Monday, September 26, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

The school year is about to start back up again. Before it does, I’ll fill you all in on my adventures during grandes vacances.

Adventure 1: I going countryside

At the beginning of vacation I spent a lot of my time walking around Ambanja with my guitar and going on bike rides. One of these bike rides was particularly noteworthy. Back-story: I have a really bright student named Jacquino who is the man: he bikes 12 km into town from the countryside every week to go to high school; he actually does well in his subjects; he sings in the school chorus; he’s the president of the English Club that I run; and he plays guitar.

So, Jacquino’s a cool cat. He had been asking me to come out to the countryside with him and get fruit a bunch toward the end of the school year, but I had always been too busy.

So, the first Friday I had free during vacation I agreed to ride out into the wilderness with him. He came to my house at 6 a.m. and, after coffee, we went on our way. We biked along a mountainous but paved road for 12 km, which left me pretty winded. Then we went off the main road and took a rugged dirt trail further out into the countryside until we got to his village, Ampamakia. People came running to get a look at me. Most of them were super excited to see a vazaha (white person) who spoke Malagasy. However, some of the littler kids were not too excited and started screaming and crying when they saw me, having never seen a vazaha before. I gave a short speech in ‘gasy about Peace Corps and the U.S.A. and my job as an English teacher in Ambanja, and then we went around town.

While going around the village I met a bunch of his family members, and then we ate fresh-picked bananas and drank coconut juice from fresh-picked coconuts. After the refreshments, we hopped on our bikes and entered a thick forest of cocoa, coffee, and miscellaneous other trees. We made our way along a treacherous, winding path until finally emerging in a clearing in the middle of mangrove trees.

We rode through this clearing for a while before arriving at a solitary orange tree next to a little hut in the middle of the mangroves. The orange tree was bursting with oranges (which are green on the outside here, but still ripe and orange and super sweet on the inside). We filled our sacks with oranges and then went a little further through some grass to find a small river that led to the sea. He showed me his family’s boat, sitting all by itself out there, ready if they ever want to leave.

After watching some colorful sand crabs fight, we got on our bikes and made our way back through the mangroves. Then we went back through the forest where we saw a big black snake before arriving in his village again. There we grabbed some more coconuts and, thus heavily-laden with fruit, headed back to Ambanja. The trip back took a lot out of me, but I made it in one piece.

Adventure 2: Benin, West Africa

From July 26 to August 18 I was in Benin, West Africa visiting the lovely Miss Summer Morgan. To get there I first made my way down from Ambanja to Antananarivo by taxi brousse with Ryan Farkas, who had just spent a few days visiting me in Ambanja. I spent the next couple days in Tana getting my mid-service physical and dental appointments taken care of. Then I took a flight from Tana to Paris, and then from Paris to Cotonou, Benin. There was a bunch of drama with my Beninese visa situation: specifically, my lack of one. I won’t bore you with the mundane details, but after a stressful time in the Tana airport where it looked like I wouldn’t be going to Benin after all, and then a few stressful days in Cotonou, I got my passport back from the Beninese immigration authorities. Inside the passport they stapled my receipt asking for a visa, stamped it, and wrote the note “visa en cours.”

So after a rough start, Summer and I made our way up to her post in Founougo, northern Benin, stopping in Parakou, Kandi, and Banikoara along the way. We spent a lot of quality time at her post catching up, eating tasty food, drinking warm beer, throwing impromptu guitar/djembe dance parties with her Beninese family, and repairing the southern hemisphere of the world map in her town, freehand. On our way back down to Cotonou we both got food poisoning, which lasted a bit longer for Summer, but that was all cleared up by the time we arrived. This allowed us to enjoy some of the finer dining establishments Cotonou has to offer, before the inevitable, painful goodbye. Due to the fact that I had never actually received a visa, I had some trouble again at the airport, but they eventually let me leave the country and return to the world’s fourth largest island.

[I could write an entire post comparing Benin and Madagascar, but these are the three main differences that first come to mind: 1) Benin has much bigger paved roads, but these are filled with an absolutely insane number of motorcycles; 2) much more French is spoken in Benin than in Madagascar due to presence of over 60 different indigenous languages, although it is a unique West African version of French; 3) from what I saw the diet consisted mostly of manioc and cornmeal in Benin, rather than the heaping piles of white rice typically consumed three times a day in Madagascar.]

Adventure 3: Ankarana National Park

When I got back to Madagascar from Benin my buddy Paul and I did some thorough exploring of the capital, Antananarivo. In addition to finding a place that serves beer on tap (it’s the same unexceptional beer, but it’s on tap!), we also stumbled upon a music shop with all sorts of electric guitars. I was able to borrow one in the store and for five minutes I was in distortion-filled ecstasy.

After a few days in Antananarivo, Paul came with me in a taxi brousse up to the north. He lives as far south as possible, in a desert region, so coming up to my beautiful, tropical, cocoa/coffee/vanilla-producing region was a vacation for him. He explored a lot of beaches on his own, as well as going to the tourist resort island located just off the coast from my town. However, there was a tourist-y thing that in my year living in Madagascar I still had yet to do: go to a national park and see lemurs.

So Paul and I went to Ankarana National Park, about 130 km north of Ambanja. We stayed in thatched-roof, bamboo bungalows, drank warm beer, hung out with the staff from the park and the family who runs the bungalows, and ate delicious Malagasy food. As usual we had an immediate “in” with the Malagasy folks because we spoke ‘gasy rather than French like all the tourists.

