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

-Jack Shepard

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.

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