Friday, April 9, 2010

1.5 months in

Following a DC departure on March 1, 2010, a quick stop in Senegal, and an overnight in South Africa, our group of 25 Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on March 3, 2010. The evening of March 3 we stayed in “Tana” at the Peace Corps Meva House. We PCTs continued bonding that afternoon/evening as we sampled Malagasy cooking for the first time and took turns meeting with our PC doctor for a series of shots. Unfortunately, Erik spent much of the time fighting a 12-hour illness caused by (we think) some undercooked food from the night before in South Africa. By the following morning, Erik felt tons better and I had finally caught up on sleep. Both refreshed, we plunged into our first day of training: medical, safety, cross-culture, and a whirlwind Malagasy language class. Then, we were on our way to our host families.

The 25 of us, and a few PC trainers, piled into two vans. Our luggage was roped to the top of the vans and squished between seats. We drove through Tana and out to the Malagasy countryside. The views and colors were stunning, as one might imagine. Everything was so lush and vibrant. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. After about 1.5 hours? we turned onto a dirt road and drove past a Peace Corps sign – we had entered the community-based training area. We drove for another hour, bouncing back and forth and side to side in our seats, over the treacherous road. The vans rolled to a stop by a congregation of locals standing at a crossroads. The doors opened and we were told, “You’re here – go find your host family,” or something along those lines. We stumbled out of the vans, a little sweaty, a little windblown and a lot disoriented. Before we could get our bags on our backs, the trainers began calling out our names one by one, and the host family members would walk forward from the crowd with big smiles, grab our hands and any bags they could help with, and lead us away to their homes. So began the host family stays.

Erik and I were greeted by our young host mother, Onja, and her two children, Capistra (a six-year-old boy) and Vanilla (a two and ½ year-old girl). Onja, a very smiley and petite woman, has 22 years under her belt. She led us directly to her home, just a stone’s throw from where we were dropped off by the vans. She walked us to the back of a large house, up outdoor steps to a second level, along an outdoor hallway, and into what is our room today. It’s a great room – spacious with many windows, and newly constructed. The back windows overlook a garden, palm trees, and a picturesque lake.

Onja gave us a quick tour of the grounds: we visited the kabone (a very basic outhouse); the ladosy (a cement and wooden room connected to the kabone that one uses to bucket bathe/shower); and the path to the lake (the lake front is where one does laundry…or manasa lamba). An assortment of animals surrounds the house: cows, pigs, geese, ducks, chickens, a rooster, dogs, and a cat. Our host family lives in a separate portion of a larger house, connected in the back, closest to the lake, and on a second story level. The main part of the house is where our host father’s parents and brothers live. There is a lot of construction on the family compound’s grounds. An addition is being built on the side of the house connected to our room, and a new house is being built by the cows’ stalls. And not only are these two projects occurring, but our host family “yard” also functions as a full-time lumbar yard where locals come to use the machinery owned by our host father’s father and brother-in-law. (More about that later.)

Following Onja’s brief tour, we headed back to our room and began to unpack. Feelings of shock and something close to panic fluttered through our bodies as the reality sank in of what our new lives had just become…much to digest. We had only been in the country for a day, barely knew the word “manahoana” (“hello” in Malagasy), and already we were left to navigate a completely unfamiliar life with a local Malagasy family. I took a deep breath, grabbed my basic Malagasy language cheat-sheet, and headed to the kitchen area to help Onja with dinner. Erik worked on getting our room in order.

Onja and I mimed our way though dinner preparation. She found me a cutting board from behind a large water bin that I used to slice skinny green beans down their middle. Meanwhile, Onja would cut them in the palm of her hand. (I’m not so “mahay”.) Next I helped prep some salad fixings with my cutting board (Onja found it hilarious that I preferred using the board), and then it was time for dinner.

Our first dinner: It was awkward, to say the least. Unaware of dinner table customs and conversation. We met our host father, Zo, for the first time – a very welcoming guy in his early 30s. Lucky for us, Zo knows some basic English and French, so he was able to help us stumble our way through dinner conversation. Lots of rice, lots of bean protein of some sort, more bean protein, and cucumber salad.

