Consolidation, returning to site

February 18, 2009

For 18 days we volunteers were consolidated at a beachfront hotel in Antalaha. The sun beamed for most of the time and we listened to the Indian Ocean’s crashing waves from our rooms. The Peace Corps gave us money to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, so we indulged in luxurious foods like coconut shrimp, chocolate mousse, pizza and crab. During this time we read books, took long afternoon naps, listened to music and wrote in our journals.

But our consolidation period was far from relaxing. As we wiled away the 18 days we didn’t know what would happen to us. It was possible that at any moment the Peace Corps would call us and report that we’d be leaving Madagascar forever, and it was equally possible that we’d return to our villages and our work. We received daily text messages from the Peace Corps’ security officer that reported the news: the mayor of Antananarivo declaring himself President of Madagascar and creating an alternative national government, the opposition storming the presidential palace, the military shooting and killing over 20 protestors in the capital, airplanes set aflame elsewhere, crowds fleeing from tear gas and grenades, more lootings and violence. Each day we were certain to be returning to America, and then we’d receive a text message giving us hope of returning to our villages, but then only to be dashed by a second and contrary text message. Antalaha’s beautiful beach setting and our luxurious meals were always tainted by the thought that we could soon be leaving Madagascar.

I’m writing to you from Sambava. Most Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers have been cleared to return to their villages. From what I’ve gathered, however, many volunteers are still bracing for evacuation. While most of Madagascar is presently peaceful, the political crisis at the capital has not finished. The crisis could intensify; we could be removed from our villages again. Today I’m returning to my village with the hope that I’ll spend the rest of my Peace Corps service there. It has become a home to me—a very happy home—and I would hate to leave it.


Eating well

November 28, 2008

The first week of November was a vacation from teaching. I went to Antalaha and had a peaceful few days with fellow volunteers. There we watched America elect its first black president via a vanilla family’s satellite T.V. and ate langouste and fish the size of my abdomen. On the topic of food, I came upon two new culinary delights just after leaving Antalaha on a taxi-brousse headed for Sambava.

The taxi pulled over to a vendor selling the season’s first lychees. After hearing weeks of Malagasy’ excited anticipation for the fruit, I bought a small pile of them. Lychees are like brown golf balls but with spikes rather than divots. You chip away its hard shell and eat its white juicy insides. I ate all of them in my lap, resulting in sticky fingers, juice spots on my shorts, and lychee pits strewn on Route Nationale 5.

The second delight came from a street-side vendor holding small bags. The passenger next to me bought a bag and offered me some. I nodded, and seconds later I had roasted salted hornets in my hand. They had inch-long red stingers and most still had their wings. I popped two in my mouth and told my passenger neighbor, “Mmmm! This is really good!” They really were, too.

I learned something about myself that afternoon. Five months of eating in this country and seeing flies waltz on my fruit, waitresses with their thumb tips in my dinner, termites swimming in my drinking water, and vendors sneezing into their hands before handing me street food, have culminated to the point where someone can give me almost anything—even bugs!— and I’ll eat it faster than a Malagasy child can say, “Donnez-moi cinq cent.” For this I’m still wondering whether to be proud or ashamed.

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.