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

Friday, December 14, 2012

A blogpost about a blogpost....

I know....I'm a lazy blogger.  What can I say?  I'm a lazy blogger....but not a lazy Peace Corps Volunteer!  To see what I've been up to these last few months, please check out my other blog,  .  I know what you're thinking...a lazy blogger should definitely not have two blogs.  But I promise you, I've been doing more than eating delicious mangos with adorable Malagasy children and sitting on bags of rice drinking THB for the last few months....check out my other blog!!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What's up??

During the month of August I was fortunate enough to have another Peace Corps Volunteer join me at site.  She is a teacher in a middle school in the countryside near Antsirabe; and responded to my request for the help of an education volunteer to assist me  in teaching my park guides, while simultaneously teaching me some new teaching methods.  It was a success; and for one month we taught Mon-Fri, twice a day.  By the end of her month we saw measurable results from my mazoto (hard-working) students; and I drastically changed my approach to teaching after her departure.  It was great having another PCV at site; for both me and my village.  Being able to speak your native tongue freely, everyday, is an ease on the mind, and definitely reduced a stress that I didn't even realize still existed in my life.  Thanks Jessie!  We also got a lot of hiking in, checked out the park, as well as attended a Famadiana in my village--which are always interesting.  Here are some pics from the last month....

A new tomb built to serve as the final resting place for the bones of the families ancestors.
 The bones!
A ceremony held to present the new coffins built to house the bones...these coffins will then be brought up the mountain to the tomb site.

Me and my little nugget of a neighbor, Fandrina.
Jessie(PCV), Ratsia, Orlin (local guides/our english students), and myself on top of Pic Boby.
The local gang.
Jessie swinging around some gang members.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rice, Celebration, and Friendship in Madland

 Winter is rapidly approaching the highlands of Madagascar.  As the temperature drops, the farmers finish up the rice harvest, and start preparing to sell a large bulk of their rice.  The harvest is a celebration in itself.  Rice is life here in Madland, and after working hard to prepare, transplant, and weed the fields, the culmination of the harvest is now behind us.  I am proud to say that my SRI fields did very well, and I have been approached by many farmers interested in forming a fikambanana (community group) dedicated to using the technique next season. The days have gotten shorter, the rain has stopped, and the celebrations begin.  

June 13-16th we celebrated Environment Day by hosting a 3 day fety (party) in Morarano focused on raising awareness and appreciation for the natural environment here in Madagascar.   Guests from Namoly valley, where the east entrance of Andringitra park lies, hiked over to celebrate the event, as well as park affiliates from a neighboring city.  Morarano is a very small village, and this event was a source of pride in the community.  In preparation of the event the community members and myself spruced up the village, picked up trash, and prepared skits/songs/activities all in celebration of the environment.  Musical acts from the area performed, and a race was held, which I participated in, and was easily defeated by a number of 15yr old Malagasy girls.  Naturally, a cow was slaughtered for the community to share, and everyone donated their share of rice.  I am also proud to say that the soccer team here in Morarano defeated that of the team from Namoly; and in a shootout nonetheless.  
Morarano is in green!

Not a bad spot for a soccer game...

Nothing like slaughtering a cow in the dark...

A local musical act performing some popular Betsileo tunes

Some important people doing what the Malagasy do best....give very long speeches.

The next celebration is that of Independence Day (independence from France in 1960, to learn more about the history of that period, go to:http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/History_of_Madagascar#The_independent_Malagasy_Republic) here in Madagascar, which is on June 26, but essentially lasts for an entire week.  The tradition in my valley is to slaughter pigs, have a feast of rice and pork, and to light small bonfires all over the valley while chanting traditional Betsileo songs.  Dancing is also always involved. The Malagasy are (I’m pretty sure) genetically awesome dancers, and I especially like the Betsileo style.  Last year, it was quite a site to see small fires lit all over the valley.  I mean, there are no wildland fire crews here in Madland…but none of them were out of control, and it is pretty much the equivalent of the US tradition of lighting fireworks.  

