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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.