A Travellerspoint blog

A World of Contradictions

A Northern Expedition


As I walked to the university this morning, I saw the mad man standing out on his corner. His tell-tale ragged yellow shirt, wooly black hair, and all-over dusting of rusty colored dirt were there as usual, but his expression was eerily placid, almost holy in its stillness and seeming permanence. His face was lifted to the sun but not straining towards it. His eyes were shut tight as though one lapse in his effort to close them would have them drop from his sockets like eggs from a laying hen. His hands were lifted from his sides, the palms up and open. People on the sidewalk, including myself, were walking around him. We’re convinced to feel sorry for such people who may be trapped in a decaying mind, but I’d like to think that on this particular day, the mad man, above all others, had been able to surrender, while we’d stepped around him to fulfill our duties and endeavor to be the people we strive so hard to become.

Being in an urban environment, I daily encounter contrasts that inevitably make me feel more like an outsider than ever before in this country. The mad and the sane frequent the same streets, the gaudily rich are neighbors to the destitute, and the healthy unwittingly flaunt their fortune to many a Quasimodo. When I go jogging, my turning point is the richest hotel in the city, La Note Bleue. Just outside its walls sit camps of women who crush rock from under tattered lean-tos. Cool blue swimming pool overlooking the bay; little piles of rock sold by the roadside.

After intentionally seeking a drastic change in scene, I have gone from the southernmost tip of Madagascar to the northernmost. I am now living in the port city of Diego to teach English courses at the University of Ankarana until high school classes begin again in my small southern town. From the capital of Antananarivo I traveled by taxi-brousse, the equivalent of a small mini-van that by the South’s packed-produce-truck-turned-taxi-brousse standards should have been comparatively more comfortable. But it wasn’t. Since most seats were broken, I supported the full weight of the sleeping man in front of me with my knees for the majority of the 26 hour journey. Though fatigued and a little bruised, I was proud I’d made the journey on my own.

When my university supervisor drove me the several-mile journey outside of town to the campus, I was made speechless by the scene before me. Rows of concrete dormitories loomed like the lost teeth of a now snaggle-toothed giant, cavity ridden by neglect. At random, worms of metal beams squirmed out of the buildings’ sides. Plastic, sometimes scavenged plywood or corrugated metal, plugged up the gaping windows or the enormous chinks of wall that had long ago fallen away. Since there was no where else to dispose of it, dirty water, leftover food, and trash thrown from the dorm balconies gave the only proof that the place was not abandoned but haunted by students. Several times I have seen brave souls nearly get rained on by filth falling from an upper story when passing through the landfill cradled between two buildings.

Since the university is perched on a high hill on the edge of the bay, the wind blasts from the sea and batters the small congregation of buildings in a ceaseless gale. The grass is unkempt and high and wind tousled. The way the wind oppresses in a constant, punishing slap up there, it’s no wonder many of my students complain of being ill, considering quality of their shelter. After several problematic attempts, I dare to wear a skirt to class anymore.
Sometimes I laugh at myself for what I had expected to see driving up in the supervisor’s car. It being the only significant venue for higher education in the north of Madagascar, I had expected the university to have a recreation center, immaculate classrooms without the dead trails of recently pulled vines running up the walls, and white. I’d expected a place clean enough that it would be white despite the red earth. A recreation center. What was I thinking?

Before I started walking to and from the university, I took taxis to avoid walking into class with unprofessional signs of sweat on my face and under my arms. Now I go by foot, since simply being punctual to class far surpasses any expectations of professionalism here. One morning, a taxi lifted me off to school blasting American pop music so loud the driver hardly heard the destination I was calling out to him. Along the way, the driver stopped for a mother who was holding her bedraggled-looking teenager daughter by the waist. I very soon saw the reason for their awkward embrace when the daughter, though trembling to control her body, fell into the cab, her head lolled against my shoulder. Some illness was making her so drunk with weakness she could keep eyes only half open. Her mother was trying to pull her daughter back to her own body, to cradle a young woman made a child again in sickness. I tried to explain that didn’t mind the girl leaning on me, but the mother took her off of me anyway.