Aside from the celebrations; it is also the arrival of the valala!! Valala=large crickets/locusts.  A few weeks ago I was riding my bike home from teaching the guides at a nearby campground when I found myself caught in a storm of valala.  Locust storms are embraced by the Malagasy, as they are a preferred side dish this time of year.  I tried them a few times last year, the last time leading to a little marary kibo (upset stomach), so I’ve stayed away from them ever since.  When it starts raining valala, the Malagasy break out their fishing nets and catch large quantities, which they later lay out on a mat to dry out, and then eat or sell.

Those black spots are indeed the Valala Mena (red locusts)

The ladies catching the valala.

They're everywhere!

Up close and personal.

My little friend proudly showing me her collection of valala maitso, a different species of valala.  She is saving them on a stick as a snack for later.

After living in Morarano for 13months, I have developed some close friendships, and the thought of leaving these people is already causing me to feel a little choked up.  I would like to spend a minute telling you about my best friend in my village, Mino (literally ‘to believe’). 
She is 32, has 5 kids, and has the same birthday as me.  She is my confidant.  I go to her with problems, good news, when I’m bored, when I want someone to share a beer with, and when I just want someone to sit around with on the dusty ‘road’ through my village killing time, playing with the village kids, staring at the amazing mountains that shelter my valley.  She has it rough.  Five kids present many mouths to feed, and the majority of her income comes from rice farming, and with a small store she opens a few months out of the year (starting now, when she has enough money from selling her rice to actually open the store, which sells beer, soda (warm..), candy, crackers, sugar, and beans.)  In the rougher months, I’ve walked into her house and seen her feed her kids plain rice, with no side dish.  On these instances she always looks a little guilty.  She knows this is not enough; but going through the effort of finding something else to cook was maybe too much for her that day.  Sometimes I give her family food.   Sometimes I present with her a suggestion on where she can find more food.  After living in the village for a year, I get it.   During the hunger season all that is really left to eat is rice, and maybe some dried beans or corn.  Most people don’t garden in my area during this time because the water sources are far away, so watering is an issue.  People are low on money, so they are less inclined to walk the 18miles round trip to the market to buy some veggies.  I get it.  It’s hard enough fetching water to drink and cook, let alone water an entire garden.    Maybe I shouldn’t give her food.  I know many other families often don’t have enough food during the ‘hunger season’; but I can’t help but play favorites.  I am human, after all.  And, I LOVE her kids. While 5 kids are a lot to care for, they also help out immensely.  Most of them are old enough that they do almost all of the work their parents do, and go to school on top of it all.  They cook, collect firewood, harvest (rice, beans, etc.), clean, man the store when Mino is busy in the fields.  They are adorable, resourceful, intelligent, and resilient beyond belief.  They can be a little wild at times, pestering me non-stop to play with them when I’m trying to write a lesson plan for my English course.  But, to be honest, I have never heard a Malagasy child complain the way I’ve heard American children complain.  Face it folks; we spoil them rotten, whether we think we do or not. I could easily have been Mino.  I am one year younger than her, yet I do not have 5 children ranging from 6-12.  Our upbringings were so incredibly different, yet here we are, farming rice together, braiding eachother’s hair, scolding her kids together.   I have met so many amazing people here.  The Malagasy people as a whole are the most welcoming people I have ever met in my life.  Sure, there are plenty of things that drive me crazy about this culture (yes, I eat rice, and no, it does not hurt my stomach...I have lived here for a YEAR), but I have never, for a second, felt unwelcome in this country.    
Mino braiding the hair of her oldest daughter, Olivia

The little cutie, Leony.

Three of Mino's sons checking my feet for parasy (the little bugs that like to burrow into the flesh of unsuspecting humans..).

Yeah, she's pretty gangsta.
Rolan, Mino's husband, in the hat.

As some of you may know, I am working on a project to build a bridge in my community.  There is a large river which runs through the Sahanambo Valley, and separates many villages from schools, ricefields, the local health clinic, the market, the one dirt road that connects my valley to the outside world, etc.  During the rainy season the river rises significantly, and is often impassable for anyone trying to reach the other side of the valley.  I have already set up another blog dedicated specifically to raising funds for this project, so please check it out at  The project is going to cost around $8,000, no small chunk of change (around 16 million Ariary!)  Spread the word!!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

11 months, 25 days in country....(but who's counting?)