So after chilling Malagasy style, we took an epic hike the next day. We went through a forest and saw lemurs jumping through the treetops; we climbed a tsingy mountain (tsingy are these jagged, pointy rock formations); and we went into a massive cave where we saw stalagmites, stalactites, and thousands of bats. So, it took me a year, but I finally had a cool, rugged Madagascar hiking adventure.

Adventure 4: Statue Unveiling/Jason’s Birthday

A few days later I went to a cultural event at my buddy Jason’s site, Siranana, about 46 km north of Ambanja. His tiny town consists of a few thatched roof huts and a concrete health clinic: no electricity, no running water, and poor cell service. Usually not a lot happens there. However, on September 10th the women’s group in his town was having a huge party to celebrate the unveiling of a statue honoring the women of the community. This event just happened to occur the day before Jason’s birthday, so he invited a bunch of PCVs to his site to partake in the festivities.

After sitting around in the hot sun and listening to speeches for a few hours, the statue was unveiled and we feasted on rice and beef from the two whole cows they killed that morning. All afternoon we hung out at Jason’s hut and drank betsa (cheap, homemade, delicious sugarcane wine) from big plastic water bottles and played corn hole (bean bag toss?) with boards Jason had made with his neighbors. That night they fired up a gas-powered generator so that a Malagasy dance band could throw an all-night dance party. They literally played nonstop dance music from 9:00 p.m. until 5:45 a.m. in an open area across the street from Jason’s house. We danced from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. but couldn’t keep going with those ‘gasy folks.

Summer Winds Down

As vacation comes to a close I’ve been relaxing in Ambanja, playing guitar and running a few sparsely attended English courses. I also helped with the installation of two new health-sector PCVs. PCV Megan was installed in Ampasindava, about 20 km north on the main road from Ambanja and then about 20 km west on something that might have once been called a dirt road in someone’s imagination. The trip out is worth it though: her house is on a hill looking out on a long, beautiful beach. PCV Ellen (or, I should now say, Soaravo) was installed in Betsiaka, 100 km north on the main road from Ambanja and then about 30 km east on a good dirt road.

I had my back-to-school scheduling meeting with the proviseur of the Lycée today. This year I’ll be teaching two additional classes, bringing the total to 7 sections of 70 students each, or almost 500 students! Before agreeing to take this on, I negotiated my hours down, so I’ll only be meeting with each section once a week for 2 hours. I will still be holding English club every Wednesday and most Fridays, broadcasting my radio show on Thursdays, and holding an adult English course on Saturdays. I may also be working with an Italian NGO and the owner of the hotel/restaurant Palma Nova in creating a hotel/hospitality services school. Malagasy folks interested in working in hotels, restaurants, or as tour guides would receive training at Palma Nova and could then attend Italian and (depending on my availability) English language courses.

So, starting next Monday, October 3, I should be pretty busy again, but I’ll try to do a better job of regularly updating this thing. Until next time, for all of you reading at home, go out and enjoy some tasty food and beverages. Amin’ny manaraka koa!

[I’d like to take the time to personally dedicate this entry to my Ambanja predecessor, mentor, and friend, Dorothy Mayne, who just sent the most amazing care package to the Ambanja crew. Thanks Dorothy!]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spring Break 2011

It’s been a while. I had been going through a rut where I felt like everything was pretty routine and not worth writing about. I kind of got into a groove—teaching English classes, singing at English clubs, doing radio jig, sweating a lot, and eating tons of rice.

However, Easter break was pretty exciting. First, some background: the weeks leading up to Easter break were rather tedious and boring because I was doing a lot of review for the end-of-trimester exam. I was full of frustration with myself for not being able to reach half the class no matter how many times I explained things, but also feeling like I was letting the other half of the class down because they understood my lessons the first time I gave them.

Eventually exam week arrived. I was very impressed with the administrative effort that went into this week. Half the time when we don’t have school I don’t find out until I get there. However, for exam week there was a printed schedule of all the different subjects, utilizing every classroom, and mixing up the students by grade level so that it would be more difficult to cheat. I was in charge of proctoring exams in one room on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday (Wednesday being the day my own students took their English exam).

I was probably about as anxious as my students for exam week to end because a big concert was scheduled to take place in Ambanja on Friday, 15 April. The main act was Tence Mena, a female-led, energetic, beat-driven, northern-Madagascar-style band. At Mama’s house, I had seen a few Tence Mena “clippies” (low-budget but always entertaining Malagasy music videos). Hortencia, the frontwoman, has attitude and style, pioneering a hairstyle imitated by many of my students. Fellow PCVs compare her to Rihanna, although I’m not really familiar with Rihanna aside from “Rude Boy” and her Eminem collaboration, “Watch Me Burn” (the latter being extremely popular here in Ambanja).

So, I was pretty excited for this concert. Adding to the excitement was the fact that every one of my students said they were going and everyone around town was talking about it. The main event, a big outdoor concert, was to be held at Ambanja’s Stade Municipal (Municipal Stadium) on Friday night, followed by a more low-key “baly” (ball) at the fancy vazaha restaurant/hotel Palma Nova on Saturday night. The fee for the concert was 2000 Ariary ($1.00) and the fee for the baly was 5000 Ariary ($2.50). That 150% price increase meant that several thousand concertgoers would forego the baly (many people here in Madagascar make 2000Ar/day). A bunch of PCVs from the area were scheduled to come through Ambanja on Saturday, so of course we all planned to attend the baly.