All the while scuttling through the streets, the driver turned up the volume on the ridiculously happy bouncy pop songs. “Come on, Barbie! Let’s go party!” The lyrics bellowed from another world of skating rinks and college parties. Over and over my mind repeated in a mantra, “Kill the music! Kill the music!” With the limp bodied girl, her calm, doting mother, me trying not to feel so useless in the back seat and the indifferent driver in the front, there was no room for such music, an exuberant, foreign sound that filled the tiny car with the choking smoke of too many juxtaposed things in too small a space. Once the two women had been delivered to their home and I to the university, I nearly bolted from the taxi but didn’t only to avoid looking like a fool.

Posted by lealow07 06:52 Archived in Madagascar Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Honey Harvest

and running in the rain


I went with Resaka to Fenomila’s small village on the outskirts of Tsihombe to collect honey as a volan_dalana (“gift from the road”) for a friend in Fort Dauphin. When you go to another part of the island or even the next town, more often than not you’ll find the landscape, customs, and foods changed, and the idea of the volan_dalana is to bring your friends and family a taste of your experiences from a different land. When you find yourself with an unexpected bunch of bananas in your desert dwelling or in the large coastal city with an unanticipated bushel of cactus fruit, your taste buds make a gastronomical journey to a far away place without ever having to bruise your knees on a taxi-brousse.
Before going to out to the honey hives, we were invited into Fenomila’s home. It was leaning noticeably and looked more like a child’s wooden play house. Pads on the floor comprised a bed that seemed suited for one person, though Resaka informed me that it probably held three to four people each night. Pots and pans were stored on a shelf near the low ceiling. A sheep’s skinned head sat in a bowl on the table. Its berry black eye glinted from its skull. Soon the sheep’s cooked meat was brought to us. When I couldn’t get the sheep hair out of my teeth, I resorted to picking it out with my fingers.
The first leg of our walk into the spiny forest entailed a lesson on how to pick cactus fruit with my bare hand. Fenomila showed me how to stand upwind when collecting the fruit to avoid getting the hair-like thorns in my eyes. My forefinger and thumb were guided over the fruit in such a way as to avoid unnecessary discomfort picking out those fiberglass-like hairs.
We were then guided to the beehives, some of which were wooden boxes and others halved logs in thickets of thorns, cactus, and brambles. Fenomila and his friend prepared the smoke burner and pulled on their netted masks. I prepared myself for the confusion of bees and felt a twitch behind my knees that told me it might be time to run. But a third man draped in a baby blanket shrugged off our proximity to the soon-to-be-disturbed hive. “Manintse. Tsy masiake ty tantely. Tsy magnahe. (It’s cold. The bees aren’t mean. No problem.)” So Resaka and I stayed close to watch Fenomila delicately lift the vertical shelves of honeycomb from their winter slumber. The bees lazily lifted from their sweet sleep but were more cold and confused to sting the two men cutting away their hexagonal beds.
Resaka, the three men, and I squatted on our hams and ate honeycomb the span of a Frisbee, and there was still a bucket full of honeycomb to lug home. Then the rain came, a trickle at first, but then the torrent that followed threatened to spoil out prize. Fenomila covered the mouth of the bucket with his coat and raced through the forest in the falling rain with the rest of us trailing behind, slogging through mud puddles already pooling atop the red clay. Eventually we removed our shoes before seeking shelter in a goat pen. The little kids shivered in a pile near the door. To uphold and honor the purity of the pen, Fenomila dabbed the syrup of an aloe-related plant on the bottoms of our feet and shoes.
Back at Fenomila’s house, I was aided in filling the honey jar after being scolded for not washing my hands beforehand. When I tried to offer my host money for his time and honey, he stared at me blankly. “Mpinamana tika. Mpilongo. Tsy mety manome vola. (We’re friends. Family. It’s not ok to give money.),” he said, his face accustomed to breaking into a languid smile. Resaka and I started home in the drizzle, a steaming piece of boiled pumpkin in our hands and the path home predisposed for pleasant conversation.

Posted by lealow07 15:18 Archived in Madagascar Tagged foot Comments (0)

Tsihombe Runway

A peek at Antandroy fashion.


