"We were not supposed to leave. We have to go back [to the island]!"

-Jack Shepard

Monday, November 8, 2010

That’s Professor Jess to You

I’ve been living at site for a month and a half now and could not be happier. It’s no secret that monotony is my kryptonite (as most of you can tell from the lack of consistency in my life). It is the one thing in this world that has the power to destroy my spirit. I’m psyched to say that my spirit is in no danger here in the FD. Life at my site is so dynamic and the cultures so diverse. Yet for such a large town, I already feel an incredible sense of community. The mpivarotras on my beach who once swarmed me in attempts to sell homemade necklaces or braid my hair now know me by name and stop me only to chat. I practice reading English with my neighbor children, walk them around town, and teach them to swim. Everywhere I go, I never fail to run into local store owners, teachers, tour guides, expats, students, hotel workers, taxi drivers, and other people I know (or assume I must have met at some point, considering they are calling my name and waving wildly). Yet in a town of 60,000, there will always be new people to meet and new things to discover. The variety among the Fort Dauphin inhabitants is amazing. There are so many expats working for NGOs, schools, companies, etc. On any given day, I may interact with people from South Africa, everywhere in Europe, the US, the Caribbean, Pakistan, India, China, Mauritius, Australia, and all parts of Madagascar. My compound alone is home to people from France, Italy, Finland, South Africa, Canada, the US, and Martinique. The only downside to this diversity is that I don’t get the full “Malagasy” experience that my fellow volunteers living in smaller, non-touristy towns have. Whatever, cultural immersion is overrated. I get the opportunity to switch between speaking English, French, Standard Malagasy, and Antanosy on a daily basis – which I think is pretty darn fantastic.

Regarding my actual job, I LOVE teaching! So far. I’ve only been doing it a few weeks. And so much of what I love is completely unique to my assignment. While other education volunteers are dusting chalk off their hands and bellowing grammar exercise directions to classes of 60-100 teenage brats, I’m deciding on which color whiteboard marker to use while discussing environmental issues with classes of 11-20 university students. Officially, I teach three levels of Environmental English, but the textbooks are so short and open to interpretation that I pretty much get free reign with the course. I’ve decided to add a heavy grammar component to the classes, since most of them will be using English for business or professional purposes after they graduate. That’s my formal reasoning…but really I’m just a huge grammar nerd; I love teaching it. A former student and I also started an English club for the school, and I can tell that will be tons of fun. It gives the really motivated students a chance to practice beyond the classroom material and basically dictate what they want to learn without me having to individually tutor all of them.

My living situation is still fabulous. As of now, no progress has been made on the renovation of my official house, so I’m still in the just-as-wonderful temporary house. Not knowing when I’ll have to move has made settling in a little pointless, but I’ve at least decorated my walls with hilariously graphic Malagasy health posters advocating condom use, monotony, family planning, and STD testing.

An interesting dichotomy exists on the compound where I live. In addition to the university classrooms, one finds large, western-style expat houses complete with electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, large kitchen appliances, housekeepers, and 4WD vehicles in the front yard. Interspersed between these homes are the one-room shacks that house entire Malagasy guardian families and whose only Western amenity is a single light bulb. Despite the proximity, the lifestyles of these expats and Malagasy couldn’t be more different – and I’m squished somewhere in between. I reside in a sizeable house, though it is largely unfurnished, undecorated, and downright dilapidated by Western standards. My only kitchen appliance is a two-burner countertop gas stove, and all of my utensils and cookware are secondhand and rusted. My plumbing doesn’t work, so every morning I bring buckets of water from the communal hose back to my house. Unlike my expat neighbors, I do my own cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and I have no means of transportation other than my own two feet. It literally took me weeks to figure out where to dump my trash because whenever I asked someone, they would tell me, “Just pay the guardian to take it out for you.” Yeah…no. Maintaining the same standard of living as the average Malagasy is one aspect of Peace Corps philosophy that I’ll always admire. We were taught by our host families how to function rural Malagasy-style in everyday life, and are forced by our modest living allowances to maintain that standard. Not that I don’t enjoy the benefits of having rich vazaha (white) neighbors. Ironically, during my Peace Corps interview, I specifically told my recruiter that I wanted the “real” Peace Corps experience (i.e. living in a tiny hut in an isolated village with no electricity, running water, or means of communication). Now I find myself invited to everything from pancake breakfasts (complete with Vermont maple syrup) to 3-course wine and pasta Italian lunches. My good friend and next-door neighbor has offered to let me use her fridge, oven, hot shower, and internet whenever I want. Normally I hate using Peace Corps lingo, but there really is no better way to describe my life here than what has been collectively termed the “Posh Corps” by PCVs worldwide. All in all, not the experience I was expecting. I’ve got to tell you, it takes a certain kind of person to rough it among the natives out in the African wilderness for two years.
…guess I’ll never know if I’m that person.

