Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Winter Break

Finally, back at site for some peace and quiet! It's been a really busy summer so far, but for the moment I'm back in Ankazobe for a couple weeks. Here's what I've been up to recently:

Training! I got to go to Mantasoa for a week to help with the training of the new group of health and education volunteers. They seem like a really great group of trainees, enthusiastic but realistic, and just generally cool people. It's always fun to meet new volunteers, so meeting 27 was a lot of fun. During my week, I taught sessions on fruit drying, planting moringa, at-risk groups for malnutrition, and breastfeeding. We also organized a day of work with SEECALINE, a volunteer run Malagasy organization that deals with mother/child health and nutrition. The trainees were split into four groups with several mothers and their children to do a cooking demonstration. They had to use charcoal stoves, light the fires, and prepare food for babies such as a pumpkin and milk mash and corn soup (yum, right? Right??). During this day they also got to practice weighing babies and using the little weight tracking notebooks that the mothers bring in. I think it was nice for the trainees to get some hands-on experience, because sometimes the technical sessions can get a little boring if you're just sitting in a room listening to information. This way they got to see how they can apply their knowledge to actions in their communities.

One of my favorite things about the training week was that we got to stay at the super nice Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC) with it's comfy beds, hot showers, and constant supply of coffee and tea. And the food! O the food! It's like eating at the best hotely in all of Madagascar. I think what I like most about the meals there is that there's so much variety. When I cook for myself it's almost always just one dish, no sides or anything. At the PCTC though there's always so many choices- soup, a couple loaka (side dishes), a salad, and dessert. Maybe not the best place to be the week before my beach vacation, but so worth it. I think my favorite meal was when they made ravitoto (pounded cassava leaves) with coconut milk, green beans with garlic, voanjobory (groundnuts? I don't actually know what these are in English), and avocado salad. There was even lime cream pie for dessert, which is definitely not Malagasy, but is definitely delicious.

*As a side note, I realize how much I talk about food. It's a Peace Corps thing. Whenever you get volunteers together, the conversation inevitably turns to food in about, oh I don't know, five minutes. Even if we're in the middle of eating a really good meal, we'll be talking about other food. It's kind of weird, but c'est la vie ici.

During my training week, the trainees actually moved into the PCTC. As opposed to my stage which did homestay for the entire nine weeks (bless our hearts), trainees now split the time between homestay and PCTC. I think this is such a good idea on Peace Corps' part, because being in homestay for that long can burn people out, no matter how nice your host family is. It was fun to be able to socialize with the trainees outside of being their teacher, and they had a lot of questions for me about volunteer life. I also got to meet my new site mate, Travis, who will be moving to Ankazobe in September! I'm super excited that he'll be here, and I think we'll get along great. And I'll finally have someone to cook with again which I've missed since Esther went home.

After training I went on a mini-vacation up to Majunga with Amber to visit our friends Ali and Karina who live nearby. I hadn't seen them since December, so we had a lot to catch up on. I think Majunga is now one of my favorite places in Madagascar, after Tana and Isle St. Marie. It's a beach town, but because it's kind of out of the way of other cities isn't vazaha at all. A lot of Malagasy people go there to vacation, but there are far fewer foreign tourists than in Diego or Ft. Dauphin for example. This is great because there's still a lot of nice amenities, but they aren't ridiculously overpriced like they would be if there were more vazaha. We spent a lot of our time at the Rouges Rouches, a hotel with a great pool and free wi-fi. Any place where you can get your tan on while you download new podcasts is a winner in my book. The fact that they also had awesome panini was just a bonus!

We did go to the beach one day which was pretty cool- you can rent umbrellas and mats for about 50 cents which we did, and we brought crackers, chips, and cheese to have a little picnic. We also got watermelon there which made it really feel like a summer vacation! I have to say that the Majunga beach is not one of the prettier ones I've seen, so I didn't actually swim in the ocean, but it's always nice just to sit and listen to the waves. And of course, no trip to the beach here is complete without a freshly cut open coconut which we picked up on the way out. I recently read in a magazine someone sent me that coconut water is the new thing in the states and Whole Foods charges like, five bucks a can for it? That's crazy! That would buy a couple liters of it here with the additional treat of coconut meat.

One of the best things about Majunga is the abundance of fresh seafood. We ate some form of it every single day we were there, mostly on the boardwalk. The boardwalk, simply called “Board” by people in the know, is the long strip of road by the ocean where everyone goes at night for fish kebabs, popcorn, cotton candy, ice cream, and beer. It's basically a mini-carnival. Amber, Ali, Karina, and I went there most of our nights in Majunga. We would all squeeze into a picnic table around a little grill and tell the cook how many of each type of food we wanted. Most nights we got a few fish or shrimp kebabs each, some paka-paka (little coconut flavored tortillas), and papaya salad and made a new version of fish tacos. So. Damn. Good. On our last night we even bought a box of white wine because we're supa-classy like that. I now understand why Karina refers to Majunga as her Disneyland here. It's magical!

After that fantastic mini beach vacay it was back to Tana to pick up the four trainees who were coming to my site for their demyst trip. I wrote about demyst trips before when I hosted some trainees from the March stage, but hosting health volunteers was extra special because they got to see what they'll be doing in just a few short weeks when they move to their new sites! It was a very low-key sort of weekend with lots of hanging out, walking around, cooking, and eating. Training is really exhausting, so I think everyone could just appreciate a weekend away from schedules. Our first morning we went to the market where I introduced them to my market-grandpa and they got to practice their Gasy and assured him that they liked Ankazobe much more than Mantasoa. Then we cooked up a bunch of onion scrambled eggs and fruit salad with pineapple, bananas, and oranges with a honey-yogurt dressing. I had also brought croissants and pain au chocolat from Tana, so we had a really nice little brunch. This is why I'm glad I'm getting a site-mate- I never cook big meals like that for myself, but if you have another person to share it with it's a lot more feasible. That night we did burgers, pasta salad, and beers and watched the movie Volunteers which is hilarious when you're with other PCVs. “Jesus H. Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

On their second day at my site we went to the hotely for omelets, bread, coffee, and tamarind juice. They were given forms they had to fill our during their trip, so we worked on that. It was mostly questions about my site and work, with another sheet that asked for sample prices for a lot of items so they could get an idea of the shopping they would need to do for their installation. After breakfast we went to the clinic where they met a few of my co-workers including the pharmacist who was just so excited to meet so many new vazaha. They all really liked her, which wasn't at all surprising. Since it was Monday it was big market day in my town, so we wandered around for a while and they bought voandalana (gifts from traveling) for their host families like peanut brittle, hats, and colored pencils. I know those will be much appreciated! We had one last meal together at the hotely again, and then said our goodbyes because their taxi-brousse left at four the next morning. It was so much fun hosting them in Ankazobe and I know they're all going to do awesome when they get to their sites.

