Sewing seeds of change

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Celebrating a successful two years of service in Andapa with close friends who also happen to be local English teachers

Living in Madagascar for more than two years has afforded me the opportunity to integrate into a local community and see beyond the superficial aspects of community issues. Under the surface, there are various realities, values, and norms that collide to create the world in which we live in. The same is true of issues in America (and really, any other country). Addressing community issues can be complex, daunting, and even emotionally draining at times, but remaining hopeful is a necessary part of the development process. Change is no easy feat to accomplish, and I’ve observed a few aspects of this process that are essential to making a real impact and creating lasting, positive change.

In my experience, there is tremendous value in being a willing observer before developing a strategy of change. I believe that too often people jump into a situation and get right to work with a narrow understanding of the underlying issues. This is especially true in a cross-cultural setting. I have learned so much by observing the context of my community before offering solutions based on my own pre-conceived ideas. My cultural upbringing and experience allows me to see the world in a particular way, and that’s not always the best approach in a different cultural reality. Lasting progress means learning about the community first and adapting ideas to the local realities.

Coming from a western culture that places value in timely and measurable achievement, it’s important to remind ourselves that change and progress often come in small increments. This idea took me a while to come to terms with. It’s not uncommon for me to share a plan of action with colleagues only to be told that there are actually many more smaller actions that need to take place in order for our project to move forward. Yet, each time these seemingly annoying “setbacks” help me change my own frame of reference when working in the community. Baby steps are still headed in the direction of positive change.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.” -excerpt from Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer

We don’t always see the change that we work so hard to promote. It usually comes later on, maybe years later, after we leave a place. This has been one of the central ideas that I cling to when I question the effectiveness of my work. Maybe a student doesn’t fully understand a lesson today, and that is sometimes frustrating in the moment, but hopefully my approach in the classroom will encourage them to continue studying long after they have left my class. Maybe a community member doesn’t fully recognize the value of a new practice today, but hopefully through repetition and integration into their lives they will come to know the benefits.  The process of sustainable change never really ends, but recognizing our small contributions to this worthy endeavor can give us the hope necessary to continue moving forward.

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Wet hot American autumn

Sometimes they say, “no news is good news.”

In this case, the long delay in posting new blog material can be attributed to my recent visit back home. For the past 6 weeks, I have been reconnecting with my family, my friends, and eating my way through the beautiful areas of California that mean so much to me. This time back home is built into my third year extension and it has come at such a welcomed stage of my service. If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that I have not returned to the U.S. at all during the last 2 and a half years. So this homecoming was an extra special treat for me and a very valuable chance to see this pocket of the world through a new lens.

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

As you can imagine, many things in America have changed during my time abroad and I came back to a country with some exciting new developments. I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to things such as chip readers at cash registers, the expansion and prevalence of sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb, and delicious poke bowls. Technology has continued to advance exponentially and it seems that all our devices are even more connected than before. Driving on the freeway was exhilarating, and then there was traffic and I remembered why I didn’t miss driving. In the weeks before my return, I had imagined an America with an all-encompassing national WiFi bubble, but I instead had to settle for lightning fast WiFi in almost every establishment and home. Bummer, right?

Being in America after spending so much time abroad gave me a new perspective on many aspects of life there. The way we manage our time, use our food and water resources, interact with each other, and entertain ourselves were just some of the things that stood out to me. I was expecting to feel more like a foreigner in America, but I quickly slipped back into some of the same habits and mindsets of my previous life. Being placed back into American culture was much easier and far less shocking than I thought it would be. Conveniences were abounding and I tried not to take a paved highway or an In-N-Out hamburger for granted.

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

Leading up to my return to America, I was at times apprehensive about the thought of impending reunions with friends and family. Being isolated in Madagascar and undertaking this strange journey practically on my own, I would often think about life back home as being on pause. I kept telling myself that I’d be away for a couple of years, come back, and pick up these relationships right where I left off. However self-centered and illogical that was, the reality of people growing and continuing to develop was beautiful to see in person. Friends getting married, moving into tasteful living arrangements (read: not a dingy cheap college apartment), and building lives around great careers. Family members continuing to travel and share moments together. I felt an elevated sense of pride in sharing these new lives with my loved ones, even for a brief time, and a renewed optimism for the direction of all of our life paths.

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State's homecoming football game

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State’s homecoming football game

So being back in America was great and I’m happy to report that I saw all the people I wanted to see, went to all the places that I wanted to go to, and ate all the food that I had been missing for the last few years. I even had some experiences above and far beyond what I originally anticipated. For anyone who indulged me by sitting through my rambling stories about Madagascar, thank you for listening. While I learned a lot about myself and my own culture, I hope I was able to share even a small part of my experience in Madagascar with others.

As I return to working on the big red island for another 10 months, I’ll hold these new memories and laughs of the past 6 weeks in America very close to me. Until we meet again…

Family brunch

Family brunch

Breakfast selfie with my dad

Breakfast selfie with my dad

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

The loyal customer

I consider myself to be a loyal customer. I like consistency. I appreciate the opportunity to buy a reliable and affordable product. I also enjoy the ability to interact with people who work hard and provide great customer service. If you can give me what I need, advise me when I need help, and make me feel good about spending my time and money at your establishment, I’ll keep coming back.

In Madagascar, the concept of customer service is a little different from what I’m used to in America. Most transactions are pretty black and white here. Either you buy the product or you don’t. So in my experience, there’s not a big attempt to lure in customers and try to up sell them. There’s usually a dozen places that sell the exact same products, so most stores don’t have the benefit of being particularly unique. What you see on display in a store is what you get to pick from. Good customer service, in the eyes of most Malagasy people, means being able to skillfully haggle when appropriate and giving a desirable mix of small bills as change.

In my community, there are a handful of people who I am fiercely loyal to. Most of these loyalties were formed very shortly after I arrived in Andapa. During my long and awkward transition into my new life (possibly even still working out a few kinks), these people helped me and I never forgot that. In other situations, I’ve discovered people along the way and developed a consistent routine of buying things from them. But with each situation, I enjoy the relationship that I have with these people and the way they make me feel. Maybe it’s an aspect of small town living that I never experienced in America, but it’s huge part of why I enjoy living and working in my community.

I’d like to share my thoughts on some of these special people:

The Onion Sellers

During my first few trips through the market, the large piles of onions and garlic in this small shack at the end of the market road caught my eye. It’s a husband and wife team and they sell onions, garlic, beans, and sometimes coffee. The woman is very friendly and she speaks Malagasy in a simple and clear way, much easier for me to understand and reply to. The man is also very cheerful and he likes to show off the handful of English phrases he knows. They quickly learned that I prefer the big onions, so now they help me dig through the piles and pick out the best onions they can find.

The Tomato Lady

Although our conversations almost never branch out beyond “Hello, how are you?”, I can’t imagine buying tomatoes from any other person. And there’s probably at least 20 other people in the market with tomatoes. I primarily keep coming back to her because she likes to pick out the better tomatoes for me. Maybe she does that for everyone that she likes, but it really makes me feel taken care of and I like that.

The Barber

A couple of months ago, I stopped cutting my own hair at home and I went looking for a barber in town. There are probably 100 barbers in my town, all with the same clippers and scissors, so for me, going to get a haircut was about the interaction. With the guidance of a friend, I found a barber who was welcoming and receptive to my requests. He wasn’t shy around me and even started some small talk. He was quick, skilled, and a nice guy. Plus, the name of his barber shop is “Scorpion” and my astrological sign is Scorpio, so clearly he is my star-crossed barber.

