Monday, December 27, 2010

What Did I Do for Christmas?

Oh, you know, the usual: took a train through the rainforest, swam in the Indian Ocean, and drank rum out of coconuts on the beach. Just your typical, traditional homestyle holiday. There's so much more to say about it though, so I'll write a more detailed post later, just wanted to put a few pictures up!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Updated Photos!

New photos have been posted below to the "In-Service Training" album and the "Madagascar Wildlife" album. Most are self-explanatory, but the little, spiny, anteater/hedgehog-looking critter is called a tenrec, and can only be found in Madagascar and a few surrounding islands. This is a streaked tenrec, one of about 30 different kinds of tenrecs that are known to exist...cute!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In-Service Training, or I Have Officially Survived 3 Months at Site

Well hello again! Not much new to report from Ankazobe, but here are some of the more notable points of the last couple weeks:

- Esther and I made an oven. Yes, made an oven. It was pretty easy actually, all it took was a charcoal stove, a giant pot, a bunch of sand, and a small tomato paste can (to set the baking dish on top of). We then proceeded to make brownies in it, which turned out absolutely delightful. I meant to take pictures of our finished product (really, I did), but we became consumed by the chocolatosity and ate it before I had a chance. Next time!
- December is apparently the start of fruit season. On December 1, out market got lychees (my new obsession) and paiso (similar to a peach). A couple days later the paiso Chrismassy came, which are like really, really tiny plums and are also very yummy. These are in addition to the bananas and mangos that were already plentiful in the market. Love it!
- It's also rainy season. We've been having crazy storms pretty much every day now, and I'm thankful that my little room in the clinic seems very stable and waterproof. It's making an absolute mess of the water pumps though- my water is so dirty now that it's almost not even worth showering.
- I learned how to do a malaria test. The tests come individually wrapped with a reader, alcohol swab, solution, pipette, and...finger-pricker? What would that be called? I don't know, but it's a little piece of metal with a point at one end to stick the finger and draw blood. What I've learned is that it's not really that sharp, and you have to press quite hard to puncture the skin, and...ew, moving on. I guess if anyone comes in with a fever over 37.5 Celsius they get tested. I didn't come across any positives, but malaria is definitely out here, even in the highlands.

I know that was pretty brief, but to be honest I've been fairly busy with the usual routine and then this week with preparing to leave there was a lot of stuff to take care of, like cleaning, packing, protecting my house against invaders (human and rodent alike). It's finally our IST (in-service training), and we're all meeting up in Tana then going to Mantasoa where we did our PST. I've been looking forward to this for what seems like such a long time- it'll be so nice to see everyone again, and being at the training center in Mantasoa means 5 days of good food that I don't have to cook myself! The first three months at site are notoriously hard, so this break is coming at the perfect time. I'm not exactly sure what we'll be getting training on, but hopefully it'll be useful to the projects I'm trying to start in the new year.

IST also marks the point in my stage's service where we are allowed to start traveling for vacation and business instead of just banking. This is also good timing because with the holidays coming up, I can't imagine anything more depressing than being by yourself at site, eating burnt rice and studying for the MCAT (oh wait, that's not how everyone spent Thanksgiving?) My plans are to travel down to Fianarantsoa, which is in the south east highlands, spend a couple days there and hopefully check out the paper-making business that the region is known for. Then, some friends and I will be taking a train (the only working passenger train in Madagascar) to Manakara, which is on the south east coast. I'm super excited about this because I've never been on a train, let alone one that goes through rainforests and mountains! Once we get there, we'll be spending several days including Christmas on the beach. After all that fun, it's off to Ambalavao (Amber's site) where we'll be creating health-based lesson plans for classes at the Lycee.

It's quite weird to be thinking of spending the holidays on a tropical beach, when a white-Christmas (or a cold one, at least) is much more my usual stride. I think it's actually better this way though- if you can't have what's normal, you might as well do the complete opposite! Instead of drinking hot cocoa and scrambling to do last minute gift shopping, I'm debating which sunglasses to bring and hoping the cyclones stay far away from Manakara. My hopes are that since it won't feel like Christmas, maybe I won't miss it so much. This is what I will continue to try to convince myself of anyway.

That's it from here for now! I'm not sure if I'll be able to update again before traveling, so if not, I hope everyone's holidays are wonderful. Take care, and I'll try to do the same!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Just a city girl living a country life...

It's that time again to go back to my site. I always feel a little melancholy when I have to leave Tana, because I feel so much more at home here in a big city. Actually the time to go home was yesterday, but when Esther and I went to the taxi-brousse station, it was inexplicably empty. We arrived over an hour early, and the ticket booth was already closed, which is really weird since we've taken the brousse to Ankazobe on a Sunday before. Of course, I'll never complain about extra time in Tana! I was able to chat with a few more people from home, and even video-Skype'd with my Aunt Barb, Uncle Rick and cousins! It blows my mind that even from 10,000 miles away we could talk and see each other. Oh technology, how I love thee.

As usual, I picked up a few goodies while I was here in the form of the two newest This American Life podcasts (Ira Glass, you make me swoon), a couple Glee episodes, packets of soup mix, and grapefruit juice. When you have little, it's the little things you really come to appreciate. Being able to actually talk with friends and family is so much more meaningful when they aren't always a quick phone call away, just as tomato soup seems to taste better when it's not readily available. Every day here is a challenge to perspective, which, though frustrating and difficult, is overall one of the most beneficial parts of doing something like Peace Corps.

Well, I best be off to gather up my things and try again to catch a brousse home, but I'll be back in just 12 days! As always, take care and I'll do my best to as well.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bonjour, vazahas! Since I'm blogging, it's safe to assume that I'm in Tana again (or will be by the time this is posted). The health program directors want us to fill out an online survey about what we want to learn during our In-Service Training in December, and since Tana is the only place within a six hour radius from my site that has internet, I simply had to come in for the weekend! I'll admit, it's a bit of a precarious time to be in Tana. Perhaps you've seen Madagascar in the news recently- there's been a bit of a “to-do” for the past week and half due to the vote on a constitutional referendum. I won't go too much into it, partly because we don't even know that much about it, and partly because I don't know who reads this blog, but I'll just briefly summarize what was published in the news. Essentially, a small group of the military went rogue and staged a coup, which turned out to be mostly a bluff. Even so, the government moved in on them with force, brief gunfire was exchanged, and supposedly it's resolved now. There were no casualties reported, but it was certainly a reminder that this country lacks political stability. I'll be honest, it can be unnerving to live in a country that has been abandoned by the U.S. Ambassador and that is run by a government most other countries don't recognize, especially when we get texts mentioning explosions and car-burnings, but outside of the capitol, life proceeds as normal.
In any case, I'm glad that we're allowed to travel again and I could spend a bit of time away from Ankazobe. I do feel that I'm finally becoming a bit more tamana (well-settled) at my site though, which I realized after I went to Maevatanana for a day. From the moment I got out of the taxi-brousse there, all I wanted was to be back in my small, quiet, cool(er) town. It really made me appreciate my site more, which I'm grateful for, though I really have no desire to ever go back. Just a reminder, Maevatanana is the hottest place in Madagascar, and also my banking town. We get 3 short-term leave days a month (also called banking days), which are supposed to be our days to get out of our sites, see friends, and basically just take a break from the stresses of being a volunteer, but I'd almost rather relinquish them than go back there! It does have frozen yogurt though, so don't hold me to that. Anyway, it helped me see my town in a new light, one that is appreciative of the cleanliness and relative quiet.
Things are pretty much the same at my site. I'm still working on learning Malagasy, and I think (I hope) that I'm improving every day. It depends on the day though- some days I can have great conversations with everyone I meet, and on others, I feel like I can't understand a thing. I guess if I took the average of all those days though, I'm still better than when I first got to site, so that's something. I try to just work at the CSB on Wednesday through Friday, because Mondays and Tuesdays are really slow and there's nothing to do. Also, Monday is market day and I try to do most of my shopping then (more on this later). So Wednesdays and Fridays I still help with the prenatal consultations, which is where I tell the group of preggos that they shouldn't be smoking or boozing, then take their weight and blood pressure. Thursdays are vaccine days, and I mostly just weigh babies and then give polio vaccines. It's very routine, which can be a good thing because I always know what to expect, but on the other hand I don't know how much good it's actually doing. I like vaccine day because I feel like that's a very tangible way to improve the future health of a community, but it's already very well established in my town and I'm not sure how much my being there benefits them. Anyway, my plan is to continue with this routine, keep working on my language skills, and then in January, start my own secondary projects.
I'm actually pretty excited about my secondary projects, because we have more freedom in deciding what we want to do. In a surprising twist, I think I'm actually going to focus on working with the youth here. I say surprising because I've previously had no interest in really being around kids, but I think it will be much more effective to work with them than to try to change the way adults do things here. People are very set in their ways for no other reason that that's the way they've always been done.
*This is a bit of an aside, but I'm reminded of a conversation I had with my friend/education PCV/co-commiserator Amber Sheets. We were talking about what we miss about America (as we so often do), and I said that what I missed most isn't the fact that you can take a seat while you use the restroom (although I may have put it in other terms). Somewhere in history someone got tired of pooping in a hole and must have thought to himself, “There's got to be a better way!” and it's this spirit of innovation that I miss most about America. I love that there's a continual search for efficiency and the best way of doing something (even if it's largely driven by capitalism). Here, it's such a traditional society that people don't question the way they do things, it's just how it's always been.* Anyway, returning to the topic of working with kids: change the way they think, change the way things are done in the future. After talking with various members and leaders of the community about what they think are the biggest problems here, the most common answers were “hmm, no problems really” and “people are poor”. Neither one of these are really great for me, because if there are no problems, I have no work, and as for people being poor...that's not really something I can help. I did get one concrete answer from my doctor though, and that's that there is a lot of malnutrition here (although, she said it's because they're poor). SO! What I'm thinking about doing for one of my projects is starting a gardening club at the secondary school, so that kids will know how to grow their own nutritious food, and at the same time, teach them what exactly a nutritious diet is.