Akory aby!  I realize my last blog entry was rather short and overall unsatisfying and uninformative.  I apologize.  I wont give you my usual excuse that so much happens every day over here, summing up an entire month in one blog entry when I have access to the internet is just too overwhelming…blahblah.  While this is true, and while all I want to do when I have internet is get caught up on U.S. news (and maybe facebook..), I am ready to update you on the last 6 months of my life here in Madland.  I have had two visitors—Mom and Kelsey!—experienced two cyclones, visited both the east coast (Manakara) and west coast (Toliara, Ifaty) of Mada, and explored two new national parks; Isalo and Ranomafana (which were both awesome…but I have to say, neither compare to my park, Andringitra:)  I have also become a full-fledged rice/bean/vegetable farmer, much to the amusement and pride of my village. 

As I mentioned in my last entry, I was given a small rice field by a friend in my village, and also convinced a friend of mine from a neighboring village to let me use the SRI technique on 6 tiers of his rice field.  The transplanting/hands on training session was a success!  My rice babies (as I now fondly call my small rice plants…my village friends really like it, especially since I am almost 31, with no ‘real’ children of my own, which is just ridiculous to them) quadrupled in size in just 2 weeks.  I will return to my village tomorrow, after being away for almost two more weeks….so they should be gigantic now (or dead, which would be horrible, but that’s what I get for taking a friend on vacation and neglecting them).  My villagers were really enthusiastic during the training, and some of them even borrowed my tools to do a few tiers of SRI themselves on their fields while I was gone.  It’s crazy though, I put so much time and energy into teaching people about SRI, reading over books about the technique with them, and now that the transplanting has happened and the word is out, I should feel relieved…but…what if my fields die?? What if I don’t produce a significantly higher yield than the traditional method?  No one will believe a word I say about rice from here on..and that would be devastating.  All I can do is weed my fields, manage my water properly, keep those darn pigs from trampling my rice babies, and hope for the best.
My mini ricefield!

This is what rice looks like while it's still in the husk...

Helping my friend transplant her ricefield, traditional style.  I am about 1/100 times as fast as the Gasy ladies.  They pretty much started transplanting in the womb.

In the hopes of encouraging people in my village to grow more of a variety of vegetables in the little gardens they have, I planted 6 garden beds of my own.  I am growing a wide variety of vegetables, and experimenting with some seeds from the USA, trying to see what will grow and if, for example, a highly nutritious vegetable like broccoli will grow in this climate.  So far, about half of the veggies I seeded for are doing very well, and half are either growing realllly slowly, or not at all.  Every day while I’m out in my garden people will ask what I’m growing, and if I have any seeds to spare.  It’s safe to say the 2 main reasons people in my village do not have gardens all year round, and have such limited variety of veggies is a lack of water during the dry season (which lasts at least 6 months) and a lack of seeds (due to lack of willingness to buy them, or a lack of knowledge of seed saving techniques).  I think my next goal is going to be to tackle these two issues…oh yeah, and the issue that there just isn’t as much emphasis placed on the importance of eating a ‘balanced’ diet.  The people in my village think that as long as they eat tons of rice and some kind of beans, they don’t even need to eat vegetables all year round..
In terms of my English teaching, well, it’s been verry sporadic lately.  Everyone is busy farming, all of the time.  I teach guides more on an individual basis now when they have time, and I have stopped teaching the kids in the classroom lately as well.  Once transplanting season is over, I plan on teaching on a somewhat regular basis again (it is close to impossible to have a set schedule in my village…); especially starting in June when the kids start their equivalent of America’s ‘summer vacation’ (it is actually winter here), and the rice harvest comes to an end.  I have requested the help of an Education volunteer in country in hopes that if I can get another volunteer, one whose actual job is that of teaching English, to come live in my village during ‘summer vacation’ they can help me teach the guides, and in turn leave time for me to work on other projects as well.  Teaching is exhausting, and I’m not an expert.  I honestly don’t even know the names of all of the tenses in English…I just know what sounds right, and what doesn’t.  I need a little help figuring out a structure for my classes from someone who knows how to teach English properly.

