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.