a breath of fresh air to finally arrive at our bungalow at a guest house on the outskirts of Tana, after a late and rather nondescript lunch at the airport. Above Jess stands outside our bungalow. Below, the dining room and guest sunroom.

 

The guest house had some fun residents and Jess was very excited to finally be able to pat a dog without the fear of rabies! There was also a rather sociable turtle getting around as well. What would any respectable guest house be without a pet turtle?

 

Beautiful, fragrant frangipani outside our room.

Andrew looking rather relaxed! We then headed out to dinner at a Creperie. How very French of us! As we began to eat, the heavens opened up into a most spectacular fashion,  with a thunder and lightening show and torrents of rain rushing down the narrow streets. We were drenched running from the restaurant to the car, even with the friendly "umbrella man" to escort us. On the way back to the guest house, the traffic was just as hideous and we got caught in a gridlock. Our find Joe performed an amazing manoeuvre to get us out, admits the cacophony of horns from irritated motorists and lashing rain.

After falling asleep to the sound of rain on the roof, a sound we rarely get to hear anymore, we arose nice and early for a scrumptious breakfast in the guest house dining room. Let the day's adventures begin! We were all pretty excited about our plan to visit an actual shopping centre, a never before done activity, for us, in a host nation!! Three indoor stories of glass and shopfront, even an Apple Store!!!! Culture shock much! I remember thinking how odd it was walking into a Claires/Kleins like store and buying Jess some earrings but not paying in Euros, US dollars, the Pound or the Australian dollar, but the Malagasy Ariary. How very strange....

We were stunned by the sight of  Food Court! I was enraptured by my Magnum Black Espresso ice cream that had not been re-frozen! We had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the busy streets of Tana.

Above......after our trip to the mall, we took a little drive through the city and found a cute little place that promised cookies! So we had to stop and I was a very excited to have a milkshake topped with whipped cream!

Tana traffic through what I coined as Asian West Africa. I think we spent more hours in traffic than we did out of the car! Luckily there was so much to look at everywhere we went from bustling street vendors to rice paddies to colourful little shops and men hand making asphalt.
 

These cute little Renault 4/Citroën 2CV taxis were everywhere in Tana as, unlike, Tamatave, tuk tuks and pousse pousses are not present. We managed to score a miniature tin model after some sidewalk shopping and bargaining, also picking up a pot trivet made of bottle caps of all the drinks available in Madagascar. I love to collect bottle caps from all the different counties we go to, so it was a lovely addition to my collection. I think we got a good deal!

Street sights....Soupe Chinoise or Chinese Soup anyone? A regular staple on the Malagasy menu where the Asian influence is very evident! #bestspringrollseva

A colourful shop advertising said drinks, my all time favourite in Madagascar being Grenadine, reminiscent of Australian Creamy Soda!

A pictorial reminder of why we are here. Tana was an eclectic mix of slums and grand colonial mansions dispersed with the traditional red earth brick homes. Poverty is rife in Madagascar and in some ways, the huge gap between rich and poor was even more apparent in Tana than in Tamatave. 

How so many Malagasy feed their families and make a difficult and backbreaking living, working the rice paddies right in the middle of town.

After battling the traffic we made it to the highest point in Tana, the Queen's Palace, last occupied by a Queen in the 18th century. The palace was destroyed almost completely by fire in 1995, leaving only the stone walls of the building. The palace belongs to a complex of a further seven monuments, which originally occupied the Royal Palace complex, also called Rova which is translated into the word fort. Above is the chapel, which is still intact and used today for special events for the Presidential family.

A statue at the palace.

The view was pretty amazing from the palace. We could see right over Tana in all directions!

 

Looking down over a slum area.

Another view over the city centre including the "heart shaped" lake, Lac Anosy. For those Amazing Race fans, season 10 of the Amazing Race include a leg in Antananarivo, Madagascar!

Us at the palace with our friends from Chicago, nurse Jessica and Transportation Manager, Joe.

We had a fantastic Malagasy guide at the palace, who took great pleasure is giving us all kinds of history, facts and titbits, some a little dubious but fun nevertheless, such as the web from this spider is used to make Kevlar vests! Jess was game enough to hold the big, scary Malagasy spider!! 

This is our guide! Apparently the word about Mercy Ships has spread far and wide and he was profusely thankful for all Mercy Ships had done in his nation. It was so touching to know that we have really made a difference in this massive country! Just before we left, Andrew gave our guide his Mercy Ships cap. The guide was so happy and excited. We watched him as we left and he was showing all the other guides.

