If I Had a Hammer…I’d Hit Whoever Wrote that Song

Where did I leave you last time? Ah yes, the horrible cliché of a tearful airport farewell. I have heard it said many times that all good things must come to an end although that motto does seem rather defeatist if you ask me. Can’t we find a way to keep a good thing going forever? Guess not. Although if I had to bet money I’d say the preservative saturated deliciousness of Twinkies will probably last close to forever. Those things just never go bad. Anyway, after two weeks of Madagascar vacation epicness with my dear friend Pasha it was understandably a little difficult to climb on that taxi brousse heading back to my site. It was even harder to sit at my site with basically nothing to do but count passing zebu since school hadn’t started yet and Andramasina was basically a ghost town with all the kids wrapping up summer vacation elsewhere. The truth is I think those lonesome moments when the boredom reaches a point where you almost gouge your eyes out with a fork are a part of almost every Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience –and those moments can be more trying than anything else. When you are busy you don’t have time to think about the people and things you miss the most (cheddar cheese…sigh), but when you find yourself literally watching paint dry you can quite easily drown in your own thoughts and emotions. Those moments test you in many ways – your level of independence, your optimism, your commitment to the Peace Corps, and your ability to appreciate delayed satisfaction. Or maybe it only tests your ability to find innovative ways to amuse yourself. Either way, when you are in Peace Corps it’s a challenge you accept.

Sunset from my window

I decided that rather than sitting around cursing my ridiculous amounts of free time I should embrace it. After all, most of you reading this are probably thinking, “God, what I wouldn’t do for some free time.” You know I’m right. So I started doing things that I would really like to do but normally can’t find time for. In true Peace Corps style I spent several days just reading books (I would highly recommend the Women’s Murder Club series by James Patterson). I also filled some time by studying for the GRE (you mean I actually have to remember the arithmetic I learned in 8th grade!? That’s what a calculator is for) and expanding my French vocabulary which sadly is still minuscule. I enjoyed my leisurely lifestyle for about two weeks before the real world found me and I had to start doing productive things again.

I received a text message from Tovo, the supervisor of the health volunteers in Madagascar, inviting me to attend a meeting in Tana. The text specified the date, time, and location of the meeting but strangely enough offered no explanation as to the topic or nature of the meeting. It simply said it was a “PAC meeting”. So I texted Tovo back inquiring as to what exactly we would be discussing at the meeting. I believe I wrote something like, “I would be happy to attend the meeting but what exactly is it about?” To which he replied, “Program Advisory Committee.” Huh. Well, I knew what PAC stood for then but what the heck did that even mean? We were going to be a committee of unspecified people advising an unspecified program? Tovo is a good guy and a great supervisor so no offense to him, but the failure to elaborate was a little funny. One of the many reasons Peace Corps recruiters will tell you volunteers must be nothing if not flexible. I made the trek to Tana for the meeting in spite of the slight gap in details (I had finished all my books – what else was I gonna do?). Once there and able to use the internet at the transit house I discovered that I had received an email providing the details of the meeting. All of the current health volunteers (there are about 14 of us, all from the July 2011 stage) had been invited to attend the meeting in order to discuss the future of the Peace Corps health program in Madagascar. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Washington gave the Madagascar team two options – either discontinue the health program entirely or dramatically restructure it. Since Madagascar is still lagging far behind most other countries in terms of health indicators like infant and maternal mortality, I am relieved to say that they chose to restructure. Counterparts and representatives from various health NGOs working in Madagascar were also invited to this meeting, and although a great many failed to show (hopefully they were busy saving small children and bunnies from a burning house or something) it was very interesting to get a glimpse of what the new health program will look like. In accordance with Washington’s shiny new Focus In Train Up (FITU) framework, the health program will be much more…well…focused. We will be welcoming brand new health volunteers in February 2013 and their training will be completely different from what me and the other “old” volunteers received. For one thing, they will be directly following FITU training packets sent from Washington. They will be focusing on Maternal, Neonatal, and Child Health (breastfeeding, nutrition, malaria control, etc.) and Environmental Health (improved cookstoves, water and sanitation, hygiene). It seems that Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, and HIV/AIDS prevention/education have been thrown to the wayside. I am not particularly happy about this exclusion, but I am just one of the little people and the decision has already been made. So the training of the new volunteers will reflect these changes – and as for the rest of us health volunteers who will soon become outdated? The answer seems to be evolve and cope as best we can. There’s that flexibility thing again.

Vatsy, his wife Clementine, and their son Tiako

Enough bureaucratic talk – let’s move on to the excitement of Mid-Service Conference (MSC). What is that you ask? Precisely what it sounds like – the conference volunteers attend mid-way through their service. Since Peace Corps service is two years long (excluding training) and my fellow stagemates and I have been in Madagascar for a little over a year it was time for the much anticipated MSC. Of course, by far the most exciting aspect of MSC was simply being reunited with my stagemates – seeing the same 27 lovely faces that I arrived in this country with back in July 2011. Sure we’ve change a little bit – some of us are a few pounds lighter, some of us are a little tanner, some of us are a little hairier, and all of us are quite a bit dirtier – but once we gathered together it was just like old times. We had some interesting sessions (I am now knowledgeable on raising chickens for profit), ate our weight in popcorn, threw some water balloons, and got our dance on. It was a good week.

Oh, but the excitement didn’t end there! Immediately after MSC I had the honor, privilege, and awesome good luck to work once again with Habitat for Humanity. The destination this time around? None other than Ranomafana National Park. You might recall that location from my last blog entry – it was the first park that Pasha and I visited on our Madagascar adventures, the home of numerous lemurs, chameleons, and natural hot springs. I had a great time working with the previous Habitat group in Moramanga back in July so the bar was set rather high but this new group didn’t disappoint. Once again, the group was primarily composed of Americans although there were a few Canadians and a Croatian thrown into the mix. To put it simply they were the shiz, the bee’s knee’s, the cat’s meow, the best thing since sliced bread and all that and a bag of chips. They were that awesome. As we worked together building houses in Ranomafana I had the pleasure of hearing their various life stories and experiences – and how fascinating they were! In the group there was a pediatrician, a former makeup artist turned movie producer turned professional artist, a math teacher from Hawaii, someone who works for Penguin publishing, a health equity consultant, someone who retired in their 30’s – and trust me, that’s just naming a few! In addition to being surrounded by a great group of volunteers (including the four other Peace Corps volunteers and the Malagasy Habitat personnel of course) the work itself was extremely satisfying. The type of work I do with the Peace Corps is great in many ways but rarely do I get to see tangible results of my labor. For instance, when I am doing health education/sensitization in my community I often can’t see any concrete outcomes. Since I am focusing on encouraging behavior change for health improvement the only way I could actually witness any direct change would be by following people home and creepily stalking them to observe if their behavior had indeed been altered by my message. The great thing about working with Habitat for Humanity is that you are building something with your hands – something that you can sit back and admire after you’re done. That’s not to say that having a physical product of your labor is always important, not at all. But I’m not gonna lie…it’s nice sometimes.

Some of my new Habitat friends!

After working hard on the houses all week we had a little reward come Sunday – a hike through the park. Recalling all too well the six hour hike that Pasha and I so unwisely chose to do the last time around, I opted for the shorter three hour hike. The park was just as splendid as I remembered and we got to see some Sifaka at very close range as well as giraffe beetles which I had never seen before. The beetles are much smaller than they appear on National Geographic – I don’t know why that surprised me. We also did a night hike which excited me because I thought I might finally get a better glimpse of the shy and incredibly fast mouse lemur. As it turns out, I got to see plenty of mouse lemurs very close up. Not because our guide was particularly skilled at finding mouse lemurs or the alignment of the planets was just right for mouse lemur viewing, but rather because the guides had baited the trees near the road by rubbing bananas on them. So come nightfall, all the mouse lemurs within a mile were irresistibly drawn to the banana smeared branches like a Kentuckian is drawn to a KFC basket. The whole scene did feel quite artificial, especially since there was a shuffling herd of about thirty tourists standing around snapping pictures. But for me, the mouse lemurs were just adorable enough to make up for it. I don’t care how they got them there, that’s still pretty much the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. We also saw frogs, chameleons, and moths but those animals are significantly less cuddly than mouse lemurs so my interest in them was not as great.

So much smaller than on TV…

As was true in Moramanga, we weren’t able to actually finish any of the houses but we got quite far along in the construction by the end of the ten days and the Malagasy carpenters would finish the houses after the Habitat team departed. When all is said and done there will be four happy families in Ranomafana receiving four brand new houses. In the end I left the build feeling satisfied that we had done good work and very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it. I will certainly look for more opportunities to work with Habitat in the future and I encourage my Peace Corps brethren to do the same.

And now I am back in Andramasina. When I arrived, I was greeted by my Malagasy “family” who thought I had been gone far too long in Ranomafana and they feared I had become settled there and would never return to Andramasina. Happily, I was able to put those fears to rest. I was also greeted of course by my dog Lolo who managed to make every inch of her eight pound body wiggle with joy upon my arrival. School has started up once again so it is considerably less quiet in town and I have much more to do with my time. I teach English on occasion, have a health stand at the market every Thursday, and I have my girl’s group Tovovavy Tena Mendrika (Exemplary Young Women). I’ll elaborate more on those projects next time. Plus, the weather has warmed as it gears up for summer in the southern hemisphere. That also means it is now mango season – and there was much rejoicing. Veloma.

Busy? What’s That? Oh yeah…I Remember Now

This is gonna be a long one, folks so make sure you’re sitting in a comfy chair and you’ll probably want to go pee before you start reading but don’t worry, there are pretty pictures. We good? Okay.

In case there are those of you who haven’t been keeping track (shame, shame) I have cleared the one year mark in Madagascar! Not only that, but there hasn’t been a single ET (Early Termination), Medical Separation, or Administrative Separation from my stage! That means all 27 of the lovely volunteers I came to country with and trained alongside for two months in Mantasoa are still here in Madagascarland with me! For those rolling their eyes and mumbling ,”big whoop-dee-doo” I invite you to put down your iPhone, leave your reclining chair, and try living in Madagascar for a year. We’ll see how many meals of white rice you get through before I find you crying in a corner in the fetal position. I’m still not quite sure whether as a group this means we are mentally strong and well adjusted or if it just means we’re exceptionally stubborn – either way I’m proud of our accomplishment. Go us.

This was me a year ago. Oh, how the time flies.

Let’s see…interesting happenings since my last entry. Backtracking to the end of June, a fellow volunteer visited and stayed with me at my site for the first time – even better, it was my former training center roommate Carolyn. Carolyn lives about eight or so hours south of Antananarivo so I didn’t expect her to ever make it out to my site. However, she was coming back to Madagascar after a truly epic vacation in Europe with some friends (totally jealous) so she was in the capital since that happens to be the location of Madagascar’s only international airport. She was in no big hurry to get back to her site because all the teachers in her town are on strike and have been for several months. Since she is an English Teacher, that’s rather inconvenient for her however, it worked out quite nicely for me. Carolyn came to Andramasina and stayed with me for about a week before we both headed back up to the capital. We had a good ol’ time in Andramasina doing basically nothing the whole week. Perhaps one of the reasons why Carolyn and I get along so well is that we both are extremely easy to amuse – it really does not take much. Case in point, one night we discovered a karaoke program on my computer and spent four solid hours drinking beer and singing karaoke with the occasional interpretive dance thrown in – just the two of us. Other days we slept what was likely an unhealthy amount since Carolyn was recovering from sleep debt accumulated during her Eurotrip and I can basically go to sleep anywhere and at anytime. Oh! I almost forgot. The 26th of June is Madagascar’s Independence Day (or in my less than historically accurate mind, the day that Madagascar finally stood up and said, “France, your croissants may be delicious but we want our independence!”). To celebrate the big day, Carolyn and I visited my Malagasy extended “family” in Tana. As usual, there was a lot of dancing and rum involved in the festivities but the best part in my opinion was sitting outside and watching the fireworks show. That’s right…Madagascar has its own fireworks show in the capital on their Independence Day and it is quite impressive. They even had those fireworks that form a smiley face when they explode. No joke. As Carolyn and I sat there – well, I was sitting there and Carolyn was attempting to make friends with every single child within a mile – we were both grateful to be able to share in the Malagasy celebration but also sort of guiltily happy that we could pretend for just a minute that the fireworks lighting up the night sky were actually 4th of July fireworks being watched from some familiar place in the United States.

Carolyn – too legit for life

And then there was the surprise circumcision. I mean, it wasn’t a surprise for the family of the boy (luckily) but rather it was a surprise for me. Generally, I am fairly confident with my Malagasy speaking abilities (if I wasn’t at this point it would be a big problem). However, there are a select few individuals who I tend to inexplicably get choked up around – one of them happens to be Andramasina’s Medicin Inspecteur, Dr. Solofo. That is very unfortunate for me because he is basically my boss at site. In theory, I should probably meet with him regularly and if I did that faithfully he might even invite me to help with various health initiatives in the outlying villages. But in reality, I avoid him like the plague. As in, I hear his booming voice from across the hospital compound and I take it as my cue to scurry and hide like a cockroach. Physically speaking, this guy should not be intimidating – he stands a good head shorter than me and I’m not tall by any means. He has a moustache that I have strong suspicions was inspired by a Mario videogame and he always seems to be wearing black (but not in a cool way like Johnny Cash). But in spite of his appearance, Dr. Solofo manages to intimidate the fire out of me and when he is around all those cool sounding Malagasy words just get stuck in my throat and I’m left silently staring at him with my mouth agape like an oversized goldfish. It doesn’t help that he speaks Malagasy a hundred miles an hour and with absolutely no attempt to avoid difficult vocabulary I might not know. That is all background information leading to the surprise circumcision. One evening, I forced myself to untuck my tail from between my legs and went to speak to Dr. Solofo about helping me find patients who could benefit from cleft lip and/or cleft palate surgery (I’ll elaborate on that later). As usual, he was in a big hurry of some sort and rushed off in the direction of the Health Bureau building as he simultaneously shouted some rapid fire Malagasy over his shoulder. Basically the only thing I got from his spewing of words was, “I am busy right now but walk with me and explain it.” So I obediently trailed behind him and breathlessly tried to explain the project and how I needed him to help me find patients. I was concentrating so hard on explaining it well and in clear, grammatically correct Malagasy that I noticed rather late that we had stopped in a back room of the Bureau and several men had a two or three year old boy pinned to the table. He had no pants on and was clearly (and understandably) having an absolute fit. My less than perfect explanation of the project immediately died on my lips as I stared dumbly at the scene before me. Dr. Solofo immediately swooped in, produced a surgical kit from thin air, and proceeded about his business. Once I realized what was going on, it was too late. Some things you just can’t unsee. The poor kid worked himself into such a frenzy that he was shaking from head to foot. I felt so sorry for him that I ran back to my room and got him a little bag of chips I had bought earlier that day. He took the bag from me while he continued wailing his lungs out. Not that I blamed him. Not one bit.

