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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Peace Corps Volunteers and Celebrities Are Pretty Much the Same

Peace Corps Volunteers may have slightly dinkier houses, and the small animals that share our living space are probably not cute chihuahuas, but in so many ways, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and celebrities are pretty much same same.

12 Ways Peace Corps Volunteers are Like Celebrities

1. People stare at us no matter what we are doing and are far too interested in mundane things like what we ate for breakfast, who we were spotted walking around town with, and how many rolls of toilet paper we happened to use this week.

2. We both have entourages. Crowds of scruffy, unbathed children totally count, right?

3. African KidIn the words of James Tanner, “we both like African babies“. And apparently the wordpress community can’t resist their cuteness either.

4. We can trash a hotel room and get away with it. Our status often gets us a “get out of jail free” card. Or in the case of PCVs, a “they’re foreign and don’t get it” card.

5. Inviting us to a party means preparing for a whirlwind of craziness and drunken debauchery. Oh sure, we’re fun, but be prepared…

6. Everyone knows our name but we usually don’t know theirs. Who are you again?

7. We’re both millionaires. Okay, so we’re talking two different currencies, but still…

8. People will sneakily take photos of us… paparazzi style.Paparazzi

9. People care about us far more than their political leaders, according to Evan Morier.

10. We take vacations in exotic locations and can be seen lounging on the beach in the middle of January, working on our tans while the rest of America is bundled in sweaters.

11. It’s always questionable as to whether what we’re doing could be considered work or not. Really, watching 5 episodes of Mad Men in a row is hard work.. we swear!

12. And finally, we set the trends with our ever evolving wardrobe and impeccable sense of fashion.

Stylin with a frip find

Photos: (1) Chip + Peace Corps Bob mocking Titanic in Ankarana National Park (2) One of our entourage in Mahajunga cheesing out in front of the camera (3) Our paparazzi in Mahajunga (4) Chip showing off one of our stranger used clothes finds in Ambanja

Did I miss any?

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Interpreting the Stoic Stares: Notes on Living in a Passive Culture

AntanifotsyThe principal at my school cut me off before I could ask him if we would see the body. “What do you do in America when someone dies?” He asked in his usual, amiable tone.

I thought a moment. Maybe I didn’t want to know.

“We usually bring the family food, not money.” I replied as we, the entire staff of the local middle school, ambled along the town’s dusty back roads, having canceled the last few hours of school to give our condolences, an envelope with 5,000 Ariary, to the family of one of our co-worker’s cousin’s fathers.

Corn FieldsAt the house, the scene consisted of a group of stoic-faced people on rows of slapped-together benches. A bright, plastic, tarp awning – the ubiquitous, but far from morbid, symbol of mourning – covered the courtyard. The only noise came from a family of chickens pecking at the dirt and a few small children in yellow t-shirts babbling at each other. One child crept over to his mother and unabashedly gawked at me. Not in the mood to stare back, I instead glanced towards the gate where the other child had taken off her shirt and while standing in between the enormous, iron doors was holding it over her head giggling. None of the adults paid any attention; they were like robots put in the “off” position.

From there, the teachers and I were ushered into a musty room. I had held my breath not wanting to smell death, but not really knowing what death smelt like anyways. From my spot I saw no coffin or body and inhaled a breath of relief. It still didn’t smell fresh, but so much of the time places in Madagascar smell raw and human anyways. “We are sorry,” the principal said to begin his apologetic and murmured speech while facing the audience of mourners. The head of the family mumbled a speech in reply, and back and forth they went with their hushed formalities.

As they spoke, I counted the observations I had gathered throughout my time here on Malagasy views on the matter: friends smiling and casually mentioning a death; students showing up for class the day after a parent dies, hardly letting it disrupt their normal course of life. “Malagasy, especially in the highlands, hold so much in,” a Peace Corps friend once observed. Her words reminded me that in the end, it’s not necessarily that the feelings don’t exist, but as outsiders we can’t always see them. Coming from a typically gregarious American culture, I often find it difficult to decipher the subtle and often passive displays of Malagasy emotion, to read between the laughs that seem to be a reaction to every situation.

