Life here is not easy, but it is good.

Life here is not easy, but it is good.

Life in Madagascar: we’ve been in Madagascar as residents now for four weeks. (If you are new to our blog you can read our first post here.)Well technically three of us are residents, and yours truly is on a 90-day visitor visa. That may present a conflict shortly, but for now let’s focus on what it’s like here and now, our day-to-day life.

We’ve been In Madagascar long enough to drive home that we are not on vacation. I’d like to say everything is sunshine and pina colada sunsets on the beach, but real life here is like anywhere, there are good days and bad days, and things we wish we could change with the tap of a magic wand. We’ve all been sick at least once.

 

Cocktails on the Beach

Fresh juice at Club Sandwich: pineapple, parsley and lemon juice. Yum!

Life is not perfect

I am doing my best to learn to live with never ending sand in the house, my hair, and my feet. I am trying my best to figure out how to rid the region (not just our yard) of sand fleas — I think the solution may be dichotomous earth (also used for killing ants), but I need to source it. That said we are content and happy — the most significant thing here is the lack of stress — day by day we are adapting to “la vie mora mora.

The negatives are sand and sanitation. There is a trash problem in the town. The water only runs some days and sometimes just at night. We had to get a water tank and pump installed, and even then sometimes there isn’t water for three days, so we run out. We need a bigger tank. The electricity also periodically goes out for a random 30 minutes to 5 hours. We need a backup system.

I’ve been learning to keep my laptop charged, and the good news is that with a 4G wifi dongle, even if the power goes out if I’ve got juice in my laptop (or my solar charger), I’ve still got wifi. It is a bit odd to have at times wife, but no water or electricity. These are all things we didn’t notice when we stayed here in January because our stay with Le Nepenthes Bungalows (owned by one of Yves’ aunties) meant we were sheltered from some of the local-life inconveniences.

Building a path

Working on one of the stone paths in front of the outdoor kitchen.

Life is Beautiful

I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that we’ve had statistically more sunsets and drinks on the beach than we did in France. The best thing about living here is that literally, nobody is stressed. And the kids are free to run and play outside. Life here is not easy, but at the same time, it’s not stressful.

The little butterfly who never went to bed in France, is now usually asleep on the couch by 8 PM here, after a day spent mostly outdoors playing hard, she is exhausted and content. I am beginning to think that stress and anxiety are maladies of American and European culture.

Chayton with Tati

Beloa with his tatie Veronique

Laughter is the Good Medicine

Here, even strangers generously share their smiles and laughter. Even people without enough food or work, are happy. Frankly, it’s a bit odd. I confess it feels like I might be both lying and making an ethical faux pas, to say that someone living in extreme poverty is happy. You might need to come and see for yourself. Life here is not easy, but it is good.

Of course, perhaps it is that an easy life doesn’t necessarily mean a happy life. And a hard life doesn’t necessarily equate to unhappiness. Things to ponder.

Salad

One of our amazing salads at lunch.

Slow Food is Good Food

Speaking of food: life is good in Madagascar, and so is the food, especially when you’ve got enough money. The food is good. Everything we eat tastes so good with our daily based upon traditional Malagasy dishes; meats or seafood, cooked in sauce, with a healthy serving of rice, salads on the side and of course SAKAY.

I am working on a motto for Madagascar — something like “Everything is better with cheddar.” So far I have “The sky’s the limit with sakay.” Sakay is a hot sauce or more like a hot paste — if you’ve dined with us before you know that a little sakay in your food or on your samosa is the icing on the cake. It’s sooooo good.

When we eat out, the prices are fair, and the restaurants have fresh food cooked fresh. You notice I used the word FRESH. It’s true. No frozen french fries or pre-prepped grub here — not the food is REALLY fresh.

Flavors pop

From pizza to grilled lobster to traditional Malagasy dishes, we eat well. Almost everything is local, except for vegetables which primarily get imported from the north (the soil here is crazy sand) and the butter, which is French. Ha. Fish is freshly caught every morning; chickens get butchered the day you eat them. Eggs come from actual chickens and just might have a feather or two stuck to the shell.