Speaking of circumcision (not a phrase often uttered), the traditional Malagasy circumcision ceremony is actually quite a big to-do. I haven’t gotten wind of any traditional ceremonies occurring in my town, but I hear that they are still very common in some parts of Madagascar, especially the west coast around Morondava. The ceremony is seen as a coming of age and celebration of manhood for the lucky (?) young man. Often the boy is much older than the youngster I saw get snipped at the Bureau – I have heard of ceremonies for boys as old as 10-12 years. The whole community gathers for the event and sometimes gifts are given. But here’s the kicker – if you are part of the Sakalava tribe after the much anticipated snip, the grandfather eats the foreskin. No, I did not make that up. If you doubt me you can look it up. There was even an episode of Bizarre Foods in Madagascar where the show’s host witnessed a traditional circumcision ceremony – foreskin consumption and all. Sometimes the foreskin is eaten on the tip of a banana (still not making it up). I have not yet had the nerve (or stomach) to ask a Malagasy friend why the foreskin is eaten but I’m sure the reason must be rather compelling.

Animal attraction

Moving right along – as you may have noticed, it has been quite a spell since my last blog entry. That’s because I have been unusually busy the past few months. Not long after spending the Malagasy holiday with my fellow PCV Carolyn I travelled a few hours east of Antananarivo to a place called Moramanga. I had been fortunate enough to hear through the Peace Corps grapevine that there was a Habitat for Humanity group going to Moramanga that was in need of some translators. With nothing even remotely compelling going on at my site, I jumped on the opportunity to see a new place and feel at least a little useful. Even better, the other translators for the trip were some of my Peace Corps stagemates – basically guaranteeing a good time would be had by all. I was so excited to have a “real job” and an excuse to go somewhere new that I completely ignored the fact that I essentially knew nothing about the Habitat project for which I was going to act as a translator. I didn’t know who the Habitat volunteers would be, how we were going to get to Moramanga, where we would be staying, what sort of work we would be doing in addition to translating, or basically any useful information. All I knew was that we would be in Moramanga for ten days and that we were supposed to meet the Habitat group at the Radama Hotel in Antananarivo on July 14th. Luckily for highly uninformed me, it all worked out just fine. The Habitat volunteers were a diverse group of people (although the vast majority were American) who were eager to get their hands dirty to help others – so needless to say, they were pretty great. Most of them had participated in Habitat builds in foreign countries before so they really knew what they were doing. The goal was to build five new houses in ten days. Impossible? No. Difficult? Oh yeah. As I discussed in a previous entry, Madagascar gets hit pretty hard by cyclones every year so some of the houses we were building were actually for families who had their homes destroyed when Hurricane Giovanna threw a temper tantrum all over Madagascar. I quickly discovered that being a “translator” really meant that I was an additional builder who occasionally clarified something shouted in Malagasy. I did manage to pick up some nifty new Malagasy vocabulary during the build although I’m still not sure how to work words like mortar, trowel, and gravel into daily conversation. I’ll work on it. In addition to the odd translation or two and helping with construction I found that I somehow landed the role of child herder. I call it herding because that is honestly the best description I can come up with. A large group of “vazaha” building a house in the middle of a Malagasy village unsurprisingly drew a rather large crowd of miniature onlookers. Since they clearly had nothing better to do, I decided to see if they wanted to help. The answer was an enthusiastic (if chaotic) yes. After some trial and error and many repeated explanations of how to form a proper line I finally got my little minions to stand in a (rather squiggly) line and pass bricks one by one. A small feat perhaps but one which I was pretty darn proud of. As a sort of reward for their toils, every day at 4pm (one hour before we stopped working) I would gather my little flock and teach them either a song or dance. I will say that the kids in Moramanga are much better at the Hokey Pokey than my English Club students in Andramasina. Major kudos. As is true with most enjoyable experiences, the ten days passed all too quickly. We weren’t able to finish the five houses but most of them were only lacking the finishing touches – these would be completed by the Malagasy construction workers after the Habitat group departed. So in conclusion, building houses and herding small children in Moramanga = pretty awesome experience.

Some of the amazing Habitat volunteers I worked with

My “flock” of children

This Habitat volunteer (Benny) was Peace Corps 1961!

After being so productive for ten straight days it was kind of a shock to return to my site and the often frustratingly slow pace of life there. I didn’t have to wrestle with loneliness and boredom very long however because the very next week I had four “baby” volunteers to entertain. You may recall that when I arrived in country I had to complete about two months of training before actually becoming a volunteer. The training is meant to prepare you for your two years of service by providing language instruction, cultural sessions, and generally giving you some time to dip your toes into the Peace Corps pool before doing a cannonball into the deep end. During training here in Madagascar there is also something called “demyst”. This is a period of a few days when the baby volunteers are sent out in small groups to stay with current volunteers at their sites and learn the ins and outs of Peace Corps daily life – using a kabone, fetching water, being stared at, avoiding piles of zebu poop while walking – all the essentials. After a persuasive call from Tovo, I somewhat grudgingly agreed to host two babies at my site (although I actually ended up with four – long story). Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of hosting trainees and having a full circle moment but it made me late for Operation Smile (more on that in a hot second). With everything now said and done however I am glad that I had the opportunity to host the babies – their bright eyed eagerness rekindled a bit of the old excitement in me. I remembered for the first time in a long while how it felt to have the whole of my Peace Corps service stretching out before me full of unforeseeable challenges and endless potential. I realized that although I am halfway finished with my service there are still so many wonderful possibilities to explore with the time remaining. I still have a lot to be excited about.

The baby volunteers with my Malagasy “grandma”

Okay, so as promised I’ll finally elaborate on Operation Smile. Remember the surprise circumcision? Of course you do. Now remember how I was trying to talk to Dr. Solofo about finding cleft lip and cleft palate patients? Yeah, that was for Operation Smile. In a nutshell, Operation Smile is an organization that sends doctors, nurses, dentists, and other medical personnel to developing countries to perform cleft lip and palate surgeries. The really awesome part is that everything is completely free of charge for the patient – the surgery, a bed to sleep in, and even meals if required. An Operation Smile team has been coming to Madagascar once a year for a while now and every year they request the help of some lucky Peace Corps volunteers to act as translators. As a health volunteer I had priority over volunteers from other sectors (sorry, guys) and I was fortunate enough to be selected to help out. So that is how I found myself unwillingly and unexpectedly witnessing a circumcision – I was simply trying to find people around my site that could benefit from the surgeries. And that is also why later I was so reluctant to take baby volunteers for “demyst” which would make me late for my role in Operation Smile. You see? It all comes together in the end (oh yea of little faith).  As it turns out, being a few days late for Operation Smile didn’t make a huge difference. Although we all signed up on a nice pretty sheet for specific translating jobs on specific dates at specific times, we all just sort of showed up and filled whatever slots needed filling – a little inefficient but that’s Peace Corps for ya.

One of the happiest little kids I’ve ever met

My first day of translating was also my longest day – 16 hours from start to finish. The doctors and nurses (who were from all over the place but the majority were South African) informed us that the first day is generally the longest on any given mission. I was working in the Recovery Room means that I was there when the patients were first brought out of surgery (the little ones often being carried in the arms of the surgeon). The absolute best part of my job was going to get the mother (or sometimes father) from the waiting room and brining them to the patient’s bedside. When a new patient arrived in the Recovery Room, I would sort of hover on the periphery as the medical personnel checked the various monitors and conversed urgently in seriously cool sounding medical jargon (made even cooler by the South African accents). Eventually, the head doctor would notice me fidgeting and say, “you can go get the parent now” and off I would scurry to the room of anxious, expectant faces. After calling the patient’s number one of the parents would jump up, eyes as round as bowls of rice and practically quivering with nerves. The first thing I always told the parent was that everything had gone well during the surgery and that they shouldn’t be scared (which was true because nothing went seriously wrong during any of the surgeries). Then I would guide them on the short walk to the Recovery Room where parent and child were reunited. Parents reacted to seeing their children after surgery in various ways. Most were fairly quiet and reserved (that’s Malagasy culture) but a few memorable ones cried tears of joy and one mother walked right up to the surgeon and hugged him (FYI Malagasy do not hug so this was really exceptional). After the initial reunion however, my job got a little less fun – mainly because the anesthesia started to wear off and the kids realized that they were in a strange place with strange people and their mouths hurt. As you might imagine, a rather unpleasant noise often ensued. It was my job to translate specific instructions to the parents on behalf of the medical personnel and occasionally give a syringe of juice to a wailing child while simultaneously staying out of everyone’s way. This was of course easier said than done – the trick was being where you were supposed to be when you were needed and at all other times staying out of the line of traffic. More than once I was shooed away from a bedside by one nurse only to be immediately called over to the exact same location by another. Unlike the Habitat build which was (for obvious reasons) physically exhausting, Operation Smile was often mentally and emotionally exhausting. But it was also immensely rewarding. Being able to witness what these selfless and clearly very skilled medical professionals could do for their patients was spectacular. I would see children go into surgery with a horribly disfiguring cleft lip and come out a few hours later with an entirely new face and only a tiny line of stitches betraying that any sort of surgery had occurred. While the cleft palate surgeries were less visually dramatic, the difference they make in the lives of the patients is simply amazing. Most children with uncorrected cleft palates will never be able to eat or speak properly. The hole on the top of their mouth causes food to exit through the nose while eating and leaves no place for the tongue to maneuver adequately in order to form the complex sounds that make up human speech. Many children born with cleft palates in developing countries don’t survive the first year – and if they are one of the few to survive their speech and subsequent developmental impairments make for a very difficult and isolated life. It is obviously much more effective and thus preferable to correct cleft palates at a young age – generally the older patients who showed up during Operation Smile were not good candidates for the surgery. However, they were not simply turned away. Cleft palate patients who were too old for the surgery were fitted with something called an obturator. Although I never saw one myself, I gather that it is a small device that is fitted to the gap in the palate. In essence, it acts like a prosthetic palate, preventing food from entering the nasal cavity and aiding in speech formation. What I just described may not be fascinating to all, but I personally think it is downright miraculous. Major altruism points to Operation Smile.

A relieved mom holding her daughter after surgery

But all work and no play makes for a horribly dull individual so what better way to wrap up all this unprecedented productiveness than with a fabulous vacation? Clearly, there is no better way – enter the fabulous Pasha Feinberg, awesome friend and “sister” from my days at Stanford University. This lady flew halfway around the planet just to visit me (although I suspect the prospect of seeing lemurs might have had a tiny bit to do with it as well). At the present time, there is no word in the English language to properly describe just how excited I was to greet her at the Tana airport. Think of the most excited you have ever been in your entire life and then multiply it by about a gazillion – yeah, that excited. The manner of my arrival at the airport was a bit of a surprise. I had of course told my Malagasy family that I had a friend visiting me from America. Vonjy is the only one in the family with a car so I asked if he could help me pick Pasha up from the airport with the understanding that we would pay for the gas. What I had not anticipated was that the entire family would want to go to the airport to greet the new “vazaha”. The solution? They rented out an entire taxi-be (basically a small bus) to shuttle us all to and from the airport. So when an extremely exhausted Pasha rolled into the airport arrival area she was not only greeted by me but by about a dozen over-excited and slightly inebriated Malagasy she had never met before. Pasha, although a little shell shocked, managed to take it all in stride. If our places were reversed I might have run screaming back to the plane.

“Sisters” reunited! 🙂

And thus began the grand Madagascar vacation adventures of Pasha and Kim. We spent the night in Tana and then made our way to my site, Andramasina. I got to show off my sleepy little town to her and most importantly, the cutest dog in the world – Lolo. Lolo immediately showed her affection for Pasha by curling up on top of a pile of her clothes and getting dog hair all over everything. When we left Andramasina to head south Lolo sadly and rather pathetically watched out taxi-brousse drive away (don’t worry, Vatsy takes care of her when I am away). We made it to Antsirabe that day and stayed at a favorite Peace Corps locale, Chez Billy. At five fifteen the next morning (so painfully early) a taxi-brousse was waiting to take us even further south to Fianarantsoa. Once we arrived in Fianar we were able to change brousses and backtrack on the road about an hour and a half to our desired destination – Ranomafana (literally meaning “hot water” because of the natural hot springs there).

