(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 (cybercafé) 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 Amazon.com. 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!