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).