Mrs. Robinson

September 27, 2008

The best people to practice a secondary language are children. They’re always patient and willing to correct you on your mistakes. One of my best language partners is the ten-year-old neighborhood girl.

Word had spread, probably through my young language partner, that I didn’t know how to cook. This wasn’t quite true. I knew how to cook, but I didn’t know how to winnow rice. The Malagasy winnow rice with such speed and fluidity, but I’m when I do it, I’m more awkward than a pubescent shaving for the first time. It also doesn’t help that my arena for winnowing rice is my front yard where people will inevitably watch the foreigner’s slapstick and gossip about it throughout half the country. I’ve been taking the easy way out by going to hotelys almost every day and eating a lot of pasta, fruit, and peanuts.

One afternoon someone knocked on my door. It was the neighborhood girl’s friend’s mother. I’ll call her Mrs. Robinson. “I heard you don’t know how to cook,” Mrs. Robinson said. “I can teach you.”

The next day I followed my cooking teacher’s instructions and bought potatoes, milk, bread, and butter. In the afternoon Mrs. Robinson came to my home, took out some dishes, and made mashed potatoes while I watched. She laughed an awful lot at my Sakalava small talk like “Does cutting onions make you cry?” or “English is a hard language to learn.” Sometimes her daughter or the neighborhood girl poked their heads through my front door and Mrs. Robinson would shoo them away and tell them to go play.

When the mashed potatoes were done, she cut the bread into halves and told me to eat. She sat down next to me and watched me eat. After I ate my lunch, I cleaned my dishes. She watched me. Then I swept the floor clean of crumbs and such. Still, Mrs. Robinson did not leave.

As I put my broom away, she finally stood up and said, “Can you come with me?” “Where?” I said. “To my house.” “Why would I come to your house?” She quickly shrugged. “I don’t know. You could watch me cook or something.”

I understood what she wanted. I told the 30-year-old, already-married Mrs. Robinson that I’d visit her home on another day. “No problem,” she said. “See you later.”

Was I being presumptuous that Mrs. Robinson insisted on cooking me a meal with the hope that she’d get dessert afterwards? I heard that people in the north were pretty lax about sleeping with others even when they had spouses, but Lord, I hadn’t even lived in town a week yet.

Later on I asked my Malagasy friend who spoke English about this encounter. I figured I’d ask someone who knew the Malagasy culture better than I did.

“Oh!” my friend exclaimed with a huge grin. “Yes, she wanted to make sex with you. Did you go to her house?”

“No,” I said. “She’s married, and I already have a girlfriend.”

He blinked, dumbfounded.

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A dirt path home

September 27, 2008

One route from the market to my home runs alongside the Indian Ocean. This is my favorite route to take. It’s a dirt path often muddied by early morning rain separated from the beach by a knee-length cement wall. On this walk home I pass by the fish market and a collection of sinks where women wash clothes and infants at all hours under the sun. I also usually have to sidestep around a children’s soccer game with rocks for goal posts and a ball made of plastic bags and twine.

I was walking to the market one afternoon to buy bananas when I saw little dark objects dancing and jumping on the shore far in the distance. The closer I came to them the more they appeared to be little boys playing in the nude. There were eight of them, splashing and laughing wildly. Their clothes sat in eight piles against the cement wall.

Across the dirt path a group of men were completing the construction of a wooden fishing boat. They were deep in concentration and paid no attention to the boys on the shore.

I looked at the clothed men at the boat and then at the playing boys on the shore and I thought, There’s more involved here than merely the passing of years.


A coconut outing (or “Only 12,000 Ariary!”)

September 27, 2008

A 21-year-old on a bike came to me one morning and asked in English when I would tutor him. I told him in slow English that I wasn’t tutoring anyone until I was more settled in my site village. Then he asked what many people have already asked: “Can I come to your home?” “No,” I said, “But if you want to practice English, I walk to Bezary’s shop every morning. You can meet me on the streets and we can talk then.”

A few days later I ran into the 21-year-old again. “This afternoon, do you want to come drink coconut with me?” he said. I agreed. At 2:30 sharp he appeared at my front door.