Seriously though, I’m just beginning my service, but there are aspects of this experience that have already begun to change my way of thinking. For instance, having to collect my own water in Mantasoa and here at site has made me realize just how much water we don’t need in our everyday lives. I wash a sink full of dishes in about 1 liter of water and rinse them in the same amount. Compare that to the amount of water used by a dishwasher or even by rinsing dishes under a faucet. I bathe myself with ¼ a bucket of water, slightly more if I’m washing my hair. I use about the same amount for washing clothes. By far the activity that requires the most water (a bucket or more everyday) is flushing my non-functioning toilet. Needless to say, I’ve dropped the habit of flushing every time I take a wiz. (A note on toilets: They are the devil. Not only do they require an obscene amount of water for a single flush, but they have the potential to clog or break – at which point you’re screwed. Give me a drop latrine any day. I’m serious.)

As for nourishment, I’ve FINALLY learned how to sustain myself by cooking real, unprocessed foods – i.e. NOT popping frozen dinners in the oven, calling out for pizza or cheese steaks, microwaving water for ramen noodles, or heating up my mom’s leftovers. *collective gasp* I know. Granted, my palate isn’t exactly rich with variety yet, but I’ve figured out how to make everything from chili to pancakes to falafel completely from scratch. I know some of you are shaking your heads and chuckling patronizingly right now, but this is a major accomplishment for me and I refuse to be brought down. On top of that, I’ve managed to stay completely healthy and (as far as I know) parasite-free since living on my own. However, fleas continue to be a major source of annoyance and scarring on my body. I have yet to understand why there exists flea medication for dogs and cats, but not humans. Somebody PLEASE send me some Frontline!

I plan to head back to Mantasoa in December for a few additional days of training, then spend the holidays with my old homies in Ranomafana and Rebekah in Ifanadiana. Hope everyone is doing well on your sides of the world! Please keep me updated – you’d be surprised at how much I’ve come to enjoy hearing about the everyday drama and gossip in other people’s lives. It’s a good reminder of how life actually continues in places beyond this island…

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life as a House

It’s official – I’m a friggin Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) as of last Tuesday, September 21, 2010! We moved to our sites the day after swearing in, so I believe I’m now allowed to say that I’ll be serving as an Education PCV in Fort Dauphin (Tôlagnaro), Madagascar for the next two years. WOOT! The last entry I wrote was a month ago, and it is absolutely incredible how quickly this past month flew by in comparison to the first. I’m not sure if it had to do with finally getting used to the new environment and lifestyle, the reality of what I’m actually here to do setting in, the fact that the education trainees have barely had time to breathe since returning from site visit, or possibly because I was finally able to get over the shock of being thrown back into a study abroad-like atmosphere and really begin to enjoy the final few weeks of training.

After we returned from site visit to Mantasoa, our schedule was just a whirlwind of stress and insanity. I had an issue with my host family before leaving for site, but the homestay coordinator (an absolutely incredible and kickass female, might I add) spoke to them while I was away and attempted to resolve the situation. Everything was fine when I got back, but I just never felt as comfortable with them afterwards. I did love my little brother and sister, but I definitely won’t miss their relentless coughing in my face and on everything I own.

Because Israel, Paul, and I got back to Mantasoa four days after everyone else, we were thrown into the education practicum with little preparation. Several of the current education PCVs serving around the country came to Mantasoa to train us. We were able to watch one class taught by them as a model for what we were supposed to be doing. The first two classes I taught were to the Terminale level (the American equivalent of high school seniors), which was really useful since they were the closest to the level of students I’ll actually be teaching. I missed the next class I was supposed to teach because I was really sick for a few days, but the next few classes I taught were to the 5eme, 4eme, and 3eme levels (equivalent to our 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, respectively). I got some excellent feedback from the trainers. They said it was hard to tell that this was my first time teaching, which was unbelievably encouraging to me. I had to work a lot on my blackboard management and a few presentation techniques, but overall I did well, survived practicum, and learned a ton. Lesson planning was a new experience for me. I think that’s where most of my stress came from since I would spend hours every night preparing for my classes. For the sake of my own sanity, I REALLY hope that lesson planning is a skill I’ll get better (and by better, I mean faster) at. I’ve heard from a few of the more experienced teachers that they hardly ever write lesson plans for their actual classes, but, as of now, I can’t imagine having a class without one. Although it was nowhere near as petrifying as I imagined, the whole classroom teaching thing hasn’t really clicked with me yet. I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it and ease into it more when I have my own classes and have a better idea of what exactly I’ll be teaching. I think my biggest fear is that I will start my assignment, realize that I hate teaching, and spend the next two years stressed out and miserable all the time.

