I was already all packed, so I burned off the pre-flight jitters by writing a bunch of receipts for my clients that were long overdue. Finally, it was time to go.
My husband and little son drove me to the airport and dropped me off at the Air France departure area. As we approached the Dorval Airport, an amazing feeling overtook me. Instead of anxiety, I felt an overwhelming sense of happy anticipation. This is unsual for me, as I'm usually a wreck before flying off somewhere. I admit I am a neurotic traveller. So leaving for a country like Madagascar should have had me in paroxyms of panic. But I wasn't. Instead, I just felt really excited.
I met with my companions Dr. Deborah Goldberg, Sarah Hunter, a friend who usually lives here in Montreal and practices midwifery when she lives in the US, and her baby daughter Keelia. Everyone was in good spirits as we navigated our way around. We had a lot of baggage. We had our own clothes and gear like sleeping bags, as well as a fair bit of midwifery equipment, rain gear for the Malagasy midwives, 400 bottles of donated children's vitamins, and every nook and cranny crammed with women's and children's clothing we had purchased at the Salvation Army. Some of our bags were slightly over the allowed limit, so we had to do some creative redistributing. One of our bins was extremely heavy, and we had to pay $300 to check it.
I was a little worried when we had to take out all our liquid objects and put them in a clear plastic baggie for examination, because I had lots of herbal tinctures and essential oils with me. But nobody cared, as nothing added up to over a litre. Phew. I would not like to have flown without my Motherwort tincture or dealt with stomach issues without oregano oil.
Finally, we waited to board. Every once in awhile one of us would say, "Oh my God...we are actually going to MADAGASCAR!" After all the dreaming, planning, organizing, fundraising, meeting, packing, and arranging, we were finally about to accomplish what we had set out to do: fulfill the wishes of the members of Taratra Reny sy Zaza, an organization of women and children in the area of Mahatsinjo, Madagascar. The facilitator of this project, Karen Samonds, asked these women if they would be interested in having any friends she knew from Canada to come out there and do some workshops discussing nutrition, health and environment, family planning, general health, goals for their future, as well as provide training for the local traditional midwives to increase their skill level. They seemed excited by the prospect, as their community definitely experiences a lot of health issues. That put the wheels in motion. So there we were with bells on, ready to board the plane. not knowing exactly what we were in for, but so grateful to have the opportunity to do whatever we could. We didn't really know what to expect, but we were willing to share whatever information and skills we had to help improve the lives of these people Karen and her husband Mitch have alway spoke of with great fondness.
None of us could stay for very long. Deborah is a family doctor who focuses on maternal/newborn care. She has been catching babies for about 7 years. Sarah is part of a co op that sells soap and natural products, and spends much of her life helping to run the store and tending to a new child. I have my own children at home and many clients counting on my presence at their birth. Our trip would be 10 days, though with the immense amount of travel time required, we would only really have about 5 days and six nights in the forest doing workshops. A crazy whirlwind endeavour, for sure, but what is life if not for a little adventur
Right away it was apparent that as travelling companions, we were all going to get along well. Sarah and I have been friends for years, so I knew that wasn't an issue, but it was clear immediately that Deborah was really open, willing, positive, and supportive. We all clicked, and am happy to say that the vibe remained that way throughout the trip, with each of us lending support to each other whenever we could. Sarah and I have our schtick after years of adventures together. We normally speak together with every second word being four lettered. We bitch about stuff a lot. We laugh at radom things other people wouldn't understand and have inside jokes. We've experienced things in our work as birth attendants and general lives that would make the average person faint and doctors cringe. And Deborah took it all in stride. She comes from a very different background altogether. She is a medical professional. She is stable and contained. Not that Sarah and I are unstable, but neither of us have exactly led the white picket fence existence nor had our young lives shaped at the bosom of a Clever like family . Deb has, and as a result is a naturally easy going, confident, grounded, practical, focused person. An upstanding citizen, even. And good on her for that. For whatever reason, our co-existence worked. We respected each others' values and differences, and came out of our time together with an even higher regard for each other than when we went in. This is a rare and precious thing. Nobody chose to get caught in any conflict of ideals or of judgements, and as a result our combined respect, efforts and resources made our work together far more powerful.
