Thursday, November 24, 2005

As the world (still) turns...of soap operas real and imagined

The stage is set by the turning of the seasons. Thinking back, fall and spring seem to be brief, almost elusive moments during my formative years, little more than book covers or section dividers between the much longer winter and unpredictable summers. Here the fall and spring seasons seem to take on a character all of their own, marked on one end by a noted change in temperature and on the other by the transition between dry and rain. “Spring” seemingly begins in August, but comes on so gradually that the brief sunshine serves only to remind you that there is more to life than mist and cold and damp – and then plunges you back into the depths of despair as soon as it surrenders to the fog and clouds. Then slowly, oh, so slowly, you realize that you don’t need that extra blanket at night, but heaven help you should you be lulled into leaving your sweater home at the noon hour.

Suddenly you realize, not only is it not misting any more – it’s not doing anything. And now it’s dry! The rice crops are withering in the fields, the ground is cracking like chapped lips, and your neighbors are burning everything in sight, and then some. The air is filled with smoke and nothing, and I mean nothing is sacred. Even water seems optional.

I’ll admit, I’ve grown comfortable with my new life. I have water coming out of no less than four sources inside of my house, and two on the outside. The toilets at work and in my home both flush, and both swimming at the pool and showering is now a daily activity. Or, should I say, was. I’d even learned to deal with a drippy faucet in my kitchen – I catch the dripping water, then recycle it either to my drinking water filter or as rinse water for washing dishes. But then I noticed that the water pressure had dropped so low that it wasn’t dripping any more. That was the first sign – then suddenly there was no water at our office one day. Kristen, my officemate, came back from lunch to report that there was no water at her house. Suddenly Fianar was facing a water crisis.

I somehow lucked out – I live quite literally across the street from my office, and yet, I almost always had water in my home. Sometimes less than more, and often not enough pressure to take a shower, but there was water. Still, precautionary measures meant that I had to go out and buy 2 big jerry cans and a bucket with a scoop so that I can have a reserve of water available at all times because you never know.

At the same time the dry days meant that work had to be moved to high gear. Several of our project communities become completely inaccessible once the rains come, so in November began our mad scramble to visit as many as possible now before it became a bigger hassle than it was worth, if not downright impossible. I have been in a different commune almost every week (exception of Thanksgiving week) this month and will continue to do so as long as is allowed. Hence the BYOB stories – Bring Your Own Bridge.

Ahh, the first signs of schizophrenia – praying for moisture whenever I was home on to beg the skies to stay clear once I was on my way somewhere. My traveling prayers were heard first – only to be answered in the form of fire. Forest fire. Arsonist forest fire. And where? might you ask…well, they say fire and water don’t mix and they certainly don’t in my life. This particular fire set its sights on Fianar city’s main water supply, to the point that what little water we did have in the city suddenly became none. Every NGO’s car was “requisitioned” by the Malagasy forest service and all other activities stopped while people scrambled to get the upper hand on this fire.

Our car was used for one day, but then we had to take it back the next to carry out our next mission. Second verse same as the first – where’s a bridge when you need it? Problem is only slightly larger this time, as in a few 4x4 boards and a few helpful men weren’t going to put this little bridge back together again. No, instead this time they had to dismantled what remained of the bridge in order to lever our car out of the mud after we attempted to ford a narrow part of the river. Crossing over accomplished, the next question was, how do we get back? Same way as we came, except if the water gets too high to cross. So it was agreed that at the first hint of rain, our driver would dash across the river with the car – we, after all, could walk over if necessary.

So now what? Do you pray for rain for the sake of the farmers, the forest fires and a good daily flush in the house, or do you sing the praises of the blue sky that allowed you to arrive in this place and, God willing, will get you home again? As much as we were glad to be in the community, we still had no desire to be there for the next 4 months until the rains ended. (Okay, so even with the rains 4 months might be an exaggeration, but at least one project driver has been stranded in the village for upwards of 2 weeks.)

It figures – the rain did come then. Luckily for us, it was after dark after we’d been hiking all day (would’ve made for a pretty miserable 20 km hike had it happened during the day), and the driver did as he promised and took the car across immediately. We also lucked out, because when it rains in the tropics, well, it pours in the tropics. And this day in Fianar, it also hailed hailstones the size of walnuts. We missed all that.

