Sunday, December 11, 2005

All of us need a little [World]space

Despite my intermittent consciousness of the holiday season, Santa Claus hasn’t forgotten about me. In fact, he’s so on the ball that he’s decided to deliver international mail a little bit early.

I need to preface this missal with a little confession: I’m a news and information junky. One of the biggest Peace Corps challenges for many people has been giving up “my music;” now with the advent of IPods, people can bring their entire music collections with them. I, however, have never been desperately connected to a certain kind of music – I have a few favorites, but generally I can depend on what’s available wherever I am. For me the sacrifice has been programming of another sort.

For over two years I was dependent solely on static-y, unreliable shortwave radio reception with its complicated system of frequency changes depending on time and season as my source of timely information from the outside world. For those that have never used shortwave, it’s a fascinating technology because you can broadcast signals around the world which breaks down invisible barriers of time changes and distance. I often listened to broadcasts originating from Great Britian, America, South Africa, China, the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia, and it was interesting to compare what news stories were considered priority in a variety of cultures.

Unfortunately, the huge disadvantage to any technology that works over large distances is that so much more can go wrong with it. Shortwave radio waves are very susceptible to changes in the atmosphere; most PCV communication at their sites in Madagascar is reliant on CB-like shortwave (BLU) radios which are notorious for being able to communicate with points 600 km away while not being able to hear the neighboring town and vice versa. Quality of reception is influenced by the weather, solar and other atmosphere events and – as far as I can tell – the will of God, with very little underlying rhyme or reason. My sum experience with shortwave radio communication leads me to promise that my children will never grow up in the Australian outback attending the “School of the Air” which is administered by shortwave radio. It’s time consuming, inefficient and downright annoying.

Additionally, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, a shortwave radio station does not continuously broadcast on the same frequency throughout the day, or even for all hours of a day. Hence, the BBC may broadcast Africa programming in the morning in the 6000 kHz range, then go up to 21000 kHz at midday and disappear entirely until late evening when it comes back around 11000 kHz. And one day the reception on any on of these frequencies may be clear as a bell, while nonexistent the next. The resulting complex schedule of frequency changes are impossible to track accurately without access to the Internet – and once you do get the program figured out, an equinox arrives and they shift their schedule to a completely new set of frequencies and times. I could spend all day just trying to find a single station.

Finally, after much consideration and urging by fellow expats who have made the switch and will never go back, I made my Christmas request: a small satellite radio with a 1 year WorldSpace subscription. It arrived on Thursday with “Father Christmas” in the form of my officemate’s visitor from the States, I spent Friday setting it up, and when the first sounds came through I almost cried. Even Malagasy FM radio is never this clear. I’ve spent the whole weekend now surfing back and forth between BBC World, BBC Africa, and NPR (and there’s even CNN, Fox and Bloomburg stations), and checking out the world, classical, African and pop music stations. If I’m really driven, I can listen to Radio France International to work on my French or WRN German news and maybe learn a little German.

Perhaps you have to have experienced first hand the two years of fighting with really bad and unpredictable shortwave reception to really appreciate the clarity and reliability of a strong (non-shortwave, or even Malagasy FM) radio signal. Just to be able to know that I can turn on my radio at any time of the day and know that I will find the BBC or NPR or anybody is so worth it! My addiction can now be satisfied and my shortwave radio (which has served well, for what it is) can be retired to the guest bedroom.

It's beginning to look a lot like...Christmas???

A fellow expat was waiting breathlessly for a telephone call from the States yesterday that would make or break her Christmas: her project headquarters in Maine was overdue to wire funds to her project’s Madagascar bank account that would let her pay her field agents’ salaries as well buy her plane ticket home for the holidays. Her staff hadn’t been paid for 2 months and were becoming justifiably antsy and the ticket has to be bought (in cash) by Monday. The phone call finally came as we were just heading out the door to dinner – and Murphy’s Law took over. Her original request for funds had gone astray and yes, it had been found and the transfer would be made post haste…except for the fact that there was a good ole Nor’Easter  blowing its way in – first  one of the year – and it was anyone’s guess as to whether the bank might still be open…

Even after three years of winterless holidays, the reality of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere continues to come to me in sporadic bursts: a hotel restaurant overflowing with Christmas garlands, a 5 foot fake Christmas tree coated in psychedelic flashing lights, a coated storefront proclaiming a “Joyeux Noël” to all in fake snow. I can still easily forget to mark the Advent season if I don’t have the ubiquitous external clues of snow, cold and obsessive consumerism. The seasonal changes here – intermittent hot sun and cool clouds with gentle rain showers and the occasional thunder-banger and the persistent humidity – have no association with fat Santa Clauses in red fur suits, antlered reindeer, tinseled pine trees, or O Holy Night for me.

