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

-Jack Shepard

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Portraits of the South

Photos I took around the south of Madagascar. See my Facebook album for the full collection.

(Yes, that's an enormous joint.)

Bust a Move If You Love Jesus

I’m currently being held captive against my will in the Malagasy capital by the Peace Corps medical team. I have ebola or SARS or something. They won’t release me until the results of medical examinations are in and further experimentation has been conducted (probably Thursday). Good news though – there’s 24-hour free wifi in my cell.

Lots of fun has been had in the past three months. Went on a couple crazy trips around the south of Madagascar (see pictures on Facebook – will try to post some here). Spent 2 days and 15 minutes on a camion from hell in which people are regarded as cattle and squished into rows of 9 people (designed for 6 people). Began teaching 2 of my fabulous university classes again and gained a new, equally fabulous class. Saw some famous Malagasy pop stars perform in Fort Dauphin. Got stalked by an old Pakistani man. Had 2 kickbutt Thanksgivings. Killed my first turkey. Went to a string of parties ranging from fantastic to painfully quirky.

Also. Much to my mother’s elation, I’ve been attending church almost every Sunday for over a month. No, no, no, my first birth remains the only, but it’s a fun community activity and good bonding time with my “in-laws,” who take care of me and feed me several times a week. I’m no closer to Christianity than I’ve ever been, but I actually enjoy the services. And let me tell you, these are no sleepy “Is it communion yet??” Catholic masses. Not that I’ve had much experience with other denominations, but this church is what I imagine Pentecostals on crack would be. The 2.5 hour service begins with a 1 hour warm-up of earsplitting rock music complete with full drum set, keyboard, electric and bass guitars, gigantic speakers, microphone-wielding choir, and who-can-belt-the-hardest-for-Jesus diva-offs. As if this in itself isn’t entertaining enough, groups of kids (some of which can’t be more than 5 years old) separate into boy and girl dance groups on the stage and perform choreographed routines to all the songs as well as spoken worship times in which a large black woman (and not always the same one) half-sings half-screams the good Lord’s praises to the soothing sounds of electronic keyboard. I call my side of the church’s dance group the “Altar Boyz II Men.”

But wait, the fun doesn’t end there. God wouldn’t approve of the congregation just sitting around and watching the worship, we all must take an active part in the festivities. Everyone from toddlers to tottering old ladies gets up and grooves to the music. At my first service, I couldn’t help but notice an especially enthusiastic man waving a humongous flag and spinning in circles down the aisles. He later turned out to be the preacher. For the main event, the preacher gets on stage, cries out the glory of the son of God, leads some prayers, and oversees some group-prayers. The group prayers are superfun because everyone has license to give praise in whatever way they deem fit. Some do the quieter bow-of-the-head whispered prayer. Others raise their hands to the sky and speak/weep in tongues. Still others become possessed by the Holy Spirit and scream, wail, pant, jump, roll on the floor… The best part of the service is, sadly, the part I haven’t even witnessed yet. Sunday afternoons are the healings. I teach a class at that time, but the in-laws always give me the 411 later that week. People from all over the region, whether they’re of this denomination or not, bring their sick and injured to the preacher to be healed. I’ve heard tales of a blind man regaining sight, a mute exclaiming “Jesosy!” [Jesus], and a woman being cured of diabetes – in addition to all the more “lackluster” miracles. And this has all been since October. At this point, these healings are the equivalent of the local cultural beliefs in ghosts, witchcraft, and the living dead – I’m not sure if I believe all of the stories, but I desperately want to. I’m just waiting to see everything for myself.

One kooky cultural observation I don’t think I’ve discussed yet: Malagasy kids can kick American kids’ butts. Literally. These small people are built strong and built to last. From the time they’re born, they’re strapped to their mothers’ backs with a sarong, heads a-bouncin’ and a-bobbin’ all over the place. Yet no necks are snapped. Once they can crawl, they’re basically turned loose on the world to play in the dirt, put things in their mouths, and take naps on the ground. Toddlers are given small, round candies to eat and learn to climb trees and play with sharp objects. Small children, who we still think of as helpless and innocent are given adult responsibilities. They are sent to the store to pick up oil or cigarettes. They collect large buckets of water on their heads that are heavy even for me. They carry their small siblings on their backs around town. They are taught how to collect things like shells, jewelry, and shellfish and sell them to tourists. When this fails, they are taught how to beg money from white and/or rich people. They are integral parts of the household, helping with cooking, cleaning, message-delivering, chicken-catching, cattle-wrangling, and family trades. When they’re not working, they roam around town, play with handmade toys in the streets, and swim in the ocean – all without adult supervision. And the extent to which children physically resemble their parents here is startling. Like creepy miniature clones.

Anyway, life in my second year in Madagascar is going fantastically. It really does take a year to fully become part of a community – I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I stayed here 3 or more years. It’s almost laughable now how I used to think I knew my community after a couple months, after 6 months, after 10 months… There’s still so much I’m learning, but I finally feel like an accepted member of the town, not just an outsider that people are used to seeing every day. I’m confident in my teaching abilities, and I know my place as a PCV and where I can be the most effective. I have a strong network of friends in diverse circles, and all I think about while being caged here in the capital is going home to Fort Dauphin.

A strange thing has also happened in this second year: I’ve experienced this funky cultural perspective switch. When comparing Malagasy and American cultural differences, my subconscious immediately tells me that the Malagasy tradition is normal, while the American one is strange. For example, I see a Malagasy woman whack her 3 year old child with a stick for getting distracted by a piece of trash on the street and slowing her down. Then I see a white woman trying to placate her squirming and screaming toddler in a stroller with food and toys. Where’s the damn stick?? I walk 2.5 miles to the market and am still put to shame by old ladies carrying 20 lb baskets on their heads 4 times that distance just to sell their goods around town. Then I think about how I’ve driven my car around the block just to get from the supermarket to the bank. Is it really that much of a sacrifice to get off your butt every once-in-a-while and actually interact with people on the street? Here, I buy a live bird or a cut of beef straight off the cow if I want to eat meat. Then I remember how we pay more for pre-killed, pre-cut, pre-cleaned, pre-packaged, pre-frozen meat off an animal that died who knows when/where. How crazy is it to find entire refrigerated isles of plastic-wrapped meat thousands of miles from the gigantic slaughterhouse it came from? I avoid Malagasy street dogs like the plague because, well, their legions of fleas may actually carry the plague. Then I see a vazaha tourist cuddling up to one of the filthy beasts and cooing something about animal cruelty. In America, wouldn’t that be the equivalent of hugging a large rat that just crawled out of a dumpster? I’ve learned to reuse everything and get phones, electronics, shoes, etc. repaired to within an inch of their lives before even considering throwing them away. Then I think about how we buy brand new everythings just because we’re tired of our “old” ones. Why toss a perfectly good metal plate if you can just throw a piece of duct tape over that pesky hole? It’s not so much that I’m “against” our American lifestyle or am going to drastically reform my previous way of living when I get home, I’m just amazed at how our perception of what’s normal and logical can be so easily molded by the people and culture we’re surrounded by.

