The ramblings of a Peace Corps trainee in Madagascar....

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My first Famadihana....

Lots of bones...

The new tomb (fasana) a few km from my village.  It took the family about 3 months to build it (I helped build the rock wall around it..), and it now houses about 40 skeletons.

One of many lambas (blankets) full exhumed bones of relatives.

Lambas full of bones....

It's not a Famadihana if there isn't a ridiculous amount of rice present, and the women aren't cooking every hour of the 3ish day event.

Vary sy laoka...the average size of the piece of meat you will receive at the event from the cow recently slaughtered. 

Congregating outside of one of the two new tombs.  The families dance in front of the tomb singing and carrying the bodies above their heads.

Add caption

The remains of the slaughtered cow.

Inside of one of the new tombs.  The relatives of the deceased arrange the bones...

My friend's husband.  He died 3 years ago.

 one of the many newborns in my village...I think four babies were born in the last month in my village ...
 typical tany house in my village...with one of the many large pigs in my area...

 some lemurs endemic to my village...they like to hang out in the papaya trees...
 one of a few new houses built in my village-they go up surprisingly quickly

 One of my many english classes.  This is in a school a few miles from my village.
 The long and winding road to Morarano.  I ride my sweet  bike 15km (one way) to my market every week on this's beautiful.
 Some of the park guides helping me construct a map of my Fokontany.
A random fisherman in the river.

On teaching English:

 English is a weird language.  There are so many grammar rules that just don’t make sense.  We also use tons of slang, which I have started teaching some of the guides along with the proper phrases so that I can then use slang words in everyday conversation and be understood.  It's comforting.  Teaching it has been much more difficult than anticipated, and I’ve started teaching A LOT.  I’m already feeling a little burnt out on it, especially since I now spend most of my time preparing/teaching, and have little time or energy left to develop other projects.  However, once the kids go back to school and farming season begins, I will most likely teach once a week, as opposed to the 4/5days a week I teach now.  I plan on teaching in the school in my village, and possibly doing one session focused on English, and the other on environmental education.  We shall see.  I will then continue to teach the guides when they have time, and aren’t busy in the park, or in the rice fields.      

It's been awhile...

(written Sept. 3rd) start off with, I want to let you all know that things are going well, and that I have been extremely busy lately.   I have officially been in country for 6 months!  Time seems to go by a little bit quicker each month, and I have a feeling this will continue throughout the rest of my service.  I apologize for not updating my blog last month when I had internet access, but I was very sick…

On being sick:
Never eat questionable looking meat.  This should be instinctual to me at this point in my life.  However, when someone offers you a piece of beef in a village where there is never enough food to go around, declining the gift is very disrespectful.  It is also impossible to pretend to eat the questionable meat, and then slyly discard it somewhere when all eyes are on you.  So…I ate it.  I believe this beef was the vehicle for the abusive, razor clawed alien that invaded my intestines a few days later.  Needless to say, for the rest of that week I was never far from a bathroom, and spent a lot of time on the phone with our Peace Corps doctor.  I am now fully prepared to insult any Malagasy person who attempts to feed me questionable looking food again.  Lesson learned, the hard way.  The day after the alien was flushed out of my intestines, I realized I had another friend living down there, my old pal Giardia.  I admit it, I did drink unfiltered water when hiking in the park a few weeks prior…but, seriously, I am not going to hike in 4 days of filtered water.  I expect I will probably get Giardia again sometime soon, as I generally trek around the park about once a month.  While Giardia does not compare to it’s volatile cousin (the razor clawed alien), it’s still an inconvenience.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


how I spent my 4th of July...

Namoly Valley

sunrise from the summit of Pic Boby

campground at Imaitso

another lovely view from Pic Boby

Akory aby!