And now it's back to just me, alone in my house. As fun as the last month has been, it's really nice to have some solitude again. As I was taking the trainees around my village I realized how many people I know here, and they all seemed really happy to see me after I'd been gone for so long. It was nice to be reminded that this really is my home and I have friends here, because sometimes all I feel is the isolation of being the lone vazaha. But people actually do notice when I'm not around and are interested to hear what I've been up to and catch up on life. It's nice to be back to the slower pace of the village for a while, where I can read and play ukulele and cook simple small meals on my own schedule. That, I think, is the biggest difference between training and volunteer life and I'm so glad to be living the latter!

Till next time, mazatoa (enjoy)!

Friday, July 22, 2011

One year in...

A year ago today I took my first steps on the red, dusty soil of Madagascar. It's been a long, hard, and fun year, so I figured a little reflection was in order. In some ways I can't believe...I don't know- that it's been a whole year? That it's only been a year? That I'm still here? All of the above I suppose. On the car ride through Tana from the airport last year, I remember thinking to myself “There's no way I can live here for the next two years.” Everything seemed so chaotic- Why were there so many stray dogs? What's with all the meat hanging in shops with flies on it? Why aren't these children wearing clothes or shoes? Basically all part of the scene I should have been expecting upon entering a developing country, but when actually confronted with it after several days of sleepless travel my reaction was one less of excitement and hope and more so one of “no thank you, please put me back on that plane.”

Today, I walked through my town's market. I stopped to play with my friends, children who often wander around without shoes. I dodged the flea-bitten, matted-hair dogs the linger around the market where they wait patiently for a small scrap of rancid meat to fall from the butcher's shop counter. I spotted some good looking mandarin oranges and had a conversation in Malagasy with the seller about when and where they were picked, how much they were, and how many I wanted. I bought some envelopes from a small shop so I could mail the letters I wrote to family and friends last night by candlelight when the electricity went out several hours earlier than usual, then took them to the post office so that they could start the long journey to America. Now, none of this seems out of place. A year ago though, it would have seemed daunting. I guess with enough time you can get used to anything. With enough effort, you can like anything.

I'm very tamana tsara (well-settled) in my town, although to be honest, I still feel much more at home in Tana. Talking to the street-kids and prostitutes feels so much more productive than talking to the people in my town who are already pretty well-off and mahay (knowledgeable) about health. I still go to the clinic in my town several days a week, but I've switched the focus of my future projects to be more youth centered. Right now I'm waiting to hear back about my funding proposal for a photography project which would let me and a few of my fellow PCVs teach our girls clubs about photography, let them take pictures, and put together exhibits for their communities. There is such a lack of visual art in Madagascar, and increasingly so when you get outside of the bigger cities. It's really a shame, so I'm hoping that with a little bit of funding I'll be able to change this in a few communities around the country.

Other than my community work, I've been pretty busy. I went to the Training of Trainers in Mantasoa a couple weeks ago where, along with four other health volunteers and several education volunteers, I learned about how to be a trainer for the new stage of trainees that just arrived in country last week. We are all taking different weeks to teach them about skills they might use over the next two years as volunteers, and also just to answer questions about being a PCV in Madagascar in general. For my week I'm teaching sessions on building cookstoves, doing cooking demonstrations for mothers of young children, gardening, planting moringa trees, and fruit drying. I'm also doing a session on what it means to be a vazaha in Madagascar which should be interesting, because I still haven't quite figured that one out myself.

When I was last in Tana a few other volunteers and I went to the airport to greet the new trainees as they arrived. I felt really nervous for them because I was remembering how I felt at that time a year ago, and I saw the familiar look of anxiety, exhaustion, and excitement on many of their faces. They have no idea what they're getting into! I only now, after one year, feel like I have the foggiest grasp on what I got myself into, but at least at this point I still feel like it was a good decision and I'm looking forward to continuing to figure it out over the next year. Till next time, take care.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Epic Vacay: In Conclusion

Sorry again for the extended intermission between posts, but this time I have a good excuse. Well, two excuses. First, I was out of town. I went to Tana to work on writing some funding proposals with my friend Shayla and then to Antsirabe for our regional VAC meeting. Second, when I was in Antsirabe I came down with strep throat...and scarlet fever. “Scarlet fever?” you might be asking yourself, “wasn't that eradicated decades ago?” And the answer is yes, if you live in a lovely developed country. We don't even vaccinate for it in America anymore because it is just that irrelevant. However, if you live in Madagascar you can still experience all the joys of a sandpapery, itchy rash, bloody throat, and total inability to eat or drink for days! Come one, come all. I'm happy to report that after a few heavy injections of antibiotics and days of sleeping I'm fully recovered though, and just waiting to see what the next disease is that I can add to my “sicknesses of the Oregon Trail” bingo card.

I'm going to fairly quickly summarize the rest of my vacation here, and then I'll be able to start posting about current stuff that's going on.

When I left off we had just left Fianar and Amber's site to head to the west coast. Our first stop was a few days in Isalo though. This was my favorite hiking of the whole trip. I don't really care for the rainforest I've found out, because it's just way too freaking humid. Isalo, on the other hand, is rocky, hot and dry. Perfect! We stayed at a cool lodge called Isalo Ranch, which is a collection of solar-powered bungalows with a pool and restaurant. We did a couple different hikes while we were there. The first took us up to the top of the plateau where you could see for miles and miles. We saw a lot of tiny plants since there's not much water in the rocky desert, including some two-foot-tall trees called "Elephant Feet" because they look like, well, what they're called (you can see a picture to the right). There wasn't much wildlife up there, but the scenery of the sandstone cliffs and canyons was really beautiful. We stopped for a picnic lunch, and were soon interrupted by pests...lemurs! They were habituated to people, so they were hopping right up on our table, trying to steal the food out of our hands. It was actually pretty annoying, as I was hungry and wanted to eat my egg sandwich and fruit.

Our second hike was my favorite. We hiked down from the plateau into one of the canyons that ran by a stream, so it was really lush and pretty. We followed it all the way to two natural pools that Matt and my dad swam in. My mom and I chose to sit that one out since there was no place to change into swimming suits and I didn't want to finish the hike in freezing, soaking clothes (and thankfully I didn't; we learned the pool was home to three-foot long eels!). Then we took another short little path to a 40 foot tall waterfall through a very colorful rock formation.