And yet, somehow, I don’t feel lost without Christmas in my life – or at least without Christmas-as-I-knew-it. It’s not even a matter of the “Malagasy do it better, simpler, appreciate the holiday more or expect less;” the commercialism may not be as extreme here simply because people can’t afford it, but it’s still there. Rather, since I’m not given the stimuli I am so programmed to respond to, I feel free of the baggage of the Christmas season and free to live it instead.

Now I truly understand the beauty of that Corona beer commercial with the whistled “O Christmas Tree” followed by the lighting of the Christmas palm. And I’m not sure I miss the real snow.

P.S. It probably won’t matter if the snowstorm did close the bank. A thunderstorm knocked out our phonelines three weeks ago and most of our banks haven’t been able to give out money since.




Sunday, December 04, 2005

It's a Lychee Life

Ahh, it’s lychee season again in Madagascar. What is a lychee you ask? Well, it’s this little red fruit that when you peel the skin off there’s a juicy white fleshy part with a big, smooth pit inside. It’s sweet and delicious and incredibly abundant on the southeast coast of Madagascar where I just spent the last week. So I spent a week gorging myself on the little fruits – along with everybody else in the area. And then I brought back two huge bushel baskets full of these fruits. Guess I should go figure out just what to do with all of them! Photo credit: Jon Annis, PCV Ikongo .

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving, Actually

Thanks to the Freudenbergers, Mark, Karen, Maia and Anika, who opened their house, their oven, their refrigerator, their stovetop, their wine bottles, and their hearts to 14 PCVs, 3 other American ex-pats and one lonely Japanese for a Thanksgiving feast to remember. They also provided all of the essentials of the holiday celebration – the turkeys, cranberry sauce, real wine glasses, cloth napkins and real silverware.

Thanks to the PCVs who got supplies from home, who researched modified recipes, and mostly just cooked, until we had enough food to feed a starving African nation. And rest assured - there were leftovers, most of which are going to feed members of an African nation.

Especially thanks to Sharlot and Bridget – Sharlot for her unbelievable brown sugar pecan pie and Bridget for the only apple dish available to us – canned apple cobbler from the States (thanks also Betty Crocker for inventing such a thing so we could have apple cobbler out of season).

Thanks also to Bridget and Sheena, the two PCV vegetarians who still whole-heartedly attacked the job of de-stuffing the turkey…

Thanks to the American ex-pats who brought broccoli and fancy salad dressing and real pecan pie and proved to us that just because you’re living in a 3rd world country, you needn’t eat like you’re living in a 3rd world country. And who insisted on no rice. Thanks also because they opened their homes to ensure that each of the out-of-towners would have a safe place to rest their overly bloated stomachs after the exertion.

Thanks to the humble housekeepers who gave up time on a Saturday afternoon to help with between-course washing of dishes and generally keeping a lid on things when they were most likely to explode (don’t worry, they were well-rewarded with turkey).

Not exactly a Butter-Ball tom
Originally uploaded by ebrwstr.
Thanks to the turkeys, who gave us their 4 little 5 lb. lives so we could pretend like we’d picked out a perfect 20 lb. Butterball tom.

Thanks to the landlord of the Freudenbergers’ apartment complex who finally managed to put up the basketball hoop and plant grass so we could work off some of the stuffing with basketball and croquet in order to make room for dessert.

And finally, thanks to both Peace Corps and SantéNet for providing me with this extraordinary 3rd year opportunity – I am truly grateful for a lot of reasons, but on this day because without it I would have never had the chance to share a holiday with this home-away-from-home family.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Building Bridges in Madagascar

or Where is Gilbert?
One of the things that I like about my new job as compared to my old Peace Corps village life is the relative maneuverability I have. Thanks to our project’s beautiful Toyota Hilux4 4x4 deluxe with super-lo 4 wheel drive, we can go a lot of places that regular Malagasy taxi-brousses simply can’t get to or at least don’t get to very regularly.

This week was a prime example of that – on Wednesday morning we drove 46 km on what really was no more than a foot path up into the northern part of the forest corridor to visit a project site that, including our vehicle, has had two motorized visitors in the last 2 months.

This site wins the award for being our most “out there” site. The nearest town serviced by regular taxi-brousses is 46 km away. Another town, 30 km back down the road in the direction of civilization, has occasional irregular motor vehicle service in the form of supply trucks, but no taxi-brousses. And once you’ve walked 30 km, what’s another 16 anyway? During the rainy season this town is almost entirely cut off from the outside world. The two technical assistants for our project who live there already have a challenging time of it, but it’s only going to become worse as the rains come.