We began walking under the hot afternoon sun and had a really slow and belabored English conversation. Two minutes into the conversation he told me he was going to Paris next month. Someone in France had apparently sponsored him to go and work there. He spoke in nonsensical broken English about someone writing him a letter to facilitate his going to Paris. “What is the matter regarding this affair according to you?” I didn’t understand.

We continued walking down a dirt path through a relatively wealthy neighborhood of town. He said he needed to pick up a machete from his friend’s house for the coconuts. He also said he wanted to introduce me to the person who was writing a letter for him—and quite possibly a friend, I’m not really sure—to go to Paris next month. He said something about money, and I began to realize that my 21-year-old friend on a bike was pretending to be my friend in the attempt to weasel charity money out of an ostensibly rich foreigner.

At the edge of town we took a machete from a house and continued into the outskirts. A young boy and girl went with us. The further we walked out of town, the quieter I became. I couldn’t take my eyes off the foot-long machete he held. He again tried to explain his business of letters and Paris and needing money today. “According to you, what is the matter regarding this affair?” I still didn’t understand.

Finally we reached an area of dry coconut trees and piles of coconut shells. The young boy climbed the trees with ease and pulled the coconuts to the ground as the 21-year-old stood next to me with his machete. His pleas suddenly became more frantic and he switched languages from awful English into slightly-better French. Thirty seconds later he switched into desperate Sakalava. I understood more of his Sakalava than his English and French combined. He said something along the lines of, “There’s a man who’s writing a letter for me in French so that I can go to Paris. He needs money today or else he won’t write the letter. But I don’t have money to give him! For weeks I’ve been giving him money and working little by little to pay it off, but I don’t have money for him today, nor does he want me to work for him. If I don’t get money for him today, my friend and I won’t get to go to Paris.”

The 21-year-old’s money scheme tainted the fun coconut outing we could’ve had. As I drank coconut milk that the young boy prepared with the machete, I told the 21-year-old that he should ask his parents or friends for money. “I don’t have any friends here,” he said desperately. “And my parents live really far away in another town. I can’t get money anywhere.” I didn’t care anymore. I only wanted to get back into town before the 21-year-old butchered me in an area where no one would witness it.

Someone—Jesus, Vishnu, Tao, take your pick—was looking over me that afternoon. After fearing for my life for half an hour, the young boy tied some coconuts together and we finally walked back to town with all my limbs intact. We walked by my site partner’s home, and I made the excuse that I needed to visit her. The 21-year-old then became very explicit: “Please, I need money. Only 12,000 Ariary. I promise I’ll pay you back Wednesday, I’ll even give you my ID card in exchange. Can you help me?” I explained that although I was a foreigner, I wasn’t rich; the Peace Corps only gave us enough money to live like other Malagasy people.

“OK,” he said. “Well, thanks anyway. Hey, I’ll see you later. I’ll come by your home tomorrow afternoon.”

Yeah, sure, buddy. I’ll make sure to be there.


Mr. Jordan PR

September 27, 2008

Because of France’s colonization of Madagascar, everyone thinks that if you’re white, you’re French and rich. That’s why Malagasy kids in my town always yell “Bonjour!” or “Salut, vazaha!” It also explains why a teenage girl ran to me during site visit and asked if I was looking for a servant to hire.

It’s pretty obvious that if you want to have successful community projects as a Peace Corps volunteer, your community needs to know who you are. So for the first few weeks I’ve been my own advertising and public relations project. Every morning after Bezary’s yogurt I stroll through my town’s market so that everyone sees me. I’m not hard to spot; I’m one of the only white people in town. When Malagasy people, usually kids, say, “Bonjour!” or “Salut!” I respond with “Hello!” to show that I’m an Anglophone, not a Francophone, and to hopefully spark a little understanding on cultural diversity.

An easy way to spread Mr. Jordan publicity is to speak Sakalava in public. Hardly any white foreigners speak Malagasy, let alone a Malagasy dialect, so for a white guy to speak it gets the village people talking.

