Letter to Family June 30, 2008

July 25, 2008

Dear Family,

I must’ve been mistaken when I wrote that my training village had 7,000 inhabitants. Our locality must have a population of 7,000 – the training village could not have more than a thousand. It’s sleepy here: There are only three roads and they run parallel west to east. Among these dirt roads are homes built with every available material like bricks, cement, wood, tin, and scraps of sheet metal. There are a few town stores, some spots called “hotelys” to have a drink and a plate of food (I’ve been told to avoid them here), a few churches, and an elementary and middle school.

My home, the home of my well-off host family, is blue and white and made of wood. Even with their relative wealth, it’s a little difficult for me to tell them of my life in the United States. At dinner one evening, my host grandmother asked if I owned a car. I said yes. There was no use lying to her – my family watches 1950’s and 1960’s American sitcoms and MTV programs on their little television, so they had a glimpse of what my life back home was like. Then she asked how man cars my family owned. I replied that we had four cars but also that cars were necessary due to my country’s large size. “That’s a lot of cars,” my host grandmother said. “We don’t have any, so we have to walk everywhere. If you want… you could give us one…” And my host family roared with laughter. While they could make light of the discrepancy in our lifestyles, I was a little sad when I went to bed that night. My slow-learner self was again struck by an everyday adage: “Life isn’t fair.” My host family works as hard or harder than many American families, yet they do not have many luxuries that we Americans enjoy.

If I were to make a mixed CD to reflect my training village’s soundtrack, it would go like this. Track #1: Roosters cockadoodledoing. Track #2: Playing, laughing children. Track #3: Malagasy passers-by saying “Hello!” and “Aren’t you cold?” Track #4: Sweeping brooms and coconut brushes. Track #5: Taxi-brousses honking for half a minute at a time. Track #6: A zebu mooing from afar.

It becomes most lively here on Wednesdays because Wednesday is market day. The market is a bustling and chaotic affair. Malagasy throughout our locality come to the village to sell fruits, vegetables, livestock, spices, second-hand and imitation clothing, cheap household items, fabric, shoes and flip-flops, trinkets and toys and so on. Vendors announce their presence and low prices with loudspeakers or blaring Malagasy music. Many call out to us trainees to buy their goods because they think that we as foreigners are rich and indiscriminate spenders. As a part of our language training, the Peace Corps gave us some money and a shopping list for the market two Wednesday’s ago. Each time a trainee flubbed his way into haggling for a good price, a group of Malagasy would gather to watch. I was assigned to buy chick peas, small peppers, and lima beans for 2,000 Ariary (about $1.25). One trainee, Jeff, had to buy a live chicken , and after he did so, he trolled through the market the rest of the morning hold it by its feet.

I’ve fallen for a lively and delightful trainee named Michelle. She grew up on Long Island, went to Cornell University, and is a year older than I. One trainee remarked that Michelle has a resemblance to the Mickey Mouseketeer Annette but with hair shorter than mine. This Wednesday we held hands and walked through the market looking for a hat for me and avocado for us to enjoy later in the day. Suddenly someone called out, “Jordan!” I turned and found my host grandmother cooking food at a table and selling it. “What a surprise! I didn’t know you did this!” I exclaimed in French. “Come eat,” host grandmother said. Behind the table was a curtain, and behind the curtain was a room enclosed by cement walls with two tables and chairs inside. Michelle and I each ate a plate featuring potato salad, macaroni salad, and shredded carrots. For dessert we had a piece of honeycomb. The total cost for the meal was 600 Ariary (40 cents). I insisted on paying for the two meals but my host family refused, another testament to the Malagasy’ impressive generosity. We left the makeshift restaurant proud that we had had such an awesome market experience. I guess you could say that was our first date. (Runners-up for “Michelle and Jordan’s First Date” include when we fetched water from the neighborhood spout for the first time or when we bought sub-par chocolate at a town store and ate it together on the sidelines of our village’s soccer field.)

I hope everyone is well and enjoying the summer! Think of me the next time you’re eating a hamburger or drinking something cold – all this rice is doing a number on my stomach and appetite. Sorry for my ugly handwriting, I was fighting with this pen the entire time I wrote this letter. I’m happy, healthy, and alive, and presumably so for at least the next few weeks!