It’s now the end of the dry season and we’re just starting our monitoring visits – so it was decided that this town had better be taken care of while it was still possible. We left Fianar with a full car on Tuesday evening – the director of our partner NGO, a monitoring and evaluation specialist from Tana, Kristen, our driver and me. We got to Ranomafana, spent the night, and took off bright and early the next morning to tackle the back road. We first stopped in the last piece of civilization before heading north on the foot trail to meet with the town’s mayor who was on his way into real civilization for a meeting. We discussed our project, blah, blah, but then as we were leaving he threw some grave advice at us: “Watch that bridge as you go north. I told Gilbert to fix it, but you had best find out if he’s fixed it or not yet. Not the big bridge itself, but the planks over the little canal right after. Be careful not to drive into it.”

We remembered the big bridge was that he was talking about – where on our last visit they had just completed building the bridge with two iron railroad ties for base supports under the tires and then a “platform” assembled out of what looks like leftover firewood. Last time a man came running as we approached the bridge, wildly waving his arms and warning us that the bridge was newly built and no vehicle had actually driving over it before. Needless to say, the passengers immediately bailed, leaving the driver to his fate. Fortunately for him, the workmanship was quality enough and he (and we) survived to live the tale of both going and coming.

So we at least knew where we needed to be looking – so as we got close to the place we began asking for Gilbert. Each stop we made had a similar conversation:
“Have you seen Gilbert?”
“Gilbert? Gilbert who?”
“Gilbert the road maker.”
“The road maker? Oh, that Gilbert.”
“Yeah, have you seen him?”
“Do you know where he might be?”
“Hasn’t been here. Nobody by the name of Gilbert here.”

And so we press on. Each time we reach a village, see a group of men, pass people working the fields, we would try to figure out just where this Gilbert figure was.

Suddenly we were at the big bridge. We got out to look at it – but it pretty much looked the same as it had before. It passed the test yet again, so we climbed back in and were on the way.

We were still futilely trying to find the elusive Gilbert when our driver slammed on the breaks – we were on it: a narrow canal with only a few sticks laying across it – 2 for each tire. On closer inspection it was obvious why this would be a problem – the sticks were so old that they were dry rotted out and wouldn't support my weight, much less a whole vehicle.

Now is when we began to wish for Sarah’s army engineer training. Several guys saw us driving in the direction of the broken bridglette and came running carrying a 4x4 piece of wood and some odd planks (where do they find a 4x4 out there? Got me). We asked if any of them were Gilbert. Negative. So obviously Gilbert had not been in to fix the bridge yet, and he apparently wasn’t running now when he noticed that we were waiting for a bridge.

So then the process of building a bridge ourselves became the project of a committee – the men with the few sticks of wood, our driver, and us random passengers and a few kids who felt it necessary to give our 2 cents worth from time to time.

First the distance between the new wood and the halfway decent side of the bridglette was too wide for the truck’s wheel base, then to narrow.

Then the end of the 4x4 was left sticking up in the air and it would have been impossible for the truck to actually be able to drive up onto it.

Then I raised the question that even if we did manage to get the front tire onto the 4 inch piece of wood, how could we ever be sure of the back tire following the tightrope act?

Then when more wood was found there was still a question of whether it would be strong enough – which lead to all of us in turn ridiculously jumping up and down on the pieces of wood (as if any of our weights could possibly imitate that of a 4 wheel drive pickup truck).

Somehow, in the end, something resembling a bridge got built. Then our driver decided it was time to test it – while all the rest of us held our breaths. First the approach, then a quick stop, back up, realign for another attack, the forward crawl, then – go for it! He made it, front, rear and all. We all cheered, then passed out snacks to the crowd of helpers, asked once more if anybody knew where Gilbert was (we still had to come back, you know) and then climbed in the car. As soon as we were in and off down the road we looked back to see them dismantling the bridge faster than we’d built it. I guess good wood like that is a precious commodity.

We kept going. For the heck of it we kept asking people we saw if they were/knew/had seen Gilbert. Then as we were driving through a stretch of overgrown path we suddenly burst out into a wide clearing with 3 guys and machetes. On a hunch, we asked yet again if anybody knew Gilbert – and there he was, in full flesh, standing right there in front of us. When asked about the bridge, he said yes, he was on his way there, but the roadside bushes needed taming and he just hadn’t gotten all that way yet.

Well, at least we’d found Gilbert and had our promise for a good bridge for our return trip. But for the full impact, the photos truly tell the story (although we never did get one of the elusive Gilbert…)

And then, just a week later: this bridge's a winner!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Chef de Mission


When we last let Erica she was soaking wet, cold and exhausted from a week in the wet, wet field; but she still had another day to go. I thought that day was going to kill me; 4 meetings all within a 20 km radius of Fianar, but before I'd even buckled my seatbelt my whole body was actually physically revolting against yet another day in the car. When we finally got back I refused to so much as get into a taxi cab and I gladly kept to my own feet for the next 4 days. Thanks to a little sun over the weekend my shoes finally got dry and I finally got warm(er).