Other than teaching/observing practicum most mornings, the second half of training consisted of a lot of technical sessions (learning about classroom management, teaching strategies, writing/grading tests, etc.) and significantly less language instruction. I was extremely devastated about the latter, as studying Malagasy has become one of my favorite pastimes. We had our first language interview right before site visit, and I scored at the Intermediate Mid level, which was two levels higher than what we were supposed to be at that point in time. The survival words and phrases I picked up in Ranomafana gave me little advantage after the first couple weeks of instruction because of the intensity of Peace Corps language training. We had our final language interview by certified testers last week. I scored at the Advanced Low level, which was still two levels higher than what education trainees are required to be at before they are allowed to swear in as official PCVs, but I can’t help but think that my actual level might even be higher. My language trainer came up to me after we found out the results of our tests and said, “I’m so proud of you, but I listened to the recording of your interview – I know you can do better than that.” HA, love him. Regardless, we have to have another official language interview at the end of our service. If I reach a certain level at that point (Advanced High I think?) then I’ll have certification that I’m bilingual. It seems easy enough to get to that level over the course of two years, but I’m worried about the lack of structured grammatical training I’ll have at site. Oh well, that’s the least of my concerns right now.

It’s absolutely crazy how my feelings toward training and the upcoming installation at site changed over the course of two months. During the first month, I couldn’t wait to get away from everyone and start my assignment. However, during the last week of training when I was right on the edge ready to take the plunge, I was absolutely terrified. Although I still hated living with a group of 40+ Americans, I’m really going to miss some of my fellow trainees and trainers who I’ve gotten close to. I know that eventually I’ll start making connections at my site and come to think of it as home, but the inevitable loneliness of the first few weeks (or months) will be the most difficult challenge. As a side note (although I doubt anyone will actually send me mail), I have local address at site, so don’t send anything to the old Antananarivo address. I thought it would be relatively easy to get mail at the PC Headquarters address I’ve had posted, but I learned that because I’m a fly-site, I probably won’t receive any of mail sent to that address until the next time I’m in Tana (which won’t be until December).

The swearing in ceremony was brief, but I loved the official-ness of it. There’s currently no American ambassador to Madagascar, so whoever his next-in-command is was the one who swore us in. There were a few speeches given in English and Malagasy; then all trainees were asked to stand, raise our right hands, and say the US government oath (the same one Obama took). Good times. Apparently the whole thing was aired on national television; one of my friends in Tana texted me later and told me he watched it. Afterward, I was pulled aside by a journalist and photographer for an interview, but I have no idea if anything came of that.

I’ve now been at site since Wednesday. We came back with a Peace Corps staff member for “installation,” which basically means doing courtesy visits to various officials, making sure our houses are up to safety standards, and assuring no major problems remain. When I got here, I learned that there is now someone living in that temporary house I told you about in the last entry, so I had a brief moment of panic before finding out that I now had a choice of two possible temporary houses (my official house still needs to undergo renovation). Both houses were just as gigantic by Malagasy standards as the first one, except these were both located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Needless to say, no second thought was given to my old house. One choice had no running water and the other had a missing window. I chose the one with no water because it is slightly more compact (can’t think of a better word) and easier to close off the various rooms that I won’t be using regularly for safety reasons. This is possibly the most incredible house I will ever live in. On the outside it looks like a dilapidated old beach shack. Inside, there’s a huge kitchen, 3 bedrooms, a bathroom with sink, shower, toilet, and TILE floor, and a massive living room with huge windows that overlooks the ocean. We actually saw a friggin whale just kicking it in the waves from the living room window as we were surveying the house. I'm surrounded by gorgeous pine trees, and there's a constant gentle breeze, above which you can here the crashing of waves. A bed, armoire, table, and chairs were provided to me by the school. I inherited TONS of books, a couch, and a bunch of rusted kitchen supplies from previous volunteers. No idea what I did in a past life to deserve this, but I'll let you all know as soon as I figure it out.

