Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Update

Friday, December 24, 2010 (Happy Christmas Eve!)

And not a creature was stirring… except for the rats in my ceiling…

It’s been a while since my last update. In-Service Training (IST) was great. It was really amazing to see all my training comrades again, but it’s tough accepting that we probably won’t all be together again until next September or October 2011.

Training went like this: we all arrived in Tana in waves December 9, 10, and 11. There was a blur of catching up and merrymaking, culminating in a holiday party hosted by the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at his big, beautiful apartment (complete with DJ, dance floor, pavilion-covered lawn, snacks, and open bar).

On Sunday, December 12 we were taken back to the Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC/Camp Peace Corps) in good ol’ Mantasoa. Everyday was filled with information sessions from after breakfast until dinner. Every evening was filled with more catching up and merrymaking. One of the days we were taken into town in Peace Corps cars for brief reunions with our host families. And then, suddenly, it was over.

We were taken back to Tana on Friday, December 17 and given a tour of the U.S. Embassy. Afterwards we were invited to swim in the U.S. Embassy pool. Quite nice. Once back at the Tana MEVA I found out that my flight back to Diego was scheduled for Monday, December 20, which gave me a few more days with friends.

That Saturday, after a fun morning at the market, Mama Peace Corps’ brother (a musician named Rabbi who lives in Tana) informed me that MPC had arrived in Tana via taxi brousse. He showed up at the MEVA and together we took a city brousse downtown. We then took a taxi up a mountain in the center of town to his sister Eliot’s house. I met Eliot and her adorable daughter Ariel. Then I was reunited with MPC. After a bit of catching up Rabbi showed me an awesome view of the city from a ledge near the house. I had to get back to the MEVA before dark, but I was told to come back the next day with friends to celebrate little Ariel’s 8th birthday.

So, the next morning I went on an excellent Antanarivo Adventure with Molly, Julie, and Paul Cook (follow along with the corresponding Facebook photo album). We got downtown in the midst of a hectic pre-Christmas market day. We then decided it would be more rewarding to hike up the mountain to Eliot’s house rather than take a taxi. I tried to lead us on a shortcut, but we ended up getting lost in backyards before being shown back to the main road.

Once we reached the top, we purchased beverages and then helped prepare food for a bit with the whole MPC family: MPC, Eliot, Rabbi and their mother, little Ariel, family friend Rosa, and my old pal Tsiky (MPC’s son who had come into Tana from university in Antsirabe). Eventually it was apparent that there were too many cooks in the kitchen (Eliot was convinced that Molly, Julie, Paul and I were helpless vazahas and that we’d severely maim ourselves in the process of cutting vegetables), so we went for a walk to check out the excellent view from the ledge.

In the middle of relaxation, I heard a most intriguing sound: live drumbeats. I immediately located the source: the Espace Mahatazana hotel, directly behind us. I left the others, probably without saying a word. I can’t remember. I was drawn to the noise like a moth to the light.

Entering the foyer, I met the maître d'hôtel who was excited that I spoke Malagasy. I told her I had heard the music and come running, so she took me up to a grand ballroom with tables set for a wedding reception. In the corner of the room was a raised platform with drum set, bass, electric guitar, and keyboard. The band was warming up. I rushed over.

They were also excited to hear me speak Malagasy. They asked if I preferred jazz, blues, or rock. I went with blues. The singer/guitarist blew me away with a soulful Malagasy 12-bar. At this point Molly, Julie, and Paul had joined me. When the band was done, the frontman asked if we wanted to come up and sing. No one volunteered, but I made known that I play guitar. He asked if I wanted to play. Was I dreaming?

I got up on stage and let loose with a blues song I wrote in Mantasoa, jamming with the bassist and drummer for a bit after running out of verses. It was incredible. Eliot came at this point to let us know food was ready. End jam session. I was in a euphoric stupor.

We stuffed ourselves with potato, beet and carrot salad, shredded mango and cucumber salad, turkey, fried dough chips (caca pigeon), homemade fruit juice, beer, soda, and cake. We tried to dance it off, but it took a walk back down the mountain to get feeling back into my outer extremities.

We said our goodbyes and took a city brousse back to the MEVA. That night I had a goodbye beer with Ryan F., Brianna, and Hilary. Shortly after getting inside the rickety beer hut, it started pouring. Water was streaming through cracks in the tin roof. We tried to wait it out for a while, but it was not letting up. Eventually the power went out, so we were forced to leave. None of us had umbrellas or raincoats. We ran back through the flooded streets in the dark while the rain came down in sheets. An epic ending to an already epic day.

I left early the next morning for the airport, and then flew to Diego…

I hung out in Diego for the evening before taking a painfully long brousse ride back down to Ambanja the day after that. I’ve been trying to readjust to the heat here since then.

Saturday, December 25, 2010 (Merry Christmas!)

What a splendid Christmas! I got to visit my friend Liza (a friend inherited from Dorothy) who just had a baby a few days ago. Both are doing well. But imagine my surprise yesterday when Liza’s friend Claudine told me that the baby still has no name and that Liza wants me draw up a list of popular American girl names. I brought the list to Liza this morning and she’s going to mull it over.

After that I helped Momyne and Anniece prepare our Christmas lunch: homemade flour tortillas with chili and rice; mac n cheese; and a plate of Oreos from the States. It was the ultimate comfort food feast.

The rest of the day was spent reading and sleeping off the meal until dinner when I had a jam session with the neighborhood drunkard. Now time for bed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rats and Dancing

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I’m in Diego!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I wasn’t planning to write an entry until I got to the Diego MEVA, but there has been quite a bit of excitement around here. Two words: rats and dancing.

Let me backtrack. While everyone was in Ambanja for Thanksgiving, it seemed apparent that an unwelcome rodent-like creature had visited my room while we were all at Mama PC’s for lunch. The evidence: Jonathan’s bag of mangos had been chewed open and one of the mangos had been partially eaten. However, there was no further evidence of foul play for the next few days.

While everyone was here, a few slept at a hotel, a few at Mama Peace Corps’ house, and Jason crashed with me. On Saturday night, he and I were both woken up by the sound of little rat feet and squeaks. The sounds seemed to be coming from inside the room, but I assumed they were just up in the ceiling. Since there were no visible sightings, we went back to sleep.

Once everyone had left Ambanja, I didn’t detect any rodent evidence for three days. I slept soundly. However, when I came home Wednesday evening I opened my closet to discover that a rat had chewed through both a Ziploc bag and the thick plastic Tupperware container within to get to my flour. It had also chewed up the end of two large rolls of paper and had left the remnants of the beginning of a nest in the corner of the bottom shelf. I cleared out the nest and put the chewed broken Tupperware container in my trash bag on the floor next to my bed.

That night I was in the middle of a deep sleep when I was awoken by the sound of something going through my trash bag. I turned on my headlamp and there it was: a big, brown rat going at the Tupperware container. I only got a quick glimpse, because as soon as I turned on my headlamp, it bolted under my bed, climbed up my guitar case and up an electrical cable to escape through the ventilation holes in the wall near the ceiling. This took a matter of seconds.

I was tired and went back to sleep, but was woken up again by the sound. This time I pulled up my mosquito net and hopped out of bed as I turned on my headlamp, and jumped over to grab my broom. However, the rat was already up the wall by the time I had my hand on the handle. I went over to my closet to see if it had revisited the original scene of the crime, and whattayaknow! Another rat shot out of the doors, through my legs and up the wall to freedom. I was stunned.

I opened my door and set my garbage bag outside. I moved my guitar case and table from away from the wall, hoping to prevent (or at least discourage) future rat entry. The measures seemed to have been a success.

On Thursday I got a surprise visit from Jason and Katie who came in to town to meet with the visiting Peace Corps Health Sector Director and doctors the next day.

So, while they had meetings, I ran a few errands: I got a haircut; I purchased blank CD’s to make copies of my song recordings; I didn’t bother waiting behind the mob of people at the bank; I mailed a letter at the post office; and I spent a few hours at the Lycee printing out 350 end-of-term exams on the good old ‘90s era Laserjet printer. Busy day. I felt very proud of my accomplishments, and I met Jason and Katie who had good news of their own: they can now work at the health clinic here in Ambanja, so we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other over the next two years.

The three of us were in great spirits when we went over to Mama Peace Corps’ in the evening. I had been told earlier in the week that there was some type of event happening in Ambanja to welcome the new Chef CISCO. I figured it would be a meeting at someone’s house. However, Mama knew otherwise. She told me it was a big meeting with drinking and dancing, and all the teachers in Ambanja were going, including herself.

So, since that event was already on my schedule for the night, Jason and Katie decided to tag along. We walked up the main road a bit and came to a giant concrete building behind the Catholic church. We heard a speech being blasted out of loudspeakers and thunderous applause. We walked into the hall to see the Chef CISCO with a microphone on stage and hundreds of teachers sitting at tables drinking and eating picnic dinners. We were late.