Alright, back to my House marathon. Once I bust out of this cage and get back to the FD, I’ll be spending the holidays around town and frantically prepping for the arrival of my parents and brother on January 2. Finally someone is coming to visit me – I’ve still got 9 months here homies!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who says you can't go home?

“Nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not.” –Bill Bryson

My great return to the land of freedom, Stephen Colbert, and non-seasonal produce aisles was far too short and not nearly as overwhelming as I expected. I was only home for about 3 days before hopping a giant boat to Mangoritaville, but I had enough curious revelations to fill another insanely long blog post. In an effort to keep your mind from drifting off to Mangoritaville as well (not that I’d blame you), I’ve condensed my thoughts into this letter:


Dear America,

It was fantastic seeing you again; if only we’d had more time to catch up. Sounds like you’ve had quite the summer. Thanks so much for the warm welcome; it was such a surprise to see you heat waving at me when I arrived at the airport in DC. I heard through the grapevine that you were recently quaking with anxiety from the hurricane of work that’s blown your way at the office – you know how you always exaggerate problems in your head! But I digress. I’m still a little confused by some things you said during our time together, and I just want to get some of my concerns out in the open:

• I’m still not sure I understand the obsession with bottled water. It seems even crazier to me after living in a place where I filter and bleach all my drinking water because bottled water is too expensive to buy regularly. May I remind you of how easy you have it with your free, non-amoeba infested water straight from the tap?
• I can’t stop thinking about that last Harry Potter movie and how it officially marks the end of an era. I know there’s nothing you can do…I guess I’m just wondering if you feel the same way?
• I couldn’t help but notice the over-abundance of processed, low-fat snacks in your grocery stores. Okay, so I’m not so concerned with the “processed” part, but I’ve yet to find a low-fat snack that’s as delicious as its calorific counterpart. It’s nearly impossible to find America-quality junk food in Madagascar – I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve spent hours of my life here fantasizing about Oreos, Cheetos, and Hershey’s chocolate. I beg you to eat healthy, wholesome foods 95% of the time, then go to town on a bag of full-calorie Doritos for me.
• No more Coffee Toffee Twisted Frostees..? Really?
• Can you help me explain my post-vacation obsession with Taylor Swift? Then again, it could be worse in a country that’s so power ballad and cheesy 90s pop-saturated, hearing a Justin Bieber song on the radio brings a tear of homesickness to the eye.
• You should seriously consider cutting down on the variety of foods available in your stores and restaurants. I know, I never thought there was such a thing as too much variety. But I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of foodstuffs available and spent so much effort deciding combinations of best possible taste + lack of availability in Madagascar that I didn’t even come close to gaining my goal weight of 10lbs.

I hope I don’t seem ungrateful for your hospitality. In fact, I have a greater appreciation for those quirky Americanisms that the rest of the world seems to find so off-putting. Walmart saved my life when I had a million unrelated things to buy and only a few hours to find them. And I can’t thank you enough for your infatuation with ice. Iced coffees, Slurpees, piña coladas, even just a soda with ice cubes – how does the rest of the world live without this basic human right? Finally, I will never, NEVER again take for granted that which we call “sandwich.” Deli meat, cheese, veggies – all piled high on condiment-soaked sliced bread. Sweet land of liberty.

Anyway, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve given me over the years. I’ve never been prouder to be an American. Take care and stay out of trouble. I’ll see you in a year!

Love always,



So now I’m back in the Windy City of Madagascar. The cruise was incredible, particularly because I was with my entire family plus some in-laws and family friends. I didn’t go half as buffet-crazy as I’d hoped, though I did drink my weight in frozen tropical cocktails. The negative side effect of this euphoria was a subsequent affliction with crippling homesickness for a couple weeks after my return. Basically, I locked myself in my house for the first week and slept 12+ hour/day (thank you jetlag), sobbed “I hate Peace Corps!” into my pillow a couple hundred times, and lived solely on grilled sweet potatoes (welcome back gifts from my neighbors). A dark time, indeed, but not dark enough to have actually made me consider ditching my Beach Corps life. Side note: They finally fixed the pipes in and around my house. Jess has running water, biotch! (Not that it changes my lifestyle much, but hot darn it sure makes flushing the toilet easier.)

I’m back into the swing of things now, still teaching a bunch of classes and loving it. I recently finished editing and formatting an English teacher training manual for one of the NGOs in town, which was an absolute blast. No sarcasm, seriously. I’ve learned that editing is what I do best, and I enjoy doing it.

So for one of my advanced classes, I decided to do a session on American culture and diversity – what it means to be “politically correct” and using appropriate terminology when talking about race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Like many people around the world, the Malagasy have a tendency to place non-Malagasy in generalized categories when discussing ethnicity. I had just finished a whole schpeal about the difference between nationality and race and how there is a huge variety of ethnicities in America (i.e. why you can’t assume someone is from a certain country based on physical characteristics), when one of my students enthusiastically declares, “Okay, but I think you are Chinese.”
“No, I’m American.”
“Yes, but you are Chinese.”
“I’m not Chinese.”
“But you look Chinese!”

Sexual orientation was another interesting topic. The students I teach have access to Western media, so they are all aware of the concept of homosexuality, but their ideas are very vague (picture the looks on their faces when I tried to explain the term “transgender”) and most don’t agree with it or simply deny its existence. I explained how sensitive an issue this is in America and advised that it is better to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk an exchange that could be offensive to both parties. Like the lesson on race, most of the class understood and took to heart what I’d said, but there’s always that one student…
Me: “Can someone give me a sentence using the vocabulary we learned today?”
Student: “Yes. Gays, bisexuals, and transgenders are mentally disabled!”
Class: *embarrassed laughter*
Me: *cracking up* “Okay, that sentence is grammatically correct.”
If I were a more sensitive person, that student would’ve left class with my flip-flop print on his ass. Thank goodness for Peace Corps cross-cultural training.

