The Lord of the Termites

October 17, 2008

When I’m tired of being the town spectacle with my white skin, I stay indoors and read. I’ve recently started reading the exhausting Lord of the Rings trilogy unaware that a real-life epic was taking place inside my home. This real-life epic involves termites.

One morning I walked out my front door and saw a squiggly groove in the sand leading from a palm tree to my patio. I kneeled to the groove and saw seventeen armies of termites carrying dirt into a crack in my porch and into my home. I took a can of bug spray, which was left behind by the last Peace Corps volunteer, and committed a war crime by gassing the termite armies with it. Then my neighbor and I laid termite powder around the cracks of my home.

A week later I awoke in the middle of the night with a stomach ache. The pain remained with me the whole day. I had no desire to eat and I vomited when I tried consuming a piece of cheese and bread. As I lay motionless in bed, I began thinking of all the things I consumed in the last day that could’ve caused my stomach ache: the soup and shish-kabobs at the hotely? the samosas on the street yesterday? the peanuts? the yogurt? my drinking water? Just for curiosity’s sake I unscrewed my water filter and look inside. About thirty termites were swimming in it. I looked to my left and discovered an army of termites eating away at my window shutter. They had successfully taken Pearl Harbor and were now giving the American leader heartburn.

The next day I bought a new can of insecticide and sprayed it into the cracks of the window shutter. To my horror thousands of termites poured out of the cracks and died. I then took a knife and scratched out every tiny mud tunnel the termites had made along my home’s walls.

For a week I thought I had conquered the looming shadows of evil. Then one afternoon I was taping a picture to the wall which I had received in the mail from my friend Carmen. As I rose the picture to the wall I found swarms of termites running from the ceiling to a crack in my wall and over to my shower. I took the insecticide and sprayed it in the ceiling and in the cracks of the wall. Millions of termites swarmed out of the ceiling and rained down dead to the floor. I had to move my furniture out from under the ceiling to spare them from the drops of entomological death above.

I hope this last episode is the climax of my epic. If it gets more exciting than millions of termites raining down dead to the floor, there will be orcs involved, and I’m not sure orcs and I can live under the same roof.

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The first week of school

October 17, 2008

The school year was supposed to start on September 22, but when I appeared at the middle school ready to teach, the school secretary shook her head and said, “You’re teaching grade sixième? The class list isn’t ready yet. Come back Thursday.” When I followed her instructions and returned Thursday, the school secretary shook her head again and said, “The class list still isn’t done. Come back Monday.” A fellow colleague, a science teacher, replied, “Hurrah! Freedom!” I walked home ruminating that if the school year had been delayed like this in the United States, teachers would be arrested, PTAs suing and cars set aflame in protest.

The next Monday rolled around and classes finally began. Fifteen hundred students rushed around the courtyard in light blue smocks worn over their clothes. I stood near my classroom and looked onto my first class as they arranged themselves into lines. The school secretary rang the bell, and we walked into the classroom with me going to the blackboard and the students taking their seats. I wrote a dialogue on the board demonstrating phrases like “Good morning” and “It is nice to meet you,” and as they copied the dialogue with their rulers and colored pens I studied them from my desk. Grade sixième is the American equivalent of sixth grade, but my students appeared to range in ages 8 to 15. Most wore flip-flops, others were barefoot. They sat at their desks, which were more like benches connected to long narrow tables, in threes and fours; I counted them in this manner to reach a total of 82 students.

The second class had 82 students too. My third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes also had 80-something students. Despite their numbers, the students were surprisingly well-behaved, and I didn’t have to yell or force students from the classroom.

Other students weren’t as lucky. One day I looked out my window and saw a student doing the “duck walk,” a form of punishment that entails crouching to the ground and taking small steps around the courtyard. Corporal punishment is illegal in Madagascar but is still administered in many public schools throughout the country. “Duck walks,” slapping, and forcing students to kneel for long periods of time are common practices. One teacher at my school, an older man always with a smile on his face and a straw hat on his head, hits disobedient students from behind with a two-foot bamboo stick.

Grade sixième is students’ first institutional exposure to English, which I think makes my job easier since I don’t have to assess their skills or reteach them past lessons. I speak English for the entire two hour class sessions with French translations once in a while. I don’t speak Malagasy in the classroom because the students laugh when I do, even when my pronunciation and grammar are perfect. Tough crowd, tough crowd.

And of course there aren’t text books for the students to use. That’s why they regard their notebooks as holy as cows. They copy the blackboard letter by letter, word by word, with rulers and protractors handy to guarantee that every line is straight. Even when I draw pictures illustrating words, like a book for “to read” and a man with a big ear for “to listen,” they carefully copy the pictures with rulers. My class abounds with angular books and ears.


“Diesel Engine – Single Cylinder Family”

October 17, 2008

A knock on the front door awoke me from a nap one afternoon. I drowsily opened the door to find a French teacher from my middle school. She had a book in her hand.

“I just bought an engine,” she said. “Can you translate some of this English book into Malagasy for me?”

The book was titled, “Diesel Engine – Single Cylinder Family.” Its first half was in Chinese and the second in English. In the back were diagrams elaborating all the parts of a diesel engine with numbers and words like “oil wells,” “fuel injectors,” and “ducts.” The French teacher wanted me to translate the book’s engine maintenance chapter for her.

“Why do you have an engine?” I said. “Did you buy a car?”

No, she said. She was the new owner of an industrial-sized, diesel-powered winnow machine. Pour the rice into its top and winnowed rice comes out its side. I was unaware such machines existed.