While I still get kids greeting me and demanding money in French, other people have begun saying English words and phrases. I get lots of hellos and good mornings and such from people on the sidewalk or riding by on their bicycles. I was sitting on the beach one time when a woman walking by recited an English dialogue she must’ve learned from school: “Good afternoon!” “Good afternoon.” “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, and you?” “Good.” “Goodbye!”

After going to the market, I was walking home behind two teenage girls. They didn’t think I could understand them as they spoke Sakalava. Sure, I didn’t understand most of it, but I understood the parts where they said that I was American, I lived near the middle school, and I spoke neither Sakalava nor French. They also said I was really cute. A few minutes later they left the path and looked at me and giggled. “I’m really cute, huh?” I yelled to them in Sakalava. Their mouths dropped in amazement. “I can understand a lot!” I said. The teenage girls laughed and blushed.

I can’t tell how successful my publicity efforts are going. I’m happy that teenage girls everywhere are talking about the cute yet practically mute foreigner in town and that other people know to say “hello” to me. But I’m still receiving French salutations and introducing myself to people who’ve never heard of me. The taxi-drivers are also still honking at me in the street with the puzzling theory that honking immediately convinces pedestrian foreigners that walking from Point A to Point B is just too tiresome.

I’m hoping that my middle school students will further spread the word that I’m an American Peace Corps volunteer. Once my community knows who I am, I’ll be better able to work without pesky assumptions getting in the way.


My friend, the yogurt guy

September 27, 2008

Many hotelys and shops here make and sell yogurt. Each place has its own recipe, so if you’re a yogurt fiend like I’ve grown to be, you can make a game out of trying to find the best yogurt in town.

One morning I asked my site partner, Monique, to show me the best yogurt in town. We walked 15 minutes toward downtown until we came to a general store. Inside there was a refrigerator with silver cups of yogurt. Monique and I each ate one, and the yogurt indeed was the best yogurt in town. Hell, it was probably the best yogurt on the planet, definitely the best yogurt I’ve ever eaten. It’s thick and sweet like vanilla custard.

The next day I went to the store and ate two yogurts for breakfast. The day after I went to the store and ate two more yogurts. And the day after that I went to the store and ate two more yogurts.

On the fifth day, the shopkeeper came to me and said in slow Sakalava, “Are you going to come here every morning and eat two yogurts?” “Yes,” I told him. “Well,” he said, “If you’re going to come here every day, we should have language lessons. If you teach me a little English each morning, I’ll teach you a little Sakalava.” I agreed to the deal.

Nearly every day I’ve walked to the shop to eat two cups of the best yogurt in town and exchange language lessons. The shopkeeper, Bezary, has become one of my best friends in town. He’s a patient teacher when explaining Sakalava words and grammar to me. The lessons have grown to last an hour and a half each day. Afterwards I’ll buy goods and food from him as a sort of thanks for the lessons. I can tell my language skills are improving.

Many customers now know me as the foreigner who frequents Bezary’s shop to eat yogurt and learn Sakalava. They often joke and make small talk with me. “Hey,” a woman asked Bezary one day, “How much for the foreigner? I need one foreigner.”


Freedom!

September 27, 2008

Until you swear-in as a volunteer, the Peace Corps holds your hand a lot. From our first weekend together in Philadelphia to the ten weeks of training, the Peace Corps always maintained a strict schedule. They gauged our language skills often and made sure we were healthy and happy with our host families.

So when the Peace Corps dropped me off at my home in my site village and drove away, I abruptly found myself with a new sense of independence. I was an adult again! I had free time and the ability to choose how to spend it! I could eat what I wanted and when I wanted and could sleep as much or as little as I desired!

But most importantly, I had a new house to furnish. I inherited a double-sized bed and mattress, a desk, a cooking table, a long shelf, a chair and stools, buckets and an electric fan from the last volunteer who lived in my home. (The last volunteer, however, had not lived there for a year and a half.) The Peace Corps gave us installation money for our homes and that money was burning in my pocket just waiting to be spent.

