I picked my primary care physician completely at random. It seemed perfectly reasonable since all I wanted from him or her was a clean bill of health and a generous anti-malarial prescription as I headed off on my trip.
“Why Madagascar?” my new doctor asked when I visited him for first time.
I shrugged. I didn’t want to tell him that I decided to go to Madagascar for many of the same reasons I picked his office: Both were convenient, affordable and had great reviews.
“I always wanted to,” I lied. “It looks really beautiful.”
“And what are you going to do there?” he asked.
“Not a whole lot!” I joked.
“Well I run a clinic in Madagascar,” he said. “For children, mostly. To help with malnourishment.”
“Do you take volunteers?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “When will you be there?”
And just like that, I had something (good) to do in Madagascar.
When I saw my doctor for a follow up visit, he seemed pensive.
“I was thinking,” he began. “About Madagascar…”
I nodded. I, too, had been thinking about Madagascar. Specifically, about how I had no business volunteering at a hospital when I have no public health experience and don’t speak a word of French.
“With your skills,” he continued. “I was thinking you might help us in the delivery unit.”
“Delivery of what?” I asked. Even though I already knew the answer. Still I chanted to myself, “Please say ‘mail’. Please say ‘mail’. Please say ‘mail’.”
“Babies!” he replied. “I think we could use your help in maternity.”
“But I don’t know anything about delivering babies,” I argued.
“Oh it’s ok,” he insisted. “They’ll show you.”
“Well they’re going to have to!” I said. “And who’s ‘they’?”
When I returned to my doctor’s office for my third and final appointment, I was even more apprehensive. Not only was I concerned that my role would expand to that of a surgical assistant, but I had also, by that time, read the volunteer briefing materials.
These are, word-for-word, the written directions I was given for traveling to the project site.
“Take a taxi to the taxi-brousse station. The driver will know where this is and it will not look like it is the right place. They often pick up on a street corner with a gas station, and you will wait there with some other people until the taxi-brousse pulls up and you get on. Just be sure to repeat “Ambilobe” to everyone until you are sure you are on the right one.”
It gets better.
“Your taxi-brousse will drop you in the dead-center of town, known as the “parcage.” There will be a whole bunch of vendors descending on the taxi-brousse, so fight your way through them and get your stuff and get off to the side to get your bearings. You will see the Hotel Central on one side and a big statue in the shape of the country of Madagascar on the other.”
Now, if that was the end of it, it wouldn’t be half bad. But as it turns out, Hotel Cental is not where the volunteers stay. The preferred accommodation is Maeva Hotel, which is “straight down the road and a little ways up on your left.” And it sounds like the kind of place that I might opt out of:
“Maeva has running water – sort of – but the pressure is extremely low, so you are advised to invest in a bucket (if you don’t inherit one) and leave the water running in it to fill and then you will use that to shower. Electricity goes off around midnight and comes on again at 7am. You will need your own mosquito net, and shower shoes and your own towel are also highly advised. Security appears to be adequate, but of course you should use common sense.”
Oh yes, of course. Use common sense. Because anyone who made it this far into the briefing materials surely has plenty of that.
But I’d like to think that I do have some common sense. And with it, I asked my doctor if he could arrange for someone to pick me up from the port (I am arriving by boat in a town called Ankify) and take me to the hotel. I figured I had half a chance of making it if I was able to skip the bush taxi. He agreed and put me in touch with a driver named Maurice, who has no idea who he’s dealing with. This is his email to me:
“At the moment, the road between Ambilobe and Anivorano is actually very difficult to reach. The road in between is cut because of rain. it was flooded. So, a taxibrousse from Ambilobe stops at the blocked road and passengers walk across the river with water until chest and other taxibrousse next side of the river to Anivorano. It takes a day or a day and half there. I don’t think it is secure.”
It was at this point that I thought volunteering may not be in the cards for me. I could handle a little bit of ambiguity on the road. I could ignore the omen of leaving from a port called Hell-ville. I could even manage (I think) to make it through a week of working in the hospital delivering babies. But I draw the line at walking across a chest-high river.
Luckily, that was a month ago. Today, Maurice tells me that the road is “more or less fine” so I’ll be meeting him tomorrow. I guess I’ll see for myself.
Let me be honest: Even with the road reopened, I came close to calling the whole thing off. But I decided to go because in the end, I know that everything – the boat, the road, the hotel, the babies, all of it – will be fine.
Tempting as it may be to skip over this part of the trip because it seems too difficult, I know that wouldn’t serve me well in the long run. After all, if I spend this year doing only what’s comfortable, then I’ll have wasted my time. This year is about progress – and you can’t make progress if you don’t have challenges.
needed heeded yestertoday: Get on the boat. And bring a bucket.
I’ll likely be off the grid for the next week and a half. Please send good thoughts this way – not for me… for the babies!