The Butcher

I rarely buy meat, mainly because it’s relatively expensive and the sanitary conditions are…well…different than they are in America. A couple of the butchers at the market are loud and friendly characters. They were happy when I would buy meat from them, but then they would make me feel guilty when I didn’t buy meat. So recently, I found a new butcher. He’s a quiet older man, works by himself, and he sets up in the back of the market away from the other butchers. When I buy meat from him, he is extremely courteous and he usually gives me an extra spoonful of ground beef as a kadoa (small gift). He always asks how I’m doing and even asks about the other Volunteers who have come to the market with me when they visit. There’s no hassle when I do buy from him and he doesn’t make me feel guilty if I don’t buy from him.

The Post Office

I don’t really have a choice here, because there’s only one post office in town. But when I do visit to send letters or check if any new mail has arrived, the men working there are always predictable. One of them likes to practice English, so we chat a little bit. The Director of the post office must live near me because I frequently see him in my neighborhood. And if something has arrived in the mail for me, he doesn’t hesitate to stop me in the middle of the street and remind me to come by the post office and pick it up.

The Bread Lady

In another situation where I could buy bread from any of the dozen vendors all next to each other on the same corner, I began getting bread from one woman consistently. After I explained who I am and why I am here, she was very appreciative and asked if her young daughter could study English at our library. Without hesitation, I encouraged her to send her daughter and now the young girl is a regular student at the weekly English club.

The Coffee Lady

During my first year of teaching, I was scheduled to start class every morning at 6am. I’m not what you would call a morning person, so finding a place to get coffee and a pastry for breakfast before class was very important to me. On the road going to the lycée (high school), crouched behind a small bamboo table about 2 feet off the ground, was a thin older woman with a warm smile and a pot of hot coffee. Behind her were a couple of long benches where patrons could sit, sip their coffee, and gossip. The woman was very welcoming and I think she could tell that pre-coffee morning conversations were not my goal. After a week or so, she stopped asking me what I wanted and instead started to pour a cup of coffee as soon as I sat down. It was that feeling of familiarity and routine that I came to appreciate. I knew my day could start with her and soon I couldn’t start my day without her.

I realize that most of my favorite people in town revolve around food, but that’s because it’s an important thing to me and it’s something that I do almost every single day. When I make these everyday purchases, it’s nice to feel comfortable with these people and to have a friendly rapport with them. I’ve noticed that since I arrived in Andapa, much of my community building has been around these people. It’s something that I treasure and I hope to continue building my community in this way when I return to America in the future.

Ode to the taxi-brousse

Just the mention of the word stirs up a mixture of emotions in every Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteer. Everyone’s got a story, or 20, about traveling around this beautiful island in a taxi-brousse, known as a “bush taxi” in other countries. It is the primary form of land travel in Madagascar. Most Volunteers see it as a necessary evil. Traveling by “brousse”, as we sometimes call it, is a skill that has to be honed and adjusted. It takes months to perfect your approach and style. At first, we were all afraid. But now, we are mahay taxi-brousse (knowledgeable about how to ride in and live in a world with the taxi-brousse).

In an attempt to describe and pay tribute to the taxi-brousse, I’d like to share a collection of observations and experiences that have happened to me since I arrived in Andapa in September 2014. Everything you are about to read is true and has happened to me, but you could easily imagine that taxi-brousses are generally the same all across Madagascar.

For starters, you might be wondering what a taxi-brousse looks like. That’s a little like asking what a lemur looks like. They all have a few commonly defining characteristics, but every one you see is a little bit different than the next. A taxi-brousse is basically a vehicle intended to move large numbers of people from one place to another. It’s usually a mini-van type vehicle. A little bigger than the average soccer mom’s mini-van, but smaller than a military transport truck. Usually. Brousses are also almost always customized. Not like “Pimp My Ride” customized. More like electrical wires hanging from the roof, religious stickers on the windows, door hinges obviously joined together with solder, and tacky pleather upholstering. The engines have been tinkered with by the local mechanic. The entire vehicle roars like a wild beast and rumbles like an electronic massage chair. Being in a taxi-brousse is truly an experience unlike any other.

A typical taxi-brousse

A typical taxi-brousse

The Good

I’ll admit that is has taken me a while to see the good things about broussing. Yes, one of them is the fact that “brousse” can be a noun or a verb. Once I got over the initial shock of the process, I began to appreciate the brousse for a few simple reasons. For starters, there’s no weight limit on luggage. Whatever bags you bring can be tied down on the roof of the car. And it’s not just limited to bags, my friends. I’ve seen entire living room furniture sets, bicycles, giant bushels of produce, wooden cages filled with chickens, geese, or ducks, and even mattresses on top of a brousse. If it can be tied down, it can go on top of a brousse. Smaller, more delicate bags can be placed on your lap or under your seat.

The driver's assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

The driver’s assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

Also, there is a wonderful seat in the brousse called place d’avant (French for “front place”). It is the front bench row next to the driver. Usually, it is reserved for two people. This is by far the most luxurious and comfortable part of the brousse because the other rows get filled to the brim, and then some, with passengers. A bit more on that later. But the place d’avant is typically reserved for special passengers. For example, a pretty girl that the driver might want to hit on during the ride, a traveling police officer or other local official, a foreign tourist, or in my case an obviously tall white dude who can speak a little bit of Malagasy. After riding in the huddle of passengers for a few months, I’ll never forget my first experience sitting in the place d’avant and feeling like royalty. I will admit that now I insist on sitting in this space, something that most of the local drivers already know about me and are happy to oblige.

On longer, overnight journeys (there are some routes that take more than 30 hours to travel and drivers always drive through the night when necessary) it is common for the vehicle to stop at “rest stops” along the main road to pause for a meal. At these rest stops, there are usually 5 or 6 small restaurants that all serve a heaping plate of rice with very similar side dishes of meat or beans. These places specifically service the taxi-brousse community and although the food is prepared on an almost industrial scale, it is still usually delicious and filling for a long night of driving through the pitch-black countryside. The service is quick and straight forward, enabling passengers to sit down, eat, and leave within 20 minutes.

For shorter, usually regional trips, the common practice for food is to stop in a town and food vendors will sell things to passengers through the car window. When the brousse stops, a group of vendors will run toward the car and start shoving large platters of fried breads, deep fried meats, hard-boiled eggs, coconuts, and the occasional fresh fish. The snacks are usually cheap and easy to eat in a vehicle. One of my favorite parts about broussing in different parts of the country is sampling the local cuisine in the form of brousse snacks.

Women selling various snacks to passengers

Women selling various snacks to passengers

The Bad

As I have eluded to earlier, riding in a taxi-brousse isn’t all sunshine and delicious brousse foods. There are some bad things that deserve to be mentioned. While some of these things might sound terrible to the reader, I will admit that to another Volunteer they might only seem trivial or annoying at best. One of these issues is known as “taxi-brousse time.” It’s related to a larger cultural phenomenon known as fotoana gasy (Malagasy time), where the concept of time is interpreted in a much broader sense. Things do not work on a precise schedule in this country, and the taxi-brousse is no exception. That being said, there are no hard scheduled departure and arrival times for a taxi-brousse. It leaves when it is ready and it gets there when it gets there.