For the first week I walked from shop to shop and vendor to vendor in the market purchasing items like a gas stove, dishes, brooms, bed sheets, pillows, and office supplies. I bought kitchen supplies and cooking ingredients. My door and window shutters have little holes in them where curious Malagasy people could peek through, so I bought some fabric and sewed some curtains. My Home Economics teacher from middle school would be so proud.

I’m still acquiring items for my home—can you believe I still haven’t purchased a frying pan?—but I’m already feeling settled. I think it’s neat that the first home to call my own is in Madagascar.


A summary of training (aka “The Pig is Lost”)

September 17, 2008

There’s a Malagasy adage that every Peace Corps volunteer who blogs about Madagascar references at some point: If the grass is long, the pig is lost. This adage is used in Malagasy speeches to mean that if a speech is too long, the meaning is lost. I haven’t updated my blog since mid-July, so I have some catching-up to do. I’ll try to reduce each week to a story or two. For you, reader, I hope the grass isn’t so long that you lose my pig.

Week 3
The training staff sent us outside of the learning center so they could prepare site announcements. We were finally at the moment when we would learn our villages and thus our homes for two years. When they let us back in, we saw an outline of Madagascar taped to the floor with our names placed to our sites. I don’t think I’m allowed to reveal my village (if I can, I’ll reveal it immediately!), but I can say that my site is a large village on the beach in the northeast. I was ecstatic. With my site the training staff awarded me three of my four requests: 1. That my village had a lot of trees and was on the beach; 2. That my village was close to Michelle’s village; 3. That my village was large; and 4. That having electricity would be a plus.

Unfortunately for Michelle and me, the training staff assigned us to pretty distant villages. An impenetrable mountain range lies between us. For the next two years we’ll have to visit each other by plane or boat. Airplane flights are expensive here and my language teacher Ronald said that cargo ships can take two or three days to make the trip from my village to Michelle’s village. We will nevertheless make the relationship work—you wouldn’t have believed the crazy, romantic things we were saying to each other after such little time!

Week 4
Since my future home was in the northeast, my language training switched from learning official Malagasy to a dialect of Malagasy called Sakalava. The dialect has a heavy French influence and doesn’t use articles. It was a little irritating that after a few weeks of saying “mangatsika” for cold and “akondro” for banana to my host family that I would now have to say “manintsy” and “katakata.” Even saying hello switched from official Malagasy’s “moanahona” to Sakalava’s “mbalatsara.” I also found it amusing that in our training village’s market on Wednesdays, we volunteers suddenly started bargaining with sellers in different dialects. It was probably as bizarre as if you were selling lemonade in a Californian neighborhood and by chance your first customer spoke American English, your second customer spoke Irish English, your third customer spoke British English, and your fourth customer spoke Australian English.

On this week we trainees took our first of three language tests. I passed the easy test by speaking competently in Sakalava about professions and my family in the United States. The next morning we crammed into a van and drove to the capital, Antananarivo, for a weekend getaway. We ran around Antananarivo and enjoyed the things that our tiny training village lacked, namely the Internet, cell phones, and pizza.

But Antananarivo can often be overwhelming to foreigners. After visiting Tsimbazaza Park, a zoo where we got to see our first lemurs and my new favorite animal called a fosa, the Peace Corps deposited us downtown to fend for ourselves. As Michelle and I held hands and tried to enjoy ourselves among the bustling, people approached us every five paces to sell us their merchandise, beg us for money, or case us for valuables and money to pickpocket. Vendors on the sidewalks sold stolen watches, imitation purses, Malagasy dictionaries, t-shirts and bags with maps of Madagascar on them, knock-off cell phones, used shoes, cartons of cigarettes, sub-par vanilla, television antennas, cheap radios, nails, and anything else worthy of anointing with a price tag. When someone on watch blew a whistle or yelled “Police!” the sidewalk vendors would throw their goods into boxes and scatter. Cars honked and nearly killed pedestrians in their paths. A stench of garbage and car exhaust was everywhere.