Well, it’s a big deal just to see a white person walking down the street here, so you can imagine how crazy the crowd got to see three white people walk across the dance hall to our table in the middle of a Malagasy teacher’s conference/dance party.

Eventually the speech finished and the music started blaring. A few people got up and danced, but after a conga line dance, almost everyone sat down. Eventually Mama PC decided it was time to make her move. When Jerry Marcos came on she got up started dancing in the middle of the dance floor. There was only about a half dozen other people. She motioned for us to join her, expecting others to follow suit. Well, rather than starting a mass movement to the dance floor, we became a spectacle for the hundreds of teachers that remained in their seats. But it was damn fun.

The next day was set to be pretty uneventful, but I was looking forward to meeting with the director of an environment NGO in the afternoon. It turned out to be well worth the wait. The NGO is financed by Germany, but run by Malagasy staff who work directly with Malagasy communities to combat/prevent erosion caused by deforestation.

The director, Andry, is from Antananarivo, and he used to work for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While there, he learned to speak English remarkably well, but he’d like to continue practicing. What makes him different from the dozens of people that come by wanting private English lessons at my house is that he doesn’t want private English lessons at my house. He’d like to set up an English workshop for his colleagues at their office facility.

That certainly sounds worthwhile: it’s a legitimate organization (rather than the shady men who come by wanting to learn English because they want an American girlfriend); I could teach more than one person at a time (all the people asking for private lessons can’t comprehend why it’s not ok to just teach them and exclude everyone else); and he will provide the meeting place (as opposed to knocking at my door at all hours of the day).

He took me on a tour of the facility, showing me models of techniques to prevent erosion into farmland, maps of reforestation projects, and a peanut garden planted on a special type of plant that serves as topsoil.

After the tour I interviewed him, and then we practiced English for a while. Eventually he asked if I’d like to grab a drink. I said sure, but it was getting late and I’d need to put on bug spray or else I’d get eaten alive my mosquitoes. So he waited for me while I hurried down the road to my house. I swung open my door, and who was looking back at me from on top of the wooden frame for my mosquito net? You guessed it: a big brown rat. I charged at it, but it escaped with a flying leap toward the ventilation holes in the wall. I did a sweep of the room and my closet, and there was no sign of another rat lurking about.

I was in such good spirits that it didn’t really matter. I went back to meet Andry and we grabbed fries and a beer and I answered questions about the structure of the U.S. government. When I walked back, I swung by Mama PC’s. Momyne was around, and he wanted to come over for a bit. I told him there was a very real possibility that we’d encounter a rat, so he’d better be ready.

[Warning: graphic descriptions ahead]

Sure enough, as soon as I opened the door, Mr. “I Chew On All of Josh’s Stuff” was waiting. The next few minutes were chaos. Momyne grabbed my broom, and I grabbed Dorothy’s rat killing stick. Momyne knocked the rat off the mosquito net frame. It scurried around the floor under the bed. We frantically chased it around the room, trying to flush it out from under the bed, and then the table and then my work desk. It kept going into my closet, and we’d flush it out of there, but it was just too darn quick. It would dart between our legs and back under something else. Finally, it scurried up the mosquito net frame again and Momyne knocked it onto the top of the mosquito net.

Now, there was a giant piece of plastic wrapping material on top of the mosquito net that had once been vacuum-sealed around my mattress. I kept this giant piece of plastic because I knew my roof leaked and that rainy season was coming. Things just might need to be covered by giant plastic wrapping material.

Or… a rat might need to be strangled to death with Momyne’s bare hands!

Yep, you read correctly. In a flash, Momyne grabbed the plastic around the rat and held on until the rat stopped twitching. He then hit it in the head a few times with the broom handle to make sure it was dead. Out on my front porch I stabbed it in the head with Dorothy’s rat killing stick. Twice now has it drawn rodent blood.

Quite the excitement. Things should slow down a bit now. Tomorrow and Tuesday I’ll be testing. I’ll have to grade everything before Wednesday morning, because that’s when Katie and I will be hopping on a brousse to go to Diego. I fly to Tana on Thursday for a week of In-Service Training (IST).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving and a German

Monday, November 29, 2010

So, the political situation described in my last post turned out to be nothing after all (as far as I know). Forces loyal to Andry Rajoelina stormed Ivato and arrested the mutinying military officers. Everything is back to “normal.”

This has been a good week. All the volunteers around Ambanja came in for Thanksgiving. I had to teach in the morning and evening on Thursday, but was able to get out of the latter. We had planned to buy a turkey, but that fell through. We then considered buying the materials necessary to make Mexican food (beans, rice, peppers, and flour can all be found here), but then decided it would be easier to eat vazaha food at the classy Palma Nova restaurant (which I described a few posts back).

Friday we all took a taxi-brousse to Ankify beach, picking up PCV Molly (who came in from her site on the island Nosy Be via ferry) along the way. So, in total 8 Peace Corps volunteers and 3 Malagasy friends hung out on the beach all day to celebrate Thanksgiving. I brought my guitar, Katie brought her excellent portable speakers, and we all swam and relaxed until the sun began to set.

People returned to their sites in waves on Saturday and Sunday. While some of them relaxed at my house on Saturday, I went with my Malagasy friend Anthony to his uncle’s house. Anthony had told me that his uncle was a German expat living here in Ambanja, married to his mother’s sister. He also told me this German man had an electric guitar, drum set, keyboard, harmonica, and a plethora of djembes.

I took my guitar and walked with Anthony for about half a km to the market. He said his uncle’s house was just a little bit past the market. The common Malagasy response to questions about location here in Ambanja is taloha (which means “before” or “up ahead”).

I knew the house might not be so close, but it was still quite an unpleasant trek. I trudged along for an hour on the shade-less dirt road, my legs pretty burnt from the beach the day before. When we arrived, we were greeted by Anthony’s aunt and led into the house.

His uncle was a stout, white-haired, gray-bearded bespectacled man. He was quite friendly, but the language barrier was a bit awkward. He (obviously) spoke German fluently, as well as French, and a little Malagasy, and could understand slow English. I spoke in English, Malagasy, and terrible French, and he responded in French, Malagasy, and broken English.

We discussed the beauty of Madagascar and the plight of its people and its environment. I explained the concept of Peace Corps, and he explained that in his opinion Madagascar just needed more money. To each his own.

Unfortunately, Anthony had not informed him that I was coming over (not a big surprise—my experience has been that Malagasy people tend to show up and leave without much notice) and had to leave before we could play music, but I did see his extensive djembe collection. I would be extremely pleased if he also possessed the alleged electric guitar and drum set.

So Anthony and I made the trek back to my house and I played guitar there.

On Sunday I had to grade more papers of students whose first try was, let’s say, less than satisfactory, whether that meant completely ignoring the extremely explicit directions, or shamelessly copying their friend’s assignments.

We learned in training that while cheating is seen as wrong here, it is culturally acceptable for Malagasy teachers to ignore it when it happens. Nevertheless, it was still shocking to see it practiced so blatantly.

I’m currently in the process of making my end-of-trimester test, which I will administer next Monday and Tuesday. I can imagine how fun it will be to try to prevent 70 students, crammed into small desks and practically sitting on one another’s laps, from copying.

As far as I know, I leave for Diego next Wednesday, December 8 and then fly to Tana on Thursday, December 9. Then I’m re-united with all my friends from pre-service training (PST) for a week of in-service training (IST). I can’t wait!

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Probably Nothing

Friday, November 19, 2010

I don’t really know what to write. I’ve been bombarded with news from many sources (parents, fellow volunteers’ families, Mama Peace Corps’ relatives who live in Antananarivo). From what I’ve pieced together, there are some military officers holed up near the airport in Ivato, an area in the capital city, Antananarivo. They’ve been there since Wednesday, when there was a referendum on a new constitution. The changes to the constitution, which include changing the minimum age to serve as president from 40 to 35, are supported by the current transitional president, Andry Rajoelina, who is 36.

Mr. Rajoelina took power with support of the military in early 2009, replacing the democratically elected Marc Ravolomanana. Now, the same military officers that brought him to power have declared themselves in charge of the country. However, Andry Rajoelina says he is still running things. There seems to be no report of any violence or deaths in the capital. The military is huffing and puffing about disrupting Madagascar’s airspace, which could be a major problem, but as of yet, it seems to be nothing more than talk. Here in Ambanja, Tana could have been swallowed by the earth and no one would have noticed.

Peace Corps has given us one instruction: standfast. This means if major problems do develop, we should be prepared for consolidation. So, we wait. I’ve got 300 papers to grade. I want to know if I’ll need to be packing up any time soon.

One major bummer about this “standfast” situation is that we aren’t allowed to leave our sites for anything except a medical emergency. If they keep us on “standfast” through Thursday, no one will be able to come here to Ambanja to celebrate Thanksgiving. Mampalahelo (makes me sad).

That being said, it's probably nothing and it will all blow over soon. Here's hoping I'm right.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rural Meets Urban

Friday, November 12, 2010

This week I’ve had a few battles with nature and semi-domesticated animals.

