February 05, 2010

Oh Yea, This Girl Got Internet Access at Last

I will now provide a brief and entirely unprepared run-down of my first week at site (which is not really my site, but is for now, might be for a while...like I said: one gets used to the chaos):

Day 1: Met the lehibe's (important people) of the town, drank a bug (and this was not one of those "can't really see it, so I'll pretend it's not there bugs"...this was a substantial insect. I was unable to stop the reflex until it was too late).

Day 2: Walked around town, said hello to everyone and their mother, literally. Discovered that this dialect is quite unlike the one I learned in training.

Day 3: Someone steals my sandal off the porch. I nearly cry (I only have two pairs of shoes people). I return to the comfort of logic: what is someone going to do with one sandal, in a town where everyone knows exactly whose sandal that is? I find my shoe in a plastic bag down the street. I rejoice shamelessly.

Day 4: Plant trees, lots of trees.

Day 5: Pursue fascinating experiments on the life-cycle of boxed pudding.

Day 6: Walk around town again. Make brief, partially-successful forays into the world of market-negotiation. Pat myself on the back when I return with six tomatoes, four onions, three bananas, and a liter of oil. Disregard as irrelevant the fact that I left the house with thirteen things on my list.

Day 7: Rise early to catch the taxi-brousse. Spend no less than an hour and a half on the side of the road, awaiting said taxi-brousse (though greeting profusely in the process!). Spend no less than ten minutes in said taxi before wheel pops off. Four hours later arrive in my banking town, 100K up the road, darn proud of my effort.

Here's to next week!

Only a Two Weeks Late on this Post!

Kabary, or speeches, are an integral part of Malagasy culture. Before one launches into a kabary, however, one must apologize profusely, for not being the oldest or wisest, most qualified or knowledgable, able to speak Malagasy, etc. It seems that this blog is already quite tuned-in to fomba-gasy (Malagasy culture) because, again, I would like to start with an apology. Seven or so weeks ago, sitting in Paris, I was firmly convinced that there was no way months would pass before I would be able to make another post. Ah, how misconceived my notions of technology continue to be! I have had internet access twice since arriving in Madagascar. The first time, the day after Christmas, after dutifully waiting an hour at the internet cafĂ©, I logged on and- lo and behold- every computer in the building immediately crashed. Two weeks later, thirty-six trainees were shocked to discover that if they all log on to the same wireless connection, not a single one will work. I refuse to take personal responsibility for that one…

The moral of this ‘woe-is-me-and-my-relationship-with-technology” story is that I have posted below the entry I was planning to put up weeks ago. Some of the information in it is outdated but much of it is still relevant and, I at least like to think, moderately amusing. Plus, as we were frequently told throughout training- “time is money-” a phrase which never ceased to puzzle us and, quite frankly, grows ever more ironic with each eight-dollar day. So scroll down and read that entry first, if you please, and while you’re doing it, take a moment and appreciate your internet connection.

Now, to return to the current course of events: the longest, most unorthodox, and most expensive training in the history of Peace Corps has drawn to a close! After more than three months, three countries, fourteen-thousand miles flown, six weeks of summer camp, two languages, two host families and god knows how many parasites, the American government thinks we are ready to volunteer!

The final few weeks of training flew by once we arrived in our Anjozoro, the environment sector’s community-based-training site. Living with my host family was a wonderful experience, though it was a lot like being fourteen again (and I may not be that far removed from fourteen, but far enough). On the day of my arrival, my host mother- who could put my real mother to shame in her hovercraft abilities- came into my room no less than ten times in the first hour to show me such necessities as how to light a match, how to make my bed, how to open and close my windows, and how to scrub my floor with a coconut (ok, I admit on that one, I was stumped). And I am certainly not complaining, her constant coming and goings provided countless opportunities for practicing Malagasy (what the heck is a window called again?), time which would otherwise be spent staring awkwardly at each other.