But on Tuesday of this week it was right back at it again. After lunch, it started raining and I had my bags packed and was waiting at the curbside for our 4x4 pickup to come get me and take me away again. This time I was not going to take any chances: in my bags were 2 raincoats, one of the completely impermeable type, two ponchos, an umbrella, hat, mittens, extra socks and shoes, two sweaters, fleece vest, long underwear and a turtleneck, three flashlights and a real bic lighter, and these were all packed in waterproof bags inside my backpack. I was ready for anything Ranomafana could throw at me.

Halfway down the bumpy road, the sun came out – and stayed out. For all three days I was in the field. I didn’t complain very much.

The first full day in the field was an orientation meeting for our NGO partners and hospital staff, explaining to them what their responsibility would be in introducing our project to the communities as a whole and in assisting the communes in creating committees for implementing the project. My responsibility that day was to run the PowerPoint and make sure the projector behaved itself. And to make people laugh – I think I probably did the best at the last one.

But the real fun for me began at the end of that day - we had a final closing reception, said good-bye to our partners, packed up the equipment and put it all into the truck - and then I stood on the verandah of the hotel and waved good-bye as the rest of the SantéNet team left for Fianarantsoa.

That's when I officially became "chef de mission" That meant I was the person in charge - of me, myself and I (yeah, I'll probably never actually get to be chef when anybody else is around, that's life at the bottom of the totem pole for you), but I also got charge of my very own car and driver.

That was a very strange feeling. Our regular SN car and driver had gone back to Fianar, but in exchange I got a Tana driver and truck that had brought a consultant down. Deedee was the name of my driver, and as it turned out, he was also my guardian for the next two days. Now, you have to realize that I have lived in this country by myself for two years and in that time I have negotiated quite a number of situations and I have traveled alone on numerous occasions, both in the countryside and in the city, in cars and planes and taxi cabs, as well as on foot. I have eaten alone in little Malagasy shops and I have stayed in hotels by myself.

But within a couple hours of being in Ranomafana with Deedee, I got the distinct impression that our SN Fianar driver, Jean-Jacques, had given him explicit instructions not to let me out of his sight unless I was in my hotel room or actively working. It didn't seem strange that evening when I finished a little paperwork I'd brought and came out of the hotel to go looking for food to find him sitting out gossiping with the other drivers and have him jump up and offer to come with me. It was nice to have the company and he really was a nice guy to talk to.

But it happened again the next morning, and he dropped everything he was doing to walk into town. But later that afternoon when we'd finished our work and had returned to the hotel and I decided I was going to go for a stroll, there he was waiting discreetly outside of my bungalow and he immediately volunteered to wander with me (again, I was glad for the company), and then insisted on buying street food for me as we went.

Then that evening, even though he was painfully full of street food, he still came with me to get dinner again. And in no way was this creepy or like he was hitting on me - he was just being my protector. It was actually really sweet, just funny that in all the places I could've actually used a protector in this country, Ranomafana wasn't one of them (unless he wanted to protect me from all the white tourists in town, which I admit I found a little unnerving).

It was a lot of fun being Chef de Mission - but really strange too. My job on those two days was to observe our CRS partners as they did the first community introduction meetings that they'd been oriented about on Wednesday. Both towns were 10 and 20 minutes on a paved road from Ranomafana, so time and transportation wasn't a huge issue. Still, on Thursday the CRS team was short a car for the morning due to logistics and so they asked Deedee if a few of their team could ride along with us rather than have to make trips back and forth to shuttle people around. It is standard USAID procedure that the Chef de Mission approves such requests, but I found it almost funny when DeeDee approached me, all serious, to ask if I would allow it. Of course I'd allow it: it made sense, it's perfectly within our mandate to allow such things, and we had the room - but he was so serious about asking me if I was sure. It made me feel like I really had to be a grown-up all of the sudden. Funny how such a grown-up still needs a protector - but don't we all?







Thursday, July 14, 2005

Into the field...

Whew, I’m back from my first extended excursion into the field with the SantéNet team – and it was a doozy, let me tell you.  We left last week Wendesday, and it alternately rained, poured, misted and rained Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, without relief. Being that it’s winter here, the temperature in the mountains never got much above 55 degrees, and I’m positive it was often much lower than that. The sun finally did come out on Monday, but it clouded over and began raining again by Tuesday evening. And now, Wednesday night a week later, I’m safely back in my own house in Fianar, but it’s equally damp here and I wonder if I will ever truly be warm and dry ever again.

