Monday, March 28, 2011

And it's almost April!

(posted by Polly)

23 March 2011

First, I feel it’s important to just say:  I’m not a loyal blogger (in case that truth hasn’t become increasingly clear since the early months of our Mada blog).  It’s a nice idea and all, but it’s just not in my pattern to keep up with such things.  We’re doing our best to put something out every once in a while! Azafady!  Apologies!

Rather than try to catch people up on the months we’ve let fly by, let me recap where we are today.

At this moment, Erik is in the kitchen preparing cheeseburgers and fries.  This makes me very happy b/c I’m starving!  It’s one of the meals he makes best.  (He’s also quite talented at pancakes.)  Last night I cooked a different beef dish:  curried beef mixed with a sauce of tomatoes, hot peppers (sakay), and onions…put over rice, of course.  And even though I purchased rice with small rocks during my last market trip (they were out of the good, rock-less rice – “vary tsy misy vato”), we did not bite down on one rock! Pat, pat on my back. 

I owe this little rice skill to my counterpart’s wife, who taught me a system of getting small rocks out of rice early in our service here.  Interested?  You put your cup or two of raw rice in a largish bowl and douse it in water.  Then you sift down the rocks with the bowl at an angle (so the rocks fall into a “corner” of the bowl), and pour out as much water as you can without pouring out any rice.  All the clean rice should be in the upper 3/4ths of the bowl at this point, so carefully scrape the clean rice out of the bowl and into your cooking pot.  But be very sure not to stir up the little rocks again as you scrape!  If you do, just add more water and repeat process – works great!  (I know this is a huge issue for all you States people.) Alas, many Malagasy families here seem to prefer spreading their raw rice out on a large, woven plate and handpicking out the rocks before cooking.  It takes forever!  Not really sure why the water method isn’t more popular…must just be the deep-rooted fomba (culture) for preparing rice around here.  They probably feel, “the more face time with my rice, the better.” Don’t question Malagasy and their rice cooking fomba.  You will get laughed out of the room.  Anyhoo…

This late afternoon I returned home from a long day out in Ampanidinana, my main “work” community.  The village is about 3.5 km up a windy mountain road from our house.  (The community where we live/shop/chill, and where I have some smaller environmental work projects going, is called Ambohimahasoa.  Because it is fairly large and has a number of small businesses, Ambohimahasoa is more Erik’s assigned work town than mine.)  Anyway, today we focused on bean farming in Ampanidinana – we’ve been doing quite a bit of that these past few weeks.  Also, I planted six more Moringa trees around some of our small vegetable fields out in the forest. 

By the way, have you heard about these Moringa trees?  They’re pretty amazing – I’ve posted a number of pics on my Facebook page.  Their leaves are PACKED full of nutrition (kinda like a multi-vitamin).  They’re fast-growing, they don’t mind nutrient-depleted soils, and they need little care to grow well.  If you dry the leaves, the nutritional value goes through the roof.  Many growers around the world like to crush the dry leaves into powder and sprinkle it on food dishes as a nutritional supplement.  Cooking the leaves into meals is also a great way to use it.  The tree’s origin is India, but they’re being used around the world now to help with food security issues / malnourishment.  Google it!  I’m a big fan. 

Right now I’m in the process of convincing my Ampanidinana community to focus more on growing and selling Moringa trees.  They could be an excellent cash crop tree for our burgeoning tree nursery (pepiniere).  My major challenge is that the majority of people in my community are beyond crazy for a tree called Ravintsara (“Good leaves”).  They can’t get this tantalizing tree out of their heads, no matter how much we discuss how it may not be the best direction for our pepiniere.  For years here in Madagascar, this Ravintsara tree has been THE tree to put dollar signs (or, rather, Ariary signs) in people’s eyes.  The medicinal oil from Ravintsara leaves is a coveted product here in Mada.  However, the seeds for these Ravintsara trees are EXPENSIVE!  (So much more expensive than Moringa seeds.)  They also need a lot more babying than Moringa to grow well, and already a number of local tree nurseries specialize in producing Ravintsara.  No one near us is growing Moringa for the market.  It could be our market niche!  Our shtick!  Really!  When I educate people here about Moringa and show them the tree, buyers come out of the woodwork.   And so far we’ve been selling young Moringa trees for the same price as the precious Ravintsara trees. 

Erik and I did the math. Once costs are accounted for, the profit from Moringa is much greater.  For me, all signs are pointing to us going the Moringa route…at least as a tree we specialize in growing.  We should grow other varieties as well, even Ravintsara when we can afford the seeds.  But for now, I really believe Moringa is the better tree for my community.  It could be the tree that gets this pepiniere moving forward.  And, for sure, it’s a tree that could be a great help in this nutrient-deplete rice culture!  Right?
I know I’m merely a silly foreigner…what am I thinking?  It’s just my US-bred common sense again, clouding my reason.

So, after work “up the hill,” I walked back down through our bigger town and distributed a fresh supply of highly desired English-Malagasy vocabulary sheets.  Erik developed these handouts a few months back.  They have some simple English conversation phrases as well as other common vocab., and they go like hot cakes.  We try to get them to whoever requests them, but it’s tough keeping up as these requests happen all the time.  (We get to talking with new people around town and they realize we can help them with their English…and we have vocab. sheets we can print for them and hand deliver…oh my!).  I also dropped off some books that Friends of Madagascar and Peace Corps published recently (in both Malagasy and English) on health-related topics.  Folks at the local hospital and schools love them.  It’s always fun dropping off little gifts like that – the recipients get giddy over the handouts and books, especially b/c the gifts help them practice their English.  The English language is in huge demand here these days!

Erik spent much of his day in Ambohimahasoa trying to help a local micro-finance office get their computers on a network.  However, today was unusual -- not Erik’s day for winning over technology.  The office doesn’t have the right hardware, and then all the software is in French.  Incredibly challenging.  French software isn’t much help to us Malagasy/English speakers.  (Since our first Malagasy class here in Mada over a year ago, nearly all French has been forgotten! Frickin’ frick!! I was really looking forward to learning French here too.  But, no; evidently my brain can only balance two languages at a time.  Same for Erik.)

What’s that?  Burgers done?  Dinner!  Should wrap up for the night…more tomorrow.

24 March 2011

Happy Birthday, brother Ted!

This late morning Erik and I walked up to Ampanidinana. Erik’s helping me develop a tree nursery/pepiniere business plan (something we very much need now that we understand better the strengths and weaknesses of my community).  The day was already quite hot when we went out b/c we decided to have a semi-relaxed early morning (…I admit Erik did most of the a.m. chores).  But, we sweat it out and made it up there in decent time.  We used many lalana manapakas (short cuts) that I’m advised to avoid when walking alone, so that helped our trekking time. 

