November 25, 2010

Mefloquine: You Can’t Close Your Eyes on Adventure

At the outset of this Peace Corps venture, when the bugs started crawling on my friends, I would only laugh. They would wake telling tales of dreadful midnight manifestations: bugs all over, couldn’t find the flashlight, trapped in the mosquito net. Not of hardy constitution, I would tell myself. Then, not months later, the bugs started to crawl on me; alone, in the pitch dark, I would come to fully convinced that I was being consumed alive by ants, or cockroaches, or freshly-hatched grasshoppers.

Mefloquine makes a mockery of sleep. As a malaria prophylaxis, I grudgingly admit its effectiveness: at least, as of yet, my brain hasn’t melted into my skull. As a weekly regimen, it is a steady yet unpredictable form of low-level psychological torture. Among its legendary battery of side effects: insomnia (“is it not like 3am in Madagascar? Yea, it’s a mefloquine night…”), tingly limbs (“I have the dreaded restless leg syndrome!”), and surreally realistic dreams. As for the latter, mefloquine messes with the mind; it is like descending down the rabbit hole.

Anything goes. One night I can wake up yelling such inanities as: “it’s not a salad bar without chickpeas!” The next, debilitated by the fear that I might one day grow sick of rice and bananas. And, of course, there are the bugs. You can imagine the funhouse effect when four or five mefloquine-doped volunteers sleep in the same room. “Did you grab me?” “What were you mumbling about?” “Who was yelling?” It is only unfortunate that mefloquine cannot be blamed for corresponding frequent lapses in maturity.

For me though, mefloquine could be aptly renamed “disorientat-quin.” Often, I wake up with no clue as to where am I. For whatever reason, I usually “conclude” that I am sleeping in the woods (weird, I know, get down the rabbit hole and roll with it). Once, in what I like to refer to as the “dying ember incident,” I was spending the night with another volunteer and awoke in just such a state. Normally- regaining slow degrees of logic- I gradually realize I am asleep in a house after all. But this time, sitting up confusedly, my eye caught the orange glow of the surge protector on the floor and I thought: “a dying fire! I am in the woods!” Triumphant in my mefloquine logic, I leaned over to inspect closer, brushing the volunteer asleep next to me, and… “AAAAHHHHH!!! There is someone here!!! I am in the woods with an ax murderer!!”
That one required some explaining in the morning. But I stand by my statement about the chickpeas…

Goofus and Gallant (or, Why Don’t I Translate?)

Direct translation rarely works with the Malagasy language and is more often a sure bet to raise eyebrows. Even if I know every word of the vocabulary, I will still be receiving mystified looks. It is less about the placement of words or their grammatical structure than about the very ideas that underpin them. What I would say is simply not what people say here in Madagascar. For example, I would tell kids “go play outside;” their parents tell them to “go play on the earth.” I would say “this seat is uncomfortable;” Malagasy say “this seat is making me suffer.”

It makes sense: languages represent cultural values; they are thought paradigms, ways of looking at the world. And when I step back and look at Malagasy culture, it dawns on me anew just how different it is. Among other things, it is extraordinarily blunt: if I had a dime for every time I have been I look like a boy, Peace Corps would actually be a rather profitable venture for me. And believe, I don’t dare ask: “what’s funny?” unless I am braced to hear the exact answer.

This bluntness is just an extension of a Captain Obvious cultural takeover: Malagasy people just adore telling you what you can see with your own eyes. In fact, it commonly passes as fulfilling conversation for each party to simply state what the other is doing, as in “I see you are washing clothes,” “I see you are going to the market;” good talk, see you out there. Therein lies the art of the Malagasy exchange: subtlety is lost; hints are a waste of energy; it you want something, just ask for it already. How many times have I had the conversation: “Will you marry me and handle my passport?” “No, because you are ugly and quite obviously too short.”

So, we can declare whatever sensitivity I once had officially lost. That, however, is less of a problem than the fact that after a year of round-the-clock experiments, I have been forced to conclude that I- as an individual, as a personality- simply do not translate. Certain concepts- independence, sarcasm, restlessness, stubbornness, goofiness- many things that make me quintessentially who I am, just don’t have Malagasy equivalents, words or ideas (excepting possibly the umbrella term ‘hafa hafa:’ ‘different different’ or ‘weird’). Forget staring off into space or imposing logic or playing with language. Don’t even think about attempting to translate ‘wanderlust’ literally.

It’s hard because in many ways growing more comfortable in Malagasy culture has meant being less and less myself, and in no area have I conformed so shamelessly as in that of humor. Malagasy humor- as one may guess from what is already known- delights in the obvious and over-started: falls from bicycles, public rejection of suitors, ill-fitting clothes, white people. Without the tools of sarcasm and subtlety (tragically, even the eye roll doesn’t translate!) my humor has been reduced to a level roughly equivalent to that of Goofus and Gallant. Once, a fellow volunteer and I had every passer-by in fits, describing how she was cooking but I was just watching because I am lazy and “don’t know things.” Oh, you don’t find that funny? Come here for a while. I’ll have you bustin’ a gut over my standard go-to “I don’t swim because crocodiles like white-meat” joke. Conformity: it is a scary thing.