December 19, 2010

Madagascar Trail II (or, The Art of the Push Start)

Taxi-brousse travel is a team effort. It starts at the parcage- that mud-puddled, trash-strewn gathering of old vans and inebriated men- for empty cars only circle in Madagascar; a critical mass must be reached for departure. This means that whole days of your life can be lost in waiting, eating yogurts and staring forlornly at that piece of paper that guy swore four hours ago was a ticket; for this is the arena of liars and thieves, schemers and scammers, ruled by young men whose primary talent is the ability to simultaneously drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and chew qat; trust when I say that mixing uppers and downers is the least of their offenses.

Everyone- not just the highly conspicuous- is desperate to get out of there. Recruitment becomes a shameless and occasionally violent endeavor; new arrivals are besieged, tugged hither and thither, deceived on all sides, sweet-talked and cajoled, fights break out over their baggage. Once you have survived this gauntlet and put your money down on a brousse, you now have a vested interest in the battles that follow. You plead with your eyes, please pick my van, and are not rarely a selling point: look, you can sit by the foreigner, she speaks Malagasy.

Once critical mass has been reached (about double the number of persons logical in a time interminable), the driver, who has spent the past hours of assemblage indifferently drinking beer in the shade, is suddenly in a tremendous hurry. He repeatedly leans on the horn, yells at the teenagers still strapping an entire living room set to the roof, yells at his newest customers, do you think we have all day? We passengers, who have been helplessly trying to express that very fact for the past short eternity, can only grumble as we squeeze in like cattle for the kill. With another yell, a qat-chewing, cigarette-smoking, didn't-bother-to-put-down-the-beer crowd is gathered; all hands on deck, much unnecessary shouting and last-minute exchanging of bills, and it is at last time to roll out. You rejoice as you try not to look at those poor souls you are leaving behind like convicts in barbed wire. Then you remember that the journey has...just...begun...

When describing bush-taxi travel, one must be prepared to use the constant refrain: "And then I almost cried..." Thus necessarily arises amongst us victims of a cruel system, us captives of a dictatorial regime of the roads a common ethic of endurance, a spirit of survival that transcends the heat, the sweat, the long inexplicable delays, the cavernous car-eating potholes, the sheer disregard of personal identity.
Food is shared and babies are passed. We bond at the most trivial of opportunities (Yes, Barack Obama is president of the United States...No, surprisingly he is NOT Malagasy but...). We cling to each other for dear life as the driver plays a high-speed game of reverse frogger (avoid chickens, goats, small children, herds of cattle and oncoming traffic; extra points for chameleons). We look discreetly the other way as the key falls repeatedly out of the ignition, snigger at the the petty bribery of the national police (Oh no sir, it only LOOKS like humanity is busting out of the seams of this vehicle), and offer up a chorus of outraged disbelief when the car slows for yet another passenger: Where are you going to put this one? On the roof??

There are musical malfunctions, the deluges of sudden squalls, numerous traffic jams, a term which here refers not to the number of cars on the road but rather to the complex extrication strategy required to quit the vehicle (move that arm...whose leg is this?...hold the baby...wait, watch my toes!). Through it all we are pecked by chickens and peed on by goats, accordion blares at an ear-splitting volume. When it finally comes time to escape you can no longer claim among your abilities that to either hear or walk properly.
Your bag is tossed down, the driver gives a half-wave, a final half-hearted attempt at customer service, and roars off, leaving you to limp on counting the hours of your youth lost on the past two hundred miles...

Mango Season, A Metaphor for all Things Wonderful in Life

On November 1st, it was though someone had flipped a switch and the rains began to fall. Six long months and many a fruitless rain-dance had produced hardly a drop, now, the opening of the sky is a daily event, one that requires due consideration for the afternoon schedule. For these are torrential downpours and venturing out in them is much akin in my my opinion to snorkeling: extreme difficulty breathing, high likelihood of drowning, thus high risk to low reward.

Fortunately for the captives of the resulting mild afternoon hours, when only the dull roar of rain lashing the roof fills the ears, a three-fold blessing comes hand-in-hand with the change of seasons: mangos, mangos, and more mangos. For months I had watched them grow heavy on the trees, kicked them under-ripe down the back roads of my town, eaten them as an accompianment to street-corner brouchettes. For months indeed I tendered my patience and then, suddenly, as the rains arrived, the mangos ripened and Nothern Madagascar was swimming in both. Four for ten cents at the market, or better yet, send out a brigade of neighborhood children. Fresh mangos on a rainy afternoon: one starts to think this island life ain't so bad...

In fact, I have begun to suspect lately that there is a larger metaphysical scheme at work here: that shifting global weather patterns, a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia and a ripe mango falling on my roof Madagascar, whales migrating up the coast and "stars that go" criss-crossing the night sky, have all, in some vast and untold manner, properly aligned in their patterns to ensure that all is simply well in the world right now.

Given, I am two months behind in my knowledge of the world's dysfunctions, am only vaguely aware that America's current political gridlock makes Madagascar appear a smoothly operating democracy, and persist in the delusion that I will be able to get a job back in America, but who are you to rain on my "mangos as an expression of universal goodwill" parade? Who are you to demand that I get over my Peace-Corps-tree-huggin'-hippie-metaphysical-shenanigans?

While I wholeheartedly refuse to do so, I can offer some logical and quantifiable reasons why the turn of seasons has brought a sense of peace and purpose to my life in Madagascar (besides, of course, fewer trips to the water pump!). It is a hardly a rare affliction for volunteers, but for much of the first year I have felt that I was simply floundering: butchering and bungling the language, struggling to reconcile my training and personal expectations with the broader goals of Peace Corps and the needs of the community, often owerwhelmed by my failure to create a cohesive understanding of my role here. It was difficult and for months I felt I was just treading water and keeping my head above, waiting for the pieces to fall into place.

Which to a certain extent, they finally have; though let's not get carried away, this is hardly a 3-D, scale-model Big Ben we're putting together here. Rather, it is reaching a point with the Malagasy language that I deem adequate for continued survival; not holding forth discourse on the space-continuum but it will do. It is starting environmental education programs at the local elementary and middle schools and watching your first supervised game of tag degenerate into complete mayhem as the students run home from school to hide. It is seeing a few small projects make headway and feeling like you just forced the Mississippi to flow backwards.

Underlying these tangible and tempered signs of progress, however, is a broader sense of being at peace in my village life. The Malagasy word for it is 'tamana,' meaning settled or content in a place; urban dictionary would probably go with 'gone native.' It means moving slow in the heat and accepting a mud house will never be clean. It is the recognition that time spent in another's company is never wasted; that this whole notion of wasted time should be up for reconsideration. Above all other things, though, it means patience. Patience with the pace of life and the slow roll of progress; patience while the rains roll in and the mangos ripen. Patience while the workings of the universe, intricate and unknowable, bring to you what you need...