To many, Madagascar seems to be such an exotic place to live in. It is home to so many animal and plant species (the most famous animal here is the lemur, and the most famous flower is an orchid called vanilla - you learn something new everyday) that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is so remote and isolated that none of the elephants, giraffes, lions and all other safari animals reached the island. So yes, if you really watched the animated movie, Madagascar, you'll know that only lemurs live here. Lucky for them, the only threat to their existence is the fossa, since the bigger predators never made it out here. In the same way, the lemurs were never able to explore other lands.
Prior to moving, we researched about things that were exciting about the place, for our kids, most especially - the national parks where we could take night hikes to see the most bizarre creatures, the beaches and the other interesting places to go. This helped us build the hype and sell the idea to our kids and they really looked forward to it. As parents, we looked into the living conditions, the schools, the culture of the expat community, opportunities to volunteer, the cheap services and crafts and products to support. It is such a blessing to have a strong community of expats who have lived or are living here - they patiently answered all our questions.
After a 7 week stay in Washington DC to learn French, we headed to Madagascar. The flight was so long that we cut our trip in half, and spent a day and a night in Paris. We survived the most terrible time travel - we left in the afternoon in the US, and after a 7 hour airplane ride, we arrived in Paris at 8 in the morning. Fortunately, we "conditioned" (a.k.a "drugged") the kids to SLEEP during the flight so they got at least 5 hours of sleep before the "morning" in Paris.
We traveled with 6 big suitcases, 4 small suitcases, 4 backpacks and 2 car seats. (We've been living with only suitcases for 3 months now). This proved to be a pain in the neck as we stayed in Paris overnight. We wanted to take the suitcases to airport storage, but it was in a totally different terminal, and we would have to drag them ALL individually, as trolleys were not allowed in certain areas of the airport. We decided to just take them with us. Conveniently, as we proceeded to the taxi lane, the next in line was a big van driven by a very nice Vietnamese lady who spoke English. It was easy to stuff all the bags in, and soon, we were headed out to our hotel.
We stayed at a hotel near Notre Dame with the view of the Seine river. We stored all our bags in the hotel locker (they looked at us very strangely, of course), and headed to our room. We freshened up and walked to the nearest bakery and had some croissants and crepes. Too bad, the closest and most convenient one was Paul (which had chains all over the world, and we frequented in Manila). Still, it was Paul in Paris, so we were happy anyway. We could barely walk back to the hotel since jet lag all of a sudden hit us after that first cup of coffee, so we decided to go back to the hotel and take a family nap.
We were energized once again after an hour nap. It was a little hard to wake the kids up, but the idea of seeing the Eiffel tower in real life somehow motivated them to get up. We had a snack at a pizza place (bad decision), and walked around. Our first stop was our favorite chocolate fondue place, where we bought solid chocolate (with different flavors) in a microwaveable ceramic mug. We especially reserved some weight for it in our baggage. After that, we stopped at a playground (not intentionally, but we certainly took credit for "finding" a playground for the kids). We also passed by a gourmet food market. We visited Notre Dame and took a walk around. The kids were so fascinated by all the intricate details of the statues and the glass windows. They said it was the most beautiful church they had ever seen. We lit a candle for Lolo, and prayed for all our loved ones back home. After that, we took a cab to see the Eiffel tower after sunset. Again, not intentionally, but we took credit for it anyway, there were carousels by the Eiffel tower! They were so happy riding on it, then had a giant cotton candy after. Photos of which were never taken as it disappeared in a few minutes. After that, we capped our night in Paris by having dinner at Mommy and Daddy's favorite restaurant, the name of which has been forgotten, we just knew how to get there.
The nice Vietnamese lady came back the next morning at 8, so we could make it to our flight at 10 am. We stuffed all our bags again, and as usual, there were complications when we checked in. First of all, we were dropped off at the wrong terminal, so we had to push the trolley (which were way above our heads) over to the correct terminal. No one was there at the Air France check-in so we had to do it on our own. We managed to print out all our boarding passes and our baggage tags. We weren't sure where we would drop off our bags, but we ended up going to the right place the first time. 30 minutes before the flight, we still had to go through immigration with a super long line and no diplomatic line, so we were doubtful we would make it. There are only 2 flights to Madagascar weekly, so if we missed this one, we would have to go back to the hotel and stay for a couple of days more. That was not good as it was Sunday, and Tim's first day on the job was Tuesday. We made it in the nick of time, and entered the gate while the boarding process was almost done. We were not the LAST people on the plane, so we felt very good about ourselves.