We met with my counterpart at his house about some upcoming activities, such as a training/work day with a new group of Peace Corps Trainees visiting our pepiniere in April.  We did some work out in the pepiniere and took a tree inventory – important data for our business plan. (Currently, any “big” work days with my community in the pepiniere have been put on hold until we get the business plan worked out.  For a number of months I was working regularly with groups on various tree nursery jobs…hoping those work days can start again soon.)

At noon we lunched with my counterpart’s family, then grabbed a newly constructed plaque to take down to Ambohimahasoa.  We’re getting the plaque painted by a professional artist to advertise our tree nursery.  Erik and I had my counterpart approve a design we made for the plaque.  Then, we jumped in a truck with some guys who were willing to give us a lift.  The plaque’s large and heavy – a pain in the butt to move any real distance on foot.

In the afternoon I went out to a school on the other side of Ambohimahasoa to give a training on how to grow Moringa.  Several kids from my Ampanidinana village go to this school, so the village pepiniere has donated some young trees and seeds.  I’ve been swinging by the school now and then to teach them about their new trees. 

Tomorrow visitor V (Vanessa) arrives!  Hopefully she’ll help with our community permagarden.   This week is tiring!  I am CHILLIN’ tonight.  For reals.

28 March 2011

OK…time lapsed…

Our friend Vanessa, a Peace Corps Volunteer from our group/stage (March 2010), arrived at our site on Friday morning.  She’s serving waaaay up in the hot north of the island and wanted to visit us southerners.  We gave her a little tour of the town, made lunch, then gathered up the local kids to put in some hours on our community permagarden.  The afternoon sun was quite hot, but the kids enjoyed themselves and learned some new stuff (I hope!).  We adults got a digging workout, new blisters on our hands, and things got planted.  I had to run out several chickens that squeezed through stakes in our fence (argh!).  It never ends with them!  The littlest gap – and they’re through it!!   By the end of the day, I was ready to call the work week OVER.  We three had a long, fun dinner with drinks out in town that night after refreshing bucket baths.

Since then, we’ve been hanging with Vanessa over the weekend, doing a little bit of this and that…giving her a little tour of our southern Mada home.  Yesterday, Sunday, we made another trip to Anja Park to see the ring-tailed lemurs!  We grabbed a couple more friends in the Fianar area and headed south.  Such an amazing day!  Weather was perfect, lemurs abundant, friends plentiful…and the taxi-brousse situation was even easy.  What?!  Pictures will be posting soon on Facebook.

Tomorrow morning, Vanessa and I head north to Tana.  She needs to get back to her northern home, and I need to get over to the PC Training Center in Mantasoa.  A new group of Environment and Small Enterprise Development (SED) trainees have arrived.  I get to help with their training for a few weeks.  Really looking forward to meeting all the new blood.  My third week with them will be spent on the Environment sector’s technical trip.  They’re visiting my community’s tree nursery for a portion of the trip, so the past few weeks here have involved a lot of preparation for that upcoming training day.

Meanwhile, Erik is staying in Ambohimahasoa and then meeting up with the new SED sector for their technical trip that happens next week.

Lots of file organizing and packing before I’m outta here with V super early ampitso/tomorrow/manana.  Almost had to attend a funeral today too, but got out of that…this day has flown.  Enjoy your week, all!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Blog Update of Sorts

(by Erik)

It's been awhile since our last blog post, but we've been fairly active on Facebook. I've seen other Peace Corps Volunteers post a series of brief journal entries, spanning a stretch of time, to a single blog entry, so we agreed to try something similar for this entry. Not everyone who checks our blog is on Facebook, so this style should get them in the loop.

Below are our Facebook status updates from 12/20/2010 until now 2/20/2011. 

We've actually been quite busy, and hopefully these little blurbs from everyday life will provide another window into our lives here. Mazatoa! 

ERIK: A new blog! 
Our (my) take on the New York Times article. 

POLLY: that Erik guy just posted a new blog.

POLLY: Merry Christmas to my community and our tree farm (pepiniere) enterprise. Won a small grant and the funds arrive tomorrow!

ERIK: …is heading home soon from Fianar with a Christmas package!

ERIK: ...just got the DVDs! BIG thanks to Mike Davie, Jonathan Rice, Jackson PaternoDan Branch, & Soraiya Gessling for getting them to us! It is a MERRY Christmas. You all rule.

ERIK: Merry Christmas, or "Tratry ny Krismasy", from Ambohimahasoa, Madagascar.

POLLY: A Merry, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!...Particularly for those of you back in the States! We've already seen Santa here, slept a bit, and are back up for a 2.5 hour Malagasy church service! Can I get a "Ho ho ho!!!"

ERIK: ‎ headed to Malagasy church, and then a day full of food and foreign language!

‎ERIK: ...really enjoyed today's soccer match between TIAVO and "Bom Bom" here in A/soa. It had everything: over-time, a shoot out, a riot-esque brawl, & the winners' trophy bull charging through/over the crowd!

POLLY: Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, big-time crazy crazy -- did I mention, CRAZY? -- kaaarrrazzy kids!!!!! Hallelujah!! Holy s#^t!! Where's the Tylenol???

POLLY: Up super early to squeeze into crowded taxi-brousse. Among other wonders, in search of new ocean views, sky-high baobabs, and giant jumping rats.

ERIK: …is off to Kirindy Reserve and the Avenue of Baobabs with Polly Endreny Holmberg, Bill Warnock, & Savanna Benson.

ERIK: briefly updating his status while Polly Endreny Holmberg is out of the room, and enjoying a "The Wire" season 3 marathon. Check out all the new pics she's posting!

POLLY:  SOOOO excited our town finally opened its Tsena Vaovao (New Market)! Great structure, smart layout, clean, cool, expansive, has everything we need in one area, open daily -- it's like a proper market! And it's just down the hill from our place! This changes everything!!!

ERIK: ...will be at his ideal weight after one more day with this stomach thing!

POLLY: red feet.

POLLY: Spent the morning partnering my community's tree farm business with another local tree nursery. We did a fine job of covering ourselves in cow manure and subsequently got about 1,700 young trees going! Then had a lovely time hanging out with my one of my new counterparts and his family in the afternoon. Sweet folks.

ERIK: A day without speaking ANY Malagasy. Can it be done?

‎ERIK: ...just finished "The Wire", season 4, is anxious to move on to season 5, yet really must do something productive.

