Following the well-worn, clay footpath to Ankoraka

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
Trip End May 12, 2008

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

As I searched for my watch in the darkness, I could still hear the rain drops on our metal roof. Today has been planned for a week on paper, but in our thoughts for months. The sky has been clear for the past two weeks, but precipitation finally falls today- should we go or wait? At daybreak we could see the dark-gray overcast of the thick stratus clouds blocking the heat of the tropical sun and a cloudy drizzle obstructed our normal view of the mountains in the distance. Those mountains are our destination. I put on layers, lined jogging pants, thick wool socks, a t-shirt, then a wool sweater, a raincoat, knee-high army green mud boots and topped it off with a wool hat- it was reminiscent of preparing to go snowmobiling on my Grandmother's farm on winter days after a fresh snowfall.
        As we rode out of town a steady flow of brightly dressed folks from the countryside passed us with curious looks. The women wore their woven hats to protect themselves from the rain, a colorful lamba wrapped around their waist and one fastened around their chest, holding their baby tight against their back. Men had on their Ankanjo be, colorful woven raffia jackets, to shield them from the rain in traditional Betsimasaraka fashion. Rarely alone, but always with a group; most likely their entire family leaving their home in ambanivohitra (the countryside) to head to the market. Each carried a load. The men had sacks of rice which far outweighed them, steadied on their shoulders, the boys with a bundle fastened to a bamboo pole and the girls with hand-woven baskets balanced effortlessly on their heads with freshly harvested vokatra spilling over the edges. While I had my eyes focused on the road directing my wheel away from the rocks jutting from the slippery mud path and aiming for the well-worn footpath, Aaron would greet the passerby's with a Manakory Aby! They'd respond with a smile, an overexcited giggling would erupt, amazed and surprised that the Vazaha spoke Malagasy. Familiar faces passed by as well, making this tropical and foreign land seem more like our home.
        We didn't know the exact directions of our destination, but that was not a problem. The locals in their yards doing their daily tasks, or the fruit and juice vendor in her wooden stand would surely know the way. After an hour we reached the river. As we walked down the bank we entertained a small group of locals. I watched the farmers (who are about my height) as they waded across, holding their shorts up higher and higher, to judge the waters depth. I pulled off my boots, peeled off my socks and rolled up my pants exposing my pale skin. Boots and bike in one hand, the other holding up my pants legs, I started across. The frigid water dulled the sensation of the rocky river bottom on my tender feet. The middle became deeper, my pants inevitably became wet and I noticed my bike was being dragged downriver, the current was much faster than anticipated and the ripples forming around my legs made it harder to walk. I realized that I was not crossing, but rather moving diagonally down the river. Finally as I reached the other side I lugged by bike up, which was still being dragged horizontally downriver. Aaron scrambled straigt up the sandy bank  and I heaved my bike overhead and then proceed to crawl up. We rode for another half hour, stopping occasionally to carry our bikes across slippery aged trees laid across waterways and small ravines.
        As we pushed our bikes up an eroded and slippery clay path we were greeted by the smile of our friend, Noelson, who was coming to receive us and guide us to his town. Aaron and he chatted while I fell behind struggling to keep up with his fast pace. Soon the noises of village life could be heard: the roosters crow, a pig snorting as it rooted through kitchen scraps, children's voices and laughter as they make the outdoors their playground, the patter of bare feet moving quickly under heavy loads on the shoulders of men, and the thunk-thunk of women pounding rice in large mortar and pestles which becomes a rhythm that we walked to as we enter Ankoraka. As we step in our friends one room wooden house, I notice the floor, covered by worn woven mats, giving way under our feet. We sit at a wooden table with a notebook and bunch of bananas resting on, in the corner leans an aluminum pot and against the wall a wooden bed frame with a homemade mattress of plastic material stuffed with dried grasses. A few posters hang on the wall; one a presidential campaign, another from the Mother and Child Wellness day that passed several months ago. Next we do the customary visit to the president of the Fokontany. Inside his one room house, Aaron and I are given the two chairs to sit on, the others find footstools or rest on the bed. The solitude of the room is interrupted by loud static coming from a small radio on a table, a status of his wealth. All eyes are focused on us and everyone's face is radiant with joy. We wait. Unlike the society we come from, the elder of the village is in charge, he is to be respected, and we must wait for his arrival before walking around the town. I sit quietly, hands resting in my lap, looking out the doorway at the cluster of children curiously looking in at the strangers. Noelson proudly smiles at us, a twinkle in his eyes and says, "they have never before seen a white person in their town." "Are they afraid?" asks Aaron.
        Two elderly men and three elderly women enter. The women are giggling, their wrinkles outline their smiles. We stand to shake hands, they hold their right forearm with their left hand to show us respect and we do the same. The younger men in the room make way for their elders and they are introduced to us as the Tangalamenas of the village. Their skin is deeply wrinkled by years under the sun, their feet calloused from days of walking upon the earth, but their eyes are clear and sharp. They are the village elders, they have seen much and know all the coming and goings of the town and they present us with a short speech of welcome. They laugh saying that we brought the rain, a good thing in this agricultural society. We sit calmly as Noelson slowly reads from a list: Acacia, Moringa, Litchi, Loquat, Cherry, Eucalyptus. After each tree species he states the number that we are supplying to each school- the reason for our visit.
