Up with the roosters

Day in and day out. Many of us settle into a routine and flow that takes us through the day. In Madagascar, I have developed new routines and schedules that get me through my days. Most days are never quite the same, this country has a funny habit of continuing to surprise me and alter plans, but here is a glimpse into a “typical” day for me:

5:43am – Wake up to the sound of roosters, pigs, and the rumbling diesel tractors full of cheering men and freshly butchered beef as they drive from the butchering fields, past my house, to the market

6:09am – Get out of bed, push open my wooden window, and boil water for coffee and breakfast

7:00am – Walk about 50 feet into bazary ambanivolo (countryside market), leisurely stroll past the piles of fresh produce laid out on tarps along the dirt road, select my food for the day, and say hello to the vendors that I usually buy from

7:45am – Commute to work by riding my bicycle through the market and center of town, usually attracting stares from people moving about town to start their day. I end up at either the public middle school (CEG) or the public high school (Lycée Mixte) to teach for a few hours

11:18am – Return home from teaching, either frustrated from a class that misbehaved or proud from a lesson that actually went well. Start to prepare lunch, which is usually a large portion of rice with a small portion of beans, vegetables, or eggs

12:26pm – Enjoy lunch during the momentary silence of midday. The area around my house is void of children playing or people passing through on the their way to the market

1:40pm – Wake up from a short afternoon nap in my hammock, some days I teach another class in the afternoon and other days I write lesson plans or prepare materials for future classes

4:07pm – On my way back home after class, I sometimes stop for a snack of min-sao (noodles with ginger and curry powder) or dite cola (spiced tea). Drive-thru’s don’t exist in Madagascar, so half the experience of eating a snack is sitting with the vendor and catching up on gossip

4:49pm – Check in with my pal and colleague, Johnny, to see how things are going at the English library

5:00pm – Evening yoga at home to unwind and reflect on the day

5:50pm – Use the last minutes of sunlight to sweep my house, making sure I can see all the bits of dried rice, various insect limbs, and general dirt that accumulates daily

6:20pm – Prepare dinner, usually reheating leftovers from lunch on my small gas stove

7:30pm – Wash the dishes in a small plastic basin, take a cold shower, and brush my teeth

7:55pm – Crawl into bed, under the seemingly impenetrable forcefield of my lay ody moka (mosquito bed net), and enjoy a book or watch an episode of television on my computer. Take joy in knowing that I was successful this day or that at least the day is over

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

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.

Mipetraka tsara

Directly translated, mipetraka tsara means “to sit well.” Other more common interpretations of the phrase can be understood as “to stay put” or “to remain steady.” When used to describe the actions of a person, this phrase expresses notions of settlement, calm, and consistency. In light of doing many different things, living a busy life, and frequently moving around, one is encouraged to slow down and mipetraka tsara.

For me, this idea has more relevance now than in any other time during my service. With the school term having ended in July, the past three months have been filled with frequent travel, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure, and a variety of different experiences. Between visiting other Volunteers in their communities, attending training workshops, running a half marathon, and managing a handful of other projects, there was hardly an extended period of time in the recent past where I truly felt settled. As soon as one thing was finished, it was on to the next one!

So after what feels like a very eventful and long Grandes Vacances (French term for the summer break from school), I have recently returned to my home in Andapa and I intend to stay put here for a while. My head has only recently stopped spinning after the come and go nature of the last three months. I have unpacked my bags and I’m ready to recommit myself to working in my community. It took a couple of days to deep-clean my house, reorganize some of my belongings, and mentally unwind from vacation. But now the fire in me has been rekindled and I’m looking ahead with determination and positive energy.

In Madagascar, October signals the start of a new academic year. This year, I will continue to teach at CEG Andapa Sud (middle school) and Lycée Mixte Andapa (high school). With classes starting next week, an “acceptable” one week delay from the official start date prescribed by the Ministry of Education, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine and to meeting my new students. New minds to mold! Or further confuse, depending on whom you ask. Nevertheless, having a year of teaching experience under my belt makes me much more confident going into this year. Activities at the Andapa Public Library, such as the student and adult English Clubs, will also begin again, which I enjoy because it means working with students who are generally more interested and serious about studying English.

The time I have spent moving around the country, seeing new places, and connecting with friends, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Coming back to Andapa and focusing on the year ahead does not put a damper on any of those experiences. It’s simply the next step forward. And part of that next step is settling in at home and working hard to help my community. I welcome the opportunity to mipetraka tsara and enjoy the future in Andapa.

