Monday, June 18, 2012


After I took care of all the necessary paperwork and courtesy visits to close out my Peace Corps service, I left the chilly capital of Antananarivo and headed to Morondava on the west coast of Madagascar via bush taxi. It was a very long 15 hour ride, during which I was sandwiched in between four ladies who all had young toddlers on their laps, one of which kept kicking me constantly throughout the 15 hours. Needless to say I was exhausted and very relieved to get out of the bus when we finally arrived in Morondava. I was also thrilled to discover it was much warmer and sunnier here as compared to the wintery highlands where I had been shivering for the past week.

I quickly made my way to a cheap hotel on the beach and changed into my swimsuit so I could go out and enjoy the cool, Indian Ocean water and lay on the warm, soft sand. The beach in Morondava is one of the nicest I’ve seen in Madagascar: clean, wide, soft, not crowded, and sprinkled with trendy beach bars. It was nice seeing some Malagasy families and a few tourists strolling along, enjoying the sunny weather too. In the afternoon I was able to organize a trip to the Tsingy rock formations and Baobab Avenue for the next three days. Even though it’s not quite tourist season yet, I managed to find another tourist to split the cost of the trip with, as it’s very expensive to reserve a vehicle for three days to drive all the way out to the national park and back.

Early the next morning we left Morondava and drove all day through the dust and ferried over two rivers until we finally arrived at the park at dusk. We ended up staying at this really cool lodge that had a lot of different room options. There were the pricier rooms with hot showers and indoor toilets, cheaper bungalows with shared bathrooms and the cheapest option--tents all set up with mattresses, sheets and blankets. The campsite was really nice with electricity and clean bathrooms, so I opted for the cheapest option, because it was actually a really nice set-up and a good deal.

The next morning we woke up early so we’d have the whole day to spend in the park. In the morning we did the first circuit around one part of the Grand Tsingy rock formations, which was pretty incredible. The guide gave us harnesses to wear so we could clip into cable lines set up along the path over the sketchy, steep parts. The views from the top of the spiky rock formations were breathtaking. After the first circuit, we explored some of the caves in between and under the Tsingy rock formations. Unfortunately I had given one of my headlamps away to a fellow volunteer along time ago, then had lost another one, and the third one was out of batteries, which were an obscure type that made them difficult to replace. So I ended up using the flashlight on my phone, which was a little inconvenient but sufficed for the short adventure we took through the caves. The path was a little scary in some sections, because there were some steep drop-offs, and the dusty ground was slippery under my sneakers. The rock formations were really neat though, and I even tought the guide the word “spelunking.”

After we came out of the caves, we took a short break for lunch. Then we ventured into the forest and spotted a western bamboo lemur and a white-fronted brown lemur. After another short scramble over the sharp rocks to gaze over a different view of the expansive Tsingy, we came back down to the forest and spotted the white, fluffy Sifaka lemur. It was really cool that we managed to see all three of the diurnal lemurs in the western, dry, deciduous forest surrounding the Tsingy.

I was really exhausted after the day of hiking and scrambling over rocks, so I turned in for an early night in my tent in the evening. The next morning we headed back on the road, so we would make it to the Baobab Avenue in time for sunset. Though the second ferry was quite delayed because of a truck that got stuck on the steep river-bank when it was disembarking, we made it to the Baobabs just in time for the sunset. The rows and rows of Baobabs along the road were quite beautiful against the glowing, red-orange sky, and I got some great pictures. Then we continued on our way back to Morondava where I enjoyed some tropical cocktails and some good seafood before heading back to the capital the next day.

The ride back to Tana was much less cramped but much more frustrating because of the timing. There were no options for departure times, as all of the bus companies were scheduled to leave at 8am, so I mad a reservation with one of the companies and arrived at their bus at 8am. Of course, we didn’t actually end up leaving until 10am. Because it takes 15 hours and to get to Tana and the driver decided to stop at 11pm to take a 30 minute nap, we ended up arriving in the capital at 2 in the morning. As we pulled into the bus station, I started scouting out taxis so I could head back to the Peace Corps volunteer house.

The bus stopped and the lights turned off, but none of the passengers got out. We just sat there in the parking lot. I quietly asked the girl next to me why no one was getting out. She explained that as it was the middle of the night and it was dark, the taxis were really expensive, so everyone was waiting until 5am when the sun rises to take cabs home. I thought it was ridiculous to spend another needless 3 hours in the cold, uncomfortable bus and was willing to fork over the extra five bucks to go back to a warm house instead. Unfortunately, my luggage was strapped to the top of the bus, and the driver was unwilling to climb up there in the dark and undo all the ties so I could get my bag down. Furthermore, he was angry at me for not telling them at the station in Morondava that I planned to go directly home upon arriving in Tana. I couldn’t believe he expected me to have anticipated that whole complicated scheme.

The mentality of leaving mid-morning and arriving in the middle of the night made absolutely no sense to me. If we had left at dawn, we would have arrived in Tana at a reasonable time in the evening. Alternatively, if we had left Morondava in the evening, we would have arrived in Tana in the morning. But no, we had to spend two extra hours waiting around at the station in Morondava and another three extra hours waiting around in the middle of the night in Tana, making the total travel time twenty hours instead of the already long fifteen hours of actual driving time. Either way, I finally made it back and am ready to leave Madagascar tomorrow!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Parting Words for Madagascar

Here's a poem a wrote about six months back for a fellow volunteer who was getting ready to finish her service and leave Madagascar at that time. Since I'm getting ready to head out of here myself, I thought I should post it here to share with everyone. Enjoy!