On the topic of cultural exchanges… Those of you who know me well know that I love to make generalizations about groups of people (usually jokingly) that have no bearing whatsoever on my opinion of them as individuals. Here’s another one for you: I cannot STAND expats. Phew, feels good to get that one off my chest. More accurately, I should say I don’t like expat drama. Why? They’re like alphas without a pack. Expats get themselves so invested in certain aspects, issues, institutions, etc. in this country that they become convinced that only they know what’s right. It almost becomes an “if you’re not with me, you’re against me” situation. I cannot count the number times I’ve sat amongst a group of expats bitching and bickering about the conflicts in their lives and laughed to myself about how pointless (and impossible to keep straight) it all is. Some of it is long-term animosity (the Brits don’t like the French, the French don’t like the South Africans…) and some of it is ideological differences (missionaries v. holding groups v. NGOs v. entrepreneurs), but it’s all part of an convoluted web that can never be untangled. Peace Corps volunteers have an interesting perspective because we’re not working for ourselves or for a particular affiliation. We don’t bring development; our goal is to transfer skills to the Malagasy people so they can facilitate their own development. Maybe that’s why it’s so amusing to watch all of these white people argue over which one of them knows what’s best for Madagascar. But then I guess therein lies the irony: We all want the same thing – whatever is best for Madagascar.

All that said, I LOVE the expats in Fort Dauphin as individuals. They’ve all enthusiastically welcomed me into their respective communities and done so much to help me. They provide me with interesting conversations and new perspectives, and they are almost always willing to share what’s theirs. They’ve become some of my best friends here. Thank you expats! (And try to chillax – it’s just life.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Don't Play with Fire[works]

The first anniversary of my love-hate relationship with Peace Corps Madagascar was last Friday, July 22. I could be cliché and say that time has flown, but no. Hellz to the no. This year has been long, complex, and darn fantastic. Life finally feels “normal” in the sense that I’m staying busy, being inspired, setting goals, and compiling a list of tangible accomplishments. Fort Dauphin feels like home, though not enough to make me want to stay past my close of service (COS) date. One of my current goals/challenges is to apply to grad school this fall and hopefully get accepted so that I can begin as soon as I get back to the states next year. Anyone want to write me a letter of recommendation? Hehe.

Work has been hectic over the past two months (well, as hectic as Peace Corps work can get…I still feel like I’m on an extended vacation). I finally feel like I’m growing – not just mentally, but professionally. I spent most of May organizing what I called my “World Environment Day English Competition.” It was a city-wide competition for high school-level English students in which they could write a short story, poem, or song in English relating to the theme of “grassroots conservation.” I ended up with 20-some total entries (way more than I expected, and many were group entries). Over the weekend of June 5 (World Environment Day), all of the contestants had the chance to read/perform their entries for the public outside the town hall; I'll try to post some of my videos. The top 3 winners received baskets of school supplies and English-Malagasy dictionaries donated by QMM (the local mining company). Visits to local conservation areas, including Andohahela National Park, were awarded to the top contestants as well.

This competition was my baby. I was like a proud mama watching the fruits of my labor get up on that stage to share their English-speaking, environment-loving talents with the world. Laugh not! I know this kind of work is standard for many people, but this was my first real experience with project development. What began as a little seed of an idea planted in the soil of boredom sprouted out into the real world of meetings and deadlines and blossomed into a full-blown accomplishment. The fact that I did everything – pitching the idea to the regional environmental department, meeting with QMM representatives to solicit prize donations, begging the English teachers at the town high schools to encourage their students to participate, attending several meetings in which I had little to no idea what was going on but nonetheless feeling shamelessly proud to have been invited as a regional environmental representative, reading and rereading the entries 20+ times because I was too darn proud of all of the contestants to chose winners – made me realize that I actually am capable of turning my ideas into reality if I just put in the effort. (Note: I realize this is essentially the job description of a Peace Corps Volunteer, but just let me have my moment anyway.)

I ended my classes in early June – a month early – because English is the only class my students have year-round. I could tell that 4 hours of English-learnin’ per week over the course of three trimesters was starting to dampen their already less-than-tremendous enthusiasm. June 26 was Madagascar’s 51st birthday and justification for a weekend-long celebration. A fairground was set up near the city center, though it was composed of more bars and gambling stations than child-friendly amusements. A huge stage was built in front of the town hall, where concerts were held each night. Saturday was fireworks/Black Nadia (a famous pop singer) night, and I’ve never seen so many people squished into what I previously thought was a spacious area. By some insane stroke of luck, I ran into a friend of mine who invited me to sit with his friends at a table in a prime concert/fireworks-watching spot. Little did I realize, as I was enjoying my beer and brochettes (meat on a stick), the danger that wonderful table would put me in.

It was a dark night, so I didn’t notice much of what was happening around me. With no warning, WOOSH! A blast of light shot up into the night sky and exploded into fiery splendor…from only 25 feet away from us. A couple more blasts and I was still a little shaken from the surprise, but so far so good. Then the military guys set off this funky dancing firework that sent sparks whirling and twirling in random directions through the air and low to the ground. One of the sparks decided to fly straight for my face (mind you, there was nothing – people or otherwise – between me and the launching point). Everyone at the table did a flinch-and-duck, but it must have burned out right before it reached us because I was only pelted with small black things that looked like charcoal. After that, we were all on edge but tried our best to enjoy the rest of the show. The next few funky dancing fireworks in the mix shot rogue sparks at new targets. One hit the serving table where they were making our food, one hit a lady in the crowd (I’m pretty sure she was okay), and one traveled down the hill toward the port and struck a wooden house…which then to burst into flames. Why they didn’t just shoot the fireworks from the safety of the port, I’ll never understand. Not exactly the most enjoyable fireworks display of my life, but definitely the most exciting. I later heard that a few people were killed during shows in other parts of the country. Way to go, Madagascar.

After Independence Day, I began a round of new English teaching gigs. While Israel and his counterparts cover many of the start-from-scratch beginners in town, I seem to have found my calling in the environmental and professional circles. In addition to my private teaching of various professionals, I now teach a class at the regional environmental office, a community course for professionals, and, my personal favorite, two classes (beginner and intermediate/advanced) at QMM. I love this one because I only have to walk 2 miles to their community center, then a bus picks me up and takes me to their [air conditioned, cubicle-lined] office building 7 miles north. Because I’m a volunteer, I get to eat a free lunch in their amazing cafeteria then teach employees from the biodiversity and community relations departments over their lunch break. We have class in a temperature-controlled conference room with cushion-y seats and a whiteboard, and I can use their copy machine to make handouts for my students. The people who work there are the bomb friggin diggity – as students, as workers, as human beings... Sweet deal. Anywho, this round of new classes has done wonders for my teaching abilities. I learned all the basics from my classes at CEL, but eventually I got comfortable, we developed a routine, and I stopped being as creative toward the end of the year. These new students, with a mix of levels, personalities, and goals, are forcing me to think of new methods, activities, topics, you name it. Maybe by next year I’ll feel confident enough to actually refer to myself as a “teacher.”