Wednesday was by far our worst day – either a good thing because we were still fresh and ready for adventure, or a bad thing because the day succeeded in browbeating us to the point that morale was really low for most the remainder of the trip. We set out at 6 am on Wednesday morning and it began misting almost as soon as we left the city limits. The first stretch of drive was bumpy, but uneventful, and we just kept on going. We had two meeting scheduled in neighboring communes (townships) for Wednesday, the furthest one scheduled first. So we drove some 30 km of bumpy roads, then 40 km of nice, smooth road. But that’s where the fun ended – we turned off onto a muddy ditch and kept driving. 16 km and two hours later we reached the first village – where we were scheduled to have the second meeting of the day. We jumped out to say hi, then got back in the car to drive the next 46 km to the next village. The conditions of the “road” just deteriorated from there – in fact, they warned us in the first town that we probably shouldn’t continue on. It was rough going, but we were enthusiastic and our Toyota Helix 4x4 was ready for a challenge. We spent probably 90% of the trip in 4-wheel drive, and even got to test out low-4 pretty regularly, but we pulled into the furthest village at 2:30 in the afternoon (only 4 hours late for our morning appointment). The community was thrilled to see us, and ushered us right in to begin our meeting.

[I should pause here to describe briefly just what these “meetings” that brought us out into the bush were. We (SantéNet and the NGO partners working in each community) were meeting with mayors, community leaders and health staff in chosen communes to describe the Kôminina Mendrika (Champion Community, or K.M.) project that we will be implementing in each of these communities. It’s the first stage in an introduction process that will be taking place over the next several weeks to prepare the communities to begin activities in late September. Overall, the reception has been exceptional, despite the difficulties in actually making it to the meetings on time…so, back to our story.]

The meeting in this furthest community went well, and removed any idea that this community should be taken off our list simply because it’s hard to get to. There’s a lot more communes out there that are even more inaccessible than this one (and it’s still possible to get to this one with 6 hours tedious driving, so who’s to complain?), and we’ve got to start somewhere!

So we left in high spirits – even, as Kristen noted, it was beginning to rain in earnest. We added 2 more passengers from our partner NGO to our full car (who would’ve had to walk in the rain otherwise), so it was cramped, but far from a taxi-brousse! The road got trickier as the rain made a bad situation even worse, but still, by 5 pm we were just kilometers away from the first village where we were supposed to have that second meeting of the day.

And that’s where it all went to pot. Our driver extraordinaire drew the short straw and picked the wrong path through the mud. Suddenly we were sunk axle-deep on the left side in mud, and our two right tires were spinning freely in the air on the other side. Kristen and I were glad to have those extra two passengers along with us to do the digging, but it soon became clear that this situation wasn’t going to resolve itself any time soon. So after standing cold and miserable in the rain as the day became night, we stated our resolve to walk to the next village and recruit help and dinner. Of course, we couldn’t go alone, so one of the NGO guys volunteered to accompany us while the other three stayed on to make vain attempts at righting the truck.

It was further to the village than we thought – a good hour’s walk through the pitch black cold, rain and mud. Of course I was wearing the only pair of shoes I brought with and these were soon completely soaked through as we trudged through puddle after puddle. My raincoat worked pretty well, but my pants got soaked and kept sliding dangerously low in my hips. Fortunately, both Kristen and I had thought to bring 2 flashlights and sleeping bags on this trip, so we each left a light with the car, took one with and carried our sleeping bags with us to the village. We arrived after 8 pm, and had to wake people up once we got there. People were less than thrilled to be dug out of bed on such a cold and damp night, but they were hospitable enough – offering us hot rice tea, and reheating leftovers for Kristen, our guide David and me to eat. Kristen and I then stripped and got into some dry borrowed clothes from our hosts and David and our hosts tried to figure out what to do about the 3 men left at the car. Kristen and I were put to bed together with another one of our Malagasy hosts (3 in a bed, but we all had sleeping bags/blankets and it was too cold to want less body heat) while they recruited 4 young men to go to the truck.

We awoke the next morning to no sign of our 3 co-workers or the 4 village men. Nobody knew what’d happened to them other than they hadn’t eaten last night (the men had forgotten to take the rice we’d had cooked out to them), and it was obvious they’d spent a very cold, wet night in the truck. It was still raining and there didn’t seem to be any hope of the day improving. Kristen and I tried to make ourselves useful and get as cleaned up as possible with what little we’d brought with us. This was also my first opportunity to truly appreciate my Lasik surgery in action – the thought of having to walk through the raining dark night with water splotted glasses or dealing with contacts when we were inconveniently stuck miles from our luggage wasn’t a pleasant thought. Oh, how I thank God for the miracles of modern medicine!!!