I’ll likely be spending the majority of my time this next week shopping for basic living supplies and attempting to de-rust my utensils. The trade-off for an amazing view and proximity to the beach is that I’m really far away from the nearest stores or markets, and the road to my house isn’t safe to walk alone on after dark. Since I have no means of refrigerating food, I’ll probably be living primarily on beans and rice or other dried foods that I can stock up on.

It looks like I’ll have somewhat regular internet access here (maybe a couple times a week), so I’ll try to keep you updated on my new life and job. If anyone knows of any good resources for teaching environmental or business English, please share!

PS - I desperately hope at least one person got the reference, but whenever I'm in my house I can't help but think of the Life as a House quote, "If you were a house, Sam, this is where you would want to be built. On a rock, facing the sea. Listening. Listening."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We're not in Hawaii anymore, Toto. ...wait a minute...

Envision the cold, rainy, mountainous training village of Mantasoa that I described in my last entry. Feel the mud seeping through your last pair of clean pants as the highland wind chills your face and hands. Search the sky for a break in the clouds that may produce beams of that heavenly miracle you once knew as sunshine.

Now, picture the exact opposite of that.

Indeed boys and girls, that is my site. After I swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) a month from now, I will be living and working in a tropical paradise for the next two years. Okay, so it won't actually be a huge diversion from the general environment I've inhabited for the majority of the past 5 years, but maybe it just seems so drastic a change in comparison to Mantasoa.

Regardless, I've been on a site visit for the past week, and I've got to say that I couldn't be more in love with my future home. I flew down here with fellow trainees Israel (who will be teaching at the local high school) and Paul (who will be teaching in a town about 6 hrs west of here) and with one of our trainers who is from this area. The first thing I thought as we exited the plane was, "Oh my God, I'm back in Hawaii." The town is located on a small penninsula and blocked in by mountains, so it actually has that secluded atmosphere that gives it a very small island-esque feel. The beaches are absolutely gorgeous, the streets are filled with sand instead of mud, and the climate stays warm with relatively low humidity year-round, with rainy and dry seasons. The people, culture, and town itself, however, remind me much more of a Caribbean island. The people are much more African-looking than the Merina of Mantasoa (my host mom could be at home anywhere from the Philippines, to Peru, to Tahiti) or even the Tanala/Betsileo in Ranomafana. Women wear brightly colored lambas and skirts with t-shirts or tank tops. I've seen many women sport brightly colored face paints that I've heard are used to protect their skin from the sun. Guys wear shorts with t-shirts or otherwise sleeveless shirts. Everyone wears slippers. Rasta style is extremely common, though I don't know if this is just the "look" (I’m sure it is for most people) or if there are actual Rastafari here. Everywhere you look you can find someone with dreads, beaded hemp jewelry, or a Bob Marley lamba. Surfing is also big here (I'll admit, I didn't even know surf culture exited in Madagascar until I arrived last week).

I could go on and on about the city, but I'm sure there'll be more time for that in the future. The actual whereabouts of my house seriously could not be more perfect. Without going into too much detail about the specific location, I'm right on the coast near the school where I'll be teaching. I've actually got two houses right now - my official house is undergoing major renovation and may not be ready until much later in the school year. Both houses are basically mansions by Peace Corps standards (and by most Americans' standards as well) and are located on top of a Wuthering Heights-reminiscent cliff. My official house has 7 rooms, a wrap-around lanai with STUNNING views of the ocean (you can whale-watch off my front porch!). I assume there’s no need to describe my overwhelming shock, as I told most of you that I’d probably be living in a tiny 1 or 2 room house with no running water or electricity. There's an amazing local beach that's great for swimming just down a small path. The location is offset from the town center and touristy areas, which is awesome because it maintains that small-village feel with all the benefits of a small city are in close proximity.

My site and assignment are considered by many to be the crème de la crème of PC Madagascar, but there are pros and cons to being placed in such a large, touristy town. I definitely won't get the same cultural (or what many would call "traditional Peace Corps") experience that volunteers in smaller communities will have. I'll be able to establish somewhat of a presence in the community, but not nearly to the extent I expected. I suppose relative anonymity has its benefits though. Everything I need is right here, so I won't need to travel away from site to buy supplies, bank, etc. Cost of living is much higher, but the location is darn worth it. And I'll have regular internet access! I can pay to use my school's modem, chill out at an internet cafe, or - my personal favorite so far - walk to the swanky hotel down the road, buy a pastry, drink, or cup of coffee, and take advantage of the wireless in their cushy lobby.

