October 07, 2011

Madagasy Class (Photos)

Backyard, Maromandia

Overlooking Tana

Market day, Maromandia

Rickshaws, Moramanga

Lemur Festival, Antafiabe

Classroom, Ambolobozo

The Struggles of the Soda Truck


If I was three feet shorter and Malagasy I could have been part of this...


Epicerie, Antanambao

Max and his coconut


Market, Antananarivo


Evening down by the river

Travels, Trials, and Travails

**Italics represent journal excerpts

I. That time when 30k became 70k… (July 2010)

            Due to various misreadings of the map and misconceptions of distance, not to mention various conversational misunderstandings if not misleadings, I embarked early one morning for what I thought would be a straight-forward 30 kilometer bike ride to Ankarafa, home of the blue-eyed lemurs.  I met my accompaniment at an inconspicuous dirt-road turn off.  The dusty sign announced Ambolobozo 65k; I was really happy I was not going to Ambolobozo.
            It was a beautiful morning and at first the going was fairly smooth.  Then it became rather hilly, then mountainous; as my friend’s bike had no operable gears and little in the way of brakes, we were forced to walk up and down the numerous steep slopes.  The road also began to deteriorate rapidly, whole gullies were washed out and we had to walk long, impassibly rocky stretches as well.  We started to climb…and climb…and climb. Pushing my bike was like hiking with an extremely heavy extra limb.  The road curved forever up and away, and I began to regret every item I had packed, including every single page of the Brothers Karamazov.
            We stopped for rice just after in a quiet, dusty little village that as much as I wanted it to would not admit to being Ankarafa.  When we continued, I began asking those people we passed if it was still far, and invariably received the answer “mbola lavi-davitry,” which I interpreted as “sorta far” but in retrospect might well have meant “REALLY [EXPLETIVE] FAR.”  At last someone gave a quantifiable answer: 12k.  It seemed a manageable distance.
            Afternoon pushed on and I continued to push my bike, hating each of the Brothers Karamazov in turn.  One of our party’s members now mentioned “stopping by” Ambolobozo: remembering that 65k my optimism evaporated.  I wanted to cry.  The sun sank lower and I began to wonder if we would make it by sunset.  Internally, I gave myself permission to cry if we didn’t.
            I was informed, with a look of extreme pity, that 15k remained.  I began to distrust that these people had any sense of distance at all.  The sun set; the moon rose; I had left my house at .  I pushed my bike, stared at my feet, and thought: this road can’t go on forever.
            Then I looked up and there were huts and tents and welcoming faces.  I dropped my accursed bike with a clatter and raising my arms in victory, shouted out “TONGA!” Literally, this translates to “arrival” but in my desperate state it clearly meant: “we made it! somehow….”  This is, by now, the stuff of legend, my indecorous arrival, a story told and retold to the general amusement of all.  I don’t mind. I’m just happy I didn’t cry.

II. That time I was attacked by a Suicidal Goat (April 2011)

            A tried and true method for survival of long, hot, cramped brousse rides is the zone-out.  Don’t count the miles, don’t shift positions: sheer endurance zen.
            Of course, this is often easier said than done. One day, you emerge from your zen-state of higher consciousness wondering how it can be raining when it is so beautifully sunny.  Slowly, you realize that everyone is yelling, somewhat illogically, the word “goat” or the command “close the window, idiot.”  Now thoroughly back on the plane of mortal thought you recognize that you have been the victim of bladder limitations and gravitational fate.
            Oh well, all the better for your quest for transcendence that no one will sit near you.  You focus on the landscape whizzing past, the green melding with the blue of the sky, yes things are clear now, you are beginning to understand that – WHAM! All you see is a struggling mass of brown fur, hooves, and panicked eyeballs. Somebody is screaming.  No wait, that is you screaming.  Everyone else is screaming: “hold it up!” Hold up what?  Oh, the goat.  The goat that just wriggled loose of its bindings, leapt tethered by a single hoof suicidally from the roof rack, and, in a parabola of terror, slammed into your window.
            Someone with greater presence of mind rescues it and immediately reattaches the goat.  Zen you decide to leave for another brousse ride, another day.

