Monday, July 25, 2005

Chef de Mission


When we last let Erica she was soaking wet, cold and exhausted from a week in the wet, wet field; but she still had another day to go. I thought that day was going to kill me; 4 meetings all within a 20 km radius of Fianar, but before I'd even buckled my seatbelt my whole body was actually physically revolting against yet another day in the car. When we finally got back I refused to so much as get into a taxi cab and I gladly kept to my own feet for the next 4 days. Thanks to a little sun over the weekend my shoes finally got dry and I finally got warm(er).

But on Tuesday of this week it was right back at it again. After lunch, it started raining and I had my bags packed and was waiting at the curbside for our 4x4 pickup to come get me and take me away again. This time I was not going to take any chances: in my bags were 2 raincoats, one of the completely impermeable type, two ponchos, an umbrella, hat, mittens, extra socks and shoes, two sweaters, fleece vest, long underwear and a turtleneck, three flashlights and a real bic lighter, and these were all packed in waterproof bags inside my backpack. I was ready for anything Ranomafana could throw at me.

Halfway down the bumpy road, the sun came out – and stayed out. For all three days I was in the field. I didn’t complain very much.

The first full day in the field was an orientation meeting for our NGO partners and hospital staff, explaining to them what their responsibility would be in introducing our project to the communities as a whole and in assisting the communes in creating committees for implementing the project. My responsibility that day was to run the PowerPoint and make sure the projector behaved itself. And to make people laugh – I think I probably did the best at the last one.

But the real fun for me began at the end of that day - we had a final closing reception, said good-bye to our partners, packed up the equipment and put it all into the truck - and then I stood on the verandah of the hotel and waved good-bye as the rest of the SantéNet team left for Fianarantsoa.

That's when I officially became "chef de mission" That meant I was the person in charge - of me, myself and I (yeah, I'll probably never actually get to be chef when anybody else is around, that's life at the bottom of the totem pole for you), but I also got charge of my very own car and driver.

That was a very strange feeling. Our regular SN car and driver had gone back to Fianar, but in exchange I got a Tana driver and truck that had brought a consultant down. Deedee was the name of my driver, and as it turned out, he was also my guardian for the next two days. Now, you have to realize that I have lived in this country by myself for two years and in that time I have negotiated quite a number of situations and I have traveled alone on numerous occasions, both in the countryside and in the city, in cars and planes and taxi cabs, as well as on foot. I have eaten alone in little Malagasy shops and I have stayed in hotels by myself.

But within a couple hours of being in Ranomafana with Deedee, I got the distinct impression that our SN Fianar driver, Jean-Jacques, had given him explicit instructions not to let me out of his sight unless I was in my hotel room or actively working. It didn't seem strange that evening when I finished a little paperwork I'd brought and came out of the hotel to go looking for food to find him sitting out gossiping with the other drivers and have him jump up and offer to come with me. It was nice to have the company and he really was a nice guy to talk to.

But it happened again the next morning, and he dropped everything he was doing to walk into town. But later that afternoon when we'd finished our work and had returned to the hotel and I decided I was going to go for a stroll, there he was waiting discreetly outside of my bungalow and he immediately volunteered to wander with me (again, I was glad for the company), and then insisted on buying street food for me as we went.

Then that evening, even though he was painfully full of street food, he still came with me to get dinner again. And in no way was this creepy or like he was hitting on me - he was just being my protector. It was actually really sweet, just funny that in all the places I could've actually used a protector in this country, Ranomafana wasn't one of them (unless he wanted to protect me from all the white tourists in town, which I admit I found a little unnerving).

It was a lot of fun being Chef de Mission - but really strange too. My job on those two days was to observe our CRS partners as they did the first community introduction meetings that they'd been oriented about on Wednesday. Both towns were 10 and 20 minutes on a paved road from Ranomafana, so time and transportation wasn't a huge issue. Still, on Thursday the CRS team was short a car for the morning due to logistics and so they asked Deedee if a few of their team could ride along with us rather than have to make trips back and forth to shuttle people around. It is standard USAID procedure that the Chef de Mission approves such requests, but I found it almost funny when DeeDee approached me, all serious, to ask if I would allow it. Of course I'd allow it: it made sense, it's perfectly within our mandate to allow such things, and we had the room - but he was so serious about asking me if I was sure. It made me feel like I really had to be a grown-up all of the sudden. Funny how such a grown-up still needs a protector - but don't we all?







Thursday, July 14, 2005

Into the field...

Whew, I’m back from my first extended excursion into the field with the SantéNet team – and it was a doozy, let me tell you.  We left last week Wendesday, and it alternately rained, poured, misted and rained Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, without relief. Being that it’s winter here, the temperature in the mountains never got much above 55 degrees, and I’m positive it was often much lower than that. The sun finally did come out on Monday, but it clouded over and began raining again by Tuesday evening. And now, Wednesday night a week later, I’m safely back in my own house in Fianar, but it’s equally damp here and I wonder if I will ever truly be warm and dry ever again.

