May 18, 2011

Somewhere Out There (Photos)

Yes, that is a lemur. Yes, I am snuggling with it.

Yes, my life is now complete.

EPP, Maromandia

Overlooking Anjiabory

One bunch of lobster claws: 1000Ariary. Fifty Cents.

Women in the Rice Fields


Let's play motorcycle: the world's loudest, rowdiest game.


Ferry crossing the Ramena River


One develops many ways of passing time.

Anjiabory Andoharano

A faty, funeral.

Watch out! There is an angry chicken in here!

The Sambirano River

The Road to Maevatanana

My neighborhood ruffians

Madagascar Trail III (or, my Driver the Hallmark Card)

I am not necessarily one for the Hallmark-ey things of the world. I do not watch Lifetime specials; I did not cry at the end of Titanic; Valentine’s Day makes me borderline nauseous. The last familial birthday card I sent was addressed, “From one deeply emotive heart to another.”

But occasionally one encounters in life a person so delightfully cheesy and wonderful that even the least emotive heart cannot help but be swept away by their joy and charisma. It is as if one is suddenly and all at once caught in the throes of a Lifetime marathon, awaiting with bated breath February 14th, afloat in the icy waters of the Atlantic (“I’ll never let go!”). As complicated as it may seem, what I have just described is now a regular emotion for me. I have found my living Hallmark card and his name is Zama. He drives my town brousse.

I should preface with two disclaimers. One, Zama is pushing fifty and balding; he sports a distinct rice-belly; we are not in love. Two, my town brousse- which runs the ninety kilometers to and from Ambanja daily- is, excepting the personality of the driver, no different from any other harrowing Madagascar travel experience. In fact, it is often worse.

The car routinely runs at double capacity, which is to say that a van designed for fifteen carries over thirty; children are stuffed in the cracks like peanuts in a packing crate. The trip is long, arduous, and unpredictable, stops frequent, prolonged, and often unexplained. Seven AM departure is no guarantee of reaching Amabanja by noon and the Three PM return trip often leaves after nightfall. Body odor, debilitating joint pain, and contact with infectious diseases are routine hazards.

But the van is bursting with more than its sheer human cargo, reeking of that which is more powerful than body odor, and threatening the spread of something far more infectious than simple skin fungus. No, this vehicle is alive with, crawling with, exploding with…joy and laughter. It emanates from Zama, seeps into the narrow cracks, works its way into the crushed and stifling backseats, beats out through the speakers.
Zama honks and shouts, dances and sings, greets everyone- best friend and stranger alike- with his signature two handed wave, now and then breaking it down to a goofy, slow-motion version that requires a full ten seconds of knee-steering. He bounces the van to a halt in keeping with the frenetic beat of the Malagasy music and declares beaming, “Karibo an-trano!” (“Come into the house!”).

He offers free rides and says without hesitation: “when you are troubled, come with Zama.” To one and all, two hundred times each way, he yells “ARAHABAINA!” (CONGRATULATIONS!). Growing weary of this repetition, he unfailingly expands as the ride proceeds, at first on more routine topics – the time of the day, the weather- then to more creative observances such as “that lovely bunch of ripe bananas” or “your house with a very small door!”

Zama is a local celebrity and as the good-karma mobile rolls through village after roadside village children appear, running as fast as their little stumbly legs will carry them to dance and wave, to chase the car. This is the highlight of many road-watchers’ and weary walkers’ days: men drop the reins of their ox-carts, women drop babies, comatose old people show sudden life.

The first time I hitched a ride with Zama I feared for my young life, as I had clearly placed it in the hands of a lunatic. But now I revel in these rides; it is like hopping the “It’s a Small World Boat,” with slightly less grating music, or better yet, living a tourism commercial (Madagascar: We Won’t Rob You While You’re Looking!). When I manage to leverage my status as town celebrity, dignitary, and novelty, and snag the front seat, I grin stupidly for two hours, pretending they are all waving to me.

