Sunday, November 13, 2005

Building Bridges in Madagascar

or Where is Gilbert?
One of the things that I like about my new job as compared to my old Peace Corps village life is the relative maneuverability I have. Thanks to our project’s beautiful Toyota Hilux4 4x4 deluxe with super-lo 4 wheel drive, we can go a lot of places that regular Malagasy taxi-brousses simply can’t get to or at least don’t get to very regularly.

This week was a prime example of that – on Wednesday morning we drove 46 km on what really was no more than a foot path up into the northern part of the forest corridor to visit a project site that, including our vehicle, has had two motorized visitors in the last 2 months.

This site wins the award for being our most “out there” site. The nearest town serviced by regular taxi-brousses is 46 km away. Another town, 30 km back down the road in the direction of civilization, has occasional irregular motor vehicle service in the form of supply trucks, but no taxi-brousses. And once you’ve walked 30 km, what’s another 16 anyway? During the rainy season this town is almost entirely cut off from the outside world. The two technical assistants for our project who live there already have a challenging time of it, but it’s only going to become worse as the rains come.

It’s now the end of the dry season and we’re just starting our monitoring visits – so it was decided that this town had better be taken care of while it was still possible. We left Fianar with a full car on Tuesday evening – the director of our partner NGO, a monitoring and evaluation specialist from Tana, Kristen, our driver and me. We got to Ranomafana, spent the night, and took off bright and early the next morning to tackle the back road. We first stopped in the last piece of civilization before heading north on the foot trail to meet with the town’s mayor who was on his way into real civilization for a meeting. We discussed our project, blah, blah, but then as we were leaving he threw some grave advice at us: “Watch that bridge as you go north. I told Gilbert to fix it, but you had best find out if he’s fixed it or not yet. Not the big bridge itself, but the planks over the little canal right after. Be careful not to drive into it.”

We remembered the big bridge was that he was talking about – where on our last visit they had just completed building the bridge with two iron railroad ties for base supports under the tires and then a “platform” assembled out of what looks like leftover firewood. Last time a man came running as we approached the bridge, wildly waving his arms and warning us that the bridge was newly built and no vehicle had actually driving over it before. Needless to say, the passengers immediately bailed, leaving the driver to his fate. Fortunately for him, the workmanship was quality enough and he (and we) survived to live the tale of both going and coming.

So we at least knew where we needed to be looking – so as we got close to the place we began asking for Gilbert. Each stop we made had a similar conversation:
“Have you seen Gilbert?”
“Gilbert? Gilbert who?”
“Gilbert the road maker.”
“The road maker? Oh, that Gilbert.”
“Yeah, have you seen him?”
“Do you know where he might be?”
“Hasn’t been here. Nobody by the name of Gilbert here.”

And so we press on. Each time we reach a village, see a group of men, pass people working the fields, we would try to figure out just where this Gilbert figure was.

Suddenly we were at the big bridge. We got out to look at it – but it pretty much looked the same as it had before. It passed the test yet again, so we climbed back in and were on the way.

We were still futilely trying to find the elusive Gilbert when our driver slammed on the breaks – we were on it: a narrow canal with only a few sticks laying across it – 2 for each tire. On closer inspection it was obvious why this would be a problem – the sticks were so old that they were dry rotted out and wouldn't support my weight, much less a whole vehicle.

Now is when we began to wish for Sarah’s army engineer training. Several guys saw us driving in the direction of the broken bridglette and came running carrying a 4x4 piece of wood and some odd planks (where do they find a 4x4 out there? Got me). We asked if any of them were Gilbert. Negative. So obviously Gilbert had not been in to fix the bridge yet, and he apparently wasn’t running now when he noticed that we were waiting for a bridge.

So then the process of building a bridge ourselves became the project of a committee – the men with the few sticks of wood, our driver, and us random passengers and a few kids who felt it necessary to give our 2 cents worth from time to time.

First the distance between the new wood and the halfway decent side of the bridglette was too wide for the truck’s wheel base, then to narrow.

Then the end of the 4x4 was left sticking up in the air and it would have been impossible for the truck to actually be able to drive up onto it.

Then I raised the question that even if we did manage to get the front tire onto the 4 inch piece of wood, how could we ever be sure of the back tire following the tightrope act?

Then when more wood was found there was still a question of whether it would be strong enough – which lead to all of us in turn ridiculously jumping up and down on the pieces of wood (as if any of our weights could possibly imitate that of a 4 wheel drive pickup truck).

Somehow, in the end, something resembling a bridge got built. Then our driver decided it was time to test it – while all the rest of us held our breaths. First the approach, then a quick stop, back up, realign for another attack, the forward crawl, then – go for it! He made it, front, rear and all. We all cheered, then passed out snacks to the crowd of helpers, asked once more if anybody knew where Gilbert was (we still had to come back, you know) and then climbed in the car. As soon as we were in and off down the road we looked back to see them dismantling the bridge faster than we’d built it. I guess good wood like that is a precious commodity.

We kept going. For the heck of it we kept asking people we saw if they were/knew/had seen Gilbert. Then as we were driving through a stretch of overgrown path we suddenly burst out into a wide clearing with 3 guys and machetes. On a hunch, we asked yet again if anybody knew Gilbert – and there he was, in full flesh, standing right there in front of us. When asked about the bridge, he said yes, he was on his way there, but the roadside bushes needed taming and he just hadn’t gotten all that way yet.

Well, at least we’d found Gilbert and had our promise for a good bridge for our return trip. But for the full impact, the photos truly tell the story (although we never did get one of the elusive Gilbert…)

And then, just a week later: this bridge's a winner!

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