Every time I write a new blog entry, I tell myself that, after this, I’m going to write shorter ones at more frequent intervals. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. So instead of bullet-pointing this one as is my usual go-to style when I’ve got a series of unrelated events to comment on, I’ll just divide it into mini-blogs. Keep a lookout for more Parts coming out soon.
In case anyone was worried, I was eventually let out of my medical prison in good time for the holiday season. Haja (pronounced “Hadza”), my wonderful boyfriend who had been patiently supporting me over the phone every night as I cried about the evil doctors and how they kept tormenting me with the “We’ll wait and see how it is after a few more days…” line over and over, was waiting for me at the airport with a cab driver friend to take me home. I had missed the end of the school term, so there was nothing to do except chill out and settle in. There was a series of sweet concerts that led up to Christmas, starting with Lola (a guy...and Malagasy pop star) who also happened to be on my flight. This would be a good time to comment that Malagasy people don’t freak out when they see famous people, hence why I didn’t realize I was sharing a terminal with a national celebrity until Haja told me upon my arrival. In my experience, people here just point and say, “Hey look, there’s ________.” If the person’s really famous, they might say it with a big smile on their face. The next week there was a concert of multiple “lesser” but still famous artists, and then the grand finale – Tence Mena on Christmas Eve. She’s essentially the Beyonce of Madagascar. Several people have kindly explained to me that Rihanna actually steals her clothing, music, and dancing styles from Tence Mena. Makes sense.
We bought two chickens, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, and a whole lot o’ pig meat. (For those of you who are used to buying nicely packaged pork chops and heavenly hams from the supermarket, you might be surprised to know that buying pig meat straight from the butcher’s is actually a disgusting experience. About half of the weight (if you’re lucky) is fat. Pure, jiggly, squishy, hairy pig fat.) Christmas morning we went to church, which was especially exciting because all the kids and teens had put together a Christmas performance. They all did various forms of hip-hop, African, and pop-ish dances to music that had absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. And there was no living nativity scene. Lame. That evening, Haja, Paul, Eric (a health volunteer about 25km away), and I met up at my neighbor Barry’s house and shared food, beer, and good times with his family. It was an absolutely fantastic away-from-home Christmas because there was no gift-buying, house-decorating, or anything else to stress us out and make us think of what we were missing.
New Year’s was mellow, too. Haja and I went all out and bought a duck, some soda, and liquor. I asked him if he wanted to go out or at least spend the evening with his family. He explained that he didn’t want to hang with his relatives (the ones we go to church with) because they don’t drink, and going out to bars/clubs on New Year’s Eve is for prostitutes, drunks, and other bad people. So we hung out at my house with a neighbor friend until about 11:50pm, when they both passed out. I watched the year change on my cell phone and kissed Haja on the cheek as he lay drooling on the bed. Possibly the first time in my life I’ve outlasted other people on NYE. New Year’s Day, the real party time for Malagasy, we killed and cooked the duck, invited our guardian neighbor over for some rum, and gifted him with a huge rope of paraky – Malagasy tobacco that I happened to find myself with – and chilled around the neighborhood all day.
Carags in Madagascar
While I was drinking rum-and-cokes and waiting for the clock to change in Madagascar, my parents and brother, Jon, were drinking champagne somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean after the pilot announced the changing of the years. They arrived in Paris New Year’s Day then flew to Tana, where they spent the night at a hotel near the airport and were shuttled back the next day to catch a flight to Fort Dauphin. Haja and I picked them up at the airport and drove them back to a nice hotel by my house, overlooking the beach and the town. They got settled and gave me a huge suitcase of Christmas gifts from friends and family and other awesome America stuff. For the next two days, I showed them this crazy beach town that’s become my home. On the third day we went for a day-trip to Berenty so they could see tortoises, crocodiles, bats, birds, spiny forest plants, and lots of lemurs up close. We met up with Paul for dinner in Ambovombe and spent the night at a hotel, then continued on to Faux Cap the next morning. I’ve done the drive down to the southern tip of the country several times, but the ecosystem changes along the way never cease to fascinate me. I was so excited to show people the transitions between dry coastal peninsula to greener valleys beneath mountainous forest to transition forest where you can start to see tall, finger-like, otherworldly looking plants with spines to unending rows of sisal plantations to agricultural desert protected by impassible walls of cactus plants to more open desert-like spiny forest to the gradual disappearance of tall trees and plants to the more barren, sandy dunes of the deep southern coast. You caught that, right? Luckily, the full drive takes about 6-7 hours in a 4x4, so I have time to explain everything on the way. I find it especially interesting to watch the transition of people from the coastal foresty-dwellers around Fort Dauphin to the more hardy desert-dwellers carrying spears, wearing sarongs draped around their shoulders, and herding gigantic herds of zebu. My family seemed only mildly interested, even after I exclaimed that this was as close to “real Africa” as they could get in Madagascar.