Some of the styles and fashions of Tandroy are worth illuminating. The women here wear the colorful cloth (lambas) wrapped around their waists or rolled up under their arms. Seeing the women go about their day is to witness a parade of patterns and local imagery: a village scene settled with blue huts around a cook’s bust, teal and orange urchin-spiny shapes wrapped about a washerwoman’s waist, and red herds of cattle traipsing along a vendor’s derriere are familiar fashions in town and in the outlying countryside. In my house I also sport the lamba, since it’s too hot to wear anything else. Cotton breathes, you know.
Men here wear round hats (satro_bory) that rise to a point on top. A triangular design around the rim distinguishes this hat from the other round, pointy hats worn by neighboring tribes. I’m still trying to understand the practical use of this hat, as it provides the face no protection from the sun. The men from the depths of the countryside (ambanvoitse) sport sheep and goat hair hats. I imagine that they’ve robbed the poor animals of a buttock, dried it, and placed the pone of startled hair on their heads to scare foreigners.
Our big market day is on Fridays. It’s a day when the town is inundated by people coming by foot, bicycle, truck, or cattle cart from distant and local villages. Most of the men and young boys either carry spears (lefone) or a hatchet (famake). At first I was a little wary walking past these men. What if they went a little nuts for a brief moment and decided to bring down the white girl shopping for tomatoes in the market? The herdsmen typically wear either a lighter baby blanket or a heavier bed throw. It is thrown over their shoulders, mantles the chest, and drapes down to the knees. For a more dramatic effect, the blanket can also wrap over the head. If the specter of a heavily shrouded man wielding a spear sounds menacing, the floral or teddy bear print on the cloth should allay any doubts in your safety. I typically think of these men as long-legged cranes; their sinewy legs showing from beneath the plumage of their baby blanket.
My favorite fashion statements here come from the second-hand clothes piles (frippery) sold on market day. Discarded by Europe and the US, these neglected treasures depict images or words that are of no concern to the people wearing them. A woman who sells fish always wears a scowl above a bright orange tee-shirt with a big smiley face on it. Written above the face in bold block print is STUPID.
The sweaters that men choose to buy from the frippery piles either make me question their wearers’ masculinity or endears me to the display of holiday spirit. They are decorated with holiday inspired themes, such as Halloween or Christmas. I always feel comforted to see little ghosts swimming all over a black sweater or a sweat shirt adorned with Christmas bells, bows, and ribbons. The man who comes by my house to sell bread and yogurt sometimes sports a large red sweater that swallows up his lean body. The image on the front is of a baby tiger with blue eyes and a little bow-tie. The words sewn above the tiger kitty read, “I love my new bow-tie!”
The most curious trend is found among my male students. They grow the nail of their little finger out long and paint it with fingernail polish. I’ve gotten various answers to my questions about it, including “It’s just cool” and “You’ve got to have something to help pick your nose and ears.”

Posted by lealow07 16:09 Archived in Madagascar Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

