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…