Part I: Rain and Ants

Last Saturday the heavens came crashing down. I’ve never been in the presence of so much rain in my life. I couldn’t hear anything but a deafening roar as the earth’s entire supply of freshwater came hammering down on my tin roof. After about two hours, it suddenly stopped. I was amazed. We don’t get summer storms like that in California.

The next morning I was groggily making myself some eggs and a pot of coffee when I noticed a few ants on my table. As I brushed them off I looked up at the wall and nearly had a heart attack: the wall was black, and it was moving. An entire colony of ants was making its way from my ceiling to a window on the opposite side of the room.

I ate and cleaned everything quickly and swept away any ants who thought it would be a good idea to explore the floor of my domicile. I then went to the general store with Momyne to buy some ant spray.

When I returned, the ant colony had departed. A few stragglers decided to stay behind and frantically run around my windowsill. Their dilatory behavior was rewarded with a quick spray of Attack: Multi-purpose Insect Killer.

Part II: Chickens and Goats

The rest of the week was pretty normal. I taught “Making Requests” and “Indirect vs. Direct Objects.” The class thoroughly enjoyed acting out a dialogue in which they asked, “May I dance with you?” Most chose to respond with a firm and succinct “No!” but occasionally a few were bold enough to try “I’m sorry, but I would prefer not to dance with you.”

On Monday a chicken wandered into my house while I was reading and proceeded to make a big fuss about jumping up and down on my trunk under my desk. I shooed it away easily enough, but it was amusing. This whole “rural meets urban” theme here in Ambanja is always pretty fun.

For example, there is a fairly busy dirt road that I can see from front door right now. A moped just went by, followed by a bicycle and a taxi. However, just a few minutes ago several ox-carts rolled past.

Also, at Mama Peace Corps’ house dinner is made by lighting a fire and burning charcoal, and the kitchen is often lit by candlelight since the power goes out most evenings. But while this cooking is going on, Momyne’s cell phone is blasting music that he transferred to his phone’s memory card via Bluetooth.

And then there was the kid goat that walked into my house and almost chewed the power cord to my laptop (I was also able to shoo it away without any trouble). Not a dull moment around here.

Jonathan arrived in Ambanja last night for some business and should be leaving Sunday. Katie and Jason should be stopping by tomorrow and leaving Sunday as well. We’ll probably watch movies on my computer while geckos watch from the walls (and maybe a goat or a chicken will join us too).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chef CISCO Vaovao

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Giants won the World Series! It took me going to the opposite side of the world, but hey, it works for me.

It’s been an interesting week. Monday and Tuesday there was no school, I believe because of All Saints’ Day, although no one actually told me. Mama Peace Corps just told me it was a holiday, and I called up the proviseur, and sure enough he told me there was no class (I would have shown up at school if I hadn’t called him).

So my pacing was already thrown off because of this holiday situation, and then I showed up at school on Wednesday and discovered that all classes except my English classes were cancelled because there was a new Chef CISCO with whom all the Malagasy teachers needed to meet (CISCO stands for Circumscription Scolaire, and it’s just the school district; the Chef CISCO is the head of the school district, like a superintendent; and it’s French, so Chef=Chief—he doesn’t prepare food). So my students had to watch all their friends go home while they stayed for a lesson on the “present perfect” tense. Lots of fun. They were already ahead of the sections that didn’t have class on Monday or Tuesday, so I let them out early.

So, there’s a new Chef in town. I don’t know why I forgot this in my last post, but there was a protest in my front lawn a week ago. I was getting ready to go to class and a car pulled up in front of the CISCO office (where I live), blasting Malagasy music. It was followed by dozens of protestors carrying signs, apparently calling for the Chef CISCO’s resignation. I guess their protesting worked.

Today when I showed up to teach my evening class, I put my bike in the teacher’s lounge as usual, but found all the other Malagasy teachers sitting in rows of chairs ready for a meeting. The proviseur saw me and told me the new Chef CISCO was coming for an important discussion. I taught from 4:30 – 5:30, after which I found all the teachers still in the lounge, drinking beer and soda and talking to the new Chef CISCO and his wife. I left after introductions.

I don’t know what this new Chef CISCO business will mean for me and my life, except that I think the old Chef will eventually be moving out of his house, which is in the building next to mine. He’s always been pretty standoffish, so I don’t think I’ll miss him much. However, his two little children are pretty adorable and dance whenever I play guitar, so I’ll miss them.

I also don’t know why I forgot this in my last post, Mama Peace Corps’ son, Tsiky, is no longer living in Ambanja. He has left for university in Antsirabe, which is awesome, because from what I’ve observed, not many people here even pass the Baccalaureate (the test to graduate from Lycee). However, he had become a very good friend, so I’ll miss him quite a bit. His friend Momyne, also just a few years younger than me, is now living with Mama Peace Corps while he studies to take the Bacc himself. I’ve been tutoring him with English, but it’s made me sad because he’s supposed to be at the Terminale level, and he’s grossly underprepared for the test.

In other news, I made an ice-blended café latte today. Let me backtrack: Mama Peace Corps is an entrepreneur. She has electricity, so she invested in freezers. In the evenings after work she makes delicious, sugary, whole-milk yogurt and puts it in little re-usable plastic cups with lids. She puts those cups in the freezer, and, presto: frozen yogurt. Men come by with coolers and sell the frozen yogurt cups on the street and at the market. I decided it would be cool to mix coffee and the frozen yogurt in the cups. I thought it tasted pretty good on a hot day.

Food is very important to me, as anyone reading this blog may have guessed. One of the first things Peace Corps has done for my personal development is given me a new appreciation for food, especially for the variety of food available back home. In the U.S., I was faced with choosing from among over a dozen varieties of peanut butter. Here, if I want peanut butter, I need to roast the peanuts and spend about half an hour smashing them with a giant mortar and pestle. Another huge difference is the lack of cheese here. For those reading in the States, try to go through every meal and subtract the cheese. It makes things a lot less delicious. Needless to say, I get a lot more joy out of little things, like iced coffee with real milk.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Forget About It!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Giants are in the World Series! Maybe I should join the Peace Corps more often…

Teaching has been going very well. This week I taught “Apologizing,” as per the national curriculum. I wrote a dialogue where Georges has to apologize for bumping into Hoby. Now, I’m no expert, but some of these kids are natural-born actors. Great performances, all around.

They also got a huge kick out of an exercise where James had to apologize for killing Hoby’s chicken with a motorcycle and Cristophe had to apologize for dropping Hoby’s keys in the kabone. Their favorite choice for Hoby’s response: “forget about it!”

Today was the first day I’ve been without another PCV here in Ambanja in a week.

Last Wednesday Jonathan arrived to take care of some business before going on vacation on Nosy Be this past Monday. He and I hung out and watched a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm until Saturday, when we had major errands to run.

Mama Peace Corps created a big list of things to purchase for Katie M.’s birthday party. We were making three cakes, a giant pizza, and chocolate-coconut-vanilla rum punch. Flour, eggs, cheese, and butter add up pretty quick around here, but it was worth it. We brought all the materials to Mama Peace Corps’ house and helped make the rum punch.

The next day (Sunday), Jason, Katie M., Katie B., and Vanessa (all the other PCV’s in close proximity to Ambanja) arrived. Throughout the day we snacked on Oreos sent by my parents and peanut butter sent by Katie B.’s parents (extremely valuable commodities).

In the late afternoon we went to a morengy (boxing) match. We took pousse-pousse’s (bicycle taxis) a few km down the main road and came to a big grass field in a concrete wall. Several hundred people lined the perimeter of the field, while shirtless Malagasy men strutted around the center in a ridiculous fashion with one arm extended.

Apparently, based on size, mutual willingness, and other unknown factors, the men were paired up with one another by officials. When the fighting finally began, it resembled more of a slap fest than a boxing match. Occasionally one guy would get a few good swings in, but usually both fighters would just end up grappling and the fight would immediately be broken up and restarted. If there were winners and losers, I couldn’t tell. We left after about an hour.

We pousse-pousse’d back into town and relaxed before going over to Mama Peace Corps’ for Katie M.’s birthday dinner. Mama Peace Corps went all out. She had a neighbor build a wooden, three-tiered platform, upon which sat three beautiful cakes. There was also a giant meat, cheese, and green pepper pizza. We ate heartily and drank merrily.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I fell asleep while typing last night. It’s pretty darn hot here. I was woken up early this morning via text message from my Dad: Giants take game 2! It’s great to wake up to good news…

Where was I? Oh yes, Katie’s birthday. Great time. The next day (Monday), Jonathan and Vanessa left for vacation on Nosy Be. I taught during the day, Jason and Katie M. prepared a presentation for a U.S. study-abroad group here in Madagascar, and Katie B. returned to her site in the afternoon.

Tuesday evening, after more teaching, I accompanied Jason and Katie M. to dinner with the study-abroad group. Katie had actually participated in the same study-abroad program, and thus knew the director and had some great insight to share. There were eight students with varying degrees of interest in the Peace Corps, so we gave our two-cents and talked about Madagascar for a few hours. I never thought simply speaking in English with native English speakers could be so fun.