The Town with No Room

Impressions in the South of Madagascar

sunny 36 °C

Sometimes Tsihombe lives up to its name. Meaning "no room", Tsihombe can often feel very claustrophobic, like a small sphere inhabited by too many big personalities. When the heat of the afternoon settles in the sticky sweat of your clothes or slows your walk to and from the market to a dull plod, you feel like running wild and naked to the closest water source, the Manombovo River where you have to dig a hole to find water. Or when teaching English to Second students (the equivalent of sophomores in high school), whose behavior often bespeaks of their rebellious teenage years. I feel like gliding from the higher elevation of the lycee and into the spiny forest that begins at the outskirts of the town and stretches out into the horizon, the low level of thorny trees and cactus only interrupted by the protrusion of a Buddha-bellied baobab tree.
My small one room concrete house is located in the same compound as a large Antandroy family (Antandroy being an ethnic group and tribe with more African than Asian roots in the southernmost region of Madagascar). The width of a standard swimming pool is the short distance between our houses, a distance that proves useless in maintaining our American love of privacy. Sitting alone to read a book or to daydream is unheard of here, and I often entertain my new sisters of students in my home at times when I would rather collect my thoughts and reflect on the day.
One "fomba", or tradition, I still struggle with is the sharing of food. Often, Antandroy families eat from the same dishes, everyone taking their share by the spoonful. Some deep seated American feeling of entitlement and ownership bubbles up in me when one of the many children in the yard or one of my sisters and I are hovering over the same plate. Especially when a spoon dives into my side of the dish and steals away with a piece of meat I'd been eying.
Perhaps it's not the custom of every Antandroy family, but when returning from the market, I am questioned by my sisters and my mama as to the contents of my basket and am expected to hand over a share of my sweet potatoes or mangoes. At first, I balked at these demands for my food, leading me to hide my grilled sweet potatoes, a favorite snack, in my school bag and to eat them rapaciously in what brief privacy I had in my house before my gluttonous rampage could be discovered and my begedas ( sweet potatoes) taken from me. Fortunately, I have learned to adapt to the passing of food from hand to hand, a poetic lesson in sharing. When fresh fish travels 18 miles from the sea and arrives in the market, my family ensures I have my share, head and all (the brain and jaw muscles considered the most delicious part). I in turn buy a little extra of each item in the market in case my daily basket inspection is of particular interest to my family.
But Tsihombe is not always oppressively hot, not always a town with "no room". There are days when the wind cools the sweat on your brow or the clouds purge themselves of violent bouts of rain and leave the children pointing at the heavy colored brush strokes in a fresh rainbow, their bicycle tire jump ropes left slack in the sand.
There are days when I don't feel like I have to run a cultural gauntlet, when the Antandroy people and myself are just people; people taking pleasure in little things, forgetting for brief moments that we are living in an impoverished country and perhaps even disregarding that I am pale and a foreigner among them.
Nearly every morning I go running down a road that cuts through the Spiny Forest. Never alone, I am accompanied by my friend and student, Resaka. Together we go as far as a pair of baobab trees before returning home, and sometimes, as I am cumbersomely trying to mount a hill and staring at my feet, Resaka scoops up a rock in a flash and hurls it at a forest bird. So far he's missed, and I often tease him, saying, "Where's the bird? I'm hungry".
It's the days of unexpected, random pleasures that make you feel like the world has just breathed deeply with a sigh of relief. My life fenced in by classes, conversation groups, the heat, and people's demands for more conversation groups, food, or money, suddenly expands and finds the space it had so long craved.
One morning, after reaching the baobab trees at a steady jog, I spied several large, crimson and purple cactus fruits ("raketa" in Antandroy). After mentioning I hadn't yet tried the fruit, Resaka started to maneuver his fingers through the labyrinth of thorns to snag a handful. He carefully rubbed the short, hair-like thorns away on a mat of moss and then showed me how to pull the peel back with my teeth. My stress lifted as I laughed with my new friend eating the cherry-flavored treat, and watching the peach-pink sunrise burn into a cloudless hot day. I ran home feeling as lucky and free as a bird that Resaka had failed to hit.
I cannot document all the moments in which my decision to join the Peace Corps has been affirmed in a most enlightening way--they are many, and you would need to be in the midst of the food, the landscape, and the people--the beautiful, proud, and unique Antandroy people to understand this new life. The smells of the spiny forest, especially after a rain; the look of galloping joy in the eyes of my students when they understand and relish a lesson; being brought stomach settling grilled fish by my family when my trips to the kabone (or sheltered hole in the ground) are much too frequent; being given free coffee by my favorite grilled sweet potato vendor and sharing the events of the day with her as I swill the drink down to the sugar settled at the bottom of the cup.
I am given so much here. I only hope I can begin to inspire the same wonder of the wide world that this little town with no room has inspired in me.

Posted by lealow07 08:24 Archived in Madagascar Tagged volunteer Comments (2)

Strange travels, a Wedding

and "Turning of the bones"

-17 °C

The following was from a letter written on August 26, 2007. The Peace Corps prefer that the site location of volunteers be kept confidential for safety purposes.

