The mayor points towards a building that was a little further up the dirt track from the cluster of houses we just rolled into. “Erryyy,” he says with the upward inflection used when indicating a location a little ways off. He directs the driver to his office, which is across the soccer field from the elementary school. As we pull up to the office and get out, we are swarmed by hundreds of students in their green and white checkered school uniforms, curious to see who the guests are that have arrived in such a nice Land Cruiser. The teachers must be in a meeting because it seems like none of the children are actually in the classrooms even though it is midmorning. Then again, as I later learn, they have 1300 students and only seven teachers in this commune, so maybe they are just waiting for their turn to get to learn.
This is one of two towns in the area that we are visiting as part of the site development process, in the hopes of placing a new environment volunteer here early next year. Stan, my fearless leader, is based in Tana and on this road trip to make sure all the preselected sites are up to snuff and that the villagers are still motivate welcome a series of Americans into their community for the next 6 years to help them with environmental work. He has invited me along to these two sites to give a volunteer’s perspective about the town and the potential work, and to introduce me in case any follow up needs to happen before the volunteer arrives.
On paper, these sites are very similar. Both sites are in the south-east, are both of the same tribe and are both commune seats, meaning they have all the county level offices and if there is a hospital or middle school, it would be in these bigger towns. Still, there are big differences between these two, due largely to the location of one along a major road with easy access to bigger cities, and this other, where we are now, a several hours walk to the nearest public transport and shipping route.
Walking into the office, we greet everyone, saying hello and shaking hands with all the men present, left hand placed under right elbow. Then we sit and say hello again, ask the news, etc., before getting to our business. This is a procedure I have grown used to over the past few months, repeated every time I have entered an office or been invited into someone’s home. Stan introduces us and then we go outside and wait, as the mayor spreads the word for the town meeting. Within half an hour we are seated in the shade of some mango and litchi trees (it is sweltering hot), on a woven mat that has been brought out for us, joined by the mayor and a couple of his side kicks, with all the men and women of the town gathered around us. The women sit together with their babies under one tree, the men under another, with the mpanjaka, or traditional king, sitting at the sacred north east corner of the assembly. For about an hour, Stan and the mayor take turns explaining the situation, what peace corps is, what their responsibilities are and the like. Villagers ask questions, they debate about the house and then things start winding down. I have been mute until this point and even though it has been explained that volunteers speak Malagasy, they clearly don’t yet believe it. But then Stan asks me to speak. I say nothing more then my name, where I live, who I work with- all totally basic and not even that in good ‘Gasy. But they love it. Everyone gets really excited and they start asking me questions and applauding and praising me. It is a really beautiful moment for me, and I see that their whole understanding has changed about what it means to have a Peace Corps volunteer in their village, how different it is than working with other NGOs. A vazaha speaking their language is as seemingly wonderful to them as if I had made their forest regrow. The rapport built from that simple act will make regrowing that forest with the community that much easier.
We are treated to lunch in the mayor’s house: Rice (duh!), canned sardines (a luxury item, meant to impress), beer, cola, and bananas for dessert. Then we spend the afternoon wandering around the countryside, checking out all the cool things they are already doing. They already plant cloves and pepper, vanilla and coffee, transplant Albizzia and Gravilia which are two nitrogen fixing shade trees. They are really excited about new techniques and are excited to share their knowledge with me. We head down to the river where there is a beautiful swimming hole. We have been regaled in true country side manner. We finally leave, feeling really excited about the site.
The next day we head down to repeat the process at the second site. The Minister of Transportation hails from the city just to the south, so the road here is amazing. Traffic flows both ways here between the two regional hubs at either end of this 100 km section of road. It takes us a third of the time, to go the same distance as yesterday, and we aririve to find that it is market day, which means are Moses of an SUV has to part the sea of people that pool everywhere.
When we get to the office, greetings are done as usual but then we find out that the mayor is busy because someone has died but we should be able to have our meeting in a couple hours and we are left to explore the market in the meantime. It is the crowded market I have been in; we are constantly being elbowed aside and have to fight to move along. I have to duck my way under the shade tarps, being a head taller than most folks around, and am luckily still aware enough to catch the would-be pickpocketer as he tries to reach into my pocket in the chaos. At one point, Stan and I get stuck, or way blocked by a current of bodies that we are unable to break into. We have to retreat and decide to go out into the countryside, to wind our way among the coffee and rice to eventually get back to the mayors office.