Finally, at about 8 am that morning we heard the sounds of a motor – and on that road we knew it could only mean one thing, and sure enough, out of the mists came our truck with a triumphant crew looking wet, miserable, but terribly happy to be out of that mess. We got the story in bits and pieces from them – the 3 had worked until about 9 pm and had given up for the night when the 4 men came out of the dark at 11 pm. Then they continued working until 1 am, but realized it was hopeless in the dark. So they made beds the best they could in a truck tipped at more than a 45 degree angle and spent a very uncomfortable night until first light. Then they got out and started digging again. Ironically, the thing that seemed to work in the end was the thing I suggested in the beginning – counterbalancing on the high end while backing out of the hole so the rear right wheel could get traction. Ahh, well, they probably needed the extra man-strength anyway.

So, our team took about half an hour to get cleaned up, and then we went straight into the meeting. The community was still really determined to have the meeting, and so we did it the best we could, and before noon we packed up and headed out on the next stretch of bad road that would take us back to the good road and on to our next destination. We somehow managed to avoid getting stuck yet again (although we all held our breaths every time our driver shifted into low-4), and hit the pavement and flew back into a place that resembled a town in order to get our men some food.

Unfortunately there was no stopping after that – we still had some 100 km to go to get to our destination where we were supposed to have a meeting that afternoon. The road wasn’t anywhere near as bad, but it was bad enough and we didn’t arrive in town until 7 pm that night. We found a place to crash and regroup and all of us slept like rocks that night.

The next day things began getting back on track, more or less. We squeezed together a meeting in the morning, and then in the afternoon managed to make it to the next site and have a meeting. But as that meeting let out, the rain moved from a mist to a steady rain and they closed the rain barrier on the road. It took a little fancy talking, but they let us through and on to our warm beds in Ranomafana.

That ended the work week – Friday night we had a meeting to do the reports in the hotel restaurant, and Kristen was reunited with her husband, Dan, who’d driven down from Fianar to meet her. Kristen, Dan and I had decided to stay in Ranomafana for the weekend rather than driving all the way back to Fianar on Saturday afternoon just to turn around and come back again Monday morning. Our driver helped me find a less-expensive hotel and we made plans to go to Ranomafana National Park in the afternoon.

We’d decided on an afternoon hike that would turn into a night walk so we could see some of the night animals. Unfortunately, it continued to pour in the afternoon despite there having been a brief respite in the morning that had given us hope. We didn’t see a single animal during our day hike (surprise, surprise, I wouldn’t have been moving around by choice then either), and by the time we got to the night part of the hike we were soaked through, cold and covered in miniscule, ravenous leeches. Kristen scored a leech on the face, and my ankles hosted a leech family reunion. We went to the night shelter and at least got to see our first fosa in the wild (yes, they do exist!), as well as the mouse lemurs who came to lick banana we’d smeared on surrounding trees and which were incredibly cute – I think. It was really too cold to pay that much attention. Still, at least we got to see something.

We were all ready for the hike back when who else should appear out of the mist but Eduardo, the PCV English teacher from across the mountains in Andapa! I had no idea he’d be there, much less on that very night. It was great to see him. He’d planned on spending the night in his tent in the park, but I immediately vetoed that idea as the wind picked up and the rain began to resemble a cyclone, and in the end I dragged him back to the hostel with me. We had a chance to catch up over hot soup and then we each got a good night’s sleep.

The next day was no better, but Kristen and Dan had already paid for a second day in the park, so we decided to go see the primary forest anyway. We did manage to see a great grey gentle lemur that day, as well as a few chameleons, but mostly we saw mud and more leeches. By the time we headed down the mountain at 2 pm, we were all ready for a HOT shower and bed. There was not a stitch of clothing on me that in any way could be considered dry – or even damp. It was all soaked straight through.

Actually, we were somewhat recovered in the afternoon so we could go check out the location of the hot springs that make Ranomafana famous, but none of us could be enticed to get wet again, even with warm water.

Fortunately Monday morning dawned clear, if not warm. At least I got some things to get semi-dried out on Monday, but by Tuesday evening it was raining again. The rest of our meeting cycles – one Monday afternoon, 4 on Tuesday and 2 on Wednesday all went well, but we were all pretty well beat by the end. Definitely ready to come home. I did get to see a bunch more of our territory – I now have covered all of the paved roads in the southeast of the island. I have yet to get to the coast, but I wasn’t far. The reaction to our project seems pretty good, and as I continue with these field trips, my role in this is slowly becoming clearer. It’s all a work in progress – but for tonight my work is to get dried out again and ready for a day trip tomorrow, and then another longer trip again next week. Wheee – traveling the non-taxi-brousse way!!!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Once upon a time, three lifetimes ago...