…then we went to sleep under our mosquito-netted bed. Erik here. I’ll try and give a quick summary of the next 5 weeks, up until this point.

If you’re reading this, it means we were able to get some form of internet access. We’re supposed to have a wireless connection (which everyone will be hitting with their laptops at once) in Tana on April 9, Friday. Hopefully we were able to post this between yellow fever shots, bank account set-up, a tech session, a supermarket-run, and a trip to some shady dude that can supposedly unlock my iPhone for 50,000 Ar (about 20 bucks). Either way, we’re both bringing our laptops, and Polly already has a yellow fever shot from Africa trip #2, so we’ll get up as much as we can! We have 26 pics to post, but we’ll see how that goes…

I’ll break it down by category, for the sake of being concise.

The physical country…
Very beautiful. Very primitive. It’s like living in the Bible. We watched “Far and Away” the other night, which is set in frontier times, and were amazed at the technology. Once you leave the main roads, prepare to bang your head on the roof of your vehicle. “Seatbelts”, you say? Good luck with that. Most of the time, we ride in two Toyota minivans that seat 12 each. Think of a VW Vanagon for a reference point. PC also has some Toyota Land Cruisers (one newer and one older) with jump seats. Our drivers are very skilled to navigate the craziness that constitutes the Madagascar road and traffic “system”. The roads are very windy, as they have been built around the terrain, rather than through or over it, as in the U.S. There are many switchbacks and hairpin turns, as you leave the plateau and head toward the coast.

We’ve only traveled East so far. Polly’s Environment tech trip was NE and my SED (Small Enterprise Development), was more SE. Our entire group was together in Andasibe for a night, on which we took a night hike in search of lemurs. Our 30-person people-train likely spooked the critters, so we saw none, except for a baby lemur (or smaller breed?), on the way back to the hotel, while walking up the road. We got lost for a bit while talking to my sister Molly via cell phone in the rainforest. We followed the sounds of our group’s voices and used my awesome LED Mag-lite to find the group again. Polly went on a smaller hike early the following morning, and saw about four or five larger lemurs (indri). (Pictures MIGHT be posted in this blog entry.)

Polly also saw prettier Indian Ocean coastlines/beaches, and had much more beach time than I did on her tech trip. I’m quite jealous. I had more time in a bigger town, and ate more Steak Frites. I tried to avoid rice as much as possible when the food options allowed for it.

The people…
Very nice. Very curious. Very difficult to understand. Our host family is extremely kind, and their kids are very cute. The other families that live in the other 2 parts of this house are related to Zo, our host father. They’re carpenters, and run a lumber mill in our yard. Saws usually begin around 6am, and end around 6pm. Awesome. Not really.

We’re called “vazaha” by children sometimes, which is a rather negative term that means foreigner (mainly French foreigner). It stems from the French colonization. I explain in Malagasy that I am not vazaha, but American and in Peace Corps. Then I must explain that I do not have any money, unlike the wealthy French vacationers in town.

Easter is a week-long blow-out around here. People set up little stands like at a festival, and drink until the wee hours of the morning. There is no centralized entertainment, just a lake. All the stands sell EXACTLY the same thing. It’s very strange. Beer, Fanta, Coke, rum…beer, Fanta Coke, rum. Sometimes bread products. All warm. Only some of the better epiceries (think bodegas) have refrigeration.

The language…
See the blip above about the people. We get our daily 4-hour injections of language training beginning at 8am. Polly and I take these together usually, so I don’t have to walk the 3K to Mantasoa and back twice a day. They gave me a Trek bike with shocks, but it’s a pain to get it out of our room and down the stairs. It takes about the same amount of time to get it out of the house and ride it, as it does to walk. We get a short break around 10am, and then break for lunch around noon. Technical training begins then at 2pm, so Polly and I spend our afternoons apart, generally.

Every Malagasy verb starts with M. Past tense is denoted by changing the M to an N. Future tense is created by changing the N to an H. Each word has about 10 syllables, several of which sound and look like “lalala”. Don’t even get me started with passive voice. I couldn’t even get started. I have no clue. We have LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators), who train us in small groups each day. We’re taught by dialect (Betsileo for us), based on the region of our assignment. I cannot wait to use Betsileo Malagasy after Peace Corps.