Our cook has been making fresh yogurt from fresh Zebu milk (Zebu = cow). She also makes the best salads, from grated carrots to beautiful displays of mixed vegetables and always a fantastic vinaigrette. If you ate Fleur’s vinaigrette, you’d never touch a bottled salad dressing again. Never. For our family, life in Madagascar means eating well.

scenic view

Scenic view of Protestant church with Indian ocean in the distance.

Food is good, and the sunsets are beautiful, there is no stress. BUT…

Unfortunately, there are an abundance of corruption and or attempts to take advantage of foreigners. From taxi drivers to the local government, the involuntary Vazaha (foreigner) tax is common. As is the “little gift” or “cadeau” request to get something signed and approved. I’d say about a ⅓ of vendors and or taxi drivers are happy to try and overcharge you merely for being foreign and not knowing any better. Official business is probably similar. There are the folks with ethics and the people who know how to make the system work for their benefit.

On the flip side, life in Madagascar means that the cost of living is still so inexpensive to an American or European budget; it’s the principle of the matter that is the root of this problem, not the actual expense.

Water tank

Water cistern and pump under construction.

Cost of Living

  • A French baguette is 1,800 Ariary is 0.53 cents.
  • Mofo gasy — a lighter version of a baguette is 1,000 Ariary or $0.29
  • A daytime taxi ride in town is also 1,000 Ariary per person, so for 29 cents you can get a ride just about anywhere.
  • A cafe au lait on the Terrace at the Hotel Colbert made from locally grown, and roasted Malagasy coffee and local milk is 3,000 ariary or less than a dollar (sorry Starbucks).

Perspective

  • Minimum wage and what many people working service jobs get paid 200,000 Ariary or about $60 bucks per month. Many people work for less. This claim is not an exaggeration, and it’s a hard truth.
  • Living the way we do, not excessive, but by consuming luxury goods, such as yogurt, butter, bottled water and drinks, fresh vegetables, ice cream and such, we are spending about $50 per week for a family of four + a guest or two + meals for the ladies that work for us during the day (nanny, cook, housekeeper).
  • We’ve been spending another $20 to $60 per week eating out, which is extravagant here, but when we eat out, we order as we wish. For this expense, we get not only drinks, wine, fresh grilled lobster or a delicious pizza, meals that would easily cost upwards of at least $60 to $300 in expense in the USA or Europe.

The result is that with an income mixed in Euros and dollars we can live like royalty. Of course, this is moderated a bit by the desire not to be excessive or out of touch. When you come to visit us here in Madagascar, you can rest assured that for $20 per day, you can eat well.

desk

My temporary workspace.

Sunrise to Sunset

We wake up between 5:30 AM and 7 AM, usually on the earlier side to get our exercise in before the kiddos are up and before our house help shows up to work at 7:15. The first thing I do when I get up is let out the chickens. We’ve got eight young adults, one momma hen and a dozen baby chicks that hatched about a week ago.

A day in my life:

Yoga/Run
Breakfast
Errands
Work
Long lunch + kids
Work
Snack
Work
Dinner
Bath
Bed

Yves and I don’t cook, except on Sundays, because we have a cook. I do miss cooking, but it’s also a dream to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared, so I can focus on work and spend time with the kiddos. There is still plenty of other physical labor each day too, from walking for errands to raking, cleaning out sheds or watering plants that by 9 or 9:30 PM we are often zonked out in bed.

malagasy girl

Our little Butterfly carrying a teddy bear the way Malagasy women carry babies.

General Report: Life in Madagascar

We’ve met some interesting people from Peace Corps volunteers to the South African doctor who runs the local medical clinic. The same clinic that made it feasible for us to move here with two small kids. Dr. Jane runs a Robin Hood clinic that is a for-profit model; however, they don’t refuse anyone care, and they accompany women through an entire pregnancy free of charge. I’ll write more about the clinic another day — Dr. Jane’s work deserves a dedicated post.

The kids have a nanny, who is amazingly sweet and kind to them. The kids could be more generous and more sympathetic to the nanny. We are working on their training. They love the weekends, especially any time we leave the house as a family, be it to run an errand in a taxi, go to eat or hit the beach or the Talinjoo hotel.