The departure can sometimes be the most painful part of the whole experience because the brousse will generally leave only when it is full of passengers. If there aren’t 15-20 people ready to go at the same time, there are basically two courses of action. First, the brousse will just wait at the station until the desired number of passengers trickles in. Often times with the engine running, the combination of the day’s heat and the exhaust fumes enveloping the car can make for an extremely uncomfortable waiting experience. The second option is to put whatever passengers you do have into the car and drive around town trying to pick up more people off the street. This tactic can take 10 minutes or and hour and a half. In my opinion, the goal here is to show off how many people are already in the car in the hopes of attracting more passengers to join your downtown loop tour for the next 45 minutes.

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

Once the taxi-brousse is full and ready to depart town, at least you know the journey will get underway. This also means that the seating arrangement, if you can call it that, has been established and the discomfort of being crammed into a row of seats build to seat 3-4 people comfortably, but now has 5-6 people jammed in, slowly grows into a stinging and sometimes unbearable pain. Most taxi-brousses are build to seat about 15 people by American standards. This, my friends, is only the starting point in Madagascar. Brousses are routinely packed with 26-30 people and nobody puts up a fight about it. It’s just the way it is. It’s common to sit on someone’s lap, sometimes for hours at a time. Infants get passed around to strangers just to make the puzzle pieces of humans fit together better. Most of the time your knees are jammed up against the hard wood or plastic seat back in front of you. In the region where I live and travel, most taxi-brousse drivers seem to live by the philosophy that a brousse is never full and there’s always room for one more person. Only in the most extreme attempt to overpack a brousse will a person verbally protest the driver. The common expression to voice your disapproval of the situation is translated into English as “Hey! We’re not cows!”

If the seating isn’t enough to push you into a quiet rage, the music certainly will. This is another regional difference, but the taxi-brousse drivers in my region tend to show off their stereo systems by playing the loudest, fastest, and most disorienting music I’ve ever heard. The style of music is known as salegy and a brief internet search might be more helpful in explaining the truly aurally oppressive nature of this music than my words here could. An experienced Volunteer will tell you that one of the keys to surviving a brousse ride is an iPod and a good pair of headphones. In the central highlands of Madagascar, it’s more common to hear gospel church music in the taxi-brousses. This can sometimes be more pleasant to listen to, but it also gets tiring after many hours on the road.

The Ugly

This last category of taxi-brousse experiences describes what I consider to be the universally terrible things about this particular form of travel. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve traveled before, these next few observations are unmistakably shitty.

To start off, I’ve been a witness to taxi-brousses running over animals way more times that I’d like to admit. Much of this country is rural and many of the towns and villages along the roads are basically next to the road. Unlike in America where people tend to have good strong fences around their homes and properties, Malagasy villages are not built like that. This means that animals of all varieties, domestic and wild, can get on the road and get themselves into trouble. I have been in brousses that have run over pigs, geese, frogs, snakes, dogs, and chameleons. It’s always alarming and most passengers, if they notice it, gasp in distress and shake their heads in disapproval of the driver. Then life quickly goes on and the brousse keeps going.

Then there’s always the carsick passenger. Usually it’s a child, which makes the whole situation a little more pathetic. But inevitably someone will puke during the ride and you’d better hope they’re nowhere near you. In my experience, it seems to be a pretty sudden occurrence. All of a sudden, someone is covering their mouth and the people sitting next to them are shouting and trying to distance themselves. In this case, the person usually vomits into a shirt, jacket, backpack, or other piece of cloth that they have with them. Other times, if there is enough warning, they can ask for a plastic bag from the driver. Then the next trick is getting the bag safely out of the moving vehicle through the window without spilling on other passengers or having the contents of the bag blow back through other windows as it is released into the wind. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

At some point along the road, there is almost always a police checkpoint. For the most part, the police want to check that drivers have the proper license, registration, and car insurance and that they’re not transporting anything blatantly illegal (for example, a couple of rosewood trees strapped to the roof). With “minor” paperwork infractions, the police can always be paid off by drivers to overlook the issue. This is just one part of the culture of corruption that exists in Madagascar. Drivers will routinely pay about 2,000 ariary (about $0.60 USD) each time that they come to a checkpoint and the handoff isn’t always subtle. It’s usually done with a handshake, like at fancy restaurants when someone wants the maître d’ to give an extra nice table. Or often the cash will be slipped in with the pile of paperwork handed to the police officer. In other not so subtle attempts, I’ve seen drivers openly ask police officers if they have change for large bills. This is something that most people agree is bad but nothing substantial is being done to correct the behavior.

And finally, one of the absolute worst things that can happen during a taxi-brousse ride is the dreaded vehicle breakdown. Let me remind the reader, roadside assistance does not exist in Madagascar. When a brousse breaks down, it pulls over to the side of the road and the real fun begins. The driver and assistant get out and survey the vehicle. If you’re lucky and it’s only a flat tire, that’s a relatively easy fix and you’ll be back on the road shortly. Consider it a nice break to get out, stretch your legs, and pee in the bushes if you need to. But if the damage is under the hood, it could take a while. Most of the time the driver will just pour water over the engine and see if that does anything. Maybe it’s overheated? Maybe it’s thirsty? No one really knows. If the engine bath doesn’t work, the tinkering begins. The driver usually barks orders at his assistant and every other man gathers around to stare and offer their opinion. This could take minutes, or hours, which is the truly scary part about the breakdown. You never know when it will really end and usually the passengers are forced to just wait on the side of the road in the heat until the problem is fixed. Daytime breakdowns are a little better because there’s a better chance of other motorists driving by and offering help. But I was in a brousse once that broke down at night in the middle of nowhere, which was terrifying for many reasons. Luckily most of the taxi-brousse drivers and assistants are the same people that build and “customize” the vehicle, so they are pretty capable when it comes to repairs. But the uncertainty and the inconvenience of a breakdown can be one of the worst things to happen on the road.

Giving the engine a bath, because that'll definitely work

Giving the engine a bath, because that’ll definitely work

When you consider it all, it’s clear that the taxi-brousse is an imperfect reality of life in Madagascar. It’s something that we rely on here and a way of traveling that we just have to accept. I like to remind myself that broussing builds character and adds to the charm of traveling in the developing world. If I didn’t think this way, I’d actually go crazy and never leave my town.

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

Inside the Malagasy wallet

Imagine, if you will, that you’re shopping at your local food market. You stroll through the narrow aisles and inspect the produce, looking carefully for the plumpest tomatoes or the cleanest lettuce. You approach a vendor and ask the price of a small bunch of eggplants that caught your eye. She quickly and forcefully replies, “Cinq mille!” You pause and roll your eyes back to concentrate on remembering how to count in French. A few seconds later, you confidently conclude that cinq mille is five thousand. The next question, which usually only complicates matters, is to clarify if that price is quoted in francs or ariary. You suspect that the price is in francs, the former currency of Madagascar, so you mentally try to convert the price to ariary in order to put things in a perspective that you can more easily understand. The standard conversion is 5 francs to 1 ariary. You then fumble through the local language to ask the vendor if she really means to say the eggplants are arivo ariary (1,000 ariary) and she just blankly stares back at you. Maybe she also pauses to roll her eyes back. You see that she’s having just as much trouble converting ariary back to francs in her head as you did a few moments earlier! With a big smile and nod of her head, she confirms that you two are both on the same page. You hand her a crumpled and worn out purple bank note, she gives you the eggplants, and with an emphatic “misaotra betseka” (thank you very much) for her patience and help, you move on to the next stall and repeat the exercise again with the man selling onions.