Ranomafana = gorgeous

Ranomafana is one of Madagascar’s major National Parks and home to quite an array of lemurs, chameleons, frogs, and other appealingly cool creatures. We were fortunate enough to find a cozy little hotel owned by an older man who told me everyone calls him “Dada Fara”. The nice (although a tad absentminded) owner also happened to know a very good English speaking guide who met with us that evening and made arrangements to be our guide in the park the following day (you aren’t allowed to enter the park without a guide). Pasha and I rather ambitiously agreed to a six hour hike through the park. The hike ended up being truly breathtaking – in more ways than one. The scenery was undeniably gorgeous and it was thrilling to chase our guide through the forest as he tracked lemurs and birds but in retrospect I should have done a little preparation beforehand for such a difficult hike. As in, I should have gotten off my lazy rear and walked a little bit before deciding to hike through the Madagascar rainforest for six hours chasing fast, furry mammals. Clearly, both Pasha and I managed to survive the ordeal (somehow) but soreness stayed with us for quite a few days, reminding us of our lapse in judgment. The lemur spotting made it all worthwhile however – we managed to see Golden Bamboo Lemurs, Greater Bamboo Lemurs, Sifaka, and Red Bellied Lemurs. And my personal favorite part came at the very end when we hiked down to an absolutely gorgeous waterfall and I went swimming at the bottom – clothes and all. It was the first time I had gone swimming in over a year and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful locale.

Yeah, I swam in that waterfall. No big deal.

After the loveliness of Ranomafana, returning to Fianar was sort of a drag but it was the only way we could get down to our next destination, Anja Park – a tiny little community initiated and run park to the south of Fianar that is only on 8 hectares of land but has an impressive population of 400 Ring-tailed Lemurs. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer (environment sector) actually works down there and told me that the Ring-tails had recently given birth, which was enough to work Pasha into a frenzy and guarantee that Anja Park would be on our travel itinerary. Getting there proved to be a might tricky since there are no taxi-brousses that go directly to Anja. However, following the advice of the volunteer we were able to have a brousse going farther south to Ihosy drop us off at the park entrance. Our hike at Anja Park was only about three hours long but had its own challenges. The trail in Ranomafana National Park had been almost comically difficult, but at least it was clearly marked. The trail in Anja Park started out clear and promising as it winded through some shrubs and small trees but quickly disintegrated into a mass of gigantic boulders to scramble over and around. I happen to enjoy a good adventure, a little off-road trekking, taking the path less travelled and all that – but this was more like the path not travelled for a reason. It’s generally not a good sign when your first reaction upon seeing the obstacle in front of you is, “Aw, hell no.” That was precisely my mental reaction at several points during the trek, particularly when we were required to walk over a slippery rock surface at a ludicrous angle with death or disfigurement awaiting those who fell. When I was brave enough to chance a glance down the abyss awaiting me if I slipped I half expected to see little gravestones at the bottom marked, “Here lies another vazaha.” Eventually I think I either became accustomed to a constant level of fear for my life or I went a little insane from the stress because when I spotted a rope trailing down a rock face that we were clearly supposed to repel down I just laughed and shouted, “Pasha! You’re not gonna believe this!” Granted, this was not a very great distance we were required to repel down. But to have it just suddenly pop up on the trail like “surprise!” was both absurd and hilarious. Eventually, both Pasha and I managed to repel down the tiny rock face although Pasha chose a rather unconventional method for repelling – she somehow scooted all the way on her butt. This of course was all to the great amusement of our two Malagasy guides who I’m sure will tell stories of the “butt-scooting vazaha” for years to come. Throughout this entire trek, we did manage to see some Ring-Tailed Lemurs and even spotted one with a tiny little baby clinging to its stomach. However, the vast majority of the lemurs were sleeping when we passed through because we just so happened to arrive at the park during lemur siesta time. Fail.

At least this guy was awake

After our epic hike in Anja Park we returned to Fianar for the night and caught a taxi-brousse early the next morning heading north, all the way back up to Tana – a ten hour trip. Fortunately, the taxi-brousse wasn’t nearly as crammed as they usually are otherwise the trip might have been unbearable. Besides getting a very sore rear end from ten hours of jostling the trip was relatively uneventful. We rolled into Tana tired and dirty just as it was getting dark and spent the night at my “aunt” Lolona’s house. The next leg of our journey took us to the east to Moramanga (if that sounds familiar it’s because that is where I built houses with Habitat). It was at this point I believe we began wondering just what percentage of our trip we had spent travelling in taxi-brousses. Not a whole lot to do in Moramanga but they do have some truly excellent “frip” (secondhand clothes markets). And more importantly, I got to revisit the houses we had built during Habitat. At the end of the Habitat trip the five houses were pretty far along but missing the final touches. The Malagasy carpenters had continued work after our departure and it was really satisfying to walk around Moramanga and see the nearly finished houses. Better yet, some of my little minions remembered me and after about five minutes of walking Pasha and I had gathered an entire flock. Curiously enough, some of them had picked up stilt-walking (you can’t make this stuff up) and were following us around on hand made wooden stilts thus adding to the appearance of a small parade going through Moramanga. Good stuff.

Me standing in front of one of the nearly finished Habitat houses

Our final destination was reached the following day – Andasibe. Andasibe National Park is even bigger and more developed than Ranomafana and has the distinction of basically being the only place in the world to see the largest lemur species – the Indri (or babakoto in Malagasy). If you’re thinking, “Oh, big deal…I’ve seen an Indri before”, no you haven’t. Not unless you happened to be in Madagascar at the time. Indri can’t survive in captivity because their diet is so specific. They only feed on trees that are endemic to Madagascar and they eat approximately 32 different kinds of leaves on any given day. So short of transplanting a few hectares of Madagascar to a zoo Indri are impossible to maintain in captivity, which is really quite a shame because they are pretty awesome. They are the biggest lemur species, the only one without a tail, and they make a noise that can be heard three kilometers away.

Indri, or babakoto

Pasha and I arrived a little late to Andasibe so we spent the first day just exploring a little and walking to the park entrance. We met yet another awesome Malagasy guide whose English was superb and he suggested we go on a “night walk” to see chameleons, frogs, and the elusive Mouse Lemur. Since we had no plans for the evening and the prospect of seeing a Mouse Lemur was hugely appealing, we decided to go for it. There was something especially exciting about walking around at in the dark of night searching for wildlife as light rain fell. It gave the trek an extra little hint of the exotic that allowed me to feel like I was taking part in a National Geographic documentary – at least until some other vazaha being led by a Malagasy guide passed by us and shattered my illusion. Pasha and I were convinced that our guide was a “chameleon whisperer” since he managed to spot a ridiculous number of chameleons that were sitting absolutely motionless and imperceptible on branches. He even pointed out several of the tiniest chameleons in the park; they were barely the size and width of a pinky finger and they were often exactly the same shade of brownish green as the branch they were flattened against. I’m still not entirely convinced our guide didn’t have those chameleons super glued in strategic locations that he then memorized. He was that good. Our night walk did yield a few glimpses of the tiny and absurdly cute Mouse Lemur but those buggers are quick. Rather unexpectedly, our guide managed to find a Wooly Lemur doing its best to hide from our flashlights in a tree. I can’t exactly say the Wooly Lemur was cute – it rather reminded me of Golem from the Lord of the Rings, but very cool nonetheless.

Andasibe – how I love thee

The next day we met up with the same guide who had led us on the night walk to explore the actual park. We opted for a four hour hike which surprisingly ended up being the least physically taxing of our various hiking adventures. It didn’t take long at all for our guide to locate a family of Indri sleeping very high up in the treetops. Then all we had to do was wait for them to wake up, come down, and start their morning calling. As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long at all – almost as soon as we spotted them they started to descend. The calling noise they make is difficult to describe. Imagine a cross between a gibbon call and whale song and then make it really freakin’ loud. That’s the best description I can give of an Indri call – haunting and beautiful but a little painful to the eardrums in close range. We saw lots of other lemurs during the Andasibe hike but I really think the Indri was the most impressive. Although we did see some Sifaka with a tiny little baby that was too adorable for life. At one point the baby tried to leave its mother and go climb on a branch but the mother and father took turns shoving the baby back towards the safety of its mother’s belly. Better luck next time, little Sifaka. So in addition to the Indri and Sifaka we were fortunate enough to see Common Brown Lemurs (which are my personal favorite now) and the Grey Bamboo Lemur. For those of you who are keeping score, that brings the lemur species count up to eleven. Three parks and eleven lemur species, not too shabby. We also saw more chameleons, a gecko, and some pretty birds but let’s face it, the lemurs are much more exciting.

Sifaka and tiny baby!

That pretty much wraps up the most thrilling parts of the Pasha and Kim Madagascar adventure. We did return to my site briefly to pick up one of Pasha’s bags and check on Lolo (who greeted us with her epic wiggle dance). Then we went to Tana once more. Pasha’s flight wasn’t until one in the morning so we had some time to kill. We considered going to a zoo called Tsimbazaza which according to the guidebook Pasha brought has some of the lemur species we didn’t get to see as well as a fosa but unfortunately the weather was not in our favor. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t try to navigate the bus system in Tana to get to the zoo. At one point we found ourselves on a bus that dropped us off in the middle-of-nowhere-outskirts of Tana and we had to walk an hour just to get back to where we started from. Unfortunate for sure, but not an unheard of occurrence when Pasha and I attempt to go anywhere – it’s really remarkable things like this didn’t happen more often during our travels. I did take Pasha to a little vazaha market near Analakely where she picked up a few nifty souvenirs for the folks back home. Of course, since this market mainly caters to vazaha looking for souvenirs the prices were a little out of control but luckily Pasha happens to be pretty adept at bargaining. Eventually, the inevitable came to pass and Pasha had to be taken to the airport (somehow my Malagasy family once again secured the use of a bus for this purpose). I have never had an anxiety attack before but I think I came pretty close to one as I watched Pasha roll her bags towards the departures gate. As sad as it was to say goodbye to my “sister” I am eternally grateful that she was able to make the epic voyage and spend a little time here in Madagascarland with me. If anyone else is interested, I’ll be here another year, so no rush :).

Coconuts and Babies (But Not Necessarily in that Order)

There isn’t a whole lot to report this time around but I guess I should start with the biggest news first – my Malagasy family has grown in number by one. In my last entry, I talked about the wedding of my Malagasy “big brother” Vatsy and his lovely wife Clementine. What I apparently forgot to mention was the fact that she was about seven months pregnant when they tied the knot. Scandalicious, I know. Also, I would recommend scanning back to the last blog and taking a gander at the picture I posted of the happy couple. I bet you a bowl of rice you can’t even tell she is pregnant. Anyway, I have a story to tell.

I have no idea what this is…but I never want to touch it

There I was, sound asleep in my somewhat less than comfortable bed when suddenly I heard an urgent tapping at my window. I assumed that it was yet another drunk out to pester the “vazaha” or someone who had mistaken my room for that of the doctor’s so I merely grumbled softly to myself and rolled over. However, upon hearing someone stage whisper, “Kim! Kim! Akaiky miteraka i Clementine!” (Clementine is going to give birth soon!) I began to suspect that this was something that actually might concern me. I believe it is safe to say that I moved faster in the next five minutes than I have moved in my entire life or will likely ever move again. In what seemed like one motion I flung off my covers, scrambled out of bed, grabbed a jacket and my camera, and jammed shoes on my feet. With my puny cellphone light as my guide, I sprinted over to the hospital maternity ward. I assumed it would be easy to locate Clementine, just follow the screams of pain. But no, this is Madagascar and they go about birth in a completely different manner. Instead of following the telltale sounds of labor pains I followed the trail of blood leading to the “delivery room”. The scene that greeted me was (unsurprisingly) rather different from what one encounters in the US where the norm is to have half a dozen nurses, doctors, and attendants ducking and weaving between a spiderweb of IV tubes and monitors all while the expectant mother screams, cries, and crushes her husband’s hand to a pulp. The only people in the room were Vatsy’s grandmother, his mother, Clementine (obviously), a single doctor who had been woken up, and me. Instead of a comfortable, adjustable bed the likes of which can be found in most American maternity wards, Clementine was lying flat on her back on an uncovered metal table with not even a pillow under her head. There were absolutely no IV fluids, pain killers, or monitors. And as I have alluded to previously, something else was suspiciously lacking – noise. Poor Clementine who was having a little person pulled out of her while lying on a metal table with no pain killers whatsoever was absolutely silent. I mean, not even a whimper escaped this girl. It was mad impressive. I had heard it said before that Malagasy women don’t make noise during childbirth because it is “fady” (taboo) – apparently, due to the belief that bad spirits might hear the screams and enter the woman or child. In some parts of Madagascar, when a woman is giving birth a goat is tied up outside. If the woman starts to make noise during childbirth the men outside beat the goat so that the bad spirits will hear and be attracted to the goat rather than the woman. Poor goat…and poor woman. I had heard all of this before, but never really imagined the strangeness of seeing a soundless birth in person. Not long after I arrived, the little bundle of joy made his appearance and was quickly cleaned and wrapped in about a gazillion blankets until all that was visible was his tiny little face peeking out. That’s about when the doctor called for the mother and grandmother and I found the tiny newborn baby thrust in my arms. There was some difficulty with delivering the placenta and the doctor needed extra hands. And that is how I got to hold little Tiako (as he was later named) for about a solid hour and a half while everyone else was busy keeping Clementine from bleeding to death. After the first thirty minutes I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t going to drop him and my breathing resumed a normal rate. It all turned out just fine in the end with mother and baby snuggled in a bed together (in case you were getting nervous) and I wearily returned to my own bed at around three in the morning.

Me holding the newborn baby!