Some of the activities the (many) inexhaustible children in my village have really grown fond of are:

-sitting outside my door staring at me (oh, wait, that’s everyone’s favorite activity)
-coloring (they usually draw the same 4 things, I’m trying to get them to experiment with their imaginations…but flowers, umbrellas, cows, and houses are the top 4 most drawn items)
-looking at photo albums I brought from the states (they now know the names of everyone in my extended family, all of the dogs/pets in the pictures, and love showing new kids my albums and telling them the story behind each picture, it’s actually pretty funny)
-looking at the special editions of Time/National Geographic with pictures of the most beautiful/amazing places on earth….the pictures really blow their minds
-helping me water my gardens (I’m also a big fan of this one)
-asking where their presents are when I get back from a trip…it is customary here to bring vondalanas (sort of like souvenirs)  for people when you go on a trip (and in my case, whenever I leave my village, even if it’s just to go for a hike).  The kids are starting to remind me of delinquent kids in America on Halloween…I will give them their respective vondalanas (usually candy), then they’ll leave, maybe take off their shirt and rub some dirt on their faces, then return to my door pretending they are a different little kid, demanding their candy.   This is always amusing at first, but as you can imagine, gets exhausting.  Crazy kids.  I ruined them when I gave them Reeses peanut butter cups my Mom brought from the states.  Do you remember the first time you tasted that deliciousness?  I am salivating just thinking about them.  I would most definitely rub dirt all over my face for another Reeses.  Sadly, they are lany (gone).

….after living in Morarano for 10months I am apparently still really interesting to everybody.  The total amount of ‘alone’ time (privacy) I experience between sunrise/sunset is probably 30 minutes.  I am not kidding.  I’ve heard lots of volunteers complain about being bored at their sites…but no one in my village would ever let me get bored.  Sometimes I feel my sanity hanging by a very thin thread…but at least I’m never bored (this is what I tell myself in order to keep that last thread intact).

During the first cyclone.  Those mango trees are normally on the banks of the river...

My friend Mino and I checking out the destruction.

Vahiny! (guests)

One month after my Mom flew out of Madagascar (jan. 1st), Kelsey arrived!  It was awesome.  I had a personal assistant to help me weed my bean/rice fields/gardens…a reason to kill some chickens and buy some toaka (moonshine)…and someone I could speak as quickly and quietly as I want to and know they not only understand every word I say, but exactly where I'm coming from.  ahh.  The things we take for granted.  However, the most important role of my new assistant, you'll never guess…to entertain the hundreds of village children!  It was amazing.  I actually took a nap one day while Kelsey entertained the children on my veranda with some books and her camera.  I think the people in my village see me in a different light now…they realize I am actually fluent in a language after watching Kelsey and I speak our English gibberish…and after a few days when Kelsey starting using Malagasy greetings and phrases…they realized that I am actually not that bad at speaking Malagasy after all (not that Kelsey was bad...but I think they realized I am no longer a beginner).  I have come a long way in my first 10months at site.  On March 1st I will have been in country for one year!  It’s crazy.  Some days I feel like I’ve been here one month, some days I feel like I’ve been here foreeeeeever.  Anyway, back to Kelsey’s visit.  She worked with me in my village for almost 2 weeks, and is now well versed in all of the steps in the rice farming, preparation, cooking, and eating.  All very useful skills in the U.S.  (I know, it might come as a shock to some of you that rice doesn’t actually grow in plastic bags at the grocery store.)  After this, much to the dismay of my village, we ventured north to the big city of Fianarantsoa (my banking town) to figure out where to go during the last leg of her journey.  A cyclone was slowly making it’s way toward eastern Madland, and it was difficult to plan our trip without knowing exactly when it would hit, or where exactly it’s path would be.  So…we waited out the storm in Fianar (windy, rainy, no cell service, no big deal where we were. Over in 30hrs), and decided to take a train to Manakara (east coast) from Fianar once the storm subsided, and it was confirmed that the tracks were passable.  So…the ride was supposed to take around 10hrs.  It took us 16hrs…8 of which were really awesome!  8 of which were very hot, and in which we were a little hung over (from the festivities during the first 8), and had run out of water.  It was a good experience, but most likely a once in a lifetime for me.  It was interesting though, the train is divided into a first class car and a second class car.  There isn't a huge difference in price, but the first class has slightly  nicer seats, and they don't try to cram 100 humans into one car.  All of the white people were riding first class, along with a few groups of Malagasy people.  Kelsey and I were the only English speakers..and since we didn't speak French, we ended up just hanging out with the Malagasy people on the train, answering questions about America, teaching a little English, drinking a little beer.  All in a days work as a PCV.  The other Vazahas (white foreigner) on the train spent the ride throwing bread and candy at the Malagasy children who would approach the train at all of the stops (sometimes selling food items, sometimes begging, sometimes just looking and yelling "VAZAHA!")...similar to the way you throw bread at ducks when you are feeding them at the pond (which seems like such a ridiculous act after living in this country).   I felt offended by their actions; especially at the way they would laugh after the kids scrambled for the bread outside of the train in the rain.  Real funny.  Sometimes I am appalled at the way foreigners treat Malagasy people while on vacation here.  I wont get into it any more though....I feel myself ranting, and I am starting to bore myself.  Here are some more random pics of Kelsey's visit and our trek into Andringitra!  Mazatoa!

