The RN6

The Route National 6 goes from Maevatanana in the Northwestern part of Madagascar all the way up to Diego Suarez, the port city that is the northern most tip of the country. The drive from Maevatanana to Diego can take up to two days, depending on how long you stop, if you’re driving at night (not always recommended) and if there are a lot of freight trucks in front of you.

I made this drive with four other education volunteers, two Peace Corps drivers, and staff, almost two months ago, after I completed training and was sworn in as an official Volunteer. We departed from Tana early Saturday morning, September 9, with all our belongings stuffed in the back and on top of the jeeps. After spending most of the day winding up and around harrowing cliffs, the road begins to flatten. The mountains suddenly disappear. In their place appears flat, wide prairies as far as the eye can see, prairies that rise to greet the horizon with a whisper of “I feel your silence. I’ve been watching you for a hundred thousand years.” I’m speechless. What do I have that can measure up against the breadth of the Malagasy landscape?

 

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View from the Road

 

And just like that, new mountains appear like scraggly Hershey’s kisses, peppered with tall, magnanimous Ravinala: the national tree of Madagascar. The Ravinala tree stands tall and proud, its crazy palms spread wide like a male peacock during mating season. In the foreground, the trees become plentiful and the forest thickens with palms and banana trees. The dirt turns to sand, and I am home.

 

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The northern crew in front of my new Ravinala house.

 

Perhaps my favorite experience with the glorious RN6 so far are the long bike rides I’ve taken down its flat, paved, sometimes windy and always interesting path. Peace Corps issues every Madagascar volunteer a bicycle, because so many roads are in poor condition and public transportation can often be a hassle. I knew this from the beginning of training. I also knew that I hadn’t ridden a bike since being knocked off mine by a moving vehicle last year. I was a bit anxious.

Still, I don’t like to run away from challenges, especially ones that I believe I can overcome. I had a bike. I had a path. I had a helmet. And I had an abundance of time. It was a simple enough conclusion to draw: I was going to ride.

So I woke early one morning, lathered myself with sunscreen, and left my little Ravinala house behind. I mounted my bike and pushed away from the tarmac. The peddling came back easily, to my delight, like an old dance. The seat adjustment took a bit of time, as did figuring out the gears and learning how to navigate pedestrians, ox carts, public vans, big trucks and narrow bridges. But despite all these distractions, there were still stretches of my journey where I was completely alone: just me and the RN6. Mountains rose to shelter me on either side; I passed rice fields, banana fields, neighborhoods full of Ravinala houses like mine, kids eating mangoes, people sitting in the shade, pelicans eating fish from rivers. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t quite describe it. I don’t have the vocabulary.

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Resting in a patch of shade

But there were moments where I’d look up to the sky, feel the weight and breadth of the air surrounding me and think, is this really my life?

 

Chapter One: The Beginning

Where else can I begin? I wriggled myself free from the rusty leather seat of the tax-brousse and spilled out onto the paved asphalt road. I looked down at my feet, unaware of how swollen they’d become from twenty four hours in the van. The road from Tana to Ambilobe is paved, which is an enormous blessing, but the road is narrow and windy and there is only one way. If you get stuck behind a freight truck, you have to pass it or move to the side, and if the tires need changing, which they always do, you have to stop on the side of the road to do it. That normally happens in the middle of the night right after you’ve finally managed to nod off.

So when I arrived in my new hometown, I was extremely tired and a little bit sore, and I stood on the pavement outside the brosse as people and colors swarmed around me and our driver unloaded our bags from underneath the seats and above the van on the roof, previously secured under blue tarp with some rope. I barely have enough time to look up before people are smiling at me and talking to me, but at that moment it only sounded like noise. I handed my sleeping to a tall woman with a kind face a broad smile and followed her away from the road. The crowd has steadily grown, and one man starts shouting to everyone that, “look! A foreigner has come here and she doesn’t understand Malagasy.” I turned around and, with my best stern face and practiced accent say, “Of course I understand Malagasy,” and his eyes went big and then he started laughing. If we were playing a game, I’m not sure whether I won it.

I followed the trail of people and baggage down the side road and onto a sandy path that revealed my home for the next ten days.

It’s hot in my new town. Thankfully my host sister, the one with the big smile and the kind face, hands me a bucket of water immediately and says, “go, shower.” Who knew something so small could be so sweet? The shower was outside and built out of bamboo leaves and immediately made me think of the 1960s movie version of South Pacific, that scene where Mary Martin is washing her hair on the beach. I know I’m not in a movie, but sometimes I like to pretend, because everything feels so foreign anyway.

Karibo,” my host sister,  Nasy, says to me after I finish my shower. “Come in and eat.” I sit down cross-legged on the bamboo mat and dig in to a plate of milky white rice, vegetables and fish. She stares at me…I’m not sure what she is looking for. She starts talking and my ears begin to buzz; I cannot keep up with the flood of loud, boisterous language coming towards me, punctuated with whoops and whistles and exaggerated vowels and syllables. It’s nothing like the way people speak in Tana, in the highlands, where I’d been training. And neither is Nasy. When she smiles and laughs, her whole body shakes, a deep, rich laugh that echoes through the compound. When she hears music coming from a neighbor’s house (which always happens), she begins to dance like she is keeping a secret and wants to make you guess what it is. She is not timid. I see no fear in her. But then again, I barely know her.