Fifteen minutes of this craziness was our limit—we felt like we were about to be mugged, raped, or killed, or maybe all three simultaneously—so we nervously and frantically looked for bus #165 to take to the Peace Corps rest house. This is harder than it sounds, though, since buses in Antananarivo are large vans driven by normal-dressed drivers and the only thing differentiating the vans from regular automobiles is that they have a route number sitting in the front window. There aren’t bus stops or bus route maps in this country. I caught a glimpse of a #165 in a window and waved the van down. Its back door swung open and Michelle and I jumped onto it without it even coming to a full stop. We squeezed ourselves between Malagasy passengers and tried to catch our breaths.

The Peace Corps gave us a hand-drawn map showing us how to find the Peace Corps rest house. The map looked like a lemur drew it, so it proved to be of little help. Michelle and I jumped out of the van in where we thought the stop should be. Then we walked in a direction where we thought the rest house should be. “Shoulds,” however, are not “is’s,” and we got lost. In our three hour search for the rest house, we saw the poorest people and conditions thus far in Madagascar. Four and five-year-old children chased after us and tapped our sides and said “Give me money!” in French. When I pulled the map out of my pocket, one women dropped the clothes she was washing at a man-made lake and ran to us with her arms outspread because she thought I was pulling out money for her. Alongside this man-made lake were shack homes slapped together with metal sheets and mud.

That evening Michelle and I had our first real date at an Italian place with awful table wine (is “awful table wine” a double negative?) and pizza. In no way did it feel like Rome, but with the circumstances of being two Peace Corps volunteers in an impoverished but exotic Madagascar, the date was very romantic.

Week 5
We trainees returned to our training village and began teaching practicum. Nearly every day we were assigned to teach different groups of 40-50 Malagasy students a particular English lesson. My first class was a bunch of nine to 11-year-olds classroom furniture and “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” It’s a little nerve racking at first to stand up by yourself and teach to so many students, but you eventually get comfortable with it. I’m a pretty energetic teacher who isn’t afraid to be really goofy. Michelle is the same way; she wrote very creative lesson plans that incorporated games and Beatles’ songs. Malagasy students are used to their teachers being lecturers, so for us American trainees to arrive and make them sing and dance makes learning exciting and new for them.

Week 6
While I loved my Malagasy host family, they were overbearing sometimes. My bedroom door had holes in it, and while I would dress my little host brother and host sister would peek through the door and watch me. One day when the children were playing outside, Michelle came over and I closed the door and we started kissing—honestly, merely kissing. My host grandma knocked on the door and yelled through the door, “That’s taboo! That’s Malagasy taboo!” I opened the door completely perplexed and she said angrily, “No! Not in my house! Not in my house!”

The most difficult thing to handle was that my host family cooked every meal for me, meaning that I had no say in what I ate or when I ate it. The Malagasy eat the most rice per capita in the world, but my American stomach couldn’t handle it. Often times after breakfast a dull pain would settle in my stomach and my appetite would become severely curtailed for the rest of the day. My host family would ignore my pleas and guilt me or prod me into eating even when it hurt. My host grandmother, the most powerful figure in the family, would combine my digestive habits with other nags in very confusing ways. Example: “You know why you have a stomach ache? Because you don’t dress warmly enough.” Another example: “You know why you haven’t been sleeping well? Because you drank coffee two mornings ago.”

The annoyances of my host family culminated on this week. I had no idea that training would be like an oppressive summer camp in which we had no say in matters of food, sleep, and activities. It was as if I had graduated college and continued on to nursery school. One morning I awoke feeling like a slave and therefore in a bad mood. I took my bucket shower, ate my rice and peanut butter in silence, and grumbled on my short walk to the learning center. Following their daily routine of yelling trainees’ names as they walked by, “Jor-DAN! Jor-DAN!” was yelled by small children in the course of one minute from four separate places in the training village. Today is not the day, brats. Today is not the day.

Week 7
The last week of practicum had the trainees teaching in pairs of twos and threes. And unlike the other weeks, this week we taught the same class every day. Michelle and I paired up to teach 53 ten to twelve-year-old students. We administered a study session, a test, and a review session. We played with the students the last two days of practicum with the “Hokey Pokey,” tongue twisters, and songs. We also taught a verbs lesson, but this lesson was one that the students would never learn again in their public educations. The verbs Michelle and I taught them are as follows: to sway, to twist, to cheer, to fistpump, to sing, to clap, to Charleston, to click tongue, to snap, to stomp, to whistle, to robot, to shimmy shoulders, to spin, to disco.