For the next half hour I sat on my porch and translated very technical English into very rudimentary Malagasy. At this point in my linguistic endeavors I still didn’t know the Malagasy word for “old.” “Adjust” in English became “look at” in Malagasy, “unscrew” became “take,” and “disassemble” became “the opposite of putting together.”

At the end the French teacher thanked me and said she’d help me with my French if I ever asked. I went back into my home and shook my head smiling. It’s both flattering and misdirected that my fellow townspeople regard me as a sage of wisdom. Had the French teacher known that in America I didn’t know how to replace my car’s windshield wiper fluid, she wouldn’t have come to me with diesel engine questions.


A getaway to Antalaha

October 17, 2008

Volunteers in northern Madagascar were gathering in Antalaha for a regional volunteer meeting the week of September 15. It would be a fun getaway for a few days, but all public teachers were to report to their schools the same week for meetings. My site partner, Monique, said I wouldn’t have to attend every meeting because I probably wouldn’t gain much from them. I hoped that when I went to the middle school principal, he’d give me permission to skip the meetings and go to Antalaha.

On September 15 I went to my middle school and had a conversation in Malagasy with the principal along the lines of, “Hello!” “Hello.” “What’s new?” “Nothing’s new.” “Do I need to go to all the meetings this week?” “Yes.” “OK.”

On the way out of his office Mr. Pascal rode up on his bicycle. Mr. Pascal is a high school English teacher and his English is excellent. “Thank God,” I said to him. “Can you help me talk to the director? I need a translator.” After telling him about the volunteer meeting in Antalaha, Mr. Pascal and I went to talk to the principal again. Mr. Pascal explained my situation to the principal for about ten seconds. The principal said something, then Mr. Pascal turned to me and said, “You can go to Antalaha.” “What? Really? I don’t need to go to any of the meetings?” I said. Mr. Pascal smiled. “Nope. Have a good time.”

By evening I arrived in Antalaha. After many hours in a taxi-brousse I walked around the town to stretch my legs. Shortly afterwards a girl looking about 17-years-old joined me. She insisted on speaking in French, but I insisted on speaking Malagasy. She was looking to meet French men. “Are you French?” she said. “No, I’m American.” “Where are you going?” “I’m meeting up with my friends at my friend’s house.” “Are your friends French?” “No, they’re all American.” “They’re not French?” “No, everyone is American.” “Will there be French people?” “No, I don’t know any French people.” “You don’t know any French people?” “No.”

We repeated this conversation a dozen times in a dozen different ways. I’m not sure she knew what America was or who Americans were. At one point we saw a foreigner walking into a hotel. I pointed to him and told her, “Look! There’s a French person! You should talk to him.” She laughed and then asked for the thirteenth time if I was French.

Antalaha is the vanilla capital of Madagascar, if not the world. You can feel its presence everywhere in the area. The road between Sambava and Antalaha is paved with street lines, there are foreigners everywhere in Antalaha, and the smell of vanilla floats to your nose as you walk by many parts of town. During our time in town, we volunteers had the opportunity to visit a vanilla factory where Malagasy workers were separated into performing different tasks by wearing different colored uniforms.

In Antalaha, the ocean waves crash noisily into white beaches and seafood is absurdly cheap. I saw my very first whale in Antalaha; it repeatedly crashed its tail into the water near the coast. Apart from a volunteer stepping on a sea urchin and then having to fly to Antananarivo to have its tiny spikes removed from his foot, our time in Antalaha was indeed a nice getaway. I’m still dreaming of the delicious fish samosas we ate there in a small hut by candlelight.


The hunt for bed sheets

October 17, 2008

I needed to buy bed sheets. My neighbor, Flovan, insisted on accompanying me for the hunt. One afternoon we took our bikes and went downtown to different tailors, asking for pre-made bed sheets and their prices. In fifteen minutes we had visited three tailors before going to the market. At the market we were walking our bikes under tents and in between vendors selling produce and household items when a woman called to Flovan.

“Hey, Flovan!” she said. “So you’re out buying bed sheets, huh?”

They talked for a moment and then we continued on our way. I was puzzled by how the woman knew we were buying bed sheets and I asked Flovan about it. Flovan smiled.

“Somebody told her you were buying bed sheets,” he said. “She also said you’ve been buying a lot of things at the market lately. She said your new home must have lots of things inside it.”

The word for slander in Sakalava is “tsikotsiko,” which is a derivation of the word for wind, “tsiko.” Slander’s brother, gossip, also moves as quickly as the wind in Madagascar. Fifteen minutes of my looking for bed sheets and many strangers already knew about it. For how ordinary my everyday life is—buying vegetables in the market, eating at hotelys, strolling along the beach and riding my bike—I’m still apparently the most interesting thing in town.


The moon-crumbling rooster

October 17, 2008

Every morning between three and five o’clock my neighbor’s rooster makes it a point to began his cockadoodledoos at my front door. He walks all the way from his coop to my home to wake me with his ear-shattering, moon-crumbling cries. Most roosters cry every half minute or every minute, but this creature cries every ten seconds. Then the neighbor’s dokitras, an animal that’s a cross between a duck and Satan, respond to the rooster’s every cry with their own quacking. COCKADOODLEDOO, DRACKDRACKDRACKDRACKDRACK, COCKADOODLEDOO, DRACKDRACKDRACKDRACKDRACK. I try to drown out the animal cacophony by pulling a pillow to my ears but to no avail.

There is a coconut tree in my front lawn. As I’m covering my ears with my pillow I’m usually wishing that a coconut would fall from the tree and smash the rooster into the sand. I picture feathers shooting in all directions, a beak lying nearby and two bird feet standing upright apart from its body. Then I chuckle at the thought that I’ve never once wished for a rooster’s death by coconut in Las Vegas.