Ironically, not long after witnessing the birth of Tiako I read an article in Newsweek (one that I snagged from the PC office) entitled “Super Luxe Maternity – The rise of birthing suites and newborn couture”. I could summarize, but I think this juicy quote will make my point much more powerfully, “When Jessica Simpson, nine months pregnant with a 10-pound baby, headed to the hospital to give birth last week, she was not just any mother-to-be, and she didn’t just roll into any ordinary birthing room.  Simpson delivered her daughter, Maxwell Drew Johnson, in a three bedroom, two bathroom, deluxe birthing suite at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, which featured manicures, pedicures, chilled juice, and a gourmet, post-birth dinner for two, all for $3,784 a night.” – Newsweek, May 14 2012. The same article also contained lovely little tidbits like “In 2008 Jennifer Lopez reportedly wore a couture hospital gown to deliver her twins.” I could go on, but the nausea the article induces might cause me to vomit on my laptop. Just about now is when I should probably launch into a long rant about the absurdity and excess of those who have money to spend on frivolous things while millions of pregnant women are dying in childbirth elsewhere in the world but I suspect the people who really need to hear it are not avid readers of this blog. So instead, I’ll keep it brief since I’m probably preaching to the choir here. First of all, don’t you feel just a little ridiculous and shameful while you are sipping your chilled pomegranate juice infused with natural antiradicals and receiving your post-birth mani-pedi? Don’t you pause for even the briefest of seconds and think what else you could have done with that money? Like, I don’t know…say, give a few hundred women in sub-saharan Africa basic pre-natal care? Guess not, because you just participated in the miracle of birth so you deserve to be pampered, right (I hope my sarcasm is clear)? Well forgive me but I feel that the right of a pregnant woman in Southeast Asia who is dying from hemorrhaging and untreated anemia to simply live sort of trumps your right to be preened and pampered after delivery. Secondly, I’m not saying that the standard of care in the US or other developed countries should be lowered just because it is a standard not available in impoverished developing countries. If you are lucky enough to be born somewhere like the US than I say you should absolutely get the best care possible to ensure the health of you and your bouncing babe. Help yourself to all the monitors, medications, and physicians at your disposal – you’ll get no harsh judgment from me. But there has to be a point where we recognize overindulgence and our own self-worship and step back. I would say that the line definitely lies somewhere before the three bedroom birthing suite.

This kid was totally schooling me in pounding peanut butter

Aaaaaanyway…in other news, two of my friends have left Andramasina permanently. The first to leave was Dr. Ninah, my Malagasy counterpart and the (former) head doctor at the clinic. It is a little inconvenient for me to lose my counterpart halfway through my service but I could tell that she was unhappy here. Her discontent was actually obvious enough for me to work up the nerve to make a comment to her. I was afraid that her curt answers to my questions and suspicious lack of smiling were indicative of me having done something to tick her off without realizing it (I generally have no idea when I have ticked someone off so this wouldn’t be unusual). But when I finally asked her she admitted that she missed her family who lives in Antananarivo which added to her stress from being overworked and underpaid. When I found her looking uncharacteristically chipper the following week I asked what had put her in such a good mood. Apparently, she had approached the Medicin Inspecteur with her grievances and he had transferred her to a clinic in Antananarivo so she could live and work close to her family – mighty nice of him. She was obviously ecstatic; I was a little bit less so. Dr. Tahiry has filled the position of Chef CSBII at the clinic. I am pretty optimistic about working with him. He smiles easily, loves to ask me about the US, and dances like there’s no tomorrow if you give him a little bit of booze. So here’s hoping my new counterpart and I will work well together. And I always know that if he seems to be in an exceptionally bad mood, all I have to do is spike his drink.

My little baby sound asleep in my shirt

The second friend to leave was Kyoko, the Japanese JICA (equivalent of Peace Corps) volunteer. She and I hadn’t spent an extraordinary amount of time together and our conversations were frustratingly limited due to the fact that we had to speak in Malagasy since she knows very little English and I know zero Japanese. However, I was sad to see her leave because that means that I am now Andramasina’s token “vazaha”. When Kyoko was still here the obsessive, stalker-ish manner in which the entire town follows my every move down to how many cups of rice I buy at the market was slightly more bearable because I knew she shared my place under the social microscope. Now I have the distinction of basically being the sole source of gossip in Andramasina. Thrilling. If nothing else, Peace Corps has taught me that I never, ever, EVER want to be a celebrity. Before departing Andramasina, Kyoko organized a small party for her friends and co-workers. It was a little eerie to get a glimpse into my own future – I am sure I will put together something similar before I say goodbye to Madagascar next year. My Malagasy friends also were not shy in letting me know that I should have an even bigger farewell party than Kyoko – Malagasy can be rather competitive.

My new buddy who comes to my house and begs for food

And a final bit of “vaovao” (news) – last week I managed to stick a kitchen knife through my finger. Yes, you read that correctly and I typed it correctly – through my finger – as in, the knife went in one side and poked out the other side. Don’t pretend like you aren’t impressed. The injury itself was so much more epic than the manner in which it was achieved. As most of you know, I live in the highlands of Madagascar which can have great weather but also means that I don’t get to enjoy many of the exciting tropical fruits that grow on the coastal regions. That explains why I nearly jumped a woman who was selling coconuts – I love coconut but sadly it hardly ever manages to make its way up to the highlands. After purchasing my prize from the slightly startled woman I greedily carried the loot back to my house. That’s when I realized that I had never actually had to crack open a whole coconut before. In the States I had always consumed coconut in the much more convenient already shredded or covered with delicious dark chocolate form. I tried delicately using a pair of pliers to make a hole or crack that I could then carefully make larger until I managed to break off a piece. But either I haven’t been eating nearly enough protein (very likely) or that coconut was secretly made of diamonds – I swear it sneered at me. So what was a dumb “vazaha” to do? Clearly, the answer was for me to grab the huge knife I use for chopping vegetables and furiously hack away at the coconut like something from a Psycho film. Unsurprisingly, that course of action ended rather unfortunately for me and my finger. The knife slipped and sunk into my unsuspecting digit which offered very little resistance. Also unsurprisingly, this slip was immediately followed by me uttering a rapid-fire stream of words unfit for civilized conversation as I rushed around trying to find something to stop the bleeding. Half a roll of toilet paper, a handful of gauze, and more cursing later, I decided a band-aid was probably not going to cut it this time so I followed PC protocol and gave the on-call physician a ring. Luckily for me, Dr. Chad was on call – he is basically the nicest, most understanding person in the universe (he sends us inspirational texts on a regular basis) so I felt a little less ashamed admitting to him that I had my ass kicked by a coconut. He confirmed my growing suspicion that I would need stitches. The next thirty minutes I spent running around town with my bloody hand trying to find a doctor who hadn’t already left for Tana (most doctors leave on the weekends). With the help of my “sister” Iaina, I finally located somebody to sew up my poor, impaled finger. Although I was determined not to let it show, getting the stitches with absolutely no local anesthetic actually hurt more than the initial injury in my opinion. But I am obviously grateful to not have gaping holes in my finger anymore. Now the challenge is coming up with an epic story to explain the stitches. After consulting with my PC friend James, we decided that the best story to give curious peeps is that my finger was tragically injured while I was saving a bunch of baby lemurs from a rabid fossa (look it up or watch the lovely animated film Madagascar). I am satisfied with that explanation. So yeah, we should all be grateful that those poor baby lemurs are safe now. And I may never eat coconut again.

The finger, the knife, and the coconut…or more appropriately – the victim, the weapon, and the perpetrator

Don’t Say Anything Unless It’s Worth Taking a Long Time to Say

A Few Updates:

Lolo – Rest assured, Lolo is still alive and thriving here in the land of red dirt and rice. In fact, she seems to manage to get me into some sort of minor trouble almost on a daily basis. I am convinced she does it for her own personal amusement. A prime example is her obsession with chasing chickens. Now to western ears this may not sound like a big deal. She chases chickens…so what? Well, you need to bear in mind that chickens are a valuable commodity here. They grow quickly, have lots of offspring on a regular basis, are fairly hardy animals, and both their meat and eggs provide a source of protein for people who are largely protein deficient. For all of these reasons, chickens are kind of a big deal here in Madagascar. Dogs, in contrast, are seen as very low, dirty animals usually not worth more than a kick in the gut (I’ll elaborate more on this later). So you can imagine everyone’s reaction when I stroll through town with Lolo by my side and she suddenly catches sight of a chicken which immediately sparks a transformation in her from a prissy “vazaha” dog who refuses to eat rice to a scrappy Malagasy mutt hell-bent on catching her squawking adversary. Actually, I think you should take a moment to visualize this scene properly because when I reflect on it I recognize how hilarious and ridiculous it is. Imagine a tiny little fluffball of a dog yapping hysterically and running in circles chasing an extremely distressed chicken making a noise that could wake the dead. Okay, now imagine me running after Lolo who is running after the chicken yelling, “LOLO, STOP! LOLO STOP RIGHT NOW! BAD DOG! BAD!” Got that? Now to finish it off imagine about half the population of my town have stopped whatever they were doing previously and are watching wide-eyed as this whole scene occurs. Both hilarious and ridiculous, right? I told you so. Another, although slightly less amusing example of Lolo getting me into trouble happened just a few days ago as I was taking a leisurely walk through the countryside. Work has been rather slow lately for a number of reasons and I was feeling antsy so I decided to do a little exploring and follow one of the many random dirt roads that lead outside of my town. Lolo came with me because 1) I felt like she probably needed to stretch her legs as well 2) what dog in the universe doesn’t love to go on a walk? and 3) she has the most intense case of doggy separation anxiety I have ever seen. So there we were, happily strolling in the warm sunshine of late afternoon when up ahead I saw something very common here in Madagascar – a group of zebu (large, African type of cattle) being guided along the road by a Malagasy man using a small handmade whip. I have passed by so many zebu during my time here that their presence and approach barely registered in my mind. But Lolo, who also has seen tons of zebu in her life I might add, decided that the proper response at that moment to a group of very large, horned animals approaching was to begin growling and yapping as ferociously as her five pounds of body weight would allow. I, of course, was horrified and was already imagining her being trampled to death. Was she being dangerously stupid? Yes. Did she deserve to be trampled by zebu for her stupidity? Maybe. But I love her too much to let that happen. So I immediately tried to catch up with her, hoping that I could scoop her up in my arms and silence her before the zebu got spooked. Unfortunately, Lolo is much faster than me and has some impressive evasive maneuvers when she doesn’t want to be caught. She glanced back and saw me and started zigzagging back and forth all the while still growling and yapping. After a few seconds of this I started to realize this was a futile effort and I happened to look up at the zebu. What I saw was not encouraging. The largest bull zebu with horns as long as my arm had broken off from the group and was accelerating from a walk to a trot. Even more alarmingly, he was not focused on Lolo who was still yapping up a storm but rather had his eyes fixed straight on me. At first I was confused as to why he seemed to be coming after me; Malagasy zebu are generally very docile animals and do nothing more threatening than stare mournfully at you as they chew their cud. However, I suddenly had a moment of clarity – this zebu had assessed the situation and identified what he perceived to be a threat. What is more threatening to you – a tiny yappy dog barely more than a glorified lint ball? Or a strange looking human who appears to run erratically toward you flapping her arms and screeching at the lint ball? I would have been threatened by me too. I had just enough time to contemplate how distinctly uncomfortable and unfortunate it would be to be impaled by a zebu horn before the herder caught up with the bull, gave a sharp crack of the whip, and led the lumbering beast back to where his zebu buddies were waiting. Lolo is not invited on walks in the future.

Lolo – so cute but so naughty

English Club – There really isn’t much to report about English Club at the elementary school at this point. The kids had a few weeks of vacation around Easter and they have been taking exams since they returned which means there is no time for my little English Club. In theory, I will be able to resume teaching very soon but Madagascar seems to have an uncanny ability to throw off even the best laid plans so I’m not gonna put the cart before the zebu. I do definitely miss singing and dancing with my “itty bitties”.

Playtime with the kiddos

Health Club – Health Club has gone very well, I think. The students actually just finished all of the health lessons I had planned. They also completed a brief and (what I considered to be) very simple exam on all the health topics we discussed. Although I am not an education volunteer, I have learned that when grading papers in Madagascar, 20 is the magic number. You never give a grade out of 100 here – it is always out of 20. I had five students receive 20/20 and the lowest grade in the whole group (about 31 students) was a 16/20 (unfortunately the slacker was my Malagasy “little brother” Bido who seemed to think attendance was optional). I gave all of the students who completed the course and the exam a certificate with their name that was signed by myself and Dr. Ninah (the head of the health clinic). I probably spent more money printing those certificates than was wise for a PC volunteer on a budget, but their excitement at receiving that little piece of paper was absolutely priceless. The next challenge will be getting at least some of the students who completed the course to help me teach health at the other schools, beginning at the elementary school. We already came up with a program for the elementary level kids – we will be teaching them about personal hygiene (hand washing and brushing your teeth), healthy diet, and clean water. I hope the little ones are as keen on learning about health as the high school kids were.

Certificate I made for my Health Club graduates

My Birthday:

That’s right, folks – I celebrated my first birthday spent here in Madagascar back in April. I suppose you could say it was extra special because I turned 23 on the 23rd day. There isn’t a whole lot to tell but I did have a very pleasant birthday. In fact, I think it was the biggest birthday party I have had in my entire life. Of course, my Malagasy family was in charge of the whole shindig. Hanta and Bebe cooked, Lolona and Rivo provided the beverages, Njaria was the DJ, and everyone else made their contribution by dancing like it was going out of style. I even got to teach everyone the macarena – for about the gazillionth time. Even better, they played the song “Waka Waka” for me several times because they know how much I love screaming the line, “Cause this is Africa!” Hanta and Iaina gave me a wonderful birthday present as well – a hand embroidered handkerchief that has pictures of rice growing, a person riding in a rickshaw, people dancing, someone pounding cassava leaves, and the words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU” (in English!). It is now hanging over the back of my chair so I can see it every day.