Speaking of diets, I hope everyone's Thanksgiving was wonderful. Mine was lackluster, but it just seemed like any other day really. It was probably 90 degrees too, so it doesn't really feel like it should even be the holidays. When I went to the grocery store in Tana yesterday they had a big Christmas tree display set up, and it just felt out of place. In a country with such outstanding poverty, the gaudiness of holiday decorations seemed overly tacky. Granted, I've always loved this season in America, but here it just smacks of commercialized colonialism. It's also just easier to pretend that it's not Christmas, because then I don't think about everything I'm missing back home. At least I'll be spending it with friends. Our plan is to take the train down to Manakara, which is a beach town in the Southeast and spend our Christmas getting drunk and tan. Holiday spirits indeed.

Well, it's been a quick little visit in Tana, but sufficient enough to get a few things from the grocery store to take back to site, indulge in a little soymilk and cereal, and clear my inbox for the month. Once I get back to site I've got to do some lesson planning- I'm teaching 5eme classes at the secondary school (the French equivalent of about 7th grade) about HIV/AIDS/STDS/safe sex this week. Hopefully it won't be anything too shocking. And then I just have another week and a half till I'm back here! Our group's In-Service Training is the second week of December, and I'm so looking forward to seeing everyone again. And being able to stay at the Training Center in Mantasoa where people will cook for us, that's going to be awesome. Can't wait!

Until next time (hopefully soon), have a chai latte and bundle up in a cozy sweater for me!

Monday, November 1, 2010

So long, Tana

Well, I'm getting ready to leave Tana in a couple hours so I figured I'd post something quick since it'll be a while before I'm back here. I can't exactly say I'm looking forward to going back to my site. There's just something so...comfortable about Tana. Sure, it's hot, crowded, and so polluted that each breath is probably the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes, but being able to take a shower, sleep in a clean bed, and bask in absolute quiet are three simple pleasures that make life exponentially better. Plus, there's Internet. Lovely, glorious Internet. I really took advantage of that fact and downloaded two new This American Life podcasts, three episodes of Glee, a few books from Barnes & Noble, and a lecture series about zombies. I'm well stocked for the seemingly infinite downtime back at site!

These creature-comforts are great, but I think what I like most about Tana is that it's a huge city and quite ethnically diverse, so I'm therefore afforded a large amount of anonymity. I'm not the vazaha, I'm one of thousands and no one cares. This must seem like a strange sentiment, but being ignored is a terrific feeling. In Tana, there are Malagasy (of course), Indians, Chinese, French, and a whole mess of other ethnicities mixed in, and people are used to foreigners being here. It's hard to go from feeling relatively normal here back to my site, where I'm gawked at, yelled at, and spit on. I guess that's the life here though and I have to take the road less traveled back to Ankazobe.

As much as I like Tana though, it's not that different from any other big city in the world, and I joined Peace Corps to experience something completely different. I know that I need to work harder on integrating into my community at site and develop a thicker skin against the harassment. All of this takes time though, and I'm just so impatient! I want to be working and doing projects, but I still haven't figured out what the problems of my community are. The CSB is well run, there are health posters everywhere, people come to the clinic when they're sick or to get their children vaccinated...why am I here again? I feel like my site is pretty free of any glaring problems, so it's going to take a lot of work to figure out how I can actually be of service. I have to keep reminding myself that I have two years (scratch that, 23 months) to get stuff done, and that right now I'm just supposed to be focusing on learning the language and getting settled in to my community. Baby steps...

So, though it's been a fabulous weekend away, the time has come to return to my little home in the highlands. Tomorrow is a new day, and I'm going to really try to completely throw myself into this experience. Haters gonna hate no matter where you are in the world, but I can try my damnedest to not let them ruin my day. Here's to trying anyway!

Till next time, take care.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

1 month down, how many to go??

OH MY SHARKS, THAT WAS A LONG TIME AWAY FROM THE INTERNET! Don't worry, I haven't been cannibalized or attacked by rabid lemurs, just cut off from effective communication for the last month which is nearly as bad. Turns out most people in my town don't know what the internet is, much less have any need for it, so Tana is probably my closest connection point. For the next couple months posts will probably be sporadic if existent at all, but I'm hoping to have a more reliable internet source around December. We'll see though, I don't want to get my hopes up too high.

Remember what I said about the futility of making plans in Peace Corps? Well, this has once again proven to be true. For the last month I was planning on going to a volunteer meeting in Antsirabe with all the other PCVs in my region. All the arrangements were made, hotels reserved, proper people notified, and then two days before I was planning to leave I get a text. It's my program director saying “Hi Health volunteers, sorry if I already told you could go to the meeting, the latest news is that you can't. My bad.” 2 DAYS BEFORE I WAS LEAVING! And I had asked permission to go a month ago.
Ugh, Peace Corps! So instead of going to the meeting and seeing my friends, I'll just be staying in Tana because I need to see the doctors about my thumbnails that are falling off. Anyway, carrying on from this bit of downer news...

So what the heck have I been doing now that I'm at site? Good question, glad you asked! The answer is, most importantly, surviving. Getting used to an entirely new town, people, and job has been difficult, so for now the name of the game has been “Just Get By”. This is harder than you might think, and of our initial stage of 42 volunteers, 3 have already Early Terminated. It's really a bummer, because they were all great people and will definitely be missed. While I don't currently foresee myself ET-ing, it really is a rollercoaster here- some days you can feel on top of the world. Maybe it was just that you had a nice little chat with the man you buy bananas from or that you made some kick-ass English muffins (they were delicious), or maybe you even felt like you accomplished something bigger, like talking to a thousand school kids about hand-washing (more on this later). Then other days, it can feel like everything is falling to pieces around you, either because of the incessant harassment for being a foreigner/woman/person in general, getting food poisoning from eating street food (that one probably served me right), or just plain old feeling homesick. The low days suck, but there's some comfort in the knowledge that the next high day can't be far away. Unless there's some sort of freak accident and the roller coaster breaks and you go shooting off the tracks...wait, this metaphor is getting out of control. Moving on!

