July 30, 2011

Loose Ends: Oddities that Merit Mentioning

A Cowardly, Shameful Return from the Road

            In Madagascar, when one returns from a trip one is expected to bring voandalana, “gifts of the road,” for friends and family. I know what are you thinking: yea, souvenirs, we do that too. No, not like this you don’t.
            When I arrive in my town, exhausted and barely able to stand, I am immediately and unmercifully accosted by small children, neighbors, surly teenagers, acquaintances only of greeting, and ‘friends’ that magically appear out of the woodwork on only these occasions. Bread, they yell, where is our bread? Walking the backstreets home, voices call out from deep within houses: oranges, Katie, did you forget the oranges?
            It is a gauntlet that only a fool would run empty-handed. As terrified as I am, I have been forced to face the fact that the deliverance of such expected goods is not only a financial but physical impossibility. Calls to Jesus’ Loaves and Fishes department have gone sadly unanswered.
            So now in a shameful act of cowardice, I have resorted to return under the cover of darkness. It is with the greatest stealth that I creep through the streets. Inevitably, though, I trip; a head is raised and a sleepy voice calls out: the apples, Katie, we’ve been waiting for the apples!

Dead Man Walking

            Second-hand clothes are a first-hand affair here. Next time you donate a shirt to Clothes for Africa, or even Goodwill, picture the shouting and shoving, the concentrated haggling that erupts over a newly revealed pile of faded jeans and worn jerseys. This is frippery, or deadman’s markets- the malls of Madagascar- and that shirt you thought you were giving away is actually up for sale.(Don’t be outraged; from a development point of view this is actually a good thing.)
            Here one finds the cast-offs and misprints of the wealthy world. Who wouldn’t want to sport World Famous Guss brand jeans or the jersey of Brazilian soccer star Ronald? (Exposed as an English import!). Would you not fight for a Jennifer Loper t-shirt? Sometimes one wonders if the screen-printers have all gone insane, as their products range from the awesomely incomprehensible (Big Mac Attack Attack Attack) to inspirational missteps (Success Covers Many Blunders) to screaming paranoia (Does Everything Taste Fake or is it Just Me?).
And the Victor is Carried Off by the Crotch!

            Morengy- Malagasy boxing- gives a whole new meaning to the term promenade. It is one part sport to four parts spectacle.
            Long after the crowd has gathered, the competitors continue to stroll and flex, remove and replace shirts, and strive in their quest for the perfect stance to display their rock-hard calf muscles. Though there is much shouting and manly gesticulating at potential opponents, it is hours until contact is made. Even then most of the strutting roosters will merely settle down to watch.
            And watch closely one must, for when the action finally occurs one dare not blink for fear of missing the flurry of badly-thrown fists and misaimed kicks that constitute a fight. Before you know it, one of the men, ostensibly the victor, is being carried off by his crotch. Yes, it is difficult to explain: the crotch.
I Found Eternity in a Malagasy Meeting

             Small-town meetings in this country start late and end much, much later. They are marathons of tedium,  mockeries of efficiency; they drain the spirit of my soul. For hours, one is cramped in a desk designed in 1964 for a eight year old. Complete lack of blood circulation is mirrored by a total absence of circulation. My very existence stagnates.
            Participants unfailingly begin with a noble and enraged demeanor, but as formalities drag on they drop one by one like flies in the heat. At last a higher percentage have slipped into  a semi-comatose state than remain cognizant. Every minute I fear that I will perish from the sheer monotony, but the minutes drag on and somehow I continue to live.
            The only hope for escape is the occasional and unpredictable meeting that goes in the exact opposite direction. This is a boiling, simmering mess of small town politics, meetings where these ancient desks are transformed into rickety soap boxes, platforms from which one can advantageously yell down on his foes. In this arena, I have been witness to highly contested votes of the women’s group third secretary, to slammed fists and flying spittle, to staged walkouts.
            Grateful for the entertainment, I have been known to climb a desk just to shout LOUD NOISES and get the blood re-circulating.

What Horrors Await Us?