But Friday night was concert night. I was ready to go to the spectacle with my buddy Momyne. I heard Tence Mena wouldn’t show up until 9, but I got to the Stade Municipal at 5 to check things out. An opening act was doing a sound check and lots of street vendors had left the streets and were setting up tables on the massive grass field to sell deep-fried goodies and barbecued meat on sticks. Other than that, the vast field was pretty empty. I stayed and chilled and talked to the snack vendors for hours while waiting for stuff to get going.

Well, about 8 o’clock thousands of people showed up. People didn’t gradually filter in from 5-8. No, around 8, all of Ambanja and the neighboring villages descended on the Stade Municpal’s two-story high stage. Momyne had said he would show up around this time, and somehow I found him amidst the mayhem. We met up with Zakir, a technician from the radio station, and had a few beers while waiting for things to start.

At about 9, an opening band started playing. They were chill, mixing Malagasy dance beats with groovy reggae rhythms. Then came this Ambanja-based rap group, which was rather unimpressive: half a dozen or so dudes taking turns rapping, and then singing off-key refrains in unison.

At about 10:30, it was finally time for Tence Mena—or so I thought. A group of dancers got on stage and performed some choreographed dances to 30 minutes of pre-recorded Tence Mena hits. The crowd was getting restless. At around 11 the band finally took the stage. By this time the giant field was filled with people wall-to-wall. There had been an area roped off in front of the giant stage, but the crowd soon burst through and were constantly pushed back by baton-wielding police officers, hired as security for the night.

I had made it pretty close to the front where every square inch of space was filled with sweaty, writhing bodies. I’ve been to quite a few metal concerts in my day, so I’m used to this sort of scene, but in this instance people were actually dancing rather than just headbanging. I was having a lot of fun in the middle of it all until I noticed my wallet was stolen. Thinking ahead, I had removed my cash and ATM card from my wallet, but I had brought my Peace Corps and Madagascar government-issued IDs (occasionally the Gendarme can get a little shady and make you pay them if you don’t have proper ID on you).

To jump ahead to the end of this story, I filed a police report the next day hoping someone would eventually turn my IDs in. A student here in Ambanja somehow ended up with the wallet, and a couple days ago she called Peace Corps, and I just got my wallet and IDs back from her without any problem. At the time, however, it was a major buzz kill. I sat in some bleacher seats until the concert ended at 2:00 a.m. and walked back home with Momyne.

The next day I was exhausted, but woke up early to file the aforementioned police report and then went to the baly at Palma Nova restaurant/hotel with a bunch of PCVs. It was fun, but definitely nowhere near as intense as the concert. There were only a few hundred people at most, and people were kind of shuffling on the dance floor, watching the group of vazaha with intense fascination. At the concert, everyone had been so busy convulsively dancing that they didn’t pay much attention to me.
The rest of spring break I mostly spent grading tests and reading at home, but that was broken up by a few other fun events. First, PCVs Shayla, Katie, Ali, and Bobette swung through Ambanja on their way up to Diego. Then, I went out to Jason’s site for two days, where we rode bikes to his market, built a mud-brick cook stove for his neighbors, made a delicious fish stew, explored a hidden waterfall, spent a few hours digging his kabone (latrine), ate delicious crab, and filmed a video of his house for the Peace Corps “CRIBS” project.

On Easter Sunday I went to church with Mama, which was interesting. Services normally start at 7:00 a.m., but on Easter things got started at 6:15. She and I arrived as the bells were ringing, and it was packed. A crowd was standing in the door, but Mama pushed through that and somehow procured a little bench for the two of us. I sat for two hours (out of a total 4), not understanding much because it was all in Malagasy. I do know that at one point two people got up and asked to be married, so the priest married them on the spot.

The next day was Lundi de Pâques (Easter Monday), where everyone in Ambanja goes to Ankify beach. Normally this beach is completely empty (you can see pictures on my Facebook). On Lundi de Pâques, though, it was filled with hundreds of Malagasy people picnicking, drinking, dancing, and swimming. I went with Jason and Shayla, Katie, Ali, and Bobette, who had made their way back down to Ambanja from Diego on their way to Djangoa and Nosy Be. We brought a giant pot of rice and beans and relaxed on the beach. While walking around I ran into dozens of my students and neighbors.

At the end of Easter break PCV Molly came ashore off her island (Nosy Be) with her dad, stepmom, and boyfriend Mario. Jason and I accompanied them on a hike up the mountain south of town, and then had dinner at Mario’s aunt’s house. It was an entertaining and delicious meal, made even more fun by the fact that one of Mario’s cousins is a student of mine.

The next day I headed up to Diego for the last weekend before school started. I hung out with PCV Audrey and a cool British guy named Toby who works for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While in Diego, with the help of my parents and reliable internet, I booked my flights to and from Benin. I leave July 25 and get back August 19. I can’t wait!

Since then, things have pretty much gotten back to normal. I’m trying to make this last trimester a good one, and I just got back into the radio routine after a three-week break. Until next time, I’ll be here, sweating a lot and eating piles of rice.

Questions and Answers

Below are my responses to some excellent questions posed by Ms. Jenkins’ French class at Oak Ridge High School in California. Hopefully anyone reading this blog can get a better picture of my life here after reading these responses. My next post will be a normal (and long overdue) blog entry.

Something to keep in mind while reading these responses is that I live in one city in northwest Madagascar. Life is completely different throughout this rather large country. I may also perceive some of the same things differently from other Peace Corps volunteers, tourists, or any other foreign visitor.