This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Madagascar. The root of the confusion is the currency. Officially, the ariary is the sole currency of Madagascar. It replaced the Malagasy franc, a relic left over from French colonization, in January 2005. For various reasons, many people have held on to the idea of the franc in terms of both financial worth and the French numbers that come along with it. In the part of Madagascar where I live, there is still a strong French vazaha (foreigner) influence and most people mistake me for being French simply because of my appearance. When I buy things, most people make that assumption and give me the price of items in francs and they say it using French numbers. Delightful for someone like me who hates doing math in his head and doesn’t speak French very well. But I usually manage to turn the tables by using Malagasy to ask for the price in ariary and most people get a kick out of seeing a tall white guy like me haggling in Malagasy for a good price on a kilo of carrots. I will not be taken advantage of at the market!

In order to share a part of Malagasy culture that I come in contact with on a daily basis, I would like to present a brief summary and description of the money used in this country. The photos are of actual bank notes that have been in my possession and they are without a doubt the cleanest that they will ever be in these pictures. It’s hard to keep an ariary clean for a long time in Madagascar. At the time this post is being written, 1 US dollar is equivalent to about 3300 ariary. The conversion rate between Malagasy francs and ariary does not change; it remains constant at 5 francs to 1 ariary.

100 Ariary (approx. $0.03 USD)

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On one side of the bill is an image of Antsiranana Bay with it’s iconic island jutting out from the water. The bay is located near the very northern tip of the country and is considered one of the finest natural harbors in the world. It protects the city of Antsiranana (also known by it’s French colonial name Diego-Suarez) from the Indian Ocean. Today, Antsiranana is a popular destination for foreign tourists and French ex-pats looking to retire in Madagascar.

On the opposite side are two images of the natural wonders found in Madagascar. First, the famous ravinala tree found on the island. It is commonly know as the “traveler’s palm” because the various parts of the tree can be used to assist a wandering traveler. For example, the broad leaves make for an effective umbrella during a sudden rainstorm or they can be thatched together to make a roof for a house. Also, there is often water stored in the base of each leaf that can be used as an emergency source of drinking water. And behind the ravinala tree is an image of a karst limestone formation frequently found in Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. The area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 because of the unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, and wild bird and lemur populations.

This is the smallest denomination of paper money in Madagascar. Smaller denominations do exist in the form of coins, but those are almost never used in circulation. With 100 ariary, I can easily buy one small piece of fried dough or one decent-sized tomato.

200 Ariary (approx. $0.06 USD)

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The 200 ariary bill features an image of various styles of aloalo, which are intricately carved wooden poles placed on the graves of prominent people. These funerary sculptures, along with the skulls and horns of slaughtered zebu, often tell a story about the person’s life and why they were important to the community. This is a practice done primarily in the south-west regions of Madagascar, especially by the Mahafaly people.

On the reverse side of the 200 ariary note is a depiction of one of the large stone gates that were used to protect many villages in the central Highlands. The entryway to the village could be sealed each night by a huge stone disk, called a vavahady, and reopened again in the mornings. The practice of building fortified walls and gates in the Highlands spread quickly in the region and allowed the Merina royal families to maintain their positions of power until French colonization in the late 1800’s.

With 200 ariary, I can buy 3-4 small tomatoes, three large bananas, or a small cup of coffee.

500 Ariary (approx. $0.15 USD)

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One side of the 500 ariary bill shows a group of zebu, which are a sub-species of domestic cattle that originate in South Asia. The breed is extremely resistant to high temperatures and commonly found in tropical countries. The zebu’s defining characteristic is a large fatty hump on the shoulders. In Madagascar, zebu are almost exclusively farmed as work animals in agriculture and for beef. When beef is served in Madagascar, it is almost always meat from the zebu. The animal is so well integrated into Malagasy culture that it is prominently featured on the country’s official seal.

On the other side of the bill, a Malagasy artisan is seen weaving a traditional basket. The material, known as tsihy, is a natural fiber that can be used to create all types of items. The most common types of items made are hats, bags, baskets, and floor mats. Malagasy people all over the island use this material in their everyday life.

With 500 ariary, I can buy a cup of dry beans, two small bars of soap, or sometimes I can get a one-way taxi ride in the larger cities.

1000 Ariary (approx. $0.30 USD)

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The 1000 ariary note celebrates the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar. On one side, the sword-shaped leaves of the sisal plant are seen together with cactus. Sisal is a species of agave plants and is widely used for it’s strong natural fibers. Both the sisal and cactus represent the dry desert areas of Madagascar.

On the reverse, two species of gidrö (lemur) are proudly displayed along with a turtle. Madagascar is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot because approximately 90% of all plant and animal species on the island are endemic. Lemurs are arguably the most famous animals from Madagascar and there are more than 100 species of lemurs.

With 1000 ariary, I can buy two eggs, two baguette-style loaves of bread, or a small glass of natural fruit juice.

2000 Ariary (approx. $0.61 USD)

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On the 2000 ariary note, a typical landscape of terraced rice fields is depicted. Rice is a staple food in Madagascar and typically eaten at every meal of the day. For most Malagasy people, rice is the primary focus of the meal and any meat or vegetable dishes are considered to be side dishes eaten in smaller quantities. Madagascar is among the top 20 rice producing countries in the world.

On the reverse side of the bill, the mighty baobab tree is shown. The baobab is endemic to Madagascar and there are six species on the island. The tree is another one of Madagascar’s popular icons. In some parts of the country, baobab trees are greatly revered and seen as a link between the living and their tribal ancestors.

With 2000 ariary, I can buy a plate of rice and side dish at a local Malagasy restaurant or a half kilogram of onions.

5000 Ariary (approx. $1.52 USD)

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The 5000 ariary bill is designed with a scenic beach view from the southern coast of the island. The location is near the town of Fort Dauphin, which is another very popular tourist destination. It gracefully shows the complexity of the Malagasy landscape, from beaches to mountains and a variety of plants.

Continuing with this oceanic theme, the other side of the bill shows a traditional Malagasy boat. The style of boat, general known as a “dhow”, is believed to have roots in the Indian culture. Because the Malagasy people come from a mixture of Indian and Micronesian decent, this style of vessel has been a part of Malagasy tradition for many generations. In many coastal parts of the island, fishermen still use these boats to sail out to sea.

With 5000 ariary, I can buy two beers, enough telephone credit to last me for about a week, or a decent shirt at one of the many secondhand clothing markets.

10000 Ariary (approx. $3.03 USD)

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On the 10000 ariary bill, the past and present are brought together to celebrate the progress of Malagasy society. First, a scene of road construction is pictured. As with many developing countries in the world, the current infrastructure of Madagascar is a constant project of national concern. Between building and maintaining roads, schools, hospitals, and other social services, the Malagasy people have their collective plate very full. Without getting into any of the politics surrounding infrastructure development, it’s fair to say that some places on the island are more developed than others and many of the Malagasy people I’ve talked to have lamented about how this road or that power plant could be better. In general, however, people seem to be hopeful about the future development plans of this island nation.

Secondly, the other side of the bill is a reminder of the former Kingdom of Madagascar. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the seat of power in the kingdom was in the central highland city of Antananarivo (also the current national capitol). The Rova (royal palace complex) has been the home of several kings and queens and it sits on top of one of the highest points in the region. The building depicted on the currency is known as the Queen’s Palace, which is part of the greater Rova. The original palace, as seen on the bill, was built by French colonial officials for Queen Ranavalona I around 1840 and then it was reinforced with a stone casing in 1867. In 1995, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the Rova, including the original wooden structure of the Queen’s Palace. Today, only the stone casing remains and it is still prominently displayed as part of the growing skyline of Antananarivo.

