Thursday, May 17, 2007

Six Degrees of Madagascar

Yes, I know I am far behind on my posting. But I hope I have a bit of an excuse - I went back to school for two weeks of intense monitoring and evaluation training in the Imperial Queens Park Hotel in downtown Bangkok. Not a bad location, if you must be in school! It was about as good an environment for learning as a teacher might hope for being completely isolated from any connection to the natural world with no windows and recycled air. We could have been marooned in deep space for all the cares we had for the outside world by any means other than the internet.

So for eight hours a day we were isolated from the screaming city of Bangkok that surrounded us in a matter of meters on all sides, but in the evenings we were released to the world. We flew out only to be swallowed by the hot, humid air of the tropics, which quickly took a notch off of our speed. But it didn't keep us from exploring the city - particularly the shopping. If there is one thing Bangkok does well, it is shopping.

We spent many of our evenings exploring the air-conditioned shopping centers by way of the air-conditioned sky train or underground train, although some braved the smothery elements to explore Bangkok's many night markets. I did a little of everything, from the dripping night markets to the vibrant, overpowering IT malls. I even got to make some purchases in those IT malls - a couple of laptops for our projects here, which gave my credit card an international workout. The food was exquisite - both breakfast and lunch in the hotel (the dessert bar was unbelievable - many of the class participants spent lunch hours taking pictures of it) and dinner out on the streets. Dinner was as varied at the shopping - everything from A&W (except the Aussies had no clue what that was) to food court and street Thai and of course all the gourmet anything and everything you could wish for.

Then there were the organized tours - one to the "Ancient City" - a multi-acre park area with replicas of all the famous temples and pagodas and other sites in Thailand. Touted as the "one place to visit if you only have a few days in Thailand," it is actually a very sweet and beautiful setting in the quiet country, a valuable respite from the florid intensity of the city. The other, the requisite riverboat ride down the famous Chao Phraraya River that is the lifeblood of Bangkok, past, present and future. We visited Bangkok in the midst of a tropical depression, so it was just as well that we were shut up in doors almost all day, but the steady rain didn't interrupt our enjoyment of this even - the wet evening only gave a deeper polish the gold plated temples and sweeping, modernistic bridges gracing our path up and down our watery way.

But, through all of this, the most amazing thing was how close I was to my old home in Madagascar throughout the 10 days. The event seemed to be an exercise in "six degrees of Madagascar." Although there wasn't a single person there actually representing Madagascar present, almost everybody in the training course seemed to be in some significant way connected to that great island. The first dose came almost immediately with the first facilitator using multiple references to Madagascar examples in his instructions. Later I asked for more details and it turned out he is a partner in the shade-grown coffee project that is being promoted in many of the communes that I worked in with the Kaominina Mendrika project. Next were those that had worked long-term in Madagascar in the past, and then those that had done consulting or were actively planning work trips in the very new future. That meant that the number of people actually having been to the island was reaching an incredible proportion, and then when you added those that had done work with projects there, I think we had nearly half of the attendees nearly directly connected. It was eerie.

Sadly, there were no other Malagasy speakers there, but there were plenty of French speakers. This actually came as a surprise for me because at first the Spanish speakers held sway during all social events. But then as we climbed on the bus to head for the river boat I realized that the discussion had shifted rather unexpectedly into French - and I suddenly discovered myself speaking French as if I had spoken that and not Malagasy for the last 4 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of those French speakers also had previously undiscovered connections to the island.

I'm still not sure why that place has such a strong hold on so many of us, but there it is. Everybody who had a connection there held not a bit of pride in it. There's just something about that island. Yet, I'm not so disappointed to come back to Vietnam. Not a bit of the discussion about Mada revolved around the amazing frustrations that that place offers - and the curiosity of why that island just can't seem to make it out of the rut it seems firmly entrenched in. So it's nice to come back to a place that seems to be going somewhere - a figurative breath of fresh development air if you will, despite the unique challenges here.

And so the two weeks passed pleasantly. I learned a lot, but I appreciated the instructive conversations even more. So much to learn, so much to share. And one place that the development world seems to want to revolve around.

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