Parting Words for Madagascar

Goodbye , wide magnificent land,
with steep green mountains and vibrant rice fields,
precious forest and winding rivers,
sparkling oceans and waving palm trees,
endangered, yet flowing with life and generosity.

Goodbye, radical skies,
with pounding rains and thundering winds,
soothing sunsets and haunting, red sunrises,
brilliant rainbows and brighter stars
and moons than we will ever hope to see again
in this lonely, open countryside.

Goodbye, lovely echoes
of rhythmic pounding, laughing, crying,
howling, mooing and crowing,
of wise kabaris and African proverbs,
women chatting around the cookfire,
of cheers from the village football pitch,
and luscious harmonies emanating
from churches, schools and funeral marches,
always uplifting no matter the circumstance.

Goodbye, sensuous smells
of burnt and bitter roasting coffee,
sugary vanilla and sticky jackfruit,
of thick, smokey firewood and steamy rice,
of floral, fruity, tropical blossoms
and the pineapples, leechies and mangoes
of blessed November’s bounty.

Goodbye, family, friends and living things
of all species, colors and walks of life,
playful lemurs, vibrant geckos and brilliant chameleons,
grand herds of zebu roaming the great expanse,
inspiring leaders and passionate co-workers,
incredible women and resilient children
facing unbelievable odds.
Loving, caring, welcoming with open arms,
You embrace us, nourish us and give us life.

Farewell, but not forgotten.
Always in our hearts and minds,
in all forms will live and breathe
the memories of each other.

End of Service

So I'm officially an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer)! I closed out my service this week at the PC bureau in the capital, Antananarivo, and now I'm headed out on more adventures, travelling around Madagascar for another week and then onto India before travelling home. The last few weeks have been kind of hard. I didn't have much going on at site, since the field staff I was supposed to work with were gone to meetings for several weeks. On top of having nothing to do work-wise, everything decided to break during my last week at site. My back brake and tire valve on my bike broke, all my flashlights broke or ran out of batteries, and most inconvenient of all, my phone broke. Aside from trying to fix my bike and relying candles as my only source of light at night, it was really difficult trying to coordinate how to leave site at the end of the month without having any reliable mode of communication.

Even though I didn't have much going on work-wise and was frustrated with everything falling apart on me, I still managed to keep myself a little busy with a few small activities. I carried out some household visits in the village, talking to neighbors and community members about clean water, handwashing and improved latrines, and I also built an improved cookstove with the local nutrition worker. The last few days at site were occupied mostly by packing, cleaning up my house and giving away my few possessions to the school, nutrition organization and friends and neighbors.

The last weekend before I left site, I scheduled a day trip with a guide to the local tourist destination in my area: a series of waterfalls and protected forest area. Though it was rainy and cold and the path was full of water and mud up to my ankles, knees or even waste at some points, the cascades were quite beautiful. It took us an hour in a canoe and then two more hours to walk through the mud to get there, but it was worth it to spend the day in the pristine forest and to get the chance to see the local tourist attraction near my site. It was quite an exhausting hike, and I was surprisingly sore for the next few days after that!

It definitely wasn't as hard emotionally to leave this site like it was leaving my last site up in the northeast. Since I was only in this new community for a few months and many of the friends I did manage to make were gone for long stretches of time to St. Marie, Soanierana Ivongo or Tamatave, I didn't really establish any strong connections with anyone. One of the young ladies in the village, who was a devoted member of the adult English class, was very sad to see me go. She got all teary-eyed and made sure that we exchanged pictures, phone numbers and addresses before I left. It was really sweet and I was sad to have to say goodbye to her. Even though it wasn't as difficult saying goodbye to most other people in the community, there were still definitely some friends, neighbors and co-workers whom I will miss. I do wish I had had more time to enjoy the gorgeous, deserted beaches along the coast just north of my village. The weather was just too cold and rainy to take advantage while I was there.

At the end of the month, I made the long journey with my heavy, metal Peace Corps trunk full of tech books, my bicycle (Carlton) and three bags of stuff (clothes, voandalanas, books) back to the capital. Luckily there was a big truck that passed through my site around mid-morning on the day I was headed to my banking town, so they threw all my stuff in the large, covered cargo bed in the back and hopped in the front cab. The driver and his two helpers were actually really friendly. They were familiar with Peace Corps, and we had a nice chat during the long journey down the sand road.

As always we had to wait for several hours at the first ferry crossing and then several more hours at the second ferry crossing before getting to the paved road. The distance from my site to Soanierana Ivongo, where the paved road starts is actually only about 30km, but because of all the sand and the long waits at the ferry crossings, it can take up to 5 hours to get there.

Finally we reached the paved road in the afternoon and were able to continue on to the small banking town of Fenerive Est. I was absolutely thrilled to say goodbye to the terrible, sandy roads and painfully slow ferries. It was freezing cold and rainy outside, and it still took us a few hours, because a chunk of the road had been washed away by the intense flooding that occurred during the month of April. The road had been temporarily, make-shift repaired with bound wooden planks. It was a little precarious, making the crossing on the rickety bridge over the crevasse that separated the two sections of road, but our huge truck somehow managed to make it to the other side safely and I arrived at my destination with all my stuff in the late afternoon-early evening.