School Life:

•What are the school hours like there and how many days a week are there classes?
•How do classes rotate throughout the day?

School meets everyday, Monday through Friday, but students’ schedules change depending on the day. Classes are in 2 hour chunks from 6 a.m. to noon, and then again from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Usually students don’t have all the slots filled on a given day, but most days class does start at 6 in the morning.

During the 12:00 - 2:30 break students walk or bike home for lunch as there is no cafeteria on campus. In fact, the town essentially shuts down during this period and almost everybody goes home to eat lunch and take a nap. They then make the journey back to school (which for some is several miles away) until the evening.

These long school days make it nearly impossible for students to spend any time studying, especially because most don’t have electricity and therefore head to bed right after cooking and eating dinner. Most students also have to help take care of their younger siblings or pick up food at the market everyday, leaving almost no free time.

Additionally, many students are not actually from Ambanja, but stay here with relatives to go to school during the week and then go back to the countryside on the weekends. Many of them spend the whole weekend working in the rice fields.

•What subjects do they teach in high school?
•How many languages do the students learn by the end of high school?

In addition to English, level Seconde students take: earth and life science, physics, math, French, Malagasy, history, and physical education. I only teach level Seconde, which is the first year of high school, so I’m not sure about the requirements for the other two levels (which are called Premiere and Terminale).

The Malagasy school system is based on the French system, which requires high school students to pass a national exam called the baccalaureate in order to graduate. This exam tests them on each of their subjects, including English and French, so they have to know enough of these languages to at least get a passing score to graduate. I don’t believe any other foreign languages are taught in the public schools.

•How many kids are in each class?

There is a maximum of 70 students per class. Usually about 60 or so students show up for English class.

•How big is the school? How many classrooms are there?

The school consists of one two-story building with 7 classrooms, and another set of 4 classrooms in another building behind the first. The school also just finished constructing an additional 2 classrooms in a bamboo, thatched-roof, barn-like building.

It’s a pretty tight squeeze with 60 some kids per classroom. The desks are attached to wooden benches, meant to seat two, but kids often have to cram in three to a bench.

Ambanja is extremely hot and humid, but the classrooms get a very good cross breeze due to the fact that there is no glass in the windowpanes. However, it is now the middle of the rainy season and the lack of windows means kids sitting at the edge of the classroom get a little wet on windy days.

•What do kids do for fun? What extracurricular activities are available? What sports do the kids play (are there any organized teams)?

Soccer (called football here, like in most of the world) and basketball (to a lesser extent) are the main extracurricular activities. From what I understand there are football matches within the school (for example, between level Seconde and level Premiere) and against several private high schools in town.

•What is the ratio of boys to girls in the school?

I believe the proviseur (principal) has the exact statistics, which I’ll try to obtain for my next letter. From what I can tell, level Seconde has a pretty even ratio.

•Do kids use Facebook or cell phones or iPods?

Computers are extremely rare here due to their high cost, so most students don’t use iPods and many are completely unfamiliar with the Internet. However, cell phones are relatively inexpensive here, even ones with mp3 player capabilities.

From what I can tell, almost every student has access to a cell phone.

•At what age do kids start working?

I’ve seen five-years-olds working at the general store near my house selling soap, fried bananas and cigarettes. From as soon as they are able, kids start helping their parents with everything from chores around the house, to taking care of their younger siblings, to working at the family store or market stall or out in the rice fields.

•How would you compare American kids to Malagasy kids?

Aside from the difference in workload due to helping out with the family business or farming duties, most Malagasy teenagers seem preoccupied with a lot of the same things as American teenagers: students worry about doing well in school, they talk about music and sports, and they gossip about relationship drama.

•What type of music do the kids listen to?

There is a considerably large Malagasy music scene, with each region of the island producing its own unique style of music. However, it is nowhere near the size of the U.S. music market, and thus, from what I’m told, radio stations may not cycle through a new set of hits for over a year. In fact, not a day has gone by since I moved to Ambanja in which I haven’t heard the number one jam in the north: “Za Tsy Kivy” (which means “I am not discouraged”), by Jerry Marcoss and Farah John’s (which can be found on YouTube).

That being said, Malagasy kids are also really into non-Malagasy music, such as Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Lucky Dube (reggae artist from South Africa), Eminem, Rihanna, Beyonce, and even Justin Bieber. Also, the themes from last year’s World Cup in South Africa are still really popular on the radio here (Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” K’naan’s “Wavin Flag,” and Akon’s “Oh Africa” are played fairly often every day).

•Are there any drug problems among the youth?

Here in the north many adults (especially taxi brousse drivers) chew on khat leaves, which produce a mild stimulant effect, but I haven’t seen many young people taking up the habit.

Alcoholism is unfortunately a big problem among adult males here. It is extremely disheartening to see men wasting their already meager earnings on rum while their families barely have enough for food.

•Do they play instruments and what kind?

Most students, although they will deny it, have at least working knowledge of basic guitar chords, and I’ve met some truly brilliant guitarists. There are also quite a few djembe players.

About Me

•Do you miss home?
•What do you miss most about the U.S.?

I did a lot of mental preparation before leaving the U.S., but nothing can really prepare you for being away from friends and family for this long. More than missing face-to-face interactions with people, the toughest part is feeling disconnected from events back home. Friends and family are able to call me every so often, but sometimes it’s hard to relate to what’s going on in their lives or in the news because I’m so far away from it all.

