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

-Jack Shepard

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.


  1. OMG I am SO SO SO proud/excited/envious of your experiences! Your classroom setup sounds amazing and don't worry: teaching can be a real challenge but it's super fun and you're doing material you care about! Keep the updates coming. xoxo, GRE buddy

  2. I am glad to hear that things are going so well for you. I have my interview next week, so wish me luck! Who knows, I could be off on my own Peace Corps adventure soon! (I still would like to visit you in Madagascar though!)

  3. Hey Jess! Just got the info on your page. You write amazing (and long) posts!. I need to see a photo of cleaning the floor with a coconut. Is it open? Whole?

    Keep up the great work. (It is super hard what you are doing.)

    We will send you something soon.


  4. Hey Jess! I'm so very happy to hear things are going well. Your assignment sounds like a dream. This entire post only proves to me that God has an incredible plan in store for you and knows exactly what he is doing. Love you!