Hello America! I have officially been in the lovely country of Madagascar for 4 months now. Everything suddenly seems to be getting a little bit easier. I think I made it over the first hump in the "adjusting" period, and I'm really starting to feel like part of a community. So many things have happened this last month....but there is one trip that deserves special attention (and no, not the 5 trips I made to my puke bucket one night after eating one too many fried 'Valala', these large cricket like bugs..they tasted pretty good, but did not sit very well in the old kibo), my first backpacking trip into Andringitra National Park! So. Freaking. Beautiful. I spent 4 days backpacking in the park with two guides from Morarano, and these two French tourists, who were awesome. Not your typical vazahas. We hiked all 4 circuits in the park; which include a hike to the summit of Pic Boby (at 2658m, 2nd highest peak in Mada), a stroll through the rainforest, a trek through Namoly Valley across rice paddies and small villages, and higher elevation strolls through rocky terrain with this amazingly colored lichen growing all over the place. I can't wait to go back. The views everywhere in the park are spectacular; I am so lucky to live as close as I do, and to get a chance to work with the park staff. As amazingly beautiful as the park is, and as well maintained as the trails are, the guides who work out of the Morarano entrance are understaffed, under-trained, and ill-equipped for these trips into the park.
Currently, there are 4 guides who posses a functional level of French which allows the needs of the hikers to be clearly understood (the majority of the tourists are French speaking), and a decent exchange to occur between guides/hikers. There is one guide who has memorized various English phrases and words relevant to the trail, but is unable to hold a conversation. There are, however, an abundance of porters available to carry food/equipment for the hikers. None of the porters, and most of the guides, do not have tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, or backpacks. Let me tell you, the camp at the base of Pic Boby was freezing. Literally. There was frost on the ground in the morning (it is currently winter in the highlands, upper elevations of south central Mada), and it was extremely windy all night. Most of the porters barely slept because they were freezing, and a few stayed up all night tending to the campfire. I felt guilty as I broke a sweat in my sleeping bag, comfortably insulated from the cold, stony ground by my sleeping pad. So, I think one of my first side projects is going to be figuring out a way to acquire funds in which to purchase equipment for the park staff; in addition to providing English classes for the park staff. Developing the Morarano entrance to the park would benefit not only the park itself, but all of the surrounding rural villages in the area.
Aside from my trip into the park, I've been tutoring individuals in English, exploring the valleys surrounding my village, and learning all that I can about the fomba (culture) in my area. A few weeks ago Madagascar celebrated its Independence Day (June 26th), but unlike the 2ish days of parties we have in the US for the 4th of July, the Malagasy celebrate for at least a week. There is a fety (party) every day during that week; each fety involving lots of dancing (and boy, can these Gasy dance, especially the kids), big meals with the family (all including ridiculous amounts of rice and pork), and the lighting of small bonfires throughout the village just after the sun set. All in all, it was a very educational week, and I picked up some sweet dance moves.