Snapping back into the reality of the musty room tucked away in the maze of our town, our two groups ended their speeches. With both hands we gave our condolences. With both hands, the family received the envelope. With both hands, each teacher shook each family member’s hand. A soft din of murmurs filled the room as people slowly cleared out to reveal a corner I couldn’t see before. There, lying stiff and half covered with the white sheet his family would eventually wrap and bury him in, and for decades to come would change for him whenever he came to them in their dreams, shivering from the cold and asking not to be forgotten, was the deceased man.

tombPhotos: (1) A view of my town, Antanifotsy (2) Corn fields (3) A Malagasy mausoleum (fasana)

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Sidewalk Street Foods of Antsirabe

Near the daily market of Antsirabe, the pleasant hillside town of Madagascar’s highlands, women with enormous bowls of batter sit next to sizzling pots of oil over a low charcoal stove. While crouching or sitting on wooden stools, they fan their flame and plop their freshly fried goods into mountainous piles of steaming fresh snacks. Continuing onwards we see no shortage of vendors or variety. Lining the streets are small display boxes filled with bowls of breads, noodles, and salads. Other vendors mingle with the crowd, hawking their wares to nearby shoppers while balancing plastic containers on their heads. While the Malagasy staple food – heaping servings of plain rice – is as simple as food gets, street food is a parade of flavors.

Mofo-Anana

In Malagasy, mofo means bread while anana translates as leafy greens, giving mofo anana or “leafy greens bread” a much healthier name than it deserves. Vendors start off by mixing well-cooked greens into a bread batter, then deep frying it to make a soft, doughy treat. Sometimes prepared with tomatoes and other veggies and optionally served with sakay (hot sauce), this crunchy, deep fried bread is irresistible when hot.

NemNem

The fillings vary from vendor to vendor and according to in-season vegetables, but these crispy eggroll like snacks called “nem” usually come stuffed with a combination of ground beef, potatoes, cabbage, leeks, and onions. Although simple in appearance, vendors first start by making small crepe-like pancakes in a pan, then rolling in the filling. Then, sitting with neat pyramids of uncooked nem, they deep fry them outside in scalding, bubbling pans of oil. My personal favorite is the potato-leek combination.

SpaghettiMountain of Noodles

“That’s a huge mountain of spaghetti,” my friend commented on the window-box stuffed with plain noodles. We don’t really know what was happening with those… spaghetti sandwiches perhaps?

Sambosa
Sambosa

Like nem, samosa-esque sambosas, are another culinary example of Madagascar’s unique position between two continents and the strong Asian influence on Gasy snack food. While they lack the hot spices of their Indian counterparts, vendors almost always have a small jar of hot peppers to compensate. Commonly stuffed with potatoes and ground beef, this savory snack can satisfy any comfort food craving and warm the belly on cold Antsirabe nights.

Brochettesbrochettes

For those hankering for more than just a spattering of meat in their deep-fried nem or sambosas, food stalls are filled with miniature kebabs known as brochettes. On the coast, they are frequently made with fish but in the highlands vendors skewer a line of freshly sliced beef, onions, peppers, and tomatoes and grill them over an open flame, giving them a toasty char-grilled flavor.

Vary sy LokaVary sy Loka

Finally stepping off of the sidewalks, dozens of living-room esque hotelys (restaurants) entice passersby to indulge in a real, rice-laden meal. Being the highest per capita consumers of rice in the world, no Malagasy meal is complete without a heaping bowl full of plain, unsalted rice (vary) – although coconut milk is occasionally added in costal towns. Common laoka, which translates as the dish you serve with rice, include pork with leafy greens, beef with sauce, chicken with peas, dried fish, beans, or a dish of ground-up leafy greens known as ravitoto. As an example of its incredible significance in Malagasy cuisine, people will often invite others to have lunch or dinner with them by asking “will you eat rice (with me)?” So, with grumbling bellies we enter a promising hotely and before sitting make sure they have food by asking “is there rice?”