Birthday gift from my Malagasy family

Vatsy’s Wedding:

The Saturday following my birthday, my Malagasy “big brother” Vatsy got married to Clementine (I invariably think of the song when I say her name). This was the first Malagasy wedding I had the chance to partake in so it was quite exciting for me. As I describe the ceremony however, keep in mind that I live in the highlands and the customs in other parts of Madagascar might differ greatly. The coastal culture in general is very different from the highlands based on what I have gleaned off other volunteers who live there. A few days before the wedding, Clementine returned to her village to stay with her family. Here in Andramasina, the family of the groom (my Malagasy family) made most of the arrangements for the ceremony in terms of purchasing food, preparing the food, getting musicians set up, etc. On the morning of the wedding Vatsy and his mom got up ridiculously early and went to Clementine’s village to fetch her. Meanwhile, every man, woman, and child even vaguely related to Vatsy feverishly made final preparations for the wedding in Andramasina. The happy couple finally arrived at around 2:30pm and everyone (dressed in their finest) headed to what is the equivalent of Andramasina’s city hall. There were speeches made by respected community members and Vatsy and Clementine signed some papers. After that, we all headed to the church and there was a full ceremony led by the pastor complete with singing and kneeling to get God’s blessing. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the entirety of the church service because Lolo (the separation anxiety queen) had followed me in spite of my best efforts to lock her in Hanta’s little market house. She nearly gave me a stroke when she ran into the church and started to wander toward the pastor. I managed to grab her and sprint outside before too many people noticed and hissed in disapproval. Once the church service was over it was time for the “reception”. Vatsy’s family had rather resourcefully hung large white sheets up outside his house which formed a huge makeshift tent under which eating and dancing and cutting the cake took place. I thought the wedding was very nice although I could see the relief on his mom’s face when the whole thing was over with. I guess that’s one thing that stays the same regardless of where you live in the world.

Vatsy and Clementine looking lovely on their wedding day

Taxi-Brousse Ride from Hell:

The week after Vatsy and Clementine’s wedding, I met up with a fellow volunteer in Antsirabe. I have mentioned Antsirabe before but in case your memory needs a little assistance it is a large town to the south of my site known for its large number of rickshaws. In theory it should take about three and a half hours to get there from Antananarivo (the capital) but I have never made it in less than five. Invariably something always delays us such as the taxi-brousse breaking down, waiting for a herd of zebu to cross the road, stopping to eat rice several times, and so on. Our stay in Antsirabe was pleasant, but rather uneventful (which actually contributed to the pleasantness of it). The truly eventful part was the journey home. I suppose I should start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). When I arrived by way of rickshaw at the place where taxi-brousses were waiting to head north towards Antananarivo I specifically requested that I be taken to a brousse that was “tsy ampy iray na roa olona” (only lacking about one or two people). Instead, I was taken to a brousse that was clearly full. I mean, even for Malagasy standards this sucker was at maximum capacity. People were already sitting halfway on other people’s laps with their faces smashed into the window. That is generally what I would consider a sign that you shouldn’t take on any more passengers. When I skeptically asked where my supposed seat was the driver pointed to the very back where five children and their mother who was holding a baby in her lap were already jammed. Although I was reluctant to squeeze myself and my bags into the tangle of children already there I really didn’t want to have to wait for another brousse to fill up which could take hours. So I somehow managed to contort my body and suck in my gut just enough to fit into the tiny space in the back. As you can imagine, I wasn’t all too comfortable. Little did I know, I was about to become significantly less comfortable. First of all, it started pouring down rain and the back door which I was seated directly in front of apparently didn’t close properly because icy cold rainwater trickled down my back. I got an extra big splash of it every time we hit a bump (which was often). Then approximately fifteen minutes into our five hour drive all five of the children requested that their mother hand them one of the small plastic bags she was carrying and then they all proceeded to rather violently vomit into the tiny plastic bags. The sound of five children simultaneously vomiting right next to me was bad. The smell of five bags of vomit right next to me was worse. But the fact that almost all of their little bags started to leak vomit which dribbled on me was the worst. One little girl (bless her heart) even passed her full and leaking vomit bag over to her mother which meant it had to cross in front of me, leaking half digested rice and stomach juices along the way. I have never so earnestly wanted to slap a small child in my life. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a little white car that was right in front of our brousse suddenly fish-tailed on the wet roadway, lost control, and ended up flipped upside down in a flooded rice field which meant a large portion of the car was under water and mud. Everyone in our brousse began shouting “Jesosy! Andriamanitra!” (Oh Jesus, Oh God). But rather than stop and check on the people who just flipped into a rice field our driver seemed to completely ignore what had taken place and kept going. The idiot (and that’s being kind) didn’t even slow down. Needless to say, I was quite over that taxi-brousse ride. I told the driver to stop at a town that is about 20km away from my site, I extricated myself from the mass of children and vomit, and waved goodbye to the worst road trip of my life. I realized that I could have ended up stranded in Ambatofotsy (the town where I asked him to stop) but I actually preferred being stranded in a random town to continuing on that brousse a second longer. Eventually, I was able to get one of my Malagasy friends who had a car to come and get me and take me home. It took longer than I care to mention to wash the vomit smell off.

Teaching the macarena at my birthday party

A Few Cultural Notes:

  • It took me longer than it should have to realize this, but it is absolutely pointless to ask a Malagasy person how far away a given location is. Why is it pointless, you ask? Because regardless of how many kilometers away the place actually is if you ask “lavitra ve?” (is it far?) Malagasy people will respond “tsy lavitra” (not far). I kid you not; the response will be the same if you ask about a town that is 3 km away as one that is 30 km away. It is precisely this cultural quirk that once lured me into riding my bike 20 km on a blazing hot day. Every time I considered stopping and turning around I asked someone along the road how far the next town was. Of course, the response was always “tsy lavitra”. By the time I finally reached the town my bike was filthy, I was a sweat beast, and I was convinced that Malagasy people were fundamentally confused about distances. It is equally futile to ask how soon something will happen. For example, when I first arrived at my site Andramasina I had an extremely crappy little cellphone the Peace Corps had given me during training (for the record, I still use that same phone). Although it was the worst excuse for a phone I had ever seen I decided I would keep it and postpone getting a new one if I could get reception in my town (volunteers save money whenever and however they can). I soon discovered that I could get one or two bars if I sat in one particular spot in my room at the hospital and didn’t move at all (I had a call dropped once because I coughed). Not ideal obviously, but the townspeople assured me that a new tower was being built nearby. When I asked when the tower would be finished everyone replied “kely sisa” (very soon). Well, for those of you who are keeping track I have been in Andramasina for eight full months now and that darn cell phone tower was just finished last week. Not exactly my definition of “very soon”. That is just one example but trust me when I say that a Malagasy person saying “kely sisa” (very soon) basically means the same thing as “ela be” (a long time). I have often asked my Malagasy friends why this is so and the most coherent answer I have received was something along the lines of “they don’t want to be discouraging”. Which I interpret as meaning that they just tell you what they think you want to hear. If you are asking how far a given town is then obviously you want to go there so they tell you it isn’t far regardless of the distance. If you are asking how soon something will happen you probably are waiting for it so they tell you it will happen very soon. It actually makes sense in a convoluted sort of way – but the next time I want to bike to a neighboring town I’m going to check a map.
  • Malagasy don’t like dogs. This is a generalization of course but in my experience the exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Being the animal lover that I am, it took me a very, very long time to come to terms with this. I just could not fathom why Malagasy people considered dogs to be such undesirable animals. I have seen people kick dogs, throw stones at dogs, and deliberately try to swerve their vehicle to hit a dog. At first, I thought that maybe they have a good reason to dislike dogs here in Madagascar. Malagasy dogs are usually very large, very hungry, and have the rather unnerving habit of roaming in packs when it gets dark. So I reasoned that perhaps this deep seated loathing stems from the fact that the average Malagasy dog is a tad more dangerous than your granny’s Pomeranian back in the States – people don’t like them because they are actually afraid of them. My assumption may very well be true, but regardless of its validity I think the whole fear of dogs thing has gone a little far in Madagascar. A bit of fear is healthy, but there is a point where it just gets ridiculous. Allow me to provide an example. If you are reading this blog then you have already seen a picture of my dog, Lolo. Lolo is not really a true Malagasy dog – she is a “vazaha” dog that just happens to be living in Madagascar at the moment. I have honestly seen rats in this country that are bigger than her (that is sooo not an exaggeration). So on a scale of one to scary she registers about a negative five. However, most people in my town are absolutely terrified of her. As in small children will run away crying and screaming in fear. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t usually go well for the children because what is a dog’s favorite thing to do when they see something running? Chase it, of course. So away go the children running down the road screaming bloody murder and away goes Lolo with her tail wagging and nipping at their heels. I have witnessed this scene many times but it still amazes me sometimes how different this little aspect of Malagasy culture is from American culture. Most Americans adore dogs and many a stateside dog lover has spent thousands of dollars on vet bills to save their ailing Fido. Most American children have an equally strong reaction when they see a cute, fluffy dog but it is more along the lines of frantically yanking at mom’s skirt and yelling, “MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY! I WANT TO PET THE PUPPY! I WANT TO PET THE PUPPY! PLEEEEEEAAASE??” And just in case you were wondering, adults are not immune. I have seen full grown adults stop dead in their tracks because Lolo is in their path yapping at them (I think she can feel their dislike). I have literally had to leave my house and go and pick up my little fluffball dog before the person will continue on their way, such is the extent of their fear. One of these days I am just not going to go out and fetch her and I’ll see how long the person stands there petrified of five pounds of barking fuzz.
  • Madagascar most definitely has a “speech giving” culture. Anytime a group of people get together, for any reason whatsoever, there are sure to be multiple speeches given. Elders are always given a chance to speak as well as important people in the community. Not only are there numerous speeches given, but each one tends to be painfully long. Part of this is a result of the fact that the Malagasy custom is to spend about a solid five minutes just apologizing for taking the floor. Malagasy people apologize for all sorts of things when they make speeches – they apologize for not being the oldest in the room, they apologize for taking up you time, they apologize for not being good at making speeches and so on. Then once they get to the actual speech, the message always seems to be delivered in the most round-about, laborious manner possible. They remind me of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings (I resent your judgement). I recall a time shortly after I was installed in Andramasina when I was listening to a speech being given by the Mayor. At the time, I still couldn’t understand very much Malagasy so after what I guessed was around twenty minutes I leaned over to my friend and asked, “What has he been talking about so far?” To which my friend responded, “Well, he has just finished thanking everyone for coming and for allowing him to speak.”

I picked these “saosety” outside my house – no idea if we have this vegetable in the US

Some Tidbits:

  • I am now able to gut and clean a fish before cooking it. Slap that one on the ol’ resume.
  • One should always make sure that the spigot to the water filter is closed before pouring water into the top. If not, you will soon find that your floor is enjoying your precious filtered water instead of you.
  • After handing out lollipops my mom sent me to my Health Club students there were a few left. After a few days of having them on my table I could resist no longer and unwrapped a lollipop. Somehow, ants had found their way into the wrapper and gotten stuck to the lollipop. Did I still eat the lollipop? You betcha. Just a little added protein.
  • A few of the high school students came to my house awhile back and I let them listen to American music on my laptop. When they all left for home one girl paused for a second, turned around, and said, “tsara fanahy ny American” – meaning “Americans are good-spirited”. Score one for the USA.

Nothing like an afternoon spent drawing with my little buddies

If You’re Happy and You Know It Read This Blog

Manahoana daholo! Hey everybody – or more accurately hey family and friends and random college student who stumbled on this blog while dredging the bottom of the barrel for ways to procrastinate and not write that essay due in three hours. It’s okay, I was you once. As I settled down to type this blog entry I realized that this one might end up being even more random and scattered than usual. It’s not my fault, my life just tends toward the random and scattered side of things. Therefore, it seemed only logical to figure out some sort of organizational method (I occasionally have moments of logical thinking). That’s when I remembered that I have been teaching my itty bitty students in my English Club how to say different emotions in English. If I have to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” one more time I might stick a fork in my eye, but that is beside the point. The point is that I can organize this blog by the emotional impact of the events. Everything I choose to write about obviously made me feel one way or another. Nobody writes about things they are completely apathetic about. Okay, maybe that poor soul stuck in a back room writing obituaries, but you know what I mean. So, following that train of thought…

Things That Made Me Happy:

  • International Women’s Day – What’s that? You didn’t know there was an International Women’s Day? Oh my, how terribly uninformed you are. Seriously, read a newspaper. Just kidding…I had no clue such a thing existed until I was invited to a planning meeting for it in my town. I have no idea what sort of events go on in the US for International Women’s Day since I was unaware of its existence previously but here in Madagascar it is a pretty big deal. Since my town is the commune head people come from all of the outlying fokontany (little villages) to observe and participate in the festivities. At one point during the planning meeting, the committee leader turned to me and asked what I was going to do for the celebration. I wracked my brain for something health related I could demonstrate to the masses as I simultaneously fought my desire to sink into the floor and disappear. I am not totally a stranger to public speaking but I knew International Women’s Day would draw an impressive and therefore intimidating crowd. I once heard someone say (or did I read it somewhere? Or was it a Facebook status? No matter) that people generally rank public speaking as a greater fear than dying. That seems a little misguided to me, but if you have ever found yourself center stage with hundreds of eyes glued on your every move, noting your every mistake then you might see how that statement could be true. However, since I was not, as it turns out, able to make myself disappear from the meeting, I said that I could do an improved cookstove demonstration. My reasoning was this: 1) I had already built two cookstoves so I had a bit of practice under my belt 2) As I have said before, the cookstoves are a great thing to implement for public health 3) Since I would be building a cookstove during the demonstration perhaps people would be focused on what I was doing with my hands rather than critiquing my errors in verb tenses while speaking Malagasy 4) I panicked and it was the first thing to pop into my head. So when March 8, International Women’s Day, rolled around I was armed and pseudo ready with my tanimena (red dirt), tanimanga (clay), lavenona (ash), and mololo (dried grass). As I began my demonstration in the middle of the market area about a hundred people gathered around and I found a microphone thrust into my face. I quickly discovered that it is quite difficult to speak into a microphone (in a foreign language no less) and focus on mixing bricks and assembling a cookstove at the same time. In fact, I might have found the task altogether impossible if Kyoko, a Japanese JICA volunteer (the Japanese equivalent of Peace Corps) who also lives in Andramasina, hadn’t shown up and graciously offered to help. So while I uttered semi-comprehensive sentences into the microphone she helped build the stove. Since it was a demonstration and we were obviously pressed for time, the cookstove itself ended up being a little…challenged. Okay fine, it was downright ugly. But I stressed to everyone that this was just an example to take them through the steps of building one. An actual stove should take twice as long to build, have higher sides, more even bricks, and be much less (for lack of a better word) melty. When the demonstration ended I handed out sheets of paper with the instructions for building the stove in Malagasy that I had made (which caused temporary chaos in the marketplace as Malagasy apparently have no concept of forming an orderly line and anything being given out for free is reason enough to basically murder the man, woman, or child in front of you). Afterwards, I found a bucket of water to wash off the bits of cookstove which were stuck to my hands. Imagine my surprise upon my return to the demonstration area when something was mysteriously missing – the ugly little cookstove we had made! To this day, I have no idea how someone managed to make off with a very cumbersome, very melty cookstove that was sitting in the middle of the marketplace with a gazillion people milling about. It’s quite impressive, really. But I also laugh a little inside every time I think about the poor sap who took the stove arriving home and finding that no cooking pot in the world would sit evenly on that poorly constructed thing. All his efforts only managed to win him the ugliest lawn decoration of all time. However, in spite of the challenges faced and the minor theft involved I felt rather good about how many people were reached that day. So this was a happy event. And also I danced ridiculously with the kids at the party afterwards which understandably amplified the feel-goodness (if Ms. Gillum’s class is reading, I made that word up so don’t use it in her class or she’ll make that displeased face – also Benny Tucker, I have some pretty intense ninja skills of my own so no worries, I will be prepared when I return to the US).

