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.