Mazatoa! Enjoy!

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

I Have a Lemur for a Neighbor

Lemur in Ankarana by Sally Bull

As soon as I received the mislabeled FedEx envelope telling me I was about to spend two years in Madagascar, I braced myself for the onslaught of comments about lemurs.

“Who are you going to teach English to? Lemurs? Hahaha,”
“Ooo, that’s great! You’re going to see so many cute little lemurs!”
“Lucky you! You get to live near lemurs!”

“Um, you know people live there too…” was the best response I could conjure to counter friends’ envy of the iconic creatures I’d undoubtedly be living amongst. Thanks to pop culture and some admittedly well done wildlife documentaries, Madagascar inevitably evokes romantic images of lush, tropical rainforest, massive baobabs, and otherworldly animals. This is a fantastical daydream compared to the Madagascar I’ve become familiar with and at my fourth month here I admitted to a Malagasy friend that I still had never seen a lemur.

“What?” she said, “but there’s one right by my house!”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. Our town, Antanifotsy, is a major highland town near a heavily trafficked highway (by Gasy standards), and the surrounding hillsides have been largely stripped of animal or plant life by traditional slash and burn practices. Fewer trees have also had the consequence of lose topsoil, a dusty town, and a lot of people complaining about living in a dusty town. Unfortunately this is a common circumstance, especially where farming is a main source of income, long held tradition, and even white collar workers own fields. From my untrained perspective, it appeared there was no environment left for any creature to live in.

“You’re lying!” I teased.

“Oh yeah?” she said leading me through a tall, wooden gate into a neighbor’s yard. Linking her arm with mine, she tilted her head and pointed to the second-story balcony of the house. “Look up there,” she said, “you see him?” Squinting at the shadowy, brick, terrace I saw a bushy tail dart out from behind a pillar. Its owner stopped in full view and stared back at us through wide, dark eyes while munching on a banana.

 “There he is!” she exclaimed.

His face looked eerily human and while locked in a staring contest with him, I thought of one of many Malagasy fady, or taboos. In some areas it is considered fady to eat or kill lemurs because they closely resemble humans in appearance. Some towns even have myths about the spirits of dead ancestors manifesting as lemurs or lost children long ago changing into them. While a recent National Geographic article on rosewood harvesting cited that some of the harvesters hunt lemurs for food, Malagasy generally believe this to be a last resort and not a common practice at all. Humans are more of a threat to Madagascar wildlife through their destruction of habitat for farmland.

“Damn, that lemur has a nicer house than me,” I thought to myself.

“Now you’ve seen a lemur,” she said proudly, before I thanked her and headed home.

Finally, after months of building up my own cache of “really Malagasy things” – taxi-brousses, rice, chickens, spaghetti sandwiches, windy roads, the pale blue smocks worn by students, tall spindly trees – I caught a brief, domesticated glimpse of what foreigners most frequently associate with the island. All too often, that first thing we associate with a place isn’t as omnipresent as the more mundane, commonplace (and therefore less marketable) scenes that build the particular ambiance and memories we associate with travel.

/ Photo of lemur in Ankarana most likely taken by miss Sally Bull. She has more wonderful photos of Madagascar here. /

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life Travel

Soaking in Sails and Street Art in Diego, Madagascar

SailExploring Diego and Emerald Bay

When we finally arrived at the northern-most point in our journey in Antsiranana (Diego), Madagascar the air was heavy and threatening thunderstorms. Rainy season was arriving late this year, but it seemed as though we hadn’t missed it completely.

