Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Water Project Approved -- How YOU Can Help!

Great news for my village! You may recall from previous posts that my sitemate Chacha and I have been helping a few different parts of our commune on various water projects. One community in particular, Zanabahona, has been especially dedicated to the work. Zanabahona is made up of two smaller hamlets that each have a water committee, although the groups work very closely with each other. We have met with them several times over the past few months.

(one of the many planning meetings)

The water committees are comprised of extremely hospitable, knowledgeable, delightful people. Each and every time we have met with them they have fed us lunch and it is always quite the feast, meat and soft drinks included (more expensive items usually reserved for special occasions and honored guests). They have been incredibly patient with us as we have struggled to communicate in Malagasy and educate ourselves about the complex issues of water systems. I'm certain I've learned more from them during this process than they have from me.

We've had countless meetings where we've tried to flesh out exactly what needs to be done. This has included bringing in another PCV, Meghan Wahlstrom, who has a background in engineering and is especially knowledgeable about gravity-fed systems, to help; sketching basic designs of the existing system and needed adjustments; using equipment to survey the land; and finally submitting a request for funding to Appropriate Projects, an initiative of Water Charity.

THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN!! So many of you back home have asked what you can do to help me in my service or to help the people of Madagascar. Well, here's an opportunity! Appropriate Projects funds small-scale water projects (around $500 or less) exclusively for current Peace Corps Volunteers in countries around the world. Once they have approved a project, they fund it AND THEN try to raise the money. My project has been approved, but they have not yet received any donations in its name. Even if I fail to raise money, my project will be completed, but it's a great initiative, and if we raise more than the minimum amount, the money will go to help other PCV's with other projects. You can access our project HERE or look through other projects on the site.

(Meghan and Chacha helping survey the land)

You can read all about the project on that link, but I will provide a basic run-down here. We are planning to keep the projects separate for the two hamlets. We're starting with Zanabahona I and once we complete this project we will follow-up with Zanabahona II. The water system currently in use is very old (nearly 25 years), though still works very well. Zanabahona I needs only a few minor repairs: adding an additional water source to increase water flow in the driest months, as well as replacing a few broken valves and the pipes which surround the valves. These repairs will help keep the maximum amount of water possible flowing through the system and will also make it easier to repair the system in the future. The community is also contributing to the project by covering a few costs such as transportation and providing labor such as digging ditches for some of the new pipes. Community members and the water committee will also attend educational sessions on water & sanitation that I will conduct in conjunction with local community health workers.

(one of the places with broken valves)

Thank you so much for your interest in my blog, the project, and a small contribution to help the wonderful people in my village here in Madagascar. Please help me spread the word! I can't wait to update once we've finished this project!

Love love.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vacation, Part 3: Living the Dream in Ifaty/Mangily & Tulear