POLLY: could be anywhere.

POLLY: Gearing up to take a few handfuls of kids (12? 15?) on a hike in local wildlife park -- most have never been. Excited and nervous. Must walk the main road for 8km to get there...then 8km back...fingers crossed we don't get kids hit by flying trucks.

‎ERIK: "Wake up and smell the River!"
 (Tom Hanks, as Lawrence Whatley Bourne III, in "Volunteers")

‎ERIK: ...just watched "It Might Get Loud", and was thoroughly entertained. Recommend.

ERIK: …once again has power! now, to recharge EVERYTHING!

POLLY: Tavoangy (bottle) madness! The absolute joy a freshly washed metal can or bottle brings the little, and not so little, children... Nothing short of wondrous merriment.
ERIK: ...finished "The Wire". All 5 seasons. 
It almost makes me miss Maryland. Almost.

ERIK: Under our window this morning...2 crowing roosters, 2 mooing cows, 2 barking dogs, 1 howling cat, 1 turkey, 1 circular saw, and 1 guy with a hammer.

POLLY: Rabbit, rabbit!

ERIK: ...worked with several Malagasy children today, building a fence for THEIR permagarden. Their skills with my machete are well-beyond their years!

‎ERIK...just finished 'Lost'. What was THAT about? 
(Please don't put anything up here for those who have yet to finish the series, but I'd love some insight in a private message.)

POLLY: Wishing folks back home a slew of tasty Super Bowl parties. I can't stop daydreaming about chicken wings, nachos, guacamole, cheese dips, good beer...

POLLY: These next few months are quickly getting packed with a jumble of trips, work activities, new volunteer arrivals, trainings, festivities. Exciting! Makes me happy :)

‎ERIK: ...loves Madagascar! 
I just saw a unicorn jump over a rainbow.

ERIK: It's true. Some people will work for peanuts. Especially children. 

If only everyone understood that the work they did today in the community garden was actually for them! I think they'll "get it" when the first harvest is on their tables.

ERIK: ...just saw 2 little girls carrying 2 big beers. No minimum age here!

POLLY: Enjoying edge effects of a Valentine's Day cyclone that kept me home and away from early morning field work. That's love.

ERIK: It's still raining here, but now it's even windier. 
Valentine's day, slack day part 2...engage.

POLLY: Just had a random guy come up on our veranda and ask for our house key. 
Me: "Um, why?" 
Him: "Because the key is broken and I must repair it for you." 
Me: "Ok...but, NO. Just used the key today - it's definitely not broken. Thanks for caring, though." 
Then we had a stare-off until he walked away. I mean, really?!

‎ERIK...just had a GIANT beetle in my shirt. I heard this "quacking", and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I moved furniture and looked around with my flashlight until I felt it along my waistline. 
FREAK OUT! Adrenaline rush! Whoo.

Monday, December 20, 2010

NYT Travel Article: Some Perspective

(posted by Erik)

This is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to our families, after the recent 12/17/10 New York Times Travel section article on Madagascar. It's been exactly one month since our last blog post, and Polly thought this synopsis would be an interesting post. 2 birds with one stone. YES! 

Since the NYT article seems to be the hot topic of conversation within the family, I thought I'd chime in with the "immersed" perspective. I hope our "in-the-know" insight brings another, deeper take on the article.

We've actually been to the park at Andasibe, which is mentioned first in the article. We went on a night hike with our entire "class" of 25 new PCVs in the park, and saw nothing, until we got lost, popped out on a road near our bungalow-style hotel, and saw a tiny lemur. I'm going to call it a dwarf lemur, just to check it off our list.

Perhaps it was our giant group of loud Americans that scared off the Indri? Polly (not I) got up the next morning and went with a smaller group at dawn, and successfully photographed them. Check out our facebook pics for proof. They're the big black and white ones that look like bears, not to be confused with the ever-awesome ringtails, which we just saw recently in Anja park.

Our next target is the jumping Sifaka lemur (Verreaux's), which we expect to see over a New Year's vacation in Morandava. We're also hunting the Baobab tree. They're easier to track than the lemurs. Go figure.

Back to the article...

The natural beauty of Madagascar is intense. The topography of the land absolutely makes travel a challenge. Coupled with intense, steep landscapes, the erosion from deforestation ruins roads, paved and unpaved. I do not recommend Madagascar travel to people with any sort of back-issues. I can feel the discs slipping in your backs now. Main roads are...OK, but a right or left off of the main drag will drop you onto some pretty intense routes. This is why travel ANYWHERE is slow. The author of the article is definitely right there. He pegged it.

The French influence is apparent, but not necessarily in a good way, as the article paints. He obviously was "rolling like a vazaha". This is pretty evident from his descriptions of the "delectable" food, and the prices he gave for his hotel stays. Wow. We pay around 15 USD a night for really decent places, with hot water, bungalows, mini-fridges, etc. He was traveling like aristocracy.

I think the fact that people travel in such stark contrast to the population is a problem for Madagascar. It's definitely affected us, in that everyone thinks we're French, and rich. People call out to caucasians with a bird call-like "AYE VAZAHA!", everywhere. I can't believe he never even mentioned the word in his article. I KNOW he heard it. Vazaha means, "white foreigner".

Most REAL malagasy food is pretty bland, and rice-based. A typical meal consists of a giant bowl of rice, and a side of either pork, beef, or chicken, or veggies. I don't do the veggies. Sometimes I have to have my meat switched out for something recognizable. They eat it all here. The author probably didn't even now he was passing restaurants, as these "hotelys" look like tool sheds, especially when the drop-down windows are closed.

The author is also right about the language. Not many people speak English. If you should come here, get an English-speaking guide, or you'll miss a lot. We could be your guides, but we still miss a lot too. We can get what we want with our language, but when the Malagasy speak to each other in their normal way, we're lost. (Me more than Polly.) My personal method is just to keep talking. (Surprise!) Eventually they understand my level, and dumb it down.

Antananarivo. It's like the author's mother-in-law described, "grubby". It's chaos. No city planning. Nno street signs or lights. No sidewalks. Lots of exhaust. It's not really THAT safe either. People slash pockets to get wallets and iPods. We have to travel by taxi after dark, and certain areas of town are "red zones". These are off-limits to us, as experienced PCVs, living in the country, with a decent grasp of the transportation systems and language. Tourists would be eaten alive.

We haven't been to Isle St. Marie yet, but a bunch of other PCVs are heading there for NYE. We opted for Morandava instead, because the baobab trees and Verreaux's Sifaka are higher on our to-do list than another beach. Pirates are cool, but they're so 2007.

