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 Sant̩Net for providing me with this extraordinary 3rd year opportunity РI 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!