Hello America!  I have officially been in the lovely country of Madagascar for 4 months now.  Everything suddenly seems to be getting a little bit easier.  I think I made it over the first hump in the "adjusting" period, and I'm really starting to feel like part of a community.  So many things have happened this last month....but there is one trip that deserves special attention (and no, not the 5 trips I made to my puke bucket one night after eating one too many fried  'Valala', these large cricket like bugs..they tasted pretty good, but did not sit very well in the old kibo), my first backpacking trip into Andringitra National Park!  So. Freaking. Beautiful.  I spent 4 days backpacking in the park with two guides from Morarano, and these two French tourists, who were awesome.  Not your typical vazahas.  We hiked all 4 circuits in the park; which include a hike to the summit of Pic Boby (at 2658m, 2nd highest peak in Mada), a stroll through the rainforest, a trek through Namoly Valley across rice paddies and small villages, and higher elevation strolls through rocky terrain with this amazingly colored lichen growing all over the place.  I can't wait to go back.  The views everywhere in the park are spectacular; I am so lucky to live as close as I do, and to get a chance to work with the park staff.  As amazingly beautiful as the park is, and as well maintained as the trails are, the guides who work out of the Morarano entrance are understaffed, under-trained, and ill-equipped for these trips into the park. 
 Currently, there are 4 guides who posses a functional level of French which allows the needs of the hikers to be clearly understood (the majority of the tourists are French speaking), and a decent exchange to occur between guides/hikers.  There is one guide who has memorized various English phrases and words relevant to the trail, but is unable to hold a conversation.  There are, however, an abundance of porters available to carry food/equipment for the hikers.  None of the porters, and most of the guides, do not have tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, or backpacks.  Let me tell you, the camp at the base of Pic Boby was freezing.  Literally.  There was frost on the ground in the morning (it is currently winter in the highlands, upper elevations of south central Mada), and it was extremely windy all night.  Most of the porters barely slept because they were freezing, and a few stayed up all night tending to the campfire.  I felt guilty as I broke a sweat in my sleeping bag, comfortably insulated from the cold, stony ground by my sleeping pad.  So, I think one of my first side projects is going to be figuring out a way to acquire funds in which to purchase equipment for the park staff; in addition to providing English classes for the park staff.  Developing the Morarano entrance to the park would benefit not only the park itself, but all of the surrounding rural villages in the area.

Aside from my trip into the park, I've been tutoring individuals in English, exploring the valleys surrounding my village, and learning all that I can about the fomba (culture) in my area.  A few weeks ago Madagascar celebrated its Independence Day (June 26th), but unlike the 2ish days of parties we have in the US for the 4th of July, the Malagasy celebrate for at least a week.  There is a fety (party) every day during that week; each fety involving lots of dancing (and boy, can these Gasy dance, especially the kids), big meals with the family (all including ridiculous amounts of rice and pork), and  the lighting of small bonfires throughout the village just after the sun set.  All in all, it was a very educational week, and I picked up some sweet dance moves. 

Amin'ny manaraka indray!
(until next time!)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Welcome to Morarano!

Typical tany house in my village.
View from my front door (well, I only have one door).

Tsara Noro, a sweet granite rock face a few km from my village.

One of the many papaya trees in my village...yum.

One of my new do's.  It's called the "masaondro" (the sun).

My neighborhood kiddies.  They were really excited about my camera.

Visiting my akaikikaiky, Tara.  She lives about 30miles from me in Anja.

Lovely Morarano.  That prominent, and surprisingly modern looking building, is where I live.  I have one room on the second floor, and the building is owned by Madagascar National Parks.  There are only about 30ish houses in my village, and my house is actually blocking the view of most of them.  Very small village indeed.

What's up civilization??

I have officially been at site for one month…and I’m still alive!  Let me tell you a little about my site, Morarano.  It’s a smalllll village, near a national park (which I haven’t had a chance to explore yet), pretty far from electricity and civilization.  It consists of mostly farmers (rice, cassava, tons of fruit trees-banana, mango, papaya, guava), there are tons of children everywhere, and it’s nestled in between the mountains and this awesome river.  The people are starting to get used to having me there; I’ve been working out in the rice fields with them and making myself visible in hopes that once I am less of a mystery to them, they will be less curious about me (and give me some freaking space).  If you have ever wanted to feel like a celebrity, I suggest moving to Madagascar.  I feel like I’m straight out of the section of US Weekly “They are just like us…”…that’s right, I have to fetch my water too.  I hike to the market, eat food, wash my clothes, and get my hair did (braided), just like you.  Sometimes, if I’m having an especially difficult day language wise, or if I’ve made plans to work with a member of my community and they neglect to show up for the meeting (a frequent occurrence), this Malagasy fascination with the vazaha drives me absolutely insane.  I love my community, for the most part, but they do not understand the concept of personal space.  It’s interesting though, despite being surrounded by people most of the time, due to the fact that my language skills are still minimal (and cultural differences..), there are days that I feel lonelier than I ever imagined possible.  My cell service at site is pretty bad, and the two places I do have service are in very public places.  If I’m having a shitty day, and start crying on the phone if I am actually able to contact someone, everyone can see.  Yeah, great.  When I’m having an especially rough day, and I can’t get a hold of anyone…let’s just say anyone who reads my journal entries from those days would be seriously worried about me.  I don’t mean to sound so negative; I think it’s just the nature of Peace Corps.  Some days are amazing and I feel like there is no where else I’d rather be…and some days I can’t think about the fact that I will be living here for two years because right now that amount of time is much too daunting. 

