Varatraza (The Northern Winds)


            Shortly after lunch I returned to my friend’s house to grab my gear, bike, and say goodbye to friends that were soon returning to America.  I was leaving for Diego to work at the university and would not be returning for at least a month.  Diego is a large town in the north of Madagascar and takes a minimum of 24 hours by brousse to arrive there.  A daunting length of time to ride in a brousse but one I had heard was well worth it.  Diego is a location that all volunteers want to visit at some point in their service and I was lucky enough to be going for a full month, with a place to live that was paid for.  I was still unsure if I would be living at the university or in a hotel or exactly what
I would be doing when I arrived.  I had been asked by the university director to come teach an Anthropology Thesis course to students who were graduating with their bachelors degree.  The director had asked me to review their research projects they had recently submitted and to give the students feedback, as well as teach them better research and analytical methods and how to convert their research projects into a thesis paper.  I was really excited about the topic of the course and was looking forward to starting until, the day before I left, my Education Director informed me that there was a teacher strike and all classes were canceled until it was sorted out. 
Not to be detoured, I got on a brousse and 27 hours later arrived in Diego.  Arriving in Diego, I learned that the director had reserved a room for me at a hotel in town where I would be staying for the duration of my trip.  My hotel room is amazing; at least for my new standards of living.  It has an air conditioner (which I did not use for a few days because the thought of it was weird to me), a T.V. with three channels (one of them is sometimes English), a shower with hot running water (although I usually have to go into the hotel kitchen to turn on the running water), and a refrigerator.  The hotel also, though quite a bike ride from the university, has a great location right in the middle of town.  South of my hotel is the Gasy part of town with the market, Malagasy restaurants, ext. and north of the hotel is the Vazaha (foreigner) part of town with all the Vazaha restaurants, nice (expensive) bars, hotels, and all the tourists.  The city is on a peninsula sticking out into the bay with the military base and port on the west side, and the university on the east.  Although I did the majority of my traveling around town by bike or foot, they have tok-toks that will take you around town for very cheap as well. 
Although I had come to Diego to teach at the university, and was really looking forward to it, the teacher strike did not end until a month into my stay.  This was very unfortunate but it did give me a lot of free time to do other things.  As far as work was concerned, I was able to help a few days out of the week with my friends English Clubs, help start a perma-garden, and visit the orphanage a few times.  Other than that it was all vacation time for me!  During the week I spent my days exploring the town, hanging out with friends, going on bike rides, eating amazing food, seeing the sights around the area, and learning to kite surf.  On the weekends we all went site seeing to locations just outside of town.  

 Some Street Art

Emerald sea
Saturday, 8/8/15
            This morning, a few friends and I broussed out to Ramena beach to find a ride to the Emerald Sea.  From Ramena beach we took a sail boat out to an island in the Emerald Sea.  The Emerald Sea is an amazingly beautiful place.  Here we hungout on the beach and had a late lunch, which was great.  We had pan fried green bananas for an appetizer, potato salad, boiled crab, and grilled fish for the meal, and grilled bananas stuffed with Nutella for dessert. After it was all over we tried to sail back to Ramena beach but the tide had fallen so much that the boat was unable to make it.  So the majority of the people in the boat had to get out and wade through the water.  Once we got to the deeper water inside the bay everyone climbed back in the boat and we sailed the rest of the way under a sunset.

Sunday, 8/9/15
            Morengy is a style of kick boxing here in Madagascar.  Most of the fights were scheduled fights but there are also other fighters that walk around the area in front of the stands looking for any challengers. 

French Mountain
Monday, 8/10/15
            Today I decided to take a trip to French Mountain.  It is located about eight kilometers outside of Diego on the road that wraps around the bay on its way to Ramena beach.  I had originally planned to bike out to the trailhead but since my friend wanted to come but did not have his bike we decided that we would just walk there instead.  This was not a very well thought out plan and we finally started hailing cars to get a ride the rest of the way.  The mountain used to house a large French military fort at its peak and was the site of a battle when the British invaded Diego during World War II.  The hike starts by two red baobabs, the rarest baobabs in the world.  It then continues up the hill slope, on its way to the mountainside.  This part of the hike was easy but very hot, especially because we were hiking it during the hottest part of the day; also not well thought out.  Once we got to the mountain, the hike became much harder; as the trail became thinner and was mostly just straight up the mountain.  This part of the hike was much more rewarding though.  The scenery was much better and at one point the trail went through a tunnel in the mountain.  At the top is where we came across the fort.  The area around the fort is not kept up in any way and the forest has overgrown every bit of it.  This made finding the different buildings and sites so much harder.  We basically would see a small trail, decide to see where it went, and then be surprised as we came across another ruin.  It was in this way that we came across the most beautiful view of the Diego area.  It was breath taking!

Amber Mountain
Saturday, 8/22/15
            One of the volunteers that live in Diego has an English Cub, on Saturdays, with a bunch of tour guides to help them with their English proficiency.  So we decided as one of their classes we would pay for them to come with us to Amber Mountain and they could serve as our guides to practice their English and we, in turn, would help them and give them feedback.  So, on Saturday morning, everyone meet outside of my hotel and we all climbed into the back of a cameon headed to the mountain.  As we were getting into the cameon we were surprised by the fact that there was a huge cow tied down on the floor of the bed.  Unbeknownst to us, there was going to be a sacrifice at the mountain that morning as well.  So we all rode with this cow at our feet to the mountain.  Once we arrived, the guides took us to see a sacred waterfall where there were a few people making prayers to the ancestors.  After the prayers were done they washed the cow and then sacrificed it to the ancestors.  We found out afterwards that the reason for the sacrifice was that a Malagasy lady had earlier prayed to the ancestors to help her find a Vazaha husband.  Having just marrying one the month before, she needed to sacrifice the cow to thank the ancestors for their help.  After the sacrifice, the head of the cow was put into a sacred tree, that just so happened to be right outside of the building where we would be staying that weekend.  After the sacrifice was all over we hiked up the mountain to a lake and saw many lemurs along the way.  We then came back to the house for lunch where we were visited by a fossafossa, a small red weasel.  After lunch we took a short hike out to another waterfall where, long ago, the king of the tribe would come to bath and swim.  Then, once it had gotten dark, we went on a short night hike into the rainforest and saw many different kinds of chameleons, one of them being the smallest in the world. 

Saturday, 8/29/15
            The director of the university had been commissioned by an international organization to get the GPS coordinates for a French war cemetery on the Cape of Diego.  He, having talked to the Madagascar military about getting approval and help for the excursion out there, asked all the Peace Corps Volunteers if we would like to join as well.  So we rode with the director out to the military base and meet with the General and the Commander, who would also be joining us.  Once everything was arranged we all walked down to the port where the General had commissioned a boat to take us all across.  Once on the cape it was a short hike up the hill to where the cemetery was located.  The cemetery held graves for some of the French soldiers who had died in the British invasion during World War II.  After seeing the cemetery I walked with the military personnel to see the old French battlements on the far cost of the cape.   

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