Catching up with Michelle, Christmas break

December 13, 2008

I haven’t seen my girlfriend in nearly four months. We talk on our cell phones a few times every day, but it’s just not the same. In phone conversations Michelle’s freckles don’t dance in front of me.

Michelle’s Peace Corps experience has been rougher than mine. If she were to keep a blog, my blog would look as exciting as a congressional committee hearing. Her site village, which is on the east coast, is twice as large as my village, and the people there are rowdy. I will quickly highlight Michelle’s first four months at her village: Her home had rats the size of cats in it, she developed a rash from head to toe for two days, she was groped by a drunken old man on the street, she contracted giardia, the principal at her middle school died from malaria, people of all ages barge into her home to express their interest in learning English or to confess their love for her, her students behave like ring-tailed lemurs, she’s attended a few school faculty parties that have involved lots of ass shaking and 9 A.M. whiskey consumption, she went to a few music festivals, her love for smashed cassava leaves and rice has surpassed her love for me, she has taken up sewing, and she runs long distances barefoot on the beach. Peace Corps wisdom says that volunteers have ups and downs in adjusting to the host country. My time since training has been one long period of ups, while Michelle has had the more conventional ups-and-downs experience.

Tomorrow I’m flying to the capital, Tana, for a meeting with my stage of volunteers. Michelle will be there, and I’ve already promised that upon seeing her I will hug her so hard her head’ll pop off. Then we volunteers will spend a few days at the Peace Corps training center in Mantasoa, the small town with pine trees and a lake. For the Christmas break Michelle and I are going to her site village for a week, then off to Isle St. Marie, a picturesque resort island a ferry ride away from mainland Madagascar. Our Christmas and New Year’s Day will be spent eating mangos, getting sunburned, and thinking of our families and friends in America. Until next time, happy holidays!

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Meteorologic retribution

December 13, 2008

I came across my neighbor one morning while walking home from the middle school. After a few minutes of conversation he asked, “Did you hear the thunder last night?” I shook my head. He asked, “Are you scared of thunder?” I shook my head again and said, “Why? Are you scared of thunder?” No, he said, but the housekeeper was.

The housekeeper and the neighbor then explained that lightning in Madagascar often strikes and kills people. In fact, common wisdom in the region was that if someone burgled your home or pick pocketed you in the street, the criminal was bound to be struck by lightning as punishment. When you’re the victim of such a crime, you can pray to summon a lightning strike upon the perpetrator. And if you find your praying skills inadequate, there are people versed in summoning lightning who you can pay to do it for you.

This is good to hear, I thought. Justice by lightning is cheaper, faster, and more rewarding than going to the police with a bribe.


Sambava, Sam and Maggie

December 13, 2008

Sambava is the central town for the SAVA region. It has an airport as well as my bank. It also has niceties that I can’t get in my village like the Internet, cheese, and an entertaining nightlife. On average I’m in Sambava every three weeks either to withdraw money from the bank or pass through it on the way to another town.

There are only seven volunteers in the region, and we meet in Sambava for weekend getaways from our sites. We spend more money than we should on its niceties and we spend too much time than we should on its beaches. At night we drink THB, virtually the only beer available in Madagascar, and dance in discotheques to house and Malagasy music. Throughout our time together we talk about our lives as American expatriates and appreciate the fact that we all speak the same native language.

A few weeks ago two volunteers left the SAVA family. Sam and Maggie had finished their two year Peace Corps term in the region and were headed for new endeavors. In Sambava we had a farewell weekend for the two. They mean a lot to me. They welcomed me to the region when I arrived and they shared their experience and wisdom about all things Malagasy in the last few months.

John, another volunteer, and I accompanied the two to the airport. We took photos of each other and exchanged addresses as we waited for the plane to arrive. When it did, the reality of leaving Madagascar poignantly struck Sam. He was uncharacteristically quiet for a while, thinking about the last two years and how simply and freely he had lived in this beautiful country. Then he said, “When my parents took me to college my freshman year and we were saying goodbye, my dad didn’t cry at the time. But my mom told me he was crying uncontrollably in the car on the drive home. They had to pull over because he was crying so hard he couldn’t drive. That’s how I feel now. I’m fine now, but when I get on the plane…”


Fetching water

December 13, 2008

In the villages, but more often in the countryside, many women have the task of fetching water. They stand waiting for their turn at the public spigots with their buckets strewn around. Wrapped to their bodies are lambas, large patterned pieces of fabric which are also used as blankets, tablecloths, and curtains. Upon a woman’s turn in the queue she places her bucket under the spigot and waits until it’s brimming with water. Then she dons a skull pad, puts the bucket on her head, and walks the water back to her home. The balance involved in this delivery is fantastic to my western eyes—Malagasy women never use their hands to support the buckets on their heads. Even more fantastic is the common sight of a woman fetching water with a second bucket in her hand and an infant strapped to her back.


Malagasy American flip-flops

December 13, 2008

The flip-flop is the regional footwear of choice. They keep your feet cool, they are easy to put on and take off, and they sell for only 2,000 Ariary in the market.

It is socially acceptable to wear flip-flops at school, work, and church. If you look at some Malagasy police officers from head to toe, you’ll see a bulky hat with a short black rim, then a button-down blue shirt with some badges hanging from the pockets, then creased dark pants, and then brightly-colored flip-flops. Doctors will complement their lab coats with flip-flops, and I often see town officials wearing professional attire with flip-flops. My middle school is equally as casual. Most teachers including myself teach in flip-flops, and the principal often works barefoot. I teach nearly 600 students and not one of them wears shoes to school.

During class one day I spotted a student with American flag flip-flops. The straps were blue with stars and the soles had red and white stripes. “U.S.A.” was written in bold letters where the heel rests. I grinned. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, if the only American in a 100 kilometer radius exhibited his nationality with 2,000 Ariary American flip-flops?

That afternoon I went to the market and found a vendor selling flip-flops with flag designs from the United States, France, Brazil, and South Africa. I asked the vendor for size 43 American flip-flops, and she pulled a new pair out of plastic wrapping. I tried them on and was quickly disappointed. The straps felt alright against my skin, but the sole was made of very thin foam that wouldn’t allow me to walk long distances without pain. Plus, although my blood bleeds red, white, and blue, ostentatious Americanism makes for obnoxious footwear. I took them off, slipped my feet back into my $50 Chaco flip-flops, and told the vendor thanks but no thanks. As I walked away I did the math and realized that in Madagascar my Chacos would’ve retailed for at least 75,000 Ariary.