So, aside from adjusting to life in this town, I have actually started working. Usually I work in the mornings at the CSB (clinic) and then stop when everyone leaves for the lunch break. So far I've just been giving little talks to the people waiting to see the doctor, either about nutrition or hygiene, and am generally just met with blank stares. I can't really blame them, if I were sick and waiting to see a doctor, the last thing I'd want to listen to is me. Oh well. There's no Highlights or Redbook in this waiting room (actually, there's no waiting room either), so I'm the best entertainment they'll get. Other than that, I weigh a lot of babies. And pregnant women, I weigh a lot of them too. So I'm pretty awesome at working the scales and recording measurements in the metric system. *Side note- if even Madagascar can be on the metric system, why isn't the United States? I mean, come on!* Every Thursday is vaccine day at the CSB, so parents from all over the region bring their babies in for their free vaccines. So far I've only given out the oral polio vaccine, but my doctor is really jazzed about teaching me how to do injections, so that's next on the agenda. (UPDATE: I've started giving injections! My doctor was kind of just like, “Alright, your turn!” this Thursday, so, despite my shaking hands and impending nausea, I gave my first injection. And then about 50 more. It freaks me out because the needles seem so long and the babies legs are so teeny-tiny, but apparently that's fine. I kind of like it actually, because it's a very tangible way to improve the future health of the community). I can also take blood pressure and count pills, so I do about the half of the prenatal consultations.

The first independent project I did was on National Hand Washing Day. I made a “Hand Wash Station” which is a big water bottle on a string with holes in the cap so that kids can just tilt it over and wash their hands by themselves and a bar of soap. I had talked to the director of the EPP (elementary school) and she was really excited about it, so I came back the following week to set it up. I hadn't really known what to expect in terms of how many kids would be around, but it turned out to be a frightening amount. I mentioned to the director that there were a lot of kids at the school, and she said “Yes, a thousand!” So I talked to the thousand students about proper hand washing technique and why it's important, and then a few pairs of volunteers demonstrated how it's done. All in all, a pretty good success I think!

After I work in the mornings and have taken my lunch break/nap, I go hang out in the pharmacy. I think I mentioned the pharmacist, Hanta, in an earlier post, and she's one of my friends here. She tries to help me with Malagasy, and she's actually a pretty good teacher because she's patient and gives a lot of examples. It's still kind of slow-going though, and I'm still skeptical that I'll ever get this language. I know enough to manage, but I'd like to feel as though I wasn't always just barely keeping my head above water. Anyway, Hanta has two younger daughters who are 20 and 16, so they've also become my friends. I've gone over to their house a couple times to eat and play games, and their family has basically adopted me as their white, strangely tall, incomprehensible daughter. It's fun though, and we all laugh a lot at our attempts to communicate. I hang out with my other Malagasy friends a little too, but they all have young children and don't have a lot of time for fun. One of the best things about my site is that I have a site-mate, Esther, who is an education volunteer. She's already been here a year, so she's a huge help with all things Madagascar and Peace Corps related. Plus, she's totally awesome! It's great to have someone here who can actually understand me and who I can understand without having to second guess every single word. So that's fantastic. It's great to have someone to cook with, have lunch with, or even just brave market day with, and it makes this whole isolation from the rest of the world thing seem much more bearable. Since I brought up cooking, I have to also mention that we made a killer Mexican fiesta lunch with homemade tortillas and salsa and then the next week we went Italian and made marinara meatballs and garlic bread. It was probably some of the best food I've had since being in Madagascar. When I'm cooking by myself though, I'm pretty lazy. Banana pancakes and ramen constitute most of my meals, but fortunately I've found the best ramen ever here. Like most ramen, it comes with a seasoning packet, but what sets it apart is that it also comes with sesame oil, spicy chili sauce, sweet soy sauce, and french-fried onions. It really is so good. Mix that up with veggies and a scrambled egg and you're in serious business.

So, I work in the mornings, but that still leaves me with a ton of free time, and cooking ramen only takes up a very small portion of it so I have to find other ways to occupy myself. A pretty big chunk of this time goes to reading. I'm trying not to blow through my entire stash of reading material before we even have IST, but it's been hard with all this available book time. I've also watched quite a few movies, and more seasons of How I Met Your Mother than I should probably admit. There's really just not a whole lot to do in my town. I asked my friends what their hobbies were, and their responses (sitting, sleeping, watching TV) were pretty disappointing. I like going on walks, but it's a careful balance between “how much do I want to go for a walk” and “how much harassment can I tolerate today without completely losing my mind”. It can go either way depending on the day. I just don't know how to explain to people that I'm really not that interesting. No matter how many times you yell “Vazaha!” at me, I still don't do any cool tricks. No matter how many vile instructions you give me, I will never, EVER, even come close to following them. Generally the harassment comes from men, and they're typically drunk. Since people get drunk at 7 on a Tuesday morning, it's a pretty frequent occurrence. It's probably my least favorite part about living here, but hopefully it will go away soon (says that very tiny little optimist part of my brain).

There's not a whole lot else to mention about life right now, it's pretty slow going. Although, it's encouraging to think that I've already spent over a month at site and it went by...well, slowly, actually, but the point is, I've already been here over month! Less than 23 to go! If I can just do the first month 23 more times, I can do it! Pep talk! Encouragement! Exclamation points! I think once I'm able to leave my site to go do work elsewhere time will go a little faster too. Even having this weekend in Tana (and formerly Antsirabe) to look forward to was like a little pinhole of light in the darkness. I think even three weeks before we were supposed to go Esther and I started planning our trip to the big Tana superstore and to get ice cream while we were there. Like I've said before, it's the little things that keep you going here. One day at a time, one foot in front of the other. Sure, somedays you might step in a giant pothole, but then the next you just step out of it. That's the plan for now anyway!

Surely I don't need to reassure you all that I still miss you, but just in case- I still do! I think of everyone from home all the freaking time (consequence of having so much free time), and wonder what you're all up to. Drop me a letter so I can stop wondering, won't you? Mail seems to get to my site relatively quickly (about 2 weeks usually, although sometimes up to a month), however it takes much longer for it to get from me to you I think. Unfortunately, the mail service people here can't be trusted, and I've had many letters come to me opened and re-taped shut, and have even had things stolen out of envelopes. The padded envelopes and boxes seem to arrive unrifled through, but regular letters seem to prove too tempting for the sticky fingers in the post office.

Apologies again for the horrific delays in postings, damn the lack of technology in developing countries! Until next time (whenever that might be), do take care, and I'll try my very best to as well.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The time has come, the walrus said...

It's Thursday morning, and I am alone in the Tana Meva. Well, not actually alone. One other girl from my group is here and two girls from other stages are in town on business, but I have no idea where they all are and it's super quiet right now. It's a stark contrast to the madness that the Meva usually is, with everyone trying to take care of a million things in a short amount of time. Very nice and relaxing though. The reason I'm still here while everyone is off installing is that my site is so close to Tana that the language teacher helping me and the 2 girls with sites near mine is able to take us individually to help us get moved in. So, he's getting one (Nicole) moved in this morning, and then will be back later this afternoon to take me and Julie up to Ankazobe. Once there, I'll move all my stuff in and we'll spend the night there, and then tomorrow we'll head to Maevatanana to move Julie in. I'm going as well because I still need to set up my bank account there. By the way, Maevatanana is the hottest place in Madagascar, so this should be an interesting trip! It's weird that only 5 hours away from my relatively cool (temperature-wise) site is the hottest place in the country. I may or may not keep it as my banking town depending on how well I can tolerate the heat.