The next day took care of some business in my banking town and made reservations for a bush taxi to travel to Tamatave and then Tana the next day. I ended up having to wake up at 4am so I could get to Tamatave in time to catch another vehicle to the capital. I amazingly managed to make all my connections without losing any of my stuff and got to the capital in the evening. The next week was filled with tons of paperwork, but I somehow got through it all and successfully closed out my service. It's hard to believe I am no longer a Peace Corps volunteer. On to more adventures, I guess!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Smells of Madagascar

There are so many different odors here in Madagascar, some pleasant and some quite pungent. Since smell is one of our strongest senses of memory, I thought it would be significant to describe some of the most memorable smells I've encountered during my time in Madagascar. In order from fragrant to smelly:

papaya : From far away you can't really smell it, but cut open a fresh papaya and the deliciously sweet, juicy, green, slightly floral and very ripe fragrance wafts through the room and lingers on your breath and fingers as you eat it. The smell is so addicting, it makes it difficult to stop eating the delectable fruit.

pineapple : I love the smell of fresh pinapples during peak season. Usually at least one or two are sitting in my house during the months of February and March. It's citrusy, fragrant, sweet and distinctly pinapple when you hold up the fruit to your nose. Some Malagasies have told me that they when there is a death during pinapple season, they sometimes put a pinapple in the casket with the corpse to mask the unpleasant odors of the decaying body.

oranges : When it's orange season here, you can smell the fruit stands from several meters away...especially when someone is peeling an orange. It's a citrusy, lemony fresh smell. I do like them when they're sweet, but it's sometimes hard to tell from the outside because they are all picked when they are green.

jackfruit : Probably one of the strongest-smelling fruits around. I still remember my first month at site when a neighborhood kid came by to give me a wedge of it. I had it sitting on the counter for an hour and it had already stunk up the whole house. It's a very sweet smell,but also very ripe...almost like rotting bananas, which is why a lot of people don't like it. I'm not a huge fan of the odor, but the taste of the fruit is so sweet that I still enjoy eating it.

vanilla : During vanilla season on the northeast coast of Madagascar (June through September) the sweet fragrance smacks you in the face as you walk into a village where people have just set out their ripe, cooked vanilla on mats out in the sun to dry. It's a slightly floral, very sugary and distinctly vanilla scent.

coconut oil : Everytime I smell coconut oil, I now associate it with hair-braiding. The women on the coast have textured hair from their African roots, so they often use oil when they weave their hair into small, intricate braided patterns that cover their heads. It's a pleasantly sweet, thick, nutty, tropical smell, which is really what I enjoy about hair-braiding time in the hot afternoons in Madagascar.

Morenga : Morenga is the miracle tree, originating from India. It's leaves and seeds are edible and provide an extraordinary array of vitamins and minerals. Fortunately it grows like a weed on the east coast, and when Malagasies can't find anything else to cook as their side dish, they will often pick the leaves of this tree to make a stew or sauce rich with vitamins to eat with their rice. Whenever I cook with morenga, the smell of the fresh leaves fills up the house. It's a very green, slightly floral, healthy fragrance. I sometimes like grabbing a branch or taking a fistful of leaves in my hand to smell. Just from the scent, one can tell that the leaves are healthful and full of vitamins.

cooking rice : Malagasies cook rice two or three times a day here, so come meal time, you can smell the sweet, hearty fragrance of the cooking rice wafting through the air. Especially if it's in your kitchen and you've just taken off the lid of the rice pot. I myself only eat rice once or twice a day or every other day, varying my diet with pasta and bread-like foods. I still enjoy the smell of steamy rice, though. It definitely makes me hungry when I smell rice cooking, which makes me feel like I'm really starting to become a true Malagasy!

boiled corn : Over the past month or two, corn has really been in season. Aside from fried cassava, boiled corn is one of the Malagasy's favorite snacks, although I'm confused as to why. Most of the corn here is starchy, tough, feed corn. Once in a while there's a vendor who will have what looks like American sweet corn. I'm sometimes tempted to try it, but always worried I'll end up stuck with a whole cob full of disappointing, dry, hard kernels. Either way, the smell is quite nice--slightly nutty and sweet, fresh and nourishing. It's pleasant when the steam wafts in during a stuffy bush taxi ride, where vendors along the road come up during a pit stop with steaming plastic buckets full of the freshly boiled corn still in the husk to sell to hungry passengers.

roasting coffee : Malagasies on the northeast coast farm coffee, both as a cash crop and for domestic consumption. Sometimes I can smell the burnt, nutty scent from nearby neighbors roasting coffee in a pan over the open cookfire. Normally I love the smell of coffee, but the Malagasies roast their beans so dark, that the smell here is a little to bitter and strong for me.

woodsmoke : Everyone cooks with firewood or charcoal in Madagascar, so you can smell smoke during meal times or if people are burning trash or someone is clearing a nearby field for farming. The smoke also lingers on the clothes and in the hair of the women and young children, who tend to spend most of their time around cookfires.

rain : Sometimes you can smell it coming--the cool change in air temperature registering in the nostrils and lungs along with a dense wetness from the humidity, fresh and clean. When it first starts falling, there's an earthiness to the scent of the rain as the first drops kick up days of accumulated dirt and dust. I love the thick, damp smell it brings as well as the refreshing coolness and the sense of renewal and new growth afterwards.