With 10000 ariary, I can buy an unusually nice meal at a “fancy” restaurant or a live chicken in the market.

Words with weight

Bonjour, I am not
Feeble, I am not
Tired, I am not
Tourist, I am not

You say these things to me
Every day or maybe not
It’s easy for me to stay quiet
Instead of speaking my mind
Afraid my words would be mistaken
Or might they fall on deaf ears

I am a man of culture
As you are, although different
I am a man of strength
Possessing powers often hidden
I am a man who rests my head
And works the day alongside you
I am a man in foreign lands
To bathe in their traditions

I left my world to be with you
To know you and to love you
I use your words to make a bond
Sometimes words are too much
I share my hand and my heart
To bring our worlds together
Our work is never done

The here and now

With each new day, as I wake with the gentle light of dawn peering through the cracks of my wood shuttered window and the persistent chorus of roaming chickens and ducks, I become more aware of the new world around me. Every day I have the opportunity to meet someone new, eat a new food, learn something new, get bitten by a new bug. When I reflect on my understanding of the world just 6 months ago, I feel like I am now in one of the farthest corners of the globe that I could have imagined. How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? How can I work to transform here into home?

On August 29, 2014, I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. During the ceremony, a senior member of the Peace Corps staff delivered a speech that included some advice for our group of new Volunteers. One line in particular moved me when he said, “Thank you for choosing to integrate into your new host communities…” Like a blast of fresh air, his words hit my face and I immediately felt the atmosphere change. I had not previously appreciated the idea of integration from the perspective of choice, but it became very clear as he continued to deliver his remarks. It is up to me to decide how much I want to be a part of my new community. Assimilation does not happen passively or from behind closed doors. I must choose to be an active member of my community from the start and remind myself of this principle when future days seem dark or lonely.

With this new perspective and feelings of excitement and optimism, I arrived in my new community four days after the ceremony. Other than some anecdotal stories from Volunteers who had visited in the past, I had little knowledge of what Andapa would actually be like. My very first glimpse of the town was as our car made a turn in the road coming down one of the many lush green mountains that surrounds the fertile farmlands. That’s when I knew it was real. That’s when I felt that the adventure had only just begun.

The town
Andapa is located in the SAVA region of Madagascar, which hugs the north east coast of the island. If you were here with me, I’d show you where that is using the helpful map of Madagascar that my left hand becomes when I extend all my fingers and hold them next to each other (I’m sort of up by the tip of my left ring finger). Andapa is one of the four principal cities in the region, along with Sambava, Vohemar, and Antalaha, and together they form the SAVA acronym that this region is named after. The region is best known for it’s vanilla production. Based purely on personal observations, Andapa seems to be a medium size Malagasy town with a population around 20,000-30,000 people. The town is about 104km (64 miles) from the coast and it is surrounded by huge mountains that contain the town like a washing basin. A local man recently told me that this area used to be a hotbed of geological activity, which supports the idea that Andapa is nestled in an ancient volcanic crater. The thick vegetation and formidable geographic features made quite an impression on me as I approached the town initially.

IMG_0754.JPG View of the Andapa basin with the town in the foreground.

The climate was another aspect that stood out to me. On the day that I arrived, the sun was beating down with what felt like a physical presence on the back of my neck. Compared to the previous three months I had spent in the cool and overcast highlands, the heat was almost a refreshing change. I quickly learned, however, that Andapa is also notorious for it’s frequent rain showers. In my time here so far, it hasn’t rained for more than 20-30 minutes at a time and the rain usually comes in waves during the afternoon hours and overnight. Locals claim that Andapa’s “dry season” last for a mere two months in October and November, the rest of the year is what they consider to be wet. I have only met one person here that likes the rain.

The community
Two things stand out to me when it comes to describing the inhabitants of Andapa: extremely friendly and avid English speakers. In general, Malagasy people seem to pride themselves on having a culture that values hospitality and genuine friendliness. But the people of Andapa have shown me a whole new level of friendliness that I was not expecting. When I bring it up in conversation occasionally, some say it is an attribute of the Tsimihety people (one of the many tribes in Madagascar, based on traditional ancestry, and the principal ethnic group of people in Andapa and much of the SAVA region). No matter what the root cause is, it has helped make my adjustment to this town much easier. I also consider myself lucky because the previous Volunteer in Andapa had a few close Malagasy friends here and they each came to my door in the first few days and took me in like we had also been friends for many years. People that I had not known for more than a few hours were inviting me into their homes for meals and walking around town with me to introduce me to even more of their friends. I was also taken back by how many people, young and old, speak even basic English. And on top of that, they are also extremely motivated to practice and improve their English by conversing with a native speaker such as myself. I’m happy to oblige their excitement and in return I ask them to help me learn a little more Malagasy each day. The librarian at the only English language library (a project started by a previous PCV) has told me that there are more than 200 members in the town’s English club! In addition, there is an Adventist church that offers an English language service each week. The number of people in Andapa that are willingly exposed to English on a daily or weekly basis is, in my option, astounding for a town this size. I’m very much looking forward to working with such a mizoto (motivated) crowd and hopefully instilling more excitement for English in some of the younger students I will teach.

I’m slowly discovering that my new community is filled with some delightful characters. In my mind, there is the retired high school gym coach who owns an épicerie. There is the tired-looking guard with a deep raspy voice that might as well be a blues musician in 1950s Detroit. There is the eccentric aunt in the countryside who jokingly chases after me on my runs just to get a rise out of her nieces and nephews. There is the excited drunk who sees my white face in the crowd and just wants a high-five. And almost every day I meet a new character in the cast.

In Andapa, there is a whole boulevard about a mile long that is packed on both sides with small stores. It’s the main non-food shopping area in town and it’s busy every single day. There are four main types of stores here. The épicerie sells basic household items such as cooking oil, snacks, laundry soap, pasta, candy, batteries, etc. Another store sells just clothes. The clothing donated to popular charity stores in America does in fact eventually make it’s way to developing countries like Madagascar. There are other places that are similar to hardware stores and they sell nails, rope, bicycle parts, flashlights, plastic buckets, etc. Finally there are movie and media stores that sell DVDs of fairly recent films, usually in French voice overs, and music. When I first arrived, I was also amazed at the size of the market and quickly recognized that I could buy almost anything that I need in this town. When I go shopping here, the sellers tend to be very polite to me and they appreciate when I try to speak Malagasy with them.