The final bit of our vacation was spent on the beach. After 6 days of pretty intense hiking, we figured we should let ourselves relax a bit. We completely lucked out as some of the other travelers we met--Fabrice & Serge, 2 French brothers--had hired a driver & 4x4 and had 2 extra seats in their car. Rather than braving the always unpredictable taxi-brousse, we hitched a ride since we were all headed to the same destination: the beaches at Ifaty & Mangily, about 25km north of Tulear. (Thanks again, guys! You really saved us a miserable day of traveling!) We met a lot of other interesting travelers on this trip, and it was one of the first times in Madagascar that I did much socializing with other "vazaha" that weren't PCV's. Most of the time I've been in remote villages where vazaha tourists don't frequent, but even when I'm in town I'm usually so focused on getting work done/using internet/watching movies while I have electricity, or even just catching up with PCV friends, and I don't make much time to socialize. Part of why I like traveling is meeting people from all over the world--not just the locals of wherever I am. I realized I've really done a terrible job of keeping up my French language skills here in my attempt to learn Malagasy. I can still understand almost all of what is spoken to me, but I have a very hard time speaking French out loud myself; Malagasy comes so much more easily and I keep mixing up vocab and expressions. I should try to practice it more here, since it is widely spoken.
Anyway, we got to the beach Tisa and I settled into a cozy bungalow. The next morning we went snorkeling along with a pair of American tourists at some coral reef not too far from the beach. We hired a pirogue to take us about 45 minutes out into the water and snorkeled for a while. We saw all kinds of different fish (including some that looked like Gill from "Finding Nemo" (the guy with the scar in the dentist's tank) and some eels. It was very cool. I don't think I've ever actually been snorkeling in the ocean--only in middle school when I learned in the pool during phys ed. I'm not sure that really counts. For the rest of the day, we hung out in lawn chairs, drank cold beer, got our hair braided by Malagasy girls, and got 30-minute massages for $2.00. Pretty sweet deal. That night we watched a beautiful sunset and then went out for dinner. We both ordered crab--Tisa's sauteed in parsley, mine in a pimento sauce. DELICIOUS!!
The day after that we headed back to Tulear. After finding a hotel and booking taxi-brousse reservations for our journey back to Fianar the following day, we wandered around town. There wasn't much we actually wanted to do in Tulear, so we got very cheap massages again and ate absolutely DELICIOUS food. Tulear definitely had some of the best restaurants I've been to in Madagascar. In fact, lunch that day just may be the best meal I've had on the island: calamari steak in a mushroom cream sauce, along with garlic bread, sauteed veggies, a slice of avocado, and an absolutely delicious, GIGANTIC glass of ice cold natural fruit juice. It was really more like a smoothie. And all of it for the grand total of $7.00.
One of the things I have come to love about Madagascar is that it has so much to offer; it truly has something for every kind of traveler. If you've looked over all 3 posts from this vacation, you can see just how many things there are to see and do. There's very tough trekking for the truly adventurous, lots of fun wildlife, and great beaches/luxurious spots, and incredible food. While I've certainly had my share of frustrations trying to live and work on this island, it's certainly full of fun adventures while on vacation. I still have lots more I could post about recent adventures and work, but I'm not sure I'm going to have time to get anything else up before I need to head out of the city. I'll try to update things again soon! Love love.

Vacation, Park 2: Isalo National Park - When I Meet King Julian

The day after we left Andringitra, we started making our way back to Ambalavao to pick up our luggage. We set out on the treacherous road from Liz's village, once again anticipating having to carry all of our stuff 9 miles (though this time at least we didn't have all the food). About halfway, a large truck passed that happened to be going the same way, and we were able to hitch a ride along with some villagers in the back of the truck. It was a MUCH appreciated ride that lifted our spirits a bit and saved a lot of energy. We had to wait for a while in Vohitsoaka, but we eventually caught a taxi-brousse and made it back to Ambalavao around lunchtime. We ate, picked up a gift (some bananas) for our hosts (the silk weavers who kept our luggage and would let us stay with them that night). They, as is typical of the Malagasy, were extremely hospitable. They brought us boiled peanuts and chatted with us for a while, but also gave us time to get cleaned up and rest a bit. They refused to let us help with any cooking or cleaning, and shared a delicious dinner of creamed corn, rice, chicken, and sausage, and a breakfast of bread with honey and tea. After breakfast, we set out for the next part of our journey.
We were headed for Isalo National Park, near the village of Rahohira. It took a good chunk of the day to get there since we once again had to change taxi-brousses, but they weren't too crowded and the road was good. We got settled into our hotel, made arrangements for the following day with a guide, got dinner, and went to bed by about 7:30. We were exhausted and had yet another full day of hiking ahead of us. (Other than cameras, water, and a sack lunch, we didn't have to carry much with us.) We spent about 8 hours hiking through the park, climbing up to a couple different view points, swimming in a few natural pools, and taking in the surroundings. We saw a bunch of different animals--scorpions, birds, lizards, caterpillars--and all kinds of wildlife. We also met lots of other really cool travelers--a pair of brothers from France, and a few couples from the states doing various work for the State Department across Africa. I'm in a bit of a hurry and I still can't figure out this new formatting, so I apologize for my laziness and not trying to organize the pictures in any fancy way.
cool caterpillar
an example of the plants that grow in the deciduous forest of Western Madagascar
Tisa & me swimming in a natural pool The highlight of the day for me was definitely our lunch break. We stopped at a campsite to eat our bananas, peanuts, bread, and fake laughing cow cheese. We saw a bunch of lemurs running around grabbing all the other guests' food, so we removed ourselves a bit and picked a spot by a stream. However, we had our backs turned to the trees and before we knew it, a gang of crafty lemurs snuck up behind us and tried to run off with our lunch. They didn't manage to get our bread (which they tried to grab right out of Tisa's hand) or cheese, but they did get some banana peels. They're pretty funny animals. I also was able to see the ring-tailed lemur for the first time. While there are many lemur species, I think this is the one people most often think of when they envision lemurs in Madagascar. Perhaps this is because of the animated film, featuring the wily and ridiculous "King Julian"--but at any rate, I can now check them off my list of things seen on this island.
That night we settled back into our hotel and got up the next morning to continue on to Ifaty/Mangily, some beaches north of Tulear (on the southwestern coast of Madagascar). I'll continue that in yet another post since this is also long. Hope you enjoyed the photos! Love love.