Cookstove demonstration with the help of Kyoko

  • Cute little birds – Cute little bird number one was Frank the Finch. Frank and I had a very brief relationship, but a rewarding one nonetheless. I was walking home on a particularly sweltering day when the sheer amount of moisture streaming from my pores persuaded me to stop at a little stand that has a fridge and buy a cold Coke. As I was waiting for my change, I noticed a very realistic looking fake bird sitting on top of the dusty fridge. A half second later, the fake bird did something quite unorthodox and blinked. Obviously, I then realized that it was a real bird but I was amazed at how close to us it was sitting without moving. I asked the man selling me the Coke if the bird belonged to him and he explained that he had found it earlier that day sitting in the road struggling to fly but not succeeding. He said he figured it was just hot and thirsty because it didn’t appear to be injured at all. He had taken it out of the road and sat it on the fridge and there it had remained, unmoving all day. Before I knew it, the 8 year old in me who wanted desperately to be a veterinarian asked the man if I could take the bird home and care for it. The man had no qualms with handing it over and so the little bird (who I promptly christened Frank the Finch) came home with me. I set Frank up in a little woven basket with a washcloth to sit on, a bottlecap of clean water, and a handful of rice (everything in this country eats rice, even dogs…except Lolo because she thinks she is French, not Malagasy). I was terrified Frank was going to kick the bucket during the night and I covered his basket really well to keep him warm. Much to my relief, Frank was practically a new bird in the morning. He was bright eyed, hopping around, and chirping excitedly. I carried him in my hand just outside my house and as soon as he caught sight of blue sky he took off. And thus ended my brief time with Frank. Cute little bird number two is Val the baby duck. About two weeks ago I went to the neighboring town of Sabotsy with some of my Malagasy friends to browse the market (the same market where I found Kennedy the cat). Iaina told me she really wanted to buy two baby ducks (a male and a female) so that she could eventually start raising ducks for some additional income. I never turn down an opportunity to gawk at baby animals so we went together to the section of the market where live animals are sold. As we walked merchants squatting by the roadside opened their baskets to reveal the animals they were selling. From all sides we were met by the faces of animals peeking anxiously out of their basket prisons – baby pigs, kittens, chickens, geese, guinea pigs, rabbits, and finally baby ducks. I have long held the opinion that puppies and baby otters are the cutest things in the universe, but I am now inclined to place baby ducks at the top of the list along with them. As Iaina selected her two baby ducks (I suppose I should say ducklings but I am too lazy to go back and change it now) I oohed and awwed at the horde of tiny, cheeping babies. Suddenly, I noticed one little yellow and brown duck had a perfect brown heart shape on the top of his head. And it wasn’t one of those Virgin Mary’s face in the burned toast sort of things – it was a perfect heart shape and even Iaina saw it. I have what I call selective belief in signs. Meaning I only claim to believe in signs when it would support something I already want to do. So in that moment I decided it was a sign and I believed it and it meant I needed to buy that baby duck. And that is how I ended up with the newest member of my dysfunctional family – Val (short for Valentine because of the heart). Things are getting quite cozy in my little room at the hospital with me, Val my Love Duck, and Lolo my Little Bearded Lady. But cozy is nice.

I give you Frank the Finch

Val my Love Duck

Things That Made Me Sad:

  • When you want to leave Tana (the capital) you have to go to one of several large taxi-brousse stations where you can buy a space (if you can call it that) on a vehicle going to your town. Fasankarana is the name of the taxi-brousse station where you catch vehicles heading south so that is where I have to go when I return to my site from Tana. Ask any Madagascar PCV and they will tell you that Fasankarana is basically the seventh circle of hell. No joke. I’m pretty sure if you read Dante’s Inferno carefully you will find it is mentioned somewhere in there. It is full of vehicles, mud, urine, starving dogs and starving people. The smell is enough to give you a migraine in about ten minutes. The last time I had the unfortunate experience of sitting and waiting for a taxi-brousse to take me back to Andramasina I was met with a sight that made me want to cry. And I hate crying in public. There were two little kids walking slowly among the layer of filth that covers the ground at Fasankarana. I would guess the little girl was three and the little boy was two based on their size but it is quite possible they were older and simply had stunted growth from malnourishment. The little boy’s arms were stick thin but his belly was pouched and swollen – telltale sign of intestinal worms and poor nutrition. Neither of them had shoes and their tiny little feet shuffled in the grime dangerously close to broken glass and shards of metal from disintegrating taxi-brousses. The boy was only wearing a shirt and underwear while the girl had a shirt and threadbare shorts. All their clothing put together couldn’t mop up a glass of water. As I watched their slow progress I realized that they were searching in the muck for discarded plastic bags. When they found one, they would weakly shake the dirt from it and stuff it under their arm with the dirty bundle of bags already there. At the time I thought they were just amusing themselves in any way they could in such a place, but I later found out that they were probably collecting them at their parents’ behest so that the bags could be rinsed and resold. Sitting there and watching them, it would take a cold heart not to feel anything. I did the only thing I could think of at the time – I rushed to the nearest bread merchant and bought a big round loaf and handed it to them. They didn’t utter a word in response, didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. Just looked at me with hollow, scared eyes and slowly walked away with their bread and their dirty bags. I was a tangle of emotions – sad at the tragedy of it and angry that such a harsh reality exists. These two little souls exist in the same world where people own multiple vacation homes, the same world where you can get your genome mapped just to satisfy your curiosity, the same world where people buy laptops and cellphones for their small children. I know these things all exist in the same world as those two children, but as I watched their backs retreating, barely covered by their ragged clothing, it didn’t seem possible.

The daughter of the lady I buy coffee from every day

Things That Made Me Want to Find the Nearest Kabone and Vomit:

  • Another important health/cooking tip: If you plan to go away for a few days and you find yourself in a home which is open to the elements and thus host to many creepy crawlies, do not – I repeat, DO NOT – leave a single dish unwashed. I mean it. What will happen if you don’t? Remember that dish you left with a tiny bit of cooking oil on the bottom? It’ll be fine, right? WRONG! Upon your return you will find that the yellow oil has turned into a writhing whitish mass. That’s right…maggots. Feel my pain and then learn from my mistakes, kids.
  • A Truly Horrifying True Horror Story: It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was. The light in my room has been broken for quite awhile so when it gets dark I rely on the flickering light of candles and the pitiful beam of light from my cellphone. Even with the combined forces of cellphone and candlelight my room isn’t bright at night…it’s just less dark. As I sat on my bed admiring how good David Duchoveney looks in black (I was watching Californication on my laptop) I heard a faint noise coming from the hallway outside my door. Assuming it was Lolo up to her usual small-yappy-type-dog antics I slowly opened the door and took one step into the dark of the hallway. “Loooooloooo,” I called and a moment later out of the murky darkness emerged…(dramatic pause)…Lolo. Obviously, that’s not the horrifying part. As she happily scampered into my room I turned to follow her wagging tail. But just before reaching the warmth and safety of my dimly lit room, my right foot came down on something cold, vaguely wet, and alarmingly squishy. I immediately lifted my foot with a sharp intake of breath assuming that my foot had just been met with some disgusting Lolo poopoo pile (I almost wrote “excrement” but it sounded too technical and I liked how Lolo and poopoo rhyme). Back into my room I hopped like a pirate missing his peg leg, carefully keeping the right foot raised for fear of contaminating my floor. I picked up a small flashlight from the table and shone it on the underside of my foot, fully expecting to see poopoo pieces (I’m really enjoying that word) as evidence of the encounter. But much to my surprise, my foot appeared to have escaped unscathed. “Well then,” I asked myself, “what in the world did I step on?” So my flashlight and I ventured back out into the hallway to confront the mystery squishy thing. When the light first fell upon the offending object I had no idea what it was. I just knew it was something I never, ever wanted to touch. It was ridiculously long and fairly thin and snaked almost halfway down the length of the hallway. I drew closer but immediately regretted the decision since it smelled worse than it looked. And that’s when I realized what it was, what I had stepped on, what I was looking at. Pig intestine. The family who lives next to me raises pigs and there had been the telltale sounds of pig slaughter that very morning. Lolo must have wandered over there, found the remnants of the unfortunate swine victim, and brought it back home with her as a prize. A sick, sick, stomach turning, foot contaminating prize. I won’t elaborate on the cleanup of the hallway and my foot that took place afterwards but suffice to say a person is never quite the same after cleaning several meters of pig intestine from their floor. I told you…truly horrifying.

I will never look at Kentucky Fried Chicken the same way again

Well, I guess I can’t just leave you with those disturbing visions in your head. Let’s see…what else? Oh! So I learned that Malagasy people believe in mermaids. But we aren’t talking about the cute red-haired, sickly sweet Disney mermaids. This is Madagascar after all. Apparantly many Malagasy people are afraid to swim in any body of fresh water because horrible, ugly mermaids might be lurking beneath the surface waiting to devour an unsuspecting swimmer. What do they look like? When my friend Vatsy described them the vision that popped into my mind was the lower half of a barracuda and the upper half of Dick Cheney. Not pleasant. They are also more likely to snatch you up if you have recently eaten something they find appetizing like pork. Now you know why Madagascar has no synchronized swimming…well, one of the reasons.

Veloma daholo! 🙂

Lolo (aka Bearded Lady) looking deceptively innocent. I know better.

My Malagasy mom Hanta making lunch after church

Rock You Like a Hurricane

Yup, I’m still here. Hurricane Giovanna did not sweep me and my house into the Mozambique Channel, although she gave it her best shot (if you have no idea what I am talking about just hang on and I’ll elaborate later). After eight months of being in country and six months of being at site in Andramasina life has finally started to settle into a rhythm. Sort of. This is going to be a long blog entry (yes, they are all pretty lengthy but this one might take the cake). In order to save your straining eyes and (hopefully) keep you entertained I will be placing pictures randomly throughout the blog entry rather than saving them all for the end. You’re welcome.

Me and my new little buddy

After completing In-Service Training and the Project Design Workshop back in December I decided (along with many other health volunteers) that giving “kabary” (brief health talks) at the local health clinic simply is not an effective way to inspire real behavior change. I could go every morning bright and early to the clinic and preach about the methods of cleaning water to prevent diarrheal disease until I’m blue in the face but that doesn’t mean that when the people return home they will actually use the methods I described to them. Once people get into the habit of doing things a certain way, it is extremely difficult to alter that behavior, even for something as important as health. I think it’s just human nature. With that in mind, I decided that with the start of the new year I am going to focus my efforts on the local schools. Why? 1) Kids haven’t settled into certain behaviors yet so it is much easier to convince them to make changes 2) It gives me an excuse to sing, dance, and play games on a regular basis 3) It doesn’t matter that I am different and kind of weird because according to kids, all adults are different and kind of weird 4) Kids smile and laugh much more often than adults (people have actually researched this, as in real research money was spent…I’m not kidding, look it up) and finally 5) That old line about kids being our future is undeniably cheesy but also true.