fresh wild flowers : Sometimes if I go hiking through the forest to another village to do a health project or go biking or jogging down the mian road, I'm treated to the fragrance of tropical wildflowers growing along the path. The northeast being one of the few remaining heavily forested areas in Madagascar, there are a wide variety of flowers and plants that are gorgeous to look at and intoxicating to smell. It's like a faint, natural, floral perfume floating through the air. I especially notice the fragrance when the wind changes or I happen to jog past a particularly thick patch. My favorite wildflowers that I frequently see are bright, indigo, oval-shaped, orchid-like flowers that grow all along the roadside. Another is an elegant, white, unfolding, cone-shaped flower with wide, shiny green leaves.

cloves : I finished up my time in Madagascar in the clove-producing region of the country. As a kid, I never liked the spice. It was always too strong for me. But now I love the smell. It is so spicy, fragrant and slightly sweet. It reminds me of chai. Even though it's not clove season, I looked around and finally found a small sache full to buy and take home with me as a little souvenir from the east coast of Madagascar.

"mokari": Early morning in the village or anytime in bigger towns or on the bush taxi--especially after stopping at a large town along the road--the heavy odor of fried snacks (called "mokari" in northern Madagascar) and cooking oil saturate the air surrounding the vendors and eaters. Alomost all street foods are fried here--bananas, plaintains, breadfruit, cassava, balls of dough made from flour or cassava, taro root and sweet potatoes. Oil is relatively expensive compared to other food items, and the vendors only sell each fried snack for 100 ariary (5 cents) a pop, so who knows how many times they reuse that oil to deep fry everything. Given that the frying oil isn't the freshest or the cleanest, the scent of fried snacks often has a rancid quality...not very appetizing, especially when you're crammed in a stuffy bush taxi and everyone around you is munching on the stuff with greasy fingers. The worst are the cassava-based snacks. They have this somewhat sour, off, indescriable odor, which always makes me wonder why it's one of the Malagasy's main staple foods outside of rice.

kids : I don't want to seem mean or judgmental, but the kids here for the most part do not smell very good. It's understandable, since they play in the dirt all day or work in the fields and sweat so much from the heat and humidity. They also bathe in the river, most of the time without soap, and they have one or maybe two pairs of clothes, which are usually stained, ripped and faded. So the dirt and sweat lingers on their skin and hair as well as the woodsmoke. Many don't have toothbrushes or toothpaste and they tend to snack on that fried cassava or whatever fruit is in season regardless of whether or not it's actually ripe. So their breath doesn't help with the odor. The woodsmoke stubbornly lingers in their hair and on their clothes, as the kids--especially girls--are usually assigned to help with kitchen duties. If they're really young, they also smell of urine, since there's no such thing as diapers or a toilet (especially for peeing). If they are older, they might still smell of urine, because they often take care of their younger siblings who may have an accident on their lap at any given moment.

cow manure : My neighbors at my last site had a cow that they tied up next door during the night. The westerly breeze in the mornings often brought with it the lovely scent of fresh cow poop. I don't know how else to describe it other than it smells like shit. It is shit. There are a few people in the village that herd cows, so they leave huge steaming piles of manure all along the walking paths conveniently for pedestrians to step in (there's also a lot of dog shit too, which is much more disgusting.) So unfortunately the cow manure is a fairly common stench throughout the village.

sweat/b.o. : The last and perhaps strongest smell I've come across here is that of body odor. I think it is an African thing, because I've experienced it in Niger and in Tanzania too, but it is surely a strong odor here in Madagascar. I'll even admit that my body has started to produce a similar smell when I sweat a lot, even though I still use deodorant, bathe with fragrant soap and change and launder my clothes regularly. It's especially strong on me after I come back from a run or bike ride. It's especially strong on them when I'm crowded with Malagasies on the bush taxi or when I'm helping out at the village clinic. It is so strong in fact, that the smell of b.o. has permanently saturated the walls of the clinic (and it's not just because it's a small building made of wood.) The big concrete hospital at my very first site had the same permanent, salty stench. I remember the very first time I walked into that hospital on the day I was installed by Peace Corps. The salty, stuffy, stale odor hit me like a barn door in the face. Unfortunately it's not one of those smells you get used to after sitting in the same spot for a while. As one person leaves and another enters, the odor renews itself.

I think part of the reason the odor is so strong here is that everyone does hard, physical labor out in the fields and it's a hot and humid climate. Deoderant is nonexistent and nice-smelling soaps are a bit of a luxury. All the shops sell fragrant soaps, but they are a little more expensive than the everyday, locally made lye soap. As far as laundry goes, some people do actually use the powdered soap, but most use the common bar soap and they don't really soak their clothes. They just suds them up, bang them on a rock or log and then rinse them in the river. I don't think the whole process actually ever gets rid of the stench, though they are pretty good at getting out stains and rubbing and whacking the clothes so hard that they stretch out and wear paper thin and get holes in them. Most people can only afford one or two changes of clothes too, so it's understandable that their clothes quickly start smelling again or never really get rid of the body odor that has seeped in.