We plan on hitting Berenty Reserve too, and live right near Ranomafana National Park. The place we've liked best so far is Anja Park. It's small, manageable, and filled with the coolest lemurs of all, the Ring-tail!

Overall, the article was very informative, and I hope to see the effects of the article by seeing some jet-set American NYT readers around.

It's always tough when spotting (again, like a rare bird) another vazaha. One never knows whether to say, "Bonjour", which would be correct 90% of the time, or to immediately identify as an American, with a casual "Hello". The French dress different too. We can usually spot them, and often make guesses on the nationality of the tourists we encounter, as we approach. Most of the time no one says anything. It's very strange.

It's time to eat dinner now, so I'm getting my rice-consumption gear turning. I still use a fork. Polly uses a spoon, like the Malagasy.

We hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season, and can't wait to read your feedback and/or hear your familiar voices!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shakira! Shakira! Our chicken.

(posted by Polly)

So, about Shakira.   
(Pics have been put up on Facebook – easier to load than here.)
Shakira’s our chicken here a site. We purchased her one sunny day at the market for her ability to provide eggs, though it seems she had other ideas in mind. 
We waited a good month before Shakira laid her first egg.  Apparently we bought her a bit young.  She spent her first day getting used to our veranda, then three days on a rope (leashed to her foot) experiencing the downstairs outside.  She attracted a lot of attention during those three days from our local coming-of-age rooster, Foghorn (at least that’s what we call him).  Foghorn sat with Shakira for those three days on a small woodpile adjacent to our house, and kept her good company. 
On day four of outside time, Shakira was allowed to roam free.  Foghorn was beside himself with excitement, and was at our home crowing and dancing for her at 5:45am.  That morning he introduced Shakira to his other lover and their young chicks.  After just a few jealous attacks aimed at Shakira’s neck and back, the two ladies made fast friends.  For weeks the three amigos (and chicks) scratched and pecked every inch of land within a stone’s throw of our house.  They even ventured out to farther off fields, but never for long.  Whenever thirsty, they’d visit our outdoor water tap and drink up run-off from dishes, laundry (mmmm, soapy), and overflowed buckets of our drinking water. 
At 5:30pm sharp every evening, Foghorn would escort Shakira back to our house and call to us until we’d open the door and let her up the steps to our second story veranda.  Shakira had no trouble hopping up each steep step on her own (very cute, I’d say) and making it to her food pile and water for dinner.  She’d vigorously peck at rice, peanuts, and sometimes corn, littering our veranda with shrapnel.  Between gulps of food she’d break to drink her water, spill her water (by stepping on the side of the bowl), and crap two or three more times before deciding it was time to jump in her bed right at 6pm.  Within minutes, our veranda would transform into something like the floor of an over-run Perdue chicken barn.
During her second month here, Shakira came home with a serious head wound.  Somehow we didn’t notice at first…probably because she wasn’t making a scene over it.  She only made it halfway up our stairs that evening and sat waiting for me as I fetched water for the night and stepped over her several times.  Sometimes she’d sit on our steps before dinner, so we didn’t find it very unusual.  I grabbed her to carry her up to the veranda and saw that the skin on the top of her head was slit from one side to the other, right down to the bone!  A really bad cut!  There wasn’t much bleeding, but her skin was cut so deep and wide that it was slipping down the back of her neck!  It looked like someone had taken a large knife to her.  But it just didn’t make sense why…why just cut her?  Why not take her…eat her for dinner?  Was somebody trying to send us a message? Could it have been that big, mean rooster that harasses her when Foghorn isn’t around?  His beak?  A claw? We had no idea.
She seemed to be in shock more than pain as we cleaned the cut and loaded it with antibiotic ointment.  She didn’t fight us on treating it and she wasn’t losing much blood.  The cut would only bleed a little when she’d move her neck and head funny to feel what was going on up there.  She ate and drank some, and then I put her to bed.  She went right to sleep.
The next morning she was called by Foghorn bright and early, as usual.  When we opened up her bed, we saw that her wound was starting to scab.  Good!  She was acting like her normal self – talky, energetic, and ready to take on the day; but we felt she needed to stay up on the veranda for at least a day of healing.  We were getting ready to walk up to a nearby community I work with on farming-based projects, so we leashed her to a door on our veranda.  That way she could walk around and eat, but not jump up on the railing and fly down to a calling Foghorn (something she got very adept at doing in previous weeks).  
That early afternoon we returned to a happy Shakira and…her first egg!  She had laid one in her garaba (her bed – an open-weave basket with a straw nest in it) and was back up walking around the veranda.  So exciting!  Also, kind of perplexing…did the head wound from the night before trigger this first egg?  Weird.  But, who cares!  We were just so psyched she had the egg.
We left the egg in her bed for a few hours before taking it into the kitchen.  We didn’t want to upset her by grabbing it right away.  Like clockwork, at 6pm she got into her garaba for bed and didn’t seem to mind the missing egg.
The next morning we felt Shakira’s wound had scabbed over well enough (enough for a badass chicken, that is), so we let her go strolling with Foghorn again.  The following day, a Saturday, she laid another egg!  Foghorn brought her back to our house mid/late morning (that’s about 8:00am here) and started making a huge fuss for us to let her up.  He had never brought her back to the house at this hour, so we knew it had to be important.  (He’s such a good BF.)  We let her up, and she went running right into her garaba.  If we walked anywhere near Shakira’s bed while going about our business, she’d ruffle her feathers and cuss us out.  But an hour later she had laid her second egg!  She had become a true egg-bearing chicken!  We were going to let her stay with her egg for a bit while we went to the Saturday market, but she was clearly ready to get back to Foghorn.  After just minutes with her egg she jumped out of her garaba, flapped her way onto the veranda’s railing, crapped all over our hatch door, and then flew down to her BF.
This pattern went on for a couple of weeks.  She laid a total of nine eggs…maybe even ten – we lost count.  A couple of eggs went to neighborhood kids who babysat Shakira when we were out of town one weekend.  Everyone agreed they were delicious. 
But as Shakira neared the laying of her final egg in the sequence, she started acting much differently.  She would want to sit in her garaba for longer periods of time throughout the day, and she started giving Foghorn the cold shoulder.  She wasn’t interested in eating or drinking unless I’d pick her up out of her bed and place her on the veranda to eat.  Even then, she’d stay in her nesting position (sitting as though she was covering up a pile of eggs).  Her once charming personality had turned into something defensive and irritable.  She’d get very upset when we neared her in her garaba, trilling high-pitched noises and “barking” for us to get back. 
This behavior continued days after her final egg.  She didn’t want to leave her garaba, but no eggs were there.  We asked our Malagasy friends what was going on.  Each friend had a different take on the situation, but ultimately the consensus was this:  Shakira wanted to be a mother; she had caught on that we were swiping her eggs and was ticked off; and the reason she wasn’t leaving her garaba now was because she thought she was incubating at least part of her batch of eggs.  Phantom eggs.  OK.  Sooo, what now??
To cure this mess, one friend suggested we get her some fresh eggs at the market that she could sit on for a few weeks and hatch.  Then, raise…for 3 months.  At month four she’d be ready for another go at having eggs.  (Not quite the egg-laying plan we had in mind when we got her.)  Another friend thought we should just put egg-like objects under her to keep her company for now.  Soon she’d give up on them and start a new egg-laying cycle.  Then another friend offered the tougher-love approach:  kick her out during the days and make her start roaming again.  Finally, others believed we should leash her to something outside for 3 or 4 days and then she’d be fine. 
Confused, we tried a medley of approaches.  We gave Shakira a few ping-pong balls and an egg-shaped rock to keep warm.  She really loved them.  We also started taking her downstairs a couple times a day for her to stretch her legs and think hard about being a free woman again.  Eventually we took her fake eggs away and made her go out first thing in the morning.  But she fought us on this – any time she’d see us coming home or outside doing chores, she’d run up to us and plead to be let upstairs.  Whenever the door to the steps would swing open, she’d beeline her way through it.  When I’d go to get water below our house, she’d meet me at the tap, scowl, and threaten to jump on me from her higher perch.  Or she’d peck at my legs once or twice when she’d walk by the get a drink.
Feeling bad, we started to cave.  We’d let Shakira sit in her garaba for parts of the day again.  She went back to protecting her phantom eggs from us, or any visitors walking by her garaba.  This pattern of us caving (all very confusing for Shakira, I’m sure) went on for maybe another week.  She was so obsessed with nesting that she wasn’t eating or drinking enough…even when we put her down right in front of her dinner.   
We decided she needed to stay out all day again.  At least then she’d be up walking and back to her food-searching instincts.  So she went out…and she seemed OK with it this time!  Foghorn was not around, but the family living below us had purchased four young chickens that were now roaming the grounds.  Shakira took to them.  They’d walk, scratch, and search for food together.  Hang at the water source and cluck.  Find shady spots to sit and relax as a group.  Foghorn even came back.  Granted, he had become friendly with some new gal pals in the interim, but he was so happy to see Shakira roaming again.  He stomped and danced around her like he used to when he’d fetch her from our veranda in the mornings.  They played around and Shakira introduced him to her new friends.  It was good.
Unfortunately, though, I must tell you it was good only for a few days longer.  While I was writing this blog update, Shakira went missing.  It’s been a week since she’s been home.  Last Sunday, after finishing up afternoon kickball with the local kids, we went home and started a handful of evening chores.  As the sun began to set, Shakira was nowhere near our house.  Very strange – she’d typically start hovering near our place in the late afternoon.  Erik and I walked the grounds looking for her.  Then Erik searched more distant areas with the kids, all calling for Shakira.  A group of girls even went with Erik into town to see if they would find Shakira along our dirt road.  Alas, they came back empty-handed.
That night we kept the door to our veranda stairs open very late hoping Shakira was only out with Foghorn and planning to tardily ascend them.  But she didn’t return.  Not the next day either.  Now a week later, we’re pretty certain she’s gone for good.  (We were pretty certain of this when she was just ½ hour late.) 
When chickens go missing here, it’s usually due to theft.  It’s easy enough for a hungry family to grab a roaming chicken from the road and be on their way.  Likely, that’s what happened to Shakira.  She was getting plump, and certainly quite attractive to a family in a pinch for ample food (something that happens here around this time of year due to the farming schedule).
So, let us apologize for a sad ending to the story of Shakira.  She was a stubborn one, but she taught us much, and we loved her.  How could you not love your first chicken?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