In more material terms, I will never again take for granted the variety in consumer goods available in the U.S., or the incredible infrastructure in place there. Supermarkets, paved roads, reliable electricity, clean running water, and an efficient, accountable postal service are all things I miss pretty regularly.

•What’s the hardest thing you have to do on a daily basis?

Probably battling the intense heat and humidity is my toughest daily task. I never experienced anything like this type of heat in the U.S., especially not in Salinas, California. Just sitting in my house is enough to make me break out into a full sweat. The monotony of food choices also gets kind of draining, but it has given me a new appreciation for the immense variety of food available in the U.S.

Overall, though, I have it pretty good here. Education sector volunteers are placed in bigger towns in order to teach at the Lycées. I am lucky enough to live in a concrete room with an electrical outlet (although electricity is usually out for a few hours a day), a light, a water spigot/shower nozzle, and cell phone service. Most other volunteers (especially the environment sector) live out in the middle of nowhere in wooden huts with no electricity or cell service and they have to get all their water from a well (because of this, many volunteers refer to the education sector as “posh corps”).

•What’s your favorite food (not necessarily in Madagascar)?

I’m a big fan of Mexican food, and I’ve actually been able to make some pretty tasty tacos here. I quickly discovered there were beans, rice, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and flour for tortillas. However, I was really excited to find out that avocados are grown here, although they are only in season for a few months out of the year. Due to the price of flour and the time it takes to make tortillas, Mexican food is definitely reserved for special occasions, but I’m sure glad I don’t have to go two whole years without it.

•Have you encountered a huge spider/tarantula in Madagascar yet?

I’ve seen some pretty big spiders here, about the size of my palm all spread out, but no hairy tarantulas. They generally keep to themselves, which is nice. However, the creatures who don’t keep to themselves are the big brown rats that live in my ceiling and come down into my room to chew things up. I recently came home after being away for three days to find that my pillow had been torn to shreds by a rat trying to construct a nest out of the stuffing. Now out of habit I immediately reach for my broom (conveniently located next to my door) whenever I enter my house in the hopes of catching one of the foul creatures so I can knock it to kingdom come.

My house is also inhabited by about half a dozen or so green geckos and a few slightly bigger gray lizards that hang out on the walls and catch insects, which is pretty cool. However, my favorite creature around my house is the chameleon that lives in the tree next to my window. It comes down to the lower branches every so often, and I get to see it change colors to match the wood and leaves of the tree.

Life in Madagascar

•What are the utilities like (electricity, plumbing, heat or air conditioning)?
•What are the bathrooms like?

Other than in (relatively) expensive tourist hotels, I haven’t heard of any place here with heat or air conditioning. In the sweltering north and along the coasts, people just have to sweat things out.

In the big cities the power company Jirama provides sporadic electricity to those lucky enough to live close enough to the power lines. I am one of the few Peace Corps volunteers who is lucky enough to have electricity, although as I type this the power is currently out. Jirama is often jokingly called “Jiramaty”, which means “the power’s out” (from jiro – electricity and maty – dead).

Most people don’t have plumbing and have to get all their water in buckets from pumps or wells. Again, I am extremely lucky and have a water faucet and shower head in the bathroom attached to my room.

I also have a toilet, but it was never designed to flush: you flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Most people do their business in a latrine, which is typically a mud-brick or wooden enclosure, in the center of which is a hole in the ground. All volunteers had to get accustomed to using these during training (my training group’s first day in Madagascar was full of laughs as our trainers attempted to pantomime the correct form of squatting over a hole).

•What is the weather like?

Here on the coast it is very hot and humid most of the year. However, in the central highlands (where the capital is located) it can get pretty cold. When I arrived in the capital in July (which is winter here because we’re in the southern hemisphere) I didn’t go anywhere without a winter coat.

January to March is the “rainy season,” when sometimes it doesn’t stop pouring for a week straight here in Ambanja. This is also the time when cyclones come in from the Indian Ocean and hit the northeast coast of the island. The north and east coast are generally pretty wet all year long, with rainfall decreasing as you go south and west until you reach a desert region in the far south and southwest.

•What kind of food do they eat in Madagascar?

Rice, rice, and more rice. I don’t know if this fact has been verified, but I’ve been told that Malagasy eat the most rice per person of anywhere in the world. A typical meal consists of a heaping pile of rice (vary), on top of which you put loca (official dialect) or kabaka (northern Sakalava dialect), which is just the word for “the food that isn’t rice”. Here near the coast we eat a lot of fish, but it’s tough to eat because they serve the fish whole—head, tail, bones and all.

In most of the small villages there is not a huge variety of food available other than beans, tomatoes, onions, and whatever fruit is in season at the time. In the cities you can get a lot at the market: potatoes, cassava, carrots, green peppers, green beans, leafy greens, eggplant, eggs, garlic, seasonal fruit (bananas, oranges, limes, litchis, jack fruit, mangoes, coconuts, and others).

Also in the cities there is usually a pretty large meat market, which was probably the biggest shock of my food-buying experience. Since there is no large-scale refrigeration, butchers kill the animals that day, carve them up, and put all the pieces out on the table raw. When people buy meat, they only buy what they can cook and eat in a day (by midday it starts to smell pretty bad, so when I buy meat I try to go as early as possible). Malagasy use almost every part of the animal. Since coming here, I’ve been served cow tongue, cow feet, and cow intestines (the tongue was actually incredibly flavorful—the other two not so much).