The English Club itty bitties

So what exactly have I been doing in the schools, you ask? Well, after enduring six months of people asking me repeatedly if I am going to teach English here and trying in vain to explain to them that I am a health volunteer not an education volunteer I finally decided I could address some of that by starting an English Club. All PCVs are allowed to have secondary projects outside of their given sector as long as they are also fulfilling their primary project requirements (in my case, Community Health Educator). The CEG and LYCEE (middle and high school) here in Andramasina already have at least one English teacher (although it is alarming how little English the teachers themselves actually know). However, there is no English teacher at the local EPP (elementary school) so I figured that would be a good place to start. Plus there is the added bonus that the itty bitty kids are still under the (incredibly false) impression that adults have all the answers and never make mistakes. So when I say something incorrectly in Malagasy or have a funny American accent when I talk they just assume I am doing it on purpose for whatever strange, adult reasons I might have. So after discussing it with the Director of the EPP we decided that I could teach English Club twice a week in the afternoon after regular school hours have ended. I made a big sign advertising the English Club on “ambalazy” (basically a giant sheet of paper) and hung it up outside of the school building. When I arrived on the very first day of English Club, armed with multi-colored chalk, a sponge eraser, and only the vaguest idea of a lesson plan, I expected perhaps twenty or thirty kids to have actually stayed after school to attend. Maybe forty if you counted the ones who just wanted an excuse to gawk at the “vazaha” trying to teach. Although I am (almost) certain I managed to keep a neutral expression on the outside, you can just imagine what went on internally when I climbed the dirt stairs and gazed upon the entire schoolyard packed with over-excited, elementary school kids basically clawing at one another to get a better look at me. When the classroom door was opened and they flooded in like a plague of locusts (really cute locusts) there was not a single nook or cranny in that room not occupied by a little Malagasy face turned expectantly toward me. No pressure. I will be the first to admit that initial lesson was sort of a hot mess. I was all over the place trying to gauge if they had any prior exposure to English whatsoever, teach a simple lesson about greetings, keep the chit-chatters quiet in the back, and entertain the masses all at the same time. When it was over, the Director thanked me (she watched the whole lesson…don’t you hate it when that happens?) and we mutually decided that it would be best to split the class into two and have one group attend on Tuesday and the other attend on Thursday.  Since then, things have gone much more smoothly. I teach the “kely indrindra” (really little) kids on Tuesdays and the “lehibe be” (bigger) kids on Thursdays. Although as a health volunteer I didn’t receive training on teaching English, I am slowly but surely figuring out what works and what fails epically. Example, the “Good Morning” song is a big hit. Even the tiniest of the itty bitty kiddies can sing along and do the hand motions. I have an excellent video of this. I really wish the internet was fast enough for me to upload it. There is one little girl who gets super excited and claps for herself when they finish singing. In contrast, trying to do the whole “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” rhyme thingy when teaching numbers was a huge flop. Too many new words, no entertaining hand motions, and not really culturally appropriate (as I was explaining “buckle my shoe” in Malagasy I realized that most of the kids weren’t wearing shoes at all). Generally speaking with elementary school kids you can’t go wrong if there is a song, dance, game, or some other activity which requires the teacher to jump around the room and act ridiculous. And if you can do funny voices you are basically the coolest person in the world. So in conclusion I am rather enjoying myself at the elementary school. Mind you, it is quite difficult to teach little kids a foreign language. I have spent more time than I care to admit bouncing around the room repeating in an absurdly slow manner, “MY NAME IS MISS KIM. MY NAME IS MISS KIM. MIIIIIIISS KIIIIIIIM.” But when I walk down the road to fetch water or visit my Malagasy friends and I hear little voices chiming “Miss Kim! Miss Kim!” (which they still pronounce as Meess Keem, but whatever), I get the warm fuzzies all over.

The English Club "lehibe be"s

As I mentioned earlier, it is all fine and dandy for me to have an English Club as a secondary project as long as I fulfill my primary project as a Health Educator very well. I don’t know if I would exactly say I am fulfilling it well just yet, but I have started a pretty successful Health Club at the LYCEE (high school). My junior year of college I was a Peer Health Educator (shout out to all the PHEs <3) and I thought that same basic idea could be applied here in Madagascar. Every Friday I have a two hour session with the kids (there are about 35 that regularly attend) during which I teach them about various public health topics including diarrheal disease, malaria, reproductive health, environmental health, nutrition, etc. Never fear, I don’t just stand up there and talk to them in my broken Malagasy about health; that would get old really quickly for everyone involved. Instead, every week there is either a guest speaker or some sort of activity that goes along with that day’s lesson. This allows me to both keep the kids interested and give them valuable skills they can use to improve their health. The first week I taught them about diarrheal disease but they also learned and practiced how to mix SRO (water, salt, and sugar in proper proportions) which can keep someone (especially a small child) from dying of dehydration when they are suffering from severe diarrhea. The next week I had Dr. Ninah (the Chef CSB) talk about upper respiratory infections and Tuberculosis then the kids built a “fatana mitsitsy” (improved cookstove) which has a number of benefits including producing less smoke which in turn cuts down on the number of upper respiratory infections (luckily, this one didn’t melt). Then the kids learned about malaria which isn’t a major problem here in the highlands but is a huge health threat along the coast. The activity that went along with it was making something called Neem Cream. The Stomp Out Malaria initiative has been educating people about this cream in mainland Africa because it is a natural and easy to make mosquito repellant. Luckily, we have the primary ingredient (leaves from a tree called “voandelaka”) right here in Madagascar. According to Dr. Ninah, voandelaka also repels parasy (those nasty little fleas that burrow into your feet) so I am obviously a huge fan and have stockpiled it in my room like someone on that show about hoarders. That brings us to the most recent lesson which was about nutrition. I had a guest speaker come (a friend who works at the Bureau of Agriculture) and talk about “ananambo” (it has many names but Americans might know it as moringa). For those who don’t know, moringa is pretty much the tree equivalent of Superman (or Batman, whoever your superhero of choice might be). It is crazy nutritious, can be used to filter water, is a natural antibiotic, grows unbelievably fast, and best of all it thrives in the most inhospitable environments. Pretty much the less conducive to growing normal plants a given location is, the more the moringa tree will like it. My friend has already started growing a few moringa trees near his home and hopefully I will be able to work with him on some planting projects in the future. So that’s what I have done with my Health Club thus far. The idea is that after all of my sessions with them are complete, the students themselves will go with me to the other schools and teach everyone else what they have learned. It will be a much more sustainable project if the Malagasy students themselves become the teachers for the other kids. That’s the idea anyway. Then again, I have been accused of being blindly optimistic before.

My Health Club students making posters about malaria

So that basically wraps up the work part of my life right now. I have some other projects that I am currently working on besides teaching my English and Health Clubs but I’ll talk about those another time if they actually pan out. But I haven’t even begun to fill you in on the random things that have gone on in the time that has elapsed since my last entry (I warned you this would be a long one). Let’s see…where did I leave you last time? Ah yes, Indiana. Okay, well after that event I was a little bummed out (understandably so). I thought that I was hiding it pretty well but apparently I was doing no such thing. A week or so after it happened, my Malagasy family basically staged an intervention and took me to Tana (the capital) for the weekend to stay with their extended family. My Malagasy mom was convinced that I was so sad I was going to go home to the States and no amount of assurances from me would placate her. Once there, we partied the Malagasy way by eating lots of rice, drinking vanilla rum, singing really bad karaoke, and dancing until we fell down (literally…Lolona fell right on top of her sister). Since I was already in Tana I went to the PC transit house for a bit to use the internet and visit with other volunteers. When I reunited with my Malagasy peeps the next day Vatsy greeted me by saying, “We have a surprise for you.” By default, I kind of assumed the surprise might be even more rice. Happily for me, I was incorrect. Long story short, Vatsy presented me with an adorable little fuzzball “vazaha” puppy. A “vazaha” dog is any dog here in Madagascar that very clearly does not have Malagasy origins. Indiana, for example, was a proper Malagasy dog. He was a mix of every breed imaginable with possibly a little lemur thrown in, destined to be a big lumbering thing when full grown, and had a bit of a wild look about him. However, sometimes there are little fluffy dogs here in the bigger cities like Tana that make you wonder, “How in the world did that end up here and how has it managed not to be eaten by something?” My best guess is that these dogs are remnants of the French colonization of Madagascar. But that (again) is beside the point. The point is that I am now the proud owner of a ridiculously prissy little “vazaha” dog who I named Lolo. Lolo (pronounced looloo) means butterfly in Malagasy but it also sounds suitably pretentious in English.  She looks like a long-haired Jack Russell and is pretty much the polar opposite of Indiana in every way imaginable, but obviously I have already fallen in love with her (it’s what I do). After what happened to Indiana I am super protective of her to the point of carrying her with me in a little basket when I go to the market (yup…I’m that girl). Hanta, my Malagasy mom, puppysits her when I am teaching. She also sleeps with me every night and I can’t describe how comforting it is to have that little ball of fur that yips in her sleep snuggled against my back. I could never replace Indiana (and I wouldn’t want to) but Lolo already has a piece of my heart too.

Lolo, Hanta, and Tanteraka

Lolo, Hanta, and Tanteraka

Okay, enough of the sentimental stuff. I am such a sap. What else has gone on…oh yes, I went to Antsirabe for the first time to attend a VAC meeting. Antsirabe is a bigger city about three and a half hours south of my site. According to Lonely Planet, it has an excellent artisan market and is filled to the brim with rickshaws. Well, they were half right. The artisan market is there all right but the prices of all the enticing wares have been adjusted for the French tourists who often visit the area. Perhaps they have all read Lonely Planet as well. Unfortunately, those tourist prices are enough to give a humble Peace Corps volunteer a coronary. The price of one little painting is equivalent to a quarter of my monthly living allowance. So yeah…no artisan shopping for me. However, I did get to experience my very first rickshaw ride, or pousse-pousse as they are referred to here. The pronunciation of pousse-pousse has elicited many a giggle from immature volunteers, myself included, since it is similar to a word for cat not often uttered in polite society. Think about it. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the whole rickshaw scene. I felt sort of bizarre being carted around by another human being, and one who was about half my size and weight at that. I did let my mind wander for a brief moment and imagined I was like Cleopatra being carried through the city to the royal palace. But then we hit a giant pothole and I almost fell out of the rickshaw as mud splattered everywhere. Fantasy abruptly ended.

Lolo objecting to me taking her picture

The VAC meeting itself was pretty uneventful. These meetings happen once every three months and all of the volunteers who live in a particular region get together to discuss large, PC wide issues and talk about anything that might need to be brought to the attention of the higher ups. I suppose the topic which applied to me the most this time around was the fact that the Health Program here in Madagascar has been suspended, most likely indefinitely. That doesn’t make much of a difference for health volunteers in my stage, but it does mean that come July there will be no new health volunteers arriving here in Madagascar. I’m not going to launch into the whole explanation of why the program has been suspended because it is a little convoluted and frankly all the health volunteers have talked ourselves in circles about it already. It’s a major bummer and I think it was a poor choice on the part of PC Washington. The end. On a superficial but more positive note, the VAC meeting took place at a hotel in Antsirabe called Chez Billy which is where most of us stayed and it was pretty darn nice. Granted, my standards for accommodations have lowered a bit since leaving the States but hot, running water, electricity, wireless internet access, and excellent food were enough to sell me. Also, the staff tolerated a large group of rowdy Americans amazingly well. The icing on the cake was the fact that Chez Billy is conveniently located close to a restaurant with absolutely delicious (in other words outrageously expensive) cheeseburgers. Yes, you read that correctly…cheeseburgers. It is called the Pousse-Pousse restaurant because the seats inside are actually old rickshaws with tables in front of them. A lovely French lady with two gigantic dogs owns it and in spite of the ridiculous price I had a cheeseburger every day I was in Antsirabe. Eating meat in general is a treat here but getting a juicy, delicious, actually-resembling-American-food burger is basically nirvana. Excuse me while I wipe the saliva off of my keyboard.

Oh, look...it's our road..

And then came Hurricane Giovanna (cue the dramatic music). While I was in Antsirabe for VAC we all got one of those mass text messages from the PC Madagascar security officer warning us about an incoming cyclone. Our security officer (bless his heart) has the rather alarming habit of starting mass security texts with phrases such as “don’t panic” and “remain calm but…” Of course, upon reading such phrases one immediately begins to panic. A cyclone in itself is not a rare occurrence here by any means. In fact, we are in the middle of cyclone season right now. However, this one was supposed to hit the east coast of Madagascar as either a strong category three or weak category four hurricane (FYI the scale only goes to five). Volunteers living on the east coast and my pal who lives out on the little island Sainte Marie had to evacuate to Tana while everyone else was ordered to seek refuge and alert PC of their whereabouts. Carolyn (my roomie from way back in training) and I almost stayed in Antsirabe because 1) Chez Billy was a sturdy building 2) we looked up satellite images of the storm online and it looked like it was literally going to eat Madagascar and 3) Carolyn was rather ill and thus wasn’t sure how well she could handle a taxi-brousse. At the last minute we mutually decided that we would head back to our sites and weather the storm out there. My house at the hospital compound is concrete so I was fairly certain I would be alright. The tin roof worried me a little bit and when Hurricane Giovanna arrived she really did try her best to wrench my roof off but luckily by the time she reached the highlands she was only a category one storm and thus had lost most of her muscle. The only real damage sustained was my poor kabone (outhouse) which had the wooden door yanked clean off. So much for privacy. Overall, damage in the highlands was pretty minimal from what I could gather. The east coast was a different story entirely. A fellow volunteer who lives on the coast told me that she cried when she saw her village after the storm because there was basically nothing left of it. Various NGOs have already swept into the worst hit regions to offer aid but I am guessing it will be quite awhile before the families and communities fully recover.

I love this pic...a gendarme carrying his daughter over a bridge...yes, that is considered a bridge here and yes, I went over it

Okay, this entry is so long that I am actually beginning to bore myself so I am gonna breeze through the other events. Let’s see…a few weeks ago there was a sort of “tree planting day” here in Andramasina and apparently it is also a nation-wide thing although it isn’t clear if everyone plants on the same day or if each community chooses. Being a big fan of saving the environment, I was happy to participate. However, it was never explained to my satisfaction why in the world we had to climb a mountain (I exaggerate, but only a little) to plant the trees. But climb the mountain we did and I learned a valuable lesson: climbing up a steep incline is tiring, but climbing down the same incline is downright terrifying. I could just imagine myself tripping just a tiny bit and then tumbling the three kilometers down the hill back into town. That would be a faster but definitely more painful way to get home. That day left me with two things 1) the pleasant feeling of a good deed accomplished and 2) the absolute worst sunburn of my life. Those of you who know me are aware that I am as white as Wonder Bread. I am keenly aware of this fact as well and thus I slathered on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen throughout the day. However, the combination of being closer to the equator and the high altitude of the highlands was too much for my pasty self to handle. The horrible sunburn quickly turned into horrible blisters which then turned into horrible oozing (yuck, right?) which finally concluded with horrible peeling. It didn’t help matters that my Malagasy friends were fascinated by my sunburn and kept wanting to poke it. Glad I could entertain, I guess.