Speaking of the heat, it is definitely getting warmer here. Winter is on the way out and summer's coming in. In Tana it's been in the low 80's with sunny skies for the last month or so. It's like we hit September and the rain just vanished. Supposedly the weather will be really nice in October and November, but come December the rainy season starts and we're in for weeks and weeks of pretty heavy rain. At least I'm in the plateau region and the rain will eventually stop; I've heard that in the east the rainy season lasts much longer. It's strange to be somewhere where the seasons progress in what (to me) seems the opposite direction. I feel like I'm subconsciously expecting the leaves to start turning orange and cooler fall temperatures to arrive, but such won't be the case. It's definitely something that makes me feel farther from home, and I really miss being in Knoxville for the fall. Walking around World's Fair Park at dusk on a fall night is something I'd trade all of my rice for.

So, I've got just a few hours till I head to Ankazobe now, and I've got sort of mixed emotions. I mean, I've got to start actually being a volunteer sooner or later, but leaving the safety net of training is kind of scary. I feel pretty prepared for the isolation though, and I am well armed with many movies, TV shows, music, and books to help keep me occupied when I'm by myself. One of the days we spent at the training center in Mantasoa was dedicated to a giant media swap where flashdrives and external hard-drives were passed around for people to download any entertainment they might want onto their computers. I've got about 50 movies on my computer now, and not quite 3 GB of available memory left! It's an interesting mix of stupid comedies (Pineapple Express, Role Models, Superbad), Disney (Enchanted, Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland), re-watchable guilty pleasures (Devil Wears Prada, 10 Things I Hate About You, Love Actually), standard favorites (all Wes Anderson movies, some Audrey Hepburn, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and lots in between. I feel like movies I wouldn't even consider watching in the States are now totally fair game, because hey, it's the jungle and any media is golden. So yes, I may have even gotten Twilight. Quit judging me!!

Other than embarrassing media entertainment, I do actually have quite a long list of things I'd like to accomplish while I'm here. This isn't necessarily my professional goal list, just a list of things that will keep me occupied and (hopefully) relatively sane. Here's a brief sampling of it:

1)Run the Tana marathon
2)Read Einstein's Theory of Relativity (Yes, I brought this with me. Yes, I am a weirdo.)
3)Start a garden
4)Learn to identify constellations in the Southern hemisphere
5)Get better at ukulele and write songs
7)Learn to make crazy friendship bracelets (I know this is kind of weird, but a bunch of us girls were talking about it and will probably make them for Christmas. Any instructions or thread would be much appreciated!!)
9)Cook my way through the (good) recipes in Mampalicious (the Peace Corps Madagascar cookbook all trainees are given)
10)Learn French (after I've mastered Malagasy, of course)

So, those are just some of the things on my list, but I think they'll be enough to keep me occupied for two years. I'm pretty excited about actually having enough time on my hands to do some of these that I've wanted to do for a while. I know I'll probably be kind of swamped the first few weeks because everyone will want to meet me and find out what I'm doing here, but hopefully that will all die down quickly.

Well, the time for me to leave is rapidly approaching, and I still need to consolidate all of my stuff at the Meva. I better get going, but I'll be thinking of you all over the next few months! I'm guessing I'll have a lot of time to think, so if you're tired, it's because you've been running through my head (HAHA JOKES). Miss you all, don't forget that I have a new address for all of the letters to go to that I know you're going to send! Till next time (and I don't know when I'll have access to the internet again, so this is very vague), take care, and I'll try my best to do the same.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Offical PCV, that's me!

Hooray, my first post as an OFFICIAL Peace Corps Volunteer! It's crazy to think that the process I started last July when I first sent in my application has finally reached fruition well over a year later. I'm so excited to finally be able to start working and counting down those two years. We drove to Tana early this morning and got sworn in at the Country Director's house. It was a nice, short ceremony with a couple of speeches and us saying the oath. Then we got snacks and drinks which were way more important to me. After that we were supposed to get our money and go shopping but apparently peoples' settling in money didn't make it to their bank accounts (I don't even have a bank account yet), people aren't sure when they actually leave to go to their sites, and no one knows how they're going to get around town to do their site shopping today. So, I came to the Meva to be on the internet instead!

I believe that there was something amiss in the time-space continuum these past 10 weeks, because training seemed so much longer than two and half months. Quite honestly, training and home stay have been the hardest things I've ever done in my life and I've never felt more mentally or emotionally drained. There was almost never any time to decompress, because when I came home at the end of a long day of classes there was still so much work to be done at home with getting dinner ready and trying to communicate in Malagasy while dealing with my screaming host siblings. I wish people had been more frank about how difficult training is so that I didn't think I was the only one who was having a hard time with it. In theory, it's a good way to learn the language and culture, but it's also really annoying. Most of us haven't lived with our real families for several years, so being forced back into that is tough. My host mom was only about six month older than I was, so her telling me I had a curfew of 5:30 was pretty silly. Luckily, she's also super sweet, and so was my sister Tsiory. Yeah, I said sister, which may confuse you because in a previous post I may have mentioned my brother Tsiory. Apparently I am a big dumb American and can't tell the difference between little Malagasy girls and boys, despite the fact that my "brother" was always wearing skirts and dresses. Oh my god, I am so embarrassing sometimes.

The last week or so of training was full of final presentations and language exams. We did group technical presentations at the local schools, and my group did ours on STD/HIV prevention for the older kids and nutrition for the younger kids. I would say that overall, they went pretty well. The older kids were great- they listened, participated, and asked questions. The younger kids just screamed, so they might not be my preferred audience in the future. Our final tech presentations were individual, and I actually did mine on malnutrition versus a balanced diet again. Since I had done a similar one for the kids I felt pretty comfortable with the technical vocab and I'm getting more used to talking in front of groups. I felt good about how it went, and the health program director told me that I “am already awesome,” so that was a bit of relief. The final language exam also went well. It was basically just a 20 minute conversation with one of the teachers, and then they all analyzed the recording. I really wasn't that worried about it, and passed it fine. There's still a lot I don't understand about Malagasy grammatically, but I'm building my vocabulary and hoping the rest will come with time.

So what's next? I'm actually not real sure about that myself. Over the next week all the volunteers will be getting installed at their respective sites. I'm with two other girls who are sort of in my area, and I'm the last to get installed. I'm kind of glad about that though, because I got dropped off first for site visit, and this way I'll get to see some more of Madagascar. One of the sites is Maevatanana, which is technically my banking town, and also the hottest place in Madagascar. Should be interesting! We'll have one of the language teachers with us as well, hopefully to help us get settled in a bit and make sure we have what we need to survive. I'll probably do most of my shopping in Tana because it's my closest city, and I know I'll be able to find everything there. We get 650,000 Ariary for our “settling-in allowance” which is a bit more than $300. For me, this has to cover all my furniture (bed, desk, chair, shelves), kitchen stuff (gas stove, pots, pans, dishes, utensils), and other incidentals (food, power strip, laundry detergent, etc.). I'm guessing it probably won't be enough, so I'm just going to buy what's super necessary for the first month. Some volunteers are taking over old volunteers sites so they already have a lot of the furniture they'll need, but considering the bed at my site is an old hospital one, I'm going to spend the extra money to replace it. I'm really not trying to catch leprosy while I'm here.

Other than getting my living space in order, I really have to idea what I'm supposed to be doing. Peace Corps has been pretty vague about what exactly is expected of us, and I suspect it's because they don't actually know either. Health is a little bit of a different assignment than Education, because it's pretty clear what their project is- they teach English and have a class schedule. For us it's a bit less clearly defined. I'm just going to wait and see what it's like at my CSB and see what they would like me to do. It might be doing presentations about different health topics to groups of people, doing one-on-one consultations, or stuff like weighing babies and recording information. Who knows!I'm excited to start feeling like I have a purpose here though. We're supposed to take it kind of easy for the first three months though and focus on getting better at learning the language, meeting people in our town, and just getting a general feel for what the main problems are that we'll work on.