All Caught Up?

(posted by Erik)

After looking at the date I’m typing this against the date of our last post, I’ve realized that MY hopes of blogging once a week were “a bit” ambitious. (Polly immediately expressed her standard “yeah right!” after reading our last post by me. In this case, “a bit” means the ambitions were 4 times the reality.

…Our apologies (again). I hope we can get one solid blog entry up a month.

In this entry, for my memory’s sake, I’m going to work backwards through our past month from today, Saturday, October 16th. This also follows the “blog format”, in which more recent posts are before previous posts.

Today we went shopping. This was our big adventure for today. It was a big adventure because we just returned from a small vacation in Manakara. (…more about Manakara in paragraphs below.)

The whole town knew we were gone, because before we left, I told everyone. I don’t possess THAT MUCH Malagasy, so when I have something I can articulate, I do. Unfortunately for us, I know how to say I’m going somewhere, and for how long. Bonus!? …not really.

In Madagascar, when one travels, one is expected to return with volondolana, or “fruits from the road”. Since Manakara is a beach town, everyone wanted coconuts because they are not readily available here in the highlands.  We purchased 12 small coconuts in Manakara, and will give them to our favorite people. Everyone else will receive candy, which we bought from Alakamisy Ambohimaha, our friend Bill’s town, about 30k South of Ambohimahasoa on RN7. They can get the candy here, but it’s really the thought that counts. I’ve already given out about 50 candies today, to the neighbor kids and swarms in town during our shopping trip. I actually OFFER the volondolana to people we see every day, however, much to Polly’s chagrin.

Saturday is also market day in Ambohimahasoa, so we were greeted with more “bonjour, vazahas” than usual, because all of the country folk who don’t know us are in town to shop for the week. Saturdays aren’t our favorite day, but we’re “done” for today.

Polly is currently cooking a “more complicated” lunch than dinner for today, so we can chill out this evening. She is the main cook, and I am the main dish washer. She makes great, spicy sauces, and seems to have mastered the rice/rock dilemma that so few Malagasy have yet to conquer. I have a very specific, efficient, secret method for dish washing. I truly believe it is my one singular superpower.

We’ll probably watch a few more episodes of “Weeds”, season 1 tonight, or maybe an entire movie. There is a big movie/TV show trade among volunteers, and I am at the center of it, it seems. We’re currently into “Lost”, “The Wire”, “Weeds”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “Community” (finished season 1), and the most recent “The Bachelorette”. I’ve also been downloading season 2 of “Jersey Shore”. What a train wreck! I can’t wait to blow some Malagasy minds with THAT show. Sharing American culture IS the 2nd goal of Peace Corps!