In terms of the type of animals eaten, Malagasy tend to raise cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens (the last are sold live and killed, plucked, and gutted in the house— a process I participated in while living with my host family). Pigs are considered fady (“taboo”—I’ll explain this in greater detail under religion) here in the north, so unless you’re from the central highlands, you don’t eat any pork.

Since Ambanja is near the coast there is a wide variety of seafood available. Depending on the season you can get a range of small fish, huge tuna, bundles of sardines, shrimp, calamari, and crab. In some places I’ve heard they sell sea turtle, which is illegal because it’s an endangered species, but the authorities tend to look the other way.

This is also true of the illegal sale of “bush meat,” or wild animals sold for food. While I haven’t encountered it here in Ambanja, I’ve heard that in the countryside many people kill and eat lemurs, which is incredibly sad because lemurs are only found in Madagascar and many species of lemurs are endangered.

Other weird food items I’ve come across are grilled bat and big fried grasshopper- like bugs. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer tried the bat and thought it was slimy, leathery and gross, so I won’t be trying that anytime soon. However, I was served a plate of the fried grasshopper-bugs at my Malagasy friend’s house—they were intimidating to look at because they still had their heads and legs, but they actually tasted really good.

(Sorry if you’re reading this right before lunch!)

•What kinds of restaurants are there (ethnic variety any McDonald’s?)?

Most towns and villages have “hotely’s,” which serve traditional Malagasy food (a huge pile of rice and a little bit of meat or beans or veggies on top). Additionally there are tons of street vendors in towns that sell all sorts of deep-fried snacks (my favorite is deep-fried bananas).

In the big cities that I’ve been to (Antananarivo and Diego) there are fancy European-style restaurants, a few pizza shacks, and some immigrant-owned ethnic restaurants (I’ve seen Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Moroccan).

•Do they like coffee?

Madagascar is a coffee-producing nation (in addition to cocoa, vanilla, and a number of other agricultural products). Many Malagasy often enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, although they tend to add tons of sugar. I really like the coffee here and have a cup at the bamboo hut across the street from house everyday (it’s the closest thing to Starbucks I’ve seen here).

•What is the typical clothing like? How do the kids dress?

There is a traditional clothing here called lambahoany (which is a long, loose colorful sarong worn by women), but it is mostly worn around the house or on special occasions here in Ambanja. Frippery, or second-hand clothing, is the main source of clothing here. From what I understand, it is sold or donated to Madagascar in bulk, and then Malagasy merchants sort through it and sell individual items from market stalls. Ambanja has a fairly large frip market.

At school, students wear long pants and t-shirts or button shirts, over which they wear (usually unbuttoned) a button-up, tan-colored uniform shirt. On Mondays, however, guys must wear black slacks, a white dress shirt, black shoes, and a black tie; girls wear black pants or skirts and white blouses. While not at school, most people wear shirts and shorts, but it’s so hot in the day that guys usually go shirtless.

•What kinds of clothing stores are there (anything we know)?

There are no western-brand clothing stores that I’ve seen (although there may be a few in the capital). However, you’d be amazed how much cool second-hand gear you can get (“one man’s trash…”)

There are at least two Malagasy clothing companies: The Maki (which means lemur) Company and the Baobob Company. They sell new clothes, but they are designed for tourists.

•What is the most common religion?

I don’t have the percentages on me, but most of the population is Christian, split between Catholics and several Protestant denominations. Here in the north and along the coasts there is also a significant Muslim population.

Traditional veneration of ancestors is also practiced, often in addition to Christian beliefs. In the highlands people participate in the traditional famadihana ceremony, in which family members remove the bodies of dead ancestors from tombs and rewrap them in fresh burial cloths. They then dance around in a time of celebratory remembrance of the ancestors. Often there is a lot of heavy drinking involved.

Another element of traditional religion is the practice of tromba (pronounced “true-mbah”), in which someone goes into an alcohol/drug-induced trance to channel the spirit of a dead ancestor. This is done in times of sorrow or distress as people ask the ancestor for advice, but I’ve only heard of people practicing tromba out in the countryside.

Another element of traditional religion that touches all parts of Malagasy life is the notion of fady or taboo. Fady differ from region to region and deal with a variety of actions, from who should be served first in a meal, to places where you are not allowed to walk, to days you are not allowed to work, to the way houses are set up.

•Is there cable?

There is one channel available called TVM (TV Madagascar), which one can get by using an antenna. Most Malagasy don’t have electricity, let alone TVs. However, there are some very rich families that have satellite dishes to get more than the one channel.

TVM offers some miscellaneous French programming during the day (including Latin American telenovelas dubbed in French), and Malagasy government-controlled news in the evenings. Sometimes big soccer matches are rebroadcast at night.

•Are there many white people there?

White people (referred to here as vazaha) are not common here in Ambanja, and especially not out in the countryside. Most Peace Corps volunteers here in Madagascar live alone in tiny villages and are sometimes the only contact those villagers have ever had with vazaha.

However, Diego (far north) and the island Nosy Be (off the coast of Ambanja) are filled with (mostly French) tourists. Unfortunately, many of these tourists are often old men looking for young (sometimes underage) prostitutes. Sex tourism of this nature is prohibited, but when people make so little, the money offered by sex tourists is often very enticing. Many young women drop out of school because they know they can make a lot more in a few nights on the streets of Diego or Nosy Be than they can in any other job.

•Does anyone own a pet monkey? What kinds of pets do people have?

