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,