Wandering through the streets of Diego felt like I had been transported to a totally different country. The French colonial architecture, unmaintained and now decaying, stood side by side with the brightly colored concrete houses and bamboo fences. We passed a medley of faces, skin colors, and dress while walking up and down the main stretch of road that felt at the same time Western and African. And finally, eerie, black portraits of men with chaotic expressions dotted walls throughout the city — some of the first graffiti I’ve seen in Madagascar.

While camped out in Diego, we made a side trip off to Emerald Bay — roughly 45 minutes by boat — which gets its name from the color of the ocean there. Although the bay is popular enough to drag in a whole army of sailboats full of French, Comoran, and American tourists every day, I can’t exactly object to a day spent splashing in calm, clear ocean, snorkeling, and gorging out on freshly caught fish and crab. On our way back to shore in our wooden sailboat, the waters turned rough as dark clouds rolled in over the bay, and we ended our adventure soaked and shivering but still giddy from the excitement of bouncing through the sea in rough waters.

..

Diego Sailor

Emerald BayDiego MopedSandwich Seller in DiegoDiego Street ArtDiego Graffiti
Photos: / 1 / Our boat’s sail / 2 / Sail boat captains / 3 / Approaching Emerald Bay / 4 / Women selling noodle-sandwiches on New Year Day / 5 / A couple driving their moped back from church / 6 + 7 / Diego street art
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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Shopping for Second-hand Clothing in Madagascar’s Markets

“This,” I thought as I tugged at the bright, tacky-but-could-be-cool fabric from a tangled pile of frip (used clothes), “is clearly where fat clothes come to die.” Giggling since the piece that had caught my attention turned out to be a pair of shorts double the width of my waist – an “XXL” still on their faded value village price tag – and tossed it back into the pile.

From the other side of the low, makeshift table and plastic awning, the vendor registered my interest in her small mountain of goods and began unearthing more gaudy-fat shorts and placing them in front of me. “This one is good… une mille,” she said in a Malagasy-French hybrid typical in bigger cities. “Ngeza be! It’s huge!” I responded, holding the shorts to myself.

Ngeza be!” she repeated quietly while chuckling to herself, apparently more amused at a foreigner speaking Malagasy than the actual meaning of the words.

I smiled, made some small talk, and continued to sift. While sorting through various frip that are as much a staple of a Malagasy market as the rows of women with woven baskets full of rice, bananas, or hog-tied chickens, I feel like a treasure-hunter or archaeologist. Most specifically, examining the hodge-podge of fashion tossed out by trend obsessed Americans, French, Koreans, and who knows who else reminds me of the garbage archaeologist of Arizona – digging up information on the modern American’s lifestyle habits by taking note of what they put out on the curb each week.

Hidden in the depths of those street-side piles of cotton, polyester, and spandex, are the sequined, child-sized princess dresses and Halloween witch costumes worn briefly by American kindergarteners before hopping from attic box to thrift store to cargo freight bound for Madagascar. Relics of phases – fat phases, neon-spandex clad aerobic phases, pregnant phases, Hot-Topic inspired Goth phases – and the items simply too-awful-even-for-Value-Village get their last shot at a new owner in the open-air markets of third-world Africa. And while a few seriously amazing pieces are always buried among stretched maternity pants and flashback-to-the-80s-vests, sometimes I wonder if only vahazas (foreigners) can see how weird this stuff is. Or weirder, the 4-year-old-boys with snot running down their faces wearing the polyester princess dress, the ubiquitous Santa cap in the chilly highland Julys, or the grandmotherly old women wearing chuck-high-tops or bondage pants, completely oblivious to the social symbol they hold on the other side of the world. I’m still waiting to find something tossed from my own transient wardrobe among the lot.

A brilliant turquoise catches my eye. I tug on it and out emerges a cheap, vintage-inspired cotton dress with black trim. “How much?” I ask. “One thousand Ariary,” she demands. I begin to haggle, but she cuts me off “prix fixe,” she says. I can’t help but feel I’m being lied to, ripped off, but like the dress too much to care. So I hand over a crisp, purple 1000 Ariary bill – the equivalent of 50 cents – nod my thanks and continue along the dusty market.