I don’t believe there are monkeys here, but Madagascar is home to 70 different lemur species, 22 of which are endangered. Over 75% of the plant and animal species found on Madagascar are endemic, meaning they are only found here, but many of these species are endangered due to deforestation and poaching.

Because of rats many people keep cats around, but don’t really treat them as “pets” in the same way Americans do. This is also true of dogs, which have a pretty sorry lot here. There is no spay or neuter system, so packs of mangy, starving mutts roam the streets and then have lots of pups that live the same life. Because of this, dogs are considered very dirty animals and most people have no problem abusing them, even if they keep one around to guard the house.

•What is the most common form of transportation for every day travel? Does anyone ride elephants?

People walk or ride bikes around everywhere. In some towns, like Ambanja, there are tons of bicycle taxis (called cyclo-pousses) that take people around town. There are tons of real taxis in the big cities (and a few here in Ambanja). Most people don’t have cars.

To get between cities, people pile into taxi brousses or “bush taxis.” These are old vans in which as many people as possible are crammed inside—and then the drivers go look for more people to squeeze in before leaving town! On the roof (stacked in piles so high that it sometimes doubles the height of the vehicle) people put everything from suitcases, to giant hundred-pound bags of rice, beans, sugar, or fruit, to huge baskets of live chickens, to goats, to bikes, and everything in between. I’ve been on plenty of taxi brousse rides, each one pretty painful because of passenger capacity, but I’ve never seen any of the precarious rooftop cargo come untied or fall off.

As far as I know there are no elephants in Madagascar.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Friday, February 11, 2011

Quick update: last weekend I went to the New Year’s party at the Lycée where I brought my guitar and had a roaring good time belting out American folk and blues songs and learning some Malagasy songs. The party was epic: they killed a cow!

On Wednesday, I brought my guitar to English club where we had another roaring good time learning “The Tennessee Waltz.” Walking back home I got pretty drenched because I used my rain poncho to protect my guitar, but it was all a lot of fun.

I may be going to a citywide teachers’ New Year’s party tomorrow (and yes, I know it’s already two weeks into February). That is, if Madagascar isn’t washed into the ocean. Supposedly tropical storm Bingiza should hit sometime tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day! And Happy Birthday Mom!

Whoa, sorry folks. It’s been a while since I updated. I did in fact go to the city-wide teachers’ New Year’s party with Mama Peace Corps. There was an hour’s worth of speeches and then a lot of dancing. It got way too hot in the barn-like dancehall, so we left early. Then it rained and stormed a lot. Turns out it wasn’t tropical storm Bingiza… yet.

That landed the next day, hitting the northeast coast of Madagascar as a cyclone and crisscrossing back and forth across the island once over the course of a few days, gaining and losing steam at various landings.

Since then I’ve been busy with classes, English club on Wednesday and Friday, Professional English course on Saturday, and I’ve just had my first radio broadcast! Here’s that story:

So, about two months ago I was walking with my buddies Momyne and Anthony and I pointed at the radio towers on the mountain. I asked if they knew where the radio station was (I’ve wanted to do a radio show since the day I submitted my application to be a Peace Corps volunteer). Momyne and Anthony took me right into the hole-in-the wall studio for Ambanja’s main radio station: Radio Ankoay, 105.0 FM.

The DJ didn’t find anything odd about us walking in on his live broadcast, but let us know that the owner of the radio station was across the street. We entered a small electronics shop and I introduced myself to the owner, telling him about Peace Corps, my program in Ambanja, and how I wanted to do a weekly broadcast that would mix English lessons and music. He said it would be fine and that if I left my phone number he’d give me a call back with available times.

Well, time went by and he didn’t call, so two weeks ago I went back to try to get the show on the road. He saw me and immediately brought out the radio timetable. We agreed on Thursdays, 6:30-7:00 pm. He said I could start the next week.

So, Thursday, March 3, 2011 I headed to Radio Ankoay with a CD of some good hearty American music, and an English dialogue with a Malagasy translation. The plan was to do an introduction, read through the dialogue a few times in English and Malagasy with Anthony, and then play the first track (“Good Ol’ Mantasoa,” chosen because my awesome Malagasy language instructors Edwina and Linda had written a full Malagasy translation back when I recorded the song in Mantasoa). After that, Anthony would read the translation, and then we’d go back and forth in English and Malagasy introducing the following tracks, each with a brief description.

Well, Anthony backed out at the last second, so I did the introduction and read the dialogue myself, which was fine (although I don’t think the voices I did were very distinguishable from one another). Then I introduced “Good Ol’ Mantasoa,” but the DJ had forgotten to plug the CD player in. He cued up a female pop-country singer as filler for the five minutes he took to connect things, which may have confused listeners at home, but eventually the song played and I read the translation (although I butchered the pronunciation). Then I went through three more songs (“The Tennessee Waltz,” “Early Morning Rain,” and “You Are My Sunshine”), introducing them in English and coming up with a quick Malagasy summary for each on the spot. In closing I was sure to thank my friends and family listening in Ambanja.

Those friends and family included all four Ambanja-area PCVs (Katie M, Katie B, Jonathan, and Jason) and the whole Mama Peace Corps family, all listening at chez MPC. When I walked in the door after the broadcast, everyone was very supportive and congratulatory (MPC screamed in excitement). I can’t wait for the next broadcast this Thursday.