Vacation, Part 1: Andringitra National Park

I recently got back from a vacation with Tisa, another PCV, down to the Southwest of Madagascar. To start off our vacation, we met up in Fianarantsoa (AKA Fianar) and began what would soon become one of the best vacations I have ever taken. Our first destination was Andringitra National Park, situated in the mountains a bit south of Fianar. Another PCV, Liz, is located in a village near one of the park entrances and happened to already be in Fianar, which was incredibly lucky for us since actually getting TO Andringitra is quite the challenge. But we set out with Liz as our trusty leader and had no idea the adventure we were about to begin. We set off in a taxi-brousse from Fianar to Ambalavao—about an hour and a half stretch. A couple PCV’s used to live with a group that weaves silk in Ambalavao, so we stopped by to say hello and they allowed us to leave some extra luggage with them that we wouldn’t need for the few days in the park. We also picked up lots of rice, vegetables, bananas, peanuts, chickpeas, and pasta to take into the park with us. The plan was to spend a total of 3 days hiking and camping in the park, and we needed to be fairly self-sufficient with supplies. We would pass through a few more towns along the way, but they are much less stocked, so we had to get things on the earlier end. (This ended up being fairly rough, as you will soon see.) After lunch, we took a second taxi-brousse to Vohitsoaka, which is 15km (9 miles) from Andringitra, but is also unfortunately the last point to which taxi-brousses can run because the road is so bad. So from there we had to walk, carrying all of our stuff.
Liz told us it would be roughly a 3-hour walk. About 30 minutes in, it started pouring rain. We were soon drenched, slogging through mud and rain, carrying our things and trying to keep everything dry. To add insult to injury, our second taxi-brousse had left pretty late, so it began to get dark after a couple hours. Before long we were navigating through all of that in the dim light of our headlamps—climbing up and down the hills, tromping through flooded parts of the road, and trying not to trip over rocks or fall in holes. And while conditions are certainly not always so rough, I’d like to point out that Liz has to walk that stretch every single time she leaves from or returns to her site. At least once a week she has to do that in order to go to the market and buy food, but she also has to go anytime she has a meeting or other PC business to attend to. Liz is basically the toughest person on the planet—props to her. Anyway, we eventually reached Liz’s house, cleaned off a bit, hung things out to dry, drank some hot tea, and went to bed. That first day should have been an indication of what we were getting ourselves into, yet somehow we still had ourselves fooled that the hiking in the park wouldn’t actually be that bad. So, the next morning we got up, packed our things, made arrangements with the park office to hire a guide and a porter, and set off into Andringitra National Park.
That first day ended up being about 8.5 hours of hiking, 6-7 of which were spent climbing, climbing, climbing, and more climbing up very steep rock “steps.” Thighs burning, we somehow managed to push onward, telling ourselves we were almost to the top . . . when suddenly another peak rose behind the one we had just scaled. We stopped for lunch at a campsite and got a bit of rest before continuing on, but the afternoon proved even more challenging than the morning. It started pouring rain again, and it continued to grow colder the higher we climbed. We spent about 3 hours in the rain, but finally made it to our campsite shortly before dark. Our incredible guide and porter really took care of us—the porter put our tent up before we even arrived, and they cooked delicious meals for us. (Don’t worry, we tipped very well!) That evening we warmed up a bit by the fire and then turned in pretty early, hoping to rest up for the next day.
The next morning, we set out very early to climb Peak Imarivolanitra (“close to the sky”). We felt the name was fairly apropos, as we basically ended up in the clouds. Once again it was pouring rain and was VERY cold and windy, especially the closer we got to the peak. Luckily we’d be doing a loop back to the campsite, so we didn’t have to carry all of our things this time around. Once we reached the top we stayed just long enough to take a few pictures before starting the descent. Climbing down was pretty rough because by that time there was lots of water pouring down the mountain, so everything was very slick and difficult to balance on. Yet somehow, we made it. The whole thing took about 4 hours, and we had plenty of time to warm up by the fire again and rest before heading to the next campground.
Luckily that was a pretty easy walk, and despite a bit of misty rain, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Liz had a meeting the day before, so she hadn’t set off with us into the park, but she met us at the campsite that second day. Again we warmed up by the fire and had lemongrass tea—freshly picked from in the park—and got to relax for a while. There was another group there that had a ton of guides and porters, so we spent the evening chatting with the Malagasy but once again hit the sack pretty early.
The final day we had originally been planning to hike out of the park, and then get back to Ambalavao so we could continue on our adventure the next day. We once again had underestimated the difficulty of the terrain, and we soon realized we weren’t going to get any farther than the park exit/Liz’s village. It was about 7 hours of very strenuous climbing down—difficult because a lot of the “trail” wasn’t very stable, and we were so exhausted from the previous three days’ hikes, so our muscles just didn’t want to hold us up anymore.
We FINALLY made it to our guide’s village, about 20 minutes from the park exit. We stopped briefly, and his family offered us boiled cassava. Cassava, a staple food here and in many parts of the world, is about the most flavorless food in existence, and has virtually no nutritional value. Any value it might have is lost upon preparation because it contains cyanide and therefore has to be boiled for a very, very long time. I actually kind of like cassava when the Malagasy prepare it with a bit of sauce (usually tomatoes, onions, oil, curry, and salt), although most frequently it is simply boiled and eaten plain. I eat it graciously when it’s offered to me, but it’s never a snack I select for myself. It’s similar to eating a boiled potato . . . but worse. Never in my life did I think I would be delighted at the thought of eating plain, boiled cassava, but it turned out in that moment to be one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. So exhausted after 4 days of very rough hiking, it somehow just hit the spot. It gave us just enough of a boost to continue on for the very last stretch. Now don’t get me wrong—the whole adventure was absolutely, positively worth it. As you can see from the pictures, it is an unbelievably beautiful park. It’s a lot more difficult to access, and many guidebooks underplay how awesome the park is (probably because it’s a bit harder to reach), so it’s not one of the major tourist destinations here. It’s incredible that I got to see it, and like much of my Peace Corps experience, I had to push myself far beyond what I thought I was capable of. This has been a pretty long post, so I’ll continue the rest of our vacation in later posts. Also, I apologize that it seems to be one giant paragraph. I haven't figured out this new formatting and can't seem to separate paragraphs. I'm technologically challenged enough at home without having to keep up with changes! Love love.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Videos