There are a couple food markets in Andapa where I can find fresh produce, rice, beans, bread, and meats every single day. From speaking with other Volunteers, a daily market of this size is sometimes a rare thing. The best way I can describe the market is to say it’s like a farmer’s market in America. The road is lined with stalls where women, usually, can sell produce or sometimes they simply spread out a plastic tarp on the group and sell from there. Almost everyone sells the same things, but I’m learning to purchase certain items from certain people. For example, there’s a woman that sells great bananas and usually gives me a cadeau (French for “gift”, it means they give you a little more than you pay for as a sign of respect or good faith. In this case, I get an extra banana for free) but her tomatoes are not that impressive. I buy tomatoes from someone else, same with carrots and onions and so on. I’ve found that this technique has two benefits. On the one hand, I feel like I can integrate into the community better if I have interactions with more people and can establish more friendly faces. On the other hand, some of the vendors that I go to often recognize me and they make an extra effort to pick out some of the better produce for me. They get the pride of selling to a foreigner and I get great food, we all win! Buying meat is a whole other story. I can now appreciate why the butchers in American supermarkets have the majority of their work stations behind closed doors. But without the gory details, buying meat in Madagascar is an art that I’m determined to practice. For now, I only buy beef from butchers that my Malagasy friends buy meat from. I don’t buy chicken because the only way to get chicken meat is to buy a live chicken and butcher it in the comfort of your own home. There is pork as well, but I’m not ready to buy that quite yet. Due to Andapa’s distance from the ocean, there’s not as much fresh fish available here compared to other cities in SAVA but there is a wide variety of dried fish available that I politely stay away from. In recent conversations that I’ve had with Malagasy people, I find myself having to explain that in America we rarely get to see where our food comes from. But in Madagascar, the towns are all surrounded by farmland and livestock is usually part of the average household. People can sometimes walk 5 minutes out of the city, see what a field of green beans looks like, and then see those same beans in the markets. There seems to be a greater understanding, not necessarily appreciation, of how the food that we eat gets to our tables.

The house
I am very fortunate to have my housing provided by the local CISCO, which is the equivalent of a school district. I live on a small compound that also contains the CISCO offices and a couple other small homes, so during the week there are always people walking around from office to office and conducting business at the CISCO.

IMG_0736.JPG View looking from my kitchen and open window into the public courtyard. The CISCO offices are on the right.

My home is a converted office and it can’t be much larger than 20 feet by 15 feet, including the bathroom. It’s small and cozy, but it really is just the right amount of space to live very comfortably. Some of the amenities I have are electricity (usually reliable), running water, a flush toilet, a shower, and a small refrigerator. It’s certainly leaps and bounds more than what I prepared myself for when I was still in America. For perspective, I could theoretically sit on my toilet and take a shower at the same time. Or I could lean the other direction and brush my teeth in the sink. I also have a full size bed, a small table with two chairs, and another longer table that serves as my kitchen area. The Volunteer who lived here previously was incredibly kind enough to leave many of her home goods here so when I moved in it was nearly fully furnished. I have a wonderful big window above my kitchen space that opens up into the compound and I usually keep that open when I am home. Although my home is a converted office, I am still living between two currently used offices and I get the pleasure of greeting these CISCO employees when they come to work in the morning. My home is also two doors away from the Andapa Public Library, which is the town’s only English language library and where I will likely be doing plenty of work during the next two years.

IMG_0737.JPG Inside my house, looking toward the bed and desk.

IMG_0738-0.JPG Inside my house, looking toward the kitchen area and window out to the courtyard.

Shortly after arriving in my new home, I realized that this is the first time in my life that I’ve lived alone. In years before I’ve either lived with family or roommates, but never had an entire space all to myself. And now I do, or at least I don’t share this space with any humans. I do, however, have a family of bats that shares at least the roof with me. I was told about the bats even before I moved in, but I didn’t realize that they live inside the house. For the most part, it is a perfectly harmless and symbiotic relationship. They squeak and make a fair amount of noise as they shuffle between the roof and the small holes in the upper walls, but they have not flown inside the house. Yet. Sometimes they are very chatty in the evenings when I am in bed and I imagine that they are plotting an attack against me, but no such insurrection yet. They are the most active during dusk and dawn, when I assume they go out to hunt at night and return in the morning. I also like to think that they help me by hunting some of the other critters that I wouldn’t want in my house either. Speaking of which, I also get the occasional gecko that finds it’s way through a slit in the wall to explore my pantry. They’re harmless and I find it entertaining to watch them wiggle up and down the walls, for a short time at least. I’m learning that living in Madagascar means living with the natural world around me, no matter how animal-proof my house may seem. Even with bats and geckos, it sure beats having cockroaches and I am eternally thankful for not having those at home. Yet.

The work
While I am serving as a Volunteer in Andapa for the next two years, I have a primary project and I’m expected to develop other secondary projects for the community. My primary project is teaching English. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be teaching at two schools that are the equivalent to public middle school and high school. As of now, I don’t have any more details about that because school doesn’t start until October 6th. This means that most students are away from town visiting family and I’m basically on summer vacation. But I really am looking forward to meeting the students and working with more of a defined schedule.

IMG_0732.JPG Looking toward the Andapa Public Library (far right) and my home (far left).

My secondary projects are still undefined, and Peace Corps encourages us to create projects that are of more personal interest to us while still meeting the needs of the community, but I have a pretty good idea already of the direction that I might want to work toward. Luckily I live next to the Andapa Public Library and can continue to support the efforts of that library. The project was started by a previous Volunteer and it has only been fully functional for a little more than a year. The library holds hundreds of English language books, most of them donated by people and organizations in America. The library is also used as a meeting space for the English Club, which I hope to continue facilitating during my service. Based on the incredibly motivated and interested students and adults that I’ve met so far, I can’t wait to meet more club members and help them practice English. Working with the library and the English Club are both things that will begin to blossom in October when students return to school.

During my first few months at site, especially now that I am not formally teaching, my main objectives are to integrate into my community, identify key people that I can work with in different capacities, and learn about what the people of Andapa need and want from me. The idea is simple: I have to know my community before I can provide assistance. I didn’t come here with specific projects in mind to impose on everyone, but instead I need to build my credibility and listen to what people have to say. Even in the first couple of weeks here, I can already see the relationships forming and soon enough I’ll be able to understand what the local community needs me to do.

IMG_0742.JPG Inside the Andapa Public Library.

The average day
When I wake up in the morning, I usually have no idea what I will be doing that day except for a couple things that have started to become routine. Particularly now, when I’m not teaching and I’m not on a schedule, there are a lot of hours in the day to fill.

I typically wake up at 7:00am and crawl out from underneath the mosquito met covering my bed. I throw on some jeans and a t-shirt and I walk a few blocks to buy a cup of coffee. There’s a sweet lady that sells coffee, bread, and a hot breakfast soup made from soy and she doesn’t mind having an awkward vazaha (foreigner, usually French) visit her every morning. I slowly sip the coffee loaded with sugar while I listen to her speak with other patrons, hoping that I can pick up a new Malagasy word or two. Although at 7 in the morning, I’m not doing any learning. After the caffeine and sugar rushes kick in, I walk back home and have a light breakfast, maybe a banana and piece of bread. Then the next 4-5 hours until lunch are usually pretty up in the air. Sometimes I go for a run in the mornings and endure the odd stares I get from locals. Sometimes I do my laundry, washing everything by hand and hanging it to dry in the middle of the compound. Mostly I shop for food, hoping to get the more fresh items in the morning before the heat of the day wilts most of the vegetables. I’ll often walk around town, talk with people as they pass by my porch, or practice playing guitar (a personal development project I’m working on for the next two years). At around noon, I start to prepare my lunch and eat at home. I hope to use this time better in the future by inviting new friends over for lunch or sharing a meal in their homes. Sometimes after lunch I take a nap because, well, why not? In the afternoons, when the sun is strong, I sometimes stick to more indoor activities like reading, watching TV/movies on my computer, doing some light cleaning, or practicing guitar again. When the weather is more tolerable, I’ll be outside again walking and talking and generally showing my face around town. In general it’s another 4-5 hours to fill before dinner. Most of the time I cook a double portion of food at lunch so I don’t have to cook, or clean the dishes again, in the evenings. I’ll spend another hour or two relaxing at home after dinner and then I’m usually in bed between 8:00-9:00pm. I toss and turn on my foam mattress as the bats giggle above me, wake up the next morning and do it all over again. However, Sundays are exceptionally slow because almost all the stores are closed and most people are in church.