After Isalo we continued to the southern Malagasy coast. We had to make a brief stop in Tulear, where we had a pretty nice lunch at an Italian place (lasagna at last!), but other than that it was a pretty gross town. The people had a fairly hostile attitude, even toward our driver because he was from the highlands. Everyone wanted money for the smallest things, like saying where the bank was, or you know, being a policeman and just doing their job. Sorry, but you already get a salary for that, it's not my business to subsidize your drinking hours. Once we got to the bank the ATM ate my mom's bankcard, and the manager refused to give it back. It was quite a hassle, and I think everyone was happy by the time we left Tulear.

From Tulear we had to rent a different car to drive us the 27 km to Ifaty because there is no road, just sand dunes, wet and dry riverbeds, and lots of ruts. At this point it was dark, our driver was a sketchball, and everyone alongside us was carrying spears, so I don't blame everyone for thinking we were going to be sold to one of the local villages. We made it to our bungalows at Au Soleil Couchant after an hour and half and were greeted with the most glorious seafood buffet you could imagine -- shrimp, fish, lobster, you name it! In fact, I mostly associate our few days in Ifaty with eating lots and lots of lobster. So delicious!

The first day in Ifaty we went to the Reinala Arboretum and saw lots of baobabs (the iconic tree of Madagascar) and then went to a radiated tortoise conservatory (they are a very endangered species). From there we went to the beach were we walked for about .5 seconds until we were hounded by vendors and beggars, and then proceeded to sit in a beach-side restaurant. We had a good time talking with the owner of our hotel, although since he only spoke French I use the word “talking” to also mean pantomiming and drawing. We went snorkeling that afternoon on his son's boat, and the water was so lovely and warm. We stayed in an area with lots of coral and fish, and I didn't even freak out too much when the fish got close to me. Just a little. I actually really liked some of the prettier fish, like the parrot and angel fish.

The second day my parents and I went on a pirogue excursion. These are just about the most primitive boats you can imagine -- dugout of tree trunks, sails made of whatever fabric they can find, and an outrigger made out of a really bouyant tree trunk. We sailed a little ways down the coast to the skipper's village and then he gave us a tour. The kids of course were so excited that vazaha were there and were showing us their best dance moves and songs, we visited a grade school, and our guide's family gave my mom and I some seashells as gifts for visiting. It was pretty cool.

After Ifaty it was back to Tulear to take a plane back to Tana. From there we did a quick little day trip to my site in Ankazobe where everyone saw my little room, garden, kabone, and ladosy. We had dinner at my french-fry omelet hotely which everyone enjoyed, and on the way back we ran into my friend Lea. Since it wasn't work hours they didn't meet any of the doctors, so I was glad they met at least one of my Malagasy friends. Then back to Tana and on to Isle St. Marie, my most favorite place in Madagascar.

Ile St. Marie is essentially "Fantasy Island." Absolutely gorgeous with sparkling turquoise water, palm trees, and grass huts. We toured the island by bike our first day there and it's just so pleasant. As opposed to my town where people barely say hello, the people on ISM were quite friendly. Everyone passed with a “bonjour” or “salam.” Our bungalows Le Libertalia were super comfortable, and the food at their restaurant was delicious. Every night was cocktail hour followed by a three-course meal followed by a food coma. I think I would go back for the food alone! The hotel also had it's own tiny little private island which had a hill you could climb up and pretend you were a pirate (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what we all were doing, right dad?). There was a pier leading out to "Pirate Rock" with beach chairs and ladders off the side so you could swim and snorkel around the little island. In short, it was relaxation heaven.

On one of our days on ISM we went to the much, much smaller Ile Aux Nattes which is just a stone's throw from the southern point of the big island. IAN is pedestrian only, and is so quiet. We walked around the whole island with our friends from the hotel, a couple from Switzerland, and Jean, a charming (and entertaining) 84-year old man from France. We really had a great time together and had lunch and cocktails there. We also got to spend the afternoon swimming in the most beautiful water I've ever seen. It's salty enough too that you just float...float and dream and forget that the rest of Madagascar -- er, the world -- exists. Mmm, bliss!

I guess Air Madagascar must have known I wasn't quite ready to leave paradise, so our flight was cancelled on the last day there. Fine by me! Air Mad put us up back at Le Libertalia, so free dinner, drinks, and breakfast before we actually left the next day. Once back in Tana it was really just enough time to reorganize, sleep, and then say goodbyes (boo).

It's amazing that almost a month flew by that quickly, but we covered so much ground and saw so many incredible things and ate SO MUCH delicious food. It was a vacation I will never, ever forget and one that might never get topped! I hope you enjoyed my recap of it, and if you have any interest in visiting this country, DO IT NOW. It's rapidly disappearing as people continue to clear-cut the forests and global warming messes with the ocean. I feel really fortunate that we were able to see it while there's still so much wild and beautiful nature, but I know it won't last. So come see it before it's too late!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Epic Vacay Part 3

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, more rainforests, and that time when my parents ended up in a brothel with a bunch of crazy Peace Corps Volunteers. I've posted a few pictures as well.

After Antsirabe we kept driving south to our next destination: Ranomafana. In Malagasy this means “hot water” because of the natural hot springs that are around the area. It's also a huge rainforest. We stayed at a really nice lodge that overlooked the forest and that prepared delicious 3-course dinners. We were there for two days, and both days we went hiking in the forest. There were really beautiful rivers and rapids, chameleons, and TONS of lemurs. Between Andasibe and Ranomafana I think we definitely met our lemur-watching quota! On the second day we visited the thermal public swimming pool which is filled by a hot spring. It was non-chlorinated, which is a little skeezy, but no one got any weird skin diseases so I think we're in the clear. We swam for a little bit and then went to a hotely in the town for lunch. I don't know if I've talked about hotelys before, but just to clear up any confusion -- they aren't places to sleep, as the name might suggest. They're restaurants that usually serve Malagasy food, i.e., rice and side dishes. This hotely, despite being recommended by the Bradt guide, was a little bit grimy, and Matt ended up sick after eating the fish. My general rule is that in a country where the travel time from coast to wherever you are is more than a couple days, beware of seafood! I ordered ravitoto (pronounced rahv-TU-tu), which is cassava leaves that have been boiled and pounded into a spinach-like mash and everyone got to sample that for their first time. Not everyone is a fan of the "rav," but to me it tastes really fresh and “green.” After lunch we met up for beers with my friend and fellow volunteer Mike, whose site is in Ranomafana. He's been here about a year longer than I have, so it was nice to have another person's perspective about what life here is like to share with my parents and Matt.