Hello, again,

Training has ended after two and a half months of intense language classes, of often silent meals with my host family, and of every kind of survival training from pounding our own peanut butter and killing chickens to how to avoid malaria. I've already seen my site in the southernmost tip of Madagascar, and in a few days I'll return to ******, where I'll live for two years. The journey begins with a plane ride form Antananarivo to ***** and continues by taxi-brousse for about eight hours, depending on the road. For the site visit, , however, I was lucky enough to travel in the truck of the Chef Cisco from ***** with my friend Travis, who will teach there, Mike, my site partner in the environmental sector, Joe, an environmental volunteer working an hour outside of my site, and in the covered bed of the truck with the luggage, coconuts, and sugar cane sat Donne, the surveillant of the Lycee (school) at my site. We noticed that the high, green mountain peaks quickly tapered into rolling dry hills, and soon there was no great elevation at all, just a wide expanse of alien trees. The silhouette of the octopus tree at sunset with it's tentacle-like branches seeming to reach for some unseen prey in the sky, along with an occasional baobab tree and other spiny fingered plants, made the landscape resemble an old coral reef abandoned by the sea. We continued to Travis's town, where we ate chicken on a bed of rice at the hotel and became better acquainted with one another. The next day we left Travis at his house and drove the last stretch of the journey to my town. As we neared my town, a light but steady rain began to fall, and Chef Cisco looked at me through the rear-view mirror to say that I had brought the shower despite the dry season. "You bring good luck when it rains during your arrival," Mike whispered beside me. "It rained when I first arrived, too."
I only spent a few nights in my town, and though there is much to tell, my adventures continued in Manjakandriana. And I assume I'll have enough opportunity in two years to formally introduce you to my new home.

The day I returned from the deep south, all of the Peace Corps trainees and staff were invited to a famadiana, the "turning of the bones" ceremony. The preparations for the event begin when a family member is visited by a dead loved one while he/she sleeps. The dead ancestor says it's bones are cold and implores it's living relatives to wrap the bones in fresh lambas (cloth). Before the body/bodies are exhumed, a feast with no caloric comparison takes place, in which droves of people come with an envelope of money in exchange for a meal of "vary be menaka" (rice with a lot of oil) at the house of the ancestor's living relative. Vats of rice circulate long communal tables situated under a tent and are followed by heaping bowls of beef and pork. Animal fat and oil are ladled all the away up to the rim of the bowl.
With each bite of food, the oil coats your tongue and sticks to the roof of your mouth as would peanut butter. Though it glides easily down the throat, the vary be menaka sits heavily and uneasily in the stomach and leaves your mouth and hands a waxy finish that no soap can tackle.

With the eating done, the parade continues to the tomb with a lively band of drums, flutes, and 'Gasy guitars. The "mamo" or drunken men dance atop the massive above-ground tomb, while other men drive their shovels into the stone and dirt-filled mouth of the tomb.
When all is cleared away, the wrapped bodies are carried out overhead; the people underneath the burden dance all the while. In the case of famadiana I saw, nearly 50 bodies were exhumed and re-wrapped, and though the ceremony continued for hours upon hours in the drizzling rain, the electric current of human vitality throbbed on in a trance-like state and never waned.
I watched 30 of the 50 corpses being re-wrapped, my awe at the beauty of this tradition, this exuberant bridge between the living and the dead, was overwhelmed by my soaked clothes and fatigue from the journey down south. The few volunteers who stayed behind, however, had the honor of wrapping and dancing with the ancestors. I find enumerating regrets to be pointless and wasteful, but I do wish I'd stood in the rain a little longer that day.

I undertook my final grand adventure in the north with my neny (Malagasy Mom). I took my dada's (Malagasy Dad) place in a wedding invitation. Expecting a humble, traditional Malagasy wedding replete with a meal of vary (rice) and some dancing, I was surprised by the lavish wedding and reception that was held in Antananarivo, but I was more baffled by the fact that neither the bride nor groom, though Malagasy, didn't speak their native language, as they had lived in France for most of their lives. It felt strange to be whisked away from my daily routine of washing dishes in my host family's dark kitchen to dancing in a sparkling ballroom and eating a five course meal. I almost felt guilty for taking part in such extravagance, but my conflicted feelings were only compounded when riding in a shuttle van to the home of my dada's brother. Lining the road slept vegetable vendors under plastic tarps in numbers resembling post-battle scenes from a Civil War film. The lingering taste of wedding cake in my mouth soured with horror at the blatant juxtaposition between rich and poor and the expansive gap in between. I'm supposed to drift in this middle zone and build a bridge between these extremes with an English class. I now know how intimidated David must have felt when he faced Goliath. My mind settled when we arrived at my Uncle's home. With little space to sleep, my neny and I crawled into a child's bed together and giggled at our closeness as we fell asleep. I reminded myself as I shifted uncomfortably that David killed Goliath after all.

Posted by lealow07 13:44 Archived in Madagascar Tagged events Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 11) Page [1] 2 3 »