Wednesday was by far our worst day – either a good thing because we were still fresh and ready for adventure, or a bad thing because the day succeeded in browbeating us to the point that morale was really low for most the remainder of the trip. We set out at 6 am on Wednesday morning and it began misting almost as soon as we left the city limits. The first stretch of drive was bumpy, but uneventful, and we just kept on going. We had two meeting scheduled in neighboring communes (townships) for Wednesday, the furthest one scheduled first. So we drove some 30 km of bumpy roads, then 40 km of nice, smooth road. But that’s where the fun ended – we turned off onto a muddy ditch and kept driving. 16 km and two hours later we reached the first village – where we were scheduled to have the second meeting of the day. We jumped out to say hi, then got back in the car to drive the next 46 km to the next village. The conditions of the “road” just deteriorated from there – in fact, they warned us in the first town that we probably shouldn’t continue on. It was rough going, but we were enthusiastic and our Toyota Helix 4x4 was ready for a challenge. We spent probably 90% of the trip in 4-wheel drive, and even got to test out low-4 pretty regularly, but we pulled into the furthest village at 2:30 in the afternoon (only 4 hours late for our morning appointment). The community was thrilled to see us, and ushered us right in to begin our meeting.

[I should pause here to describe briefly just what these “meetings” that brought us out into the bush were. We (SantéNet and the NGO partners working in each community) were meeting with mayors, community leaders and health staff in chosen communes to describe the Kôminina Mendrika (Champion Community, or K.M.) project that we will be implementing in each of these communities. It’s the first stage in an introduction process that will be taking place over the next several weeks to prepare the communities to begin activities in late September. Overall, the reception has been exceptional, despite the difficulties in actually making it to the meetings on time…so, back to our story.]

The meeting in this furthest community went well, and removed any idea that this community should be taken off our list simply because it’s hard to get to. There’s a lot more communes out there that are even more inaccessible than this one (and it’s still possible to get to this one with 6 hours tedious driving, so who’s to complain?), and we’ve got to start somewhere!

So we left in high spirits – even, as Kristen noted, it was beginning to rain in earnest. We added 2 more passengers from our partner NGO to our full car (who would’ve had to walk in the rain otherwise), so it was cramped, but far from a taxi-brousse! The road got trickier as the rain made a bad situation even worse, but still, by 5 pm we were just kilometers away from the first village where we were supposed to have that second meeting of the day.

And that’s where it all went to pot. Our driver extraordinaire drew the short straw and picked the wrong path through the mud. Suddenly we were sunk axle-deep on the left side in mud, and our two right tires were spinning freely in the air on the other side. Kristen and I were glad to have those extra two passengers along with us to do the digging, but it soon became clear that this situation wasn’t going to resolve itself any time soon. So after standing cold and miserable in the rain as the day became night, we stated our resolve to walk to the next village and recruit help and dinner. Of course, we couldn’t go alone, so one of the NGO guys volunteered to accompany us while the other three stayed on to make vain attempts at righting the truck.

It was further to the village than we thought – a good hour’s walk through the pitch black cold, rain and mud. Of course I was wearing the only pair of shoes I brought with and these were soon completely soaked through as we trudged through puddle after puddle. My raincoat worked pretty well, but my pants got soaked and kept sliding dangerously low in my hips. Fortunately, both Kristen and I had thought to bring 2 flashlights and sleeping bags on this trip, so we each left a light with the car, took one with and carried our sleeping bags with us to the village. We arrived after 8 pm, and had to wake people up once we got there. People were less than thrilled to be dug out of bed on such a cold and damp night, but they were hospitable enough – offering us hot rice tea, and reheating leftovers for Kristen, our guide David and me to eat. Kristen and I then stripped and got into some dry borrowed clothes from our hosts and David and our hosts tried to figure out what to do about the 3 men left at the car. Kristen and I were put to bed together with another one of our Malagasy hosts (3 in a bed, but we all had sleeping bags/blankets and it was too cold to want less body heat) while they recruited 4 young men to go to the truck.

We awoke the next morning to no sign of our 3 co-workers or the 4 village men. Nobody knew what’d happened to them other than they hadn’t eaten last night (the men had forgotten to take the rice we’d had cooked out to them), and it was obvious they’d spent a very cold, wet night in the truck. It was still raining and there didn’t seem to be any hope of the day improving. Kristen and I tried to make ourselves useful and get as cleaned up as possible with what little we’d brought with us. This was also my first opportunity to truly appreciate my Lasik surgery in action – the thought of having to walk through the raining dark night with water splotted glasses or dealing with contacts when we were inconveniently stuck miles from our luggage wasn’t a pleasant thought. Oh, how I thank God for the miracles of modern medicine!!!