As far as the odor itself though, it is different from the body odor in America (which also is unpleasant, but in a different way). I don't know whether it's the diet or just the intensity or something in the air or the soap, but the smell of my sweat here is definitely different than it used to be back in America. Whatever the case, that is one unpleasant smell I am looking forward to leaving behind. I will however miss all the other wonderful and exotic tropical fragrances I experienced during my time here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Coffee Rituals

I was thinking back to that rough, cold and wet morning I spent in the village of Antsiraka at the tip of the eastern peninsula on my way to Ile St. Marie last month. During the morning hours that our boat crew waited out the wind and rain, I sat huddled in the kitchen of one of the Malagasy families in the village watching coffee be prepared and consumed. The whole process got me thinking about how we consume coffee in America. The cultural comparison of the two rituals is quite a juxtaposition of polar opposites. Here's what I observed that groggy morning in the village of Antsiraka:

Since I didn't fall asleep for even five minutes during that cold, uncomfortable night in the village, I witnessed dawn breaking as its faint light filtered through the bamboo walls of the hut. Around 6AM I heard the grandmother calling from the shack next door that served as the kitchen, asking her husband who was in our hut where the coffee was. "It should be in a plastic sache in the kitchen," he answered drearily in Malagasy from his bed. I was fed up with laying on the cold floor, so I decided to join the grandmother in the kitchen in hopes of stealing some warmth from the cookfire that she was starting up.

As I entered the kitchen, the grandmother was stoking the wood fire. Though the smoke made my eyes water and throat burn, I gladly entered the small shack and sat on a woven grass mat on the floor to near the cooking area to observe the coffee-making process and to warm my hands by the fire. Eventually the grandmother found the small plastic bag of green, unroasted coffee beans that she had probably bought from a farmer in the village who had harvested them from a nearby field earlier that year.

The grandmother proceeded to place an up-turned pot lid on top of the iron, triangular frame over the fire and dropped the beans in the metal pot lid to roast. She periodically stirred the beans around in the lid for 5 or 10 minutes until they acquired a jet-black hue-- the super-dark French Roast that the Malagasies never stray from when preparing their coffee.

After the beans were done, she gave them to her son to pound outside in the large wooden mortar and pestle. From inside the warm kitchen, I listened to the rhythmmic thumping of coffee pounding as the grandma scooped some river water from a plastic bucket and set it to boil in a pot over the fire. Then she rinsed out the coffee sock, consiting of a mesh stocking attached to a plastic handle.

After the coffee had been hand-pounded to a coarse powder, the young man handed the jar full of coffee grounds to his mother. She put a few scoops from the jar into the coffee sock and poured the boiling water through the sock and into the pot below several times over. Meanwhile, she had sent her husband to bike five minutes into the village to buy local, raw cane sugar from one of the small shops.

After the sugar arrived in another plastic sache, she added several heaping spoonfuls to the freshly brewed coffee and doled out small "tasse de cafes" of sugary black substance to as many as ten different people. Neighbors came by throughout the morning to bring news from the village and take a few sips of coffee offered to them in the tiny, tin cups. Most of the talk was of the birth that had occurred next door during the night. With the help of the local midwife, there was a newborn babe amongst us. Others discussed the weather and the condition of the sea and debated whether or not we'd be able to cross the 7km channel to get to St. Marie that day.

Overall I was just astounded by the whole process that the old woman went through to make coffee just so she could offer a few hot sips to each surrounding neighbor. And of course there was no luxury of adding milk to the black coffee. Some people in the village do herd cows, but for the type of cow and their nutritional status, they hardly produce milk regularly. As there is no refridgeration in the village, there would be no way to store any milk that was produced for more than a day. If there happened to be fresh milk, it would also probably be too expensive for the average Malagasy family to afford. Even the tinned, sweetened condensed milk that's available in some shops is still cost prohibitive for most and difficult to keep the ants out of once the tin is opened.

So we drank our sugary shots of black coffee by the warmth of the kitchen's cookfire and chatted about everything from life in America to the island of St. Marie to development work to Malagasy culture, or, "fomba." The whole communal and labor intensive process is so different from the way we have our cofee in America.

Some Americans grab their java on their way to the office, in giant plastic or paper cups from coffee shops with their choice of different kinds of flavorings and and milks added. Others perpare the percolator with grocery store pre-ground coffee and disposable paper filters the night before so that all they have to do in the morning is plug the machine into the wall and wait twenty minutes in order to enjoy two or three giant ceramic mugfulls of coffee all to themselves with pasteurized milk from the fridge and granulated white sugar from the cupboard. They may drink their coffee while reading the paper or surfing the web on their laptops from their kitchen tables. Both the American and Malagasy coffee rituals have their drawbacks and advantages, but I will surely miss the Malagasy "fomba" of preparing and drinking coffee when I am back in America.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Age is Relative

Since I just celebrated my birthday last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about age lately…especially the implications of turning 25. I’m no longer going to be in my early 20s and I’ll soon be in my late 20s. And before I realize it, I’ll be in my 30s! I’m sure to my middle-aged readers, that still seems really young, but when I’ve spent a majority of my life thinking of myself as a teenager and then a young adult, it’s a significant milestone entering my mid-20s.

The other reason I’ve been thinking a lot about age is because of the recent adult English class I held in my new community. I had been trying for several weeks to set a date with the interested community members, but we had trouble finding a time when all of us could meet, and then things like unexpected meetings and funerals kept coming up and causing us to postpone our lesson. So finally this past week I held my first conversation class. I had about ten students. Many of them were really sharp and already knew quite a bit of English. A few had a hard time, but they all did really well in general. All the students were teens or young adults. A few were teachers, a few were middle school students a few were middle or high school dropouts who wanted to get back into learning. It was great to establish rapport with the young adults in the village. We started out with introductions and greetings. At the end of the lesson, one student wanted to practice asking, “How old are you?” and so consequently I found out everyone’s age in the class. Much to my surprise, I was the zoky be, or, oldest one amongst them! Their ages ranged mostly from 20 to 23. It really surprised me to find out that all of my students were so young, because looking at some of them I would have thought they were at least my age, if not a few years older.