Enough about the negatives.  My site is beautiful.  I feel like people are looking out for me, and there are a few families that have semi-adopted me and feed me every chance they get.  They have taught me a lot about the harvesting/processing of rice, which is the livelihood of the Malagasy people.  They eat, sleep, and breathe rice, “vary”.  The processing of the rice is incredibly labor intensive, and the women do most of the work.   They do not do the actual cutting of the rice, because apparently they are afraid of the blade, but they’ll go ahead and carry 20lbs of rice on their heads for great distances with no complaint.  The gender roles here, and what is considered “hard” work, are interesting. 

My “job” for the first month has been to integrate into my community, gain their trust, improve my language skills, and try to figure out which direction I want to go in.  Everyone wants to learn English.  It wasn’t on the top of my list of things that I think need attention in the community, but I’ve decided that I need to start teaching an English class once a week because there is such a demand.  I want to focus on introducing SRI, a rice farming technique that was developed in Madagascar, which is slightly more labor intensive, but produces significantly higher yields.  There is one person in my village who uses this technique on some of his fields, and he has agreed to let me use one plot of his land in order to do a community SRI demo and encourage others to use this method (assuming my demo field produces a high yield…no pressure there).  However, I wont be able to start this until the next growing season, which isn’t until October.  In the meantime, I have been working on acquiring another small plot of land in order to start a personal garden and experiment with different crop varieties.  My community, and the surrounding villages, are seriously lacking in vegetable variety.  They don’t understand that they need to eat a “balanced” diet in order to be healthy.  They eat tons of rice and cassava, and minimal vegetables and meat.  The climate in my area is very dry, however, there is ample water because a river runs through the area.  Sadly, it seems like most people don’t grow more vegetables because watering their gardens would be too inconvenient, and they don’t fully understand the importance of eating vegetables.  They have so many natural resources here-they just need to be educated on how to utilize these resources in a responsible manner.

Alright, sorry if I’ve bored you with my ramblings!  I hope everyone back in the states is doing well, I miss you all!  I'll be back in town next weekend (June 17th/18th), so hopefully I'll be able to post again then.    

Friday, May 6, 2011

Madagascara thus fara...

the view from my homestay house in Anjozoro, I lived there for 4 weeks

Me and my neighbor and friend's homestay brother, Mathieu...possibly the cutest child on earth

My future home (I should be moving any day now!) in Morarano, just outside of Andringitra National Park.  I will be living in one room on the second floor...I don't get the entire thing..but I'd be happy with just the veranda.

My homestay mom and dad (Neniko and Dadiko)

My stage at the end of our Earth Day celebration in Mantasoa....yes, we painted the map, as well as planted some trees, picked up lots of trash

I stole this picture, it's of the west side (I think...) of Andringitra...I should have a pretty decent view of these rock formations from my veranda...(hopefully)

A sweet map I found of the tiny village is situated in the southeast corner (Morarano)....  


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Brief recap of my first 1.5months in Mada...

(Written April 16th)

Hello all!  Sorry it has taken so long for me to post…I’ve spent a grand total of 30mins on the internet since arriving in the lovely country of Madagascar.  Time is a funny thing ..I feel like I’ve been away for 6months…not 1.5.   So much happens in a single day, they seem to drag on forever…but at the same time, I can’t believe PST (pre-service training) is almost over!  So much to catch you up on….let me take a trip down memory lane here..