Today school was cancelled for International Women’s Day. I went down to the main street where just about the whole town had gathered to watch thousands of women (and a few men, carrying signs or playing instruments) marching in an epic parade. They were divided by organization (for instance the Lycée, the post office, the police, etc.) and dressed in matching lambahoany (big, colorful, traditional toga-like cloth pieces). Most were dancing to the beat of djembes and little hand-carved three string guitars. It was a very loud and energetic affair. Way to go women of Ambanja!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Well, tonight’s the night for the third edition of Emission Anglais on Radio Ankoay, with yours truly. Last week I recorded a Peace Corps indicatif (30 second intro that will be used on all the Peace Corps Ambanja radio programs) with Katie and Jason and Momyne. Then Momyne and I recorded a specific indicatif for my program, Emission Anglais (Katie and Jason have their own cool indicatif for Emission Sante). On Thursday I went with my Malagasy sister Sido (who has been staying with Mama Peace Corps while on break from university) to the station, and she and I made an awesome broadcast. We went back and forth in the dialogues we had written, each doing English and Malagasy, and then began introducing songs like pros. In a few minutes I’ll be heading to school, and then over to do broadcast number three, which I wrote out with Sido this morning. I think I’m starting to get the hang of things now.

In other news, last Friday I got really bad food poisoning and didn’t really leave bed until Tuesday. MPC, Momyne, and the housekeeper Rose all got sick too and went to the health clinic/hospital to stay for the weekend. MPC and Rose went home, but Momyne is still there, so keep him in your thoughts.

I'll be in Diego this weekend for a Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) meeting, so you all can get in touch with me internet-style.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Rainy Season

Friday, January 28, 2010

It’s been a very wet week here in Ambanja. The rainy season is just getting started, meaning rather than just getting heavy bursts of rain every evening, we also receive a daily deluge in the morning or afternoon. Since all the roads are dirt, things have been pretty muddy and messy. My pair of nice Rainbow sandals broke as I tried to dislodge my foot from a particularly deep mud-soup, so I now have a pair of Malagasy “Lacoste” flip-flops ($2.50). The thong straps come apart several times a day, but fixing them is just a simple matter of forcing the circular-pegged strap back through the base of the shoe.

Tuesday was a surprise. I showed up at school ready to teach my 10:00 a.m. class, and the Proviseur said, “Oh, hello M. Josh, the Seconde teachers are in here,” motioning toward the bibliotheque. I told him I had a class starting soon, to which he replied, “oh, maybe you were not informed: there is no class today and tomorrow.” I was certainly not informed, but that happens a lot around here.

So, what was going on in the library? All the teachers were gathered around giant stacks of student “bulletins,” which are small paper booklets with the student’s photo and vitals on the inside cover, followed by pages and pages of trimester report cards. I had become very familiar with these bulletins the week before when I spent an entire day copying the grades for each of my 300+ students from my grade sheet to their specific bulletin. Next to each grade there is a space for about 3 words worth of commentary and then a signature line, which I also had to fill in. These bulletins and I had not gotten off on the right foot…

The teachers were going through these bulletins, one at time, and collectively coming up with a three to four word comment for each student based on his/her average grade and class rank (the comment came in four fun flavors, roughly translated as: watch out, you’re failing; needs to study more; needs to put in more effort; and good, keep it up). The comment was written in each student’s bulletin, and then it (along with the student’s name, average grade, class rank, and number of hours absent) was meticulously copied into a master notebook. I sat there all day in order to provide “input.” It wasn’t very fun. I could have been teaching or playing guitar or both.

Although we finished filling out the bulletins on Tuesday, classes were still cancelled on Wednesday. Luckily I was able to catch a few students lounging around school Tuesday to let them know that English club was still on for the next day. Unfortunately, English club is at 4:30 and a storm rolled in right around 3:45. I had a poncho and rain pants, which kept my body pretty dry, but my shoes were a sopping mess. Mad props to the dozen or so students who trudged through the storm to meet me at school. We learned a lot of storm, food, and relationship vocab. Fun stuff.

Not much else is new around here. Until next time, I’ll be trying to keep clean and dry.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

6 Months In Country

Saturday, January 22, 2011

First post of the New Year! And the 6-month anniversary of arriving here in Madagascar. New Year’s Eve was fantastic. Once again I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time, which gave me the opportunity to jam with Malagasy musicians. Once again I just asked a guy playing a guitar if I could play and he enthusiastically thrust the instrument into my hands.

Back at site, I’ve been having a good time too. School’s back in session, which has been keeping me busy. I’ve also just had my first two sessions of English club (Wednesday evenings), which were a blast, but left me nearly deaf after multiple thunderous renditions of the ABC song. Friday’s I’ll be working with an anti-deforestation NGO and Saturdays I’ll be doing adult English classes for teachers and other professionals in Ambanja. And I just spoke with the owner of one of the city’s radio stations, and should be starting a weekly or bi-weekly program here soon. This year should fly by.

Right now I’m in a city called Antsohihy, which is a town at a major crossroads about 190 km south of Ambanja. I came down here to rendezvous with Jacob, Kaitlyn, and Lorin, but before I left Ambanja yesterday morning MPC told me I should stop in a small town called Befotaka (which means “lots of mud”) to meet up with my friend Momyne’s family. So, I stopped at this village in the middle of nowhere and was greeted by Momyne’s mom who introduced me to everyone as her son (I call Momyne my brother, ergo she is my mother). I walked around town with her and then took a tour of a Catholic mission with her brother before eating rice and crab sauce.

After lunch I broussed my way to Antsohihy, which is a bustling town at the intersection of several main roads. I’ll be heading back to Ambanja on Sunday. Until next time...