Yesterday, we left Manakara and took a taxi-brousse home. We stopped briefly in Bill’s village, Alakamisy Ambohimaha, to check out his art and furniture-laden pad, buy some cheap candy for the Ambohimahasoa kids, and say good-bye to John. We’ll probably see Bill soon (possibly for kickball), but won’t see John until Halloween. We see these 2 volunteers the most, as we try to coordinate visits to Fianarantsoa, our banking town.

We were in Manakara from Tuesday (my birthday) evening, until Friday (yesterday) morning.

Our adventure began when we took THE (only one in Madagascar) train from Fianarantsoa. The train stopped for about 20 minutes in each town along the way. I think if it had gone directly to Manakara, it would have taken about 5 hours, but it took 10. Since it was my birthday, we celebrated on the train with a few beers each. These beverages were gone before noon, so as the Southern hemisphere summer heat took hold in the early afternoon, so did our hangovers. Needless to say, the 2nd half of the train ride was less fun than the 1st half. The train was a great experience to have had. It passes through some beautiful county, and many villages that we would never see otherwise. We rode reserved seating, 2nd class. This means we had assigned seats, but crowded.  On the train, everyone gave me gifts. I received a “frip” (2nd hand), official, Olympique Lyonnais Adidas jersey from Polly, which Bill secretly purchased in Fianar via text message correspondence, and a tacky, yet refined t-shirt depicting many wolves. Good stuff. Look for pictures soon of these awesome 2nd hand finds!

After arriving in Manakara, we were shuttled around the town in search of lodging by 3 pousse-pousses (rickshaws). Since there were 6 of us, each small Malagasy man carried 2 people, with luggage. I ended up walking briskly along-side, because our guy was struggling. I was easily the biggest person of our group, and Polly and I ALWAYS have the biggest bag. Our combined superpower is over-packing.  We went to 3 different hotels before finding a place for the night, because the multiple French tourists on the train were quickly whisked to the hotels in buses, while we utilized the slower pousse-pousses. We were completely overcharged for our pousse "rides" (as is par for the course with vazaha), but we ended up giving them the “take it or leave it” option (half of their “fare”), which they took. We probably still overpaid.

In Manakara, we hung out on the empty, beautiful beach for a couple of days, and basically chilled. The seas were rough, and apparently there are sharks, so we only swam in a little cove behind a break wall. We should have pics up on Facebook soon. It was also reported that the beaches were gross, due to people using them as toilets, but we saw no evidence of this. The guide books are mistaken.

I’m amazed that more of a beach community hasn’t developed in Manakara. It was odd, actually. There were 2 resort-style bungalow hotels, separated by over a kilometer, personal ramshackle houses, a couple of schools (why on the beach near the cyclones?), and 2 banks on the beach “island” of Manakara. A community looking to develop should start utilizing their main asset.

We eventually found karaoke for Bill on our last night in town. He would have died otherwise. I truly believe this. Bill, only 22 years old, has just recently discovered his super-power: soprano karaoke. 

We ended up figuring out that a taxi-brousse was cheaper, cooler, and faster than the train, so we got up early on Friday, and headed out to Alakamisy Ambohimaha, and then grabbed another for the last 30K home.

Before our big beach trip, we spent 3 nights of the previous week (10/5 to 10/8), in Ambositra (about 89K North on RN7), working with the NGO (Non-Government Organization) Human Network International (HNI) in their telecenter (cybercaf√©) there. Ambohimahasoa is the next in line for one of these telecenters, so I’m trying to get in as much time as possible working with HNI before things start to move here in our town. Chris, a former Madagascar PCV who now works for HNI in Madagascar, Polly and I spent our time getting 3 computers in their training room “up to speed” and assessing the situation there as a whole. Hopefully, some of the problems experienced during the first three months of the Ambositra telecenter can be prevented in Ambohimahasoa.

We stayed at Sara’s, a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, house while we were there. She was out of town seeing the famous baobab trees in Southeast Madagascar, so we had the run of her place. Sara is here for 6 months as a PCRV, and completed her “regular” 2 year Peace Corps service before the evacuation a few years back. She also has written a guide book about Madagascar, which is on Madagascar (Travel Companion) by Sara Lehoullier

On Mondays, Polly usually works with her counterpart, in his fokontany (small village), about 4K north on RN7. They’ve been building a tree nursery with Peace Corps seeds, purchased in Antananarivo during our IST trip.

This particular Monday, 10/4, Polly received a vague text message, in Malagasy, from him, about a death in his family. The last time there was a death in his family, we basically dropped off an envelope of cash at his house, and walked home. He had to travel out of town for the funeral last time, so we just assumed that work for the day was cancelled, and Polly had the day off to pack for Ambositra.


He called us a few times, which we missed on our phones, so we started to get a little miffed. Our initial thoughts were, “boy, he must really want his money”. When we finally connected with him, we told him we’d stop by the next day and pay his family our respects, before Ambositra. Ampanidinina is also North of Ambohimahasoa, so we assumed that we’d hit his place on the way out. This was unacceptable to him. He said we HAD TO come that day. It was already 3 o’clock, and we try not to be out after dark (PC “suggestions”), ESPECIALLY walking along treacherous RN7, so we headed out on the 45 minute uphill walk, disgruntled.

On the way, we met and chatted with a man also headed for Ampanidinina.  He was going to pay his respects too, and informed us that everyone would be drinking "taoka-gasy", rice moonshine. I then informed him that I hate talking to people when they’re drunk. It’s a very “sensory” experience. Speaking Malagasy, hearing French, smelling alcohol, and being personally touched, is all part of taoka-gasy for a vazaha. I’ve actually only tasted it once.

When we arrived, we were amazed to see every person in the village out, sitting on the hills around the deceased’s family’s home. Some were drunk, but most were very polite, and glad to see us. As it turns out, Polly’s counterpart was related to the deceased woman, but not as a direct family member. I believe she was his cousin. She was only 25, and died from Malaria, in a different town. The loss was tragic.

We came prepared with our envelope full of money, and Polly’s counterpart helped us with the proper things to say to the parents. We saw the body wrapped in white cloth, and the wooden, hand-made coffin. I felt like a jerk because I was wearing shorts and a Han Solo t-shirt. I think it was OK, as there were others in shorts too. I really had no idea it was a formal event. I honestly thought we were dropping off cash. It’s what we do.