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Going Coastal in Mahajunga, Madagascar

People on the road to MahajungaOn the Road North…
One of the most incredible features of this country are the drastic transformations the landscape, culture, people, and everything undergo in just a few hundred kilometers. Driving north from Madagascar’s capital, the rolling highlands and boulder dotted landscape gradually give way to forests of palm trees, thatch-roofed huts, bursts of tropical vegetation, and eventually, beach. A few hours into the drive I stop seeing the Asian-featured Merina tribe of the highlands, bundled in sweaters and conservative dress. Instead the women walking next to the road casually drape themselves with loose-fitting lamba, or sarong-like pieces of cloth while their children run around naked or in nothing but their underwear. By the time we reach Mevatanana, it has become far too hot for anyone to wear much more than that. Fruits become more tropical, and at some point I notice the large grass-woven baskets of mangoes, coconuts, and bananas women are carrying on their heads and salivatingly begin to daydream of sipping coconut juice on the beach.

After twelve hours on a bus, we arrived in the muggy, coastal city of Mahajunga, greeted with a cityscape of mosques, a roundabout with one of the widest baobab trees in Madagascar, and a salty ocean breeze.

Petite Plage and Cirque Rouge
On our first morning, we took a taxi-be, or bus, (500 Ariary; 20 minutes) from outside the Hotel de Ville towards la petite plage to lounge around in the ocean. As soon as we arrived, we headed to a French-run restaurant on the beach for beers and freshly caught shrimp the size of my hand. While we waited for our food, a couple of children amused themselves by posing for photos for me and shrieking with laughter as they competed to see how ridiculous they could make their faces. After lunch, we hiked for far too long to see the cirque rouge. However exhausting, meandering around the towering, red rocks made the hours-long trek along the beach worth it.

Returning back from the Cirque Rouge, the two friends I had trailed off with and I re-discovered the rest of our group (who had given up on the walk to cirque rouge) splashing in the waves and making friends with yet another French restaurant owner. Totally unanxious to return to the bustle of Mahajunga’s city center, we hunkered down with a couple of frosty beers again and watched the sun set. From the wooden patio, we could spot groups of local fishermen pulling in their sailboats full of the day’s catch. Chickens and dogs roamed the beach as the fishermen worked, making the beach feel more like an extension of everyday life than an exotic getaway.

La Petite PlageLunch at La Petite PlageBig Shrimp at La Petite PlageChildren at La Petite PlageCirque RougeBringing in the evening's catchSunset on La Petite Plage
Fin.

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

Madagascar: Life as an Education Volunteer for the Peace Corps

"Lets Learn English" Coloring Page

In the midst of a looming thunderstorm I discovered the pink and purple postcard of a sunset in Seattle. Once the initial excitement of receiving mail (real, actual, physical mail!!) from a friend subsided, I read it.

“How do you fill your days?” she asked.

Although I joke about the endless hours spent eating peanuts and watching the chickens in my backyard, I insist that I do work as well. Sometimes this means chasing chickens out of the English Center (although my students are far better at it than me), and sometimes this means actually standing in front of a classroom and getting my hands dirty — with chalk, of course.

I teach 7th graders
Most of the volunteers here are assigned to teaching at the Middle and High school levels. I teach the baby 7th graders who are in their second year of English. But raging in age from 9 to 15, not all of them are that “baby”.

I’m developing resources & filling up the bookshelves of our English Center (ECANT)
The first volunteer at my site (I’m number 4) set up an English Center that’s modeled after one in a nearby city, called Antsirabe. However, it’s seriously lacking in easy English readers (Where’s the Dr.Seuss!?!) and some of the other teachers I work with have expressed a need for new English learning games. Fortunately, there’s tons of organizations willing to donate books.