Alright, I’m going to cut this post short[er]. I’m currently lounging in the Peace Corps transit house in Tana, waiting for my flight to South Africa – then back to U S and A, where a 10-day family reunion cruise extravaganza awaits me. Woot! Hopefully I’ll get some videos/pics posted when I have access to America-fast interwebbing. Check back soon. Note: I arrived Sunday and am posting this from the muggy heat of the Mid-Atlantic.

One of the contestants reading her poem at the town hall.

Me with students from 2 of the participating schools.

Check out the song the second place contestant wrote for the competition. I sense an international hit.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

March Mada-ness, April Amelioration

As you may have gathered from the last couple posts, December-February was pretty darn busy in terms of moving around and keeping things interesting. When my schedule finally settled into a relatively uneventful routine again in March, I went a little crazy.

March was a month of too much pondering time and the resulting inner turmoil – about my job, my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, my life in Fort Dauphin, my life in general. Basically, it was like an extended mental breakdown. Apparently, this is completely normal for volunteers at this stage of their service (as I later confirmed after having several “bitch it out” sessions with fellow volunteers), but definitely not something I expected of myself, which perhaps contributed to my mental instability. The whole thing was essentially an accumulation of irritations with the culture, feeling useless, feeling like everyone was using me for money and/or status and that I had no friends I could actually trust, cravings for America, yada yada yada. I think I summed it up best in a message to Sarah, my American partner-in-crime when I was working in Ranomafana: “Nothing specifically brought on my cultural frustration. I just occasionally get those ‘I can't take it anymore’ days and they kind of stick to the ‘I'm not accomplishing anything with my life’ feelings and roll through a pile of ‘I miss fast food, running water, and refrigeration,’ and before you know it, a snowball of Peace Corps depression has formed and is plummeting down Mount ‘Someone needs to incite revolution so that we can be evacuated.’”

Anywho, I could go into all kinds of detail about that horrible month, but no point now. I am once again loving life, though I doubt the cravings, feelings of restlessness, and periodic cultural frustrations will ever dissipate. Such is Peace Corps.

I’ve managed to leave Fort Dauphin on a few short excursions in the past month or so: Went to a tree-planting ceremony in a village to the north with my students, sat in on some classes at a small primary school in the countryside, visited the nearby American Lutheran hospital and told the doctors I’d come back to teach them English, traveled to Ambovombe with Israel and Steph (the volunteer in St. Luce, a town north of Fort Dauphin) for a weekend birthday extravaganza for Paul. Even here at my site itself, I continue to find new places and things to do. Fort Dauphin definitely isn’t a small town, but the frequency with which I say, “I didn’t know this part of town even existed!” never fails to amaze me.

My work and social lives have both been busier as of late. In addition to my classes at CEL and the French students I practice with, I give private lessons to QMM (the mining company) and some regional government employees; I’m thinking about setting up some professional courses during summer break. The director of the school has me edit grant proposals, blurbs for the website, etc., and I’m working with the regional department of the environment on various environmental sensitization projects and contests in the local schools. I was actually invited to a regional government meeting for local environmental representatives, and I was more-or-less able to follow the general topics of conversation. Then the woman running the meeting asked me to pitch my ideas to the room…in Malagasy (of course). Absolutely terrifying, but I managed to convey what I needed to convey. There’s also an environmental festival coming up in June, and I really want to do something to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and the contribution of volunteers in the southern region, but I haven’t busted far enough out of the bubble of laziness to actually plan something yet.

I still love my job at CEL, even more so now than when I first began. Not because of the teaching itself – my actual skills aren’t that much better nor do I particularly like teaching anymore than I ever did – but I’m getting really attached to my students, and I can tell that they both like and trust me a lot more now. It also helps that I’ve finally swallowed my chill pill. I no longer have to be serious and strict for fear of an uprising, I’ve accepted that it’s completely culturally appropriate for students to be 10-15 minutes late to class, and I no longer take it personally if 75% of the students don’t show up one day because they’re running late on a deadline for another class’s assignment. It’s absolutely incredible how different all three of my classes are. One class has all the personality – they’re immensely entertaining to teach, but are a complete mixed bag as far as English skills and motivation are concerned. One class is pretty darn boring and, frankly, uninspiring to teach, but they’re very studious and, for the most part, motivated. The last class is absolutely brilliant – what I can only assume is any teacher’s dream class. They participate in discussions, ask a crap ton of questions, are great with critical thinking and formulation of opinions (skills that aren’t often exercised in the Malagasy educational system), and can spend an entire class period debating about an environmental topic. Despite the differences, all of my students are incredibly mature. Most of them are pretty close to my age, and I’ve gone out drinking and clubbing with a good portion of them, but they are never disrespectful or inappropriate with me in or out of class.

Life outside work has been a ton of fun lately. Spring break was a hoot. Israel was in Tana most of the time because of an illness, but Paul came into town to cover Israel’s community classes, so we got to kick it vazaha (white people) style. Both of us hate cooking, so we ate out a lot; we went to the beach, explored new areas of town, watched a surf competition, and drank a lot of beer. Outside of spring break, I’ve been going out and just chilling with my Malagasy friends a lot more, which may be why I’ve been enormously more sane than when I was traveling in packs of Americans with the study abroad students. Not that I don’t love hanging out with the vazaha community here, but I find it to me much more mentally calming the more time I apportion to my Malagasy homies.

Our main goal as Peace Corps volunteers is to “integrate” into our communities, so we tend to complain a lot about being treated differently because of our skin color, nationality, affiliations, whatever. I recently come to realize, though, that it’s just not possible for a foreigner to completely integrate into a community. We should really embrace our unique position in society right now because there’s nothing we can do to change it, and, truth is, 99% of us will NEVER be this popular again for the rest of our lives. Seriously, people in my community stare at me wherever I go, even if they’ve seen me walk down that street 100 times. Random people walk with me on the street and strike up conversations just to be seen with me or to find out who I am. Groups of women shooting the breeze outside their houses call me over to hear me speak Malagasy and ask if I’d be interested in marrying their sons. People call out my name and wave to me everywhere I go just to show other people that they know me. People I barely know invite me to their houses, give me gifts, or tell me that I’m part of the family. In no way am I implying that everyone’s motivations are completely innocent or genuine; my point is that I’m sort of regarded as an approachable celebrity. Never again will I attain this level of positive fame in a town of 60,000 people. Never again will it be so easy for me to make friends.