Next we headed into town for a closer look at the sights. Taking a leaf out of Hollywood, the giant Antananarivo sign with the Queen's Palace to the right, stands tall and proud.  

We took a little stroll to the middle of Lac Anosy as there was a pathway. Amazing Race fact.....upon arriving in Antananarivo, teams traveled to Lac Anosy and had to find the Black Angel statue in the middle of the lake, to encounter the very first Intersection of the Race. Another fact.......the Back Angel statue was painted white because locals thought it looked "dirty".

On our walk we attracted a lot of attention from the locals. Being a rather seedy area, we were the only "vaza's" (Malagasy for white man) in sight and we certainly drew some curious stares. Luckily we were not mugged  after disregarding Lonely Planet's advice to avoid the lake after lunch, but we did have some cute little girls follow us around, giggling and chattering away in their mother tounge.

The Black Angel statue in the centre of Lac Anosy.

After a very busy day of sightseeing, we stopped in at the Sakamanga (Black Cat) for dinner, supposedly Tana's number one restaurant. It was still pretty cheap and the place was packed. We had a nice meal as the skys opened up yet again and we were treated to another massive downpour and awesome thunder and lightening show. Once again we were drenched getting to the car. For us it was a bit of fun but for the local people of Tana it is a complete disruption to their lives, flooding their streets, their homes and their businesses. Flooding has even taken lives and displaced over 20,000 peole in Tana, just while we have been here in Madagascar!

The next day we had to head back to the ship. This time we could take it at a more leisurely pace which was good fortune as we got stuck in the now familiar Tana traffic. We were struck again by the beauty and stunning shades of greenery along the way. Soaring mountains, rushing rivers and waterfalls crashing down ravines surrounded us at every turn, a visual feast. We saw men selling bananas on the side of the road and tiny villages dotted the edges of the highway every few kilometres. Colourful, chaotic and beautiful.

There is a darker side to this beauty, We were disturbed by the many accidents on the notorious, windy road. One of our day crew lost their father on this highway and we saw several over turned trucks and smashed cars along the journey. At one point we stopped as we saw a wailing women carrying a limp bodied child along the road side, fearing that a car had gone over the cliff,  but there were so many vehicles and people already perched precariously on the verge that we felt helpless and decided to move on. The language barrier and our lack of equipment would have served no purpose. We craned our necks as we rounded the corner but didn't see a car in the ravine. We were quite for a while after that. No ambulances, not hearses, no medical treatment for the poor......


We did have time to make a stop at the Mercy Ships Agricultural site. It was the first time I had a chance to go see where the "Food for Life" program, that takes place in every field service location, was held, as they are usually located so far from the ship. It was so encouraging to see the work that had been done to provide successful agricultural training to over 50 in country NGO staff who serve as consultants to local farmers. The goal of the Food for Life program is to improve food security in Madagascar by increasing farming capacity and I think that goal was achieved!

The photo above this script is of Elipahz, who is a crew member of the Africa Mercy but has been the Ag Site Team Leader for as long as we have been on board. He does an amazing job and being a native French speaker from Benin, he is able to relate to those he is training on a more holistic level.

All kind of crops had been planted, from bananas to guava to corn to pumpkins! There is a green house, an aquaponics set up, chicken for eggs and meat, and a very successful rabbit breeding program. :) Above is a gorgeous sunflower. Took this photo just because.......

In keeping with the petting zoo theme of the trip, we were all pretty exited to hold the baby rabbits, except our friend Jessica who got peed on! :) Our Jess loved holding this soft, cuddly bunny. Kind of fitting since we were there at Easter, I think!

Once more photo from the ten hour trip back to the ship. (not including stops!). We stopped at the largest town on the highway between Tana and Tamatave. Moramanga for lunch in what could best be described as a Malagasy road side diner.  Moramanga is the only town large enough to support pousse pousses, on the whole highway.

We finally made it back to Tamatave at around 7:00pm and finished a great adventure with a simple meal at our favourite hotel in Tamatave, The Calypso.

* Sand- check
* Mud- big check
* Heat and humidity- check
* Rain- big check
* Bartering- check
* Getting lost- big check
* Someone being sick- check 
* Conversations or parts of them lost in translation- check
* Lush beauty- big check
* Being laughed at- check
* Traffic- big check
* Mosquitos and other bugs- big check 
* Beautiful beaches- not quite, we were inland after all! :)
* Lots and lots of fun- BIG CHECK!