Creating fun events at the English Center
Already I’ve hosted a conversation club, which was intended for adults but ended up being a group of fantastic and motivated high school students. Also, we show kids films every Saturday with our wonky, sort of broken DVD player, and I’m working on burning a few new ones they haven’t seen before. The other week, we watched Madagascar… with the chicken.

But there’s still room for more! Starting in January and February I hope to get story time and games nights going. We also begin our Adult English course.

I teach a monthly cooking class…
And then of course there’s cooking classes with the teachers! So far, we’ve only had one, but we made some delicious chocolate pudding in spirit of the holiday season. I count it as an accomplishment that it’s now made its way to one of my students’ Christmas menus.

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Spring in Madagascar’s Highlands in Photos

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Taking photos of where I live (the gold mining, potato farming, fried chicken selling town of Antanifotsy) has been difficult to do without drawing attention but here are a few stealth shots from the past week. Mostly, I was able to capture some of a tomb on the highest hill near town. The rains have arrived and the landscape is slowly metamophising into a flower dotted valley of rolling hills and crop fields.

Final photo was taken in Antananarivo at dusk, just as all the schools were letting out and herds of students in matching, pastel smocks were making their way home.

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Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

In Case of Emergency, Exit Through the Window: A Malagasy Bus Ride

From my vantage point squished in the backseat of a taxi-brousse meant for the smaller bodies of Malagasy passengers, I wasn’t able to see the man until he was halfway out the car’s window, shoving himself out head first with a hot pink Jan sport-backpack in tow.

“He’s saying ‘fuck this! This brousse is never going to leave!’” The Peace Corps Volunteer taking us to her site translated for us between laughs of amused disbelief. “Oh man, look at Drunky there! This other dude is slapping the crap out of him!”

The man, who couldn’t be much bigger than my 5’3” self, was swaying under the excessive amount of toka-gasy (the Malagasy equivalent of moonshine) in his system, and limply taking a battering to the face by another man – equally small and equally drunk – trying to shove him back into the open door of the brousse.

“So Drunky there is saying that the bus is never going to leave because the driver has run off somewhere,” which was true, “and this other guy, who I’m pretty sure is drunk too, is trying to get him back into the brousse. But look at them! He’s not even defending himself! That other guy is just giving it to him,” the volunteer narrated as we watched one Gasy man slur insults while slapping the other’s face. Drunky leaned against the van to keep from falling, but otherwise did nothing but slur about the brousse never leaving in response.

Meanwhile, other passengers were shouting at the pair, clearly preferring Drunky’s decision to throw himself out the window of the car than to sit next to him for a 6 – 10 hour long brousse ride. Within minutes, the driver was back, joining in on the shouting and successively slammed the door shut and revved the engine… without Drunky.

Finally, we were off at a slow crawl through the crowded brousse station with Drunky left to stagger back towards the ticket counter, luggage still strapped to the top of the van. As we pulled out, the brousse fell silent and Drunky’s seat was taken by a young, teenage girl who came running up to the brousse just before we were about to turn out of the station.

“Damn. Lucky girl,” the volunteer commented, and on we rolled, out of the dusty capitol and south towards the bandit-ridden roads off the RN7…

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Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Winter in Madagascar’s Highlands in Photos

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In playing the role of opposite land to North America, July and August mark the coldest months in the Malagasy highlands. The region often turns into a muddy mess under a Seattle-esque, overcast, sky with grey drizzle. However, we’ve mostly avoided the season’s usual crappiness and gotten to see Mantasoa’s better side.

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Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Living With a Malagasy Family

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“Why were your host brothers playing with a plate?” Another trainee asked me.

“Because it was a steering wheel, duh,” I said.

After a full day of intensive Malagasy immersion, I always feel relieved to understand something as universally obvious as a kid pretending to drive a car. So much about our homestays make us feel like toddlers relearning how to take care of ourselves, but when I see my host brothers spinning a round, straw place mat in front of them and making wrrr-ing noises, I get it. Language barriers gone, I fake shift into second gear and smile as if to say “wanna race?”