…there was a girl named Erica who lived in a far off place called Bealanana, Madagascar.


But then her fairy godmother, in the form of the US Government came along and offered her a round-trip ticket to her home in the United States and spending money for 30 days’ stay in paradise. Unfortunately, the fairy godmother forgot that life is much more expensive in that glorious land, but that’s when Erica’s magical parents took over to fill the gap between governmental godmothers and reality, to help her trip home truly seem like kind of dream come true. They picked her up from the magical, world-touring chariot station and whisked her off through the night on miraculously smooth roads in a carriage ride so silent they could actually have a conversation as they went. Over the course of the next weeks, Erica was treated to an unending spectacle of amazing events, including, but certainly not limited to:


·         Attending her sister’s college graduation, cousin’s high school graduation and spending magical hours together with her family

·         Driving down to her alma mater to see her mentor celebrate her retirement and to discover her own name on a door dear to her heart

·         Just driving period (and covering more miles in an hour than she could in a day in Madagascar)

·         Seeing her best friend’s beautiful new home and other friends together as husband and wife (and Dr. and Professor!) for the first time

·         Canoeing down the much-loved waters of Eagle Creek (after getting her and her sister lost because she is turned upside down from living in the southern hemisphere for two years and is convinced north is south)

·         Sharing her story with several amazingly patient audiences who were resigned to listen to a babbling sentimentalist going on about two years in the middle of nowhere

·         Enjoying lots and lots and lots (and lots) of really, really good food in even better company

·         Shopping for good shoes that will last the next year (or at least more than a couple of weeks)

·         Viewing in a huge, comfortable theater both Star Wars III and Madagascar, the Movie (verdict: first one, good; second, depressingly bad  – don’t see it)

·         Experienced the absolute miracle of LASIK eye surgery, transforming her nearly -6 nearsightedness into 20/20 vision in a matter of minutes (oh, wow) and bought her first pair of good sunglasses in celebration (and hasn’t lost them yet!)

·         Was diagnosed with both mononucleosis and giardia (an intestinal bug that usually causes a lot of problems and isn’t easily convinced to go away) – who would’ve known except that she just had a physical and had to have her blood drawn?    


So Erica had an absolutely wonderful time in the magical kingdom of whole-wheat bread, good candy/granola bars, smooth roads, an efficient and reliable postal system (thanks, Bob!), durable shoes and more choices in cosmetics than she ever cares to face again; but all too soon it was time to move beyond “happily ever after...”


Because that magical, world-touring chariot came back to whisk her away once again, back to the bottom, right-hand side of the world, and back to real life (which isn’t so bad, just not Disneyland).

But our little girl didn’t go back to her old life - she grew up and moved to Fianarantsoa, a big town with a big name and a big job waiting for her. No more sitting on the steps watching the chickens peck at invisible grains of rice in her yard; no more leisurely walks to and from the market chatting with everybody she sees on the way; no more heckling the school children as they walk by in the mornings, noon and night; no more long nights by candlelight hand-writing long aerogrammes home to the family.

Now she is a member of a team, she has a desk with a roll-y chair, in an office, complete with electricity, printer, photocopier (okay, an all-in-one machine) and Internet access.

Now she has 2 bedroom (not just 2 room) apartment with running water, reliable electricity, sofa, chairs and coffee table, CD player stereo, refrigerator, gas stove and (*gasp*) a water heater connected to a fantastic shower!

Now she can walk down the street and buy olive oil and tea in teabags. And go get a hamburger.

AND – she has a cell phone!!!

Honestly, with all of this, who needs happily ever after?


Friday, May 06, 2005

Escaping the Black Hole


T minus 0, and we have lift-off.

Somehow, despite how unlikely it seemed yesterday and after the two long years, the ATR jet that provides weekly passenger service to Antsohihy somehow managed to escape the "Black Hole" itself, and brought me safely back to Tana and civilization.

The Black Hole tried its best to prevent the escape and even recruited Air Madagascar to help: yesterday I arrived at the airport with the local Air Madagascar truck full of my luggage. Things went smoothly - a little too smoothly, perhaps. In all, I had 122 kg of luggage to haul, but the Air Mad guys never flinched, even when lifting my 42 kg trunk. Soon all the i's were dotted and t's were crossed, and we just had to wait for a plane.