In general, Malagasies always seem so much older and more mature than their actual age (with the exception of some of the annoying guys who think it’s their job to verbally harass women all day). In an impoverished setting like rural Madagascar with such a rough lifestyle, a lot is expected of kids at a very young age. As soon as they know how to walk, children are expected to fend for themselves, and as early as 6 or 7, they start contributing to the household. Whether it’s hauling water from half a kilometer away, washing the family clothes and dishes at the river, working in the fields, taking care of younger siblings, cooking lunch over the open cook-fire…they do it all. Many of those little kids are more competent than I am at such household tasks. I cheat and use a gas stove, so I don’t know the first thing about starting a charcoal or wood fire. The kids in my last village used to wash my clothes because they were used to doing everyone’s laundry and could do a much better job than I (I’m so lazy and unskilled at scrubbing laundry by hand that I just soak it in the powdered detergent, swish it around and rinse it a few times.) The mundane chores we give our kids in America, like setting the table, taking out trash, feeding the dog and putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher in no way compare to the physical labor and hardships that some of the Malagasy children are expected to bear at such young age.

Malagasies have to grow up fast, especially when you consider that the typical Malagasy family consists of five or six children, the parents are often away working in the fields and half of the kids don’t attend school because the family can’t afford the fees for all of them to study. If the kids do study, it’s usually for only half a day anyway. Hence the kids are unsupervised starting at an impossibly young age and have to figure out how to survive on their own with no amenities like electricity and running water to make their lives easier. So perhaps because of the fact that Malagasies have to grow up quickly, they often seem so much older than they appear.

I think back to my childhood and how I used to consider it a difficult time, especially compared to a lot of my peers—certainly not for economic but rather for emotional reasons. My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I as only in second grade and she was very sick for much of the time that I was growing up. I remember at her funeral when I was fourteen, my cousin said to me through teary eyes and a comforting hug that I’d have to grow up fast. Looking back on the trails and suffering of that period of my life now, I’m starting to think it still doesn’t compare to how quickly the Malagasy children have to grow up.

True, there was an immense amount of emotional pain and stress in our household when my mother was severely ill from the chemotherapy treatments, and a lot was expected of me, like helping to take care of her and to pitch in with the cooking and laundry. However I had loving support from my father, relatives and older siblings through it all and I never had to worry about basic needs like where my next meal would come from or where to find clean water for the house when all the wells dried up. I lived the entire first twenty years of my life with such luxuries of the developed world as indoor toilets, running water, 24/7 electricity, uninterrupted, quality education, ample quantities of healthy and tasty food, loving and caring family, quality healthcare, reliable means of public and private transportation and safety and security. Many Malagasy children simply do without a majority of these basic amenities which we Americans take for granted everyday.

The other aspect of Malagasy life that often makes especially the women seem older than they actually are is the early age at which they start bearing children. Since Malagasy culture values fertility highly, the average family even in this day and age still aims for four or five children. If the women actually space out their births by two years, having this many children requires them to start early. In addition, many women in the rural areas end up dropping out of school at the primary or secondary level because their family can’t afford the school fees or the secondary school is in a larger town that is too far away from their home village for them to continue on after finishing primary school. Since these women no longer have their education to focus on, they start thinking about starting a family, even though they may only be in their teens.

Birth control is available for free at government clinics thanks to the Malagasy ministry of health and outside aid from developed countries, but these clinics are still often too far for women to walk all the way there every month from their village to pick up the medication. For those who can access the clinic, their husbands or boyfriends still often reject the idea of using birth control, so their partners either have to use it secretly or not use it at all. And then many of the clinics face problems with frequent stock-outs, so the women periodically have to return home from the clinic without having received their shot or pills because the regional health centers weren’t able to replenish the supply of birth control in the rural areas.

With all of these barriers to birth control, Malagasy women start having children as young as 14 or 15 and continue having them into their 30s and 40s. The stress that pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and child rearing puts on these women’s bodies makes some of them appear as if they are 40 when they are in fact only 20, simply because they may have already had three kids.

On the reverse side, Malagasies often think that I look much younger than I am. I do have a young face, but I think it has more to do with it than that. When they hear that I am not married nor have any kids, they immediately respond that I’m still a child. Since I haven’t yet taken on the responsibilities of head of the household, I must seem somewhat young and immature compared to the average Malagasy mother taking care of 5 kids and a husband. I also tend to present myself in a way that makes me seem younger, because of language and culture barriers. Even though my Malagasy has steadily improved over the two and a half years that I have lived here, I still end up communicating at a more basic level or talking around vocabulary that I don’t know, which probably makes me sound like the way most kids or adolescents would talk. Since I’m still sometimes unfamiliar with cultural norms or expectations and because I’m generally shy anyway, I also tend to hesitate or act unsure in a lot of social situations, making me seem younger and less experienced.

So returning back to the situation at the english class in my village, I think it was as much a surprise to my English club pupils as it was to me that I was the oldest one in the classroom that day!

rain, rain, rain!