Jason and Katie left for Diego Wednesday, and I went through the recurring shock of being left alone in Ambanja again. Like I mentioned in a previous post, I’m having a very different experience from most of the volunteers here in Madagascar: most PCV’s go weeks on end without seeing another American. I think I’ve spent more time at site with Americans than without them.

However, I’ve been making a real effort to integrate into the community, and my Malagasy has been improving. Every afternoon and evening I go over to Mama Peace Corps’ to chat. I also try to start up conversations with the women I buy bread from every morning (and of course with the women in the market). And the teachers at the Lycee are always keeping me on my toes, testing my Malagasy abilities in the Salle du Profs (teacher’s lounge). They’ve had a fair number of Peace Corps Education volunteers come through Ambanja, so as per Malagasy culture, they like to compare me to my predecessors.

I’ve been very happy at my site. While no day is ever perfect, and I have my share of hardships and pangs of loneliness, I have a lot to be thankful for: I’ve been healthy and enjoy a relatively balanced diet; thus far I’ve had a rat- and ant-free room (knock on wood); school has already been rewarding and fun; riding my bike on the trails here has been amazing; and most importantly, I have great friends here in country (both Malagasy and American) and loving support from friends and family back home (and in Benin :)). And the coffee’s really good too.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Go Giants!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Second week of school is over. It was a little more organized/official than the first. I taught all five sections of level Seconde for 3 hours each. However, there was a little administrative drama during the week.

Apparently, more students than expected have enrolled in the Lycee this year. It was looking like they would need to form two additional sections of level Seconde (each section is 50-70 students). They wanted me to teach the English classes for these sections in addition to the five I already teach.

I came here to teach, and I’m willing to take on a little more work, but I was also told by the director of the Peace Corps Madagascar Education sector that we’re not supposed to teach more than 16 hours a week. I expressed these concerns to the proviseur of the Lycee, and he said the English teacher for level Premiere would pick up the two new sections.

However, when I ran into that English teacher at the Lycee, he shook my hand and thanked me for taking the other two sections of Seconde. I was caught off guard. I said I didn’t know I was teaching those sections. He went to speak with the proviseur.

That was Monday. When all was said and done, it turns out they only need one additional section of level Seconde, which I agreed to teach. Here’s my new schedule:

Section 2 = 8:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.
Section 5 = 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Section 3 = 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Section 3 = 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Section 1 = 2:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Section 4 = 4:30 pm. – 5:30 p.m.

Section 2 = 6:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m.
Section 4 = 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Section 6 = 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Section 6 = 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Section 5 = 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Section 1 = 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

I’m still free!

Hopefully the weeks will start flying by now.

PCV Jonathan came into town Wednesday to take care of some business. He’s taking vacation days to travel to Nosy Be on Monday. Sunday we’re celebrating Katie M.’s birthday at Mama Peace Corps’ house with all the PCV’s in the region (Jason, Jonathan, Katie M., Katie B., Vanessa, and myself). Mama Peace Corps has an oven, which means we can bake a cake and a pizza. It’s hard to convey how much joy this will bring me. I love food. Jonathan and I are in charge of picking up the supplies to make that happen.

So, that’s my program for today, after I put this blog entry up.

Below I will try to post a photo of Ankify beach. It may not load...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

3 Weeks at Site

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I didn’t describe the swearing in ceremony last time. Summary: It was held at the Peace Corps Country Director’s enormous house in Tana. Speeches were made by the Country Director, the ChargeÈ d’Affaires from the U.S. Embassy, a Malagasy official, and fellow PCT (now PCV) Katie M. All the PCT’s were asked to stand, recite an oath, and we became PCV’s.

We took a group picture, some people talked to the press, and we consumed pastries, samosas, coffee and juice. After that, things were a blur. We were all travelling to our sites the next day. Those of us who had not set up bank accounts (like me) got a settling in allowance + September and October living allowance in cash. Everyone else was supposed to have their money deposited directly into their bank accounts. There were problems with the direct deposit, adding to the stress.

Long story short, people were rushing around Tana getting ready to depart. Many people needed to do the majority of their shopping in Tana because things like gas stoves, gas tanks, and non-stick frying pans are cheaper/only available there. Other people tried to use the internet at the Tana MEVA.

I didn’t have much to do because I was flying the next day and would be doing my shopping in Diego and Ambanja. I tagged along with people, and eventually went out to dinner with others. I ended up sleeping on a couch in the main room of the MEVA so I could say goodbye to Paul, Israel, and Jessica who had to go to the airport at 4:30 a.m.

After them, wave after wave of our group left the MEVA in Peace Corps cars. Gloomy weather and gloomy spirits. Eventually I left for the airport with Jason, Katie, and Nicole.

Flew to Diego. Shopped with Kamar (regional driver) and Tovo (our installer) in Diego. Had dinner with Dorothy and Corie.

Next day we did more shopping in the morning, and then we drove to Ambanja. That night we stayed at a hotel.

Next day I set up a bank account, did some protocol visits, dropped off all my stuff in my house, checked the locks, and came back to shop with the others (I didn’t need much because there was already furniture in my house). We stayed another night at the hotel.

Next day we installed Nicole in Ampasindava. Her site is on a beach. It’s gorgeous. People from her village killed a goat for a feast. Before we ate, a group of youths sang and danced. Nicole’s stuff was unloaded, and Kamar and Tovo spent several hours making repairs to her house. When everything was in order, we left.

Same story the next day when we dropped off Jason in Siranana (minus the feast and dancing).

And the next day when we dropped off Katie in Djangoa (minus the feast, but with the dancing).

That was yesterday. I rode back to Ambanja alone with Tovo and Kamar. They deserve a huge round of applause. They spent almost a week with us, loading and unloading the truck over and over again, taking us shopping, translating, rebuilding our houses, and maintaining a positive attitude the whole time. We couldn’t have asked for better installers.


Today was my first day completely on my own as a PCV. I went to the market to get sweet bread and bananas for breakfast, and then went to the bank to deposit a check. I came home and ate my breakfast when a young man about my age came to the door. He introduced himself as Tsiky, the son of Mama Peace Corps.

This was the moment I had been waiting for. Dorothy (my site predecessor/mentor) had told me all about Mama Peace Corps. She lives down the road from the CISCO office, and she essentially takes any Peace Corps volunteers living in or near Ambanja under her wing.

Tsiky asked me to come with him, and I was brought to Mama Peace Corps: a large, serious woman with a subtle but infectious laugh. She brought me to her living room and explained that if there was anything I needed—if I was tired, sick, hungry, or annoyed by neighborhood kids—she would take care of it. She’s legit.

I left her place to go to the market and pick up some food items and a pillow. Success. I came back, played guitar, read, and then went back over to Mama Peace Corps’ house to chat/practice my Malagasy. I came home and made rice soup with condensed milk and peanut butter (my Malagasy comfort food of choice).

Next week I have meetings at the Lycee to determine class schedules. I should be teaching five classes, three hours a week per class (broken up into 2 hour and 1 hour sessions). The week after next I start teaching. Until then, my plan is to settle in. This will be my home for the next two years. I made it through this day. I can make it through the rest.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wow, it’s been a week. Time is moving right along.
Last Wednesday I went to the market and spent more time with Mama Peace Corps.

Thursday PCV Jonathan (Environment March 2010 stage) came to Ambanja to bank, to meet with his counterpart, and to pick up medicine I had been given to pass on to him. I had sent him a note via taxi brousse (because he doesn’t have cell reception at his site) informing him that I had his medicine. I was very impressed that it got to him. I just wrote “Jonathan M., PCV, Anjiabory,” and Kamar handed it to a brousse driver going in that direction.

Jonathan just left this morning. We’ve had a few adventures while he was here. On Saturday we rode our bikes a few km down the main road with his counterpart to a place called Mangabe. Once there we met with a big-time cacao grower (one of Jonathan’s projects is to assist cacao-grower co-ops). We spent a few hours literally making our way through an immense forest of cacao trees. Every few minutes, the guide would point out a tree heavily-laden with giant cacao pods and comment about how old the tree was, or how much money all that cacao would bring in, or how many trees were planted each year.

On Sunday we rode our bikes 27km to Ankify beach with Mama Peace Corps’ son Tsiky. It was a tough ride, but well worth it. Beautiful beach, and almost no other people were around. We relaxed on the beach for a while before broussing it back into town. Next time I plan to bike back.

When we weren’t going on bike adventures or browsing the market, we were either hanging out with Mama Peace Corps or watching Curb Your Enthusiasm at my house.

Yesterday Jason and Katie M. came into town to pick things up at the market and hang out for a bit. Yesterday evening Dorothy and Kinsey arrived via Taxi Brousse on their way to Diego from Tana. They stayed at Mama Peace Corps’ house and left before I even woke up this morning.

