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.