When I first arrived, March 2nd, I spent a few days with the other PCT (Peace Corps Trainees) in Mantasao (about 60 miles from Tana, the capital) at the PC training center, and on 3/5 (my bday!) met my host family and moved into their home (about 5k from the training center).  My host family consisted of my Neny (farmer), Dada (carpenter/farmer), my 15&10yr old bros, 20&16yr old sisters, and my 20yr old sister’s baby (around one month old).  They are a very nice, respectful, and hard working family.  I was the 3rd Peace Corps volunteer they hosted, and I definitely learned a lot from them.  I killed a few chickens with a dull knife, harvested and prepared rice (which entails a hell of a lot more than just boiling water), sat through 3hour church services fighting sleep while dozens of Gasy children stared at me, without blinking, for the entire duration of the service, played street soccer with crazy kids, manasad  my lamba (engligasy for washing clothes) in a pond next to the rice fields, and ate lots and lots of rice, for every meal, with them. 
            There are sooo many children on this island.  50% of the population of Mada is under the age of 15.  They sell condoms at all of the epiceries here, in every small town, and have the pill and the shot available for an incredibly low price….yet there are babies everywhere.  Six year olds babysit 10month olds while the newborn is strapped to mom’s back as she harvests rice out in the paddy.  It’s crazy.  They are adorable though.  It’s a good thing I’m a sucker for a cute kid, even as he/she yells “Manahaona Vazaha!” (hello foreigner, sometimes used in a derogatory way) at me, over and over again. 
            Ok, so for the first 4 weeks in country I lived with my host family and attended language, cross-cultural, and technical class 6 days a week. After leaving my host family I moved back into the PCTC with my fellow trainees for the remainder of our PST.  I spent one weekend with a current volunteer that has been in country for over a year to see what the daily routine of a volunteer is like.  This past week all of the Environment trainees in my stage (my stage is split between environment/business trainees) went on our Tech trip, and were finally able to see a decent chunk of this beautiful country.  It was so good to get out of the training center—sometimes I forget I’m in this amazing place because I’m in class all day and don’t get to explore.  On our tech trip we stopped in some interesting cities that had a slightly Euro feel to them (Ambositra), we hiked through the rainforest  (a few of us went on a night hike during a really intense thunderstorm and saw tons of chameleons and sleeping birds, it was freaking awesome) and saw lemurs in Andasibe, spent the night in Ansirabe (big tourist town, it was kind of strange seeing so many white people, mostly French, and some American Mormons riding around on their bikes spreadin’ the word), and spent two nights in what will be my banking town, Fianaratsao, which was a pretty cool place as well. Needless to say, the schedule has been intense, and I have to admit, I am looking forward to moving to my site so I can relax, and actually start working. 

Ahhh….my site.  A few weeks ago, after much anticipation, we received our site placement.  Sometime shortly after swearing in as a PCV on 5/3 I will be moving to Morarano (translates to “cheap water”), which is a smallllll town right at the gates of Andringitra National Park in Southern Madagascar.  It looks beautiful!  I’m so excited.  The park is host to the 2nd highest peak in the country, and is famous for it’s rock faces and huge granite slabs, as well as 14 species of lemurs and 20ish different species of orchids.  So far I have only seen a few pics of the park in various guidebooks, and have seen a picture of my future home, which is much nicer than I was expecting.  I will be living in a concrete/brick building owned by the park service, and have an apartment on the second floor with my own veranda.  I’m pretty excited about the veranda.  I am also happy about living on the second floor, as I will have some amount of privacy, which is as tough as ice cubes for a vazaha to come by in these parts (and no, I do not have electricity, don’t be silly).
It’s time for me to wrap this entry up.  I miss everyone back in the states, and  I have definitely experienced intense feelings of homesickness that are new to me.  I get homesick for people, food, American culture, privacy, and my old routines.  I miss rock climbing.  It looks like once I get to site I will actually be able to climb…which is verrryyyy exciting.    I miss grape nuts and vanilla soy milk.  Overall, I like it here, and I think once I get to my site I will finally be able to make a home for myself.   It’s going to be hard to leave my fellow trainees and live by myself (the sole vazaha in a small village), but I think I’m ready for it.  A good friend of mine will be living about 30miles from my site, so I will have some support (sort of) nearby. 
*I will post again very soon with more up to date info....As of now I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer and am en route to my new site!! I miss everyone!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Final Countdown.....