The next day we headed to Fianarantsoa (Fianar for short), a town where several of my friends were meeting up to do some business. It was so fortunate that our schedules lined up the way they did so that my parents could meet the people I talk about all the time. After doing some brief introductions at the Peace Corps Meva we let the PCVs get back to cooking their breakfast while we went to the old city to try to check into the hotel where we had reservations. The old city is really, really pretty, and is pedestrian only. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to be carrying lots of luggage up some pretty steep hills. We were also immediately mobbed by children trying to sell us postcards as a “school fundraiser”. It's interesting though, because a lot of the kids spoke excellent English, far better than any of the oldest highschool students in my town. I talked to one little girl while we walked to the hotel and she told me all about her family and the town, so I did buy a card from her. In the end, we ended up staying at a different hotel in the center of the new town.

After settling in, my parents and I went to have lunch with my friend Amber. Matt was still feeling under the weather, so he took a rest day at the hotel. I was so glad Amber and my parents could meet in person...after all, they've been facebook friends for months! Later that night we all went out to “the brothel”, which is a bar close to the Meva that also happens to be a brothel. Peace Corps Volunteers frequent it because it has the cheapest beer, but it can be pretty grim. Anyway, lots of merriment was had, and I ended up staying out way later than I should have (for which I paid the price the next day, blah). It was great seeing so many of my friends in one place though and totally worth it.

The next day we continued on down south with my friend Amber to drop her off at her site. Ambalavao has a lot of silk weaving, and Amber was kind enough to take my parents and Matt on a tour of the weaving that goes on by her house. It was really interesting to see the process step by step, and everyone ended up buying lots of scarves to bring back to people in the states. Fortunately I was still in the car, otherwise I would have ended up adding to my scarf collection! They're just so lovely.

Next time: West side, best side? Maybe, maybe not.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lemurs, Trees, and Ice Cream

Obviously one does not come to Madagascar to see the capitol city. If one does, they are pretty silly and won't have much of a vacation. No, what most people come to this island to see is the wildlife. That's the boat my parents and I were in, so our first venture was to Andasibe, a national park about 3 hours east of Tana. We got an early start, jumped in our brousse and hit the winding road (see pictures at right below).

We reached our hotel, the Feon'ny Ala ("voice of the forest"), around lunch time so we ate and settled into our bungalow. I think this was the closest to “roughing it” that we came on the whole trip, as there were no fans, no hot water, and fairly lumpy beds. No matter though, I think everyone managed. One benefit of being in the middle of the forest was that we could actually see the Indri lemurs in the trees across from our bungalow. Our first hike of the day was at an NGO run park called Mitsinjo. We arrived at their office to pay for park permits, and I discovered that one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers actually works there which was a fun surprise! We took a short 2-hour hike through the dense humidity and saw a few different types of lemurs, including more Indri, which are the largest of the lemurs. They also have a cry that will give you goosebumps and that you can hear from miles away.

Day two in Andasibe went similarly to the first, but we did our hiking in another national park called Mantadia. We saw more lemurs here, and much more closely than on day one. We even saw the Diademed Sifaka lemur, which are supposed to be pretty hard to spot. I thought they were especially cute because, as their name suggests, it looks like they're wearing little crowns. Aww...We also saw a pretty large family of them flying through the trees which was really neat. Our hike on day two had an end goal though- a waterfall and natural pool. We found them after a couple more hours, and had snacks by the waterfall and then continued on for a swim in pool. Well, “swim” is maybe overstating it. It was more a quick hop into the freezing water and quick hop out, with a frantic bit of doggy-paddling in between. It was pretty though!

The next day we drove back to Tana, where Matt was waiting for us at the Sakamanga. It's pretty crazy to see people from home after being here for almost a year. It feels like your brain gets shaken up a little because these people very clearly belong in your ideas of “home” and “America” and what the heck are they doing on this dirty, weird island?? That isn't to say it wasn't fantastic to see everyone, just kind of funny at first. We had a bit of downtime that day just to hang out in Tana, drink some Three Horse Beer, and catch up. Then the next day it was on to Antsirabe.

I had been to Antsirabe one time before going there with my parents, and I think it's one of my more preferred cities in Madagascar that I've been to so far. It's very clean and quiet, and almost slightly European feeling (probably because it was founded by Norwegians). Through the 'Gasy friends my parents have in the States, they know the son of the mayor of Antsirabe, so we met with her for a little bit. She turned out to be a good connection because we wanted to tour the THB brewery which is notoriously hard to get into, but after dropping a little hint she called the factory and got us a private tour! Guess it does pay to know people in high places. Other highlights of Antsirabe included eating terrific pizza at our hotel's restaurant which overlooked a beautiful lake and garden, touring a workshop where they make hand-made paper products and weave silk, and eating ice cream. Eating ice cream is a highlight wherever you go here. I doubt anyone would say it was their favorite part of the day, but riding in the pousse-pousse was quite an experience too. Those are the rickshaws here that take the place of taxis in Antsirabe. Some foreigners have an ethical problem with pousse-pousses because they're pulled by people, but I don't really see why -- they're environmentally friendly and provide jobs. People here don't see them as demeaning, and why should they? It's a sensible way to get around where cars would be too expensive and dirty. Although, I will say they aren't exactly comfortable if you aren't 'Gasy sized, which no one over five feet tall or 100 pounds is, really.

Next post: more rainforests, hiking, and meeting other volunteers

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Epic Journey: A Vacation Recapped in Pieces

Well! Another long absence from the blog, but at least this time I have a good excuse. I've spent the last almost-month traveling the country with my parents and Matt, mostly away from the grip of modern technology (and sometimes plumbing). The iphone/ipad/laptop addicted among us survived surprisingly well, and with a commendable lack of whining! Since it was such an epic trip, I'm going to divide it up into sections of places we went to make it a little easier to follow and for me to write. I'll try to post pictures for each section (see right).


Ah, Tana. Favored destination of so many of my banking weekends, cultural hub (relatively) of Madagascar...and center of grime and chaos. I guess you could say it's the New York of Madagascar. That is, the NYC of the 80's, the pre-Giuliani one with rats and high crime rates. For better or worse, this is the first glimpse of Madagascar that most foreign arrivals are met with. I went to the airport to meet my parents, and from there we went straight to the hotel, the Sakamanga. The Sakamanga is now my favorite place in Tana, and quite possibly Madagascar. We passed in and out of the Sakamanga throughout our whole trip, but the first room my parents stayed in was out of this world...actually, it made us feel like we were out of this world, or at least on some very powerful medications. There were murals and drawings covering every surface of the room, giant fish and turtle sculptures hanging from the ceilings, and hidden nooks containing miniature whimsical creatures scattered throughout. In short, it was amazing. Between the room and having a lunch of beer, pizza, and paninis in the secluded garden patio it was almost as if we were in another city altogether. But they came to Madagascar to explore this one, and so that we did!