Kelsey spying on a golden bamboo lemur in Ranomafana.  The poor guy was just trying to enjoy his breakfast.

Kelsey's last night in Tana...we may have had a few glasses of wine at dinner.
My favorite place in Madagascar.  The peak of I'marivolanitra (pic Boby) at sunrise.

Kelsey's first day in Tana!  Beers with her first Malagasy lesson.

Friday, January 6, 2012

My mom and I at a cafe in Tana shortly after her arrival

Tratra ny Taona Vaovao! (Happy New Year!)

It’s time to break this streak of silence and fill you all in on what’s been going on over here in Madagascar.  I’m on my way back to site after spending two weeks with my Mom (!), and a few days with about 30ish volunteers who were all in Antananarivo (the capitol of Mada) after their respective holiday vacations with friends/family.  It’s been great to see everyone, especially my Mom, but now it’s time to get back to work.  It is always difficult psychologically going back to site after spending any significant period of time away from village life, and I think it is especially hard after spending time with a family member.  I’m not gonna lie, I feel a little homesick.  After being in country for 10 months, and at site for 8 months, I still feel like I have not gotten as much “done” as I thought I would have at this point.  However, I do feel that I have learned a lot about my village and about the mindset of the people in my area, and have a better idea of the projects that are feasible, and where I should direct my efforts at this point.  After my last post (in September…) I continued teaching English on a somewhat regular basis to both the kids and the park guides for a few months, but my classes have become much less frequent with the onset of the growing season.  For the last 1.5months I have been working closely with local farmers planting various types of beans, as well as assisting in the transplanting process in the rice fields.  I held a meeting with local farmers in October, and showed a video about SRI, the new(ish) rice farming technique that I am trying to persuade my farmers to adopt.  It is a little more work initially, but produces a significantly higher yield.  So far, I have convinced one of my friends in my village to apply the method this season.  Small victories.  I’m hoping all goes well in his field, and that his success will encourage others to try out the method next season.  I am also planning on planting a different variety of rice in my rice field (that a friend in my village has donated to me) using the SRI technique.  “Vary mena” ,  literally “red rice” is higher in nutritional value than the more popular white rice grown in my region; but no one farms it anywhere near me.  I personally think it tastes better as well, so I’m hoping once I harvest it and get the seed out there others will begin growing it next season as well.  I have lots more to say, but unfortunately, am going to lose internet access very soon, so I will have to fill you all in the rest later.   Also, I’d like to send a shout out to my friends in CT (especially MikeyD!) who donated camping gear to the guides in my park.  Thank you so much!!!! They are all very excited and grateful, as am I.  I would like to also send a shout out to my friends in the Reno/Tahoe area, Brian and Katie,Molly (Mama!), and my family for your awesome Christmas gifts!! I miss you all!!

…and I’ll see you really soon Kelsey!!