Never again will I have this feeling of power. My status as a PCV, American, vazaha, call it what you will, also comes with a certain amount of power that I’m not accustomed to. For example, I could walk right into the mayor’s or the regional director’s office and ask to speak to them about a project I’m developing. Nobody would question it, nobody would tell me no. For better or worse, most people in this country believe that foreigners have the power to get things done (money = power seems to be a universal concept). It’s a complicated issue, but all I can do is embrace it and use my powers for good because, again, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it.

So cultural commentary aside, everyday life is going well. December through April was incredibly hot and rainy, though usually not muggy, which is a huge advantage to this town’s location. The weather’s starting to cool down and dry out now; a few days this past week have actually been downright cold. When it’s sunny and I’m not too busy, I chill out on the beach by my house with the family I’ve decided to adopt. My mother, father, and six little brothers and sisters live in a one-room house (about the size of the average American bathroom) on the path from my house down to the beach. I think the dad grows a couple crops on their little plot of land, and the mom takes care of the housework and sometimes makes necklaces out of shells and seeds to sell to tourists. Most of the kids are in primary school, but they sell necklaces, shells, and other knickknacks to tourists on the weekends. I sometimes go swimming with them or take them on walks around town. I also like to buy them roasted peanuts from another friend on the beach because they have a horrible protein deficiency. It kills me sometimes that I can’t give them money (that kind of reputation spreads faster than syphilis in this town, and I’ve worked really hard to get to the point where everyone I know accepts the fact that I’m here to stay and I’m not giving free handouts). Once, the mom got a huge cut on her foot. I’m pretty sure she got cellulitis from it because her foot later puffed up like a balloon, and she couldn’t walk. Luckily, the mom happened to meet German friend of mine, who gave away a lot of her money for health and educational purposes, so my friend helped her with the money she needed for the antibiotic shots.

For the most part – and maybe this has a lot to do with the fact that I live in a modern-ish town as opposed to a small village – I can’t say that living in a developing nation has been a “life-changing” experience. However, one random noteworthy mental transformation I’ve undergone: I’m no longer painfully sensitized to the killing of animals. That’s right. This one-time vegan who used to cry out in empathetic agony when someone squashed a bug in front of me, is now a cold-blooded killer of all things creeping and crawling, shuffling and sauntering.
No. That’s a lie. BUT I have no issue with killing the endless flood of ants that washes into my kitchen every time a scrap of food is left on the counter. I’ve gone on middle-of-the-night cockroach squashing sprees because I’ve reached my breaking point when I feel them crawl by my face while I’m sleeping. I’ve chased mice into the waiting jaws of the cat that hangs out in my house. I’ve learned how to catch, prepare, and fry grasshoppers as a snack or source of protein (they just taste like chips…though I’ve heard that they taste more “buggy” if you roast them instead). I’ve prepared live crabs and lobsters straight from the reefs around my house. I’ve watched the slaughter of chickens, sheep, goats, and zebu with rapt fascination (it’s a lot less traumatic than you’d think), followed by the dismemberment and preparation, and then consumed the meat. I know it sounds hippie-cliché, but you gain a lot more respect for and understanding of your food when you actually see where it comes from – that goes for plants or animals.

So that’s life right now. We just got two new Small Enterprise Development (SED) PCVs in the southern region, so perhaps there will be some wild-n-crazy adventures with them in the future. Still loving life and not in the least bit homesick – nonetheless, I could not be more pumped for my trip stateside in July/August. I’ve already got a gigantic list of things I want to do, foods I want to eat, and stuff I want to bring back with me. If anybody wants anything from Madagascar, let me know so I can start searching it out for you!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Some Visuals to Accompany the Last Post

Learning an Antanosy song for the wedding.

The happy couple painting each other's faces with blood.

Ground in Berenty.

River in Berenty.


Coastline in Faux Cap. Not unusual to find pieces of the recently-extinct elephant bird's eggs on the shore.

SIT student representing America and my student representing Androy.

One of my students bringing it Antanosy style.

The road back to Fort Dauphin through the Androy region.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tantara Lava Be...

I’ve been putting off writing a blog entry for so long because I thought I had nothing to say. Now that I finally have the urge to write one, I feel like so much has happened that I don’t know where to start. As bullet points are one of my favorite life tools, I’ll format this entry as a list of (roughly) chronological events. Get comfortable, it’s going to be a long post.

• January 21: My 23rd Birthday. In the Malagasy countryside, most girls have long since married and popped out their first, second, maybe third zaza kely by my age. Luckily, I live in a large town where, when I tell people I’m not married yet, they give a hearty “eeeeehhh” of approval and declare, “mbo zaza hanao.” You’re still a child. Although it no longer excites me to be getting older, I let my friends throw a small party for me and bake me a cake.

• January 23: The Long-Expected Move. I’ve FINALLY been placed in a permanent house! Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s not the “official” Peace Corps house that I described earlier. Unfortunately because that house had running water, a small classroom for private teaching, and two lanais, one with an unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean. Fortunately because that house was also dilapidated, haunted, and has since been partially caved-in thanks to a recent cyclone. I absolutely love my new house. It’s smaller and more compact than my temporary house, so it’s easier to keep clean, but it’s still got tons of space (again, basically a mansion by Peace Corps standards). They renovated it for me, so it’s got a new ceiling and windows, fresh paint, pretty curtains, a bar that opens the kitchen up into the living room, and hardwood furniture. It’s got a cute bathroom with stone tile floors, a toilet, sink, and shower (although I still don't have running water). I’ve got a good sized bedroom, kitchen nook, living room/office, and a special little “reading room” where I keep my couch and inherited books. This house isn’t nearly as isolated as the last one, which I love. I can actually open the windows now, allowing a cool ocean breeze to circulate. The director of the school lives on one side of me, and I’m about 20 feet away from one of my classrooms. On the other side of me is a big Malagasy guardian family, so there’s always a bunch of people right outside my door; I never really feel lonely or cut off. They often spend hours sitting in the yard, staring into my house and watching what I do. If I need privacy, it’s easy enough to close the doors/windows or hibernate in my reading room. The view from one side of my house is the center of the compound, so I can see pretty much everything that goes on. The other side of my house still faces the ocean, but there are significantly more trees blocking it, so it’s no longer good for whale-watching. I’d say that’s the only downside to my new digs.