4 Days! Holy crap is right.  I am officially beginning my life as a Peace Corps Trainee in 4 days.  These last few months have really flown by…it’s hard to believe I’m REALLY going this time.  After my training group bound for Guinea was cancelled, I felt like the Peace Corps was this mythical organization that enjoyed making innocent U.S. citizens fill out paperwork and wait for long periods of time while the PC toyed with their futures. Flaunting invitations to exotic countries only to snatch them away weeks before the departure date.  Now that I am 4 days away from meeting my fellow trainees/trainers, having heard nothing but encouraging words and paperwork advice from my PC country desk, my faith in the organization has been restored.  So….what happens in 4 days, you ask?  This Sunday my 40 fellow PC trainees and I congregate in Philadelphia for a brief orientation (introductions, expectations, travel safety, etc. ), followed by a morning of shots.  I am very excited for the shots.  I hear the doctor pinches a bit of fat on your belly and sticks a 5-inch needle into it for yellow fever.   I may be just a tad more excited for the malaria prophylaxis though.   Vivid nightmares?  Daytime hallucinations?  Sign me up.  The PC better not snatch away my dreams of vivid nightmares and daytime hallucinations (is it possible to have dreams of nightmares?).  After a day of orientation/shots (Monday), we take a nap, check out of the hotel at 2am on Tuesday, drive to JFK airport, and get on a flight to Johannesburg.  After this 15hr flight to South Africa we catch a puddle jumper  to Madagascar!  Ah!!!

In preparation for these upcoming events I decided to take a trip to the Bronx Zoo with some very special people.  Believe it or not, this particular zoo is currently host to a Madagascar exhibit.  The exhibit is titled, “Madagascar!”.  Now I feel like I can’t possibly write the word Madagascar(!) without an exclamation point following it.  The lemurs were pretty freaking awesome.  By staring at the sifakas for a few hours I trained myself to control my urges  to touch every lemur I see.  I told myself that just because they are so cute and cuddly, eating leaves off of the same branches, playfully leaping onto each other’s perches and canoodling, does not mean that they all love me, and want to sit on my shoulder picking bugs off of my scalp.   I felt I made some serious progress, and am fully prepared to see lemurs in the wild. 

 The cockroaches were ok….but I was a little disappointed when I did not hear a single one hiss. 

The collared and ring tails shared an exhibit simulating the spiny forest...

Lastly, here is some information about sending packages/letters to me (if any of you are so inclined):   Sending packages.  Family members and Volunteers like to send and receive care packages through the mail.  Please be advised that packages can take at a minimum 1-2 months, but sometimes as long as 4-6 months.  Unfortunately, sending packages can be a frustrating experience for all involved due to the high incidence of theft and heavy customs taxes.  You may want to try sending inexpensive items through the mail, though there is no guarantee that these items will arrive.  We do not recommend sending costly items through the mail.  It is recommended that packages be sent in padded envelopes if possible, as boxes tend to be taxed more heavily.  Even though many Volunteers choose to get local post office boxes, you may always use the following address to send letters and/or packages to your family member:

                                               Elizabeth Toomey , PCV
                                                Bureau du Corps de la Paix
                                                B.P. 12091
                                                Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
                                                Antananarivo 101
(Keep in mind that I will only be at this location until the beginning of May, and that it will take a considerable amount of time for mail to reach meI'll update my address once I find out where I'll eventually be placed for my service.)

Even with the departure date breathing down my neck, the fact that I’m actually leaving is still so surreal to me.  The packing anxiety has become a reality, but the fact that next week I’ll be on the other side of the planet blows my mind.  I wish I could take you all with me!  I will do my best to keep you all posted with this blog.  Feel free to comment or email me:   if you want to get a hold of me.  During my first week of pre-service training I will most likely purchase some type of cell phone, and will post the # once I am in possession of it (texting is relatively cheap).  I may be able to squeeze one more post in before I leave the country, but if not, I'll be in contact as soon as I can!  

 Mandrapihaona! (see you later!)