A smattering of stories

In light of the fact that it feels like I haven’t written anything new in quite some time, I thought I’d share some anecdotes from the last month. There are really no connections between these stories. Just a few snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately.

Battle of the Bats

In previous posts, I’ve written about the family of bats that lives in my house. Or am I living in their house? I’m starting to think the latter is true. Until recently, the bats and I were living together in relative harmony. Then our relations took a very sour turn and the bats have been less afraid to mix into my affairs.

First off, they seem to be louder than when I first arrived in Andapa. I don’t know if they are mating, fighting, or doing something else entirely, but the noise has really been stepped up a few notches. Mostly during dusk and night, I can hear them chatting, squeaking, and clawing at the tin roof. Certainly not the most relaxing or calming thing to hear as I try to sleep.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a bat on two consecutive nights. In both cases, I was woken up around 3 o’clock in the morning by the loud giggling of the bats and I could also hear the faint noises of wings flapping in the air. Alarmed and nervous, I became fully awake when the bat flew into the mosquito net covering my bed, crawled around a bit as I was yelling and pounding on my mattress, and then flew off again. On the second night in a row when this happened, the bat ended up in my bathroom and I was able to corner it and kill it with my broom. It’s a terrible way to start a day. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting too much sleep and it started to show as I became more irritable in the classroom.

Alas, I am confident that a solution has finally arrived. After voicing my concerns to my counterpart, other school staff, and my supervisor at Peace Corps, we were able to make some great progress in the Battle of the Bats. Just the other day, with the help of my counterpart, Derio, my close friend, Johnny, and the local mason, we worked to patch up almost all of the exterior holes in my house with cement. The idea is simple: don’t let the bats get inside and nest. Once we started to work on the inside of the house, that’s when things started to get interesting. We identified what was likely the main nest of the bats and began to dismantle the brick wall that they were hiding in. One by one, bats began to fly out of the wall to escape the destruction of the nest. Some flew away outside, hopefully never to return. Some made the mistake of flying inside, and this is when the guys used their expert hunting skills to capture most of the foul beasts. They picked the bats up by the back of their necks and posed for photos like they had just won a fishing tournament. Some of the bats were already dead, or in their final hours of life, and they just sort of fell from the roof onto my floor like a wet noodle. In total, we evicted 12 bats from my house. Twelve. I was shocked to actually see how many bats had been living with me. After the dramatic exodus from the house, we cleaned out the nest and continued to patch up holes. We also used some expanding foam to fill in the small cracks and crevices where the bats could wiggle through. It seems to be a good temporary solution as we wait for more funding so that the entire brick wall can be cleaned, rebuilt, and made impenetrable.

I am extremely grateful for the bravery shown by these guys and for the hard work they put in for my wellbeing. Most of this work happened very quickly, as in we had the conversation at 9am and by 10:30am the mason was at my house patching holes. This type of prompt movement is sometimes rare in Madagascar, so I am grateful that my concerns were understood and that the right people were willing to drop everything to help me. It definitely says something when a community mobilizes to help one person, let alone a foreigner living among them. Maybe in their eyes, I’m not very foreign anymore.


Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the bats that the caught

Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the live bats that they caught

Thanksgiving in Sambava

This year, I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving with some very special people. Thanksgiving seems to be one of the more popular holidays for Peace Corps Volunteers because it’s a good excuse to get together with other Americans and share some delicious food. Our celebration was no exception. I travelled to Sambava, the regional capital of SAVA, to spend the holiday with the six other Volunteers in our region. Plus, Sambava was the only place that we could find an oven to use.

We planned for a pot-luck style meal and even purchased a turkey to cook. The day before the meal, a few of us went shopping for ingredients and began preparing some of the dishes. The turkey came to us already butchered and unfeathered, so I helped clean up the bird and get it ready for the oven. Throughout this chore, a few Malagasy people had wandered over to us and were very curious about what we were doing. I’m not sure if they had never seen a turkey before or if they never expected to see a few vazaha (“foreign person”) handling a bird of that size with such determination. We managed to get the bird in the oven at a decent time and then the rest of the dishes needed to be prepared. Our group spent most of the day cooking and the house smelled wonderful. One of the Volunteers had recently returned from vacation in America and she brought back some ingredients such as brown sugar, marshmallows, and cranberries, which are all things that are very hard to find in Madagascar.