We’ve had a round or two of funny tummy syndrome, but nothing too wrong. We do drink bottled water and use kitchen grade chlorine-based wash for our fruits and veggies.

view

View of north facing bay from the taxi window!

Living the Dream Update

The last time I wrote, I compared our land to Grand Central Station. The work has slowed a bit, but not really. Yve’s has successfully had the house painted, the electricity updated, the shower and toilet rooms re-tiled, and the front door lock replaced, a water tank and pump installed, a gate built and several walkways around the house to reduce the amount of sand coming in. Most of these projects he is overseeing; however the gate he built himself, once again proving he can do almost anything.

Current in progress work includes the construction of a perimeter fence, the construction of a long steep driveway, and our first bungalow. Our container arrives this week, so we’ll soon have access to a few items that we have started to miss, as well as, our paddle boards, bikes, and other toys! Hopefully we will have plans soon for our house or what we intend to build, but for now, we are waiting and watching to see what we can do with the land, and how best to lay it all out.

My Promise

I am going to commit to updating this blog weekly — and to finally getting publishes our posts from our crazy summer road-trip. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram (Voky_Be & RodmanJarhead) for daily picture updates. I also created a Facebook page called VokyBeTravel, which I invite you to follow it, it might be the most natural place to share these updates (versus MailChimp). We’ll see!

Veloma! Goodbye!

See you next week!

What life decisions really scare the shit out of you?

For eons, humans have been working to build stability and predictability into human culture. And yet, new ideas, new foods, fabulous changes often arise when we do something different.

And just as entire cities work to build stability there have always been the explorers and the nomads that venture out to find new paths, new ideas and generate innovation.

A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places. Isabelle Eberhardt

In the last few years, my husband and I have recognized that we thrive on the unknown. We love going to bed not knowing what tomorrow might bring. And in fact, we start to feel suffocated by the predictable. We love a good challenge. We benefit from daily routines like coffee, yoga and working out, but at the same time, we prefer the experiential over the predictable.

What scares the shit out of many people is exactly what gets our blood pumping. One of our favorite quotes is that “by stepping into our fear, we find our courage.” We love our families and friends, we honor our traditions, and we love learning about new ones. We adore traveling the world, making new friends, spreading love, courage, and goodwill wherever we go.

What scares the shit out of us is not going after our many goals. We want to make something fantastic happen.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. 
Brené Brown

Juicing Life

Sometimes when we talk with friends and family, we get the impression that they think our life is easy, full of butterflies and rainbows, always running along like a well-oiled machine. We get told we are brave. Or that folks wish they could do what we do.

One reason we’ve decided to share this journey with you here on this blog is to show you that we’ve got our problems and challenges. Life changes and rarely is life easy, but we like to push the boundaries and we love the rush of overcoming challenges and problems and coming out the other side.  We get scared. We worry. And we set goals and step into our fears.

Some days we suck on our lemons to fully experience the bitter juice and other times we make lemonade. Sometimes we make mixed fruit juice and simply toss in a lemon to preserve the color.

What’s for certain is that we see life as an adventure to be lived. 

Recipe: Juicing for Adventure

Planning an adventure is a bit like making juice. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it makes a big mess. Generally, speaking though, fresh juice is damn good.

Our current recipe for adventure as recounted in this blog post required the following:

  • 25 parts official military paperwork for retirement
  • 40 parts French bureaucracy
  • 10 parts figuring out what to do with our house
  • 5 parts figuring out what to do with our cars
  • 5 parts deciding what to do with our stuff
  • 10 parts packing a shipping container full of stuff. And a car.
  • 5 parts planning a USA vacation + road trip with four kids
  • 5 parts planning our arrival in Madagascar

Official Retirement

Let’s start with retirement. We’ve been “planning” my husband’s retirement from the military since we got married in 2012; however, each year little events of life or politics managed to push the date back. Finally, after a particularly challenging year last year and acknowledging that he and ultimately all of us have been living with the challenges of PTSD, we knew we had to finally make it happen.