We first ventured to the Avenue d'Independence, essentially the main street of Tana. The streets are bordered with travel offices, restaurants, and ice cream shops, then littered with vendors who will persistently try to sell you vanilla, musical instruments, and assorted junk no matter how many (hundreds) of times you tell them you aren't interested. I really wonder if there are people out there who after being asked consistently for fifteen minutes if they want vanilla just decide “You know what, I didn't for the last fifteen minutes, but now...now I could really use some vanilla. Thanks for asking.” Of course, no journey to the Avenue is complete without attempted pick-pocketing, which we experienced in spades. As soon as I saw the first kid approaching with an outstretched baseball cap I immediately started yelling at him and knocked his hat down, causing my parents to wonder how just ten short months here seemed to have erased any manners I may have once had. Valid point, maybe, but I actually had a reason for doing this- kids will hold out hats in an attempt to distract you from the fact that underneath them they are undoing all your zippers and cleaning out your pockets. More soon joined the first wannabe thief and actually managed to get my dad's pack opened, but they weren't able to get anything out before we shook them off. Around this point the Avenue lost any sort of appeal and we headed back to the wonderful haven of the Sakamanga. Welcome to Tana!

The next day we met the driver we hired to take us around the country, Andry. He ended up being a great guide and fun guy to be around, and fortunately (for me as the would-be translator) spoke excellent English! We explored a bit more of Tana that day and took tours of the Queen's and Prime Minister's palaces. We also got a tour of the area around the palaces, which is the highest point in Tana. Great views of the city from there! Later in the day we went to Tana's little zoo, Tsimbazaza, which has a small lemur park in the center where you can feed the lemurs. I had been there during our training, but it was still fun to pet the lemurs and have them jump around on us. I definitely was not used to having so much activity in one day, so I was ready to go to sleep around 7 pm, and my parents were still adjusting to being in an opposite hemisphere's time zone, so we had some early nights in Tana. Actually, that was kind of theme of the whole vacation. I think I'll pin the blame on the hot Malagasy sun.

Next post: the rainforest!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Return from being AWOL!

Alright, alright. I'm a terrible blogger. But in my defense I've actually been pretty busy lately, and once I fell behind on blogging the catch up just seemed more and more daunting. So, instead of dealing too much with all the details of the last month or so, I'll just hit the high points:

My girls club is going really well. I thought the number of members would decrease after the first meeting since we had given them an assignment...nope, it TRIPLED in size. In a way, this is awesome. I'm psyched that the girls like what's going on and obviously the more people who can participate, the better. On the other hand, it's a lot harder to work with a group that size. You can't really have conversations, and that's kind of what I was hoping this group would be able to do. For our last meeting we split them into three separate 1-hour groups and made friendship bracelets. They loved that! It was a lot of fun, and I wish I could put up the pictures we got from it, but unfortunately those were on Esther's camera that got stolen.

Our World Map Project is almost finished! There are a few final paint touchups, a few countries that still need labeling, and then a sealant to put on and we're done! When we were first making a schedule of how long we thought it would take I thought we were being really conservative and giving ourselves lots of extra time, but it really did take that long. I guess we didn't really count on the kids being such perfectionists, because they realllly take their time. Overall that's a good thing though, because the map looks really nice, I think. Now they're working on a large map of just Madagascar that's next to the World Map which will show where HIV/AIDS is most prevalent in the country. My friend Ali wants to do a World Map in her town, and I'm hoping that when she does I'll be able to help and create an instructional video for future volunteers about how to do the World Map. It was intimidating at first because all you have are a few graphs and no idea how to turn it into a map, but it's actually not too hard!

I feel like I've been in and out of site a lot this month. The new stage of trainees are doing what's called a “de-myst” trip, which I think stands for de-mystification, where they go hang out with a current volunteer at their site for a weekend and kind of get a feel for how volunteers live. I got to host two trainees from the environment sector, and then a couple weeks later hosted three from SED. They were all great, and I know they'll be awesome volunteers! During the SED de-myst trip my friend Brittany from my stage also came up to my site to check out my map project, and that was a ton of fun. I truly thought that no one would ever visit my site because...we'll let's be real, there's not much anyone would want to see there. That whole week was pretty crazy because there were a ton of volunteers in Tana for various reasons, and it was so nice to catch up with people I hadn't seen in a long time.

One of the other reasons I was in Tana was to do some work with Amber, who came up from Ambalavao for a couple weeks. We met with a woman from the U.S. Embassy about resources for English Clubs and Culture Corners, and got some pretty sweet books to use for those. We also did a radio interview about our lives in Peace Corps, which was extremely nerve-wracking because it was entirely in Malagasy! Luckily a member of Peace Corps staff came with us so when we just had no idea what they were saying (I mean, you've listened to the radio, right? They speak a million miles a minute!) he could quickly whisper it in English to us. Overall I think it went well, and the Peace Corps driver who listened to it was really excited for us when we got back to the car. Not something I'd like to do again soon though!

Then, Amber came up to my site (two visitors in one month!) so that she could see where I live and also see how a CSB works. So, she came to work with me and since it was Mother/Child Health Week, there was a lot to do! We were distributing Vitamin A capsules and deworming pills to children 5 and under and their mothers. This was in addition to the usual malaria tests and prenatal consultations that were going on, so it was a busy time. She took some pictures too, which was really cool because I'm too uncomfortable to take pictures at my site. Other people's sites, sure, but not my own. You get stuck being your town's photographer once people know you have a camera (or they steal it), and I'm not really interested in that.

I can't believe April is nearly over, it flew by! And I feel like I was just saying that about March too. There's that weird Peace Corps conception of time for you though, sometimes days feel like years and months feel like minutes. Now it's almost May and my parents and Matt are coming!! I feel like I've been counting this one down since I got to country, so I'm pretty much freaking out. It'll be nice to have a real vacation and not just chill in Tana. Expect many lemur/rainforest/beach/desert pictures in the near future.

That's the word from here for now. Till next time!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Vaovao

Despite my longstanding claims that I'm not really a “kid-person,” I've realized that as far as my work goes in Ankazobe, I actually enjoy working with them. Not so much in the context of the CSB, because there I'm seen as the bad guy, the one who gives them shots and pricks their fingers, so they're not usually too happy to see me. It doesn't do much for altering the image of big, bad vazaha, but hopefully it doesn't tarnish their opinions forever. When I'm not freaking out babies however, I've been working with a group of high school kids on creating a World Map at the lycee and have started a girls club at the middle school.