Having an oven was really helpful, but the challenge was in cooking a turkey and then having enough time to cook most of the other dishes in the oven as well. In the late afternoon, when we realized that the turkey was taking longer to cook than anticipated, we had to initiate Plan B to cook the other dishes. This meant a few of us got the food into cooking dishes and then hopped into a taxi going to one of the hotels in Sambava. Luckily, one of our Volunteers lives and works at the hotel and he convinced the owner to let us use their ovens for a while. So I volunteered to transport the dishes to and from the ovens. I can now add the skill of “balancing hot ceramic dishes in my arms while riding in an open taxi on an unpaved road” to my resume.

After we returned from the hotel, everyone was ready to start the meal. In addition to the 6 Volunteers, we were joined by 7 Malagasy friends who wanted to share the holiday with us. Before we ate, we went around the table and each person talked about the things they were thankful for. Our feast was a traditional eating frenzy. In addition to the turkey, we had mashed potatoes, pasta salad, stuffing, cranberry sauce (from the can-my favorite!), sweet potato casserole, eggplant and zucchini casserole, and pumpkin pie. We knew that we had succeeded with the food because everyone was full and none of the Malagasy people ate rice! Being able to eat leftovers the next day was also a pat on the back to our awesome cooking skills.

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

Sex Ed for the PCV

During one of my classes at the lycée (high school) last week, I learned a very valuable lesson about mixing English and Malagasy vocabulary. The following story actually happened and it might be every TEFL teacher’s nightmare.

I was teaching a lesson about imperatives (commands) and I was explaining the difference between when to use “stop + verb-ing” and “don’t + verb”. To put it simply, you use the first formula during the action and the second formula before the action occurs. I noticed that each time I said the word “before”, the students would giggle and snicker. At first, I played it cool and assumed they thought there was something funny about my accent. But the laughter continued. Finally, I asked them what was so funny. They knew I was on to them and that made them laugh even more. So through the laughter, one student at the front of the class whispers to me and says, “vagina”. I quickly made sense of that and realized that the English word “before” sounds an awful lot like the Malagasy slang term for “vagina”. I had just stood in front of about 50 students between 18-20 years old and repeated the slang term for vagina over and over again.

Naturally, this made me laugh as well.

So amidst my embarrassment, we all shared a good hearty giggle together and then sobered up and continued with the lesson. Except this time I wrote the word “before” on the chalkboard and just pointed to it every time I wanted to say it out loud.

Later that day, I retold the story to my counterpart hoping that he could understand my blunder. Before I could even get to the punch line, he knew where the story was headed and laughed harder than I’ve ever heard him laugh before. So much for positive support.

All of a sudden, I’m a teacher

It seemed to happen overnight. One day I wasn’t, the next day I was. I didn’t look or smell any different, but somehow I was allowed to assume this new role. I walked into a dimly lit classroom with a blackboard that looked like it had years of chalk dust accumulated on it and I was told to teach. I had a curriculum, I had a lesson plan, I had the attention of my students. I just needed to put all the pieces together.

During this current portion of PST, the focus is on developing our technical skills as teachers. To do this, we have a practicum section built into training where we teach English to local Malagasy students. For the students, it’s basically a free summer school program in English for all levels from 6ème (what’s this, you may ask?) to adults. For me and the other Trainees, it’s a way to practice all the skills that go with teaching including lesson planning, classroom management, and administering exams. A few people in my Stage have had prior teaching experience in the US, but a majority of us, myself included, have no formal classroom experience to speak of. After each lesson that we teach, which can be between 1-2 hours, we get feedback from staff and peers to help us process what went well and what needs improvement. I use practicum as the time to experiment with different teaching approaches and methods, test them out on real students in a relatively low-stakes setting, and learn new techniques by observing my peers. In Mantasoa, the students are generally better at English here compared to other areas because the Peace Corps has been offering similar practicum programs for many years when each new group of Education Trainees comes through.

My very first experience in the classroom was with the 6ème class. In Madagascar, the schools use the French model of education. This means that the class levels follow the French system, and 6ème (“ème” is the French abbreviation for ordinal numbers, equivalent to “th” in English) is roughly equivalent to 6th grade in the United States. This is typically the grade when English is first introduced into the curriculum. As the students continue through school, the grade levels have smaller ordinal numbers. For example, after 6ème, students move on to 5ème and then on to 4ème. Lycée (the equivalent of high school in America) begins at 2nde and continues for 3 years to Terminale (senior year). Other than Malagasy and foreign language classes, the language of instruction in the classroom is French. Math, science, history, etc. are all taught in French and most of the administrative paperwork is in French as well. This helps to explain why most people in this country speak both Malagasy and French.

