Christmas Break (3 of 5): Antananarivo

February 2, 2009

Antananarivo gets less intimidating the more you visit it. Downtown Tana has beggars and pickpockets lurking on its sidewalks, but with better Malagasy skills and hardened street smarts we volunteers were able to deflect them. The bus system becomes more manageable. Dirt still paints the buildings’ walls and the streets still have mud and litter, but then again, so do most of our site villages. With some exploring, the city also gets more impressive with each visit from our sites. It has buildings! Tall ones! The vendors have cheese and bread! In all sorts of varieties, too! And wait, it has a sports arena and university?! Where are we, America?!

One morning Michelle and I went to a store for breakfast. On the walk there a Ferrari sped past us. At the store we had baguettes, yogurt, and juice. Then we walked to the bus stop to take the bus to downtown Tana. While we waited six children in torn, filthy clothes approached us with their hands open. They couldn’t have been older than six years old. We shook our heads and said we didn’t have money to give them. A moment later a Malagasy woman finished a cup of yogurt and gave the container to the children. The two oldest children fought over it until one snatched it entirely out of the other’s hands. He shook the container’s last drips of yogurt into his hand and licked the drips eagerly.


Christmas Break (2 of 5): IST

February 2, 2009

When my stage mates and I met in Mantasoa for IST, we talked over one another in sharing our difficulties and funny stories from our sites. It was interesting for the group of volunteers to meet again, compare our experiences and see how different we looked. The coast had tanned many of us and meager markets had stripped weight off others. The Peace Corps organized a NGO fair and sessions on improving our teaching. In between the sessions we feasted on meals whipped up by the Peace Corps cooks that we didn’t think were possible to make in Madagascar like tacos and apple pie. We also took canoes out on Lake Mantasoa and explored the area’s forests.

The stories volunteers had from the coast were vastly different from those in central Madagascar. Stories from the coast, which included many of my own, painted coastal Malagasy people as louder, more direct and extroverted than plateau Malagasy people. Unfortunately, volunteers from the coast also recounted more episodes of harassment, groping, and humiliation. A Malagasy person told me a fitting analogy, saying, “The people’s personalities on the coast are like the ocean: large.”

Christmas Break (1 of 5): Intro

February 2, 2009

I spent a week in Antananarivo for our In-Service Training meeting (IST) and two weeks with Michelle. We spent Christmas at her site, a few days on Ile. St. Marie, and New Year’s Eve in Tampolo Forest where we went on a nocturnal walk and spotted four species of lemurs. We took a canoe to Nosy Akoho, a small island that was once the home to Betsimisaraka tribe royalty, and saw an additional two species. We also indulged in lots of rum, cold drinks and cold bucket showers to make the summer’s heat more bearable.

With my beautiful girlfriend at my side, my vacation was awesome. But instead of writing a long narrative of my vacation, I’ve written four small stories in the next four blog entries so the pig doesn’t get lost.

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!

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.