I've only been here a week, but I already feel like I'm making a name for myself in this city, which is fantastically encouraging. I've already made several friends and established some contacts. I have a basic idea of how to get around, and I can tell people are starting to recognize me. As incredible as site visit has been, though, I've still got a month left of training in Mantasoa. The education volunteers start practicum when we get back, meaning we'll be practice-teaching actual classes. This is absolutely terrifying to me (the idea of teaching in front of other, more experienced, volunteers and trainers more so than the idea of teaching the actual students), but these are the skills I absolutely need to learn to be successful here. Sink or swim...that's become my motto over the past month. Holy crap, I honestly cannot believe it's only been a month since we arrived in Madaland.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sunny African Warmness? My vody!

Salama from Madaland! I should preface this entry by saying that the past two weeks back in Madagascar have literally felt like two months. We've managed to cram more activity/knowledge/experience into a fortnight that I could have ever imagined humanly possible, and the days seem to go by so slowly. I have so many mixed feelings on everything that's happened so far, but just to assure you all, I have absolutely no regrets. From the time I left my parents' house July 19, not once have I questioned my decision to do this with the next two (or more) years of my life.

I did confess to some of you before I left that a part of me wished I'd been placed in a different country so I could experience living in a different part of Africa. I can honestly say that all of those thoughts evaporated the moment I looked out of the plane window as we flew over the island. At that point, I remembered exactly how much I missed this country, and it felt more like I was coming home than leaving it.

I don't want to make this entry into a novel, so I'll try to stick to the highlights. Call or email me if you want more details on anything.  I met with my group of 42 Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) - 21 education and 21 health - at a hotel in DC on the 19th. For a group this huge, we're surprisingly homogenous. The vast majority of us are in our early 20s (the oldest is 28) and are relatively recent college grads. Most of the others actually graduated sometime this past year, which makes me feel strangely old... We had one afternoon of orientation in DC then left for South Africa the next day. We spent the night in an airport hotel and arrived in Mada the next afternoon (July 22). The group was immediately shuttled to the PC transit house in Tana, where we crammed in a few more orientation sessions, spent the night, then left for our training village of Mantasoa, which is about 2 hours east of the capital. There we immediately moved in with our host families, where we will be living for the next 2 months. The next day we were taken to the training center (about a 10 min walk from my house), which can only be described as the summer camp of dreams. It's located right on the shores of gorgeous Lake Mantasoa. There are dorm-style cabins, a medical building, a lecture hall, a huge dining/lounging hall, basketball and volleyball courts, and plenty more fantastic-ness that I have yet to discover. Tragically, we're only there one day a week for medical and administrative sessions. The Mantasoa area itself takes me back to my time in New Zealand WAY more than my time in other parts of Mada. We're located up in the hills, surrounded by pine trees, and the weather can change in the blink of an eye (though it never ceases to be cold and damp).

So here's a typical day in the life: I wake up around 5:45 am and make my bed (not by choice, mind you, my host mom makes me do it). I stumble down a near-vertical ladderlike staircase to the kitchen, followed by my 2 year old sister, Tsiky, who (though she can barely walk) never fails to remind me of the graceful creature that I'm not. I help my Neny (mom) make breakfast in our fireplace. It's truly incredible how many kinds of food one can make with a few pots and some firewood. I then go back to my room to retrieve my po (nighttime pee bucket) and water bucket to take outside. I slide down a muddy hill to our kabone (drop latrine), where I empty my po. I use the clean bucket to draw water from our compound's well and use it to rinse my po, brush my teeth, and take a bucket shower outside. After this, I head back to my room, sweep it, polish the floor with a coconut, then sweep up all the coconut dust. I actually don’t mind doing this because (aside from the fact that pushing a coconut around the floor with your foot is darn amusing) fleas are a big problem here, and dust somehow manages to collect throughout the day despite the fact that it’s constantly raining.

I then get dressed and walk to language class at the local primary school, were I learn the dialect of the region I've been assigned to with another trainee who will be placed in the same city. At 12, I walk home and have lunch with the family, which consists of my 24 year old neny, 27 year old dada, 5 year old brother Angelo, and Tsiky. At 2, I return to the primary school where we have technical training sessions with the other education trainees. At 5, I return home to study and help my neny cook dinner. Rice is generally the main dish for all 3 meals, with some sort of loaka (side dish). This can be salad, zebu, pork, chicken, fish, veggies, and/or beans. After dinner I practice my Malagasy with my family (who speak absolutely no English or French), or we watch a movie or Malagasy TV in my family's room. They usually go to bed around 9, but I don't fall asleep until 11 or 12-ish, possibly because my malaria medication has been known to cause insomnia. That's pretty much the routine Monday-Saturday. We get Sundays off and are encouraged to spend that time with our families.