On more than one occasion, Zama has tossed out candy, an action roughly equivalent in this sugar-crazed country to flinging out gold nuggets or hundred dollar bills. Bikes crashed. Children screamed. Entire herds of cattle were left to fend for themselves. It was chaos and I could not help but think: I know where Santa vacations and I get to ride in his off-season sleigh.

There are, of course, practical reasons why appreciate Zama: he does not drink, is not rude, creepy, or outright lecherous, does not even run over chameleons. But these things alone could not elevate him to Hallmark status. It is the simple fact that he takes a potentially monotonous routine and stretch of road and day in, day out makes it a vehicle of joy, utilizes it as a way to spread happiness. This is what gets me all goose-bumpy and tear-eyed, all choked up in the throat like I just in the name of love kicked Jack off the flotation device.

Then again, it does not hurt to be able to brag that I am routinely driven through a tourism commercial by Santa, who unfailingly congratulates me on my house with a very small door. That is certainly the kind of Hallmark card to be found only in Madagascar.

Selected Tales of Life in Mad (or, There are Easier Ways to Discover that one has Friends)

I. The Great Cyclone Wind

One evening, I sat on my stoop and watched the approach of a storm alive with lightning. Distantly, I was aware of a cyclone hovering somewhere off the coast. But this is Peace Corps: news of impending doom is routinely delivered via highly condensed and often cryptic text messages. (Cat 3 cyclone: approx 30k from town [you do not know and cannot find on map], landfall expected half-hour [before you find service on your phone], prob 2 late, do not panic, but RUN 4 LIVES!).

Ok, that is not at all fair. Peace Corps duly informed us of the cyclone’s approach and thus I had no one but myself to blame for the surprise I felt when a wall of wind- seemingly from out of nowhere, preceding even a drop of rain- slammed into my house. One minute all was calm, the next the neighborhood was abuzz with activity. People scurried about collecting children and chickens, tossing rocks onto the flapping metal roofs, battening the hatches.

In the midst of this maelstrom, I was suddenly concerned with determining the lee-side of my house, recalling with alarming clarity dire warnings of cyclone-created vacuums. A headline flashed across my mind: PCV Fails to Alleviate Pressure Imbalance, Sucked to High Heaven. Thus, I was running about, opening and closing doors like a deranged game-show host when WHAM! the backdoor flies off its hinges and lands in the yard.

The frantic activities of the neighborhood screech to a halt. All heads turn my way. Katie is in crisis.

II. The Great Theft

A different evening found me absorbed in my nightly routine of killing bugs and watching the candle gutter. One should not underestimate this entertainment value, for my absorption level was complete enough to allow somebody to stroll into the backroom of my house and take 100,00Ariary (about fifty dollars). Needless to say, upon discovery of this brazen attack I was little peeved; my town, on the other hand, was downright incensed.

But it took some time to shift into crime-fighting gear. When the police commissioner at last appeared from the corner bar, he did not hesitate to set the tone of a serious investigation. His first inquiry, made with a poorly-suppressed giggle, was as to why Fred failed to protect me. Fred, for those of you who do not know, is a teddy bear. My confidence was not bolstered.

After the collection of invaluable eyewitness reports- well, I was cooking rice, well, we were talking, well, how could we have seen anything? we were busy- the investigation halted for the night. It was, after all, long past seven and, let us be honest, in Madagascar, crime does sleep.

The next morning commenced a memorable journey through the intricate and often mystifying inner-workings of Malagasy bureaucracy. Forms were painstakingly typed, double and triple stamped. Cigarettes were smoked to a nub, the morning beer-drinking drill of the gendarmes interrupted, more cigarettes bought, and by afternoon- do not ask me how- the thief apprehended and the money returned.