So, today I was alone again. I’m having quite the opposite experience of most of my fellow PCV’s. While I’ll still have to deal with loneliness at some level, I’ll also have to try to stop speaking in English with all these Americans passing through Ambanja so that I can actually practice and improve my Malagasy. I practiced a bit at the market today, but those conversations don’t really go anywhere.

Other news… I had a meeting at the Lycee yesterday morning with the faculty. By meeting, I mean I sat in a room while the teachers and Proviseur argued and joked with one another in Malagasy for 30 minutes, and then was told to come back the next morning to pick out my class schedule.

When I arrived at the Lycee this morning, I discovered that my schedule had already been picked out for me. I teach 5 sections of Seconde level, each with about 70 students.

Here’s my schedule:

-Section 2: 8:00a.m. – 9:00a.m.
-Section 5: 9:00a.m. – 11:00a.m.
-Section 3: 4:30p.m. – 6:30p.m.

-Section 3: 10:00a.m. – 12:00p.m.
-Section 1: 2:30p.m. – 4:30p.m.
-Section 4: 4:30p.m. – 6:30p.m.

-Section 2: 6:00a.m. – 8:00a.m.
-Section 4: 8:00a.m. – 10:00a.m.

-Section 5: 10:00a.m. – 12:00p.m.
-Section 1: 4:30p.m. – 6:30p.m.

I’m free!

Yes, I do have a class that starts at 6:00 a.m. However, some of these classes can be abridged because each section is only supposed to meet for 3 hours a week (a 2 hour and 1 hour session).

I also recorded two songs today. That’s all for now.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tomorrow I start teaching.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Today is my last day of my first week of teaching. So far it’s gone very well. In every class I’ve introduced myself as the new English teacher (in English). Then I clarified (in Malagasy): “Mpampianatra Anglisy vaovao zaho.” Every class immediately broke out into cheers and applause as soon as I spoke Malagasy. There are many white people here in Ambanja, but they are all tourists, and they all speak French. It blows Malagasy people’s minds to hear a white person speaking Malagasy.

In my opinion, that’s actually one of my biggest first hurdles: dispelling the myth that all vazahas are French tourists. Everywhere I go, people scream: “Bonjour vazaha!”, “Salut vazaha!”

My first class was supposed to have 68 students, but it was the earliest class on the first day of school, so only 22 students showed up. My second class had over 70 students.

My lessons are confined to the nationalized curriculum, so my job is to make sure I make them interesting without freaking the students out. The students have been brought up on a strictly regimented learning format: they come in and expect to spend almost the entire class copying notes from the board. I have to somewhat accommodate them in that regard because they do not have textbooks. The teachers essentially write their textbooks for them. The students copy everything on the board, exactly as it appears on the board. But I’ll also have room for creativity: performing skits, bringing in pictures, music, etc.

The students were pretty well behaved. Occasionally ubiquitous class chatter would grow to a rumble while I was writing on the board, but a quick turn and a stern look quieted them back down.

Other news…

Yesterday I came back from teaching at 10:00 and found Katie B. (Environment PCV, from the stage transferred to Madagascar from Niger) sitting in front of my door. She lives about 90 km south of Ambanja on the main road. She came to do banking and submit Peace Corps forms at the internet cafÈ. We went to the market with Tsiky and bought tons of food for Mama Peace Corps, which she later prepared. We feasted happily.


Today to celebrate successfully getting through my first week of teaching Katie and I splurged and went to one of the few actual vazaha restaurants in Ambanja. We had juicy steak with seasoned potatoes and shrimp in a creamy pepper sauce. It was delicious. I may dream about it…

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


My address at site is:

Joshua Twisselman, PCV
CISCO Ambanja
Ambanja 203

Status Update

I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer.

A Few More Entries...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not a lot of news here in good ol’ Mantasoa. After visiting paradise weather at my site in Ambanja, I returned to some of the heaviest, coldest rain I’ve seen here. I was saddened by how overjoyed I was to see Dada and Neny, because that means it’s going to be really hard to leave in a few weeks.

A bunch of current Education and Health PCVs have come to live here in Mantasoa at the PCTC for the next few weeks while they help with our tech training (I met most of them the night I stayed at the Tana MEVA after returning from site visit).

Also, I don’t think I mentioned this in my previous compilations, but one member of our group of 42 PCTs (Katie Minton) had gone back to the U.S. before site visits because her grandmother passed away. However, she returned to Mantasoa on Monday, which is a testament to her strength of character and the solidarity of our group. Everyone I’ve talked to wants to go the full 2 years without any ETs (early terminations). However, the odds are stacked heavily against that scenario. Still… no one’s talked about leaving yet.

Additionally, now that we’re back from site visits, the schedule is a bit different. Rather than language every morning and tech sessions in the afternoon, us Education sector folks have Practicum (practice teaching) in the morning and abridged language/tech sessions in the afternoon. Practicum is pretty much the real deal. They’ve rounded up about a hundred some odd student volunteers from the community and divided them into their respective grade levels (they are all on break from real school until October 11). We take turns teaching these respective classes.

Throughout Monday and Tuesday we’ve been preparing to teach. We were then divided into 3 groups of 7. Today, each of the 7 members of group 1 taught a different class level. Tomorrow group 1 teaches from 8-10, and group 2 teaches from 10-12. Friday group 2 teaches from 8-10, and group 3 teaches from 10-12. That should be the general pattern until the end of training.

I’m in group 3. When I’m not teaching, I’m either observing a class or in my own language class. Not the most exciting stuff to talk about, but at least we are now teaching actual students rather than reading lesson plans everyday.

Other news…

Yesterday I woke up early in the morning with an upset stomach. I felt like throwing up, but I didn’t want to puke in my po (pee-bucket), so I held it in until I got up at 6. When I emptied my po in the kabone (outhouse), I thought I’d take a stab at vomiting. At first I couldn’t, but then I got a good whiff of the kabone… that’ll do it.

I was feeling a lot better after that, but couldn’t really eat any breakfast. I told my neny, “marary kibo aho” (I’m sick to my stomach). She was very worried. She said she’d make soup for lunch. That went down alright, but I was still feeling pretty gurgly the rest of the day. Another round of puking when I got back from tech session at 4:30. Not fun.

I had more soup for dinner at 6, and headed to bed at 6:30. Summer sent me good vibes and I slept until 6 this morning, waking up fully recovered. It was probably just some undercooked meat, or maybe a 24-hour stomach bug. Whatever the case, I survived my first sickness in Peace Corps. I’m sure there will be a lot more where that came from.

The power is out here. Rolling blackouts, from what I understand. I’m typing on my computer by candlelight. Surreal. Even in a developing nation, it’s easy to take electricity for granted when you’ve had it access to it everyday. Well, I suppose I’ll retire. Until next time, mazotoa! (enjoy!)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Today I had my first experience teaching actual Malagasy students. I had to design a lesson based on a topic randomly selected from the nationalized curriculum. I was assigned Family Celebrations.

The level I was assigned to teach was 5eme. Levels here go backward. 6eme is about 6th grade in the U.S., then comes 5eme, 4eme, 3eme, 2nde, premiere, and terminale, which is the last level of Lycee (high school).

I had sat in on two 5eme classes on Wednesday, and the teacher seemed to be going a bit too fast, so I decided to make my lesson extremely basic. I focused on birthdays, specifically on the verbs “to dance, to sing, to eat, and to give.” Maybe it was too simple, or maybe my students are just mahay be (very smart) because we flew through the exercises I made.

We were scheduled from 10:15 to 12:00, and even though class didn’t actually start until 10:30, I was already having the class sing the Happy Birthday Song (which they already knew in English, melody and all!) and play hangman by 11:30. I released them at 11:45. I need contingency plans for my contingency plans.

Normal day after that. Tomorrow group sessions from 8 to noon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

First, a shout out to my sister, Amy. It’s her birthday today. The big 2-1. Happy birthday!

This morning we had a full group session about PACA, which stands for Participatory Analysis for Community Action. It is the foundational theory behind Peace Corps’ approach to community development. Very straightforward: talk to the community, find out what the men and women do everyday, then get a sense of what the community’s needs are from the community members themselves.

After that scintillating discussion, we had a lesson in bike maintenance, led by none other than my dad, and his assistant Manana (Julie’s dad). Also straightforward. Good news is, I should be getting a bike: Trek, 21”.

I had lunch, and then since it was sunny I decided to manasa lamba (wash clothes). I hadn’t done a full washing since before site visits, so things had really piled up. Luckily, my Neny is the nicest woman in Mantasoa and came down to essentially take over. She pushed me aside and told me to rinse out the clothes once she had washed them.

Once they were hung up to dry, I walked down to the soccer field at the Lycee to watch a soccer tournament. About a hundred spectators from Mantasoa, including most of the 42 PCTs, watched from the hill next to the field. We watched two games, both of which youths from Mantasoa won.