Here are some highlights from the past two weeks:
Going to church with my family this past Sunday (and yes, it was EXACTLY like every other Catholic mass I've attended in the various corners of the world; however, the church was more festively decorated and the singing significantly more harmonious and in key).
Our host dads teaching Rebekah (my neighbor) and I how to kill a chicken. I watched in horror as Rebekah sawed away at the chicken's throat with a blunt steak knife for about 10 seconds, barely breaking the skin. They then switched knives and finally put the poor thing out of its misery.
Rebekah and I washing our clothes with our moms on the shores of the lake in the freezing rain, while our dads and siblings paddled around in their canoe.
My dad teaching me how to roll bananas in dough and fry them in oil for breakfast.
Frying pieces of baguette for breakfast the next day.
Discovering that the long wooden box outside my window was actually a beehive. I later watched as they cut out pieces using no protective equipment, and my family feasted on honey straight off the comb.
Going to a nearby market with the intention of buying a live chicken as a Peace Corps assignment and being told by all the vendors that chickens weren’t sold on Tuesdays... then proceeding to buy 2 kilos of zebu liver as a substitute.
Teaching my host mom to make peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches.
Of course by FAR the best part of my PC experience thus far was finding out my site and assignment for the next two years. For security reasons I don't think I can post the name of the city where I'll be living yet, but I can tell you it's a GORGEOUS coastal town in the dirrrty souf of the island. Ask my mom or check my Facebook for the exact location. Apparently, my accommodations will be quite a bit more swank-ified than the average PC volunteer’s. I supposedly have my choice of two relatively sizable houses with ocean views, electricity, running water (crazy!), and a friggin flush toilet (even crazier!). As if that wasn't incredible enough, my teaching assignment could not be more ideal. Traditionally, PC Mada education volunteers teach English curriculum to middle and high school students with class sizes of up to 100 kids. Many of you will remember how I openly expressed my fears of this set-up, as I have almost no formal classroom teaching experience and definitely no experience teaching anyone under the age of 18. Well, in another unbelievable twist of fate, I am the only education volunteer in my group to be assigned a university-level teaching position at an ecological/environmental studies school. This means smaller class sizes, no kids, and more of an environmental focus to my lessons. My head is still spinning with excitement. I couldn't be more elated if I'd planned this out myself!

The anticipation to actually get out on my own and start doing what I came here to do is what keeps me going through the more difficult days. I can’t remember the last time I actually felt warm and dry. This is the coldest region of Madagascar and, if it’s not raining, there always seem to be ominously low-hanging clouds in the sky. I’ve got flea and mosquito bites all over my body already and I’ve had a cold for the past few days. I couldn’t ask for a better host family, so it’s obviously frustrating not being able to have real conversations with them or express myself clearly. For the most part, the other trainees are fun to be around, but training so far has really felt more like a study abroad program. In many ways, we’re being treated like children who need their hand held and butts wiped every step of the way, and it’s incredibly frustrating feeling like I’m back in college again. I’ve been assured by many, though, that everyone feels like that during training, and the real work and independence doesn’t actually begin until we’re on our own at site. Only a month and a half...

There's so much more I could write about anything and everything, but I just don't have that much time. A few important notes, though: I have a new phone number since my SIM card was de-activated sometime this past year. It is now 034-6056064. Just dial 011-261-34-6066054 if you're calling/texting from the States. Even though I'll probably have regular internet access once I move to my site in late-September, please send me letters (or care packages if you're feeling ambitious... tissue packets and Lush shampoo bars, and Garnier sleek & shine leave-in conditioner would be GREATLY appreciated). I miss you all, but rest assured, I’m having an amazing time and there's absolutely nothing I'd rather be doing with my life right now.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reality Wacks Jess in the Face ...or Was That a Bludger?