There was a fair amount of that too, of course. You know how people say: “Oh, he or she knows more than they let on.” Well, my personal communication strategy was to do precisely the opposite: let on a lot more than I know. At the dinner table, as conversation would be carried on amongst family members, occasionally directed at me, I would be diligently nodding and smiling as if, of course, I understand every word, when really I am picking up phrases here and there and desperately attempting to piece together the topic at hand. Usually I managed to do so about five minutes after it was conversationally relevant. Every now and then, I would realize that all eyes at the table have turned to me and most definitely someone has asked a question and, oh dear, now they expect an answer.

But my family was exceedingly patient and, fortunately for me, awkward silences seem to be much less culturally taboo. Better still, the whole family welcomed me into their life for a brief stay: I played soccer with my brothers in our muddy yard, washed clothes in the lake, pounded peanut butter, received dance lessons from my grandmother (she can move for her ninety-seven years!), ate rice three meals a day, and mitsangstaganad- strolled about town, another crucial element of Malagasy village life.

Somehow we all found time to attend training sessions too! We spent a great deal of time in our final weeks working in the fields on a technique for enhanced rice cultivation known as SRI. Madagascar has the highest consumption of rice per head in the world and much of the country’s land, particularly on the high plateau, is committed to rice production. Yet, more than a third of the rice consumed every year is imported. Not to bore with details, but SRI is a method of rice agriculture that is highly-conscious in its application: basically spacing the plants at regular intervals rather than allowing them to grow haphazardly. Because the plants are not competing with each other for nutrients, root structure, and sunlight, they grow much more rapidly and, ultimately, produce more rice.

While the gospel of “less-plants, more-rice” would seem fairly simple to preach, Malagasy culture is relatively conservative and it requires a great deal of courage for a farmer to go against tradition. Plus, rice is their livelihood and that is no small thing to risk. For this reason, volunteers who choose to work with rice farming are expected to manage a small field of their own, using the SRI technique throughout a planting cycle. When farmers see the results and trust you as a member of the community, they are much more likely to listen to and utilize your training.

Will I be working with rice? It seems, these days, that the answer is probably not. Because- brace yourself now- plans have changed again! Due to a small housing issue at my site-to-be (as in “woops, forgot to build you one!”) I am relocating before locating at all. My new post is on the north-west coast, on the edge of, or potentially within, Sahamalaza Iles- Radama National Park. Sahamalaza is relatively new to the Madagascar parks system; in fact, it is the first park to include both marine and terrestrial areas. There are a lot of thrilling opportunities- mangrove reforestation, local fisheries, coral reefs all appear to be options- but it seems that at least initially a big part of my job will be figuring out what my job is.

I am eager to finally get to post, though a tad overwhelmed by the prospect now that it is right around the corner. Wednesday, the day after swear-in, I will leave Antananarivo to be installed. Though my post is what is known as a “fly-site,” meaning that I have to fly in and out whenever I leave the region for Peace Corps related purposes, we are driving the 800K. For logistical purposes (aka “putting all this stuff on an airplane would cost a fortune”) driving makes the most sense. After a day or two of shopping, in which all of my extensive interior decorating skills will be put to good use, I will be dropped off. Don’t worry, I already have my first apology to my new community all figured out: “I apologize that you got stuck with the American volunteer whose hair makes her look like a lemur.”

Scroll Down for Dramatic Lemur Chase

From the moment our gaggle of exhausted and slightly delirious volunteers hit the tarmac (one literally) in Antananarivo, it was quite apparent that we were no longer in Niger. A slight mist was falling, one could breathe without the instant onset of thirst, and, look! a giant palm tree. These were only the first of many shocking rediscoveries in our world, the most profound of which was the color green. In the month or so that has passed since our arrival in Madagascar we have only begun to delve into the various fascinations of the land that will (I think, yes, almost definitely, positively) become our home.