Dinner was rice, peas, tomatoes, garlic, and pork. Another day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ok, I’m ready to write my personal statement to apply to the Peace Corps:

I would like to become a Peace Corps volunteer so that I can inhale the most spine-tinglingly crisp air in the world while descending a mountain overlooking a vast, vibrant green valley at the precise moment when the sun reaches its hands through the clouds and touches my face, and the orgasmically harmonious dual guitar riff at the 3:41 mark of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” simultaneously erupts from my headphones.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mornin’! I’m waiting for the three drops of Sur’Eau (chlorine) to fully kill everything in the water in my water bottle. I’m supposed to wait 15 minutes after adding the three drops/litre. This is after the water has been filtered in my giant steel water filter.

In a few minutes I will be heading to the CEG (middle school) to watch a class from 8-10 and then I teach 3eme from 10:15-noon. The topic I was assigned today was “hunting.” I’m supposed to focus on vocabulary.

When making our lesson plans, we are supposed to use the four-part “4-mat” format: Motivation, Information, (Guided) Practice, and Application. We also have to write a brief objective at the beginning of every lesson that at some point uses the phrase “students will be able to” (SWBAT). Here is the first draft of my lesson on hunting:

Objective: By the end of this lesson, SWBAT track, find, and kill any number of big game endemic to the African continent.

Motivation: Ya’ll hungry? Cuz I am. You know what I could go for right now? Some tasty elephant steaks. They are so juicy and full of flavor—it’s making my mouth water! Shall we begin?

Information: Class, this is what we call an elephant gun. Hold it like so. Aim. Fire. Let’s practice.

Practice: Everyone have a rifle? Ok, Exercise 1: Fire at the targets: 25 yards, 50 yards, 75 yards, and 100 yards. Have fun!

(Oops! I forgot CCBI! It should be in metres, not in yards!)

Application: Ok class. You’re on your own. The student who bags the biggest and/or rarest animal gets top marks for the day. Good luck!

We’ll see how it goes…

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Let’s see… A lot has happened since my last post. I taught my actual lesson to 3eme on Wednesday, which ended up being a vain attempt at describing elephant tusks in English. I eventually got to explain the verbs “to hunt,” “to shoot,” and “to kill,” acting out each action in superb form, if I do say so myself.

Thursday I taught “describing people: pessimistic, optimistic, shy, etc.” to the 2nde level. Not as exciting as hunting, but the 2nde students are very bright and a lot more well-behaved than the 3eme students.

After Practicum on Thursday, us Education folks joined the Health folks at the PCTC for group sessions (this week we learned about the dangers of drugs and alcohol in addition to going over Peace Corps Madagascar’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP)). At the end of the day, I mentioned to Robert (training manager) that my family was having a famadihana (exhumation) the next day. He said he wouldn’t be able to go, and it didn’t look like I would be able to go because of Practicum and language classes.

However, over dinner Thursday night, I got a call from Lova (homestay coordinator). She informed me that I could, indeed, attend the famadihana the next day.

So, after Sakalava language class all Friday morning (I was not scheduled to observe or teach English Practicum) I went home to find various extended family as well as my Dada and Neny feasting on plates of rice and beef. After joining them for food, it was time to make the 45-minute trek to the famadihana.

We picked up fellow PCT James on the way, as his family was apparently participating in the ceremony as well. Unlike the last famadihana, the sun was shining brightly and it was very warm. We arrived at an open grassy area where a few hundred people had gathered, eating rice and drinking THB or Rhum or Taoka-Gasy (moonshine) from various stands.

The ceremony began at 2. Everyone formed a parade, propelled by the beat of a dozen or so drums and about as many flutes and accordions. We arrived at what looked like a small house, painted white with blue trim. This was the tomb. A man climbed to the roof of the tomb and gave a speech in Malagasy and then the tomb was opened. If you recall, last time (different families, different tomb, different famadihana) each family entered the tomb and grabbed the wrapped corpses, carrying them above their heads and dancing in a drunken frenzy.

This time, it was much more orderly. My Dada and his son came out with the first two corpses (completely wrapped in white burial shrouds) and laid them on giant straw mats. Once the other families had gathered their respective deceased relatives, they began wrapping each corpse one by one in brand new burial shrouds. One family must have just recently lost their exhumed family member, because they were extremely emotional, sobbing and holding onto the corpse, even as more corpses were brought out beside them.

The re-wrapping process apparently takes a while, so James and I decided to head back into town after saying goodbye to our respective families. That night what seemed like all 42 PCTs hiked to the top of the biggest hill in Mantasoa to PCT Raffaele’s house to watch I Love You Man on Raff’s computer. It was a big deal because we’re not supposed to be out after dark. We had to clear everything with training staff, as well as our host families, who are all usually in bed by 8 or 9. Because it had been a clear day we could actually see the night sky. It was breathtaking. I need a southern constellation chart. We watched most of the film and left for home at about 9.

Today we went to Tana to visit the zoo. The animals looked depressed and neglected. However, I can now say I’ve seen several species of lemurs in real life. I’ll be satisfied when I see them in the wild.

We were all ready to explore Tana after an hour at the zoo. We were not allowed to go to the Tana MEVA (where there is internet) because the members of the March 2010 Environment/Small Enterprise Development (SED) stage (our predecessors) are having In-Service Training (IST) this week at the PCTC in Mantasoa and are currently all gathering at the Tana MEVA. Our group of 42 Education and Health PCTs will finish Pre-Service Training (PST) when we swear in on September 21, and will come back for our own IST in December. Get it? Peace Corps sure does love its acronyms.

Where was I? Yes, we left the zoo to explore Tana. We split up into different groups and were accompanied by different LCFs (LCFs are the 14 or so Malagasy language teachers; I think LCF technically stands for Language and Cultural Facilitator, or Large Cuddly Friend, or Liquid Carbon-based Fuel). I went with a group of people who planned to shop after lunch, accompanied by LCFs Linda and Edvina.

We ate, Molly and Raff got photos developed, and then we went to a supermarket. By the time we were done, it was about quarter to 2. I needed to purchase a guitar. I have needed to purchase a guitar since we touched down in Madagascar. LCF Linda (who, like all the LCFs educated at the university in Tana, knows the city very well) took me on a hurried guitar shopping expedition because we had to walk back to a central location by 3:15.

I was told a decent guitar costs about 200,000 Ar (which is about $100). I had brought that much with me from the States for the very purpose of purchasing a guitar. The first shop Linda and I entered was asking 600,000 Ar for a guitar. Not cool. The next shop had a guitar for 190,000 Ar that felt and sounded nice. The shop after that had one for 199,000 Ar that sounded the same. We tried one last store that had a very nice looking guitar for 170,000 Ar. It felt and sounded much better than the previous two. Linda haggled it down to 160,000 Ar. I now have a great guitar, which cost about 80 bucks. I owe Linda my life.

Long ride back to Mantasoa, but I was floating.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I’ve been running almost every morning at 5:30. PCT Jacob (who runs barefoot) and his host brother Joseph run every morning. Additionally, at some point or another, all the following PCTs have joined the 5:30 run: Julie, Molly, Israel, Paul, Kaitlyn, Karina, Lorin and Ryan F. Furthermore, whenever Julie runs, so does her host brother Mamota, and occasionally Israel’s host brother (who runs barefoot with two broken toes) and his host brother’s friend come along (both names escape me at the moment).

The run is superb. We’ve estimated it (based solely on the time it takes us to complete it) at a little over 5km. The dirt road cuts through some rice paddies, crosses a river, goes up into the hills, and eventually comes back around toward the town, passing Lake Mantasoa near the PCTC. Recently it’s been spectacularly clear, and we’ve been blessed with some stunning sunrises. Also, there is always an eerie mist that hangs over the rice paddies, which we emerge from as we ascend the hills. Like I said: the run is superb.

Today was my last day teaching actual practicum classes (I taught about dinosaurs to the Terminale level). For the next three days we have been broken up into seven groups of three PCTs and assigned a specific grade level: Wednesday we do test review, Thursday we proctor a test (which we write ourselves), and Friday we grade the test. I’ve been assigned 2nde level with Israel and Rebekah C. Sunday we met up to start planning our review lesson and to start writing the test, but ended up jamming and singing for a few hours. We decided that we would teach our class “The Tennessee Waltz” and expand on the storyline. Since the students are not actually in school, the test will only involve topics covered during practicum, and rather than grades, students will be given prizes based on how well they do.

I think our lesson and test are pretty solid. I should get some rest.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So it’s been a while. Recap:

Israel, Rebekah, and I were a pretty awesome team, if I do say so myself. Our review lesson expertly incorporated every lesson taught to the 2nde level during Practicum. We sang “The Tennessee Waltz,” then wrote a story which expanded on the song’s storyline, then created and acted out a dialogue, then ran an obligatory grammar exercise, and ended with a sweet “draw and label some clothes on the naked stick figures” game.

The test was the same format as the review lesson, except the story picked up where the song left off (the woman was now getting married and wanted to know if she should invite her former sweetheart to the wedding). There was also a different dialogue, a different grammar exercise, and another “draw and label 10 articles of clothing on the naked stick figures” game.