A couple more videos for your enjoyment. The first is my latest adventure in a taxi-brousse . . . proof that the ridiculous stories I tell about what it's like to travel in this country are NOT made up but in fact are rather commonplace occurrences. The second is of a condom race I did with high school students during a class about HIV and other STI prevention. Most people here don't use condoms, and likely have not even seen or touched them. Games are a good way to remove some of the stigma while teaching the proper way to use and dispose of condoms. Enjoy! Love love.

Girls' Club

One of the biggest projects I've been working on for the past couple of months has been starting a Girls' Club at the high school in my village. I've been working with a group of about 35 girls in the "Premiere" class (the equivalent of sophomores or juniors), mostly ages 16-18. The curriculum I'm using for the meetings is the Peace Corps Life Skills manual. It was originally designed as an AIDS prevention curriculum, though it has many applications. It includes activities that help build self-esteem, emotion management skills, communication and decision-making skills, goal setting, relationship skills, and other healthy positive lifestyle habits. I meet with the girls one afternoon a week for about two hours and do activities from the Life Skills curriculum, along with games, icebreakers, and team-building exercises. Another nearby PCV, Monique, is also doing a club at her middle school. We're hoping that our clubs will lead up to a joint camp this summer where we'll build on the skills the girls are developing and expose them to future career options.

I've had several meetings with the girls so far, and I'm thrilled at how well everything is going. In the midst of some miscommunication, teacher strikes, and a few rounds of cyclones, I was having a hard time getting things started, and I wasn't sure if there was a lack of interest or just a combination of unfortunate circumstances. Finally I had a couple of solid meetings and realized it was the latter. I have an incredible group of dedicated, enthusiastic, helpful girls that completely brighten up my week. We've been meeting on Wednesdays, which is perfect to get over that mid-week slump. The girls have been eager to volunteer to help with skits and other activities I need assistance with, and they are are incredibly patient with me while I try to explain things as best I can in my still-broken Malagasy. They ask lots of questions and are very engaged in the activities.