They especially loved “to fistpump.”

Week 8
Because we visited our sites on this week, this week itself could be an entire blog or novella or something. My pig is definitely going to be lost.

The northeast region of Madagascar, the SAVA region, takes two or three days to reach by car. It was for this reason that the Peace Corps flew me there with Monique, a middle school English teacher who lives in my village. When we stepped off the plane in Sambava, I couldn’t believe I was still in Madagascar. The climate that I knew Madagascar to be—the climate of central Madagascar, where it was chilly and there were mountains, valleys, rice paddies—was not the climate here. For one, I was blasted in the face by hot and humid air. It was winter here but the temperature was around 23 C or 75 F. Secondly, there were palm trees and tropical plants everywhere. Lastly, there were tumultuous ocean waves smashing into sandy beaches.

The best way to explain Madagascar’s most prevalent form of public transportation, the taxi-brousse, is to compare it to a sweaty armpit: It is sweaty, smelly, and in close quarters. Taxi-brousses are vans with bench seats, and the SAVA region is notorious for shoving as many passengers into taxi-brousses as possible. Let me also add that most Malagasy people do not use deodorant and the SAVA region is hot and humid. There is no operating train system in Madagascar, so the taxi-brousse is the only way to travel from town to town.

The taxi-brousse ride to my village took five hours, five hours of me pressed up against a perspiring obese woman who had a seven-year-old boy in her lap and the revolting habit of loudly scratching the tickling inside her esophagus with her esophagus. Poor Monique, my site partner, somehow shrunk her waist to be about four inches so she could fit between me and another passenger. Because of Malagasy culture’s conservatism involving public displays of affection and the taxi-brousse culture of SAVA, I had at that point become more intimate with the cow to my left and Monique to my right than I had with my girlfriend.

But the drive outside the taxi-brousse was beautiful. The best way to describe it succinctly is to compare it to “Jurassic Park.” It seriously looked like Jurassic Park.

We arrived in my village and Monique put me up in a touristy bungalow for the night. I walked into the bathroom and on the wall were a bright green gecko, a frog, a cockroach the length of my ring finger, and a second bright green gecko. Welcome, Jordan, to the tropics.

The next morning I met Monique and we went to my future home. It was absolutely charming. It was a wooden, one-room house with blue and white paint on the outside and green inside. At the far end of the room were two walls partitioning off a toilet and shower from the rest of the home. I considered myself very lucky because I knew most other volunteers in Madagascar didn’t have a toilet or fixed showerhead. The home also had electricity.

Monique and I walked around my village and she pointed to places of interest like the market, the hospital, and the post office. We learned after talking with some people that a Malagasy man with a suitcase was carousing through the village and offering English lessons for the expensive cost of 40,000 Ariary. Many villagers had paid the man, but the English lessons he promised to give turned out to consist only of a half hour lesson and a large sheet of paper with Malagasy/English phrases. While the people spoke with outrage of the man and how he’d been cheating them out of their money, I was glad to learn of the great enthusiasm that my village had for learning English. Afterwards I wrote a text-message to Michelle with my new cell phone that read, “I love my site. The potential here is enormous.”

I ate really well during site visit. Monique cooked two lunches for me, one of shrimp with coconut sauce and rice and another of crab with coconut sauce and rice. After the shrimp coco she asked her thirty-something brother to climb a coconut tree and get us some coconuts. He did. Afterwards he took a machete, split the coconut open, and gave it to me to drink. I drank the coconut’s sweet milk with the disbelief that this would be a regular occurrence in my life for the next two years and that this was incongruent with the notion I once had that my life in the Peace Corps would be one of isolation, boredom, and a little suffering.

As I would learn next week, my site visit was relatively unremarkable compared to other trainees’. One trainee discovered that his site’s gendarme chief was probably an alcoholic. Another trainee’s school district was originally a middle school principal, was convicted for corruption, and then after being released from prison, was promoted to the position he presently holds. A trainee’s home had indoor plumbing but the water was brick red, and another trainee went to her site and discovered that she did not have a home because a cyclone had destroyed it.