I have had one crazy adventure after another these past couple months in Manompana! The weather has made things especially interesting. I’m not sure whether it’s just this part of the island or just an unusual spell or the affect of global warming but I’ve never seen so much rain and flooding in my life. One night earlier this month it started raining in the late evening. At my usual 8 o clock bedtime it was still raining, and not just a sprinkle but a full-on downpour. I woke up several times during the night to the sound of rain still pounding down outside. And at 6 in the morning the downpour still had not ceased nor even let up a bit. I opened my front door that morning to find that the entire village was underwater. There was a lake right in front of my house reaching all the way up to the fence near my front door. There was also a river flowing down the foot path from the school a few 100m away down past my house and into what was now a lake in the center of the village. Everyone was wading through calf-deep water in order to go about their daily chores or buy things from the shops.

A few days after the flooding I had to bike from my village 10km north to Manompana to meet up with my NGO staff and help them with their work. I was a bit apprehensive, as I wasn’t sure how much destruction the flooding had done to the roads. I had heard from some of my friends in the village that none of the ferries from Soanierana going north to Mananara were running because all the flooding had made the river currents too strong for the ferries to be able to cross. One ferry up north towards Mananara had apparently been swept away in the torrential water flow. There had been no vehicles traveling north or south on Route National 5 the past several days. As I biked the three kilometers north to the ferry crossing at Fandrarazana, I found that the sand was actually nicely compact from the rain and the lack of large trucks passing and messing up the road. There were a few spots where I had to bike through water that was almost up to my knees, though, which was an interesting experience. At the river crossing I took a canoe with my bike laying over the top of it, since the ferry wasn’t running. Normally the river basin has only a weak current but that day it was quite strong as all the extra water from the tributaries was still emptying out into the ocean. The canoeman had to paddle especially hard to counter the brisk flow of water. After the river crossing the road was still nice and compact although there were washed out ruts, a few bumpy sections and some large puddles to bike/wade through. As I approached Manompana, I was shocked to see that the little concrete meter-long bridge over the marsh entering into town had sunk down into the water and there was now a canal a few meters long that I had to cross in order to complete my journey. Since the canoe was free I opted to cross that way, though it felt kind of silly to ride in a boat for all of three meters.

The work in Manompana went well and the sun came out to make it a beautiful day, so the intrepid journey ended up being worth it. Together with the NGO field staff we went around to random households in town to talk with families about the advantages of using improved latrines and strategies for building their own. I helped by bringing along a poster I had made of a simple latrine using locally available materials that effectively prevents against the spread of diarrheal disease. I also prompted the field staff to come with me to inspect the latrines that the families were already using if they happened to have one. Though it’s not so pleasant venturing into the dirty, smelly places that people use to relieve themselves, we gained useful information about the conditions of sanitation facilities that people were already using and were able to give recommendations to the families we visited on how they could improve their existing latrines to cut down on the spread of intestinal illnesses. Most of the latrines we observed were very basic made of materials that ranged from old tires to metal barrels to rotted wood with shacks built of bamboo and palm leaves on top.

A clean, healthful latrine can be made of such local materials, but it needs to have a lid for the pit, a ventilation pipe to release the smelly air, and door that closes. The pit itself should not be dug too closely to the water table below and should have some kind of lining to reinforce it. We found that many people in Manompana already had latrines, but very few had improved latrines that effectively prevented against the spread of disease. One of the major challenges is the type of soil in our area—all sand with a shallow water table less than a meter under the ground. The only real solution for this type of soil is an above-ground latrine, which means that people can’t simply dig their own pit and stick a shack on top of it. They have to at least find a metal barrel or a mason who can construct some type of cement, super-terrain “pit.” Even the simplest models of such latrines are still cost-prohibitive for poorer Malagasy families.

Another barrier in a larger community like Manompana is the lack of space to build a latrine. Most families we visited had only a very small piece of property where they had their main house and maybe a small shack for a kitchen; hence they didn’t really have a good place to build a latrine close to their house. We suggested communal latrines with surrounding neighbors to address the problems of expense and lack of space, but sharing can also be challenging in terms of cleanliness and shared responsibilities for maintenance. Although I probably grossed the NGO staff out by making them go with me to look at people’s latrines, it was all in all a very interesting day.

On my way out of Manompana at the end of the day the canoe wasn’t there, so I had to wade through the mucky mess on the other side of the bridge. The small detour made me sufficiently dirty and provided quite the entertainment for all the kids and other spectators crowded around the broken bridge. Otherwise I made it uneventfully and safely back, only wetter, muddier and sandier for the wear.

A little over a week later, it decided to rain absurdly again. I was all set to go on a canoe ride over to Ile St. Marie for my birthday, the small island off the east coast from where I’ve been living and working for the past few months. I had already postponed my trip by a few days on account of a meeting with NGO staff and local community leaders concerning rules and regulations on the usage of our newly installed pump-wells bringing potable water to rural villages throughout the Manompana commune. It was quite an interesting meeting, where we decided on how much to fine people for things like latrines and trash pits built within thirty meters of the new water points, washing or herding animals near the pumps and even swearing or fighting at the pumps. I was glad I stayed and helped with the decision-making process, but I was ready to get to St. Marie already to celebrate my birthday with overpriced cocktails at a nice resort on the beach.