As ready as I am to get out on my own and have my own space, I'm really going to miss my friends here. We've all grown really close over the past several weeks, and have been a great support network for each other. Being able to easily communicate with other people is a luxury I'm really going to miss. I feel like I can convey a general idea in Malagasy, but I like being able to express exactly what I mean and have people understand what I'm talking about. Hopefully I'll eventually be able to do this in Malagasy as well. Still, it's going to be really sad to not see these people every day! The good-byes tomorrow will be tough, because we won't see each other till IST (in-service training) which is over 3 months away.

That's the word from here for now. Only 730 more days as a volunteer to go! I'm sure it'll fly by, right? I sure hope so. Don't worry, I still really miss you all and haven't quite forgotten what you look like yet (jokes, jokes). Keep on keepin' on, and I'll try to do the same here from this not-quite-African land.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Post-Ankazobe Visit

Want to tell Peace Corps a joke? Make plans.

I know that's not how that joke really goes, but it might as well. If there's one thing I've learned through the applying, traveling, staging, and training, it's that it's better to not assume anything will be as they say it will be. As soon as you get attached to an idea, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. For example, I thought I'd be staying in a hotel in Ankazobe this week during my site visit because my house doesn't have a fence built around it yet. SURPRISE, I might not even be living at that house! Right now I'm in my room at the CSB (term for clinics here), which could end up being my home for the next two years. Actually, I'm crossing my fingers that that is the case (but am not getting attached to it), because it's really nice (in comparison to the other house I thought I'd be in). It has tile floors and cement walls, so hopefully that would mean no mice or rats. Other than that, it's pretty similar to a jail cell. It has a bed, a medical cart that serves as a table, and a file cabinet, which I don't think I'd be able to keep. It also has a window (with bars on it, hence the prison comparison) which has a nice view of some palm trees and the kabones. If I stay here I would share the kabone (latrine) that only the doctors use, so that's not so bad. There's also an enclosed shower area, though I would still be heating my own water for bucket showers. The water situation here is rad though- Ankazobe is pretty progressive in that they have public water spigots around the town, and there's one about 10 meters from the CSB. What a contrast to the arduous trek I have to take in Mantasoa to get water from a dirty river! Also awesome- I would (sort of) have electricity in the CSB room. There's not a light, but there is a socket so I'd be able to charge my computer, phone, and ipod, and that makes life hella more enjoyable.

Ok, so a little bit about Ankazobe itself. It's GORGEOUS! When I first got my assignment I was a little disappointed to be staying in the highlands region because I thought it'd be more of the same, but I will fully admit that I was wrong. The plateaus and highlands are absolutely beautiful, and I'm so thrilled to be in completely foreign scenery. It's kind of weird mix of flora; there are cacti, pine trees, palm trees, something the Malagasy call kapaoka trees, and papaya trees. It's really interesting though, and I'm trying to find out more about all the different trees. I'm pretty sure there's a variety of baobabs here as well, which made me so happy because of their connection to one of my favorite books, The Little Prince. The weather has also been wonderful. Perfectly clear skies, and a consistent 68-74 degrees during the day. At night it gets colder, but I don't think it gets below maybe mid-50s. This is what I would call “ideal”. It's the dry season right now, but supposedly come December it will be really rainy. Compared to the coastal regions though, the highlands don't get as much rain.

Another thing I like about my site- I have friends already! There's a guardienne for the CSB, and he and his family live in the room next to mine. His wife, Malala was probably my first friend here. She brought me some samosas my first morning for breakfast. I think even with the language barrier she could tell I was kind of freaked out being here. By the way, Peace Corps basically just kicked me out of the van when we got here, introduced me to some people who don't speak any English, and said “See ya!”. It was kind of a rough first day, but more on that in a sec. Anyway, Malala is awesome, and she really wants me to help her learn English, as does everyone else in Ankazobe. My room is next to the pharmacy here, so in the afternoons I've been hanging out with the woman who gives out pills, Hanta. She's a riot- she's a tiny little woman who by her own description loves to laugh. So we hang out in the pharmacy and try to teach each other words in Malagasy or English and then laugh because we can't figure out what the other is trying to say. My favorite friend so far though is Lea. She's 23, and teaches English to 6th and 7th graders. It's amazingly helpful to know someone who is decent at English here! We've already decided that she will help me with Malagasy and I'll practice English with her. She has two young kids though, 3 and 1, so I bet she stays pretty busy. She told me that she thought we'd be great friends though, because I like to talk and I like to smile a lot. I think she's right.

Back to my first day here. The mayor invited me to have lunch with him and his family, and their house is practically right next door. We had steak Malagasy (zebu), french fries, rice, and peas with sausage. I did eat the steak because I didn't want to offend them by trying to explain that I don't eat meat when they had obviously gone out of their way to make an American type meal for me, but I passed on the sausage, saying I was full. Word travels fast here, because later that day someone was asking me if I don't eat pork. Geez. Anyway, the meal was fun, even though there wasn't a lot to talk about. They had one of their helpers sons come sit with us at the table because he had never seen a vazaha before. He looked alternatingly amused and terrified. I'm very scary, did you know this? Me either, but I definitely know I'm a vazaha with as many times as I have it yelled, said, or hissed at me per day. Sometimes I just hear people whisper it to their friends as I walk past, but sometimes the bolder kids will say “Bonjour, vazaha!” because the assumption is that I'm French. I'm not quite used to being the freak-show yet, but hopefully with time I'll either get used to it or they will.

Also within my first hour of being in Ankazobe- I got invited to a circumcision. This is apparently a big deal to Malagasy, so of course I went. They were performed by a member of the Red Cross, in someone's home. I'm not sure how legit that is, but I'm not really in a position to ask questions. It seemed a little sketchy, but no needles were double-used or anything. The did, however, use a cauterizer hooked up to a shoddy electrical outlet though, which did not seem like a great idea. It died mid-procedure, so they had to take about 10 minutes trying to get it to work again, all the while I'm obsessing a bout infections in my head. Oy.

Lea gave me a tour of the town yesterday. There's not really anything of interest to mention, it's a pretty typical small town. There's a couple restaurants, lots of small shops that all sell the same thing, and some market for produce. Monday is the market day here, and it gets pretty wild but you can find pretty much anything you need, from furniture to fruit, even animals. I asked around, and apparently I can get a kitten for about 6,000 Ar ($3) if I'm allowed to have one at the CSB. Good to know. Lea, Malala, and I were hiking up in the plateau when we ran into one of Malala's friends who invited us to her house. She bought sodas and snacks, and we all went back to her house. It was such a blast, even though I only had a faint idea of what was going on. Her name is Liva, and she also wants to be one of my future students. I told people I'm not actually an English teacher, and that I'm here to do health, but I'm not opposed to doing tutoring as a side project maybe. Actually, Lea said she was interested in starting a girls' club at the middle school, which I think sounds awesome. I'd definitely be down to help with that, and it'd be a great way to spread info about birth control, because they start poppin' out babies pretty young here. It got dark while we were at Liva's house, so we were socializing by candle light, but the moon shining in through the windows was almost bright enough that we didn't need them. It seemed like such a defining moment of what it is to be in Peace Corps Madagascar right now for me- being with new friends who have already welcomed me into their community, and having a great time even without lights, or plumbing. It's not a cake-walk yet- I still feel like a stranger in a strange land. But at least now I'm hopeful that it will eventually get easier, that I'll have friends, and that I'll be able to make some sort of impact on the community.

Some left overs:

- Everyday for lunch this week I've had a cold coke and a giant french-fry omelette. Not an omelette with french fries, a FRENCH-FRY OMELETTE. The fries are IN the omelette. I don't know why, but I find this awesome. Which is why I've had it every day. That whole lunch is about $1.50.