Love you all,

Jordan


Letter to Family 6-14-08

July 15, 2008

This entry updated by Mom. Names are removed to protect their privacy per Peace Corp instructions.

Dear Family,

Manahoana! I’m writing to you in my bed under mosquito netting at my new temporary household, the household of Rivo Mamisoa R**************. The drive here took about an hour from the capital and was quite the sight: jagged hills are the home to grids of rice paddies, wild roosters, red sand, green shrubbery and often women carrying objects like milk canisters and sacks on their heads. The village, ********, has almost 7000 residents, and we are the only Caucasians here. People stare without shame or apology everywhere we go. And like I guessed, believe it or not, I’m one of the tallest here. (I’ve hit my head on my host family’s doorway three times already.) With the attention comes gossiping, too; one trainee slipped and fell in the mud one morning, and by that afternoon three other trainees knew about it through their families.

During the day I go to the bathroom in a “kabone”, which is Malagasy for “outhouse with a hole in the ground”. At night I use a “pa”, which is Malagasy for “bucket”. The Malagasy do not go to the kabone at night because that’s when the wild dogs and Mpamosavy roam. A Malagasy man at our learning center told us that Mpamosavy is witchcraft conducted usually by naked women who rub oils into their bodies and hypnotize you to stripping your clothes and being their four-legged horsie for riding. I have unfortunately not encountered this.

I really lucked out with my host family because they speak French. We’ve been communicating in French to cut down on the confusion and silent responses other trainees have when their families speak to them only in Malagasy. I also think I’m making more progress in Malagasy because of my ability to ask questions in French. I’ll write more about the Malagasy language later, but I will let you know that in this language, the standard sentence structure is predicate+object+subject, and there is no verb for “to be”. So, the sentence, “Ita vary izireo” literally translates into, “Like rice they”, and “Mpampianatra aho” literally translates into, “Teacher I” or “I am a teacher”. Pretty different, huh?

In the mornings my family wakes me with the sunrise around 6 a.m. I take my po, dump it in our kabone, and clean it. Then I take another bucket, fill it with hot water that my host grandmother has prepared me, and go to a room in the back of the house for showering. When I’m finished, I sweep the water out the door onto the patio. The shower room, the “ladosy,” has a curtain partition for what I thought was for multiple showerers, but on my first morning I looked behind the curtain after my shower and found some pens of live rabbits and chickens. I then return to my bedroom, brush my wood floor with a coconut half with my foot to scrape away splinters and potential larva, and sweep.

I eat nearly every meal with my host family. We eat white rice and a side dish for almost every meal every day. For dessert we eat clementines or bananas. At my family’s insistence one morning, I put a few ounces of condensed milk and a spoonful of sugar into my tea, and when I took a sip and felt my teeth being eaten away by the tea’s sugariness, each host family member put milk and five or six spoonfuls of sugar into their tea and were astounded that I would take my tea so blandly. They also load their coffee with sugar in quantities that make dentists around the world toss and turn at night.

My host father’s name is Mamisoa and he is 35 years old. His wife, Verohanta, is 30, and they are tailors for orders from the capital. They are constantly sewing and their machines sometimes wake me at 3 a.m. There is a grandmother, Albertine, who tends to the house. I have a host brother, Manitra, who is nine years old, and a host sister, Tsiky, who is five. They are adorable and seem to have taken a liking to me. We dance with the coconut brush and broom when I clean my room, and they insist that we brush our teeth and wash our hands together. I’m impressed by how generous, loving , and happy my host family is. The parents gave up their bedroom and sleep with their children so that I could live with them for these 10 weeks, and they are incredibly willing to hear me slaughter their language in my effort to learn it.

It has more or less rained here every day, but it has been a nice, gentle, misty rain. And for the record, I’ve gathered that my host family is more well-off than other families in town. Our house has a living room, wood floors, glass windows, electricity and a television, all of which many other trainees’ families lack.

I haven’t been in Madagascar for even a week, but it feels like months. There is so much to see, and everything is exciting and new for me here. This is what life is about. I feel so alive here.

Hugs to everyone including the pets. Happy belated birthday, Laura! I hope to hear back from you all!

Love, Jordan.