Friday, May 06, 2005

Escaping the Black Hole


T minus 0, and we have lift-off.

Somehow, despite how unlikely it seemed yesterday and after the two long years, the ATR jet that provides weekly passenger service to Antsohihy somehow managed to escape the "Black Hole" itself, and brought me safely back to Tana and civilization.

The Black Hole tried its best to prevent the escape and even recruited Air Madagascar to help: yesterday I arrived at the airport with the local Air Madagascar truck full of my luggage. Things went smoothly - a little too smoothly, perhaps. In all, I had 122 kg of luggage to haul, but the Air Mad guys never flinched, even when lifting my 42 kg trunk. Soon all the i's were dotted and t's were crossed, and we just had to wait for a plane.

And wait we did. Air Mad seems to be determined to drive me mad while it still can. At 10:45, when the plane was supposed to be taking off from Antsohihy on its return flight to Mahajanga, word finally came down that the plane hadn't even left Tana yet. Then, around 11:15, the airport guys here decided to call the whole thing off. It was funny the mixed messages - you'd think that the Antsohihy airport control tower would at least be able to contact Tana and ask just what was up, but no, we had to wait for several cell phone calls to be relayed through several people only to get a "maybe there will be a plane" as an answer. Phillipe, the man in charge and one of the few Malagasy I know with a whole brain decided the charade was ridiculous and sent everybody home. I think it helps that he regularly goes to France to work with airlines there.

Fortunately, the hotel associated with Air Mad Antsohihy where I'd stayed the night before had free rooms again on account of the reservations not arriving on the inbound airplane. So it was back to the hotel for a bonus day in Antsohihy. Double exciting as it was a public holiday (Ascension), and nothing I would want to do was open.

Thankfully, everything went smoothly on Friday and we were in the air and then in Tana by noon, and I managed to round up all my various and sundry bags and transport them across town by 1:30 pm.

Still, the whole good-bye process wasn't easy, and there is part of me that will always be in that Black Hole. Saying good-bye on Wednesday was just the beginning and was full of mixed emotions. Part of me was just plain relieved to be done, to have stuck out the time and to have seen it through to what I believe was the best of my ability. But a big part of me was also very sad to say good-bye to a part of my life that I feel comfortable in. It took two years to get to where I am today, meaning I know who people are and what they do and where to go when I need something and how to ask for it when I get there, and they know me and respect me for the work I have done and for the efforts I have made to get to this point. And now it's all over; when, perhaps, it should just be starting.

Yet, my farewells generally didn't have any tears. There are some people from Bealanana who I will miss horribly, but I've already said good-bye to many wonderful people in my short life (including many of you who are reading this). It actually wasn't until I was making my way down the road from my house to meet my taxi-brousse that it hit me. My timing was just right that I was in the midst of the usual morning flood of school children going every which way in their colorful school coats and political party backpacks. All the children greeted me with the usual "Good morning" and "How are you?" with a few Salama Tompko!s thrown in for good measure and many of them called me by name. That's when I realized: first, these children have no idea that they should be saying "good-by" instead of good morning, and second, never again in my life will this kind of thing be a normal part of my daily living.

I have not written home during my last three months, except for a couple rushed "I'm still alive, but connected at 12,2 Kbps and can't talk now" e-mails, I think mostly because I needed that time to just be part of life in Bealanana. That and our power plant has been in death throes again, and I could only use my computer so often and writing by candlelight is a pain in the eyes. My last three months was in many ways representative of my entire service: frustrating without equal but ultimately very rewarding. As far as organized activities go, we pulled off a very nice International Women's Day celebration on March 8 with girl students from (almost) all the schools, but then things fell on their face when it came to World Health Day a month later. We had a formal presentation at the high school of the equipment from the video proposal in which I gave my first official Malagasy karbary much to everybody's amusement. The timing of that melded nicely with the formal creation of a Club UNESCO at the high school (98% Elizabeth’s doing) which now creates an umbrella organization for all of the clubs, already existing and planned, at the high school. UNESCO clubs are internationally recognized and this shows how dedicated the faculty and administration at the high school is to enhancing the co-curricular life of the students. At the same time, all our activities at the middle school stopped.

Perhaps the best news to our community (and ironically enough, perhaps the way I have had the largest impact) was the arrival of the new environment volunteer. She came to visit Bealanana during March, and then just arrived to stay this last week. Her name is Jenny and she will live in a family compound in a small farming community 7 km outside of Bealanana. There she will have an opportunity to work with the farmers and to integrate into a smaller community (and probably get much better Malagasy out of it), but is close enough to Bealanana that she will continue my work with the women’s group (tree nursery and women’s empowerment) and the high school (environment club) as well as other special projects. We all worked really hard for this, and I was extremely satisfied to see the process through to the end. And I think Jenny will do just fine in the Black Hole – she’s easygoing, but excited about any number of projects and about Peace Corps. And she managed to get a cat on her third day in Bealanana while I failed for 2 years.

So Bealanana said good-bye to their final health volunteer when they said good-bye to me yesterday. I do regret that, as Bealanana is a fantastic community for Americans in general. While there is plenty of work to be done, the support just wasn't there and sadly it even seemed the hospital administration was relieved to see me go – except for the loss of their resident computer expert. In then end, it was the high school that threw me a going-away party, as the hospital said a rushed good-bye immediately followed by a plea to come look at the computer just “one last time.” I still have a pipe dream that I might return there one day and actually do all that I wanted to do during these two years (if nothing else, make a fortune taking people’s pictures and then selling them the prints), but for now, the Black Hole is behind me. And, thanks or no thanks to me, perhaps it’s a little less black than when I first entered it.