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.