III. That time I was Adrift on a Sea of Despair (October 2010)

            For days we had hop scotched in and out of the boat composing lists, in search of stamps, asking in exasperation “your president fokontany went where now?”  Today was our final day and when we had woken up our navigator/anchor hauler, a teenage boy in faded, Hawaiian print shorts, he had yelled: “Home today! That means beer!”
            After asking directions—a humorous endeavor on the open seas—we arrived at a particular break in the mangroves.  A few K on foot, talk to some folk, check who died since 2006 and who still has chickens.  Done at last, beer here we come.  But back at the boat we discover our navigator/anchor hauler (and dare I mention, boat guardian) missing, along with another young (female) passenger we had collected for the return trip.
            Forced to push out by the retreating tide, the first hour passes.  It is brutally, shadelessly hot (in fact, my dialect’s word for hot, “mai,” which translates in official Malagasy as “burnt,” was the most relevant term for what was happening to my poor, Caucasian existence).  I am attempting to hid every exposed inch of skin under fabric without suffocation.  It is a tenuous balance.
            A long and spirited discussion is conducted on the ethicality of abandoning our young ship hand miles of open water from home.  Another hour plods by and someone is sent off in search.  As I begin to muse over sunstroke and other negative thoughts, he returns empty handed.
            Adrift on a sea of despair, another half hour passes.  Clouds drift everywhere but over the sun.  I begin to feel the borderline insanity of my brain boiling.  At last they reappear, this pair responsible for the leeching of all my future intelligence, all a-giggling in a way I suddenly despise about teenagers.  Without a word we push off, I still harboring a deep, deranged sentiment for leaving them to the fishes.

IV. That time I had a Bag of Vomit thrown at me (November 2010)

            Again, a brousse ride has forced to seek a sanctum of inner zen.  But today it is not even worth the effort.  This particular road looks like has been bombed and your driver, a possible victim of said bombing, is a maniac, plunging in and out of the gaping holes in the asphalt as though he is behind the wheel of a tank not that of a beat-up passenger van.
            Everyone is throwing up: women, children, full-grown men, white-person.  Needless to say, morale is low, and the general feeling is that you would all rather die than proceed one more kilometer down this godforsaken road.
            Your van comes to a halt before a cluster of huts, where an older woman is most fastidiously sweeping a patch of dirt.  Someone exits the vehicle and someone else tosses their bag of vomit on to the patch of dirt.  This is gross, certainly, but you are all in a weakened state: a minute ago none of you cared to live.
            It is a second before you all realize the gravity of this mistake.  The women turns and, with full force of fury, begins to harangue you, culprits and innocents alike.  Though her language is profane and her manner truly fearsome, you all dare to find this a little ridiculous; it is, after all, just a patch of dirt.
            But then she picks up the bag of vomit and advances upon you.  Fun quickly turns to panic.  Doors and windows are slammed shut; mothers selflessly shield children; the maniac driver slams on the gas.  SPLAT! You all stare at the back window in horror at a fate narrowly escaped.

V. That time when Wrenches Flew (September 2011)

            I surveyed our transport.  We were to take the soda truck, or rather the beer truck.  But now was not the time to be picky as I had resolutely refused to walk, bike, or otherwise locomotor myself to our destination.  Want to know why?  Kindly revisit Part I: we were to return to that dusty little town I had so desperately hoped was Ankarafa.
            We were sixteen adults crammed in a space originally designed for, at most, eight.  Of course the vehicle had long ago strayed from its original design: stripped bare, wooden benches riveted to the floor, a backseat that constantly threatened an unexpected exit through the rear door.  As its occupants did not appear particularly concerned though, I decided I wouldn’t be bothered about it either unless I observed a noticeably lighter load.
            The usual situating, an unidentifiable screech from the cassette player, a hand slammed into the door, and we were off.  But at a hardly admirable pace.  This was the kind of bumpy transit where wrenches were flying off the dashboard, and the occupants were flying all over the vehicle. (Although one could fairly ask how positive an indicator the wrenches on the dash were in the first place.)
            It’s an apt play on words, for we were in fact wrenched about mercilessly, rattling about until our brains hurt, vision shakily impaired, and internal organs hopelessly jumbled.  Our vehicle, unlike its overly equipped American counterparts, completely lacked the “Oh [expletive] handle" that would have been oh so handy.  Thus we clung to the frame, the windowsills and, more often than not, each other in a desperate attempt to stay upright and sane.
            When we arrived 36k and four hours later—having pushed the car through five impassible sections and walked many others—we were demonstrably neither.