The next day, since we had already graded the tests, we were able to go over the answers with the class, and then spent the last hour throwing a dance party. Israel and Rebekah taught the class how to waltz while I accompanied on guitar, and then they taught the class some awesome swing dance moves (while I, again, accompanied on guitar).

So, Practicum was officially over. The next task was to prepare for our own final language exam (which was today… I’ll get to that). I reviewed a bit this weekend, but I also took advantage of Mantasoa-specific activities.

On Saturday, I went out on Lake Mantasoa in a canoe (which are available at the Peace Corps Training Center along with life jackets). The sun was shining, the air was warm with a cool breeze, and the water was calm and cool (however we are not allowed to swim in any lakes or rivers because of the possibility of schistosomiasis). Nevertheless, the canoe experience was amazing. Another example of why the PCTC should be called Camp Peace Corps.

Sunday I spent a lot of time with my family. I roasted peanuts and crushed them into peanut butter. I also watched my Dada kill a chicken and helped him pluck, gut, and cut it up. I then de-scaled and gutted some fish. After cleaning up, I washed my clothes with my Neny and then roasted some coffee beans. While they cooled off, I walked to a soccer field with some PCTs and watched a few soccer games. I came back and ground the coffee beans and put the grounds in a glass jar. A bold, dark-roasted, aromatic blend of only the finest coffee beans, grown fresh here in Madagascar. Available in the lobby.

I also recorded two songs at some point in the last few days (“Light Blue Walls” is a melancholy acoustic/alternative-rock piece about staring at the walls in my room every night and missing people; “Paul Cook” is a lighthearted ode to fellow PCT Paul Cook).

So, we’ve been preparing to take our final language assessment. It is unclear exactly what the procedure is, but apparently if we don’t meet the language level requirement, we are not allowed to swear in with everybody else on September 21. Instead, we stay here in Mantasoa for another two weeks while we perfect our language abilities. People have been a little tense lately.

I think I did alright. It was an oral assessment, and I was able to understand and respond to all the questions asked. I definitely could have been more fluid, but I tried my best. We all see if we passed tomorrow.

Whether or not I passed, I had to pack up all my stuff tonight. Since I have a “fly site” they are sending everything that I don’t need up early. This includes my metal trunk with various non-essential knick-knacks, my big metal water filter, my big suitcase and extra clothes, my bike helmet, and my bike. I will be left with my backpack, duffle bag, and guitar.

When I got home, I shared all five songs I’ve recorded in Madagascar with my host family, and then showed them all the pictures I took when I borrowed PCT Kaitlyn’s camera the other day. My Dada pulled out a micro-SD card with adaptor and asked for copies of the songs and photos. After copying over the files, he expertly inserted the card into his cell phone. He may have spent his life in a tiny remote village in Madagascar, but don’t ever tell me my Dada isn’t tech-savvy.

Dinner was emotional, because tomorrow will be my last night staying with the family. I gave my Dada and Neny their gifts (a nice John Steinbeck pen and a photo of vineyards in the Salinas valley). Dada played my songs on repeat throughout dinner.

It’s going to be tough to leave.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tomorrow I swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.


On Friday, the Thank You Community ceremony occurred. All of our families and their extended relatives came to the PCTC in the afternoon to be recognized, to eat food, and to say goodbye. Two PCTs (Kristen and Israel) were scheduled to give Thank You speeches in Malagasy (both were great—they had the whole community laughing). I had expressed interest in performing my “Good Ol’ Mantasoa” song. During Israel’s speech I was tapped on the shoulder and told I was up next. I performed the song with Israel. Great time.

Afterward we ate finger foods and then there was a brief dance party. I danced with my Neny for one song, but she told me she was too old to keep dancing.

Then everyone left.

However, that wasn’t the last time I saw my host parents. Saturday I went down into Mantasoa after lunch to do laundry at my Dada and Neny’s house. It was hot and bright. My Neny was so happy to see me. We hugged more than usual. We then did laundry together, and then I purchased some orange Fanta, which we enjoyed together. I was told to come back on Monday to say goodbye and pick up the dry clothes.

Yesterday, I had a fairly uneventful morning. However, I was able to swap about 50 GB worth of digital media with people. When I was done, I excitedly stood up out of my chair and turned around… and fell off a step and tripped and ran into the wall. The force of me shaking the wall caused one of the windowpanes to shatter instantly. I was fine, but thoroughly embarrassed. But that wasn’t why I was sad yesterday.

I was sad yesterday because I said goodbye to my Neny for the last time. I had gone into town to get chocolate and phone credit, but not many stores were open because it was Sunday. So, I went to my host parents’ house, but no one was home. I was walking away in defeat when I was called by my Dada across the street (he and Neny had been playing cards with their neighbors). He told me I needed to get my dry laundry because Neny was going out of town on Monday.

I went up to get the clothes, and wouldn’t you know my Neny had ironed and folded them all. Additionally, she had sewed a hole in my pajamas. She’s so sweet. I hugged her one last time and said goodbye.

Today I was tired. I had stayed up very late last night recording a concept album (?) with fellow PCTs. Essentially I recorded people talking over and over again and then layered the conversations so it sounded like a huge crowd of people were talking. Occasionally people would hit the wood tables with spoons and I would sporadically add guitar riffs. It was quite fun.

Tomorrow I swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Multiple Updates

So, I've been keeping a log of my adventures on my computer. The following selected blog posts will be copied and pasted (and posted) from that log:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Today was epic.

My sister-in-law came to Mantasoa for a wedding yesterday. She brought her ~1 year old son, who was pretty cool. His name is Toky. He hardly cried, he didn’t stink, he could walk around, and he could comprehend instructions. Pretty good qualities for a baby to have.

I woke up, showered, and had breakfast, like a normal Sunday. I had a lot of clothes to wash, so I got right to it after breakfast because I saw the sun. Luckily Neny helped me, because I had a lot to wash and within an hour the beautifully sunny sky had been replaced by dark clouds. We finished, and hung them out on Neny and Dada’s balcony.

I was walking over to the kabone (outhouse) and Neny was holding a live chicken. She told me to come inside, we were going to prepare it.

She brought it into the room where our table and chairs are. She put it on the floor and stepped on its wings so it wouldn’t move around. She held its neck over a little metal dish. She pulled out her knife and slit its throat. It twitched for a little bit while blood dripped into the pan.

Then we put it in boiling water, took it out, and removed the feathers. Then Dada and I cleaned it out, removing the entrails and carving it into its respective pieces. Then we boiled it with ginger and salt. Then we fried the pieces in oil. Then we ate it with rice for lunch.

Other PCTs had already had similar experiences, so I was somewhat prepared, but it’s still the first time I’ve seen anyone kill an animal that wasn’t a fish. I may have to do the killing next time, as some of my comrades have already done.

After lunch I said goodbye to my sister-in-law and Toky because they were heading back to Tana and I had a famadihina (exhumation) to attend. I met up with Israel and Paul. It was sprinkling on and off, had been most of the day. The road was very muddy.

We knew the famadihina was happening somewhere near PCTC, but we weren’t quite sure where. There was one car taking people, which filled up quickly. We started walking in the right direction and we got picked up when the car came back around. We drove about a mile past PCTC and then pulled over and got out.

It started raining like crazy. There was foot-deep mud. We heard drum beats in the distance. They grew louder and louder. We soon heard voices and flutes. Suddenly a crowd of several hundred Malagasy people came parading over a hill. We were told to merge with the crowd. It soon detoured off the dirt (mud) road and into an even muddier side path through the trees along the edge of a mountain.

As we walked, the sound of the drums and flutes was deafening. There were many drunk Malagasy men trying to get all of us to dance along the way. It was still raining.

We came to a clearing on the side of the mountain. Everyone gathered around a stone structure which we discovered was a tomb. A man read a big speech in Malagasy from under an umbrella, shouting to the crowd. Then the music started up in full force as men started digging dirt and rocks from out of the entrance to the tomb. When the music started, the rain stopped and sun shone through the clouds. It was surreal.

There were hundreds of Malagasy onlookers just watching from the perimeter, but there was a group of about 50 hardcore dancers in a frenzy in front of the tomb. People kept yelling at all of us white people (vazahas) to come dance. Most of the people yelling at us were drunk. Finally, the tomb was opened. Several people entered with a large straw mat. They came out with a body (completely wrapped and bound in white burial cloth), which they held wrapped in the large straw mat. They danced in a frenzy with the body held above their heads before bringing it to a clearing and setting it on the ground. Then another body came out, same actions followed.

By the time the third body came out, people were really pulling us to come to where the bodies had been laid out. I thought to myself, once in a lifetime experience. So, I went right up to the front. A bunch of Malagasy men kept making dance motions. Only a few PCTs had followed me. Others were looking on from the perimeters. Finally, I just let loose. Everyone was staring at me and laughing, but I didn’t care. I needed to dance. I believe there are videos. There are definitely pictures.