• January 24 - Longer than expected: American Invasion. Five health PCV friends from my training group journeyed from the Fianarantsoa/Southeastern region to Fort Dauphin. They spoke to my site-mate Israel’s and my classes about various health topics facing the young people of Madagascar: birth control, family planning, proper condom use, HIV/AIDS and other STIs, etc. I was unbelievably happy to have them for so many reasons. First, I loved that I got to show off where I live and what I do, and they stayed with me so they got to help me break in my new house. I also loved showing off other PCVs to the people here. There are so many foreigners in this town that Peace Corps often gets lost in the sea of NGOs, international companies, and foreign interests. Introducing my students/colleagues/friends to PCVs who also know the culture, can speak local dialects, and have no money really enhances Peace Corps’ image and helps set us apart from other expats.
Another reason I’m glad they came is because my students are in desperate need of some sex ed. They’re definitely not shy or squeamish with these topics, but they are often misinformed about or just ignorant of critical pieces of information. For example, many are convinced that a woman can’t get pregnant if they use the pull-out method or if it’s the couple’s first time having sex. Condom use is VERY rare here, mostly because the men are so resistant (for the same lame reasons American men are), except here they don’t feel compelled to wear one out of fear/habit/pressure from their partner. I once had a student throw me the argument that the bible tells us not to use contraceptives – to which I replied, “Fair enough, but the bible also says not to have sex before you’re married.” He’d obviously never heard that one before because his mouth dropped and his eyes grew to the size of saucers. HIV/AIDS actually has a very low presence in Madagascar right now, but it’s potential to spread like wildfire is terrifying. The culture of infidelity and lack of condom use combined with increased mobility of the people and general ignorance about STIs is an undeniable recipe for disaster. Luckily, I could tell that my students actually took the health PCVs’ presentations seriously. Some of my girls even requested private counseling.
Anyway, the PCVs were only supposed to stay for a week, but ended up in Fort Dauphin for nearly two because of rainy season travel complications. Long story short, they attempted to leave at least 3 times but failed because of washed out roads. They did, however, manage to clock some beach time, take surfing lessons, and attend:

• January 28: Malagasy Union of Israel and China. Israel’s girlfriend, China, came to visit for a month in January/February. While she was here, they got married in a traditional (though not state-recognized) Antanosy-style ceremony. Two of Israel’s good friends’ families “adopted” each of them for the purposes of the ceremony. The women of China’s family dressed her and did her make-up and hair in traditional style. They then covered their bodies and faces with lambas (the Malagasy sarong-like wrap) and individually presented themselves to the families, pretending to be the bride. Their faces were then uncovered and they were sent back into the house until the real bride was finally revealed. Israel then slaughtered a zebu that he’d bought for the wedding to kick of the festivities. While some of the men dismembered the zebu, the ceremony was performed. Representatives of the families spoke and Israel and China painted each other’s faces with the zebu’s blood. The guests then presented the new couple with gifts of money. Traditional dancing and drinking of soda, beer, and toaka gasy (Malagasy moonshine) ensued while the women prepared rice and the zebu’s meat. When the food was ready, we were given spoons and feasted off of communal plates of rice and meat. Finally, Israel’s family formed a procession in which they took China and her belongings to their house while singing something along the lines of, “We’ve got China and we’re not giving her back.”

• February 4-6: Once-in-a-Lifetime Berenty Trip. Every Friday I practice English with the students at the French distance-learning school where my good friend teaches. One Friday, one of my students invited me on a spur-of-the moment weekend trip with her family to the private Berenty reserve, which is owned by her aunt. Some of you may have read the book “Lords and Lemurs,” by Alison Jolly, which is about the history of Berenty, or remember the reality show about ring-tailed lemur families (there was also a similar show about meerkats), which was filmed in Berenty. So I call it a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip because Berenty is only open to researchers and high-rolling tourists. It was amazing – nothing at all like Ranomafana, where you could spend hours hiking up and down mountains only to catch a short glimpse of a lemur far up in the canopy. We got there after dark, but within the first hour after waking up the next morning, I saw three species of lemur right outside my bungalow. We also saw tons of reptiles (turtles, crocodiles, lizards), birds, and insects. It was egret hatching time, so the canopies were absolutely crammed with noisy egret parents, nests, and babies (some of which survived a long plummet to the ground only to be eaten or die days later because of broken wing or leg). There’s also an Androy cultural museum and sisal factory, but sadly both were closed that weekend. By far my favorite part was going on a night-hike with one of the resident naturalists and seeing a lepilemur (one of the 2 species I never saw in Ranomafana) and some mouse lemurs. I didn’t realize how much I missed those little balls of fun until I saw their big eyes bouncing around the spiny forest…

• Sometime in February: Bite of the Malagasy Vampire. In this region of the country, there is no shortage of stories about paranormal phenomena – ghosts, resurrections, possession by spirits, witches that jump on men’s backs and ride them like horses… I have yet to experience anything supernatural, but I did have an encounter with the devil of all Malagasy creatures, and it was very real. One night I was cooking rice in my kitchen, and I reached for my gardening glove (aka my potholder) so I could take the lid off the pot. I suddenly felt a sharp bite on the back of my thumb, something like 10 wasps stinging me simultaneously and in the same spot. I screamed and threw the glove against the wall then looked at my finger, which was bleeding from two points at least a full centimeter apart (which is a huge inter-fang distance considering whatever bit me was able to conceal itself beneath a gardening glove). I figured the attacker had fled the scene after being thrown against the wall; nonetheless, I grabbed the longest utensil I could find and reached out to have a look-see under the glove. And there it was: the most stunningly hideous creature I’d ever seen. Tens of claw-like electric blue legs sticking out of a shiny, ridged, orange and blue body. It was the size of a small snake, beautiful in its evil, and it scared the hell out of me. In Berenty, my student had pointed out a small species centipede that she claimed was deadly, so I immediately assumed that this abominable creature must be even more so. Perhaps I’ve read “Twilight” one too many times, but my first reaction was to suck the poison out of my increasingly sore hand. When I realized that that probably wasn’t working, I was nearly in tears and immediately called the Peace Corps doctor on his cell, apologized profusely for disturbing him at night, and, in a shaky and panic-stricken voice, told him what happened. When I mentioned what I’d heard about killer centipedes, he calmly responded in a voice that was surprisingly non-patronizing, “Yeah, Jessica, I’m pretty sure that’s not true.” He then told me to clean it well, take some anti-inflammatories, and prepare for hours of intense pain.
I did what he said, trapped the invader in a cup, and ran it over to my Malagasy guardian neighbor for inspection. He also assured me that my hand would hurt like hell, but I wasn’t going to die. He then smashed the devil bug with a rock. An hour later, however, the soreness had spread up my entire arm and was, in all seriousness, the worst pain I’ve felt in my life (much like what I imagine one feels after being bitten by a vampire as his/her body is being transformed). Now, throbbing pain I can take, but my arm also started turning red and breaking out in hives, and I became short of breath. Thus, I called the doctor again, once more apologized profusely, and told him about my new symptoms. He kept me calm and told me it was probably nothing too serious, but he wanted me to take some steroids that night. Luckily, my house is surrounded by expats with cars, so I chose to disturb my wonderful American neighbor, Jim, who is the head of the SIT study abroad program here, and have him drive me to the pharmacy on the other side of town. Long story short[er], I popped some prednisone, endured crippling pain in my right arm for another 24 hours, and survived to tell about my encounter with the trambo, what I later learned was a species of giant centipede and can only assume translates to “many-legged vampire.”