Until the next week. Monday morning I go to the office and determinedly finish my report from this mission trip. I worked diligently all morning, determined not to read e-mail or have any outside contact until it was finished. I figured I had a good several hours in the afternoon for all of that. Once the report was done, I ran off for my lunchtime dip in the pool. Except, no sooner had Elizabeth and I jumped in and gotten thoroughly wet than the sky began upchucking lightning bolts. And it didn’t stop, as I climbed out of the pool, dried myself off, changed clothes, dashed back to Elizabeth’s to get my things, then ran up the hill to my house. No sooner than I stepped onto my front porch than the skies let loose. Lightning made itself at home here on earth, every drop of water we’d been craving for several weeks decided to descend upon us all at once, and the thunder shook the foundations of all we hold dear. And then it stopped.

But storms like that don’t like to be easily forgotten, so this one left its mark on all of our communication – first the power went out. When it came back, the phones failed to follow. And with the phones went our internet. Cellular service was sketchy. This really irritated me to no end because I had purposely put off reading any e-mail or making any telephone calls until my report was finished – and as of Monday afternoon, all of the other work I had to do was simply impossible.

So on Tuesday I got smart – I took an extra long lunch hour that turned into the whole afternoon off. At least my report was done!’

All-in-all, the work soap operas almost seem mundane and “just another day” like. So for fun we have to start making up new soap operas in our social lives.

Peace Corps, however, never fails to provide. The most recent story is that the local transit house is now closed to overnight stays of PCVs, which is unfortunate for a lot of volunteers, but especially for one volunteer who arrived in country at the same time as me and is also working on a masters paper. He still lives out in his “village” (his town is actually as big as mine was) where his major project is building small community water systems, but has to come in on a regular basis to get supplies for his projects, to communicate with project partners, and to organize his masters research. He will be moving to Fianar in January, but in the mean time he’s stuck for accommodation when he comes in here to work.

And I happen to have a 2 bedroom apartment (with two beds). And I was here, so I offered him a place during his last trip into town.

This couldn’t be a better situation as far as my neighborhood is concerned. Now, while I live in a city, my immediate surroundings are still very “village.” Everybody is in to everybody’s business, and it’s impossible to come or go without at least 10 other people knowing and those people take it as a mandate from above to inform everybody else of this. So the moment Jon appeared on my doorstep, I was married in the eyes of the local community (heaven help me if I ever have to offer room to another male!).

It’s ironic how when girls from Peace Corps come to visit me, the zillions of local children eagerly learn their names and proceed to shriek them at the tops of their lungs any time they see one of them. Not so with Jon. They never asked his name, and instead he immediately became “Vadin-i Erica” – Erica’s Husband. This title is not one to be proclaimed to the skies like all others – no, this one is spoken softly, even reverently to each other as he walks by. And the adults all nod with approval, noting that my house has been simply “too quiet” over the last months and it’s really about time.

One person who was really rattled by this turn in events was my little cleaning girl who still stops by to sweep out my house every Saturday that I’m in town. I hadn’t had a chance to warn her that there would be another person in my house. She walked in and saw him sitting there – and didn’t speak another word in full voice for the entire rest of the morning. If he moved into the room she was working in, she would immediately slip away and begin working in another place until he moved again. And she kept stealing furtive glances at his chair where he was working, and then glancing over at me. When she left, she also pronounced it “good” and no amount of argument would dissuade either her, or her mother who she promptly told and who made a point of congratulating me on Monday morning as she swept out my office.

Ahh, well, whatever. If the Malagasy want to think I have a “husband,” that’s fine by me, because it should cut down on the number of propositions I get, right? Right.

The world still turns, and I’m sure tomorrow will bring yet another story.


Amy Calhoun said...

Erica -- your life IS a soap opera, sometimes . . . I'm enjoying your blog -- I've never read one before. Somehow, I think there are others out there that I wouldn't like as well.

Love always,
"Dr." Amy

Amy Calhoun said...

Erica -- is the time on the bottom of my note the time it is in madagascar?


Erica in Vietnam said...

Hi Amy,

Yup, the time listed here is Madagascar time (GMT +3 hours) - ironically, the same time as it is in Iraq...lucky me, I get real-time updates on the war...

Glad you like my little blog so far - still trying to get it to take the pictures, though!

Anonymous said...

Yah! I'm so excited to have a brother-in-law.....even if it is only "Malagasy truth!"