            Malagasy music videos are best described with varying combinations of the words ‘wonderful’ and ‘horrible.’ (Go ahead, try it. It’s fun.) This is particularly true when one considers that super stardom on this island by no means requires a voice that can bear listening to.
            Nonetheless, there is no understating the manner in which these ‘clippies,’ masterful in their comprehensive cheesiness, captivate their audience. Boasting appallingly bad special effects and totally unremarkable backdrops (think: gas station parking lots, a field of dead grass), they are often driven by strange and incomprehensible story lines (wait, she did or did not overcook the rice?). While none of the above are a necessity, matching outfits, coordinated dancing, and a mindboggling array of ass-shaking techniques are a must-have. I imagine that if you are not capable of disengaging your hips from your body proper, you are simply not welcome on set.
            As unbearable as these videos can become in a repetitive sense- one PCV used to ask with only a half-feigned dread, “What horrors await us?”- they take great pride in Malagasy culture. In many ways, they exemplify the admirable and irrepressible joy of life one finds all over Madagascar. And of course, after a beer or two appreciation of the art of the clippy is bound to elevate. (She did burn the rice. That bitch!).

July 02, 2011

Another Ten Reasons You Have “Gone Rogue”

Dedicated, with sincerity, to the special people of the world who airlift cheez-its despite the recurring fear that their daughter has truly, irrevocably gone rogue.

1.      You have come to the belief that the color “dingy brown” actually compliments your skin tone quite nicely.

2.      Eating rice with a fork is not just a challenge, it is a physical impossibility.

3.      You take great pride in your clean-swept dirt porch. Hours a day are spent tending to it. Shamelessly, you gossip about the shabbiness of your neighbor’s dirt porch.

4.      In your town, you have acquired a theme song, “Arovy, arovy, arovy ny tontolo ianatsika,” (Protect our environment!). You hear it wherever you go; it is played for you at parties. While feigning the necessary indifference, you are secretly quite pleased and walk around with the inflated tree-hugger ego of Captain Planet.

5.      Often, you simply cannot tell if you are hungry or if you are ill.

6.      You do not panic when your friend tells you, “I think I have chikungunia.” Again, you refrain from panic when she reports, “I have something worse.” But when she says, “I may have to go home,” YOU SERIOUSLY FREAKING PANIC.

7.      You have entire conversations without uttering a single fully-formed syllable.

8.      Endlessly, you and your friends play games such as “What would you eat at this exact moment in time?” “City names with only the vowel ‘A,’” “Closest guess to today’s date wins a cookie,” and “If your name was a verb what would it mean?” None of these, however, compare to the most enduringly popular “Things I do not care about.”

9.      The Peace Corps doctor kindly inquires, “Do you read a lot?” and recommends you use proper lighting as you are “straining your eyeballs.” He forgets, or neglects, to ask about you romantic life. It is only hours later that you think to be offended by this insult of omission.

10.  You have lost all human empathy; you read about prison and think to yourself- applesauce and air conditioning- that sounds nice!

Sahamalaza Map and Cookstove Project (Photos)

     In April (yes, I am aware that it is July), a rabble of wildly enthusiastic volunteers descended upon my town for a week to help with a long planned map and cookstove project.

The primary goal of this project was the painting of a large map of Sahamalaza National Park and the Commune of Maromandia at the entrance of the commune building.

The vertical portion of the map depicts the National Park and the horizontal the Commune. Park boundaries, roads, rivers, and footpaths are all included.


"Call-out" boxes (I swear someone told me they are actually called that), highlight special environmental features of the park and surrouding area, such as endemic species, coral reefs, mangrove forests, etc.

Taking advantage of all the helping hands, the rabble of volunteers held a cookstove construction demonstration at the town EPP (elementary school).

Over a hundred students and teachers participated.

There was a lot of enthusiasm...

A lot of mud...

Teachers just adore fuel-efficient cookstoves.

And then more cookstoves a few days later with the Environmental Club.

Fun times were had by all!

July 01, 2011

The Eighth Continent (Photos)

Hell-ville, Nosy Be




Bongo Angorony



Ambatoloaka, Nosy Be

Route National 6

Andilana, Nosy Be


Andilana, Nosy Be



Andilana, Nosy Be


Near Fianarantsoa

Andilana, Nosy Be