One of the Peace Corps mantras I've heard many times is, "You won't teach them; they'll teach you," referring to the relationship between volunteer and villager. As always, that has proven true with the Girls' Club too. As much as I have learned about the Malagasy people and culture, I still can't help but approach many things with my American mindset. I often expect an activity to go a certain way and end up surprised by the results. This is definitely not always a bad thing--in fact, those have become the best learning moments for me. At our last meeting, we did an activity called "Statues of Power" (from which all of the pictures in this post came). In the exercise, participants break off into pairs and form statues depicting one person they perceive to have power and one person who does not. I had some guesses in my mind of how the girls might pose for their statues. Instead it ended up providing unexpected insight for me into the local culture.

I suppose it hadn't occurred to me how culturally loaded notions of power are. Wealth versus poverty was one dichotomy a few pairs depicted, for example by having one person give money to a beggar. One cleverly portrayed this by having the powerful person talk on a cell phone. I'd never really thought about how a cell phone--something nearly every American, age 8 to 88, owns--could be seen as a symbol of power. Another pair had the powerful person giving a speech while the powerless person walked down the road carrying a basket of "bozaka" (a thick grass used for building houses, etc.) on her head. But perhaps the most striking element of the exercise for me was the use of the Betsileo hats a couple of the girls had. The Betsileo are the ethnic group in my region of Madagascar. They are known for their handicrafts which include woven straw products, and are easily recognized by the straw hats they wear. Several pairs used the hats as props in the activity, and in every single instance the powerless person was the one wearing the hat. It became obvious to me throughout the discussion that the girls not only see themselves--young females--as powerless, but they also perceive their entire people to be powerless. While I was grateful for their honesty and candor, it nearly broke my heart listening to what they had to say. One of the biggest challenges for PCV's is these moments when we see a great opportunity for community growth but fear that our contributions will be inadequate. I can only hope that as I work with these girls over the next few months, they will come to see themselves the way that I see them. I pray that they develop self confidence, begin to see their strengths, and that their discussions start to reflect a sense of power and pride.

I've also included a video of a skit two of them helped with several weeks ago. I thought it might be fun for you all to hear Malagasy being spoken, and to see what a great group of girls I'm working with. In the skit, Mboty was in Terminale (senior year) before she had to drop out of school because she got pregnant. Amina is a Seconde student (freshman/sophomore). Mboty has been advising Amina to focus on studies instead of a boyfriend, and has given her condoms in the past in case she wanted to become sexually active. Mboty also talks about the challenges of raising a child and the promises her boyfriend made to her that he has not fulfilled. Ultimately Amina confesses that she too is pregnant, and that she thought her decisions were justified because she is in love with her boyfriend and he too has made promises to her. The story was used to illustrate the bridge from information & knowledge to behavior change. Amina had all of the knowledge about how to avoid pregnancy, yet she still became pregnant. The activities we do every week refer back to the "bridge model" and some of the early lessons about Mboty & Amina.

Love love.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Water Projects, & Some Thoughts on Human Nature

Charity and I have been trying to facilitate some water projects in our commune. The water situation for our village is sort of all over the place. For the most part, there is no running water for most of the 20,000 people that live in the many smaller villages that make up our commune. There are dozens of pumps scattered throughout; a few still run reliably, but most are broken for any number of reasons. Some simply need replacement parts, some do not have enough water flowing from the source, some have leaks and have worn down over time. So, we've been visiting the different villages to see the problems for ourselves, talk with community members, and try to figure out what solutions are practical, feasible, and something we can actually help with. This whole process has been an incredibly interesting experience for me.

I suppose there was a part of me that figured at some point during my two years of service, it would be really easy to get work done. As I got to know more people and as my Malagasy improved, I began to feel like eventually I'd reach a point when I didn't have to work so hard at everything. In some ways this has proven true--I am much better able to express myself and while I am far from fluent, every-day conversations have become much easier. I guess what I had never thought about is the fact that Malagasy people are human beings--just like Americans are--and that my own development alone would not be sufficient to successfully complete projects. We are all HUMAN beings. This means that no two people are the same, and that group dynamics are always tricky. Some people are very hard-working. Some are lazy. Some are timid. Some are outspoken. Some like to very involved in every step of the process. Some wait till they are called upon but then will go above and beyond the call. Some like to hear themselves talk. Some like to have things their way. There are people who don't like each other. There are people who gossip. There are people who blame others for their own mistakes. I do not in any way intend for this to be a negative reflection upon the Malagasy people on the whole. Rather, it is simply the realization that we are all flawed, and that working in a group is always a challenge--be that in an office in DC or in a rural village on an island in the Indian Ocean. It has taken a lot of patience and careful listening on my part trying to figure out what needs to be done.