The training group…
Pretty cool. Pretty young. I’m the 2nd oldest, and there are 3 others in their 30s (including Polly). There is one 40-year-old, and the rest are in their 20s, most fresh out of college. One of our 25 trainees has already gone home, due to an opportunity to run a business in Guatemala. We all get along pretty well. We’re an eclectic crew. We all discuss the funky dreams caused by the Larium (malaria meds), which makes for animated conversations.

The food…
Rice. Sometimes meat. Lots of carbs. Pasta sometimes too. Onja makes decent pancakes, but they’re not flat. Need some syrup. I found some ketchup in a shop in Moramonga. It makes the world a brighter place. I like banana pancakes, called “mofo akondro”, but still have yet to eat a raw banana. Such is the mystery of Erik and food. Did I mention rice? I think I’d give a toe for a NY style pizza right now. I have to stop thinking about it.

We get our water from a well, which is up a road, through some yards, and down a mud path. The view overlooking the rice fields is stunning, so it’s worth the hike every other day. Polly and I have officially become Jack and Jill. I bump my head on everything here in this tiny-person land, so the line in the song about Jack breaking “his crown” fits too. I smack myself pretty hard about once a day. This number is lower than it was during my first few weeks here.

We put chlorine (called “sur eau”) in our water, after running it through a big cylinder filter. A Nalgene bottle takes 3 drops for 15 minutes to be pure. I feel that I have negated many years of Pur and Brita filters in one short month. We probably glow in the dark.

We’ve been snacking on various items such as ketchup, pizza, and BBQ flavored Cheetos called “Cracky”. Another favorite is Bolo, which is a cross between a moon pie and an Oreo. They’re absolutely delicious after 3 meals of rice and beans, one of which may contain meat or meat-like substances. They’ve tried serving us fish – they’re often goldfish-sized and fried. Ironically, I played “Finding Nemo” on the laptop for the kids the same day we were served goldfish for the first time. I explained at dinner that I didn’t like to eat Nemo. We haven’t had them since. Phew! Polly ate them. She’s very accommodating.

Chicken. Those that know me well (or even slightly) know that I really enjoy eating chicken. I am still waiting for chicken from our host family. Apparently it’s a big deal to kill a chicken to eat, as they produce eggs, and a source of income for chicks. I bought a live one at the local market on a field trip for 7,000 Ariary, less than 3 dollars US. We’re supposed to learn to slaughter and butcher a chicken during training. I am still anxiously awaiting a machete and whet stone sent from my dad. If I am going to do this, I’m going to do it swiftly. Those in our group who have already performed this training rite have described the local process as slow and awful. My first target will be the rooster that crows under our window at the crack of dawn. He won’t even hear me coming. I’m going primal on him. Maybe I’ll even hunt with Dad, Seth and Eric someday.

We’re supposed to cook for our host families at some point, so we’re on the lookout for some balsamic vinegar, spices and marinara sauce for our spaghetti meal. We’ll buy the meat in Mantasoa for the meatballs, hopefully that day, as there is no refrigeration here. Polly found some olive oil on her tech trip, so we have something to dip our bread in. A spice rack will be essential at our site. There is not a lot of flavor here. If you’re thinking of sending a care package, spices are QUITE welcome.

This is all for now. Thanks to our parents for keeping all our pals in the loop. Thanks for the texts. Pass our number around if you have it. I’ll try and send a blanket e-mail out to everyone, and read the individual ones. I’m very scared to see my Gmail inbox after 5 weeks of neglect!

Much Love,
Erik & Polly


  1. Wow, what an adventure! Hope to hear more from you soon. Tell me where to send the care package it sounds like you are in some serious need of flavor!

  2. Polly - wonderfully keen to reflect on your awe and shock on arrival, then slip into gear and slice beans!

    Erik - laying down a steady rhythm of experiences and impressions as if you know the tune for this adventure. I suspect you have since eaten the rooster, seeded your herb garden, and mastered the stairs on your bike. Let Steve Jobs know how the unlocking goes - key likely to contain lalala