After 11 hours, we arrived in Antananarivo at midnight. The airport was very crowded and chaotic, and a guy in a suit, posing as a person from the US embassy (why didn't we check his badge?!?) took our passports and asked us to line up at the VIP line. In 2 minutes, another guy came and scolded the other guy - and took our passports. HE was the official person from the embassy. If he hadn't arrived, we would have lost our passports. What a nice welcome.
An hour later, we headed out to our "new" home. The children were so excited about their new bedroom as it had fancy mosquito nets draped around their beds. Our house is beautiful, and we are thankful that we get to live in it for the next few years.
I am grateful that the foreign service has a process in place where "social sponsors" help you through your transition when you are new at post. Our sponsors were the best, as we had food for breakfast the next day, the numbers we needed to call for emergencies, our beds were made, we had towels in the bathrooms and all that. The next day, we met with Liz and she helped us get all settled in. We met our new housekeeper Sylvia (we arranged to meet and hire her prior to our arrival) and she seemed really nice, and she speaks English.
The next few days were spent on visiting the kids' schools, getting them enrolled, arranging for transportation, hiring more people to help us out, hooking up the internet, squaring out our cellphones, securing employment contracts, finding out where grocery stores are and the best places to eat are, and finding a job for myself. We learned how to bleach our fruits and vegetables and how to take care of our tortoises. Tonight, we attended a Catholic mass in English! Thanks to Liz and the many people in the embassy who are so willing to help us out get settled in.
The past 2 weekends, we got to visit some sites and met the very famous lemurs. We visited downtown, and used the amenities for families at the embassy. Tim is also starting the kids on archery.
After 10 years of moving around , I think we have learned some lessons and have discovered that the most effective way to feel "settled" is to just do all the hard work in the first few weeks. Now that the kids are bigger and I have to help Tim save up for the kids' college fund, I am glad I was able to secure 2 part time jobs (one in the embassy, and one subbing at an international school) and 1 volunteer teaching job at a Malagasy school teaching English and Science twice a week. (Wait, what? Science?!?) I'd have to wait for some clearances for my job at the embassy, so for now, I still have time to settle in.
I was very excited to see that a lot of grocery items are available here. Between the Indian, European and Chinese businesses here, supplies could get in the capital. That being said, I have to adjust a lot to the quality of products as well as the fresh produce. The vegetables and fruits are wonderful, but the meats, except for the chicken and fish, have a different taste than what I am used to. Perhaps one of our saving graces, is meeting Jenny - the expat cook who spends a few hours in different homes making multiple dishes. She is Malagasy, but spent more than 10 years with the Italian embassy in San Francisco and Italy. After 2 weeks of cooking and eating food that don't taste the way I want it, Jenny made us dishes that made were so good and familiar that I just had to give her a hug. She's making me feel a little inferior though, as when I actually cook for my family - they look at me like I've never cooked my entire life. Kevin and Nina turn to me and say "Jenny didn't make this, you made this". It would definitely take time for me to get my cooking groove back, and maybe I should just learn from Jenny. The other day, they ate an entire plate of broccoli (seasoned with lemon zest and garlic powder) and an entire pan of salmon (seasoned with the local spice blend and lemon), and said, "this is the best food I've ever had". "Seriously? I make those dishes the same way, it just doesn't have Jenny's magic!" I'll get over this somehow. Oh, and our dear Sylvia can make bagels from scratch!
All in all, we feel that this would be a great tour. The community seems to be a very social, outgoing, busy, very accommodating and welcoming one. It has been a while since we have been in a country where the embassy community is really strong and closely knit - it will take a lot getting used to, as I think as I grow older, I tend to shy away from the crowd and want my own personal space.
The process of moving seems to be something we have learned to master through the years as a couple. Tim and I didn't really have to discuss anymore who would be in charge of which - and it seems to have all fallen into place. It is amazing how we just know what to do each time we move, while at the same time not have a clue how to do things in a new place. We keep on learning, growing and making mistakes together, and as our kids witness it, they learn how to go along with the flow as well.
When are you visiting?