The World Map project can seem pretty daunting at first, but we broke it into small, manageable tasks. First, there's making a numbered grid system. Ours is about 10x8 feet. Then, we drew all of the countries on the grid by copying them from a world map that was sectioned and blown up. Next step, which is where we are now, is painting. This is probably the most fun part, because they can really see it taking shape. We probably have a few more sessions of painting, then we'll label all the countries and be done! It's been a great project to get student involvement on, although the recent bad weather from the cyclone has made meeting a little difficult. Since Ankazobe is in the central highlands we didn't get hit too badly, but we had tons of rain and wind, and it got really cold. Even so, Esther (my site partner) and I showed up to every meeting because invariably two or three students would still be there, ready to work. I feel like one of the things I complain about most here is that people are apathetic and unwilling to work for what they want changed, so if even one kid decides to make the effort to make things better, you better believe it'll take more than crappy weather for me to let them down. So, we'll have a few more painting sessions, and then maybe a little party to celebrate its completion. It's pretty cool to think that for years to come, students will be able to use the giant map that we're making now. At least, I hope they use it- I get pretty tired of explaining that the USA and Australia aren't the same country, and that Jamaica isn't in Africa.

The other project that just recently started (yesterday, in fact), is the Girls Club at the middle school. One thing before I explain about the club -- grades here don't work the same way as in the US. It's really common for kids to be held back, and thus the ages for the middle school are somewhere between about 8 and 16. It can make it a little hard to find common ground for things to talk about, especially when dealing with health topics, but we're working through it. Yesterday was our first meeting, and it was mostly just to do introductions. I'm working with a few other English teachers on this, and the students already knew them, but I was just someone they've seen around town. So I introduced myself and let them ask me questions, which were mostly about things I liked. What's my favorite sport (soccer, but only to watch, I'm not good at playing), color (red and pink), fruit (all of them, but I guess lychee and pineapple if I had to choose). The hardest one they asked was who my favorite singer was, because they haven't heard of anyone I like (this includes people as famous as The Beatles and Elvis), so I said Michael Jackson, because most people do know who he is, and I like him alright.

Then, the tables were turned and I asked them to introduce themselves one by one and tell me who their favorite singer was. You would think I had asked them to recite the preamble to the Constitution or something, because they freaked the heck out. It took a while for them to settle themselves down enough to get started, but eventually, through lots of whispers and giggling, we made it through all sixty or so girls. Apparently Westlife is still huge here, along with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and...Justin Beiber. I guess teenage girls are all pretty much the same when it comes down to it. No matter where they live, they're suckers for an auto-tuned voice and a ridiculously over-managed hairstyle. I think the whole introduction scenario really exemplified an important part of Malagasy culture though. They don't value individualism, or having opinions even. In school, the kids stand and sit and answer at the same time. There is no discussion. They copy things straight from the board. If you want to give a Malagasy kid a heart attack, just take away his copy book and ask him a question. I see this as a major flaw to their education system, because all they do is memorize! If they're tested on anything requiring critical thinking, it's an utter disaster. Hopefully we'll get to a little bit of that outside the box thinking in Girls Club.

March 8th is International Women's Day (funny I never heard about that in the US...), so our first assignment for Girls Club is for each girl to write a little essay OR draw a picture of what they want to do when they grow up. Again, this prompted about a thousand questions (how many sentences, does it have to be in English, should it be colored, etc), and I told them there were no rules. It could be however long or short or Gasy or English or decorated or plain as they wanted, as long as it showed what they wanted to do with their lives. For our next meeting, we're going to have small groups and discuss what they come up with. Should be interesting! I'm wondering if the club will stay as large as the first meeting was or if it will shrink as the months go on. To be honest, I wouldn't mind if it were a little smaller, because I want to do some arts and crafts and that can get tricky with big groups, but I'm really excited with the initial enthusiasm they've shown! We're planning some fun stuff to- gardening, cooking, crafts, dancing...hopefully they like it.

Also new in my Peace Corps life is that I was voted to be the new VAC (volunteer action committee) representative for the greater Tana region. There are six VAC meetings a year, three regional and three national. My job as rep will be to organize the regional meetings and then act as the go between for Peace Corps staff and the people in my region at the national meetings. I'm pretty excited about it, because not only will it give me something else to do with my free time, it'll hopefully aid in my own understanding of why Peace Corps sometimes does the things it does. Plus, my friend Amber Sheets is the new rep for the Fianarantsoa region, so we'll get to see each other more often and hopefully put all the talking we do into action that will benefit both PC and the volunteers we're representing.

That's the newest from my work life. As far as personal life goes, it's mostly the same- lots and lots of reading, some experimental cooking (I can now make a badass spicy peanut sauce), and early morning walking in the hills. Turns out walking five or six miles in the morning is a great way to start the day! Other than that, life goes on as usual. I suppose I might even say that things have improved here, and that I'm liking it more as time goes on. Additionally, the new stage just arrived in country today, so my stage is finally no longer the baby stage! Tonga soa, new March stage! Having people here that are newer than me actually solidifies my feelings that I've been here a long time, because, hey, I've been here long enough that I'm not new anymore!

So that's that. I hope everyone is still super at wherever their homes are, and that you're enjoying the early hints of spring that must be in the air. Till next time, take care.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

This past Sunday was my birthday, and I was 23 on the 23rd. My golden birthday, how exciting! So of course I couldn't just sit in my house by myself. No, a golden birthday calls for Tana-sized celebrations. Luckily I had other business to take care of in Tana, so I was able to come in for the weekend. Even luckier was that my friends Bobette and Megan were also in town, so I got to spend it with them!

When I got to the Meva, I saw that Bobette had decorated a bunk for me with paper cutouts and colorful decorations, and even had a tin full of presents! She had individually wrapped everything and put stickers and ribbons on it all, which was just so thoughtful I could die. The gifts were goodies from America like candy, instant coffee, and ranch powder (!), plus some stuff from Madagascar, like locally-made bracelets. How sweet it that? Then, she, Megan and I made the funfetti cake that Megan had gotten for her birthday but had never gotten to bake. So we made a cake and some cupcakes, and probably ate about half the batter raw. Funfetti...yum. Since no birthday is complete without a party, we went to a cocktail party thrown by one of the U.S. embassy workers, and had some tasty drinks and snacks there. The foreign service is a pretty tight-knit group, but they're always so welcoming of Peace Corps volunteers.

Not to make this whole post about food, but that's mostly what my birthday weekend consisted of-- eating good food. To celebrate, we went to the Cookie Shop for brunch and overindulged in their smoothies, sandwiches, and brownies, and then promptly went into sugar comas. After emerging from those, we went to a late dinner at a really swank Indian restaurant where I had the best garlic naan and samosas I've ever had. Seriously. So. Good.