But some miracles must be paid for after the fact; in a final act of bureaucratic attrition I was detained for hours more to compose the official report. Primarily, this entailed my avoidance of comically unprofessional hints (“you know, this wouldn’t have happened if you had a boyfriend”) and questions (“can I be your guardian and sleep at your house?”) posed as the gendarme clacked away at his Soviet-era typewriter. Presuming all to be rhetorical, I chose to stare determinedly over his shoulder at the Poisonous Fish of Madagascar poster tacked crookedly to the wall and muse over which I would beset upon this unabashedly eager fellow.

III. The Great Allergy Attack

It was on yet another day that I awoke with the dim, groggy awareness that something was not as it should be: my left eye was swollen completely shut. But this is Madagascar, weird, inexplicable occurrences are a matter of routine and it was on such a basis that I dared to tempt the wrath of the gods and find it all rather funny. Oh how I would live to regret such folly!

The mysterious ailment spreads and swells. By the next morning my whole body is afflicted and both eyes refuse to open. Through slits I perceive a face in the mirror that is not only unrecognizable, it is appalling to behold.

I lie helpless and incapacitated in my sweltering house as children gather in silent awe at the fence and friends, neighbors, and those types drawn to freak-shows stop by to ogle. Somebody I do not know appears and crushes a root to an orange, pulpy mass; he is deeply offended when I refuse to eat it. I awake from a delirious sleep to find a strange, toothless woman slathering me with white paste as others look on approvingly. I am defenseless.

On the third day, foreigner medicine and traditional remedies equally ineffective, I travel 100 kilometers to meet the Peace Corps doctor. This, of course, necessitates a taxi-brousse ride (helicopter request: denied). As I appear bound for a leper colony, my entrance into the vehicle is met with unrestrained looks of horror and loud admonitions to children to NOT TOUCH.

In Malagasy culture no question is inappropriate, no timing untactful. Thus, for three hours I am relentlessly interrogated, argued about and over, besieged with endless advice. I emerge into the dusty-haven of the brousse-station feeling as though I have just survived a circle of hell even Dante could not have imagined.
The doctor takes one look at me and says (with only a Peace Corps doctor’s mastery of understatement): “Yes, that is rather bad.” He mutters on the phone about ‘lesions.’ Much to my chagrin, he informs me that I am not going to die. I am left with extra-strength benadryl and instructions to wait it out.
The next day is my 24th birthday.

Behold, The Wonder of the Commons

Sometimes, it seems that the tragedy of the commons is the fact that I am living in it. It can be exhausting, the ceaseless streams of visitors, the ever-peering eyes. It can be overwhelming, the sense of endless expectation. It can also, somewhat conversely, be isolating, feeling so alone among so many. A life lived in the commons, in other words, can be difficult to bear. But in my times of minor hardship- these and other less entertaining tales- I have again and again been struck by the support unhesitatingly offered by a community that is rarely emotive about its enthusiasm for my presence.

When my door blew off its hinges and the frantic cyclone-onset activities of the neighborhood screeched to a halt, nobody- least of all me- knew what to do. But through the sudden downpour came my neighbor, a woman whose past standoffishness had always mystified me. Soaked to the skin and shivering, she was clutching a handful of rusty nails and shouting, “Don’t be scared. We’ll fix it.”

When I was brazenly relieved of 100,000Ariary and my town shifted to crime fighting mode, I received troops of visitors offering condolences and assurances that the thief was an anomaly. I was given three separate envelopes of cash to help see me through my difficult time. (It was irrelevant that my difficult time was only the length of a day). When I attempted to repay these largely anonymous donors, I was told that the money was not a loan. It was a gift.

When my face was swollen past recognition and I fled town, my friend and coworker followed me the hundred kilometers south and began methodically searching the hospitals for a “foreigner with an itchy face.” At last finding me holed up, she insisted on taking me out to eat and explaining away my sorrows for all those who inquired. When she remembered it was my birthday, she bought me a coke.
Each time I have hit the cement bottom of life in Madagascar, when I have been at my most sick or scared or miserable, somebody has unexpectedly appeared to pick me up. That is, after all, something to behold.