        Next we begin our 3 km walk to Ambodiara to survey the land near the school in which hundreds of trees will be transplanted from our tree nurseries. I'm almost out of breath as I hurry to keep up with their fast stride. Noelson asks if Americans walk a lot. Aaron laughs, says everyone has a car and then goes on to explain the roadways, at which Noelson clucks his tongue and laughs in amazement.
        We arrive at Ambodiara in about an hour, a small village, the houses the color of the surrounding Earth. We enter a wooden house that is also the local store. I see a shelf with an old cardboard box with Chinese made batteries, two sacks sit in the corner, out of a hole spills dried corn kernels of differing colors onto the worn, soiled wood floor. We sit on a narrow bench, worn smooth by previous visitors and begin shaking hands with the multitude of people in the room. A young girl stands in the corner staring, she can't take her eyes off us and her forehead is wrinkled, eyebrows tense clinging to her mother's leg. Again we wait for the village elder, he is in his fields harvesting rice so we wait quite a while. As the men talk, my gaze is focused on the colorful corn kernels spread about the floor, looking someone in the eye who is speaking is not customary here. Three of the men in the room are model farmers, each with their field knives propped up by the doorway. Women with their children close by gather at a safe distance from the doorway, they can't take their eyes off us. The crowd gets larger, a few men come with red mud covering their hands and feet, they are building the walls of a house next door, taking a break to see the strangers in their town. Many enter and shake our hands, their fingers are cold as ice and wet from being freshly washed in the river water. A young man wearing plastic mud sandals, jeans and a shiny watch enters- he is the local school teacher, though he looks like a kid himself. To break the silence we unroll a world map given by a teacher at Sykesville MS, which we present as a gift to the local schools. Immediately the silence is broken with simultaneous chatter. They gasp; some make a high pitched "weiggghh" sound and bring their fist close to their mouth. I imagine none have ever seen such a map before and their eyes are glued on it. We already showed Noelson, so he proudly points out Washington, D.C., where Aaron and Jenny are from, and the U.S.A. and tells them how far we traveled and how long the plane ride was. He remembered every detail, and then pointed out France and Madagascar. We flipped the map which showed the Earth at night, the white areas electricity, the yellow spots wildfires. Their fingers are all over the map pointing to different areas, amused at the tiny white dot in central Madagascar, they observe the yellow marking Africa and Madagascar and one explains that he is frightened. I watch their faces as they attentively scrutinize this new image; their eyes are wide open darting around to take in all that the map displays.
        A green, lush mountain overlooks the village. Noelson told us that this "live forest" is the one "given by God." It is rare to see primary forest, so much has been cut, most forests are now planted by man. He encourages us to come back another time and to visit this forest where lemurs still roam and wild pigs live, we can't wait. As we walk he tells Aaron how men hunt the pigs with spear and dogs, and then points out another mountain stating years ago, before French Colonialist, locals would go up there and pray. Now it's been cut and burned to grow rice and cassava.
        Aaron bends his back to enter, the bamboo ceiling is too low, and I follow. The children are standing and loudly shout "Bonjour" as Aaron and I walk in the small dimly lit schoolroom. The walls are made from the red clay we stand on, there is a roof of patchwork metal roofing and a few small wooden windows to let in the natural light. Two rows of students sit on each side, none smile, they are too uncertain of us. We are seated in the front, a few short speeches are made and a chicken is brought in and sat in the corner. We go outside and the children rush to follow, several crawling under their desks to get out faster. We look at the hillside and the school ground where the fuel-wood trees will be planted and where the fruit tress will grow. Before leaving we are presented with a chicken and a bag of rice, the President of the Fokontany thanks us for coming and asks us to help get latrines and water pumps for their school children. Such a simple request and one which we are grateful to assist with.
We make the journey back to Ankoraka, visiting a waterfall along the way. The land on both sides of the path has become agricultural land. Banana trees, groves of coffee, sugarcane, rice fields and freshly grown greens. We step to the side to allow two enormous oxen to climb the path pulling a sled behind, they don't want to go on the steep part until their owner snaps a branch from a nearby tree. Entering Ankoraka, the town is bustling with daily activity. We follow a few small girls carrying buckets of water up from the river, men pass carrying planks of wood harvested from the forest, a group of turkeys cluster near a feed trough and a rooster proudly stands along the roadside oblivious to the boys rolling hoops made of vines down the road. Up on the hillside a group of young girls call out to get my attention then wave and cheer when I take their photo as they pound the hauls off of rice for dinner. Chickens scurry around scampering to get the rice grain as it blows in the damp breeze.
        Before departing we once again sit in a small wooden house. The village elder is in front of us and gazes into our eyes. His voice is low and he speaks slowly. His speech is like a well rehearsed oration, and expressing gratitude he presents us with another chicken and more rice. We tranquilly sit, nothing goes through my mind, I am unaware to what is going on around us except for the words of farewell as the Tangalamena sends us on our way.
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