When we finally have our meeting, it is in the school house. This town is much to big and chaotic to assemble everyone; instead, it is the lehibe in town, the big shots (all male of course), who show up. Stan, the mayor, his side kick, and I are seated up front as a panel facing the other 25 or so men. I see that this meeting is going to be more formal, sticking to the power hierarchies. This time, when Stan speaks, he does a kabary, the traditional Malagasy speech. He thanks the big wigs, apologizes, does an introduction and uses proverbs, all before actually talking about Peace Corps. When he and the mayor are finished, and after a few other men have stood up and given speeches, too, Stan asks me to speak. I am nervous because I haven’t memorized how to do a kabary yet, but I screw convention and just start rambling about all the same stuff I talked about yesterday, trying to throw in jokes about eating so much rice and what not. Grafefully, they were as receptive an audience as any I have had in this country and ate it up just like the day before. They got really excited and we chatted about swimming and being afraid of sharks and all formality was dropped for a few minutes. That couple minutes of connection was well worth the stress of the market place.
This time, when the meeting ended, there was no other plan. We didn’t walk around town or go to see projects with the mayor or the forest they are supposedly trying to protect. The mayor was busy. He paid for us to eat in a little hotely across the street from his office, though he had to run to eat with someone else. The laoka was tilapia, that ubiquitous farmed fish, despite the fact that we were only a few kilometers from the ocean and right on a major river. Says something about how depleted the fisheries are around here (sound familiar to anyone?).
As we leave this town I am questioning whether these folks will actually come together to build the house the volunteer needs and wondering about what rapid development has done for the people their. I know which of the two towns that I had visited in the past two days I would prefer to live in, but the real question, which I can’t yet answer, is which one they would prefer.
As I am traveling back to site after a month of training and meetings and fine dining (where else can you get an exquisite French meal for $10 except Tana?) and merrymaking, I am reminded about what havens gas stations are in this country.
Its not that they are anything special from an American perspective - in fact they look just like gas stations back home - but that is what makes them amazing: they are like gas stations back home in a place where nothing is like back home. Not only is it comforting for the homesick, but also for the road weary traveler in
Just like home, it is a few pumps with a convenience store and a bathroom. Imagine a convenience store in a land where nothing seems to be designed with convenience in mind. This is a tropical country, so its hot, and it is easy to get overheated or dehydrated. For many of us that is a constant struggle and the only thing to find is a warm coke or THB. But at the gas station they have refrigeration so I can get a cold drink or, heaven forbid, an ice cream! Many shops here don’t even have an electric lightbulb, let alone a refrigerator.
Then there is the bakery. Not all of them heave this feature, just like not all gas stations back home have an Aztec Grill or some such. If you are fortunate enough to have one of this style in your area, it becomes like Mecca: If I had one I would know exactly which direction it is when I am surveying trees in the forest and would be constantly pulled by it’s energy. While the bread is twice as much as the stale baguette on the corner, it is warm and soft and ….oh so delicious. With the puff pastries and turnovers and other Frenchie thingies, it is hard not to come back multiple times a day when you are near one.
Now, some places in this country are more sanitary then others. In my area, as in many, people don’t even use latrines – they just do their business in the woods or, after dark, wherever they please. You can imagine the stank around those places people pick as their favorite doodie spots. So when you have been traveling and have to use the kabone (latrine) it is amazing to come across a gas station where you can use an actual toilette that usually flushes. And the sink might even have soap.
There are some differences from back home, however. Here, the ‘Gasy seem to know how amazing this Western convenience is and take pride in it. Gas stations are actually clean here – usually immaculately so. They are also quite conspicuous here, where most buildings are more like shacks or crumbly brick leftovers from colonial days. They are apparently such targets that they need to hire guards at night, armed with 50 year old rifles, to deter theft, though I guess maybe it is just that gasoline is so frickin’ expensive these days.
Those of you that know me probably won’t understand how I can write such a post. While I may have avoided these cesspools of capitalist exploitation like the plague back home, I have learned to appreciate even the lowly gas station in a place where everything else makes me feel like I am on a different planet.