My first, non-delirium induced impression of this country is that it may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. The interior region, where we are currently located, is mountainous and heavily forested. The valleys between these closely-packed hills, some narrow as a house, some kilometers wide, are unfailingly committed to the production of rice. Puttering along red-dirt roads (in my mind, bush-taxi’s always putter), one rounds a corner and there it is, the most beautiful valley in the whole entire world; the fluorescence of neatly-squared acres of rice, framed against stark green hills, storm clouds looming above. But now one is ascending again and cresting a hill and whoa, no seriously, this one is the most beautiful valley in the world. And so it goes…

Repeat forty or fifty times and you can get a sense of what it is like to drive from Antananarivo to Montosoa, home of the Peace Corps training facility. Located on the edge of a large and (wait, wait, don’t tell me!) beautiful lake, we joke that our life here feels suspiciously like summer camp: complete with dorm life, canoe trips, talent shows, and afternoon sports hour. Of course, this is just another result of the continued upheaval of our training. Because of the rude interruption of the holidays, which trainees always spend together at site, we have been delayed from our homestays for a couple of weeks. Furthermore, because we have a significantly shortened training schedule, we will only be with the families for less than three weeks. You would be surprised at how quickly one can adjust to such chaos.

Plus, we are all quite excited to move to the CBT (government speak: community-based training) site, even for a shortened stay. Community integration is, in fact, one of the main goals of Peace Corps training and requirements of successful service. I searched, but I could not find summer camp anywhere on the list. All of the environment volunteers will be clustered in a village five or six kilometers from Montosoa, living individually with families. Though we will have our own room, we are generally expected to participate in the daily interactions of our family members (read: hermitage not appreciated).

And the mad rush to train us will continue. After three weeks of the Malagasy language, I have yet to develop either a fondness for seven syllable words or the ability to string them together into coherent sentences. Being in the community will help tremendously on this front; in every interaction I have had so far, people have shown amazing patience as I stumble my way through “nice to meet you” (faly mahafantatra anao ko aho). In addition to continued language tutoring, we will focus on our technical training. We have already started a garden in the village (as environment volunteers we are expected to maintain model gardens at post) and, this should hardly surprise you, we overlook a large area of rice farming. This is hardly a coincidence; we will spend considerable time mucking about these paddies, learning the basics of SRI, a technique for increased rice production. I always knew I would grow up to play in the dirt!

Now, I have to digress from this engrossing description of the life of a Peace Corps trainee, yawn, to describe exactly how cool it is to chase lemurs through the rainforest. Yes, as a Christmas present to our poor, beleaguered stage (okay, no pity necessary, but we did have class on Christmas day!) we were received as counterparts by the staff of D’Andisibe-Mantadia National Park, home of the Indri and seven other lemur species, for a couple of holiday hikes.
I have always suspected that everything was ten times as large in the rainforest and I was quite pleased to discover that, at least for certain species, it was true. Attack of the giant spiders would sum it up nicely (one cowardly friend, who will remain nameless to protect their identity, could only point at the one clinging to my back and scream; really helpful). Slightly less terrifying was the giant roly-poly, longer than my hand, which clamped into a perfectly-interlocking sphere the moment it was touched. And giant snails! And a boa constrictor! It was like Jurassic park in there…

But the highlight of the show was the lemurs. Walking through those tunnels of vegetation, we could hear their territorial calls which- I admit I am grasping for an analogy here- sounded somewhat like whale songs echoing through the canopies. Then we would hear a rustling among the branches, our guide would dash off the trail into the underbrush, we would all wait in silence and then, a furry little blur would go flying over our heads, propelling itself from limb to limb with impressive agility. Springing into action, we would chase those speedy creatures, slipping up and down slopes, tripping over logs, running directly into thorn bushes in our blind, maniacal pursuit. For hours we followed them as they bounded around their home turf, stopping to snack and play and, in the case of the most adorable baby lemur you ever saw, snuggle.

While we are on the subject of this rather incredible national park, it would be wrong for me not to mention that it will, in short time, be my neighbor. Just before Christmas we received our site assignments and I have been posted to a small village on the northern border of the park, about ten kilometers off a national route (translation: paved). I will be the first volunteer in the town, though USAID did some work in the area with rice farming a not long ago, establishing model farmers. I have seen some pictures of the area and of my lovely little mud, thatch-roof house. There are some exciting opportunities for projects, including potential collaborations with the park to promote eco-tourism on the much less access northern side.

Swear-in is rapidly approaching at the end of January and then installment will likely occur during the first week of February. Just in time for my long dirt road to be turned into a mud bath!