Retiring from military life is complicated on many levels. On the bureaucratic level, it meant a ridiculous number of meetings and paperwork, pension determinations and all sorts of stuff.

On a personal level, my husband’s identity is that of a soldier. His teammates are his brothers. At the same time, he is a family man. He is also has a very strong internal compass that sometimes means you have to do the “wrong” thing for the right reasons versus the right thing for the wrong reasons. His personal moral code and his commitment to integrity mean that he’s never followed the easy path.

Not one to give up nor one to let something unjust pass, he’s always spoken his mind and done his best to ensure the success of his team and his missions. Unfortunately, military politics are not that different from politics anywhere else and so even in retirement, after serving France for 18+ years, even on his path to retirement he came up against roadblocks because not everyone respects a man who speaks his mind.

Sleeping babies.
Retirement Party

Confirmation

Occasionally during the retirement process, he questioned his decision. Watching the news or talking to his teammates he wondered if he should stay another year or two, but then he’d come back and tuck his babies in at night and know that he was on the right path.

The most heartbreaking moment of this process came on an evening that should have been a beautiful salute to his service. In mid-June, his regiment held a ceremony and buffet dinner for soldiers being awarded the next rank, leaving for a long-term overseas assignment, or for those retiring.

Each soldier was called up by name to shake the Colonel’s hand and that of the gentleman in charge of promotions. Our family, with two little squirming kids, stood up front. Several of his friends and former teammates were there with us. When they got to the section to announce and thank the retiring soldiers, they passed my husband by.

The presiding officer happened to be a man that has had a petty argument with my husband for years, and so rather than putting personal emotions aside, the officer chose to take an act of extreme disrespect.

My husband risked the greatest sacrifice on many tours. He lost his best friend. He saw numerous tragedies and walked paths most of us cannot even begin to imagine. He had good moments. And bad moments. As the children and I stood to wait for his name to be called, I felt both the proudness of a wife and a citizen and the heartbreak of a mother that watches soldiers go off to war.

Instead, a petty man made a petty judgment to “forget” to read my husband’s name. As if one can forget a soldier standing in front of you who has given his all. When I realized that this man’s petty politics stole my husband’s 30 seconds of applause, the tiny bit of respect that a retiring soldier hopes for, I felt nauseous. All my husband expected was to walk up, shake the Colonel’s hand, be acknowledged for his service, close that door and open the next door. As the ceremony came to a close and we started to leave, the Colonel realized what had happened, he came over with an attempt to remedy the situation by meekly saying: “Oh, we forgot you!”

At this point, I took a deep breath, and I took the opportunity to very calmly explain in French, that I wonder how France will ever succeed in their war against terrorism if they can’t even manage to show proper respect to their own soldiers. We then thanked the Colonel, and we left.

Indeed, the politics of bureaucracy and the pettiness of humanity served only to confirm that it is indeed time for us to move on and southwest France is not our home. Similarly, this experience further motivated us to dedicate our physical and financial energy to investing in my husband’s country of birth, Madagascar.

Beyond Politics to Trials in Bureaucracy

Deciding to move to Madagascar four months after making the decision meant that we had a million ducks to get in a row and fast. Not only did we need to determine our own strategy, we had to figure out how to navigate the rules and regulations of moving legal human cargo between countries.

As residents of France, it also meant millions of hours spent dealing with, for the most part totally pointless, French bureaucracy.

If you’ve never lived in France or you are not French, I guaranty you have no idea what I even mean. Leave it that way. French cheese and French wine are gifts to the world. French bureaucracy is a curse. Literally.

I’ll share with you one brief example.  We had a “contract-less” internet and phone service that could be easily canceled by moving from one provider to another anywhere around France or the European Union; however, moving out of France, a French territory or the EU? Not so easy.

Even after submitting a notarized “declaration of moving” letter from our mayor, a receipt from our moving company showing all our stuff shipped to Madagascar, our airline itineraries, and a proper formal letter of account closure “resiliation” as requested by the provider (Orange), they declined our requests to cancel our service, threatening to bill us for an additional 6 months. Why? They insisted we needed to provide a copy of our new internet contract in Madagascar. My husband literally told the service agent; “Fuck you” although it was a bit more eloquent than if I had said it because of course, he speaks with a lovely French accent.