• Various times during February/March: Study Abroad Fun. Not only did Jim save my life the night of the trambo bite, but because of him, I’ve seen and experienced more of the south of Madagascar than normally possible for the average PCV in such a short span of time. Every semester, the first-year students at CEL accompany the American SIT study abroad students on various field trips as sort of a cultural exchange. I got to come along to give English lessons to my students while the Americans learned Malagasy and also to act as a kind of liaison between the two cultures. The first trip was a day-visit to Mandena, the local ilmenite mining site run by a French-Canadian company. They set aside an area of forest to be conserved and have a long-term plan to restore the land that they destroy for the mining, which many believe is - pardon my French - complete bullshit. The company has brought a lot of infrastructure and jobs to Fort Dauphin, but it’s extremely controversial for various reasons.
The second place we were supposed to go was Andohahela National Park for a 3-day botanical field study of transition forest, but the road to the park was flooded, so we ended up camping at a site outside of the park. At night we did some cultural exchange of dancing and singing, but for the most part the two groups of students stayed separated. Both groups felt comfortable with and trusted me, so I had a unique perspective of the differing cultural perceptions. For the most part, the Americans thought the Malagasy were really interesting and nice, just a little shy. The Malagasy, on the other hand, thought the Americans were being arrogant and purposely antisocial. It took a lot of effort on my part to explain to my students that the Americans were in a strange country surrounded by a new culture and people, and it was up to the Malagasy students to be more inviting and sociable to make them feel comfortable.
The last trip was a week-long village stay in Faux Cap, one of the southernmost points of the country. The ride there was riddled with issues from buses getting stuck in sandy roads to angry villagers with spears demanding money for passage through their land. We left at 7am, and Jim told me, “We should be there by 5 or 6pm; one time we didn’t get there until 8, but I doubt that will happen again.” We arrived at 1am the next morning.
The students got to camp in various villages and do home-stays while I was placed in a hotel with the other “grown-ups.” Although it was fantastic to have my own bungalow right next to a breathtaking beach, I would’ve taken the cultural experience over semi-luxury any day. The students learned to fish, dig for sweet potatoes, take care of livestock, cook, dance, attend a funeral, and basically live Antandroy-style. I was able to visit them every day and accompany the professors on a mini-trip the nearby town of Tsiombe, and I ended up absolutely falling in love with Androy (the southernmost region of the country – Fort Dauphin is the capital of the Anosy region, just east of Androy). The region has arguably retained the most African influences in comparison to the rest of the island; they are extremely hardy desert-dwellers, polygamy is common in many villages, a man’s wealth is measured in the amount of cattle he owns, and it is neither shameful nor unusual for an adolescent male to be killed while attempting to steal a zebu as a right of passage into manhood. I love Fort Dauphin, but I’m incredibly jealous of the PCVs who are placed in Androy. Anyway, the week was concluded with a big party in which the students presented their families with gifts of sheep, and all the villages preformed traditional songs and dancing. By the end of that week, the American-Malagasy barrier had finally been broken, and we all went out clubbing in Fort Dauphin before the SIT students left on their cross-country trip.

That’s all I’ve got as far as major events in the past few months. By the time you’ve finished reading this mini-novel, I’ll probably have spit another one out about how life in general is progressing. Stay tuned…

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cultural Sensitivity and Other Things I Fail At

Although in total I’ve spent over a year of my life in this country, the sporadic barrage of new cultural experiences and life lessons just keeps startling the crap out of me. Phases of monotony tend to lull me into a false sense of integration when suddenly – WOOSH – some hawk-like reminder that I am indeed an outsider comes swooping in to destroy my illusions.

Here are a few examples of some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that have blindsided me:
• Nose picking – Commonly done in public. A nervous habit for students when I call on them in class.
• Nail clipping – Also commonly done in public. And in front of guests. And in other people’s living rooms. And at my kitchen table…while I am eating.
• Cell phone answering – During class, during meetings, during church services… The concept of “letting it go to voicemail” is blasphemous here.
• Plan flaking – The whole nothing-starts-on-time culture is reasonable, but making me rearrange my schedule for plans days ahead of time, then casually cancelling at the last minute or just not showing up? Or the opposite problem:
• Improvised hosting – Randomly arriving at my door and expecting me to stop what I’m doing to feed and entertain. Really?
• Insisting that I’m Chinese – I realize that many Americans are culturally-aware to a fault, but it never ceases to astonish me that, despite the racial diversity among the Malagasy people and the popularity of superstars from Beyonce to Jennifer Lopez, people here can’t grasp the fact that not all Americans are white. When I tell someone I’m from the United States, they invariably reply, “But you look Chinese!” as they pull back the corners of their eyes.

These observations are more or less inconsequential, and most days I just laugh at them if I even notice them at all. One aspect of Malagasy life that I haven’t gotten used to is the asking culture. People here are not shy at all about asking others (especially foreigners) to give them things. One minute kids will be laughing and playing with me on the beach, and the next they’re putting on their I’m-a-starving-African-child tourist act and crying, “Jess, I’m sooooo hungry!” *stomach grab* “Give me money.” Or a woman will walk and chat with me like she’s my best friend, then throw in a “Oh your earrings are so beautiful! Give them to me.” Bitch please. Technically, I guess it’s less of an asking culture and more of a demanding culture. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they do it, and I know very well that they mean no offense (and half the time probably don’t actually expect you to fork anything over), but asking for (or demanding) gifts, money, anything is just so against everything American culture teaches us is socially acceptable. This is the one cultural difference that I know I’ll never mentally adjust to. And maybe the nail-clipping during meals.