Less than two weeks to go! The reality of what I’m doing finally hit me a few weeks ago when I started saying goodbye to family members that I knew I wouldn’t see again for two years. So now I’m in a sort of dynamic super-excited-to-super-sad mental state, but at least I have yet to feel nervous. I’ve been gradually assembling a mental list of all the things I’m going to miss while I’m in Mada (actually, 99% of that list is food items). However, all of those inconsequential extravagances were wiped clean four days ago in a Seattle IMAX theater epiphany. You see, it’s not about regular Wikipedia access or Coffee Toffee Twisted Frostees or Philly cheesesteaks. What is the one thing I’m leaving behind that is killing me the most? Harry Potter. After over a decade of putting my name on waiting lists, reading and re-reading, developing theories and predictions, and waiting in lines for midnight showings, I can’t believe that I’m going to miss the last two film releases of the book series that has defined my generation. Yes, I know that someone will send me pirated copies as soon as they are released, but it just won’t be the same as watching the final Harry v. Voldemort drama culminate on a big screen surrounded by theater-goers bursting with the same pee-your-pants excitement that you yourself have been containing all of these years. *sigh*

…And now for a few reasons why I’m crazy excited to go! Madagascar is an amazingly unique island, and I only wish that the world knew more about it. Many have described it as an “enigma,” and I really can’t think of a better term. It is one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots and has rates of endemism unmatched by the rest of the world. Over 80% of its flora and fauna are found only in Madagascar. Most notably, reptiles have an endemism rate of over 90%, amphibians of 99%, and non-human primates (lemurs) of 100%. Madagascar was recently home to some crazy species like gorilla-sized lemurs and the giant elephant bird (the heaviest bird in existence), but like most large animals in island ecosystems, they went extinct. The tragic part is that they only went extinct in the past few centuries due to human encroachment. Despite Madagascar’s significance at the global biodiversity level, very little of this country is protected, and 95% of the original forest has been lost since humans first arrived. Deforestation has exposed the underlying red soils of the island (hence its nickname, “The Red Island”), which run into the ocean. Observers from airplanes and space shuttles say that the island looks like it’s bleeding to death. Many of you know my theories about just how long I think Madagascar’s incredible ecosystems will survive, but I’ll save those for another post.

So here’s what I find most incredible and enigmatic about Madagascar. Although I loves me some ecology and conservation biology, I’m still a cultural anthropologist at heart, and the Malagasy people and culture are endlessly fascinating to me. The first people came to the island about 2000 years ago. I’ll save you all of the conflicting ideas about just how and from where they came, but just know that different people came at different times, and the Malagasy race is basically a mix of Indonesian and African ancestry. I like to describe the Malagasy as ranging from Filipino-looking (mostly concentrated around the capital) to more Eastern African-looking (toward the coasts). The most fascinating thing is that, despite the obvious differences in ethnic background and geographical distribution, Malagasy culture is more or less ubiquitous throughout the island. For instance, you can see elements of Madagascar’s Southeastern Asian heritage – rice paddies, outrigger canoes, ancestor worship, rectangular houses – as well as its African heritage – zebu-raising and cattle culture, musical influences – everywhere you go. Malagasy culture is also flavored with cultural elements of the Arabs, Indians, and Europeans, who arrived more recently. The Malagasy language is also super enthralling, but, again, I’ll save that for another post.
Here’s the mailing address I’ll be available at:

“my name”, PCV
Bureau du Corps de la Paix
B.P. 12091
Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
Antananarivo 101

This address will always be available to receive my mail, though I may get another local address once I get placed at my site. I’ll post my cell phone # later. When sent packages in the past, they only took about 3-4 weeks to arrive. I assume letters take about the same time. I’d consider this unusually fast though; generally they take about 1-2 months, but it can be as long as 6 months. And obviously there’s always the possibility of loss or theft. It’s generally easier and faster to send things in padded envelopes than boxes. Please write me letters and/or postcards! I’m sure I’ll have periodic email access, but you know how I love to keep it oldschool. Of course, the fastest and most efficient way to get things to me is by bringing them yourself…when you come and visit me! That’s right, I expect YOU to come visit me. Tragically, I highly doubt I’ll be able to make it back to the States during my term of service. Even for Harry Potter.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


This is my first actual attempt at a blog. I’ve tried to keep journals periodically throughout my life, but they never seem to last more than a month or so, if even that. Some of you may remember my incredible idea to keep a running vlog of my last stay in Madagascar…I believe that vlog is now listed in Webster’s under the definition of “fail.” That is, if it’s even possible to fail at something one never even starts… But I figure this one might just work out. I’ll be in the country for 27 months straight this time, so even if I get lazy for a few months, at some point I’ve got to be inspired (or bored) enough to write an entry.