October 01, 2011

Attack of the Nacirema II: The Nacirema Wed

For nearly two years, I have lived a world away from the Nacirema, that cult of American culture from which I have so thoroughly defamiliarized myself. Now duty was calling me home to the tanindrazana, land of my ancestors.  The Nacirema were to wed and my presence was required, to hold the bride’s “bouquet” at rehearsal (her “bouquet” was alcoholic; so was mine), to “fluff” her train at the altar (I received specific instructions), and to kindly request at the reception that my older sister return that young man’s outfit and take back her cocktail dress. Two things were apparent about this wedding, I was going to be indispensable and it was going to be open bar.

Crossing the world is no small venture. It required four flights, no fewer than ten take-offs and landings, five airplane meals, twelve visits from the beverage cart, 38 hours and one loop around a hurricane. That is airport to airport and just one way,  though I understand the hurricane was a bit exceptional.  Traveling is its own peculiar form of disconnect: lost in time zones, sharing a half a day with a stranger, setting up camp in airports.

Then suddenly, I am walking out into America, the climate-control kingdom, the land of packaging within packaging, the hungry, why wait? world.  All at once I have regained my personal telephone booth of space; lines are orderly and exchanges efficient; people are, gasp, polite.  Everyone is extraordinarily clean and, yes, well-fed.  My skin color is no longer my defining feature and, until I spot the Lemur Lovin’ poster and a gaggle of greeters, I am anonymous.

Now I, master of the third-world squat, must return to the first-world I once thought comple. I must reabsorb these truths, these standards and structures of my native society. It is not an easy task to relearn much of what I had diligently unlearned. Sleeping without a mosquito net felt dangerously exposed; drinking out of the tap reeked of an invitation to doom; ice cubes popped out of the refrigerator door and I nearly had a heart attack. I could barely eat (but so valiantly I tried!) and it took more than a week for me to get up the nerve to drive a car. I dumped the entire contents of my suitcase into the washing machine: a symbolic readjustment of my definition of clean.

These things, the physical aspects of America that failed to correspond with my world away, turned out to be the easy part. Within a week, the feeling that I was treading an alien landscape had passed. Like riding a bicycle (or more pertinently, driving that car) I fell with surprising ease back into the physical grooves of my life before. It was in many ways an elaborate muscle memory test.

But I learned slowly and somewhat painfully that these grooves, while physically adequate, were maladjusted to the real stuff of life: family, friends, the people we love and care for; their dynamics and relationships; their passions and the direction of their lives.

In Madagascar, we toss around a term, “same same but different,” to describe the general state of stagnation. Surprisingly, and somewhat paradoxically, I found no other term more applicable to what awaited me in America. The country itself, embroiled in political conflict, struggling through financial woes, was not all that different from the one I knew in Fall 2009. Many of the people I care for I found fundamentally the same, yet dramatically changed, grown and adapted to new places and situations. I often felt lost in a swirl of dynamics I could not understand, my navigational system two years outdated. The back-stories lost to me forever, I realized just how I can never relive the events of my absence.

Similarly, I am changed, “same same but different,” but few seemed to have noticed. Time and again I was told, “I expected you to be different,” and I don’t know whether to be flattered or appalled. I feel nothing the same but the changes occurred a world away. And Madagascar does not exist to America as anything but that- somewhere far, beyond, removed, apart. I struggled again and again to make my experience accessible- to open a little hole to that world- but I failed.