- I wanted to buy bread at market day, and I asked the seller how much a loaf was. He said 500 Ar, at which I just laughed and said “Yeah right,” because I know that's way more it really costs. Then I watched a Malagasy man give him 200 Ar and take a loaf, so I told him I'd give him 200 as well. I gave him my 500 Ar bill, and he tried to only give me 100 Ar in return. When I asked for the rest of my change (in Malagasy, of course) he was so taken aback that he gave me the rest of my change and apologized. I heard the girls that were with him whisper about how “the vazaha speaks Malagasy!” and even though I don't really yet, it felt good to know that I at least know enough not to get ripped-off. Momma didn't raise no fool.

- I also met a really nice old couple that have a produce stand near the CSB, and I bargained for a bunch of bananas from them.

- I've already been invited to a wedding and another exhumation, by Liva. She also said that she can teach me to cook Malagasy food, which I would love. I think she's bringing me a papaya today.

- Since I've been at site visit I've watched an entire season of Dexter (season 4, so good) and read The Tenth Circle, by Jodi Piccoult. The free time was fantastic, as was not having to hear my host-brother screaming at all hours of the day and night.

- Remember that Waka-Waka song that Shakira sang at the opening of the World Cup? It's all the rage here. Seriously, if I don't hear it at least 10 times a day I feel incomplete. The hotely (small food stand with room to sit inside) next to the CSB starts playing it at 6:30. GOOD MORNING! I actually like that song though, especially the part about “It's time for Africa”, so I don't mind hearing it blaring from all the shops, the kids singing it, and people whistling it...yet.

- When I went to have lunch at the French-Fry Omelette Cafe, I saw an old vazaha there! It's weird seeing them here, because Ankazobe is not a touristy area. He introduced himself and sat down for a coffee with me though, and it turns out his name is Hervé, he's French, he used to be a doctor in Madagascar, first for French politicians, then for Malagasy ones and he specialized in tropical diseases. He's retired now though, and has a house in Nosy Be that he tries to visit twice a year. He's driving his motorbike to Tana and stopped in Ankazobe because he likes that cafe.

- My address is still the same for now, but once I get to site for good I'll get a P.O. Box. The Tana address will always work though, so even if you send something after I'm done with training, I can still get it.

- I successfully completed my first solo travel here. I got on the taxi-brousse in Ankazobe at 4 a.m., got to Tana around 6:30, and took a taxi to the Peace Corps house here by 7.

Well, that's all I got about Ankazobe for now. It's been a pretty good week, I have to admit. Hopefully the momentum from site visit will get me through the next 3 ½ weeks of homestay. I still miss everyone from home like mad, but I know you're all still fabulous and amazing. Till I next write from this very strange island, take care.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Umm, blogger is being weird, so sorry if this post looks crazy.

So, 2 updates in one month so far, I definitely did not think that would happen. But, lo and behold, here we are in Tana again. We've been coming in groups yesterday, today, and tomorrow to spend the night here before heading in different directions to go to our permanent sites for a week. Some people have to fly, some have to drive over multiple days, and some just have short day-drives. For me, this means Ankazobe, which is 95 km north of Tana on good roads, so it won't be too bad of a drive. The Peace Corps car will drive me and 3 other girls who live off the same highway and will drop us at our sites as we get to them. We have very vague instructions about what we're supposed to be doing during this week-long visit, because getting a straight answer about anything from Peace Corps would be way too much to ask for. We're supposed to introduce ourselves to some main people in the community, like the mayor, gendarme, and our counterpart. I was supposed to do this with the PCV who is already at my site, but I found out today she's actually going to be our of site this week so I'm going it alone. Supposedly I'm staying in a hotel while I'm in Ankazobe, which might be interesting. I'm not real familiar with what Malagasy hotel standards are like, but we get 30,000 Ar (~$15) for each night, and 10,000 Ar (~$5) for walk-around money each day. From what I've heard, this should more than cover meals at site, since a typical meal at the restaurants runs about 2,000 Ar.

We'll also be checking out our houses while we're at site to figure out what we'll need to shop for (as far as furnishings) and going to the market to see how much everything will cost. I've been told that I need to build a fence around my house. Since I don't even know where to begin, I'm hoping I can hire someone to do it even though Peace Corps has apparently already tried and failed to find anyone who can. I'm excited to see the digs though, even if I won't be staying there for a few more weeks. I'm also anxious about the weather. It still sucks here in Mantasoa, but not quite as bad. The rain has let up to about every other day, or sometimes just for part of a day or night. It's still cold, but either I'm getting used to it, or it's slowly starting to warm up. I'm really, REALLY hoping the weather in Ankazobe is better.

Mostly I'm just looking forward to being away from my host family and having time to myself. Even if I have tasks to do, at least I can go back to the hotel at night and read, or sleep, or whatever, and not just hang around with my family until I feel enough time has passed that I can go to my room without seeming rude. My little brother Tsiory (the one I like) didn't realize I was going to be leaving their home eventually, and he's really sad right now. He told me that he would come to Ankazobe with me and cook my rice for me, which just broke my heart a little. Also, my host family thought I was going to be living with a different family at my site, and when I told them I would be living on own, they had a looong laugh. Apparently I can't do anything on my own, and the thought of me cooking, getting water, and cleaning by myself is HILARIOUS. Glad I can provide entertainment.

Speaking of being away from my host family and entertainment, staying at the PCTC yesterday and today has been amazing. This place is seriously the jewel of Mantasoa. We finished classes pretty early yesterday, and I think everyone was excited to have to a chance to hang out together and let loose (and since I'm sure PC reads this blog, that's all I'll say about it). On a totally unrelated subject, did you know you can get a coke-bottle of rum for about $1? Other than that, it's just been really nice to be somewhere with electricity, hot running water, and meals that aren't totally based around rice. It's also been awesome to get to hang out with the other PCTs, because there's a bunch of super rad people here. I think the fact that we're all going through this weird, stressful, crazy, and yes, fun, stage in our lives together is an automatic bonding factor. These are the people who understand what you're going through when you complain about not having a minute to yourself, or about having rice for all 21 meals in a week, or about “double dragon-ing”. It's certainly a diverse group, and it seems like everyone can connect to at least one other person. For the most part though, it just seems like a huge group of friends, and that's awesome.

Probably the most interesting thing I did this week was go to an exhumation. This is sometimes called the “turning of the bones” ceremony, and our volunteer class was lucky enough to be invited to one here. They usually happen every 4-7 years depending on the family, and it's basically a giant party. There's music, dancing, drinking, feasting, and, oh yeah, human bones taken out of a tomb and rewrapped in new shrouds. It sounds creepy, but it was actually a really fun time. Supposedly it's good luck to have vazaha at an exhumation, so hopefully our 35-volunteer-strong presence could help out. We all had a great time dancing, but it became clear after a little while that there was a LOT of alcohol being consumed by the Malagasy and it got a little awkward. For this reason, I'm especially glad that we got to go as a big group, because I would feel uncomfortable on my own in that situation.

On the topic of harassment, I haven't experienced very much here. The only time I've gotten “vazaha” (term for white foreigner, generally assumed to be French) yelled at me was in the big market in a nearby town. I think the people of Mantasoa are used to having volunteers in the village, so while we're still a spectacle, people aren't freaked out by us. Everyone says hello, and the kids are always especially excited to see us and talk to us. They've picked up some crucial bits of American culture, such as the chicken dance, high fives, and, for lack of a better term, the fist-bump-and-explode. I think this is what the Peace Corps meant by culturally exchange, right? I will say that I generally avoid talking to men, or even making eye contact since PC keeps warning us that any sign of friendliness towards a guy can be interpreted as you being romantically interested in them. I feel really rude, but whatever. Also, they apparently think all American women are super promiscuous because of such cultural gems as “Baywatch” and “Dallas”. Gross. One of the things I really hate about my homestay site is that it's in a sketchy part of a neighborhood (sketchy even for Mantasoa), and there's a hill I have to walk by that is always packed with guys. Apparently they have no jobs and have nothing better to do than letch. Creepers, ugh! Anyway, I never talk to them, even when they try to ask me what's up.

