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.


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!

A kabaro in church

November 28, 2008

Two Thursdays ago I had finished teaching a lesson and was headed home when a man and woman met me at the classroom door. The woman, Pauline,  who was in her late twenties and wore nice jean pants, told me they had come from the village’s Anglican church for my help. They needed someone to transcribe some English gospel songs so the church’s choir could sing them accurately. “I know some English,” she said, “But I’m not fluent. Can you come with us and help us?” Sure, I said.

We took a taxi to the other side of town and were soon sitting on reed mats in the woman’s home. We drank cold soft drinks and listened to “It is Jesus” over and over on a CD player. As with many instances here in Madagascar, I felt ill-equipped to help because I’m awful at discerning words from songs. I once thought a lyric in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” was, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” instead of, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” I tried my best, though, until I suggested that I’d look up the lyrics on the Internet the next time I was in Sambava. “Great idea!” Pauline said. Then she invited me to church, and with how pleasant her demeanor was, I accepted. I thought the outing would be good for Mr. Jordan publicity.

That Sunday Pauline and I walked together to the front of the church. The entire congregation, about 300 people, stared at me and whispered as we sat down on the choirs’ benches. I wasn’t bothered by the attention; the commotion of being a white man in a Malagasy village, while unsettling in theory, becomes surprisingly pedestrian after a few months. Pauline turned to me and said, “My father’s the pastor, and he wants to introduce you. Is that O.K.?” I nodded and told her I’d even give a speech if the pastor wanted.

Hornet nests and remnants of old ones dotted the church’s walls, and the eight o’clock sunlight streamed through the paneless windows. Behind the pulpit was a painting of an ocean and trees created most likely by a middle school student. In the painting’s sky was a cross formed by four florescent lights which would be illuminated at the service’s end to celebrate the glory of God. Some worshippers wore proper church clothes that day, but the majority had on t-shirts and flip-flops, and many women wore white veils of varying patterns. Sweat already dripped down our backs from the humidity.

The service began with a song. I stood with the choir but did not join them in singing the English song, “Mama, I Learned a Lesson.” Later I asked Pauline why the choir sang English songs when the rest of the service was in Malagasy, and I think she said the songs served as a symbolic institutional tie to the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom. After the song we sat again and the pastor took to the pulpit. He said some things I didn’t understand, the congregation laughed at the things, and then he said my name. I awkwardly walked to the pulpit and stood beside the pastor as he said more things. Then he asked me to announce my name and hometown. I did. A few snickers from below. The pastor said more things and made a gesture for me to begin my speech. I took a deep breath and, in Sakalava, I said:

“Hello. This is my first speech. Before I begin my speech, I need to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I still don’t know how to speak Sakalava. Learning Sakalava is difficult. My name is Jordan. I’m from America. Some of my students are here today. I work with the Peace Corps, which is an American governmental organization. I teach English at the middle school without money. Malagasy people do not pay me, the Peace Corps pays me. I will live here for two years, and I…” Here I sputtered like a dolt for a while and tried to find the right words to say. “I’ll do other work, too. I will build a library here in the village. I’m your friend. If you see me walking in the street, you should talk with me. If you want to practice speaking English, I’ll practice with you. That’s it. Thanks.”

The congregation applauded and I returned to my seat, thinking of all the jokes and correct grammar I had planned to use but didn’t. I knew the speech was terrible, but I wanted to show the congregation I was making an effort to learn their language and be a part of their community. In the few months I’ve been here, I’ve gathered that there are two halves to the Peace Corps. The first half is your assigned job of teaching or administering immunizations or helping small businesses or whatever. The other half is creating relationships with your neighbors, your colleagues, your community, because it sends the powerful image that despite the fact you are you and they are they and there’s half a world of cultural differences among everyone involved, we can love each other as brothers.


November 5, 2008

I’ve given up cooking in Madagascar. I’d rather spend the money to eat out rather than take the time to cook a sub-par meal and wash dishes afterwards.

Two meals a day I eat at hotelys, small Malagasy restaurants. Most hotelys are a family’s living room converted into eating quarters. The cook is usually the household mother, and the people busing tables are usually the cook’s children. I ate a rice and fish meal for lunch once while the household father napped on a mat across from me.

The food is always good and always available, so I’m always eating it. The routine weathers you from the dirty and probably unhealthy hotely environment. The plastic table clothes usually have holes in them, dirt is caked in the corners along the walls, and the dishes are cleaned by quickly dunking them into a bucket of soapy water.

Malagasy hotely families haven’t been introduced to capitalist principles, namely product diversification. Nearly every hotely in my village sells the same four dishes for the same four prices. No one tries to undercut the competition with a new dish, a better dish, or a cheaper price. It appears that rice with beef chunks, rice with chicken and greens, rice with fish in tomato sauce, and rice with beans, all for 1,500 Ariary, are the only dishes and price my village’s consumers expect. As such, except for the town’s soup and brochette hotely, I don’t have much preference which hotely I visit. They’re mostly the same in my village.

My favorite hotely, which I frequent almost daily, sells soup and brochettes. The soup has noodles, a few beef dumplings, shreds of egg and carrot, and a piece or two of lettuce in a bouillon broth. The brochettes, small skewers of beef served with shredded mango, are delicious, and they always accompany my soup. In a weird twist, this hotely is also the dirtiest hotely in town. Flies are everywhere. Termites flurry around a hole in the floor and they’re often exploring the dining tables. One time I watched a hen and her chicks mosey through the room, and then the cook, a household daughter, shooed them out with her apron. But most notably is when I was eating dinner and found a long, Malagasy woman’s hair in my soup. Having become so acclimated to hotely dining experiences, I calmly removed the hair, shrugged, and continued eating, thinking, “Hey! At least it wasn’t cholera!”

In general, if the food is hot, it’s safe to eat. I don’t eat the macaroni salad that some hotelys dish out, nor do I drink the water hotelys serve. If I need to drink, I ask for ranonam’pango, which is boiled water mixed with burnt leftover rice. Yogurt for dessert is safe to eat since the milk must be boiled to make it, and even street food like samosas, fried dough, ginger bread, and grilled bananas are safe as long as people and flies haven’t been touching them all day long. Whether this advice is sound or whether I’m just lucky, I’ve been in Madagascar for five months and I’m still worm-free.