So about 3 months have elapsed since I have been at site and it is time that I head back to the capital to have a Peace Corps training. I happened to be out in a small village for about a week and needed to leave a couple days earlier then the rest of the team, so a friend was found for me who was going the same direction as I and we walked the
There I met Charles and Honore, who were staying in another tiny village close by. Honore shuttled our bags with his motorcycle and Charles and I got our bikes out of the mayor’s office and proceeded to ride the
When we got back to town, we showered (I mean poured water on ourselves from buckets, of course), and I had some friends help me clean my bike, then we proceeded to celebrate with THB, the national beer in Madagascar, since I was leaving the next day by car and we were drawing to the end of the WWF interns stay in Madagascar. This was the first time that I had gotten drunk in
Now, had I been prepared, I would have only had to ride halfway (given, it was the much tougher half) and then been able to catch a ride the second half. Instead, I had miss judged my money situation, because I had not been able to get to the bank (in the town I was riding to) and was waiting on a courier to bring me cash. It was supposed to be in the car that couldn’t make it to me, so I set out with 1000 ariary in my pocket, which is less than a dollar and not enough for a meal, let alone a ride on a taxi. So I had to ride the whole way. 68 muddy, muddy, muddy kilometers. I was dead tired after
The fun just doesn’t stop. I arrived to find that the person who was supposed to have my money was out of town until the next day and I had no food and nowhere to stay. Wondering if I could get accommodations on a tab, I made it to the bank 10 minutes before they closed and was able to withdraw money.
The next day I had a meeting, got another friend to help me clean my bike again, and the day after left for a 16 hour taxi-brousse ride. This time my luck faired better and I got to ride shotgun, instead of crowded in the back with 15 others. And the driver even had an auxiliary cable so I plugged in my iPod and we listened to Manu Chou, the Beatles, and Coldplay. They love the Beatles. I arrived safely in Tana at 2:30 in the morning and got to see all my friends for the first time in months.
I wonder how it will be in the wet season?
“No mon. He just play the fool, cause for him dass de way life go de best.”
-Peter Matthiessen, Far
A few days ago, Jamila, Liz, Manora (three of the volunteers working with us this summer), Robson, Augustin (two of our filed agents), and I set out from Vondrozo for Tsaratana, a hamlet 30km. away. This is the start of a 2-week field trip to do some forest mapping and awareness-raising in the villages. We were on bike, with 15 porters carrying our stuff. The porters get paid a daily rate of 3000 Ar. or about $2.00, which is good by local standards. We made it about 20 km. the first day because we left in the afternoon, then stashed our bikes in a mayor’s office and had to walk the last 2 kilometers, through rice paddies and across a small river, into town.
That first evening, the village presented us with two chickens, as an offering, and they were to be our supper. This was the first time yet that I was confronted with the dilemma of whether to eat meat and I took it in stride. It turned out to be the most spiritual meal that I have eaten since being in retreat in
Then that night there was kilalaky, or a village dance. In silvery moonlight, a plastic drum and makeshift symbol led the beat as boys danced in a circle with the girls in a line behind them, breaking into the circle every so often in pairs to do a sort of shimmy punctuated with the blows of a whistle. When I tried to dance with them they all ran away giggling, so I had to dance off to the side as I watched with the adults.
I was explaining to the volunteers how much I am changing here and they all agreed that I seem very at home here, in my element, and that this place is good for me. That was very reassuring considering all the doubt that I have been dealing with.
Our tents were set up in the center of the village, which is strange to me. We were constantly on display and had to seek refuge in our tents in order to avoid constant stares. I was glad to head off to the forest the next day, to get a rest from feeling like an alien. I was really wishing I were better with language because the villagers seem so cool and we would try to talk but it was just so strained most of the time.
Then yesterday we headed into the forest. Our job is to map out the lines of delimitation between different usage zones in the area of forest that is to be managed by the COBA of Tsaratana. So we have to walk along, using whatever trails or ridges or rivers are available taking points every couple hundred meters for about 4 kilometers, making sure that the villagers understand where the line is and what the difference is use is. Because these zones are all towards the edge of the forest (only the last, strict protection, is solid forest) they have been cut in spots and cultivated in others, and the regrowth is often spiny and brushy, and the valleys are swampy – one volunteer fell in up to her waste yesterday. It is tough going.