A few notes about this blog though: Those of you who know me (yes, I’ll be using that phrase a lot) know that I’m horrible at updating people via email, letters, facebook, etc., and when I do, I rarely write juicy details about my personal life or the minutiae of everyday activities. Instead, I tend to wax philosophic or write offbeat cultural commentaries. I doubt this blog will be any different, but it’s all new territory to me, so we’ll see. Also, it goes without saying that you probably won’t agree with everything I write. I don’t know the details about commenting on posts and all that jazz yet (assuming anyone actually wants to read this thing), but this is most definitely NOT meant to be a forum for debate. If you don’t like what I write, please keep it to yourself or just stop reading. I absolutely despise all forms of conflict, debate, politics, and the like. I respect everyone’s opinions, so please do the same for me. Oh yes, and this would probably be a good time to state that my views and opinions do not reflect those of the Peace Corps or US government.

Groovy, now that I’ve got all that crap out of the way, time to start the craziness!
I’ve been bombarded with questions about Mada, the Peace Corps, my life in general, etc. recently, so I thought I’d take this time to clear up some of the common confusion and misunderstandings:

• Madagascar is that big island off the coast of Southeastern Africa (about the size of Texas). The adjective form is “Malagasy,” NOT “Madagascan” or “Madagasy,” (e.g. the Malagasy people, Malagasy food, Malagasy school system…).

• Lemurs are NOT monkeys, nor are they rodents, although I’ll admit that I don’t do much to remedy this mistake by describing them as “the lovechildren of monkeys and squirrels.” They are primates, though. If it helps you to think of an evolutionary “hierarchy,” it would go: humans, apes, monkeys, then lemurs. They are, however, just as funky and musically inclined as the movie suggests.

• Notice the “s” in the spelling of Peace Corps.

• The Peace Corps is a well established and highly internationally-respected government agency. I’ve heard way too many people say, “I thought anyone could join the Peace Corps!” Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) is an arduous and extremely competitive process – I’m still not there yet. The very minimum requirements for most assignments are a four-year degree and significant work or volunteer experience in a specialized field. In order to even be considered “competitive,” you must have extensive volunteer/community involvement experience, a high GPA, demonstrated leadership abilities, and, in many cases, a certain amount of foreign language proficiency.

• This is because volunteers are sent to host communities to completely integrate themselves in order to develop and implement sustainable projects. They must become fluent in the local language and live the same lifestyle as the average community member. I’m definitely not saying any of this to be self-righteous, I just really want to emphasize that the Peace Corps is not one of those “white man bringing aid” missionary organizations that sends volunteers to help out with already well-established projects. Its focus is on sending skilled men and women to requesting host countries to integrate themselves into a single community and develop sustainable projects as an actual member of that community. This is why the minimum term of service is 2 years.

Woot! Mkay, I can’t think of anything else right now, but please please please let me know if you have any questions or want to know more about any part of the crazy process. And PLEASE don’t think I’m trying to get all preachy on your okole by pointing out all of these misconceptions – I didn’t know half of this stuff before I experienced it first-hand. I just enjoy teaching people…which is good because that’s what I’ll be doing for 27 months!

I’d like to end this entry with a little side note to my college homies: No, I am NOT a hippie, nor will I ever be. And yes, I am actually working for the US government. Hehe.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Madagasikara! ...Again!

Those of you who have followed the general course of my life over the past 7 years or so know that I have spent a disproportionate amount of time on islands (disproportionate to the average person at least), particularly islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Those of you who know me well are also familiar with my lifelong desire to live in Sub-Saharan Africa. My draw to both of these areas culminated when I was able to spend two field seasons working as a field assistant to the brilliant almost-Dr. Sarah Zohdy (who better be reading this blog because she’s probably the only person who’s going to understand some of the references I make) in Ranomafana, Madagascar, studying wild brown mouse lemurs. I absolutely fell in love with this island and have felt an overpowering desire to return ever since I left…which really wasn’t all that long ago…but that’s not the point. For those of you who are Lost fans, I will use yet another Jack quote to describe my feelings of longing and despair after leaving in December, “Every Friday night I fly from LA to Tokyo or Singapore or Sydney, and then I get off, and I have a drink, and then I fly home. Because I want it to crash…Every little bump we hit or turbulence – I actually close my eyes and I pray that I can get back.”

Obviously this quote should not be taken literally because there are few things in this world that I hate more than flying. Anywho, through an incredible amount of work on my part and a CRAPload of luck, I’ve somehow managed to land myself a Peace Corps invitation to serve as a TEFL teacher in Madagascar from July 19, 2010 – Sept. 11, 2012. And that is the [extremely abridged] background to my story.

Tonga Soa, Bienvenue, and Welcome to my Peace Corps blog!