That's the news from Lake Mantasoa for now. Next time I'll be able to talk about my site and Ankazobe! I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a fast enough internet connection to post pictures, because I've actually taken some for once. Hope all is swell in the states, think of me when you eat McDonalds or flush your toilet, because I'm certainly not doing either of those things here!

Friday, August 6, 2010

You Might be in Peace Corps Madagascar if...

1)There's a chicken in your shower
2)You're “lucky” to only have fleas
3)Your po (bathroom bucket in your room) is your best friend
4)You've eaten more rice in the past 2 weeks than you have in your entire life
5)You realize that any weight you lost getting here you'll soon gain back thanks to Bolos, Kracky, and Mofo-gasy

Okay, it's been a crazy, crazy two weeks in Africa. Actually, it's been two and half weeks since I left USA, but 3 of those days were spent traveling so they don't really count. A lot has happened, and I'll do my best to recount the most important bits.

Staging to Training:

The trip to Washington D.C. didn't really go smoothly. My flight to Atlanta was delayed leaving, and then again getting there, so I only had 10 minutes to make my connecting flight to D.C. So, I sprinted through the entire airport, in heels, and made it just as they called final boarding call. Peace Corps magic I think. Got to D.C. and met Amber at the airport, and we shared a cab to the hotel. Once we were there we went through registration and handed in all 10 of our forms or however many there were and met in a conference room for staging. Staging lasted about 7 hours and was kind of just a rehashing of a lot of stuff we already knew, but we worked in groups to get to know each other. After all that, a bunch of us went out to get dinner and drinks, but it turns out Georgetown is really expensive so we ended up buying beer and taking it back to the hotel.

Next morning, we took a couple buses to the airport, and killed time by walking around and getting food. My last official meal in America was a Chipotle burrito, which was huge and awesome. Once we boarded the plane we were actually delayed on the tarmac for almost 3 hours, and everyone was pretty squirrelly. I don't think the flight attendants appreciated it, because they were pretty stand offish the rest of the flight to Dakar. It took us a little over an hour to refuel in Dakar, and then we started the second leg of the flight to Johannesburg, which was another 8 hours. I didn't sleep at all on the first flight, and maybe got 2 hours of sleep during the second, which made me pretty cranky and uncomfortable.

Once we finally got to the Johannesburg airport, it took forever to find out where the hotel Peace Corps wanted us to stay at was. They told us not to leave the airport under any circumstance and that the hotel was in the terminal. Umm, nope. The hotel they said we were booked at was across the freeway. Someone tried calling the emergency number PC gave us, which of course, they didn't answer or return the voicemail they left. Not exactly confidence inspiring. But we finally made it here after a lot of confusion, and I think everyone was pretty much just exhausted.

The flight to Madagascar took about 3 hours. Seeing the coast of Madagascar for the first time gave me butterflies. It seems like we saw about 4 different types of scenery as we flew over the island, from deserts to beaches, and red clay hills to rolling green ones. As we got closer to the runway, the slums of Tana started to come into focus, with lots of colorful buildings. Once we landed there was a Peace Corps dude named Colby to help us get through passport control and customs, which really helped things go fast. Luckily, ALL of our luggage made it to the country, which was a huge relief for everyone. We loaded up all the bags onto a few Peace Corps vans, and then piled in. I sat in the middle of a front seat next to the driver. Road laws seem to be merely a suggestion here, and there's a lot of fast lane changing and narrowly avoiding bikers and motorcycles. It was surreal to drive past all of these extremely dilapidated buildings, people carrying rickshaws without wearing shoes, children in the streets and stray dogs everywhere. There were also loads of little food stands selling meat, live chickens, fruits and vegetables, and pastry type things.

We got to the Peace Corps transit house in about half an hour, and it's really pretty impressive. It's a walled compound, with two really large houses. There are rooms with bunk beds, and it sleeps about 25 I guess. There are also 2 guards on duty at all times, and an emergency response team that can be here in 5 minutes with full riot gear if the need arises. All of the doors have combination locks, so it really seems pretty secure. Once we were unloaded form the vans we had stuff to take care of right away: vaccinations, luggage sorting, putting stuff in the safe, and getting money. We spent one night in Tana before heading out the next day to Mantasoa to meet our host families for the first time.


After a nausea-inducing ride to Mantasoa (which, by the way, is effing freezing and hasn't stopped raining since we got here), we got to the local primary school (EPP) where our host families were waiting for us. We all gathered according to assignment, health in one room and education in the other, and they basically just handed us out to our families. It was exciting and kind of nerve-wracking, but really fun to see how excited the families were to get their volunteers. Here's the scoop on my family:
Mom (Chantal) is 23, Dad (Jocelyn) is 28
They have 2 little boys, Tsiory (4) and Fenitra (2)
Jocelyn works on a farm sometimes, and is some sort of church leader I think? Chantal takes care of the house
The house: we live on the second story of a building, the first floor is unoccupied except for some occasional chickens
3 rooms: their room/living room/dining room, my room, kitchen (see Picasa for pics)

Host family life is pretty rough, I'm not going lie. It's weird having to adjust to not having any time to myself, and I can't say I like it. I'm a pretty solitary person in general, but that doesn't really fly at homestay. There are some things I like about it though, like preparing dinner with my “mom” or playing music with “dad” (I played uke, and he played an old keyboard). It would be nice to have time to read or study in my room, but I guess that'll have to wait till I'm at my site. Another thing I'm not used to is having younger siblings. Tsiory is a total bad-ass, and is by far my favorite kid in Madagascar. He has a penchant for wearing skirts, which is totes adorable. He also loves to draw and copy words that I write for him. Fenitra is another story. He is a CRIER! All the time too, for any reason. It's a bit much, and my blood pressure does not appreciate it. Also, the last time I got a full night's sleep was in Johannesburg. Thanks, little dude.

Here's what a sample day in the life of a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee, which would be me) looks like:

5:30- Wake up because the roosters are going off outside your house
6:00- Get up, walk down muddy hill to get water from river. Try not to slip down hill and/or spill bucket all over yourself
6:15- Occasionally (once a week in my case), heat water to take shower outside (40 degrees, btw)
6:30- Sit with “mom” while she cooks breakfast
7:00- Eat breakfast, usually rice, sometimes with a tiny bit of egg, or some baguette. Drink Kafe-gasy, coffee with sweetened condensed milk and enough sugar to send me into diabetic shock
7:30- Walk to school, stop for Mofo-gasy (fried bried) on the way
8-12- Language training. This is super intense since we don't have much time to learn A LOT. We're not separated by dialect, and it's about 3-4 people per teacher. My dialect is Merina, which is actually Standard Malagasy. This is awesome, because it's the dialect my host family speaks.
12-2- Go home for lunch. Rice, either with beans or a vegetable.
2-5- Back to school for technical sessions. For us health volunteers that means lectures on childhood nutrition, vaccinations, malaria, how to counsel, etc. These are usually pretty interesting, and I'm really enjoying the medical aspects. Health is definitely the right assignment for me.
5- Avoid going home by talking with other PCTs after class, but inevitably head home to start cooking dinner
6:15- Dinner. Rice (always), with a loaka (side-dish) or two. My family has been pretty good about serving good vegetables and protein, and only tried to serve me duck head once. Not a bad record. So far my favorite loaka are eggs with peppers, and toto-voanjo, which is peanuts crushed into a paste. My least favorite is spaghetti. Spaghetti on rice is about as good as it sounds. My Malagasy diet is basically “no carb left behind”. After dinner I hang out with my family and try to make conversation in between my brother's crying.
7:15- Excuse myself to my room to either study, write letters, journal, or read.

And repeat, every day (except Sunday) for 10 weeks.