My everyday life comes with various struggles and successes. My biggest and most constant struggle is the language. My abilities have without a doubt declined since training. I absolutely refuse to use Malagasy in the classroom because most of my students are at a high enough level that they can handle the total immersion technique. Outside the classroom, the demand to learn English is so high in Fort Dauphin that everyone jumps at the chance to practice with a native speaker. When I do actually speak Malagasy, it rarely goes beyond the same 10 conversations that I’ve had hundreds of times. One triumph: With the Malagasy I do know, I’ve gained the ability to switch between 3 dialects as well as French, which is probably more than most PCVs can say.

A completely unrelated triumph: I’ve taught myself to burn trash. Certainly not the most difficult skill to acquire, but my fear of setting the entire neighborhood on fire kept me from attempting it during the first three months at site. Gone are the days in which I sneakily toss my garbage bag in the communal trash pit (public sanitation systems/trash collection don’t exist here) and hope someone else takes care of it.

Another random triumph: I’ve learned rock-and-roll dancing and am slowly picking up other styles of ballroom. That’s right, Fort Dauphin has a small underground dance scene. Who would’ve guessed I’d learn Western-style dance in Africa…

Living on this island has made me realize what sissies Americans are about certain things. Having “nothing” in the house to eat, for example, or being stuck in traffic in the shelter of a climate-controlled car. Physical appearance is another thing. We as Americans constantly complain that the media puts so much pressure on us to be physically perfect. Screw the media. Try living in a society where friends, family, and random people on the street are ruthlessly blunt about the way you look. Take acne, for instance. It’s generally accepted by Americans that most people get the occasional zit or break-out. Apparently, these facial imperfections are rare to nonexistent here in Madagascar, as whenever I have one, everyone I speak with feels compelled to inquire, “What’s that thing on your face? It looks bad!” Of course, they only mean the zit itself looks bad, not my entire face, but that hasn’t stopped me from muttering curses about their not-so-perfect features under my breath.

Now, let’s consider one’s weight. Lack of cooking skills, air conditioning, and motorized transportation have kept me relatively small at site. However, lazy vacation time significantly altered my daily routine. Upon arriving back in Fort Dauphin, one of my good friends wasted no time in joyously exclaiming, “Wow, you got FAT in Tana!” Granted, I had put on a few holiday pounds, and, granted, being called “fat” is considered a compliment in this country, but the American in me nearly clawed his eyes out. Nonetheless, the experience has taught me much more about the human psyche (or maybe just my own). In America, when we see images of “perfect” models and actors, no one is telling us directly that we need to look like them; the conflict is internal – we’re really telling ourselves. Thus, weight-loss (or whatever your goal may be) is directed more by self-motivation, which, in general, is extremely difficult to conjure up. When comments are directed at us personally, however, one must either develop really thick skin or… Well, let me just say, there is no greater impetus for change than when one’s “flaws” are candidly and verbally expressed by those close to them. I was back to my normal weight in a week. My advice to those who whine about the cruelty of the American media’s pressure to be thin: Just suck it up. (No pun intended.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Home for the Holidays

The last couple months have been crazy. There’s been so much going on, and it’s starting to scare me how quickly time is passing. The holiday season came with a lot of ups and downs, and, to be honest, I’m extremely happy that it’s over with.

Thanksgiving was a hoot. We celebrated it the Friday after so it wouldn’t interfere with classes. Israel (my site-mate) and his friend who was studying abroad here showed up at my house with a giant bag of food and a live turkey. Now, I may no longer be the pleather-wearing, tofurkey-eating, PETA-loving activist many of you so fondly remember me as; nonetheless, I had a slight emotional breakdown as I gazed into the eyes of my dinner and promptly made the guys go far down the hill to kill him. We spent the rest of the afternoon cooking American-style (or as close as Malagasy market availability allowed) Thanksgiving food. Israel’s friend and I went on a beer-run to the nearest bar – quite the ordeal traversing several hills in the midday heat with enough booze for the entire party. Of course, passing a large group of my students on the road while lugging an entire backpack and crate full of beer bottles didn’t make the trek any less uncomfortable. The real party got started soon after that. We had about 17 people: A handful of PCVs, a bunch of our Malagasy friends, my American neighbor, his Malagasy wife and 2 kids, and one Brit. Among the many things served were cornbread, stuffing, and potatoes, Malagasy street food as appetizers, and zebu shish-kebabs afterwards. Definitely my most odd and eclectic Thanksgiving, though the American traditions of gratitude, gluttony, and drunken bickering served as reminders of what the holiday is truly about.

Israel, Paul, and I flew out of Fort Dauphin around December 12 for a week of training back in Mantasoa. After the initial excitement of seeing everyone again wore off, I had no further desire to be there and would much rather had stayed at site. That seemed to be the general consensus of my training group, as IST (the training) was pretty darn boring and largely pointless. The week did contain some highlights, however, such as a house-warming rum party thrown by the security officer at the US Embassy and a tour/pool party at the embassy itself, which is absolutely GIGANTIC and comes complete with a poolside bar stocked with Malagasy soda, beer, and….GUINNESS.

I took a taxi-brousse down to Fianarantsoa a couple days after training, spent a couple days there, then headed back to Ranomafana with Ryan, a PCV friend who lives near Fianar. It felt more like a homecoming than anything. As the taxi-brousse from Tana pulled into the Fianar station, I was immediately recognized by a group of friends who work there. Even around the city (which is the second biggest in the country, I believe) random people who I didn’t even remember asked me if I was that girl from Centre Valbio. Ranomafana was incredible. Ryan and I got a tour of the park; although we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, it was so nice to be back in my old stomping grounds. That afternoon was Valbio’s staff Christmas party. I can’t even begin to describe how fantastic it felt to see all my old friends in one place at one time. By the time my short trip was finished, it felt like I’d never left – except this time I was actually able to speak Malagasy to everyone as opposed to broken Malafrenglish. As much as I love Fort Dauphin, Ranomafana is still very much my home in Madagascar.

Christmas Eve, Ryan and I went to another volunteer’s site near Fianar. We had a huge Christmas (Eve) dinner and brunch the next morning with a big group of nearby PCVs. Christmas day, I headed back to Fianar and left for Tana the next morning, then flew back to Fort Dauphin on the 28th. It’s incredible how I originally went to Tana wishing I could stay at site, then left Tana three weeks later not ready to return. I had a rough few days of adjustment being back here, but ultimately I’m glad to be back. I have, however, already made tentative plans to move back “home” to Ranomafana during the Grandes Vacances (summer break) and work there until school starts again.

I have much more to write about life here and my interpretation of it, but that post is coming soon, keep checking back. Hope everyone had a fantastic holiday!