What's tricky with my work as a PCV is that often, the process is far more important than the end result. Sometimes getting people to work together in a healthy and effective way means that they're empowered to solve their own problems in the future. Development is a slow process, but it has to begin somewhere. At the same time, the end result is important too--especially with something like a water project. It would be rather silly if we sat around talking through the issues but never tried to take further steps. Hopefully once we work through a lot of confusion, frustration, and past mistakes, we can use all of the information to move forward.

Despite some of the unexpected roadblocks, I still have a lot of enthusiasm for the projects. The communities we've been working with have all been incredibly friendly, welcoming, and eager to share information as well as hear new ideas. True to the Malagasy way, they have always been unbelievably hospitable. We have at the very least been served a meal (often with soft drinks and meat--typically reserved for holidays and truly special occasions), and are usually also sent home with several pounds of potatoes, bags of rice, pineapples, eggs, or other food items. It is obvious that everyone appreciates our willingness to try to help, and we are well taken care of.

One village was especially fun. They threw a whole party for us, complete with soft drinks, biscuits (not like American biscuits, but the French word meaning cookie--here they're packaged and taste sort of like shortbread cookies), and "toaka gasy" (moonshine) for the men. We thought we were only going to be meeting with a couple of men who were going to show us the issues at the water source. So, we were completely surprised when we arrived and were greeted by about 20 people ready to throw a small party. We watched as several people dipped a small twig in the toaka and sprinkled it on the concrete structure surrounding the water source (in the background of the first photo). We were then told it was absolutely necessary we do it ourselves as it is "FOMBA MALAGASY!" (Malagasy custom) When in Madagascar, do as the Malagasy do, right? In any case it was a fun morning, and we learned a lot about the issues regarding water in that particular community. That's my sitemate, Charity, on the right, so you all know who I'm talking about.

I'm including one more picture with my counterpart, Perline. She's a local health educator that has received training from NGO's and I've worked with her on a lot of things. We've gone out to various villages to give health education talks, and she has helped coordinate some of the water work in the commune. She's also the person I took to the project design management training back in November (where this photo was taken). So, now you know who she is too.

Further updates to come soon! Love love.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Superbowl Sunday

Looks like I need to apologize once again for a very overdue post. I’ll try to get a couple posts up in the next few days to make up for it. I finally caved and bought a nifty little internet stick, though, which means I can access the internet right from my house. (This is of course assuming the cell network is functioning, I still have battery life on my computer, a cyclone isn’t hitting the island, and other various factors that interfere with my connectivity in Madagascar to the outside world.) But probably this means I’ll be in touch a lot more. I can certainly check email several times a week and hopefully update my blog a bit more frequently. I still won’t use facebook and skype too much as they use up a lot of data very quickly (and the modem is based on amount of data processed, not on time connected). Anyhoo….

The past several weeks have once again been full of all kinds of adventures. A bunch of Mada PCV’s have decided to train for the half-marathon held in Morondava (near my old site) in July. Well, turns out the marathon actually hasn’t happened in a couple of years, but we’re hoping we might be able to help revive it. So I’m training assuming we’ll get it going, but if not I may find one to run in the states when I get home in September. So I’ve been running a lot. In other athletic news, Charity (the other PCV in my village) and I decided to work on one of the Peace Corps goals of helping others around the world better understand American culture during Superbowl Sunday. Just for ourselves we made quite the Superbowl Party feast—chili, nacho cheese, homemade tortilla chips, and a salad with a Mexican dressing—but then spent the rest of the afternoon teaching kids about the Superbowl. We talked about party traditions and explained how big the game is to a lot of people. We couldn’t find a football anywhere, so we decided to teach them how to play rugby since I played in college. We got girls and boys to play, and I think everyone had a lot of fun.