And wait we did. Air Mad seems to be determined to drive me mad while it still can. At 10:45, when the plane was supposed to be taking off from Antsohihy on its return flight to Mahajanga, word finally came down that the plane hadn't even left Tana yet. Then, around 11:15, the airport guys here decided to call the whole thing off. It was funny the mixed messages - you'd think that the Antsohihy airport control tower would at least be able to contact Tana and ask just what was up, but no, we had to wait for several cell phone calls to be relayed through several people only to get a "maybe there will be a plane" as an answer. Phillipe, the man in charge and one of the few Malagasy I know with a whole brain decided the charade was ridiculous and sent everybody home. I think it helps that he regularly goes to France to work with airlines there.

Fortunately, the hotel associated with Air Mad Antsohihy where I'd stayed the night before had free rooms again on account of the reservations not arriving on the inbound airplane. So it was back to the hotel for a bonus day in Antsohihy. Double exciting as it was a public holiday (Ascension), and nothing I would want to do was open.

Thankfully, everything went smoothly on Friday and we were in the air and then in Tana by noon, and I managed to round up all my various and sundry bags and transport them across town by 1:30 pm.

Still, the whole good-bye process wasn't easy, and there is part of me that will always be in that Black Hole. Saying good-bye on Wednesday was just the beginning and was full of mixed emotions. Part of me was just plain relieved to be done, to have stuck out the time and to have seen it through to what I believe was the best of my ability. But a big part of me was also very sad to say good-bye to a part of my life that I feel comfortable in. It took two years to get to where I am today, meaning I know who people are and what they do and where to go when I need something and how to ask for it when I get there, and they know me and respect me for the work I have done and for the efforts I have made to get to this point. And now it's all over; when, perhaps, it should just be starting.

Yet, my farewells generally didn't have any tears. There are some people from Bealanana who I will miss horribly, but I've already said good-bye to many wonderful people in my short life (including many of you who are reading this). It actually wasn't until I was making my way down the road from my house to meet my taxi-brousse that it hit me. My timing was just right that I was in the midst of the usual morning flood of school children going every which way in their colorful school coats and political party backpacks. All the children greeted me with the usual "Good morning" and "How are you?" with a few Salama Tompko!s thrown in for good measure and many of them called me by name. That's when I realized: first, these children have no idea that they should be saying "good-by" instead of good morning, and second, never again in my life will this kind of thing be a normal part of my daily living.

I have not written home during my last three months, except for a couple rushed "I'm still alive, but connected at 12,2 Kbps and can't talk now" e-mails, I think mostly because I needed that time to just be part of life in Bealanana. That and our power plant has been in death throes again, and I could only use my computer so often and writing by candlelight is a pain in the eyes. My last three months was in many ways representative of my entire service: frustrating without equal but ultimately very rewarding. As far as organized activities go, we pulled off a very nice International Women's Day celebration on March 8 with girl students from (almost) all the schools, but then things fell on their face when it came to World Health Day a month later. We had a formal presentation at the high school of the equipment from the video proposal in which I gave my first official Malagasy karbary much to everybody's amusement. The timing of that melded nicely with the formal creation of a Club UNESCO at the high school (98% Elizabeth’s doing) which now creates an umbrella organization for all of the clubs, already existing and planned, at the high school. UNESCO clubs are internationally recognized and this shows how dedicated the faculty and administration at the high school is to enhancing the co-curricular life of the students. At the same time, all our activities at the middle school stopped.

Perhaps the best news to our community (and ironically enough, perhaps the way I have had the largest impact) was the arrival of the new environment volunteer. She came to visit Bealanana during March, and then just arrived to stay this last week. Her name is Jenny and she will live in a family compound in a small farming community 7 km outside of Bealanana. There she will have an opportunity to work with the farmers and to integrate into a smaller community (and probably get much better Malagasy out of it), but is close enough to Bealanana that she will continue my work with the women’s group (tree nursery and women’s empowerment) and the high school (environment club) as well as other special projects. We all worked really hard for this, and I was extremely satisfied to see the process through to the end. And I think Jenny will do just fine in the Black Hole – she’s easygoing, but excited about any number of projects and about Peace Corps. And she managed to get a cat on her third day in Bealanana while I failed for 2 years.

So Bealanana said good-bye to their final health volunteer when they said good-bye to me yesterday. I do regret that, as Bealanana is a fantastic community for Americans in general. While there is plenty of work to be done, the support just wasn't there and sadly it even seemed the hospital administration was relieved to see me go – except for the loss of their resident computer expert. In then end, it was the high school that threw me a going-away party, as the hospital said a rushed good-bye immediately followed by a plea to come look at the computer just “one last time.” I still have a pipe dream that I might return there one day and actually do all that I wanted to do during these two years (if nothing else, make a fortune taking people’s pictures and then selling them the prints), but for now, the Black Hole is behind me. And, thanks or no thanks to me, perhaps it’s a little less black than when I first entered it.