I thought that I might have some trouble reconciling my two worlds. I have found them instead to be utterly incompatible, equally unable to conceive of the other. It was fitting that days of travel were required to reach my hometown from my village, because my mind cannot comprehend a planet on which both the United States and Madagascar exist simultaneously.

It is a sort of cognitive dissonance, this tug between worlds, uncomfortable but also liberating. If they are irreconcilable than so am I. 

One More Year! One More Year!

Yes, much like a college basketball star pondering the pros, I stood before an adoring crowd as it chanted defeaningly, “ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR!” OK, it was nothing remotely like that. A few people said, hey, you’re pretty tamana (well-settled) here in Madagascar; you should stay. Peace Corps said, sure, make it happen. An NGO said, you speak Malagasy? Prove it.

In government speak a third year of Peace Corps is referred to as an extension of service, a term which, somewhat disappointingly, lacks an acronym. I do my best to make up for the deficiency though, dropping the phrase “go go gadget Peace Corps” on any and all relevant occasions. Again disappointingly, these occasions are sadly few.

My new position will take me to a different part of Madagascar. Maroantsetra, a city of some size but considerable isolation (accessible half the year only by plane, boat, or four-days on foot), is on a similar latitude to my current residence but opposite coast. It is the primary access point to a number of protected areas, including Masoala National Park, the largest swath of virgin rainforest in the country.

I will be working with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an NGO highly active throughout Madagascar and particularly so in the Maroantsetra area. My position will (theoretically) be two fold: first, helping WCS to implement its pre-existing Environmental Education program at schools in and around the protected areas, and second, performing data analysis on a series of community diagnostic surveys. The notion behind this latter task is that a better understanding of community goals and needs allows for greater cooperation and more effective conservation efforts.

No small number of people (fellow PCVs included) have stated their belief that I must be a little crackbrained for signing on for an extra year, but I find there to be no small number of compelling reasons for doing just that. From a logical perspective, I have invested a great deal of myself here in Madagascar. I spent most of my first year struggling to persuade my town that I was not on a long and exceedingly strange vacation; at last they believe me. I speak a ridiculously obscure and (off this island) all but useless language; I want to use it. I worked hard to adapt to Malagasy culture, to the way and pace of life, and developed a skill set that is not as relevant elsewhere. From a purely logical point of view, these are all investments I am not yet ready to walk away from.

There are practical reasons as well. I have not completed my hundred classics booklist (my pace slowed markedly as I rediscovered what it was like to have a life). Likewise, I am nowhere near completion of my Madagascar bucket list. And, of course, I have by no means run out of things to blog about (though, I warn in advance that the blog address could well be renamed “Adventures in Ego-tripping”). OK, maybe these reasons are not “practical” in the truest sense of the word, but they are their own brand of persuasion.
The most compelling reasons for my stay, however, are of a decidedly emotional nature. I love Madagascar and though I may occasionally lapse and even dwell in cynicism and pessimism, I believe that it is a country of astounding beauty and resilience, home to a remarkable people at a certain crossroads of their future. It is also a place where incredible things happen. For now, for a little while longer, I want to be a part of that.

I have to believe this in order to spend another year balancing life on this antipode. For it is rarely the physical challenges that force me to question my time here. It is not the monotonous diet, the heat or illness, not even the hole in the backyard. It is instead the distance and the disconnect, the lives unfolding far away from me.

Anyone who received a call from me during the decision-making weeks know that I agonized. I was looking to be told that ONE MORE YEAR would not permanently relegate me to the realm of lost marbles or things forgotten on the roof of the car. One can never receive complete assurance on this front, but I feel that in the realms that really matter I will assuredly be welcomed back whenever I wander home.

**My extension of service is still officially pending medical approval, so cross your fingers that I have not developed a severe case of Wriggling Worms or Tropical Spinal Implosion Disorder. No, really, cross your fingers.