Of course, I did officially go to Tana for my short-term leave days and some business. I met with my program director to propose a project and try to get some contacts for NGOs that might be interested in collaborating on it. It would be a pretty big undertaking, so I'm keeping quiet about it for now because there's a big possibility that it'll fall through, but I met with the country director of one NGO today who seemed fairly receptive to it. I have a follow-up meeting next week with someone else from the organization, so I'll have a better idea where things could go after that.

Whew! That was a whirlwind weekend, but so much fun. Time to go back to work though, as always happens after the weekend. Until next time, dooo take care!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Taking Care of Business

Things have certainly picked up since I got pack to site a week ago! I was tired of being bored and feeling like I wasn't really doing anything productive, so I realized I was going to have to take a much more proactive approach to make the day to day work more interesting. On one of my first days back I asked my CSB doctor if I could split my time between the clinic and the hospital, and she had no problem with that as long as I still put in at least 3 days at the CSB (I'm not sure why, there's generally not much going on there). So the next day I went to talk to the doctor in the maternity ward of the hospital and she seemed a little confused as to why a vazaha with no actual medical training wanted to help at the hospital, but she said yes nonetheless. So, the new deal is that I'll work Monday and Tuesday in the maternity ward, and Wednesday through Friday at the CSB. Cool with me!

Monday I went to the hospital, and since the rasazy (mid-wife/nurse) wasn't working the doctor seemed worried that there wasn't anything for me to do, but I told her I could talk to the new mothers about nutrition, breastfeeding, hygiene, etc. and it was no problem that I'd be working by myself. I actually preferred it to the group pre-natal consultations at the CSB because I could talk one on one with people which is much less intimidating. Also, I think it's better that way because people get instantly shy in front of me, but when it's just the two of us (well, three if you include their newborns) they're more likely to ask questions than when they're in a group.

On Tuesday I went back to the hospital and luckily for me, the rasazy was working and she's awesome. Girlfriend wore gold lipstick and about 10 rings to come to work delivering babies, so I'm pretty sure we're gonna be good friends. For most of the morning we just hung out and waited for people to come in, but it was nice because she's really easy to talk to and she speaks slowly enough for me to understand her. It's also helpful that she speaks some French and a tiny bit of English, because usually out of three languages we can reach a general understanding of what we're trying to say. In the morning we did a couple pre-natal consultations, and at the hospital they do individual consults because it costs 2,000 Ariary (~$1) instead of being free like at the CSB. Since we didn't have a bunch of people to get through, she was able to take the time to teach me about the other parts of the consultation, like measuring the belly, listening for the baby's heartbeat, and checking the position of it. After the consults we took the lunch break, and usually this is when I stop for the day, but I liked working with her so much I decided to come back for the afternoon.

Well wouldn't you know, this happened to be one of the best decisions I could have made, because that afternoon we delivered a baby! The pregnant woman had been pacing around the hospital all day, so the rasazy had just been waiting for go time. Once the woman gave the word, she was on the birthing table, we were gloved up, and in about three minutes, there was a brand spankin' new baby in Ankazobe. Seriously, it's got to be one of the fastest deliveries ever, but the rasazy said all Malagasy births are fast, and the women never cry or yell during labor because they are strong. Whatever works for them, but I was impressed.

Ankazobe's hospital is probably pretty nice by rural Malagasy standards (actually, the fact that we even have a hospital is amazing), but it was still quite a shock to my hyper-hygienic American sensibilities that there was a woman giving birth in a room with flies and no equipment other than a bedpan and a bucket of water. There was no pulse monitoring, no epidurals, no IV's, nothing. Technically there wasn't even a doctor, just a nurse and a vazaha with no real medical training. And yet, at the end of the day there was still a healthy baby and mother. Ankazobe is lucky to have the facilities and knowledgeable staff it does, because so much of Madagascar doesn't. One of my friends was even saying that when they saw a delivery the mid-wife was pushing on the woman's stomach to try to get the baby out faster. Terrible. Thank goodness the nurses and doctors at the hospital and CSB here are well-trained.

One of the other cool things about my day at the hospital was that I met a girl around my age who does AIDS education in the ambanivohitra (countryside) of Ankazobe. She said it's a pretty big problem in some of the areas surrounding here, so she and a few others (I'm not sure yet who) go out and teach about prevention. I asked her when the next time she was going would be, and she said this Friday morning. As part of my new proactive plan, I asked her if I could tag along, and she said she would be so happy if I would, so it looks like I'm going to the country on Friday! I'm pretty excited because I haven't yet been able to go to the outer fokotanys on forbiddance of my doctor and program director because it's dangerous for me to go alone, but I think if I'm going with several other health workers that should be fine.

After all the excitement of working at the hospital I wasn't exactly looking forward to going back to the CSB, but today turned out to be pretty cool actually. I learned how to do the HIV and syphilis tests that get done at the first pre-natal consultation that the women come to, and even though it's just a basic chromatography test it was neat to get to draw the blood. So now I can do those two tests and the malaria test, so maybe I'll be a little busier at the clinic. We automatically test anyone with a fever over 38 degrees Celsius for malaria, so it's one that gets done a lot. I've yet to see a positive test, though the doctor says it happens all the time.

I'm not sure if anyone from home will be able to help with this, but I figure this is as good a place as any to solicit donations: the ministry of health provides a lot of supplies and testing materials to the clinic, but for some reason not latex gloves. The rasazy mentioned today that she has to buy the gloves herself, and that if there isn't blood on them she reuses them. Once again, this is my American privilege showing, but that's just not quite right. If anyone has any medical connections and could possibly send gloves here I know that they would be really appreciated.

Well, that's been the last week for me and it was one of the more exciting ones I've had so far. I'm hoping that this is maybe a turning point for me and that I'll be enjoying the daily work more than I did before the holidays. So far, so good! I hope everything is super back in the states, take care.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Where to begin...

December was undoubtedly my busiest month in Peace Corps so far. Recapping it is actually a little daunting, so I'll just go chronologically...

In-Service Training was the first stop on the December whirlwind. Everyone from my training class got back together for the first time and headed back to Mantasoa for a week of “training”. While there actually were a few informative sessions, it was mostly just great to see everyone again and the morale boost was probably as important as any new information could be. It was also nice to be at the Training Center, because it was a week free of cooking and cleaning, plus hot showers and comfortable beds. I sleep SO much better when I'm away from my site, it's a little sad. If I have money left over from traveling, it's probably going to go to buying a new bed frame to replace the old stretched out spring one the clinic left for me.