Because Sarah had Keelia and a cane (her hip gets messed up sometimes, so she brought it in case she needed help walking), she was always moved up to the front of the line. Deborah and I figured we would take turns pretending they were our wife and child. We got a little cocky, thinking we'd get some special treatment along the way. HA! Did I tell you we were traveling Air France? If you would like to sit back and watch some of the weirdest, rudest, snottiest service ever, just grab a flight with Air France. This in no way reflects upon the one or two lovely individuals throughout our entire trip who were actually kind and considerate, but as a whole, the experience was so shocking I had to laugh. I don't meant to be ungrateful, as they did get us to our destinations safely and in once piece, but not without us being horribly treated, dehydrated, and half starved. I am not one to complain much about things like service, as I tend to be pretty easy going...but wow. It was something else.
We kept to ourselves mostly through the first leg of the trip, which ended in landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. You kind of have to prounounce the name of this airport fast,as if it were all one word, the "s" on "Charles" being silent, the "Ch" said as "Sh", the "e" at the end of Gaulle being pronounced as if you had just been tapped in the gut, all the while with your lips pursed as if you had just laid eyes on someone behaving rudely. I watched a couple of supremely bad movies, listened to some music, and was constantly aware of being very thirsty with no offers of water coming our way. The flight attendants all wore a nauseating amount of perfume. This should not be allowed, a flying tin can full of smelly neurotoxins. They also had this thing where they would act totally pissed off at you because you were too stupid to intuit their protocols. For example, at one point I wanted some coffee. The woman held out a tray that contained milk and sugar. I tried to take some milk and sugar and practically had my hand smacked off. "NON!" I got scared. What was I doing wrong? Was I breaking some sort of ancient French custom? I was being looked at with loathing and contempt that should only be reserved for someone who has done something really awful, like farted loudly in church. My heart started palpitating. Beads of sweat broke out. Then I realized I was supposed to place my cup upon the tray for the flight attendant to fill it. I complied, but in my nervous state flubbed up and put my hand on the whole tray as if to take it, not just the cup on it. "MADAME!" was shot at me like a freakin' bullet. I forgot that I could speak French and had enough word skill to verbally eviscerate her 'til Tuesday if I so chose. But I was just so surprised at the level of vehemence over something so small, I was silent. Meek, even. She left in a cloud of indignation at being affronted by our North American idiocy, and I drank my coffee, feeling like I wore a mark of shame tatooed on my forehad. Sarah looked at me with her eyes and mouth wide open in disbelief. Ah, this is but one example.
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle at about 4am Paris time and had to wait about 6 hours to board the 10 hour flight to Madagascar. Keelia was awake and running around. We found a little playground area and hung out there. As shops in the airport opened, we popped our heads in. We washed and brushed our teeth in the bathroom, and had some tea in a cafe. Keelia ran around, flirting shamelessly with other travellers.
After awhile, it was time to hang out at the boarding area. We thought the plane would be mostly full of Madagascar natives, but mostly, the travellers seemed to be white tourists from different parts of Europe. There were a couple of interesting characters: A Malagasy nun carrying a colourful statue of Jesus with its hands all bandaged up....a very churchy looking family with several little girls with braided blonde pigtails....an extremely grumpy man who looked at all the children waiting to board as if they were loathesome, even though he had about three of his own in tow. Finally, we boarded, ready to endure another onslaught of Air France brand hospitality.
Deb had sneezed at least 100 times at the airport...possibly the result of too many perfume fumes....and decided to take some decongestant before boarding. As a result, she practically fell asleep in her food when it came. Because it was very early morning in my stomach's time, there was no way I was going to be able to eat the heavy meal they wanted to give me, so I refused it. Sarah and Deb kindly grabbed a couple of pieces of bread and cheese off my tray to save for me for later. We tried to sleep, but all Sarah and I really did was shift consciousness a little. Keelia remained a great sport, and finally slept a bit. I had headphones in my ears while she apparently had a small freakout.