Overall, I feel like my adjustment to my new life has been going remarkably well. The first few days alone were rough and I can admit that I cried a lot when the Peace Corps car eventually drove off and I was left by myself. But each day I got out of my house for a few more minutes and I began to explore the new world around me. It has become more familiar, which makes it more comfortable, and I know soon enough I will truly feel at home here. I expected the emotional rollercoaster and I know the next two years will be filled with many highs and lows, but I also know that is a “normal” part of this experience. I can already say that the good times I’ve had here so far are worth the very few times I’ve felt lonely, scared, or sad. I’m learning to wake up in the morning and make the best of what I have in front of me, after getting coffee of course. I try to follow the advice of my Country Director when she says, “take each day as it comes and just stay in the here and now.”

IMG_0753-0.JPG Me standing near part of a waterfall in the mountains surrounding Andapa.

What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.

Shedding my tourist skin

In the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and Trainee, there is a cycle of adjustment and emotional vulnerability that comes with the territory. It happens to all of us, some people experience different parts of the cycle at different times and with varying degrees of intensity, but eventually it all happens. And each part comes with it’s new challenges and unique insights. Generally speaking, the cycle can be described as follows:

0-2 months: honeymoon
1-3 months: mixed culture shock
3-6 months: adjusting to new site and job, integration into new community
6-12 months: more adjustment
12-14 months: mid-service crisis (!)
16-24 months: adjustment (again)
24-27 months: COS (close of service) fears, what’s after Peace Corps?

There’s also a pretty nifty graphic representation of this cycle, with fluctuating lines to represent the emotional highs and lows, but you’ll just have to use your imagination for now.

What I really want to get across now is the fact that I’m in the midst of transitioning from the honeymoon phase into the “mixed culture shock” phase. And as of today, I don’t really even like the label of “mixed culture shock” because my feelings have been less about the new Malagasy culture and more about my awareness of my experiences. Despite still being in the very early weeks of my service, the transition is almost tangible for me. I am shedding my tourist skin.

During my travels in the past, I’ve been away from home for days, sometimes weeks, or even months. And during each of those campaigns, the certainty and expectation of returning home was always imminent. No matter how much I missed my family or friends, or thought about things I was likely missing out on back home, or wallowed in the misery of whatever shitty situation I managed to get myself into, I always knew that it would be so very temporary and that I’d be home again sooner than I could anticipate. I’ve always been a tourist abroad, visiting for those finite days and returning home to carry on with my life. No matter how bad or how good it got on the road, the normalcy of home was right around the corner.

But recently in Madagascar, things have been different. I know that one day my time here will end and I’ll go home, but that is a very long time from now. Apologies for stating the obvious, but whole entire calendar years (plural!) will pass before I am able to set foot in my familiar territory again. That’s been weighing on me. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it means I am making forward progression in my adjustment to my new life, it means I can look at my time abroad in a new perspective, and it means I can begin to appreciate more some of the things and people that I left behind for the time being.

One of the most vivid examples of this has started to happen every morning when I wake up. I’ll call it traveler’s whereabouts confusion. Sometimes when one travels, there’s a brief few moments when you first open your eyes in the morning and your brain starts to reboot and you really have to think about where you are. The bed might be a little uncomfortable, the walls are a different color, there’s a smell in the air, maybe you’re even on a top bunk when you haven’t slept in bunk beds since you were 8 years old. Something is different and in the haze of dawn you have to reconcile this by reminding yourself that you’re traveling again. This place is not your own, and that’s alright. You can now continue to wake up and get on with the day. But for me, I have to reconcile this in a new and different way. When I wake up, squinting eyes peering out through my mosquito bed net and listening to the loud calls of a rooster, I’m usually momentarily confused. Then I start to recognize the bare walls and cold cement floor to be part of my host family house. Now I know I’m far away from home, but my kicker is that home is still very far away from me. I’m not going home in a few days, back to the grind, ready to continue with the way things were. I remind myself that I’m here for the long haul with many more months of adjustment ahead of me. I remind myself that I’m not a tourist. I wipe the remaining sleep from my eyes, stretch in bed, and get up to start my day with another bucket bath.

Another example is the development of new routines and readjustment of what I consider familiar. Obviously when traveling, a person will almost certainly adjust some routines to accommodate local customs, resources, and tastes. But I believe those things are also done with the understanding that they are temporary. In my case, I have needed to adjust for similar cultural reasons and access to resources, but also with a new attitude of acceptance of these changes for the long term. For example, brushing my teeth. There is no bathroom sink or running water at my host family’s house to brush my teeth at. Instead, I bring a bottle of water into the ladosy (shower area) and brush my teeth with filtered water. This is a routine that I learned from watching my host siblings and I’ve come to appreciate it as just the way things are done here. Another example is fetching water. I quickly learned the connection between fetching water from the well and being able to do things such as bathe, cook, drink, or wash my clothes. That’s why each morning I help my host siblings walk down to the well, full up a few 30+ gallon jugs, and haul them back home for use throughout the day. It’s part of my daily routine now, whereas if I felt like a tourist I could probably put up with it for a few days before losing interest and convincing myself I don’t have to practice this skill because I’ll be going home soon. In reality, I need to get good at fetching water in order to save time and energy later on. Other things have just become more familiar to me the longer I live here. The sounds of roosters and cows in the distance, which at first I couldn’t hear myself think. The various fried breads offered in snack shops, which at first I was terrified to eat because of food preparation fears. The mud and puddles in the roads, which I’ve now come to expect and I’ve learned how to walk with them. These familiarities and routines are all shaping my experiences here in Madagascar. These things were happening well before I arrived in country, and they will continue on after my departure. They help me adjust, learn, and grow. But overall, these things help me to recognize that I am not a short term visitor here meant to pass through and move on. I am shedding my tourist skin.

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Welcome to the other side of the world

pebI’m pretty sure it’s official now: I’ve never been this far away from home.

In many ways, the distance is massive. Geographic, cultural, and emotional. But in some other ways, being in Madagascar and participating in Peace Corps training is not so drastically different from life in America. Sure, the infrastructure and public services are greatly different in Madagascar, the urban development is different here, the pace of life is much slower as well. But I’ve already seen first hand that many Malagasy people have similar hopes and goals for themselves and their families compared to those in the US. But I’ll leave those heavy topics for another time. I’ve only been in country for 3 weeks, I know it’s not much to base some of these opinions on yet.

Allow me to catch you up a bit on what I’ve been doing so far and what my days typically consist of.

After arriving in country, our Stage (pronounced as the French word; meaning the group of 32 Education trainees in our group) was put up for a few nights at the Peace Corps Training Center in the highland village of Mantasoa. The PCTC is basically a mini “Camp America” with a dining hall, sleeping quarters, basketball and volleyball courts, well-fed dogs, and meeting rooms that make me sometimes question if I’m in a developing country or just spending a summer at sleep away camp. During the first days in country, we had a few introductory language lessons but mostly orientation type sessions to familiarize us with Peace Corps Madagascar and the upcoming training process. And before we could really get used to the place, about 4 days into this whole experience we were all launched into the cultural abyss and sent to meet our new local Malagasy host families where we were told we’d be spending the next 6 weeks living. Imagine 32 jet-lagged Americans in a completely foreign environment with language skills equivalent to “hello”, “goodbye”, and “what is your name?” moving into separate local homes and essentially winging it. Yeah, nothing could go wrong here.