One of the best parts of training for me was learning more about fruit drying. Despite not having any prior knowledge on the subject (and motivated mostly by the desire to make my own trail-mix), I volunteered to lead the session on solar-drying fruits and vegetables. My friend Bobette also volunteered, and together we read through a manual and drew up a presentation detailing why it's useful (you can save fruit and veggies for when they go out of season, they can be stored for a long time), what it's best for (fruits high in vitamin A, like papaya, mango, and pumpkin), and how to build the actual solar drying apparatus. It's actually pretty involved, so we also had the plans translated into Malagasy. That way, if anyone wants to have one built it will be easier to explain to the carpenter. What I'm hoping to do at my site is to find either a women's group or possibly have it as a project for the girls' club to fund the construction of a dryer, dry and package fruit, and then sell them as snacks for profit. There's a lot of steps involved in that though, so it'll be surprising if everything can work out. Flexibility, always!

Here's a rough example of a solar dryer:

Other than that though, IST was kind of just a nice break away from site, even if it wasn't particularly informative. After that, we all headed back to Tana to chill for a couple of days before everyone went separate ways for their holiday travel plans. I took a brousse down to Fianarantsoa with Hilary and Amber, my constant travel companions, and Karina and Rebekah, who we got to hang out with for a couple days. Aside from leaving 3 hours late, the brousse was pretty enjoyable-- they don't overload it, everyone got their own seat, and the scenery is beautiful. Even though it was eight hours it was one of the better brousse rides I've had. Fianar is a pretty cool place. It's kind of separated into a new town and an old town, with a decent number of restaurants both Malagasy and vazaha. We hiked (literally, all uphill) to the old town on our way back through, and it's really reminiscent of a small European city. People with us who had been to Italy and Spain said it was very similar. In the old town we went to a small snack shop that had killer brownie a la modes and iced tea with mint and lime. Our other favorite spots there were Chez Nini (a Gasy hotely with some of the best sakay and samosas I've had in Madagascar), Catso (a vazaha hotel with pesto pizza), and the brothels (which we went to for cheap beers and snacks). Overall, I thought Fianar had a really good feel to it, even though the guidebooks really downplay it.

One of the funnier parts of our stay in Fianar was when Hilary and I tracked down a German guy we had seen in the grocery store and invited him and his girlfriend to have a beer with us at the brothel. They ended up being super cool-- their names were Isabel and Jonas, they're about our age, and are living in Mauritius for the year to study abroad. We all hit it off quite well, and when we told them our plans to take the train down to Manakara they thought it sounded great and decided to come with us. The train really was pretty cool, and is definitely more comfortable than most brousses. It also takes about twice as long because we were constantly stopping in the towns along the way, but this wasn't necessarily a bad thing since every stop offered a new array of snacks. We had samosas, fried peppers, crayfish, and passion fruit. Once we got to Manakara we met up with our friend Brittany, and picked up some other German travelers who were looking pretty lost. Our hotel room was completely baller, if only because it had functioning a/c. Seriously, there were lizards crawling on the walls and the mosquito nets smelled like old french fries, but we couldn't stop raving about how nice it was. All the cold air seemed to have gone to our heads. Of course, the main point of being in Manakara was to see the ocean, and we surely did that. My first thoughts upon seeing the Indian Ocean were “It's so blue! It's so...violent!” The beach we went to was utterly deserted, so we walked along the sea wall and then set up our towel near some coconut trees. We all actually went swimming for a bit (and by swimming I mean got slammed into the sand by waves) but it was still great fun to be able to go into the ocean.

Other than swimming, we got our tan on, read books and magazines, listened to podcasts and basically just chilled. Christmas day was probably the best beach day though: we went to a hotel on the lagoon for fresh pineapple juice, and then went to the beach for a bit. For lunch we went to another beach-front hotel and got shrimp, coconut chicken, french fries, vanilla rhum-arrange, and cokes. Our German friends met us here and then we all went to the beach together to drink rum-filled coconuts before they had to leave to catch their brousse back. The party continued back at our hotel room though, where we had peppermint patty shots and chocolate before heading to a Malagasy restaurant for shrimp curry, samosas, and beer. Hmm, seems like I drank a lot on Christmas looking back on it like this. Maybe that's to blame for our rousing attempt at karaoke, during which we hammed it up for “Grease Mega-mix” (seriously, go big or go home). The Gasys loved it and were really cheering us on, but then the machine broke/we got cut off. Oh well, I can finally cross karaoke off my “never have I ever” list! All in all, a very good if not slightly blurry Christmas.

We took a fairly brief detour to Amber's site in Ambalavao where we had plans to write up some new lesson plans and check out her town. Her house is completely adorable and is on a really cool silk-making compound where they not only make silk but weave it into gorgeous scarves. So we toured that, checked out the market for frip, and had a delicious taco night. We didn't stay too long though, because there were three of us and only one bed, and it just got too hot. It's fun to see other volunteers sites though because they're all so different! As I told Amber, my entire house would literally take up only a third of ONE of her rooms- crazy! She lives near some really nice people too, so it was cool to meet her friends.

From Ambalavao, we took the brousse back to Fianar where we met up with a few other volunteers from our stage, and had a pretty calm NYE. We got pizza that day and then went out to the brothel for drinks, but I was ready for bed as soon as the countdown was over. In typical Malagasy fashion we heard people doing countdowns about 10 minutes late at the church across the street. Can't even be on time for the new year! I can honestly say that 2010 was a wonderful year, so 2011 has some pretty big shoes to fill. This will be interesting since 2011 is the one full year that I'll be in Madagascar. Some things make the 2-year commitment seem a lot longer, and that's one of them, but then at other times I feel like there's no way to accomplish anything in this country in only two years! I guess for that reason I'm ready to get back to site, even though I've sort of been putting it off for as long as I can during this vacation. It's time to get to work though, and now that I at least have ideas for projects I want to do it should make going back a little easier. Maybe. Possibly? We'll see.

2010 was a year of change and new experiences: I graduated college, moved to a developing country, learned a new language, and made some great new friends. I also felt the fear of not being able to get water, seen babies dying of malnutrition, and witnessed the rapid deforestation of a countryside. It's been a real mix of high and low, but the person I am now is not the person I was at the beginning of last year, and I know that I'm better for that. Every experience here (even the really awful ones) are making me a stronger person, and I can only hope that that continues. As a resolution, in 2011 I'll be better, not bitter which means focusing on the positive, achievable things I can do here and not dwelling on the stuff that brings me down.

Well, that's about all I've got for now. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and that you're all sticking to your resolutions too! Until next time, take care.