Unfortunately it decided to rain absurdly again for three days straight, so I wasn’t able to leave my village, but rather sat in my house shivering and wrapped up in a sweatshirt and blanket until the wind and rain decided to let up. Finally a few days after my birthday I was able to leave for St. Marie with a motor-powered, Malagasy-style wooden canoe leaving from my village filled with lots of wooden planks (I’m hoping legally logged) bound for sale on the small island. I biked 3km north to the ferry crossing at Fandrarazana to meet the canoe and we threw my bags and Carlton (I’ve named my bike since we’ve been on so many adventures together now) on top of all the wood. Then I sat on top and we headed off. It was a bit scary passing over the point where the waves brake at the sandbar barrier where the basin of the Fandrarazana river and the ocean meet. We went over a pretty steep wave and I got a nice salty splash in the face. From there on out to the tip where the mainland makes a steep point was smooth sailing for several hours. The narrow strip of land that juts out to almost meet the island of St. Marie protected us from the strong winds blowing in from the southwest. The wind died down and the sun even fully came out making it the warmest I had felt in three days.

Once we arrived at the tip however, we saw that the open channel separating us from St. Marie was too choppy for us to cross. We decided to park in the small village of Antsiraka at the very eastern tip of Madagascar. After a lunch of rice and freshly-caught fish we waited around, hoping for the weather to improve. Unfortunately the Indian Ocean was still too choppy for us to cross over to St. Marie, so we had to stay the night in Antsiraka.

It was probably the roughest night I have ever spent during my two years in Peace Corps combined with all of the camping experiences I have had in my life, which is really saying something. We slept in a bamboo shack close to the beach that belonged to a friend of the canoe captain. The owner of the shack slept in his bed while two of us slept on the ground with nothing but a woven grass mat as cushioning. I was wedged in a small space between a bicycle leaning precariously against the wall of the shack and our captain, also sleeping on the ground. There wasn’t a place to wash or change so I slept in the clothes I wore on the boat that morning, muddy and sandy scraped up feet and a salty face covered in dried layers of sunscreen. I didn’t even have a blanket or sheet and it was freezing cold with the strong ocean wind blasting through the thin bamboo walls. Since Malagasies are afraid of the dark, the owner of the shack made sure his oil lamp burned all throughout the night. At one point, as I shifted to relieve the pressure from my sore, boney hips, the bicycle fell on top of me. Needless to say, I didn’t get even five minutes of sleep throughout the entire, longest night of my life.

I listened to the rain pattering and wind blasting all throughout the night and stepped out of the shack in the dim morning light to find that we probably still weren’t going to be able to leave for a while. I legitimately almost had a meltdown as I walked through the cold drizzle to the river where I washed my face and legs. The morning slowly took a turn for the better, though. I spent several hours in the kitchen of the family with whom we stayed, chatting, drinking coffee and sitting by the warmth of the cook-fire. Even though it was the most basic of living conditions, I was grateful that the Malagasies lived up to their reputation for good hospitality, offering us hot food, company and a place to stay for the night without asking anything in return…only that we come back another day to visit them again.

By mid-morning the weather miraculously cleared up and the water quieted down enough for us to finish the last seven kilometers of our journey to St. Marie. It was still rough going in our tiny boat filled with lumber. I was gripping the side of the boat with white knuckles, but I never legitimately thought that we would capsize. I was more worried that some of my stuff would fly overboard or get soaking wet (although I did waterproof everything inside with plastic). I certainly got a lot of salty splashes in the face, but we amazingly made it over the whitecaps and swells in our tiny little motorboat without any problems. Only as we were trying to dock into our arrival spot did we run into trouble. We ended up getting stuck on top of a rock under the water. The boat tilted 45˚ and my bags and Carlton spilled out into the water. Luckily we were only waste-deep, but it was quite a shock and made for an awkward departure out of the water-filled boat.

Though it was a wet and shaky landing, the day got much better from there. Carlton and I walked not even a kilometer north to this beautiful set of bungalows with a lovely outdoor patio and a quiet private beach for swimming. As it is low tourist season right now, there was only one other couple staying at the hotel and I got a very reasonable and Peace Corps budget affordable price for the room. The staff was lovely too, and I enjoyed chatting with them in Malagasy and learning more about the island of St. Marie. The sun stayed out for the rest of the afternoon so I was even able to go for a swim and sit out on the lounge chairs without having to bundle up in three layers of clothing, much in contrast to the cold and windy wetness that I had experienced at the point in Antsiraka that morning and the day before.

The next day was unfortunately cold and rainy again. I was low on cash however, so Carlton and I braved the terrible weather and got very very wet biking the 13km south to the largest town of Ambodifotatra where there is the only bank on the island. Even though I was chilly and soaked, the vistas where the road hugged the steep cliffside looking down and out to the coast were absolutely beautiful and the stormy weather made for some dramatic skies. After a bit of shopping and banking I biked a few more km south to another very lovely hotel with a long, private jetty running out into the deserted blue water and a charming restaurant and seating area by the waterfront. There were quite a few more guests since it was closer to the main town of Ambodifotatra, but it was actually kind of nice having the livelier atmosphere. Unfortunately it stayed very cold and rainy and all of my clothes remained soaking wet.

We finally got a full day of sun the next day. I was also able to meet up with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who was teaching English at the local high school on the island. We had a nice time chatting over lunch and enjoying the sunny weather. In the afternoon I headed further south to explore more of the island. I hope to make it to the little island off of the southern tip of St.Marie, not only because it’s supposed to be beautiful, but also so that I can say I’ve been on an island off of an island off of an island. Hope to head back in a few days, but its all really dependent on when the weather will let me go.