Today started at 5:00with me having dreams of having to pee and in my dream I keep looking at my watch because I want to get up but it keeps showing a time like two in the morning so I keep waiting until I finally realize that I am dreaming and get up to go out of the tent. At I have coffee with Robson and the porters, and then we have to wait until for breakfast of rice and voanjobory, a groundnut related to the peanut but more like a bean in flavor and texture. I am proud because I can finally eat a ‘Gasy portion of rice like the rest of the guys. By camp is packed off and we split into two teams of an agent and a local guide, with volunteers, to do the work. There is also a group of porters that will move camp while we are out to a spot a couple km. up the way. For the next 6 hours we have the pleasure of fighting through thorny, swampy, pathless lands, swatting mosquitoes, picking off leeches, etc. Not my most pleasant forest experience to date, and damn hard work. I am stoked for my cup of coffee (though I never use sugar back home, here it is very sweet and concentrated, about a shot and a half) when we finally make it back to camp. By we are eating and here I am at in bed. Two meals a day of heaping plates full of rice. That’s a day in the field with WWF.
We swore in five days ago, along with our 28 other fellow trainees, as
Afterwards, we hung out at the ambassador’s pad for a celebratory lunch; you know, the typical Peace Corps life – swimming, and lounging, eating and schmoozing. Really though, it was an amazing treat.
Then, the next morning, that’s it, vita, done. Two months of spending all our time together and then, poof! we are all off to our respective corners of the island.
To get to his site you have to take a ferry across a river. When we were leaving, as we waited for the ferry, a funeral procession caught up with us. They came walking down the road, singing and chanting, seemingly cheerful and nearly ecstatic. The corpse was on a sling wrapped up in cloths. We rode across the water together, the body not more than five feet from me, and it stunk. It was somehow refreshing to be washed over by such a potent display of life and death. Though we were by no means a focus of their energy, I felt like it was an appropriate welcoming to us as we were in the process of beginning our new lives, adding cultural and existential perspective to my myopic self-centered view.
Tomorrow is the day of our final presentations and then in two days we have our final language test. Then, granted we pass, we finally get to be sworn in as volunteers. So the whole last week has been either studying language or stressing out about language, though I actually feel pretty good about things. My final presentation is a game about beekeeping and I am pretty excited about it. All of our host families will come tomorrow and we will give our 15 minute presentations in ‘Gasy. Making it interactive, aside from any pedagogical benefits, means I have to speak less, which definitely has its peace-of-mind benefits for me.
So guess what my family had for dinner tonight? I got to eat the usual, but my family’s laoka, or side-dish (you know, everything other than rice) was a bowl of invertebrates, mostly small black shrimpy things, that my host-mom sieved out of the rice paddy mud. Among other creepy-crawlies, Tslavina, my 7-year-old brother, got a giant water boatman about the size of a quarter; he relished biting its head off and sucking out the juices. This coming from a kid who cries (throws a fit, really) if carrot salad even touches his plate! So while I have been pondering eating meat, I can definitely say that I was not the least bit tempted, nor expected, thankfully, to join in this culinary adventure. I felt like someone inserted a clip of Indiana Jones and the
It is really nice to be in the rainforest, though it is awfully dry and there are eucalyptus and pine trees all around. But as soon as one gets back into the forest proper it is clear how much incredible biodiversity there is here and how totally unlike the rest of the plateau it is.
Two days ago we went on a night hike. I didn’t see any nocturnal lemurs, but rather a huge chameleon, and a nocturnal moth and snail, both of which are the size of my hand. We also saw Brookesia, the family that claims the smallest chameleon in the world.
Today, we got to see and hear the Indri, who’s haunting song carries for kilometers and is one of the most incredible noises I have ever encountered. Sifaka, brown lemurs, couas (one of the five endemic bird families on the island), paradise flycatcher, giraffe-neck weevils, you name it. Everything but the golden bamboo lemur, one of the rarest primates in the world, which was recently discovered in the area.
It is very inspiring to see all the scientific work that this local NGO is doing, and how they are using ecotourism to fuel the development of their village. I also got a chance to build some rainforest trail and help plant trees in a forest restoration project. They collect mycorrhizal soil and seeds form the forest, grow the seedlings in the nursery, then plant them in strategic patches close to the forest, paying attention to the interspacing of fast and slow growing, short and long lived trees. The forest is given enough of a head start this way that it can out compete the invasives that one finds all around where people once cut and burned the land. It is an incredible process to see and unfortunately in danger from loss of funding.
I live in a small village on the plateau, within easy driving distance of Tana, by means of a nicely paved road (which is a rarity in this country); that is, once I walk the two kilometers to the bigger town next door.