When someone dies in the Betsileo region of Madagascar, a cow (NEVER a pig) is slaughtered by the family. Small amounts of meat are presented to every person in attendance that day. At first, I was given a small morsel, about the size of a golf ball. Because I always talk about how I like meat more than vegetables, Polly’s counterpart made sure I got more. I was presented with a HUGE, still warm, cut of meat, about the size of a 20-25 oz broiling steak. I held the raw meat in my hand for about 20 minutes before we went to Polly’s counterpart’s family’s home, where I was given a plastic bag for it.

We then walked in a huge procession down the main road (RN7) with everyone in town, behind the casket and flowers. Songs were sung along the way. After about a kilometer walk, we all took a path into the woods toward the tomb, a building similar to a mausoleum. Upon reaching the tomb, the casket was placed on the ground beside it. While the men separated to begin the digging beside the tomb (not inside?), all the females started to cry and WAIL around the now flower-covered casket. It was if they all had lost control, and were overcome by the Holy Spirit. I have never seen anything like it, except in the movie “Jesus Camp”, when the kids are overcome with evangelical emotion, and convulse.

While the digging is still being done, but after the crying, an elder (the Priest?) stands up over the spot where the body is to be buried, and says a few words. The flowers are then placed on top of the tomb, on the cross, which still has flowers on it from the last funeral.

(Pics of all of this should be up on Faceboook very soon. Polly is sorting her pics for upload now, but we’ve had a problem with the signal being slow lately, so we’re going to wait until we get the EDGE back. GPRS is ¼ the speed.)

Before we left, we got to see one man kung-fu kick another man in the chest. Apparently there was a disagreement over the burial technique. It was crazy. One could hear the “thunk” of the kick very clearly, and the man receiving the blow then tumbled down the hill next to the tomb.

I’m not sure if a riot was going to break out next or if it was getting dark, but Polly’s counterpart’s wife informed us that we should probably be heading home soon after the kung-fu kick incident. We then walked down the 4K hill back to Ambohimahasoa with some other funeral-goers. It was definitely not the day we thought it was when we received that first text message at 7am.

The phenomenon of having a completely different day than we expected is a common occurrence here in Madagascar. We’re beginning to expect the unexpected twist on our days.

As part of my expectations with Prosperer (French NGO) and Tiavo (Malagasy microfinance institution), I am to educate people on money management. At my pre-wine industry job at Consumer Credit Counseling Service, in Rochester, NY, I’d developed budgets for people with credit card debt, and given advice on where to cut expenses.  Eventually, I’d like to be teaching classes on a 3 month cycle, once a week, but for now I’m building a curriculum of translated templates for radio broadcast.

I’ve been on the radio 3 times now. The first 2 were with Polly and our counterparts, and basically explained our presence in town, and what Peace Corps is all about. It was pretty bad, as we had JUST landed in town. I doubt any of it was understandable.  

My 3rd experience on the radio (9/29) was the pilot of my very own money management show entitled, “Money Matters”. I’m sure I stole this name from somewhere. The pilot’s theme was Budgeting Vocabulary. I went over the basics. Things like: income, fixed expenses, variable expenses, emergency funds, saving, needs, and wants were all covered in lesson 1. I hope to build the vocabulary, and re-iterate the key words before each subsequent episode, so we can build up to bigger topics.

Episode 2 is on “Income and Income Tracking”. Many of the people here do not receive a regular salary, and go through peaks and valleys with their income. If I can get them to track all incoming money, and then have a general understanding of ABOUT how much they make in a month, the end result will hopefully be them saving money from the high-income months to utilize in the low-income months.

Episode 3 will cover “Expense Tracking”. The Malagasy people spend it when they have it. They feast and starve. Expenses must be tracked, budgeted, and fixed.

My method for creating the show is to write out the script in English, and then translate it with our tutor. She is also now the co-host for episode 2. I told her I’ll make her famous. After translating, we record our voices into my digital Dictaphone, sentence by sentence, ensuring proper pronunciation. I take the sentences, in .mp3 format, one by one, and build them into a show with the program Garage Band, on Macintosh. I open and close with a fade in/out of Pink Floyd’s, “Money”. I used the cash register sound clip after each vocab word in lesson 1. The first episode was more music than content, as I used a Malagasy rap song called “Vola”(money) as an interlude when people were supposed to be getting their papers and writing utensils.

Here is a link to my first broadcast which I uploaded to Google Docs. 

It won’t make sense to anyone but the Malagasy (and PROBABLY not to them), but it will give you an idea of what the language sounds like, and you can hear my voice for the first time in a while.
I’ll post subsequent episodes as they’re created.

I’ve also traded music with the radio station, Radio Ainga, which is about 200 yards down our eroded road. It was semi-disturbing to hear Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” on a Sunday during church hours. If only they knew how relevant that particular song is to their current political situation! I won’t be translating THAT ONE with our tutor. We also heard 50 Cent’s (unedited)“P.I.M.P” at one of the local epiceries (think wooden bodega). They asked for hard rock and hip-hop, and they got it.

This is all I have for now on the radio show.  More to come.

I am completely exhausted from typing this blog update. Hopefully this will get everyone up to speed with what we’ve been doing, and make up for our slack posting schedule.

I plan to lock Polly in our bedroom and force her to create the next blog entry. 
Her excuse has been that: “It’s been so long since we’ve posted! The task is too overwhelming”.

Hopefully this diligent effort will remedy the quandary she is in, and we can get to posting shorter posts about little tidbits of interesting things that affect our lives as we engage Madagascar.

I also completely neglected to mention our chicken, Shakira. I'll let Polly elaborate.  
We now have a cliffhanger blog...Stay Tuned! 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Blog/Facebook Dilemma

(posted by Erik)

Before I begin my brief post, please allow me to apologize for the lack of updates on this blog. For those of you still following us, we thank you.

Hang in there with us!
I’m aiming to get one of us posting, once a week.

After not posting for so long, the task of catching everyone up and recapping 2 ½ months seems daunting and impossible.

We’ve been fairly active on Facebook since the acquisition of our Zain USB modem, which has satisfied our immediate gratification need to express ourselves to the world back home. Not everyone uses Facebook, despite my recruitment attempts (get an iPhone too!), so it is absolutely necessary to get the blog up and going again.

I, being the primary technology geek among us (and the entire country, it seems), have found that uploading pictures is much easier on Facebook. Perhaps will enhance their upload interface, someday. (They’re connected to Google, so one has to think SOMETHING is in the works.)

I have made all of our Peace Corps albums public, so everyone should be able to hop over there with their high-speed internet connections and check us out. Polly puts different photos up than I do, so it’s definitely worth it to check on us both.