Work has all been going very well. I've been continuing the cooking club. Recently I've had a smaller group of people, and some of the regulars have been attending less frequently. The past couple months have been the hunger season in Madagascar--it's right before the major rice harvest of the year (usually beginning around March), which is the major source of income for many Malagasy. Most people are struggling a lot right now and have to spend any extra time they can trying to find odd jobs and scrape together the best they can. This doesn't leave much free time to go to things like cooking club. And then once it’s actually time to harvest the rice, everyone will be busy with that. I'm going to try switching to different days and times on occasion to see if that allows more people to attend. But, I'm probably just going to have to wait it out will a very small group, and attendance will likely jump back up by April. In any event, it's still going well even with just a few women each week. I don’t think we’ve done any especially noteworthy recipes recently, but I’ll be sure to post recipes as before if we stumble across something really great.

Just a quick update for now, but I’ll add more about my Girls’ Club and some water projects I have going later this week. Love love.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lemur Sightings--FINALLY!! & The Beginnings of 2012

As evidence that life on this island is a never-ending series of adventures, my first week into the new year has already encompassed all of the best and worst things that Madagascar has to offer. After celebrating Christmas in my village, I took off for vacation just before the new year. Monique (a PCV friend) and I headed to Andasibe National Park where we met up with our friend Erica and her family. One odd dynamic of PCV friendships is that while we grow to know each other, we often don't get to meet each other's friends and family back home--people who have made us who we are and inevitably come up in conversation. So it was really nice to meet and spend some time with the Wherry family.

We went on two hikes in Andasibe: one at night and one in the morning. We were hoping to see the mouse lemur, the world's smallest mammal, but weren't that lucky. (Erica's father rather appropriately described the experience as "wandering through the jungle with flashlights looking for monkeys"), but it was fun nonetheless as we did see some interesting frogs, chameleons, and the like. The next morning we got up and set off on our quest to find the Indri Indri lemur, aka "Babakoto" in Malagasy. While the Indri are the largest lemur and is the subject of some Malagasy legends, they are best known for their wailing cry/song which resounds through the forest. Here are a couple of videos of the Indri; the first video is stuff I shot in the park, the 2nd one is not mine but lets your hear the song of the Indri:

From a distance the song is actually quite beautiful (not quite as screechy as the video seems), and I could hear them calling from the bungalow we stayed in near the edge of the park. Mostly I was just incredibly excited to have FINALLY seen lemurs after nearly 18 months on this island.

After Andasibe, we headed up to Mahajanga to reign in the new year. We arrived on New Year's Eve and had a festive yet low-key evening. We had dinner at Marco Pizza, where we had incredible pizza and cocktails as well as great hospitality from the owner. Once our bellies were satisfied we headed down to the boardwalk looking for someplace to reign in the new year. Everything we'd heard from other PCV's had led us to believe that the boardwalk was where everything happens in Mahajanga, so we figured it'd be a safe bet. Unfortunately there wasn't much going on and we weren't able to find anywhere that had a TV or even any sort of countdown going. So we got a little creative and were able to create our own with the assistance of a cell phone and the timer on a video camera. Sadly our experience that night was a bad omen for the rest of our time in Mahajanga -- all of the incredible seafood, fish/shrimp/lobster kabobs, Indian food, tortillas, and nightlife we'd heard so much about never materialized during our time in Mahajanga. My best guess is that things were just shut down because of the holiday and had we gone at a different time we would have experienced all the same wonder and awe as our PCV friends.

On New Year's Day we headed to Ankarafantsika National Park in hopes of seeing the Tromba (spirit possession) ceremony, which is organized at a lake in the park every year on the 1st. As is typical of Madagascar adventures, we got to the park only to be told that the man who usually organizes the Tromba died and they hadn't named his successor yet so they wouldn't be having it this year. We decided we'd still like to go through the park anyway and see some wildlife. Among the things we saw were Coquerel's Sifaka (similar to but not to be confused with lemurs), chameleons, lizards, and several bird species. We also got to see the only 4 Adansonia madagascariensis baobabs which remain in the world today (shown here with my friend Kathy). The tree can only grow once the seed has been digested by a particular type of lemur which is now extinct since many of the trees had been dying out, so these 4 trees are all that remain. Our guide Gabriel talked extensively about the many symbiotic relationships such as this that exist in the park. It was interesting to reflect on just how interconnected our world is, and I find this relationship to be quite representative of my experience thus far in Madagascar. While I have skills and knowledge to share with my Malagasy counterparts, I also am deeply dependent upon their own knowledge, skills, hospitality, patience, talents and spiritual gifts. I am the baobab: I come bearing seeds that can grow only once digested and enriched by those around me. After seeing the baobabs and hiking for a couple of hours we reached this gorgeous canyon, which scientists believe was actually carved out by the sea instead of a river since the park used to be under water.