The main income in town, aside from housing all of us volunteers, is rice farming, and the valley bottoms all around this hilly area are filled with paddies. On the hillsides, people farm other subsistence crops like manioc, carrots, potatoes, and taro. There are also several stores in town, rooms in the bottom floors of their mud brick homes, that sell candles, soap, toilet paper (the first kind I bought was more like sandpaper than tissue), bananas, dried fish, and assorted “Made in Mad” (or China) processed foods.
I live with a family of 4, very small my Malagasy standards, and have a room to myself. Christin and Noeline are 32 and 28, respectively, and their girl, Ioni is 11 and Tslavina, their boy, is 7. There is no electricity or plumbing, even in this fairly wealthy area. Life is simple and nights are ling. I use a chamber pot at night and empty it into a latrine in the morning. It is not culturally appropriate for us to go out at night here, everyone is in doors after dark, which arrives at 6:. One reason is fear of witches, of which there are many stories, but there may be others as well. Since I have a separate entrance to my room and am shut in by myself after dark, I am often asleep by . I find a full belly and candlelight less than conducive to staying awake (though many a Monday and Tuesday night I have a hard time sleeping at all because I am still having crazy prophylaxis dreams after taking my weekly dose of mephloquine).
My shower is a bucket with water heated in a pot, on a grate, over the wood fire that serves as a kitchen. It is certainly a challenge to learn how to cook over a fire. As for food, I eat rice 3 times a day and am actually fond of it! I’ve already come to the point where I don’t fell full unless I have rice, and a lot of it. In addition, I usually eat beans and carrot salad and bananas or pineapple for dessert (oh, the pineapple!) Some days though, we do eat pancakes or latkas for breakfast, though I think Peace Corps taught them how to cook those so that we don’t go crazy. And, thank Andriamanitra (or God), my family drinks coffee every morning (even the seven year old, though I have tried with my feeble language skills to warn against that).
“It’s hot outside.”
“Yes it is. I’m tired.”
“I went to the lake for the party and ate fried bananas.”
“I ate samosas.”
It’s Easter, known as Paka here. Being a largely Christian country, this is a national holiday, as are Pentecost and
It is interesting to see everybody in his or her Sunday best. Here, that means a clean, unholy (but maybe holy?) outfit of the most random assortment: from ill-fitting prom dresses to “Beijing Basketball” hoodies to tailored suits, with most people wearing flip-flops.
We sat through all the usual rigamoral of sermon, singing, baptism (I think?), but then something unexpected happened and I didn’t know what to make of this at first. A man in a lime green suit walks up to the front, and standing behind the podium he holds a live chicken up high over his head with both hands. Then he starts to yell. I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand him if he was yelling slowly, but he wasn’t anyway – he was on a roll, very passionate persuasive. Then people started calling out to him. It seemed to me that he was getting the audience worked up for something that something appeared to be an animal sacrifice. I knew already that they do practice sacrifice here, as an offering to the ancestors when someone dies or there is another major life event. But I didn’t expect it here in church, and was shocked and considering getting up and going outside (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have been inappropriate because they sell concessions outside and people go in and out all the time). But then, he handed the chicken to somebody who brought it to the audience and placed it under someone’s seat. Now I was thoroughly confused but that was short lived. Someone then handed the would be Master of Death a pike of bananas, that he then proceeded to hold up and yell about. Then a couple of bottles of milk, some eggs, a cake… that’s right, it was an auction to raise funds for the church or maybe some other cause. Typically, instead of passing the basket around, they will have the whole assembly file to the front of the hall where a box is and you put your donation in there. This may happen two or three times during the service so they tend to drag on. But this was a special Easter fundraiser, and I was damn glad that they weren’t spilling chicken blood all over the church.
We harvested and threshed rice in the afternoon and then had Easter supper. Usually they turn the radio off for the meal prayer but this time they didn’t for some reason and I found myself straining to hear my host-mom over some country song. Dinner was rice, eggs, carrot salad, pasta, and greens, and pineapple. Nutritious and delicious.
But the fun doesn’t stop here. Easter Monday is also a holiday and everybody goes for a picnic. My family for some reason though, ate lunch at ten in the morning and then walked the couple of kilometers to the dam on the lake where everybody was hanging out. The place is called Pasi-potsy, or