Every once in awhile we would check where we were. It was amazing to know when we were flying over the Nile, or directly over Kilamanjaro. It was all very strange to us that we were actually over the continent of Africa. As the time came closer to land, we got more and more excited. Like SUPER excited! As we landed we were all practically holding hands with giddiness, bouncing on our heels the way children do. When you get out of the plane in Madagascar, you go down a bunch of stairs and land directly on the tarmac. The first thing I noticed when I stood in the doorway of the plane was the sweet scent of woodsmoke, a smell I had always loved. That smell would permeate our lives for the next week. The feeling of the air was cool and still. We had arrived. I took a couple of photos, but the airport people clearly objected for some reason, so I put my camera away.
We had been told before we left that a guy named Shady would tend to us when we got there. Yes, Shady. Of course, when we saw him and he turned out to be a pretty skinny dude, we called him Slim Shady, and in our sleep deprived state sung a lot of "Na na na NA na na." Before Shady came on the scene, though, we had to get visas. Again, because Keelia was in our presence, we were forwarded to the front of the line. We were a little nervous that the guy who led us there grabbed our passports and took them away from us for inspection, but that seemed to be the protocol. We received our passports with the visas completed, then went off to wait for our bags, which took forever. Even Slim Shady was getting impatient.
As we got out of the arrivals area, we met up with Karen, who looked fabulous in her purple Lilla P wrap. Finally, with all our many bags in tow, we went through customs, and thanks to Shady, nobody even questioned what we had with us. For all they knew we could have been smuggling heroin. But when we said the bin was full of children's vitamins, they didn't question. Yay, Shady! We could have been held up there for an awfully long time given all our stuff.
Jean Luc, a founding member of Sadabe, (Karen and Mitch's organization), who was born and lives in Madagascar, was in the parking lot to meet us with a truck. We packed our stuff in, then Deb and I went back inside the airport to change some our money into Malagasy Ariary. 2000 Ariary equals about $1. Given the amount of mosquitos flying around, I was very happy I had chosen to take Malarone.
Finally, we were off to the house just outside of Antananarivo Karen, Mitch, and their girls Anne and Evelyn rent for when they are not living in the forest. We were all completely exhausted. It was interesting seeing bits of the capital at night with everything closed. Karen's house is right beside a cell tower. It is nestled beside a larger home. In the parking lot were broken down tourist buses. In the house was Jean Luc's wife, who is due to have her first baby in December. We greeted her and learned that the Malagasy do 3 cheek kisses, as opposed to our Montreal 2 kisses. There was a child sleeping on the couch, and when she woke up she looked excited to see us. "Salama!" she greeted with enthusiam.
In Karen's house there is a living/dining room. There is a sink for washing up, and in a teeny little room a stovetop to cook on. There is no fridge. There is a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and porcelein square with a drain to bucket shower over. There is no hot water, and the running water stops frequently, necessitating a bucket of water dumped into the toilet to flush it. There is electricity, but it apparently goes off a lot. Upstairs, there are two rooms to sleep in. Karen led us to a room with a double mattress, and a little sleeping nest set up on the floor. We eyed them gratefully. As Karen was explaining that we would get to sleep for about 4 or 5 hours before heading off to the forest early in the morning, her elder daughter Ann woke up.
Ann exudes pure love. She has big blue eyes like her daddy's and a face that expresses joy with ease. She ran into the room practically wriggling with glee to see us. I took her into my arms giving her a big snuggle. Evelyn toddled into the room soon after and it was so good to hug children. I felt pangs of missing my own. I realized that all three children in the room were babies I had seen born. I never forget what an honour that is, and what a bond that creates. We all settled down to grab some sleep, the happy sound of nursing, cosleeping toddlers filling the air, anticipating a long, busy day tomorrow.