The view from atop the mountain we climbed to plant the trees

Moving right along. I have started to attend church (Assembly of God) on Sunday mornings with my Malagasy family. I had considered going in the past but previously my language skills weren’t at the level where I could get anything out of the sermon. When I told my Malagasy mom I wanted to go with them she almost started crying which slightly alarmed me until I realized she was just really happy. She told me I was “tena akaiky ny fo” (really close to her heart). It has been a great experience so far. I meet my family in the morning and we walk together to church then afterwards I follow them home and we all have a big lunch together. When I see my Malagasy family all freshly washed and wearing their nicest church clothes it always makes me smile. The church itself is very humble, concrete walls, hard wooden pews, and a tin roof with holes. But man do these people know how to worship. They sing, they dance, they yell “Hallelujah”, and they smile the whole time – all two to three hours of it. I have attended several different churches in the States in years past and I think they could all learn something from this little Malagasy congregation. I saw more sincerity and conviction in that first Sunday at church here than I did in all the time I attended church in the States. And all while sitting under a leaky tin roof.

Worst.Sunburn.Ever.

Last but not least, I learned a bit about Malagasy black magic. They didn’t use the words black magic of course but that is the best way I can describe it. It was my friend Iaina’s 20thbirthday and after dinner we were all sitting around chatting about random stuff when someone brought up a particular region in Madagascar that is said to have people who can do black magic like cursing people. They told me all kinds of crazy stories about some pretty nasty, graphic curses. For example, supposedly there are people who have been cursed and have their head turned all the way around so that their body faces one way and their head faces another. They also said there are people who can command a person who has recently died to walk to the tomb and lay down unaided. When I asked how they learn how to do these things my friends all replied that these are very old customs that go back before the French colonization. My favorite story was actually about when the Malagasy were fighting the French. The French brought all sorts of guns and big weapons and the Malagasy didn’t have anything like that. But when the French fired on a group of Malagasy men they simply lifted their hands and said “rano” (water) and the bullets turned to water droplets. Of course, all of this sounds so much cooler when you are sitting in a circle with Malagasy people at night and hearing them tell it in their own words. I’m not saying I believe it, but I’m gonna try really hard not to give anyone a reason to curse me. Just in case.

This isn't the church I attend with my Malagasy family but this is a church in my town

 

Whew! You made it to the end! Congrats! I will reward you with a funny anecdote. You may remember the fripperies from my last blog entry where you can find secondhand clothes. Well, a few weeks ago I was browsing the frip and a guy tried to sell me what he called a dress. It was actually an old hospital gown complete with tie-back which would show your rear end to the whole world. In his defense, it was very reasonably priced. Veloma!

Rice, rice, rice

Some Tales and Observations from the Past Month

Okay, so here’s the deal. The bulleted part of this blog entry I wrote about two weeks ago and it is decidedly more lighthearted and amusing than the lone paragraph which follows. That last paragraph was written just a few days ago and it tells a rather somber tale with absolutely no witty remarks or funny punch line. I figured that it would only be fair for me to warn you and also let you choose whether to read the final paragraph or not. Some people would prefer just not to know, you know? So if you are one of those people who turn off the television when the news anchor starts talking about the latest sad event (*cough* Mom *cough*) then just read the bulleted sections. You can pretend that the last paragraph doesn’t exist or that it is just footnotes or something else you would normally ignore entirely. Okay then.

  •  Although I can tolerate and can even appreciate most insects, I cannot express the extreme depths of my loathing for cockroaches at this point in my life (sorry Dad, I know you have an inexplicable fondness for them). First of all, they are the size of a Smart Car here in Madagascar. Secondly, they like to jump unexpectedly out of containers that I cannot possibly fathom how they managed to get into in the first place (a Tupperware container…seriously?). Thus far, I have been able to prevent myself from responding with the stereotypical girly scream but I will admit that I have indeed done the whole immediately-drop-the-container-and-flap-hands-frantically-while-mentally-freaking-out-and-muttering-expletives thing. Nasty little devil-spawn.
  • The frippery is quite possibly the most entertaining thing to hit Madagascar (at least for any foreigners who happen to be here). Don’t know what a frippery is (or frip as the cool kids call it)? Allow me to enlighten you. If you go to basically any sizable marketplace in Madagascar you will find merchants who are surrounded by chaotic piles of secondhand clothes. These clothes have mostly been donated from countries like the US, Japan, China, Germany, France, South Africa, etc. Interestingly, I have found quite a few clothing items from Bangladesh…but that is beside the point. The actual point is that it is endlessly entertaining to dig through the piles of clothing never knowing if you will pick up a women’s suit jacket from the 80’s with shoulder pads that could take your eye out or a skirt so full of sequins it looks like a disco ball. There are also some really hilarious English translations. I wish I had written down a poem I saw on a shirt once that had been so poorly translated into English you couldn’t decipher anything it said whatsoever. It is even better when you see Malagasy people wearing shirts when they obviously have no idea what it says in English. There is nothing that makes your day quite like seeing an especially large, intimidating Malagasy man wearing a “Girl Scouts of America” shirt. Of course, it is always exciting when you find that one decent item of clothing in the pile and purchase it for the equivalent of fifty cents US. I will neither confirm nor deny that I very recently bought a pair of blue velvet pants at a frip just because they were so terrible, they were fabulous.
  • A Ghost Story…Sort Of: We are in the tail-end of the rainy season here in the highlands which means I get cooped up in my house for long stretches of time while the skies open up outside. So whenever there is a slight reprieve and we have a reasonably sunny day I like to go for walks or ride my bike (not sure if I informed you that PC finally issued us mountain bikes). Well, one day I decided to take a walk in the little foresty area (yes, I made that word up) at the edge of my town. There is a path that runs through the trees and circles around on itself. But who uses trails these days? Trails are boring. So in my “brilliance” I decided to explore a little bit. I was picking my way through bamboo that would make a panda weep for joy and thorn bushes that seemed determined to take my jacket from me when suddenly I came to a small clearing. The first thing I saw in the clearing was a very large mud brick house that appeared to be abandoned since the weeds around it were basically my height. As I moved around to see the front of the house I noticed there once was a little balcony on the second floor which now has crumbled completely and only the railing remains. I stood there gazing at the house for a bit, vaguely wondering what the story behind it was. What happened to the family who lived there? Why did they live so far away from the rest of the villagers? Then I noticed there were two other small buildings hidden by weeds close by. At first, I thought they were just very small houses, but upon closer inspection I discovered that they were actually Malagasy tombs complete with crosses and family names engraved in the stone. I will admit that I was a little creeped out to find that I had accidentally stumbled upon a dilapidated house and a pair of tombs in the middle of the forest. But that initial creepiness is nothing compared to what I felt a half second later when I turned around. Standing not ten feet from me at the edge of the clearing was the oldest, tiniest, little Malagasy woman I had ever seen. And by standing, I mean just standing and staring. She didn’t utter a word to me. Her eyes were clouded with cataracts and her wrinkles were deep enough to hide loose change. Attempting (rather poorly) to conceal the fact that I was about to jump right out of my skin, I muttered a feeble, “Manahoana”. She looked at me for one more beat, replied with “manahoana” which sounded like she should have dusted her vocal chords off first, and slowly hobbled off. I got out of there quicker than you can say “poltergeist”. Perhaps it is one of those things where you have to be there, but man was that unnerving. Okay, so she may not have lunged at me and tried to gnaw my arm off, but how did she sneak up on me so soundlessly? And what the heck was she doing out there (granted…I was out there too)? I wouldn’t be surprised if the zombie apocalypse starts in Madagascar…just sayin’.
  • Important health/cooking tip: Boiling a liter of sour milk twice as long as you normally would doesn’t make the milk fresh again. You just get a liter of boiling hot sour milk.
  • As I was walking to the market awhile back I saw a cute little puppy about as old (although not nearly as fat) as my dog Indiana. Of course, I immediately lapsed into my cute animal baby talk (I mean, who doesn’t?). My dialogue went something like this, “Who’s a cute little doggy? Who’s a cute doggy woggy? Oh, what a big boy…come here! Come and pl…” Why did I trail off you ask? Because it was at that point the puppy turned around and I saw that it had a rat the size of Texas clamped firmly in its adorable tiny puppy jaws. Infantile animal talk immediately abandoned.
  • Most of you I am assuming are already aware that I live on the hospital compound in Andramasina. I share a little cement house behind the hospital with Dr. Felana (who is almost eight months pregnant now) and the girl who helps her cook/clean since she isn’t very mobile at this point. Occasionally we also host nurses who are doing training at our hospital or clinic. But (as always), I stray from my point. I was awakened one morning before the accursed rooster even started crowing (so you know it was ridiculously early) by what can only be described as the most horrible moans and screams I have ever heard in my life coming from the hospital. I mean, we are talking horror movie quality cries of pain. Indiana, who barks at blowing leaves by the way, seemed not to care in the least. I, however, couldn’t go back to sleep after that. Later that day, I told Dr. Felana that I couldn’t sleep that morning because there were horrible screams coming from the hospital. She immediately launched into a rant about how there was a patient who was such a problem because he was screaming and moaning and pretty much causing a big scene for nothing. She said they eventually sent him to Tana (the capital). At that point, I was thinking, “Okay, so the guy was just being a big baby and fussing about nothing. He probably had a minor cut or something like that. Geez, it sounded convincing though.” Finally out of curiosity I asked, “What exactly was wrong with him?” To which Dr. Felana calmly replied, “Oh, his roof feel in on him.” Remind me not to get seriously injured here. Ever.
  • By now you should all be well acquainted with the most adorable dog in the entire universe, Indiana (I may be only very slightly biased). What follows is roughly the daily schedule of Indiana:

5:00am – Start whining to be let outside

5:15am – See that Kim is clearly awake because she is covering her head with the pillow.         Whine louder.

5:30am – Wag tail excitedly and attempt to eat Kim’s pajamas as she lets me outside in a strangely zombie-like manner and immediately returns to bed

6:00am-6:00pm – Run around the hospital grounds scaring the elderly, eating garbage, peeing on as many objects as possible, barking at small insects before consuming them, and checking periodically if Kim is home to refill my food bowl, pet me, and tell me how handsome I am. It is an especially good day if I can avoid chickens.

6:00pm – Reluctantly come inside and get tucked into my bed by Kim. Note to self: If I lay my ears back and do the sad eyes she will always give me an extra treat.

Repeat.

So, as you can gather from his itinerary, Indiana has a pretty sweet deal here. Of course, he repays me for the kindness I show him. For example, he eats my clothing, occasionally pees indoors, scatters my garbage, incessantly licks my legs, jumps on my bed…wait. Huh. Obviously I am joking…I can’t imagine living here without my little “African Wild Dog” as company. However, there is one habit of his that I could certainly do without. Rather early on he showed quite a talent for finding random bones during his adventures outside. He then likes to bring his little trophies into my room to chew on loudly for hours at a time. This didn’t bother me initially. That is, until I started really thinking about it. As was previously stated, I live on the hospital grounds. Indiana is a big chicken and the possibility that I might refill his food bowl at any given time is too alluring so he doesn’t wander from the hospital unless I am taking him for a walk. So…the conclusion I have to draw from this information is that he is finding those bones somewhere on the hospital grounds…big bones. I think you see where I am going with this. He brought in a vertebra once that I had to remove from the room and throw far, far away while he was sleeping. I will continue to tell myself that these are pig bones. I am still trying to come up with something to tell myself if he brings in a human skull one day.

  • Newsflash! According to basically everyone in my town, I am an absolutely amazing dancer. Those of you who have had the unfortunate experience of actually seeing me bust a move in the States will most likely be both horrified and amused by this. I kid you not, I can’t go wrong with Cotton Eyed Joe, the Macarena, or the Electric Slide here in Madagascar. Wide eyed stares and exclamations of, “Tena mahay mandihy ianao!” (you are such a good dancer) are sure to follow. I am going to soak it up while I can.

Alright, this is the paragraph I warned you about. If you are reading just out of curiosity thinking that I might have been kidding and it might be an amusing tale after all, stop right now. None less amusing than this story (that’s for you, Pasha). *Deep breath* Last week, Indiana got very, very sick and passed away. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t drink, and was vomiting blood. I sat up with him for two nights, hoping that he would improve. I am sure I was quite a sight for the people I share the house with, sitting on the cement floor singing “What a Wonderful World” to my dying puppy (that’s my comfort song). He just got weaker and weaker and there was absolutely nothing I could do. There is one “veterinarian” in my town but he really only gives vaccinations to animals and can help you out if your zebu has the sniffles. As I was sitting there feeling completely unable to help my poor doggy I did have one illuminating moment when I realized that in many developing countries, including here in Madagascar, there are countless parents who experience the unimaginable pain of being unable to help their ailing children. Some people live in areas where there are no doctors, no hospitals, and no clinics to turn to. Sometimes the needed medicine or treatment just isn’t available here, even at the biggest hospitals. Sometimes the parents have to choose between buying medicine for one child or feeding the rest of the family. In the US, if there is a real health emergency we have to be treated even if we are unable to pay and there is always a hospital an ambulance ride away. But what is a family to do here when their child is dying of Tuberculosis, gasping for each breath, and the nearest hospital is 60km away through jungle and impassable dirt roads? Anyway, that thought put things in perspective a little bit, but it didn’t make it hurt any less to be sitting there watching Indiana slip away. I will probably never know what really happened. It is possible he had some severe doggy illness. Maybe he ate something bad in his wanderings around the hospital. Some of my Malagasy friends strongly suspect that someone poisoned him (dogs are not highly regarded here at all and certain people here at the hospital compound have made troubling remarks in the past). But the bottom line is that my heart is heavy and my room is full of emptiness without him. So, wherever and whoever you are, lift your glass of adult beverage, water, chocolate milk, or whatever it is you have nearby. Here’s to Indiana, a really good dog and the best Peace Corps pal a volunteer could ask for.

One less devil spawn

The lovely Christmas cards Katelyn's class sent me! Much appreciated.

Finally got my PC bike. Much better than my bike in college.

My room at the hospital from the outside...

...and from the inside

One last pic of Indiana...happily munching on a bone

 

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