We arrived in Faux Cap mid-morning and settled into bungalows at Haja’s family’s hotel. They then began a ceremony in which one of their best goats was presented to my parents by handing it off to my brother via one of Haja’s brothers. I could see a sitcom episode being made of this stuff. Pictures were taken, drinks were served, and speeches were made. The cultural significance of this? My family essentially traded me for a goat. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a marriage ceremony. If it were, I would've had my parents demand at least a medium-sized zebu.) I tried to prepare my family ahead of time about what to expect, and although they were probably confused and maybe a little scared, they didn’t show it. I had explained to them that Haja’s family is very vazaha culture-friendly and wouldn’t actually expect this to be a binding cultural ritual. It was more to give my family some authentic Malagasy experience and to show them that they consider me one of their family.
We took a small break from the drinking to watch the goat get slaughtered. Although I don’t particularly like watching large animals die, I’ve gotten used to it over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, I forgot how much it took for me to get to this point (remember when I freaked out over my host family killing the chicken in Mantasoa?) and didn’t consider that my family might be a little traumatized by the experience. In Malagasy tradition, Jon was supposed to be the one to kill the goat. He politely refused. So we watched. When goats are killed, the throat is slit but the vocal chords often aren’t severed, so the goat continues to bleat during the process and you can hear the blood gurgling in its throat. My father was fine, he’s seen it all before in the Philippines. I was surprised the Jon and my mom were able to make it through the whole thing, though they later admitted that they were a little upset by it. Once the goat was dead, though, the whole thing got a lot more fun. Watching them skin it, cut it up, take the organs out, etc. I think is interesting for most Westerners because we often imagine ourselves lost in the wilderness attempting to catch wild game with crude traps or hunting methods. Rarely, though, do we run through what we will actually do with the carcass once we’ve got it. Watching an animal be dismembered for its meat and innards makes you realize that the process is slightly more complicated than just sticking it on a spit and roasting it over a fire.
After all the excitement we had a lunch of fresh grilled lobsters and jumped back on the road for a two-hour drive to Cap Sainte Marie, the southernmost point of the island. We went to the reserve, which has crazy cliffs, a lighthouse, radiated tortoises everywhere you look, and an awesome view of Antarctica. We returned to the hotel in time for dinner, which consisted of rice, our goat cooked in at least 4 different ways, and a few other dishes. Then began the party. Several of Haja’s 13 siblings traveled home so they could party with us. Most of the local village showed up just to watch the festivities. There was traditional Tandroy (the regional tribe) dancing in traditional-ish garb (a loincloth-like covering for the men) as well as a good deal of contemporary Malagasy boogie down music.
The next day we returned to Fort Dauphin, where we spent the next couple days. We then flew to Diego (at the very northern tip of the island) for 2 nights. On a side note, before we left Fort Dauphin, Jon and I took a walk over to Israel’s house, where we found out he was leaving Peace Corps due to some issues back home. Three months have gone by since then, and it still feels a little strange without him. Israel – if you ever find yourself reading this blog, know that people here (Malagasy and vazaha) still miss you and you definitely left your mark on this town.
In Diego, we did a lot of relaxing and walking around town. I’m not sure how much my family actually enjoyed it, but it was really cool for me to see a completely different part of the country. When we returned to Tana, they took a flight back home, and I returned to Fort Dauphin. Looking back, it was so amazing to have my family there to see a small fraction of this weird life I’ve found myself in. I think about all the ways I could’ve made it better, all the things I forgot to show them or never explained. A lot of it had to do with the limited time they were here, but I was ecstatic that they (especially my mom) would actually consider a [really expensive] flight to a developing country on the other side of the word just to see me for 11 days.