Evacuated

June 26, 2009

I received a text message from the Peace Corps on March 12 to inform me that the Peace Corps Madagascar program was officially suspended. When soldiers at a military base near the capital decided to ignore all orders from their commander-in-chief, President Marc Ravalomanana, the Peace Corps decided that the country was too dangerous for volunteers to stay. The timing of their decision was perfect: Less than a week later tanks stormed the capital building and forced Ravalomanana to resign.  There have been protests, shootings, and failed discussions since.

The next morning I raced around my village with my bicycle, taking photos of the market, my favorite restaurants, my middle school, and the beach. I also said goodbye to the Malagasy friends I’d made in the last six months like Monique, Eric, and my neighbors. Bezara, the yogurt guy, gave me a souvenir Madagascar tank top and hand soap. Then I hitched a ride to the taxi-brousse station with two small bags and I left my village for good. Through all this I never cried though my heart felt like a wilted flower.

The next day we flew to Antananarivo. I rushed through a medical and a packet of administrative forms, and early next morning I was on a plane to South Africa. As I watched Madagascar become more and more distant through an airplane window heavy clouds obscured my view.

For the next week all Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers were holed up in a Johannesburg, South Africa hotel for more medical and paperwork. We ate in a restaurant akin to T.G.I. Friday’s every day and experienced culture shock at its menu—so many items, so many colors! Our rooms had clean beds and hot showers with wonderful water pressure. We had more alcohol to choose from than Three Horses Beer, and everyone spoke English and seemed very tall.

I terminated my relationship with the Peace Corps on March 18, sixteen months earlier than I’d expected. Although I could’ve attempted the difficult task of transferring to another country, I wanted to wait and see if Madagascar’s program would reopen. Today I’m still waiting.

In my Las Vegas home Michelle and I flip through photographs of everywhere we’ve been in the last year. There are nearly a thousand from Madagascar, and when we left that Johannesburg hotel to travel around Southern Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, we took another five hundred photographs. The photographs contain Malagasy friends, volunteers, ceremonies, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples. There are lemurs, chameleons, elephants, rhinos and wildebeest. There are volcanoes, train travels, waterfalls, orchids and lovebirds. Jungles, islands and beaches; safaris, bus trips, and plane rides. We flip through these photographs and I shake my head incredulously. How lucky, how awesomely lucky I’ve been to have experienced these things.

After being evacuated from Madagascar, a piece of me is still unfulfilled. I am no longer in my village. I’m no longer teaching English to my 600-something students, and my plans to help my community have been interrupted. But this is not a sad story, nor has it ended. It’s only on hiatus. It’ll take on new characters and new plots. There’ll be new conflicts, new resolutions, and new observations that’ll make you think. And in fact, stories much better than this one reveal themselves everyday. In innumerable ways there is and always will be good work to bring to others.

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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.


Christmas Break (5 of 5): Cut Your Hair

February 2, 2009

I hadn’t cut my hair in seven months, mostly out of fear that a Malagasy barber wouldn’t know how to cut my foreign hair. Plus, stereotypically speaking, I was already a hippy for joining the Peace Corps, so why not embrace the image by growing out my hair? I welcomed the change.

The longer my hair became, the more my Malagasy friends hated it. Many Malagasy people associate long hair with Rastafarianism, which leads to associations of social irresponsibility, which then leads to ill opinion. I also liked to complement my longer hair with facial hair, and this choice in personal appearance was the straw that broke the zebu’s back. By the time I saw Michelle in December, to the Malagasy people I was as attractive as a taxi-brousse crash.

Michelle swore she liked my hair. She said she’d love me no matter what my hair looked like, even if it were all to fall out into irremediable baldness. But when I decided to cut my hair because it was too hot for Madagascar’s rainy season, she seemed thrilled. “You have a nice hairline and your long hair hides it. Hey, can I cut it?” she said. “Sure,” I said.

She needed some liquid courage before cutting her first client’s hair, so we drank some rum and played cards in her home while sweat dripped from every pore. Finally, she was ready. For the next hour she attacked my hair and facial hair with scissors she’d purchased in the market, and when she was finished my hair was short and perfect. My hairline looked nice, too. “I think I’ll give up teaching English and become a coiffure!” Michelle said.

Upon returning to my village, I discovered another advantage to cutting my hair: People no longer compare me to English singer James Blunt or think that I am English singer James Blunt.


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…”