Here’s a bit about my host family. And I’ll say right away, I’ve been having a truly positive experience despite all the cultural, language, and familial road blocks. So I have a mom and dad, which I call Neny and Dada. My Neny is basically a housewife and my Dada is a professor at the local technical school. I have 4 host siblings. 3 girls and one boy, age range from 30-7. My eldest sister, Noro, has a 2-year
-old daughter named Sufa who also lives with us. Noro is a hairdresser. The next sibling down is Tsangy, who just celebrated his 24th birthday last week. Last but not least are the youngest sisters, ages 8 and 7, one of which is named Lundi. I still haven’t figured out the other sister’s name and I think it’s pretty late in the game for me to ask now. We don’t talk much anyway. We also have a cousin, about 20ish, who is “visiting” from out of town. He’s been here about 2 weeks now, no sign of him going anywhere anytime soon, but I get along with him great so I really don’t mind at all. Dad, Noro, and the cousin all speak a tiny bit of English which is enough to help the conversation flow sometimes. So now that I’m in the mix, we have a very busy house of 8-9 people. Big adjustment for me as an only child from a relatively small family, but it’s been working out nicely so far. You may also be wondering, “how do all those people fit in one house?!” Well, we actually have a very comfortable 4 bedroom house with a living room and indoor toilet/shower spaces. A quick word about the indoor toilet situation: it’s a porcelain toilet like we’re probably all used to but without the flushing capabilities. At one point in this home’s history, it probably flushed. But now, you flush the toilet by pouring in pitchers of water to even out the water level in the bowl. THAT took some brain power for me to figure out on day one. Compared to other Trainees, I have it extremely easy when it comes to toilet and shower setups. Most other host families have an outdoor pit latrine (called a kabone) and an outdoor bathing space (called a ladosy). In the kabone, you’re squatting over a hole. Enough said. And in the ladosy, you’re probably taking a bucket bath with cold water in an already 50 degree environment. Weather aside, that setup seems to be standard across the entire country. Back to the house, the bedrooms are basically spilt up into parents, boys, girls, and me. Part of the agreement these host families have with Peace Corps during the hosting process is that they will provide the Trainee with their own private room. I have a twin bed, mosquito bed net, small table and chair, and a stool to put my water filter on. And I really couldn’t need much more. The house is surrounded by local vegetation, a small vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. There’s a particular fruit that was new to me and apparently only grows in the highlands of Madagascar, called pibasy, and it is absolutely phenomenal. We have about 6 pibasy trees on our property. Neny makes a delicious pibasy jam that we get to have at breakfast. The kitchen is a little smaller than my bedroom and because it’s usually the warmest place in the house, it’s also where the chickens sleep at night. There’s a pantry sized “closet” in the kitchen that has a couple shelves and plywood sheets to close it up, and this is the chicken coop. Yup, this is totally normal in my head now. There is one spot in the kitchen for a charcoal cooking fire with chimney and a couple other smaller charcoal portable cookers. It’s pretty much one or two pots at a time, but Neny has this down to an art.

Speaking of cooking, let me tell you a bit about the food here so far. Rice. By American standards, incredibly obscene amounts of rice are consumed by the Malagasy people. This is not an exaggeration, but I have had rice as the main staple in every single meal since arriving in country, except for about 4-5 meals. Breakfast: rice and maybe some fried omelette. Lunch: rice with a meat protein and some shredded vegetables tossed in oil and salt. Dinner: more rice with another meat protein or maybe fried potatoes and more veggies. Dessert is usually a banana or an orange. The times I haven’t had rice in a meal it’s been either spaghetti as a substitution or a couple times we had pretty much friend doughnuts for breakfast. Not complaining about those doughnuts, though. Aside from rice, almost everything else is cooked in copious amounts of oil. Fried, sauté, sear, whatever else, it’s usually cooked at a high temperature (it’s hard to be in control of a charcoal fire) with lots of oil. The few meals that we have at the PCTC seem to be a bit more Americanized for us, but I’m also not watching the food being prepared like I do when my Neny is teaching me how to cook. My sister Noro also likes to cook and she’s been excited to cook a couple “American” dishes since I’ve been here. We had spaghetti and meatballs one night and she’s made her take on pizza a few times and that’s actually pretty good. I was so happy when we had spaghetti and meatballs, not sure if it was because we didn’t have rice for once or if the spaghetti and meatballs were really that tasty. In return, I’ve promised to cook a few of my favorite American foods for them. I’ll let you know how that goes after it happens. But I really haven’t eaten much outside of the home or PCTC, mainly because the Peace Corps doctors have been educating us on safe food preparation and doing a good job at making it seem like everything in this country wants to either kill me or at least give me severe diarrhea.

Now that we are in the full swing of training, my days are very structured and predictable. Breakfast is usually at about 7am every single day. I have language class from 8am-noon. This is one native Malagasy language instructor and about 3 students per group. Then it’s back home for lunch with the family. In the afternoon, our whole Stage meets up at 2pm for group training sessions that last until about 5pm. These sessions are either technical sessions about teacher training, cross cultural sessions, or global training sessions from Peace Corps headquarters that every Trainee in the world goes through. After that, I head back home and dinner is served around 6:30ish. I’m usually so exhausted after dinner that I’m in bed by about 8:30pm. Wake up at 6am the next morning to do it all over again. This is my schedule Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, we have only language class from 8am-noon, then we’re free for the rest of the afternoon. Sundays are completely free as well. Weekend activities include walking around town and saying hello to everyone (very common in this culture to greet everyone you see, even if you don’t know them), watching soccer games, doing laundry, going to church on Sunday mornings (I’ve only been once with my host family so far), and hanging out with the other Trainees in my group. Being in training is sort of like being in high school again. We are told what to do, where to be, at what time, and there’s a few tests here and there. But it’s keeping us busy and I’m really enjoying spending time with everyone in our Stage. It’s also a really cool feeling when the language classes pay off and I have even the slightest resemblance of a successful conversation with a Malagasy person. Some things I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks: celebrating Fourth of July, technical training trip to different Volunteer sites, finding out what village I will be assigned to, and starting our practicum teaching experiences. Each day we build on prior knowledge, so it’s hard to fall behind in any aspect because the training is intense.

But overall I am very happy and satisfied with my first few weeks spent in Madagascar. This country is absolutely beautiful, the locals have been extremely friendly so far, I haven’t been ill yet, and I have been kept very busy with training. I also realize that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my cultural adjustment and Peace Corps has basically been taking care of our every need so far. But despite that, I’ve had a very good transition into Malagasy life. We’re not even halfway done with the 11-week training program, but I’m confident that I’ll be a competent and capable Volunteer after this process. I definitely miss my friends and family back home very much and replaying the wonderful memories I have of us in my head is helpful. I haven’t had any super intense food cravings yet either, although I’ve been occasionally treating myself to some peanut M&Ms that I brought with me and that’s been very nice. Other than that, I’m chugging along quite nicely I think. I’ll work on perfecting my communication outlets now that I have cellular and internet connections (spotty service, at best), but for now email and Facebook are probably the most reliable for me. I’ll update the “How to Contact Me” page soon with my local phone number, in case you want to text or call me. But for now, I’ll leave you with this post and a big hug from me!