In total about 6 bodies were taken out of the tomb (it started raining again after the third body). People just danced to the beat of the drums and the sound of flutes. There were two bands on opposite sides of the tomb, switching off, song by song. I think I stayed for about an hour (I only danced for the one song). Other PCTs danced a bit within the big group of Malagasy dancers. Then I left with a group of 10 or so PCTs and we trekked back to the main road.

When we got there, we realized there were too many of us to fit in the car, so I waited back with a few PCTs. We were in front of some camp-like area that had a few bungalows and tents. What was odd about it, however, was that there were about half a dozen white people walking around. One of them came up to us. He didn’t speak English very well. He was French. Hillary spoke to him in French (she lived in France for 2 years).

It turns out that he is part of some French version of Boy Scouts and he and his compatriots are here in Mantasoa for a month expanding their camp area. Their goal is to make a space for French tourists to stay in order to be more integrated into Malagasy culture (as opposed to staying in a hotel). We were invited to come back and hang out some time.

The car came back for us, and by this time the famadihina was over. We were driven back into the village through the rain. I came home, cold, wet, tired, muddy, and overwhelmed. What a day.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


During training, I have had and will have limited access to slow internet. I've been keeping a log of my daily adventures, but at this point it's 24 pages. This entry is a good one to post. The only difference is now I'm not learning Standard Malagasy, but the Sakalava dialect. This week I'm visiting my permanent site, which is Ambanja. Look it up. It's sweet.

[Vocab: neny = mom; dada = dad; PCT = Peace Corps Trainee (what I am)]

July 28, 2010

This method is not the most efficient way to keep a journal. One day I type up my thoughts on my laptop, the next I scribble them down in my journal. Eh, as they say here, “Tsy maninona” (it doesn’t matter).

Today the sun came out! As I mentioned before, it has been freezing here! Very wet, and basically the entire surface of the land turns to slippery mud. As I had learned before I came, the top soil here has been completely swept away due to slash and burn agriculture.

My point is, every day has been particularly gloomy, weather wise, and it’s impossible to stay clean in all the mud. However, today around 12:30, the sun came out it actually stayed clear until sunset (which is before 6 over here). It really is a beautiful place. Even though it’s not a tropical region, the country side is stunningly green and the sky is incredibly blue. I haven’t been in air this clear in a while. Beautiful.

So, I think I’m going to take you through a typical day in my life.

I wake up at 5 a.m. and wash dishes from the night before while Neny starts two fires (one to heat water for bathing, the other for making breakfast). I’m usually done by about 5:30, at which time I empty my Po (pee-bucket with lid) in the kabone (outhouse) and clean it out (if I’ve used it that night). I then go back up to my room and grab my towel and soap and put them down in the ladosy (little outdoor enclosure for bathing). I go fill up my bucket halfway with water from the well and then add the boiling water from the fire until it’s a good temperature. After I wash myself (surprisingly refreshing), I get dressed in my room and go in for breakfast. Dada is up by this time, and we eat together as a family, and then he goes to work. Breakfast always consists of rice in some form (either by itself, or in a watery porridge with sweetened condensed milk). Additionally, there is bread, either in baguette form or in mofo-gasy form (little muffin balls fried on the stove). Very satisfying. We have little cups of hot water with sweetened condensed milk to drink, and sometimes, delicious coffee. The table is cleared, and I get ready to go.

I have to scrub the wood floor of my room every morning with a dry scrubber brush that you move along with your foot, and then sweep up the dust. After doing this, and brushing my teeth, it’s usually about 7. Class doesn’t start until 8, so I usually have a little free time. Lately I’ve been playing guitar (which I borrowed from a fellow PCT). On M, T, W, and F, we are broken up in groups of 3 students and 1 language teacher and each group meets at a house (or some other location with 4 chairs and a table) for almost 4 hours of Malagasy lessons (on Thursdays all 42 PCT’s go to the training site together group sessions). We take breaks, and sometimes we walk around the village with our instructor and try to use Malagasy in a practical context. For instance, yesterday I bought a bar of laundry soap. We get out of language class around 11:30-11:45.

We then go home for lunch at noon. Lunch is usually ready when I get there: rice in some form, meat, vegetables, rice water to drink, more rice. Oh yeah, there’s also rice. After lunch, Dada goes back to work and I help Neny with stuff because I don’t have class again until 2. I do the dishes, and today I hand-washed a few clothing items out in the yard and hung them out to dry. Sunday is laundry day, but I have a lot to do, so I wanted to get an early start. After chores, if I have some free time, I try to speak Malagasy with Neny, or I watch Malagasy television with her in her room on her little fuzzy T.V.

About quarter of 2, I walk over to the primary school for either cultural or technical training with all the other 20 Education PCT’s (the 21 Health PCT’s meet at a different location for the same thing, except their technical training is about community health, not teaching English. On Thursdays, however, we are all at the training site all day). We’re done at around 4:30-4:45 every day. We’re supposed to be back at our housed between 5 and 6, depending on our host families’ preferences. My host family eats at 6, and it starts getting dark before then, so I usually go back to my cozy little house right after class. Due to the fact that we spend almost 24 hours without having a free, non-class conversation with fellow Americans, PCT’s tend to socialize before going back to their host families. However, we only have about 15 minutes of free time, so you can tell that we are starved for social interaction. For instance, every break in the middle of any class turns into a huge socializing event that instructors/technical trainers have an increasingly hard time breaking up as the days go by.

However, we do go home. I usually help chop vegetables for dinner, and do a little studying, and then dinner is served at 6: rice, meat, and vegetables of some sort, and a banana or orange for dessert. Afterward, we head to bed. Yep, around 7 o’clock. I usually read/write letters/write in my journal until 8:30 before I go to sleep, and Dada and Neny are usually up watching T.V. in their room until 8.

The next day, I do it all over again. Tsara be (very good). Faly aho (I am happy).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Game Time

[Typed at SFO at approximately 10:00a.m. on 7/18/10—don’t know when I’ll be able to post it online.]

So this is it. Today is the big day. I just said farewell to my parents at security, and I’m on my way to Washington, D.C. for Peace Corps staging. I have a little bit of a heads up because Summer just went through the whole process 5 days ago, but I’m still anxious and excited.

This is how things are probably going to go down: I should be getting a roommate at the hotel where I’ll stay the night. Tomorrow I have registration and a workshop about adapting to a different culture. They give us some cash for food. The next day we do a final medical check up and take care of any remaining shots. Then we go to the airport to depart for Johannesburg, via Dakar. 17-hour flight. Ouch. We stay the night in Johannesburg before finally flying out to Antananarivo, Madagascar on July 22.

So, here’s hoping everything goes smoothly. I have to make a semi-tight connection in Chicago, but that’s all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


This will be my mailing address during training (July 22 - September 21, 2010):

Joshua Twisselman, PCT Peace Corps
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 12091
Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
101 Antananarivo

Send me mail!

After training, I'll be assigned to my site. Once I get that address, you should send mail there too.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Last Day of Work

Friday was my last day at KYSRK. It was hard not to get emotional with the kind words and wishes I received from all of my wonderful co-workers. I have definitely been blessed to have worked with such a gracious and supportive group of people these last ten months. I was particularly honored and touched by the toast given by Lance Spiegel and the beautiful cake. To any of my co-workers reading: thank you so much!

Yesterday I drove up to Salinas with Summer. We stopped at Pea Soup Anderson's - delicious. Listened to the Korea/Uruguay game in the morning and the USA/Ghana game in the afternoon with great disappointment.

Today I had brunch with the family and watched my dad perform in To Kill A Mockingbird... best Walter Cunningham and Nathan Radley ever. Great job Dad. Heading back to LA in a few minutes. Bye!

Friday, June 18, 2010


Very exciting morning. Having woken up feeling ecstatic over the Lakers' comeback victory over the Celtics, I was disheartened to learn that by the time I arrived at work it was Slovenia 2 - 0 USA. However, after completing my morning duties I checked the highlights to discover that the US had made a spectacular comeback (2-2). I followed the BBC live updates to the end (including the horrible job done by officials, robbing the US of a third goal and a well-earned victory).

I then checked my e-mail to discover I had received my staging information. My staging is in Washington, D.C. from July 19-20, and I then make the long flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar via connections in Dakar and Johannesburg.

On lunch today I'll have to book my flight to D.C. with SATO Travel. Next week will be my last here at Kaufman, Young, Spiegel, Robinson & Kenerson. I'll miss everyone terribly, but I can't wait for what's to come.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Peace Corps Invitation!

This is my first post in my first real blog. I guess the best way to start it off is with the biggest news I've received in the last 30 days: On April 14 I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar. I depart for orientation on July 19, 2010.

I expect I will have much more to say in the coming months, and I plan to use this blog if at all possible during my assignment as well. In the meantime, as I frantically try to do everything I need to do stateside, I'll try to use this blog to connect with fellow invitees/volunteers/RPCV's. So if you have been invited to serve, are serving, or have served in Madagascar (or anywhere else for that matter) I'd be happy to discuss...well...anything.