A blog is a well-crafted journal, whereas Facebook is more of a blip about the moment. We owe our friends and family the courtesy of craftsmanship.

BUT…if you want to know the day-to-day stuff, join Facebook and “friend”us.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Madagascar Taxi-Brousses

Madagascar Taxi-Brousses (Posted by Polly)

These things are nuts. We took a trip to Fianar (our banking town) last week and had two of our most “interesting” taxi-brousse rides of our time here in Madagascar so far. (For those who are unaware, taxi-brousses are vans of various sizes used to shuttle people around the great country of Madagascar.)

On the way to Fianar, we ended up getting seated next to one of the large speakers in the van. It was about six inches above my head, actually. I was next to the window because I get motion sick on long rides here; Erik sat pressed between my right side and a happy old man. Once we got properly squished into the van – about 25 people in all – the music videos (yes, there was a small TV for these above the rear-view window) got started and we pulled out of Ambohimahasoa (our town).

The music wasn’t too bad. It was all very religious, light rock-n-roll at first. Each video followed a similar format: footage of this mixed gender Malagasy group singing in cowboy hats and off-the-shoulder dresses along the Madagascar countryside with intermittent flashbacks to a white Jesus getting either crucified or eating with his white, bearded friends around a fire. We stopped a couple of times and crammed about five more people in the van. My hips tipped to an angle up against the side of the van, and the stereo got turned up to its maximum volume (ample with feedback).

The music was changed to a Malagasy heavy metal band of about five old guys in sunglasses and cool bandanas, and sometimes cowboy hats. The videos contained a lot of special effects, such as blue and red fire coming from the sides of the screen, and enhanced foggy mists with neon back-lighting surrounding young and attractive Malagasy women. The first song or two, on what must have been an extended album, were fairly decent; but when the driver was able to find a decibel or two more of volume, the music just became one loud ball of drum and screeching guitar static. The last three or four songs on their album turned to a speed metal style, and as we were still about 30 minutes from our destination, the album looped back to its beginning, and it started all over again.

My head was POUNDING; my fingers were plugged into my ears, and it was still too much. I couldn’t believe it. How do these people handle this absolute noise? I mean, it wasn’t like the taxi was full of teenage rockers, hungry for offensive music – the taxi-brousse was mostly filled with middle-aged to elderly men and women from the conservative countryside, as well as the token handful of breast-feeding women. I thought, they can’t enjoy this sh-tuff!? But NO ONE looked the least bit pained. They just sat quietly in each of their five inches of seating room, and looked straight ahead with emotionless faces. If anything, those who did wear some emotion upon their faces looked somewhat happy to be there. This trip confirmed, once and for all, a theory of ours that has been in the works since arriving in Madagascar: Malagasy people are completely unfazed by noise (e.g., crack-of-dawn construction; crying babies; screaming kids playing everywhere; pig slaughters heard for miles around; crowing roosters 24-hours a day; street party music turned to the max; crying cats in heat; barking dogs at 3am; etc., etc, etc.). No one blinks an eye!

Finally we pulled into the taxi-brousse station in Fianar. This is the place where you have an absolutely chaotic end to some of the worst road trips you can imagine. As the driver took his time crawling the van through the narrow lanes of other vans with yelling men coming to the windows trying to get us foreigners on their next taxi, the music did not falter. It kept at full blast until the taxi-driver scooted the van back and forth enough times to feel it was properly parked at the correct angle and spacing as compared to the other vans in the lane. At last the van shuts down and the music stops (sweet relief). As we wait for the 20 people closest to the sliding door to get out before us, we see the light at the end of the tunnel…

Our trip back to Ambohimahasoa from Fianar:
This trip wasn’t as awful noise-wise, but it was definitely the tightest ride we’ve been on so far. The day we left town was a fety, or festival, in Fianar. Many of the men in town were drunk, including the guy who worked the door to our taxi-brousse. (From what we could tell, our driver was pretty sober. Didn’t have a chance to check the tires of the taxi, as Peace Corps recommends, before departing. It’s a tough thing to check when the process of getting into the correct taxi includes a swarm of frantic people trying to sell you something, or trying to persuade you and your stuff into/on another taxi.) Anyway, the guy working the door was having a grand ol’ time finding space in the taxi for as many people as he could grab that needed to leave Fianar, and maybe needed to get to Ambohimahasoa. Keep in mind that this van was slightly smaller than the van we rode into town in…by about a row. Nonetheless we started the trip with about the same number of people: 25 again.

We stopped about five times before getting out of Fianar. One stop was for a small gas refill, and the other four were for the drunk door guy to yell back and forth with other drunk men along the street and cram one or two of them into the van with us. By the time we left Fianar, we probably had 30 people in the van. I couldn’t do an exact count because I did not have enough room in my 3.6 inches of space to twist and look behind me. We were in the second row, which had five people and half of the door guy. (Our row was made for four). The first row had ten heads (eleven if we count the breast-feeding baby), as people would sit backwards along the narrow strip of raised flooring found behind the driver and passenger seats. Then, there were four people in the three seats up front.

As we left Fianar, the music got turned up to a low roar. There was no TV this time – no music videos (sad face).

Our van stopped several times in the first two hours of what should have been a two-hour trip at most (the trip is just 60 km in distance, but the roads are very twisty and narrow over mountainous terrain…the taxi-brousse really struggles…it takes time). People got out, more people climbed in. The drunk door guy would jump up on the roof to move luggage, swap bills of cash with new passengers, then hang out the door as the taxi-brousse gathered its stride and we’d get going again. Up and down mountains we’d go, twisting and turning 'round 330 degree bends until the door guy would spot more people on the side of the road and we’d stop to see if we could crowbar in a few more. It was the ultimate shuffling game; it was the ultimate clown car. At one point four or five people got out, and there was another inch of room, but two kilometers later, our door guy found their replacements.

One time we stopped in a large town to let people out (for good, we thought); but it was just a stop for three of the drunk guys near the front to run out and pee. “People are not chickens,” is what you say (in Malagasy, of course) to get the driver to make a restroom / side-of-the-road stop for you.

We were still 20km from our destination when we picked up an old lady with a large basket, in which was a duck. She found a spot, somehow, in the row without seats – the one where you sit backwards on the raised floor with your back against the driver’s seat. The duck was a happy duck. It quacked the whole rest of the way.

As we rolled and smoked our way into Ambohimahasoa, we counted that our small taxi-brousse held a total of 32 people, two of which were breast-feeding mums, and of course the duck. Insanity. We’re still regaining feeling in our legs. The good news is that we found out yesterday Peace Corps needs us to travel back to Fianar this coming Monday!