As an American, I am still shocked that you even have to get a notarized letter from the mayor of your town to “prove” that you are moving out of the area. WTF. Life and living really do not need bureaucracy. It’s not at all efficient. 

The House

A house (and mortgage) as you know are a decent commitment, so our first line of action revolved around figuring out what to do with our house “La Soulatine.” At first we thought we’d sell her, but in the end, we decided to rent instead.

This, of course, has its own challenges, but the short-term challenges of being long-distance landlords are worth the long-term benefit of property ownership. Deciding to rent the house did not make our lives any easier, from an emergency water heater replacement in April to expensive, yet slovenly house cleaners at move out, we’ve been kept on our toes non-stop.

Next up, we had to decide whether to keep or sell our cars.

We ended up selling my car, a Ford C-Max and people mover because, with fabric seats in a humid climate, she’d surely have ended up smelly and dank. Furthermore, from a pragmatic standpoint the C-Max profile is too low to the ground and so she would have been a town car and not for ventures out into 4x4 country.

On the flip side, Kendell, my husband’s 2008 Audi Convertible made the cut. She is a beautiful, solid and well loved car. Rolling in a convertible is the bomb. Even Elvis the dog loves this ride. And although she’s totally impractical for moving a 6 person family or 4x4 country roads, we look forward to enjoying her impracticality around town.  She is a perfect beach town car.

Failed Minimalism

We really want to embrace a minimalist life. I’d love to have a capsule wardrobe. My husband thinks each kid should be limited to three toys.

And yet, we’ve got so much shit. Somehow we went from setting up overnight in 2012, and a couple trips to Ikea, to an entire house of stuff. Just like being deathly thin is a sign of wealth. I think the minimalist lifestyle is too. If I could just hire someone to figure out what I need and I what I should ditch, I’d gladly do it. At this point, I am pretty sure that they fewer the things you have in your house (outside of true extreme poverty) the more money one has…

Faced with deciding what to pack and what to give away, we basically packed everything that fit. Selling or donating the last few things (like a washing machine and a bunk bed) that wouldn’t go in the container.

Never Again

We’ve already made a pact that everything we’ve moved to Madagascar is staying there… If we ever move again, it will be with two suitcases max, per person. Stuff really isn’t that important. And now that it’s gone off on a boat for three months, for the most part, we don’t miss it. We really don’t.

That said, my fingers are crossed that the wine glasses, the juicer, the plates we got for our wedding and a few other things, like my “life is beautiful” coffee mug make it down the Suez Canal and out the other side safe and sound.

We do confess to praying that my 27” computer screen and my husband’s iMac also make the journey unscathed.

In the end, packing and sending off our container was very much like life. We did the best we could, we encountered some challenges, we pulled out some hair, but we got it done and in the end, watching the truck drive off towards the port of Le Havre was extremely satisfying. And totally surreal.

Even more surreal, saying goodbye to friends that have become family, a sad reality of military and expat life.

Not for the weak of heart.

International Moving and packing is not for the weak of heart.

As you can see, when you’ve got a few kids, a dog, a house and a houseful of thingamabobs, you can’t just pick up and move. There is a butt-load of work to get done first.

I am going to make up some numbers here, but I’d bet that some social scientist somewhere might back me up. I’d say that in making dreams happen, you only want to maybe spend about 5% of your time on your dreaming.

You then need to invest the rest into strategy and execution. Hoping that you get some sleep and some work done along the way.

 

We did it

Settling in for our flight from London Heathrow to JFK in New York, we realized, “we made it!”

Shortly after which, we recognized how entirely stressful the previous few weeks had been and in fact our doubts about whether we could actually make our plans work. And whether we could make it all happen and still be talking to each other when it was all said and done.

Well, we did. We made our plans. We did the bureaucracy. We bought our tickets. We packed up our house. We made it to Toulouse. And then we made it onto the airplane (see the photo of the baby watching a movie) and to my parent’s house in Colorado.

We did it and we made it.

Get ready for the ride, because the Rakoto’s are on the move!

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