Week 9
All the trainees returned to the training village in a bad mood. After having exciting weeks at our sites, the last place we wanted to be was in our tiny training village and again having no say in what we ate or when we slept. But nostalgia quickly overcame many of us as we realized that training ended in a week and a half and we were leaving soon.

We began to appreciate the little things positive and negative about the place. For instance, I actually enjoyed hand washing my clothes for the last time at my host family’s home. My little host sister helped me in dipping my clothes into a bucket of water, rubbing soap and scrubbing them with our hands in another bucket, and rinsing them out in a third and wringing them and hanging them to dry. I brush-cocoed and swept my bedroom floor and fetched buckets of water for the last few times.

Week 10
I watched the Olympics with my host family as we ate our meals. It offered a distraction from the facts that I was leaving my host family Saturday and that I was still eating very little rice. It also offered some insight into Malagasy culture and Madagascar. My host mother informed me that while there around 200 American Olympiads this year, there were only six Olympiads from Madagascar. Also, as we watched a karate match between Yemen and Russia or someone, my host father asked me, “What language do they speak in Yemen? French, or English?”

On our last dinner together I told of how Michelle had been maudlin. She was sad because our relationship began in the village and she really grew fond of her host family, and now we were leaving it. My broken Malagasy had me saying something to the effect of, “Michelle couldn’t sleep last night and she was sad because nighttime is sad because there is no one. In the nighttime you don’t have your family or friends and so you are alone and you think a lot and become very sad and she…” My host mother and host grandmother, who before had shown no sign of emotion at my leaving, burst into tears. “It takes a lot of courage for you trainees to do what you’re doing,” my host grandmother said. “To leave your families to come to Madagascar and help Malagasy people, it takes a lot of courage. You always have family and friends here in Madagascar. We are your family and friends.”

They even bought me a going-away present. It was a blanket for my new home in my village. I gave postcards of America I had purchased in New York and Crayons to my host siblings. The sentimentality around the dinner table made me realize that all my host family’s nagging or scolding was out of love. They had treated me exactly as if I were one of them. The tension that sometimes arose between us was merely cultural, but in the end, as my host family wiped tears from their eyes and I too kind of dreaded leaving, we were family.

The next day the trainees packed our bags and had a going-away thank-you lunch for the training village. I saw many of the trainees with their host families for the first time and many of them didn’t speak to each other. It seemed like the rapport I had with my host family was something special. The Peace Corps gave framed certificates to each host family to thank them for hosting the trainees and everyone took lots of photos. We trainees, soon to be volunteers, were meeting for a conference in December near the training village, and I promised my host family I would make a trip to see them then. Most of the other trainees did, too. Then we piled into Peace Corps vans and left the village for the Peace Corps training facility in Montasoa, a small town with lots of pine trees and a lake.

Week 11
Another week of technical sessions on safety, money, health, and logistics in Montasoa and Antananarivo went by and we were finally sworn-in as volunteers at the American ambassador’s home on Friday, August 22. We were no longer trainees. For how tired and messy we were during training, we looked damn sharp in our formal attire at the ceremony. Two Peace Corps employees, one of them my supervisor, were also knighted. It was a big hurrah—some Malagasy media even covered it.

The next day, Saturday, we started emptying out of Antananarivo to our individual sites. There were lots of goodbyes and good lucks and I love yous among all the volunteers. On Sunday, Michelle and I had our last goodbye for a few months. We hugged and kissed with a few tears in our eyes. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “We have cell phones now and we can talk every day. We’ll be OK.” Then Michelle—a girl I’m convinced is the most beautiful girl in the southern hemisphere—got into a van carrying another volunteer and all of their belongings and took off due east for their sites. I left for the airport a few minutes later with the Director of Peace Corps Madagascar, Steve, and fellow volunteers Ronda and Evan to be installed at our sites. Our two years of service were now beginning.

An estimated 3,400 words later, my pig is absolutely lost.