So yeah, training is tough, and I'm not a huge fan. I know I'm not alone in feeling that way though, and other PCVs have told me it's one of the hardest parts of Peace Corps. I'm just trying to get through it, learn as much as I can, and get to my site.

My permanent site, by the way, is in Akajobe (Ahn-ka-zoo-bay). It's in the dead middle of the country, about 95 km north of Tana. It's in the mountain/highlands region, which is sort of what I'm in now. I was kind of bummed about my placement because I wanted to get out of this cold, rainy weather, but I did tell them I would be flexible. Apparently some people were really picky in their site interviews and said they only wanted to be on a beach, or only in the North, or in the West, but I feel like that's not what Peace Corps is about. You go where you're needed, not where you want to vacation. My site has some good perks though, for instance:

I have my own little house, which has a kitchen and an INDOOR shower area. This is so important for a cold region
IT HAS ELECTRICITY (this may mean a single lightbulb, but still. That's a convenience I definitely did not think I'd have)
There's an education PCV already at my site (Esther Lee, what's up? Ima be your new neighbor)
The roads to Tana are good, so travel will be easier

So, even though it's not as excited if I were going to the desert or the coast, I think it'll be a good site. Hopefully I'll have to opportunity to travel lots though :) Oh! My “mom” also told me there are lemurs there, which would be cool.

This Saturday is Rambo Sheets's birthday and we're going to do it up big, 'Gasy style. This may or may not include rum and Coca-Cola, an adventure into oven-less baking that Bobette and I are planning to take, and whatever presents can be scrounged up from the epiceries here.

WOW, that's a lot of text. Access to internet won't happen much, at least for training, so there may not be any posts for a while. We're in Tana today to open bank accounts, get the yellow fever vaccine (which is my 6th vaccine so far), and do some shopping, which is how this got posted. Training is definitely trying to kick my ass, but I'm not letting it just yet. It's really, really hard, mostly emotionally but also physically having to deal with this terrible weather and mud. I'm doing okay though, and I'm trying to be strong. Still, any good vibes you can send me would be much appreciated! I miss all of you terribly, and I hope you're all super-duper and busy doing the things that make you awesome. Don't forget, I can get mail here (hint-hint)! Until I can write again from the most freezing part of Africa, take care.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

And awayyy I go!

July 19th is practically here! In just 5 hours, I'll be waking up (if I can even fall asleep, that is), gathering my things, and heading to the Memphis airport. From there I'll fly to Atlanta, and then on to Washington, D.C. Once I arrive in D.C. I'll have approximately 45 minutes to get off the plane, collect my luggage, find a taxi, get to the hotel and check in, and be at registration. Cake, right?

At this point I'm going through a mix of emotions- excitement to finally be going, nervousness of the unknowns that loom ahead, sadness to be leaving my friends and family- and they all kind of combine to feel like somebody made scrambled eggs out of my guts. I suppose that sounds pretty unpleasant, but when you think of the experiences that make you feel like that, they usually turn out alright. If we don't do the hard things, we can't become better.

I'm as ready as I can be at this point though, and after many days of slow packing/watching bad reality tv, I think I've got everything I'll need. Here is what my life looks like in 80-pound luggage form:

In my big rolling duffel bag:

small flashlight

sewing kit

cap light

knife sharpener

swiss army knife

camera tripod

silly bands (7 packs)- gifts for kids

ukelele strings (2 packs)

sham-wow towels (2)

stickers (2 packs)- gifts for kids

one piece swim suit


black cardigan

big plastic spoon and spatula



bungee cords (3)

bungee cords (4 mini)

contacts (1 year supply)

dresses (gray, coral)

filet knife

baseball cap

bandanas (2)


knit hat

large north face sun hat

steripen and solar charger

compression pillow

sleeping mat

sleeping bag

mcat prep book

full size bath towel

converter and adapters

shampoo, conditioner, soap, gel

razors (4)

ob tampons (2 boxes)

contact solution (2 bottles)

extra toothbrush

travel pack from Cindy -- anti itch, neosporin, oragel, peptobismal,
migraine med, corectol, bandaids, anti diarhea, anti itch cream,
anti fungal, blistex, temp tooth repair kit,

blank checks (2)

stationary 50 envelopes, 100 paper

moleskin journals (3)

multi tool

Excedrin - huge bottle

deodorant (2)

carabiner (2)


bag of starbursts- gifts for host family

smartwool socks (2 pairs)

tennis shoes



toms shoes (2 pair)

In my camping backpack:

luggage lock / flight bag

nalgene 32 oz

luna bars (6)

fold up shopping bag (chico bag)

combo - compass, thermometer, whistle

tennis shoes (flowery)


travel contact solution

contact case

travel toothpaste

eyeglasses (3 pairs)

belt (1)

OR hat with bug screen

underwear (28)

socks (6 pairs)

footless tights (3)

pencil pouch -- pens, pencils, flashdrive,

UT hoodie

makeup bag/comb brush, tooth paste, moleskin, deodorant,
face wash, extra mascara, hair headbands, bobby pins, ponytail holders, mirror,

bras (7)

bic lighters (2)

AA batteries

single serving drink mixes

duct tape

rain jacket

black dress

button up plaid shirts (2)

casual skirt


dressy tank top

vneck t-shirts (4)

casual t-shirt


khaki pants / capris

flannel pj pants

tank tops (3)

pj shorts

light weight long sleeve t-shirts (2)

American Apparel hoodie

yoga capris

sports bras (3)

In my Timbuk2 (carry-on bag):


info folders / pc info, forms, lanuage lessons, uke music

Madagascar travel guide

digital camera

memory cards

playing cards

ear plugs

pen, pencil

ipod shuffle


luna bars (2)

smoked almonds


money belt

glasses (1 pair)


battery solar charger

address book


laptop / case / charger

ipod + charger

nook + charger

cell phone


tylenol pm

Plus, my ukulele in its case.

Well, that's everything! And since I'm going to attempt to get some sleep, that's all
from me tonight. Next post from...well, somewhere other than Memphis I hope!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Let's Get This Party Started!

Alright, Peace Corps blog! Time to start this baby up.

So, to catch up those of you who may not know what's going on in my life right now, I got my invitation to serve in Peace Corps on June 3, 2010. As you can probably guess from the title of this blog, I'll be going to Madagascar, famed home of lemurs and a myriad of other talking animals if the Disney movie is to be believed. We'll see about that...Anyway! I'll be working as a community health educator with a focus on women, mothers, children under 5, and teens 12-17. I truly could not be more thrilled with this assignment, and if I had been given the opportunity to choose where I could go and what I would be doing, this would probably be it. Sometimes I just get too lucky for my own good!

I'll be kicking off this adventure on July 19, when I'll be going to Washington D.C. for the two day event called "staging". During this time, Peace Corps will explain to me and everyone else in my Madagascar training class who they are, what they expect from us, and what we should expect from them and our experience. Then on July 20, we'll all board a plane and head to Madagascar! Once we get there, we'll start our three months of intensive training before getting dispersed to cities and villages around the country.

Well that's the super-duper condensed version of my next few months. It's been a long process to get to this point (I turned in my initial application LAST JULY), and I'm really excited to finally get started on this journey. I'll be updating this more before I leave, but I wanted to at least get an initial post out here so I could start giving the link to people. Also, I have an address where mail can be sent to me while I'm in training, which will be for 3 months starting July 22, 2010. Here it is:

Brianna Janz, PCT Peace Corps
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 12091
Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
101 Antananarivo

Mail takes a minimum of 2-3 weeks to get to me there, so response times may be sloooow. Peace Corps also advises people sending mail to write "Air Mail" or "Par Avion" on letters, and to number them so I can know if one didn't make it. I've heard that telephone/internet access can be slow, unreliable, non-existent, etc. so letters may be the best method of communication until I figure out if there's a better way.

Well that's the business for now, but I'll keep updating before I leave. I'm at the lake for a few days, so between watching World Cup matches and being out on the water, I'll be keeping pretty busy.

Au revoir for now!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010