Finally, at about 8 am that morning we heard the sounds of a motor – and on that road we knew it could only mean one thing, and sure enough, out of the mists came our truck with a triumphant crew looking wet, miserable, but terribly happy to be out of that mess. We got the story in bits and pieces from them – the 3 had worked until about 9 pm and had given up for the night when the 4 men came out of the dark at 11 pm. Then they continued working until 1 am, but realized it was hopeless in the dark. So they made beds the best they could in a truck tipped at more than a 45 degree angle and spent a very uncomfortable night until first light. Then they got out and started digging again. Ironically, the thing that seemed to work in the end was the thing I suggested in the beginning – counterbalancing on the high end while backing out of the hole so the rear right wheel could get traction. Ahh, well, they probably needed the extra man-strength anyway.

So, our team took about half an hour to get cleaned up, and then we went straight into the meeting. The community was still really determined to have the meeting, and so we did it the best we could, and before noon we packed up and headed out on the next stretch of bad road that would take us back to the good road and on to our next destination. We somehow managed to avoid getting stuck yet again (although we all held our breaths every time our driver shifted into low-4), and hit the pavement and flew back into a place that resembled a town in order to get our men some food.

Unfortunately there was no stopping after that – we still had some 100 km to go to get to our destination where we were supposed to have a meeting that afternoon. The road wasn’t anywhere near as bad, but it was bad enough and we didn’t arrive in town until 7 pm that night. We found a place to crash and regroup and all of us slept like rocks that night.

The next day things began getting back on track, more or less. We squeezed together a meeting in the morning, and then in the afternoon managed to make it to the next site and have a meeting. But as that meeting let out, the rain moved from a mist to a steady rain and they closed the rain barrier on the road. It took a little fancy talking, but they let us through and on to our warm beds in Ranomafana.

That ended the work week – Friday night we had a meeting to do the reports in the hotel restaurant, and Kristen was reunited with her husband, Dan, who’d driven down from Fianar to meet her. Kristen, Dan and I had decided to stay in Ranomafana for the weekend rather than driving all the way back to Fianar on Saturday afternoon just to turn around and come back again Monday morning. Our driver helped me find a less-expensive hotel and we made plans to go to Ranomafana National Park in the afternoon.

We’d decided on an afternoon hike that would turn into a night walk so we could see some of the night animals. Unfortunately, it continued to pour in the afternoon despite there having been a brief respite in the morning that had given us hope. We didn’t see a single animal during our day hike (surprise, surprise, I wouldn’t have been moving around by choice then either), and by the time we got to the night part of the hike we were soaked through, cold and covered in miniscule, ravenous leeches. Kristen scored a leech on the face, and my ankles hosted a leech family reunion. We went to the night shelter and at least got to see our first fosa in the wild (yes, they do exist!), as well as the mouse lemurs who came to lick banana we’d smeared on surrounding trees and which were incredibly cute – I think. It was really too cold to pay that much attention. Still, at least we got to see something.

We were all ready for the hike back when who else should appear out of the mist but Eduardo, the PCV English teacher from across the mountains in Andapa! I had no idea he’d be there, much less on that very night. It was great to see him. He’d planned on spending the night in his tent in the park, but I immediately vetoed that idea as the wind picked up and the rain began to resemble a cyclone, and in the end I dragged him back to the hostel with me. We had a chance to catch up over hot soup and then we each got a good night’s sleep.

The next day was no better, but Kristen and Dan had already paid for a second day in the park, so we decided to go see the primary forest anyway. We did manage to see a great grey gentle lemur that day, as well as a few chameleons, but mostly we saw mud and more leeches. By the time we headed down the mountain at 2 pm, we were all ready for a HOT shower and bed. There was not a stitch of clothing on me that in any way could be considered dry – or even damp. It was all soaked straight through.

Actually, we were somewhat recovered in the afternoon so we could go check out the location of the hot springs that make Ranomafana famous, but none of us could be enticed to get wet again, even with warm water.

Fortunately Monday morning dawned clear, if not warm. At least I got some things to get semi-dried out on Monday, but by Tuesday evening it was raining again. The rest of our meeting cycles – one Monday afternoon, 4 on Tuesday and 2 on Wednesday all went well, but we were all pretty well beat by the end. Definitely ready to come home. I did get to see a bunch more of our territory – I now have covered all of the paved roads in the southeast of the island. I have yet to get to the coast, but I wasn’t far. The reaction to our project seems pretty good, and as I continue with these field trips, my role in this is slowly becoming clearer. It’s all a work in progress – but for tonight my work is to get dried out again and ready for a day trip tomorrow, and then another longer trip again next week. Wheee – traveling the non-taxi-brousse way!!!