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

-Jack Shepard

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.