But back to my experience in 6ème for a moment. This particular class has come to be loathed by many Trainees because of the size, about 50-60 students, and the resulting challenge of keeping control of the class while teaching. In 6ème, the student profile is basically anyone who would normally be in this grade and anyone younger who shows up. So it’s very common that a true 6ème student brings his or her 6-year-old siblings to class. This also means that you have a multi-level proficiency class and a huge age disparity, which makes it very challenging to be an effective teacher. Despite all of this, I feel as though I had a much smoother start to teaching than I anticipated. After that first classroom experience, I’ve had the opportunity to teach almost every other level of students as well, all with what I believe to be poise and effectiveness. I feel relatively comfortable in the classroom. During practicum, I’ve received helpful feedback about my performance and I’m confident that with more practice I can be a great teacher. Through this experience, I’ve also learned first-hand how much planning and preparation goes into teaching before the teacher even walks into the classroom. Lesson planning and materials development are important and time consuming endeavors that payoff in the classroom. Working with the older students has the advantage of higher proficiency and more interesting topics, but working with younger students also has it’s perks because it’s easier for a teacher to set a good solid foundation in English and correct errors before they become bad language habits.

Outside of practicum, the PST experience marches on. My days are filled with training sessions, Malagasy language classes, and mental exhaustion. Just like when I was living with my host family, the only truly free time is on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Otherwise, I am told where to be and at what time to eat and so on. The schedule and amount of information overload is starting to wear me down. Some days it feels like I’ve been going full speed all day but I can’t pinpoint exactly what I’ve accomplished during my waking hours. A few other Volunteers that have been in country for at least a year have told me and my fellow Trainees that PST is the hardest part about Peace Corps service. It’s not the rigorous schedule or high level information. It’s simply the fact that we come here to be Volunteers, not Trainees. Although most of the things that we learn during PST are essential to preparing us for service, we are also chomping at the bits to start doing the type of work that we all came here to do. With that reasoning, I can’t decide if by the end of the month I’m more excited to move to my new site or to be done with PST.

As I mentioned before, the next major step in my Peace Corps service will come at the end of this month when my Stage is sworn-in and we officially become Volunteers. The ceremony will take place on the morning of August 29th in the capital city of Antananarivo. This ceremony is not only a big deal for each individual, but the country of Madagascar takes it very seriously well. I’ve been told that the local television and newspaper media outlets will be covering the event, several government and Peace Corps officials will be in attendance, and the Prime Minister has also been invited. Within a day or two of being sworn-in, each new Volunteer will begin the journey to their respective permanent sites where they will each be living and working for the next 2 years. I have been assigned to go to a town in the north east part of the country called Andapa. It is located in the SAVA region, which is widely known for its rich biodiversity, vanilla bean production, and lush national parks. I’ve been in contact with the Volunteer that I will be replacing in Andapa and she has already shared many stories and photos of the town with me. I feel as though I am already part of that community. Although I am about 100km inland from the coast, Andapa is nestled in the foothills of a large valley and the weather is usually hot for most of the year. During the rainy season, the storms coming in from the Indian Ocean can prove to be quite a headache for daily life. As in many developing countries around the world, most areas of Madagascar lack good paved roads and infrastructure. This is also true of the SAVA region and the rain typically makes the few good roads in the area either flooded out or completely impassable. As the saying goes: when it rains, it pours. Personally, I think I can tolerate heat and a few months of constant rain in Andapa better than the virtually year-round cold and wet of the highlands where I am now. My job assignment will likely be at both the local CEG, or middle school, and the lycée, or high school. I’ll have to wait until I arrive in Andapa and meet with my Malagasy counterpart to iron out those details, but this was also the assignment of the previous Volunteer. My house is located on the CEG campus and it is a converted office space. With that being said, it will be small. The previous Volunteer insists that it’s enough room to live comfortably. But I’m 6’2″. We’ll see how my definition of “comfortable” changes. I will also have electricity, an indoor shower and a flush toilet, so I really can’t complain about anything else. All the information I have about Andapa and my teaching assignment comes from other people, albeit reliable people, but we will all have to wait another month for me to get there and see it in person. Only then can I give a more detailed and accurate portrayal of the situation.

Needless to say, I’m very excited and slightly nervous about transitioning into life as a more autonomous Volunteer in a new town. Never the less, I’ll have 24 months to write about the trials and tribulations of my so-called Malagasy life.