After an exhausting but incredible day of hiking in the park, we headed back to town for a good night's sleep. We had a lazy morning the next day but eventually made our way to a pool to relax for the afternoon. Although there were a few disappointments and unmet expectations, all in all, the first few days of vacation were great--as I mentioned, they included the best that Madagascar has to offer. After Monday the 2nd is where things headed south (at least for me). I woke up on Tuesday morning with what felt like a resurgence of the intestinal bug I had Christmas morning, though it may have been something entirely different. After 24 hours of self-treating and trying to stay hydrated, I called the PC doctors who put me on an antibiotic. I finished up the antibiotic today but am still feeling fairly lousy. I'm no longer making frequent trips to the restroom but and still experiencing a good deal of nausea and intense cramps, and haven't regained my appetite. But, I have been staying in a good hotel--very friendly staff, great showers, and free wifi. I'm hoping to head back to my village tomorrow even if I'm not feeling better. After all the chaos, I'm just ready to be back where things are familiar and routine. At any rate, don't worry because I will be fine - nothing I haven't dealt with several times already since being here!

Hopefully the new year hasn't been quite as adventurous for you as it has been for me! Cheers for 2012! Love love.

Christmas #2 on the Island

Since I spent Christmas away from my village last year, I decided to remain in town this time around and see what Malagasy Christmas is all about. On Christmas Eve day, I did prepare American food with two other PCV's: my site mate Charity and our friend Brad. Despite my stove's gas tank running out a few days prior and me subsequently ruining 2 of my 3 cooking pots over my charcoal stove, Charity's stove and a little creativity still meant we were able to pull together a Christmas feast. We ended up with beef stew, stuffing, sweet potatoes, sauteed vegetables, flatbread with nutella and Dad's homemade apple butter, chocolate honey cookies, pumpkin-banana bread, rose wine, and probably several other things I'm forgetting. We actually had a fairly classy dining room table set-up with a tablecloth, napkins, confetti, candles, etc. thanks to care packages from home :)

Later that night Charity and I went to church at the Protestant church in our village. Christmas Eve in my village was actually not too different from how I spend the evening in the states. The youth were putting on a concert/show and then there was supposed to be a worship service. The whole thing began with the entire congregation singing, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" in Malagasy, which was absolutely beautiful. Already one of my favorite hymns, it felt especially meaningful to hear it sung by my Malagasy friends and neighbors. It was a simple reminder that despite the differences that may separate us from one other -- language, politics, geography, religion -- there will still always be things that we as members of the human family can find in common. As long as we keep that notion in sight, perhaps the everlasting peace we talk about so much during the Christmas season is not such a distant possibility.

My Christmas morning was not the most delightful I've ever had. I woke up to another round of one of the many illnesses this island has to offer, so the morning was spent lying in bed fighting nausea and making frequent runs to the bathroom. Although I wasn't feeling great, I finally dragged myself out of bed by late morning to get ready for lunch. I had stayed at site specifically to experience Malagasy Christmas, and I didn't want to miss out on the invitation I had received to eat lunch with my landlord and his family (who live below me). Despite the stomach pangs, it was a very enjoyable meal. Everyone wants to know: what do the Malagasy eat for Christmas/other holidays? To be honest, it's pretty much the exact same as any other day, but slightly more fancy. We ate rice with a couple of different meat dishes (beef, pork), but with the addition of soft drinks. Most families will splurge on what they consider to be better cuts of meat (more fat, pigs' feet, intestines, etc.), but that's about as elaborate as it gets. My landlord's family happens to be one of the richest in my village, so they may have had even more than most. For our part Charity, Brad, and I had taken over a pineapple, drinks, and cookies to share. Although a stark contrast from the often over-commercialized American Christmas, it was really nice to share the day with good friends, good hospitality, and good food.

As we were wrapping up the meal, a couple of the guys spontaneously burst into a Malagasy jam session on my guitar. Here's a short video for you to see:

And that's how my Christmas went! I hope your holidays were just as enjoyable. I'll be putting up another post or two by tomorrow about recent work and vacation, but this is all I'm putting in this one.

Love love.